The grave was still empty, after three years, but Naruto visited it on several occasions– once on his birthday, of which there would never be another; once on the day he left, never to return again; and once on the day they'd received the certificate in the mail, written on thin, ceremonial paper, that told them they should stop hoping for word from him. "Uchiha Sasuke", it read, "should no longer be considered immersed or missing, but lost. He leaves behind no personal belongings which might be relayed to you."
Three times a year he stood in front of the plaque that commemorated his service, and words never seemed sufficient. He left incense and the bowls of food Sakura made and knew they were meager offerings, that the incense burned to ash and the food rotted and was eaten by animals. He stood and contemplated the past until his eyes blurred.
There was never anything to say and today was no different. The sun was suddenly hot on his neck and as he turned and squinted into the horizon, he realized dusk would fall soon. He gathered the empty dishes, somehow caked with dirt, which had been left last time he visited and they seemed small and brittle in his hands, like children's toys.
The darkening walk home was quiet and full of buzzing summer insects. The thrum of cicadas thick and constant in the humidity. A lantern on the porch was lit and as he drew nearer he fixed his eyes on the partially illuminated form of the girl that sat beneath it on her heels, staring at something held in her fist. It was a grasshopper, he realized, as he sat beside her, pulling off his shoes. "I'm home," he said. The dishes clinked beside him as he shifted.
"Dinner is already finished," she said. The grasshopper in her fist waved its free legs as she held a piece of grass to its face, her eyes crossed with focus. "Why won't he eat it?" Her thin shoulders hunched; she turned her face and was lost in her own world.
"You're supposed to say welcome home." He tapped her on the back of her head as he stood, shoving his feet into his slippers. "Let that go and wash your hands, if dinner is ready." He smelled peppers as he slid open the door, heard the sound of a wooden spoon in a simmering pot.
"Welcome home," a voice called. "Dinner's ready."
Naruto paused in front of the living room. "Hinata," he said.
She looked up at him, a large puzzle piece in each hand and the remaining scattered on the floor around her knees.
"Go wash your hands," he told her. "Your mom says dinner is ready."
She smiled her little girl smile, stood to flutter into the hallway, but he caught her shoulders as she passed and bent over her.
"Can you say, "Yes, Daddy?"" He looked into her blue eyes, so much like his own and saw only blankness. "Just say "OK" for me." She only raised her brows and smiled wider. A laugh escaped through her tiny, perfect teeth. Naruto smiled back. "Never mind." He released her. "Hurry up, OK?"
Sometimes he wondered why she didn't speak. Had he cursed her with a stutter, naming her as he did? He stared toward the hallway into which she'd disappeared. Hinata only giggled and smiled, even now, going on three. Tsugumi, it seemed, had always talked. But in the beginning he was afraid of fate's mark on her, too.
Maybe it was something they outgrew.
"Everything went well?" In the kitchen Sakura spoke into the sauce pan, stirring.
"Yeah," he answered. But three times a year when he couldn't help but ponder all the circumstances that begat their little family, he wondered whether the happiness he so often felt was real; and if it was, how long it would last.
"I made your favourite tonight," she said placidly, and took in her breath to sigh.
"Are you OK?" He lifted his head and saw her in fragments for a moment: the apron tied over her hips, her slippered feet, the shadow cast over her neck by her down-turned chin. She smiled slightly.
"I am if you are." For a moment her green eyes caught him. He felt a smile flicker over his lips.
Sasuke was dead, but his grave was empty. Maybe that left him free to wander every once in a while through the household, surfacing in the occasional dream, his memory buoyed by the brief glimpse of dark hair, a fleeting strain of low laughter; buoyed by these anniversaries of birth and death and leaving.
And his ghost summoned up all of the others. Jiraiya was suddenly a part of his everyday thoughts. Hinata too. Hinata, like Sasuke, left and never came back. Hinata didn't have a grave, though.
Kidnapped by unknown assailants (see Crow Ring) while living outside of Hyuuga Compound. Presumed murdered. Motive possibly blood limit (Byakugan).
Funds retracted. Operational teams recalled. Further retrieval attempts by Konoha terminated; private searches may continue.
In January the full-scale search for Hyuuga Hinata was terminated. Uzumaki Naruto had spent nine months searching for her and two more praying that the next search was more successful. Each squad sent out returned empty handed. The Hyuuga family threatened neighboring countries and lost several members to heated skirmishes in places so far away it took days for anyone to know they were dead. The Hokage held long meetings with Sand, who'd heard nothing.
Soon they even stopped the tentative search for a body, and Uzumaki Naruto woke up in the late afternoons, squinting in the dusk of his apartment and cocooned by the four walls of his bedroom and its blinded windows, head pounding. His door seemed to be forever reverberating with knocks. It was Uchiha Sakura who visited so incessantly with leftovers from meals she'd cooked for two, forgetting her husband wasn't there to share dinner, or unwilling to accept that fact.
Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sakura met often at the village gate: Sakura waiting for her husband to return from a three week mission that seemed to have taken half a year, and Naruto trying to grasp the truth: that the girl he loved was gone and never returning. Uzumaki Naruto listened to Uchiha Sakura's fears and worries; her growing resentment of a marriage to someone she didn't see often enough. Her frustrated tears forced him forced him to stifle his own. He visited her like she'd visited him – only to allay her loneliness. At first.
Uchiha Sasuke worked hard and long hours, even as his wife's eyes grew redder and redder at each parting. He was sought after, young and strong and skilled, asked for by name. The assignments came whether or not he wanted them. He continued to take the missions he was given, even as she wept and protested, even as she grew bitter and hateful, even after they learned she was pregnant. When Uchiha Sasuke left his wife at the village gate, she took to crying and gripping at his shirt sleeves; when she quieted and stopped seeing him off, he mistook the distance in her manner for placidity and understanding. He sustained himself with thoughts of her and the quiet knowledge of the fact that each hour he spent away, each mission he took, gained him a dollar and the security of an hour with her and the baby. His accounts grew as his wife's love for him faded away.
In her third month, Uchiha Sasuke's wife ripped the bag from his hand as he stood in the doorway, home for the first time in six weeks. She broke a bottle of alcohol on the floor and tried to drink another. And then she told him there was someone else -- because for Uchiha Sakura the days were long and the nights longer. Her husband came and went to his liking and only nodded, half listening, to her impassioned confessions of loneliness. Uchiha Sakura met Uzumaki Naruto often at the village gates, only by chance. They met in town, only for company. They had dinner together, only for old time's sake. Only for fun.
In the end, it was only because she loved him.
The very evening of the day he'd returned home for the last time, Uchiha Sasuke appeared in front of the Hokage to request a solitary mission – the longest and most dangerous she had – and a petition of divorce. Both were awarded, after an appropriate hesitation.
SUGI RYOTA, SUGI RIE
Retrieval Attempt 0104 (Failure)
Uchiha Sasuke's last transmission was recorded in Mist, four months after deployment. The information given to the agent stationed there is attached.
High turnover rate allows traffickers to quickly abandon temporary holding blocks; frequent splitting of teams. Sales have been recorded in various areas, predominately coerced labour, sexual slavery. Recommend further investigation into [names withheld]. Continuing to follow Sugi children, still not traded out. Chatter of genetic experimentation heard. Core of traffic seems headed to Snow. Will transmit in Kawanoue with further information. Uncompromised.
There is no Kawanoue transmission. The Crow Ring remains operational (Head unknown); Sugi children unrecovered. Further retrieval missions to be attempted upon receipt of new information and renewal of funding.
Tsugumi was three when she received the notice, and he found her sitting on the corner of the bed, her back straight and her arms over the swell of her stomach. It was like moving through water, walking across the room to meet her. Her shoulder seemed more angular than usual beneath his hand. Tsugumi loitered at the foot of the bed and watched, and said nothing.
"What's wrong?" he asked, and she held up the page fisted in her hand. The death notice.
"He'll never know now," she said quietly; and that was the first time Naruto had ever seen even a hint of Sakura's regret.
She slept late into the day and ate little, and he fought with her one night. "Why are you like this?" he asked. "You're ignoring your daughter, you're ignoring me!"
"Give me time to grieve," she said, but the child inside her was already a month older, and still somehow she looked thinner.
"Are you still in love with him?" he asked, and knew it was a question that should remain buried, one he didn't want to know the answer to, one she didn't want to hear. She cried so easily.
"How could you ask me that?" she whispered. Her hands smothered her stomach. "How could you ask that when you're the one who wants to name our child after her?"
"No," he said, and his shoulders sagged as he stood in the doorway. "I'm sorry." But he thought, Hinata is different.
Time changes a person. The baby was born and named and a plaque was erected over an empty grave. The months became years and their children grew.
At night he lies beside Sakura and realizes they breathe the same. He thinks, it's supposed to be like this. And he is happy.
In the morning it is eggs and rice, fish dried over fire, steamed greens and onions. The youngest still likes her egg with sugar; the oldest, it seems, no longer likes sweet things.
The fact sends a twinge of recognition down Sakura's back but it is forgotten before it is remembered.
Naruto reads over school reports and notices. The youngest draws often, but everything is alien looking and strange, and she can't explain it, or won't. "So this is a cat, then. The one outside the ramen stand?" Naruto says, nodding, and Hinata grins, laughs, chokes briefly on her egg. Sakura reaches for her but she's recovered, laughs again, picks at her food with her fingers.
"A cat?" she asks, and the picture suddenly makes sense, maybe, if she turns her head and looks at it from the corner of her eye. Hinata picks at limp spinach, puts it into her mouth, then pulls it out and places it on the table. "It doesn't go there," Sakura says, and pushes it into a napkin.
"You're getting too many 100's," Naruto sighs, and raises his eyebrows at the oldest. He scrutinizes the report in front of him. She has only spinach on her plate, and fish. Why? Sakura wonders.
"The classes are easy," she says, chewing.
"Rice? Egg?" Sakura holds the dishes out to her.
"Egg has too much chlestral," she complains. "Rice is empty calories." Sakura pauses, then spoons some of each onto her plate.
"Eat it all," she says, before Tsugumi can complain any further. "You don't even pronounce cholesterol right. What do you know about nutrition?"
"I want to be faster," she says. "I can't run with rice." But she eats it anyway.
At work she sees that Neji is visiting; he looks rundown, tired. She wonders how much longer he will look, why he obsesses so, and what his wife does the many weeks that he's away. But she is occupied before she can say anything to him; and there is little to say, anyway. That the nights are getting cooler. That she hadn't talked to Hanabi, and is she doing any better? That her children, and Naruto, were doing well. And how was he? All questions that are as meaningless as silence; what connection do they have anymore, she and he, anyway?
The evening is like the morning stretched out. Chicken instead of fish. Curry instead of rice. Watermelon popsicles for desert, but only for Hinata. Tsugumi runs after fireflies outside, instead, and hides from her sister in tall grasses. Naruto stretches on the porch and taps at her back reassuringly as she sits beside him. Just before sunset the world is a painting.
And Sakura is happy.