Disclaimer: 'Naruto' does not belong to me.
A/N: The title is taken from one of Wilfred Owen's poems (an excellent read) about two dead soldiers who meet after their battle. It doesn't really have to do anything with the story, but just thought I'd mention it ;) Um... yes, so this is another strange and overlong thing I wrote, and gasp! there is going to be a prequel to this to explain alot of details which just wouldn't fit into this storyline...
She seemed unaware of him as she trudged along the mountain track, humming softly to herself. He followed her, careful to stay out of sight, mind working furiously and thirsting for answers.
It had been ten years since he had last seen her.
Ten years since a terrified and broken gennin team had returned sobbing to Konoha without their jounin instructor. A simple enough story - a run-in with rouge nins, two young gennin who decided they were strong enough to take them on, and a jounin who had to drag them out of the mess and who bore the brunt of their foolishness. They had never found Hinata's body, the investigation concluding that after sustaining serious injuries she had fallen to her death and had been swept away by the river. Hinata was marked as missing in action, and after a year, assumed dead.
Which was why he had barely believed his eyes when he had seen the woman.
He would have missed her if he hadn't turned to look out of the window at that exact moment. Older, with long, braided blue-black hair swinging as she walked, and dressed in the same high collared garb as the women of this small village, his supposedly dead cousin was walking past the inn with a bag slung over her shoulder.
Her family had mourned for the necessary period, and moved on. She was another casualty, another fallen in the line of duty. That was the life of a shinobi after all. Neji had grieved for his cousin, but he had his own sorrows to think of soon after.
And now here, in this forgotten little mountain village, where Neji had decided to rest for the night on his journey back to Konoha, he had found her again.
He had followed her of course, as she left the village, up along the winding roads, climbing higher and higher away from the beaten track until they reached a small cottage hidden out of sight. As she arrived at the gate, she whirled round and Neji ducked, dodging the well-aimed shuriken, and dropped in front of Hinata, who gazed at him, wide-eyed. They stood staring at each other for a few moments before Hinata regained her composure and bowed slightly to her cousin.
"Hello, Neji-niisan,' she said, in a resigned tone of voice.
He looked carefully at her. She had taken to trouble to hide her Hyuuga eyes behind a genjutsu, and blue eyes stared at him instead of the familiar white ones. Her forehead was also clear of the curse seal. But it was undoubtedly her.
'We thought you were dead,' he told her bluntly and she flushed as he scrutinized her, bringing her fingers to her lips as she had been want to do as a child in a moment of embarrassment or fear. For some reason, this gesture unleashed his anger.
"Why?" he asked harshly. 'Why did you never come back?' It was the one question which burned through his mind ever since he had spotted her and he was damned if he didn't have a reply. Neji was angry, angry at her continued silence, angry at her for having left, and perhaps angry with himself for not having looked hard enough for her.
He grabbed hold of her arm and forced her to look at him. Her pleading eyes, with the unfamiliar shade of blue enraged him further, a further rejection of who she was and her heritage, and he held her harder than he should have.
'Answer me,' he snarled.
'Neji, please,' she said quietly, 'you're hurting me.' He glared at her as she kept his gaze but he loosened his grasp slightly on her, yet not letting her go.
"I'm sorry,' she told him, 'It just happened,' she continued simply, and before she could elaborate, a small child came running out of the house, a little girl with short hair and dark eyes Neji found familiar but could not place. She stared at him before burying her face in Hinata's skirt.
"My-my daughter," Hinata told him as he stared down at the small child, his head in a whirl. Hinata shook off his slackened hold, and knelt down to pick the child. Neji watched her movements wordlessly, finding it far too easy to trace his cousin's features in the girl's face. 'I have a family now, Neji Niisan,' Hinata continued, stroking her daughter's hair. She glanced at him, almost defiantly. "My own family."
Neji swallowed, still unable to take his eyes off the child. "Couldn't you have come back then?" he asked her helplessly, "With your husband and children?" Hinata dropped her gaze again and bit her lip.
"It's complicated… we couldn't…' she murmured uneasily. He opened his mouth to argue but she stopped him, shaking her head. 'You ha-have to under-understand,' she stammered and licked her lips, nervously, 'Konoha wouldn't have… wouldn't have wanted us," she said as her eyes slid towards the house.
Neji, followed her gaze. His jaw dropped.
Older and taller than when Neji had last seen him, with long hair pulled messily back, Uchiha Sasuke stood at the door of his cousin's home.
'We were married sometime ago,' Hinata told him, watching his face as he struggled to keep his composure. Neji was unable to reply; he could only stare as the most well known and dangerous S-ranked criminals walked down the pathway to the gate and stood beside his gentle cousin.
"Would you like to come in?" Hinata asked timidly.
It was surreal, Neji thought, as he was ushered inside by his supposedly dead cousin and her suspected-to-be-dead-by-some husband and offered tea and food. He almost expected to be woken up from this strange dream as Hinata relieved him of his cloak and he sat down at the table.
Sasuke sat at the opposite end of the table, and the two men eyed each other warily as Hinata bustled around, getting things ready, her daughter trailing after her.
"It's not poisoned," were the first words Sasuke uttered, smiling crookedly at Neji, who hadn't touched the tea Hinata placed in front of him. Neji snorted, and brought the cup to his lips, burning his tongue in his haste to dispel any suspicion of his being afraid. Looking up, he saw Sasuke's amusement look, and glared at him.
'Why did my cousin marry you, of all people, Uchiha?' he muttered.
'Why shouldn't she?' Sasuke retorted back. Hinata sighed and laid a hand on Sasuke's shoulder. They exchanged looks and Sasuke rose, and made his way out of the kitchen, taking his daughter with him.
'I'm within earshot,' he murmured as he walked out, and Hinata rolled her eyes.
'Don't take offence,' she said to Neji, who shrugged.
'Unexpected choice of husband,' he remarked. 'When we all thought you would always l…'
'Don't,' Hinata said quietly, as she stirred sugar in her tea. 'Please don't. I don't want any unpleasantness between us.'
'You can't blame me for being surprised.'
'Ah…well,' Hinata smiled slightly. 'I'm still surprised myself at the way things turned out.' He snorted and watched her every movement through narrowed eyes. There was something different about this Hinata, something harder and undefined which made her a stranger to him.
She was obviously trying to avoid any mention of what had brought her here, and that irked him. Neji tapped his fingers on the table top. 'Your gennin team were distraught when you weren't found,' he told her, trying to draw her out. 'They still carry the guilt to this day.'
Hinata did not reply, and he was surprised. The Hinata of old would have said something, apologised, explained stuttering… 'I never like them,' she admitted and he started. 'What is it?' she asked, looking confused at the expression on his face.
'You never used to be so unkind,' he reproached her. She stilled, and her compressed her lips in a thinned line.
'You placed a burden on those children which…'
'The-they learnt a lesson Neji, and-and they were lucky to learn it at so-so little personal cost.'
'Then it's true,' he said softly, watching her as she clenched and unclenched her fists. 'One of the students said you lost…'
'Yes,' she replied quietly and Neji fell silent. Hinata dispelled her justsu and slowly lifted her thick bangs covering her forehead. Neji looked at her scarred face, and bowed his head. 'I'm sorry,' he said.
'It's not just to hide my heritage, but also for vanity,' she said half-smiling, half serious. 'And having one eye isn't quite the thing when you're trying to live incognito. People would remember me.'
Neji involuntarily touched his face. 'Was it hard?'
'I got used to it,' she replied simply.
'I'm sorry,' he said again.
'Don't be,' Hinata said. 'It's not your fault. And it's all in the past now.' She rose and brought a plate of rice to the table, motioning to Neji to help himself. He did so, and chewed the food slowly wondering what he would have done if he'd have been the one to have lost an eye. Hinata had recreated her genjutsu, but the image of her damaged face was engraved in his mind.
'Is that why you didn't come back?'
Hinata sighed. 'It was one of the many reasons Neji-niisan.' She turned her face away and swallowed. 'I… I was not happy in Konoha.' She played nervously with the hems of her sleeves.
'Your father and sister…'
'If they believe me dead, they can at least feel sadness for me,' she said. 'I would have never made them proud or happy. You know that. You know that.' Neji's shoulders sagged. There was no sense in denying what both of them knew was true.
'Please, enough of the past,' she said pleadingly. 'Reunions should be happy things, shouldn't they?' It was on the tip of his tongue to say that reunions were not supposed to be with people who were supposed dead, but he forbore to say it. He nodded instead, and Hinata smiled.
'So tell me, how is Tenten-san?' she asked, sipping her tea.
Her cup clattered as her hands flew to her mouth. 'I'm.. I'm so sorry Neji-niisan,' she said, distressed, 'I-I didn't know!'
'Obviously not,' he said dryly and she drew a sharp breath. 'No, I'm sorry,' he said, 'I didn't mean it that way.' Neji sighed slightly as he looked out of the window. There seemed to be no topic they could touch upon which did not bear a tinge of sadness. His cousin lay her hand upon his and squeezed it sympathetically.
'It's been a long time now,' he said quietly. 'She died during a mission about a year after you went missing.' He smiled thinly. 'I too wasn't very happy in Konoha,' he said, emphasising her own words and she flinched as though he had hit her. Neji looked at Hinata and felt a sudden pang of guilt at the look of mute misery on her face.
'Hinata I…' he tried to find words to apologise but she shook her head. 'She left me a son, you know,' he said suddenly and Hinata looked at him startled and he smiled at the look on her face.
'You have a child?' she asked almost incredulous and he nodded. 'He's almost nine and very smart for his age.' His face softened as thought about his boy, and wondered if he had grown much in his absence. 'I haven't seen him in about eight months now.'
Hinata surprised him by putting her arms around him and hugging him. 'I'm so happy for you Neji-niisan,' she whispered, 'I was so worried you had no-one to love.' Before he could answer, she drew back and beamed. 'Tell me more. I want to know everything about this son of yours.'
They spoke for a long time of Neji and Tenten's son. It was a relief for him to talk about his child, for he had missed him far more than he wanted to admit. Hinata had listened with rapt attention and Neji had gladly answered her many questions about his son, but he noticed that she did not ask about her father or sister, or any other Konoha affairs. He avoided mentioning, guessing correctly that she would not speak to the past. However, there was thing Neji wished to know and he took the opportunity as soon as there was a lull in the conversation.
'Your daughter, how old is she?' Neji asked
'Four, going on five,' Hinata said proudly
'Does she have the sharingan?'
She shrugged. 'Maybe. But it's not important is it?'
'Not important?' Neji looked at her beneath lowered brows.
'She won't be a shinobi,' Hinata said quietly but firmly. 'She'll have a quiet life, know enough to defend herself, then perhaps get married and have a family, and take care of her ageing parents,' she concluded smiling.
Neji simply stared at her in disbelief. 'And the Uchiha agrees?!'
'We live differently now, niisan.'
He snorted. 'Once and Uchiha, always an Uchiha.' Neji shook his head at her. 'Do you mean to tell me he's been living the quiet life without training or fighting?' Her silence convinced him that there was some truth in what he was saying but try as he might to press for details, Hinata simply refused to answer.
Neji settled back in his chair, frustrated. It seemed to him that he knew nothing more about his cousin and her husband then when he started. 'You do realised that you're a rouge-nin and that the Uchiha is still listed as one of the most dangerous shinobi in the Bingo book and is on the most wanted list?' he asked her sharply
'He's not really dangerous,' Hinata said. She smiled faintly. 'At least… not unless he feels that there is no way out.' Her last words hung heavy in the air between the two cousins.
'Are you threatening me?'
'Most people think we are dead, Neji,' Hinata replied, avoiding his eyes. 'Why n-not leave it like that?'
'I have sworn loyalty to Konoha,' he countered. 'I would be betraying my village if I hid the fact that I have seen you.'
He jumped as Hinata slammed both palms on the table and half-stood, facing him. 'You owe loyalty to me first, Neji.' He stared at her as she spoke, her posture and voice bizarrely reminding him of her father, Hiashi. He opened his mouth to speak, but Hinata gave him no time.
'You swore loyalty to me before you became a Konoha shinobi, or have you forgotten, Hyuuga Neji?' she continued, her voice cold and words sharply clipped 'You told me once that you would protect me, Neji, or have you forgotten that as well?'
The forgotten term of respect seemed to jolt her back into her state of near timidity, and her hands flew to her mouth, a blush suffusing her features. A ghost of a smile flickered on Neji's face. 'I would not betray you, Hinata. Indeed, I need to pay my debt.' He rose and bowed. 'Forgive me, I should not have spoken so.'
Hinata nodded hesitantly and sat back down. 'I… I thank you cousin.'
'You've really changed, Hinata.'
She smiled, embarrassed. 'I am sorry I spoke so angrily.' She paused slightly. 'Did you really mean to betray us, Neji-niisan?'
He laughed lightly. 'If I really had meant to do so, would I have warned you?' She ducked her head, blushing. 'I was angry Hinata-sama, and I said many foolish things.' He rose. 'Your secret is safe with me. I swear it.'
'Thank you, Neji-niisan,' Hinata whispered. Her eyes were suspiciously bright when she looked at him. 'Do you blame me for taking my chance at having a new life, Neji?' He hesitated slightly before taking both her hands in his.
'Hinata, answer me this, only this,' he said earnestly as she looked at him in wonderment. 'Are you happy?' he asked her gently.
Her smile lit up her face and dispelled any of his lingering doubts. 'Happier than I've ever been,' she said softly.
Hinata had insisted he rested before leaving and he did so. At dawn he went downstairs, finding Hinata already up and breakfast prepared. Sasuke came in as they were eating, and greeted Neji. 'I'll walk with you, part of the way,' Sasuke told him and Neji looked at him warily, wondering why he was suddenly offering himself as a companion. 'Don't worry, Hinata won't let me kill you,' Sasuke said wryly and Neji stiffened. 'You're assuming I wouldn't kill you first,' he retorted acerbically.
'He's just teasing you, Neji,' Hinata said gently and Neji resisted the childish urge to stick out his tongue at Sasuke. Try as he might, he would never like the Uchiha, and wondered for the umpteenth time how his cousin could be so happy.
As he rose to go, Hinata pressed a bag of food into his hands and handed him his cloak. He felt a sudden pang at the thought that this would indeed be the last meeting with his cousin. 'I'm glad to have seen you once more, Hinata,' he told her and she smiled and coloured slightly. 'Thank you for everything.'
'I always was rather fond of you, Neji-niisan,' she told him unexpectedly as she wrapped her arms around him. "I was always rather fond of you too… Hinata-sama," he said as hugged her close, wondering what would have happened to her had she remained in Konoha. A low cough brought him out of his reverie. Sasuke was waiting at the door. Neji pulled away gently and bowed slightly towards Hinata.
"Be safe, Neji-niisan," she told him and he nodded. "Be happy, Hinata-sama," he replied and followed Sasuke out.
'So what do they say about me, Hyuuga?'
'Half are convinced you're dead. The other half-believe you're creating a second Akatsuki,' Neji replied dryly.
'I see.' Sasuke looked amused. 'Well, you'll be doing nothing to dispel the idea that I'd dead, will you?' Neji stopped walking, and Sasuke paused and looked back at him inquiringly.
'I don't like you and don't trust you, Uchiha,' he said slowly, 'but I don't know how or why, but my cousin does care for you.'
Sasuke smiled crookedly. 'I'm sure you're relieved to have gotten that off your chest, Hyuuga,' he said sneering, 'But I'm glad I know I can trust you to do the right thing.'
Neji snorted. 'Don't think I'm doing it for you, Uchiha.' Sasuke shrugged indifferently.
'I couldn't care less about the why, Hyuuga,' he said and suddenly he was just beside Neji. 'One word, Hyuuga, he said softly, 'One word to put my family in danger, and you will regret it.' His black eyes bored into the white eyes of the other. 'I can wait when it comes to revenge, be it on one man or many.' he murmured.
Neji froze. 'Do you think you are strong enough to take on Konoha?' he asked him.
'Yes.' The cold and unequivocal reply chilled Neji for he knew that these were the words of a man who knew no limitation. Uchiha Sasuke was a man to be feared, even by him.
They stood there silently before Sasuke started to walk, motioning Neji to follow him.
Sasuke spoke again. 'It will be of no use to look for us again,' he said bluntly. 'We move from time to time to cover our tracks.'
They walked on until they came to a clearing and Sasuke gestured south. 'Follow that path, and you will be on the right road soon,' he told the other man, who nodded.
'Be safe Hyuuga. I hope never to see you again.'
Neji smirked. 'Likewise, Uchiha. Take care of your family.'
Sasuke smiled and was gone, a few leaves scattering in his wake.
Neji stood there for sometime. Then he turned and walked away, down the winding road, back to Konoha, back to his son. He did not look back.
Did I mention this was unbeta-d? (I know, again)
Thank you for reading! Comments are welcome :)