Her body lost some substance in its death and laid curled like a snail, elbows against ribs and knees against forehead. He closed his eyes and knelt because he was dizzy with death; it hung thick in the air like a smoke or a smell. "I found you," he whispered, even though it was too late, and before his courage left him he touched her shoulder. It was glass-like, empty-feeling and fragile beneath his hand. It's hollowness seemed to infect him; he felt it in the pit of his stomach, eating away at the heaviness there, his soul maybe. He pulled her onto her back and her limbs unfolded mechanically, or like a flower, opening, and her spine was bright white, shining almost through the absence of skin, muscle, and organ. What had he done? Her body's gaping burned at his eyes; he turned away but now it showed itself in negative against the back of his lids. She was cut away from rib to hip and now no matter how he tried to fold her again, to cross her arms and draw her knees over that emptiness, it showed; it couldn't be hidden.
"How long have you been out here?" A whisper and a touch at his cheek. Neji opened his eyes and there were Ten Ten's bruised-looking knees. "You can't sleep?" she asked softly. He looked away, rubbed at his eyes with a hand. "Your cousin," said Ten Ten. She touched her hand to his hair, let him rest his forehead against her leg.
"The same dream as always," he mumbled. "I thought I would come outside but..." His eyes lifted to the night. The stars were innumerable.
"Come back in." She stepped away and bent to pick up his hand, haul him to his feet. "Your leg. You're limping."
It was everything. She released her husband's hand and he sank into the darkness of the hallway, to the bedroom. Seven years of constant work took a toll on his body; new scars were no longer a novelty, and he was tired. Or, he had always been tired, but more so now, tired enough to agree when she said, "that's enough". He had no strength to fight her when she said, "it's been long enough. Stay with me." And now this dream, in which he finally finds Hinata but she is dead and disemboweled. Further proof, she thought, that his mind needed rest. The other day she sat at the desk with their bills and her calculations turned from groceries to the days that she'd been without him, and it didn't seem possible that they could have been married for four years but only together for two, a few months, and a few days.
In the bed he was already asleep, on his back, one arm bent off the mattress and the other hanging over his eyes. She took his hand in hers and laid it on his stomach, and he didn't wake. For a while she stood contemplating him, and wondering about what he might be like had Hinata never left. Disappeared. Died. His strong chin wouldn't be marred by the scar along his jaw. His eyes wouldn't throb in those first seconds of waking, aching in the light. That wrinkle between his brows might be shallower. She pressed her lips to it, turned onto her side of the bed, and slept.
That Hyuuga Neji searched so tirelessly was no surprise to his family; least of all to Hanabi, his cousin. They'd grown closer as Hinata strayed further and further from the Hyuuga house; when she moved out of the compound altogether it was he who stood beside Uzumaki Naruto to carry her things away. "So the little thing is leaving, after all," Hanabi said to him, and he answered, "I'm glad she finally has the courage to." Naruto was draped over her, an arm on her shoulder and the other side of his body laden with bags, and they heard nothing but each other. "You'll be begging to come back, you know," Hanabi said. She held out a small bag by its drawstrings. "Once I get a hold of this place, you'll all be begging to come back." It spun beneath her fingers and she dropped it into his waiting. "A parting gift," she said. "If you'd give it to her."
The necklace it contained hung around Hinata's neck until the day she disappeared. Then they found it on the north side of the outskirts of town, hung on a stone and still clasped, as if it had been place there. Inside was a picture of Naruto, and he cried when he received it. It hung around his neck on the long nine months he spent searching for the girl he'd been first engaged to; the girl he first loved. It hung around his neck until his fiancée, Sakura, hid it in the bottom of a drawer and told him it was lost so many times that she'd forgotten it was a lie. He'd given up searching long before that, but always, Hyuuga Neji was looking.
Hyuuga Neji married but three months later there came word of a strange kidnapping 400 miles east. He left for six months to investigate and returned empty-handed, with heavier eyes and ten pounds lost off his broad frame. For seven months after he stayed close to home, but soon there was news of a girl found - matching Hinata's description, mute and deaf it seemed, maybe too old to be her, but he had to try – and his wife Ten Ten packed his bag for him and sat praying at a shrine for hours the day he left. Bring him home safe, she prayed. Help him find her. But he came home tired and frustrated, and with no one. Still, she found herself kneeling, sat with her hands clasped tightly, rising hours later when her faith, fervor, and hope masked her sense of passing time and made her legs ache with cramped disuse. Years passed but her hope – for her husband's sake – never waned.
Hyuuga Hanabi never prayed. It was against her nature to believe that something other than her own hard work would bring about whatever she desired. In the two years after her sister's disappearance she dispatched men to every corner of the every land, and further. Her family rallied beneath her but soon the number of deaths outweighed the new information coming in, and things seemed to taper away and disappear, and she recalled her teams just as Konoha itself had done a year earlier.
Hinata is a memory now and nothing else, and so Hyuuga Hanabi lays flowers at her empty grave because she knew her sister – now dead - had enjoyed them, in life; not because she thought her sister watched from above, hung in the clouds, misty-looking and half see-through, or with wings and white robes. Neji, she thought, was upset because he helped her go, helped her leave the confines that had kept her safe from those previous attempts at spiriting her away when she was a small and big-eyed child; that's why he searched so tirelessly, and wished so earnestly that she was alive. If she was dead – and she was, probably, no use in lying to yourself about it – Neji would take some of that blame, because encouraging her out of the family's reach was like handing her in a bag to whomever might want her, for whatever reason. Naruto, she thought, should have some of that remorse. But he was married and had a child – children. He looked to the future now more than ever, and she couldn't fault him, she supposed, for turning away from a painful past, and the ghost that haunted it. She hated to see his laughing blue eyes sometimes, but Uzumaki Naruto would never be without a smile for long.
Uzumaki Naruto loved to smile. He smiled even in his sleep, or so he was told; he smiled when he was drunk, which wasn't often. A smile is multi-faceted, multi-purpose. It can soothe, it can cheer, it can lie. The moments Naruto didn't smile were the saddest of his life; the moments he faked a smile were just as difficult. But Naruto is human, and that is the human condition. To know happiness he had to know pain, and perhaps that is why, when his daughters smile at him, he feels such profound joy. The darkest parts of his memory had already begun to go grey and fuzzy, but he, with his eyes fixed to the horizon, doesn't notice. His daughters were beautiful; the oldest was just like her father, and the youngest, though she never spoke, had the most infectious laugh, the most beautiful grin he'd ever seen. Forgive him if he looked to these happier things and forgot (for most of the year, until the month turned to anniversaries of death and leaving) those others that pulled at his gut and the corners of his mouth and his heart at the same moment. Uzumaki Naruto is only human, and it is human to forget pain.
And so pain must often remind the forgetful of its presence.
Had Hyuuga Hinata ever felt pain? It was what many people wondered at some point following her disappearance and death. The short, vague answer was yes. She'd known the pain of what seemed to be unrequited love; the pain of being unable to measure up; the pain of being hated. But she grew and those pains seemed to vanish. She was loved and that love gave her some courage, and that courage gave her self-confidence, and that self-confidence won her respect, when she'd only had sympathy as a child.
But that isn't the answer people want to hear; it isn't that question that people are asking. Did Hyuuga Hinata feel pain, they wonder, when she died? There is someone who knows, they know; they just don't know who it is. They are only left with speculation, and speculation says yes, she must have known pain, and intimately. A knife in the back or the chest, or across the belly. A rope round the wrists and the neck. Poisons. Fists to the head. Fire or water or earth to fill her throat. So many terrible ways, and she deserved none of them. But the necklace, laid on the rock still clasped, as if still around her neck. Perhaps she only disappeared. Perhaps it was quick and painless. She stood there one moment and the next she was gone, poof, sublimated, a vapor in the air.
The guessing could go on forever, but people lose interest in things that are dark and gruesome, because they so often come about. The Sugi children were kidnapped the following year, and Hyuuga Hinata flittedout of collective thoughts and returning only occasionally and momentarily, like a fog in morning that is gone when the sun rises. And so Hyuuga Hinata disappeared, one could say, for a second time.
Sasuke didn't wake with the light, but with the hunger that burned in his gut, and flared under his ribs. The routine had continued unchanged for years and hunger was a companion now, just like the hazy misdirection of night that left him struggling anew to comprehend his life when he woke and found his dreams were nothing but. The food, what little there was remaining, had to go to the girl, though she couldn't bring herself to walk, and he carried her through the cold and felt the energy strip from his body like sweat from his pores. He woke and drank hot water that no longer tasted of tea, and stared at where the girl laid and calculated, in his head, their chances.
It was the second day that they had walked - only 18 miles, by his count. It wasn't fast enough. If they left early today, they might travel farther, make up the lost time; if he could only wake her. She was swathed in blankets and jackets and as he pressed his hands over top of them it was hard to feel any movement. The hair that tumbled messily into view was still. He touched his hand again to the blanket and wondered, for a brief moment, if she was simply too tired to wake, or dead. When he pulled at a jacket her face slid into view, and it was pale and lifeless, and so different from the photograph he'd carried, and he wondered what had happened to her, that she seemed so much older than her 17 years. He'd seen scars like pinpricks on her wrists and now as he stared at her face there were scars that showed themselves, tiny and flat, on her eyelids. The Sugi bloodline gave them the ability to interpret the twitches of a liar's face; the brother and sister's lavender eyes, then – the tools their family had used with such benefit to Konoha's interrogations – were what the men who kidnapped them hoped to take.
She was strangely unsettled with him, he knew. She might cling to his arm and then suddenly jerk away when he spoke. She refused to look him in the face but always sat with her head tilted toward him, as if expecting him to move or speak, expression invisible. She didn't trust him entirely. The night before he'd pulled his protector from his pack and held it out to her as some kind of reassurance, hoping the familiar symbol etched on its metal surface would give her some push, something to work toward, but she didn't take it in her hands and after a moment he pulled away and hid it again in the recesses of his bag.
"Rie," he said, loudly. Her eyes didn't even stir beneath her lids. He pulled the jacket away and peeled a blanket back. Her lips, slightly opened, looked painfully chapped. "Rie."
He wished he could put her more at ease; he wished he could make things less painful for her. There were things he should say, things he could do to help her, but he couldn't name the words, the actions didn't come easily to him. He wished he could empathize the way Naruto would be able to, but maybe that part of him was faulty. All he could manage was courtesy, and it seemed too dry.
Sasuke pressed his hand to the blanket above her shoulder. Maybe he should let her sleep the day, he thought. Or maybe he should push her until they reached the village, where she could rest, see a doctor, eat something real. Only 18 miles in two days. They were already slow and behind. "Rie," he said, and shook her. She would have to wake up. "We have to get going."
Her hands were stronger than he might expect; or maybe it was just that her fingers were nothing but sharp bone and bit at the skin as they grasped at his wrist. "No," she gasped. Her hand pressed itself to his face and her nails curled into the skin beneath his eye. "No," she managed again, and even though her breath was already leaving her she struggled to kick at him.
What dreams did she have? The night prior she wept in her sleep and mumbled words he couldn't make out, uncurling and turning onto her back as she laid on a table. She cried and the sound was eerie, infected his dreams when he somehow slept. Who was she running from now? Who was she dreaming of? "You're in the tent, you're OK," he said. "Calm down. You're going to hurt yourself." He took her shoulders in her hands and pushed her back from him; her fingers pulled away from his face and she held her hands open, wary, beside his arms. Her eyes were wide and terrified in her face.
Wide and white in her face.
Sasuke felt that throbbing in his chest grow until his whole chest seemed to hum with his heartbeat. She shrunk between his hands and lifted her wrists over her face, as if folding into herself, and he grasped her fingers in his own and pulled them from the white eyes they shadowed. She was painfully familiar.
"Hinata," he said, and could manage nothing else. Her thin arms relaxed under his hands; she blinked and breathed for what seemed the first time since waking.
"I was dreaming," she whispered. "I was dreaming that I was still there and you hadn't found me." Her face tightened and her pale eyes disappeared beneath her lashes. "But I was just dreaming."
"How," he said, but shut his mouth. He'd only meant to think it. How are you here, when they said you were dead?
Where was the girl he'd been sent after?
He released her shoulders and her eyes opened, flickered over his face. She reached out and her fingers jabbed at his cheek. Her touch reminded him of moon-like divots there, weeping blood, just beneath his eye, and he turned his head from her clumsy hand.
"Don't," she whispered. Then, more fiercely, "Don't be so quiet anymore!" One palm struck at his cheek, held itself there, and the other followed to press itself to the left side of his face, more gingerly. Her eyes moved as if she watched a movie projected somehow against his skin. "Why are you like this? Say something!"
He could catch, dimly, his reflection in her wide, clouded eyes. Sasuke's hands hovered just above hers, hesitant to touch her. Desperation? Anger? It was too vague, too strange, too unreadable in her eyes. "What do you want me to say?" he asked quietly. He covered her hands with his own and pulled them from his face.
Her mouth tightened. "I don't know." Her voice was weak again; her face tired. "Your voice is different. You're different. Everything is different!" She pulled her fingers from his careful hands and turned her face from him.
Loneliness. That, maybe, is what he'd seen in the wideness of her eyes; that's why her hands shook against his skin and why she spoke so informally and earnestly with him, her only companion, a relic from her past and so familiar to her. "It's been seven years," he whispered to her. "Of course things have changed." That was the wrong thing to say. It sounded cruel, coming from his mouth, he realized. Her shoulders rose.
"What else has changed?" Her voice was small. "You have. I have."
Sasuke sat and said nothing. Anger flared in him often, too. It was easy to be angry at change but it was a futile exercise, and the heat of that hatred for circumstance faded quickly. Her voice, he thought, would grow calmer if he listened. Her body would relax. She might stop shaking. Or had she been like this before? It was hard for him to remember her; it seemed he'd almost forgotten her. It was a painful thought; one that made him ashamed. She wept bitterly as if she knew his mind, and her voice was brittle.
"Your feelings?" Her head lifted and she pressed her fist beneath an eye. "For me? Have those changed too?" she asked. "Because they haven't changed for me. That you would be there for me, that was the only thought that... That's the only thing that's keeping me alive, all of this time that I... I would have given up but I saw your face so clearly and it..." Her hands opened over her face, tight-fingered. "And now you're here and I can't see you at all." She lifted her head suddenly, face wet with sweat. "I can't see you at all!"
There was that throbbing, again. His chest was cold, colder than this hands, his nose. He opened his mouth, reconsidered, shut it tightly. She was blind. She'd stumbled in the snow and he'd thought she was weak; held the canteen upside down and poured their water onto her lap, and he'd thought she was tired. His stomach washed cold and he looked away from her, and back, ashamed again. Seven years. Everyone thought she was dead. Naruto, though he'd searched as long as he could bear to, had stopped. Did she sense, somehow, that she was forgotten?
Sasuke's gaze followed the blood beginning to leak from the curved indention, self-inflicted and nail-shaped, above her blind eye and thought: how can I tell you that I'm not him? That he isn't looking for you? That no one is? He couldn't say that; he didn't know what to say. Her hands were shaking and looked so frail, too white and child-like, as if she might break. If he could see her mind, maybe it would be like that too, delicate and like porcelain, held in clumsy hands.
He wished Naruto had found her, instead of him. Maybe she would smile. Maybe her eyes would be less sad. Her eyes. They hardened slowly as his silence grew; they were wary in her head as it tilted one way, the other. "Naruto," she said. Then, panicked, loudly, "Naruto!" The blankets constrained her; she struggled out, limbs shaking, but couldn't pull her legs from beneath their weight. She cried.
That was enough. Why didn't he say something, let her know he was there? It was because words had left him. He grasped her skinny elbow and she latched to his arm.
"Bastard," she wept. "Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this again? What more do you want?" Her voice rose to a scream.
Wait, he wanted to say. Something had changed; the anger was different. She fell against him and her hands were at his face again, painful on his mouth, over his eyes. He tried to capture her wrists in his hands but she was suddenly off him and struggling over the floor. He watched her stumble over his pack, overturn the bottle of snow melting into water. She was searching for a way out but in the tiny space it was easy to catch her. "Wait," he said, and held her ankle, her wrist, then her shoulder. She was still beneath his hand but even through the many layers of her clothing he felt the tension in her body. Her breath rattled in her chest and whistled through her throat.
"I'll kill myself," she hissed, and even though her eyes were wet with tears he felt that hate in them. For a moment they looked like his own. "You bastard." Her hot gaze was fixed just above his shoulder and the cords of her neck strained with her breath. "Did you kill him?" she asked suddenly. "You bastard, after everything else you've done to me!"
"Who do you think I am?" The words came from his mouth on their own accord as he thought them, and the breath pulsing in her throat stopped for the smallest of moments. He would remember her expression periodically through out the night as he laid thinking, thinking of his next step, and wondering if what he'd decided to do was a mistake. That expression, resigned, dispirited, as if he'd struck her in the face and did it often, as if she had some murderous intent toward him that had turned, suddenly, on herself.
She seemed hollow.
"Please don't do this," she whispered. "Just tell me." Her blind eyes closed and she covered them with shaking hands. "Just tell me, are you him?" Her voice was almost too soft to hear. "Are you Naruto, or not?"
Sasuke took his hand from her shoulder. "I'm Naruto," he said. The sweat that had prickled over his skin only now began to chill him. "I'm Naruto." And it was too late to take it back.
Dread was heavy in his stomach.
Well, readers of the first version of this story saw definitely this twist coming! (I'm sure some new readers did, too.) But I hope I made it new and interesting. I'm fairly happy with this chapter, though it's short, so I hope you've enjoyed it too. And thank you, of course, for the lovely reviews!
I haven't written everything absolutely clearly yet, but hopefully a few more details have come clear in this chapter, even though the narrative jumps around a bit from character to character, time to time, place to place. As for the reason behind the kidnapping of the two children Sasuke was sent after, a bit is revealed here, but more will be revealed as chapters continue. It took a while for this chapter to be finished, I know, and I can't promise a quick update, but rest assured I will be working on it. I like the narrative technique I've been using (hope you do too) and this story is good practice; I'll try my hardest to keep up the quality.
(Also, I'm not the greatest at catching typos, etc. If you find one that especially bothers you, or causes some confusion, please tell me and I'll correct it.)