Their First … and Only ~ a Hyūga Tale
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi
Credits: The story wouldn't be as it is today without the help of the cultural consultants, translators, grammarians, beta readers and editors below
Special thanks to:
Gheistwriter,Ilargi Iluna, Wrath of the Wrathful, Hilarious-Mayhem, Sillusion, SubtleInspiration, MaskedSoldier, Instoy, Santeira, The Long Fall of Prose and Lord Dragon Claw.
Aoi Azarashi, blackdragon333, bluestrdrmr, CrystalPrison, ForgottenFairytaleEndings, Fuyuyume, gmsephiroth, Icy Sapphire15, Ilovefantasy, Inferno05, JohnDeath, mageintheshadows, Mirror's Mirage, Music is the Song of Life, Picture, Sarcastic Proserpine, Spectacularly Peculiar, The Angel Of Sincerity and Whispering Kage.
Darth Hawk 32, Kouen Keibo, WhatMoreDoYouWant, soulthief2, Hidden-In-Darkness and, at last but not least, you READERS.
Summary: There are the usual arranged marriage, jōnin exam, missions and clan leadership stuff, but what happens when Hinata snaps? N.B. Neji is as much a blushing virgin as Hinata is. There are lots of first times here: first date, first kiss, first consummation…
Warnings: some degree of out-of-characterisation (most characters are in their 20's); a bunch of original characters (mostly enemies, examiners or clients) & made-up jutsu; incestuous lemons; light gore; Hinata learnt genjutsu
Author's Note: This fanfic is the improved version of my other fanfic called "Their First... and Only"; this one contains new chapters and sub-chapters ( 20K words longer than the older version). This fanfic is officially an Alternative Reality now that Kishimoto-sensei has decided to kill Neji. I use British English for this story (hence, "got" instead of "gotten" and "realised" instead of "realized").
Chapter I: Duty Calls
A scream bellowed throughout the forest—acrid, incomplete, cut short by a quick slash to the windpipe of the screamer. The shout was soon swallowed by the thickness of the Giant Bamboo Forest, but this was long enough for the twenty-year-old Konoha chūnin to detect the victim's location even without her Byakugan. Hinata sped up. The closer she got, the stronger the scent of blood became.
Upon her arrival at the scene seconds later, a single Grass shinobi stood, pulling multiple sharp, metal strings from his victim's body as it was verily dismembered. Blood sprayed from these weapons, splattering the surrounding bamboo stalks. Limbs upon limbs, each piece ephemerally flew before landing in and around the pool of blood at the muddied earth. Four finger phalanxes fell near where Hinata stood, spattering her chin crimson. She simply watched; her eyes fixed and her legs stagnant on the ground.
The assassin sneered at her, his aggression emanating as he licked a few drops of blood from his weapon. Then, like a bolt, he charged at full speed, trampling his victim's viscera in the process.
Quickly but carefully, the Leaf kunoichi dodged each string as they protruded from its wielder, cutting through the stalks, turning them into leviathan stakes. TheKusagakure chūnin had seemingly proved himself one-step ahead of her as he approached closer, trying to impale her.
He would advance and she would elude. It was a dance of death to the tune of the wailing birds in the crimson sunset sky. In the distance, his strings gleamed against the last rays of sunlight. A marmot scurried past them and she quickly sidestepped, taking it out of harm's way. Seizing this chance, he managed to scratch her.
He grinned, yet again. That lenience will be her undoing, he believed.
And sure enough, just as Hinata had finished putting the marmot on the safe ground, he sent another flurry of Ayatsuito no Jutsu—String Reeling Technique—capturing her by the left ankle thus enabling him to hurl her from the ground, aiming for the bamboo stakes.
Twenty more centimetres, he anticipated, almost two seconds left before her dainty body showers me with her luscious blood!
Nevertheless, Hinata would not let any of the stakes below skewer her. Wincing, she concentrated her chakra to her feet for Ki Nobori no Shugyō or Tree Climbing Practice.
Wasting no time, she regained her traction and propelled against the bamboo stalk as she dispersed her energy throughout her body, spinning in a flashing blue vortex. Although her Hakkeshō Kaiten—Eight Trigrams Palms Heavenly Spin—wasn't as thoroughly effective as when deployed on a horizontal surface, it was still enough to elevate her opponent, who was stubbornly clinging to his weapons while her absolute defence lifted him from the ground, drawing him forcibly towards the field of sharp stakes he himself had created.
The Grass shinobi yelped in pain as one of the pointy stakes pierced his thigh. While trying to extricate himself from the impaling bamboo, he cast an explosive tag at his opponent in desperation, mindless of her Byakugan ability.
Effortlessly, she avoided the explosion and even saw his writhing figure through the smoke. She reeled, spinning her feet, gyrating her body through the white smoke as it cleared from both of their sights, emitting leonine chakra shrouds from her palms and aiming her thrust at his heart.
He counterattacked; swishing sounds announced their presence as parallel threads traversed the air, seemingly marking their target, but the unfamiliar pain within his chest travelled faster than his weapons could.
Energy ruptured from within his body, closing his tenketsu points as the foreign chakra overwhelmed his own. He choked hard and coughed, spattering himself with his own blood. The last thing he saw was a pair of eyes, as beautiful, yet as cold, as pearls, staring endlessly at him, while his murderess' long hair billowed in the wind.
The Hyūga heiress headed back to her village to report the success of her B-rank solo mission to the Hokage; her Jūho Sōshiken—Gentle Step Twin Lion Fists—had obliterated the wanted criminal named Inoue Katsutoshi through internal damage.
'You are expected to see Hiashi-sama for a chaji tea ceremony, Hinata-sama,' greeted a maidservant to Hinata as she arrived at Hyūga manor the next day, exhausted as she was from travelling overnight.
Thus, after cleansing herself with a quick shower, Hinata made herself presentable by donning her cornflower blue kimono. As she strolled along the tobīshi stepping stones in the garden, every step she took felt heavier and heavier.
Like other chaniwa gardens, the Hyūga garden had a chashitsu tea parlour and was designed in aesthetic simplicity according to the concepts of tea ceremony. Since it was necessary for all participants of the tea ceremony to purify themselves prior to entering the tea parlour, Hinata washed her hands and mouth with the water from the tsukubai stone basin just outside the chashitsu. But not even the serene sound of the water flowing from the kakei bamboo spout soothed her mind.
A chaji can last for up to five hours. A busy man like father rarely even have the time to hold a chakai, which is under one hour long. There must be a vital issue, she mused.
Hinata's heartbeats raced even faster now that she observed that no one else was present, not even Hanabi. What was it really, and how grave must this subject be to make her father speak so privately?
The majestic 'wa kei sei jaku'—harmony, respect, purity, tranquillity—calligraphy scroll hung on the alcove did nothing to assuage the morbidity in Hinata's mind. Still, nothing out of the ordinary happened up to the point when the kaiseki banquet meal was replaced by the thick, frothy koicha.
Her three hellish hours of queasiness terminated at her father's remark, 'How long has it been since we dined together, just the two us, daughter?'
'Seventeen years, father.' She was unsure of what tone she ought to use for such answer, so she settled on the mechanical voice of a student reciting a textbook.
'Exactly. Apart from practice sessions, we have not spent time together since you were three,' her father restated her answer in reply.
Which has been fine the way it is, father, so why change now?
Hinata's gaze never left Hiashi's hands: one of which was holding the natsume tea caddy whereas the other was scooping the powdered tea with a wooden chashaku. His movements were as graceful as a tea master's would be. The art of tea serving was, after all, one of the fundamental skills required for a Hyūga clan leader. Hinata's chanōyu tutor often praised her tea serving skill, but she knew she could never outdo her father in this field.
When the chasen bamboo whisk in her father's right hand had finally left the tea bowl, the leader of the noble and most ancient clan in Konoha started the real conversation. 'Daughter, health has frequently abandoned me since I crossed the gate of old age.'
Hinata's eyes flickered. What Hyūga Hiashi was about to say next would likely be something she regarded unpleasant. She did not want to affront her father with defiance—such conduct was truly unbefitting for a clan leader's progeny—therefore, she hastily focused on the tea bowl before her. This chawan, like any other tea bowls in that room, was worth at least a decade's salary for a standard chūnin … although this was, of course, not her present concern.
Not failing to notice his daughter's reaction, Hiashi waited until she had drained her tea bowl and calmed down somewhat. 'I have watched you bloom across the years. I am aware of your endeavour and dedication; yet I can also see the grasp of your capabilities. You have proven yourself to be a fine shinobi, but a mere fine shinobi is not enough to lead the Hyūga clan.'
Hinata held her breath, warning herself inwardly. Here it comes…
'I perceive that you can guess what my solution is,' continued her father, examining her alerted expression.
'The Hyūga clan requires you to present a strong, reliable, skilful son-in-law who can be my future co-regent when I become your successor, father,' guessed Hinata, knowing her reply was correct. Defeat lay in her eyes.
A brief smile adorned Hiashi's face at his daughter's perceptiveness. He segued his discourse, 'I daresay you can also detect the candidate I have in mind?'
'As the tradition passed through each generation dictates, to ensure the preservation of the bloodline purity as well as to secure the council elders' approval, my husband-to-be is a man within the Hyūga. A marriage between cousins is not prohibited within our clan and everyone can easily point out who the most promising prodigy is. Furthermore, the union between Hyūga Neji and Hyūga Hinata would mean the unification of sōke—main branch—and bunke—ancillary branch, which will thus reduce the tension of prospective civil war. In addition, since the main and branch houses fuse into simply "Hyūga", there will be no need for further branding,' answered the twenty-year-old girl with a repressed sigh.
Hyūga Hiashi gazed appreciatively at his eldest offspring. True, Hinata lacked the strength and charisma to be a leader, but she was endowed with kindness, responsibility, determination and an excellent analytical mind as her forte. Her bashfulness had reduced a great deal over the last few years. She no longer avoided the gaze of her adversaries. She did not stutter as much as she once had, and she did not faint as easily either. He knew exactly how hard she strove to make him proud. 'A flawless analysis as expected from the true future leader.'
However, Hinata dropped her composure and, with voice almost trembling, made her plea—one of the rare occasions in Hiashi's life, 'Father, I shall fulfil my duty in time, but as of now, please let me concentrate in becoming a jōnin first.'
Hiashi pondered at his daughter's words. The clan must not suffer the embarrassment of being led by a mere chūnin. On the other hand, he would like to see at least one grandchild before his life ended. Mid-October—the jōnin exam—is only some six weeks away, but there is no guarantee that Hinata will pass on her first attempt. What if she passes next year or even the year after? But hasn't Hinata just affirmed she would fulfil her duty in time, and has she ever broken her words so far?
A notion flickered through his mind—killing two birds with one stone: 'Let Neji train you to be a jōnin. Your marriage will wait until this jōnin exam finishes. Your clan leader inauguration ceremony will wait until you accomplish the jōnin level, unless I die before that. Your engagement, nevertheless, will take place at ten o' clock eight days from now!' This way, he postulated, the youngsters would spend more time together and, hopefully, establish a bond between them.
'Yes, father.' Hinata returned to her usual, obedient self. Her tone was expressionless; not even Hiashi could tell whether that was a gesture of relief or of surrender.
It was not until the end of the thin usucha tea serving that Hiashi asked, 'How do you feel about Neji?'
'I do not doubt his capability for the future leadership. He has become an ANBU captain at such a young age and—'
'You know so well that this is not what I meant to ask,' her father stated, cutting her off.
Hinata took a deep breath. 'As a cousin, I couldn't have wished for more … he is beyond brilliant. As a fellow shinobi, he stands out as one of the most praiseworthy ones even among the bests … both in exceptional skills and restrained conduct. As a husband-to-be…,' she trailed off, her voice dragging.
Just when Hiashi thought his daughter had given up on answering, she resumed, '… I don't really have any special feelings for him.'
Hinata couldn't keep from sighing as she retired to her chamber. For years, she had predicted this day would come eventually, but still wishfully thinking it could, by once in a millionth chance of luck, be avoidable. Lying down on her futon mattress, she let her mind roam free.
At first, Hiashi had been a loving father to her. At the age of three, however, she was kidnapped and it ended with her uncle, Hizashi, losing his life. Since that day, the sight of her had always reminded her father of his twin brother's tragic end. He had started to educate her with Spartan training, secretly hoping that if she became strong, she might be able to protect those who were dear to her. He was disappointed, however, by Hinata's lack of strength. He considered her a failure thereafter; a defective product of the Hyūga.
Her father began to see hope in her little sister's ability instead. Unlike Hinata, Hanabi was far from timid and her skills sufficed for a main house member standard. After all, she was stronger than Hinata despite being five years younger. Hanabi even managed to pass the chūnin exam on her first try at the age of twelve; Hinata had become a chūnin at fourteen. Therefore, Hanabi had always been the apple of her father's eye. Hiashi had purposefully kept the Caged Bird seal off Hanabi, reserving her as the next heiress should the frail Hinata perish in a mission.
Her father even blatantly told Hinata's teacher, Yūhi Kurenai, that he didn't mind if his worthless daughter died. Nevertheless, after years went by, Hanabi's temper proved to be less and less disagreeable whereas Hinata succeeded in becoming a chūnin and lived safe and sound thus far. Accordingly, Hiashi started yearning, yet again, for his elder daughter to lead the clan alongside a reliable husband. Hiashi did not need to search far and wide; a perfect candidate was right under his nose: his own nephew and his late brother's son, Hyūga Neji.
Hinata had indeed hoped that one day the clan would appoint Hanabi to be their leader so that she would be relieved from her responsibilities as the eldest daughter and would be permitted to marry Naruto, the future Hokage. Yet, deep inside she had long been sentient that her arranged marriage would come sooner or later and had prepared herself mentally to accept it since tender age. It was this prospective arranged marriage too that had also withheld her from confessing her feelings to the blond Kyūbi vessel for so long.
Years ago, she had even thought of the possibility to flee from Hyūga with Naruto if they failed to acquire Hiashi's consent, but this was not going to happen. First of all, Naruto did not love her. Secondly, her pride: a Hyūga did not turn tail from trouble, but faced it head on. Then, even if she did manage to get away from the clan, all the inconveniences would still stay to burden her little sister. What kind of sister would she be to let Hanabi suffer? Lastly, and in reality what mattered most, was that her own feelings for her first cousin were not as lukewarm as she had led her father to believe.
Indeed, Hinata had secretly pined for Neji. There had been times when she thought she would gladly sacrifice her life for Naruto, like when she attempted to save him during Pain's invasion. However, after his rejection, she started to open her eyes and see for herself who it was that she actually wanted to be with.
The broken heart she got from Naruto's rejection was not as painful as she supposed it would be. Rather, it felt as if she had failed a mission. No more. No less. The disappointment was not totally avoidable, but not unpredicted either: she had known for a long time how he yearned for a certain pink-haired kunoichi. In fact, whenever Hinata saw Naruto and Sakura together, she felt like this was the way it should be.
On the contrary, whenever she spotted Neji and Tenten together, a peculiar sensation grumbled in her stomach and it had nothing to do with hunger. Every Konoha kunoichi knew that Tenten used to have a crush on Neji. Neji did not seem to be romantically attracted to Tenten, but Hinata couldn't subdue the seething jealousy within her, seeing that, while he avoided the Hyūga heiress all the time, he harboured no animosity towards the weapon mistress.
Hinata was well aware of how Neji always kept his distance from her. He was all too eager to accept missions, leaving the duty of guarding her in Hyūga Kō's care whenever he was away. Nevertheless, just watching him from afar as he practiced was enough for the Hyūga heiress.
3 July and 27 December the following year. Five hundred and fifty-two days are all that separate our birthdays, yet Neji and I are as different as can be. Neji is like a tree—proudly reaching for the sky of glory while standing on his own. I am no more than a parasite to him—surviving only by putting him at a disadvantage. Even while sparring, I'm as good as a moving sandbag to him. After all, I'm the weakest of Hyūga sōke, as well as the most pathetic kunoichi among the rookie nine. Sakura and Ino are renowned medical ninja, but medical art isn't Hyūga Hinata's thing—I could only cope with medical ninjutsu for a short time; the mere sight of excessive bleeding or dislocated joints is enough to drive me sick. What had Neji done to deserve such a worthless being as a wife?
Long before Naruto appeared in her childhood, Hinata used to imagine that her father would hold a tournament for her suitors, where Neji would be the winner and claimed her hand in marriage. Now, however, her father gave her to the man of her dreams with no conditions. If only he had loved her, it would have been too good to be true, but life was not that simple.
There was a time when Neji despised me for his father's death; there is nothing between us right now; but there will be a time when he will detest me even more for being condemned to be chained to me for life—one he does not love. All these years has Neji ever been willing to spend his time with me unless father asked him to train me? Besides, nearly six years ago, he even encouraged me to speak to Naruto-kun before Naruto-kun left with the late Jiraiya-sama. It couldn't have been plainer that he hasn't got the slightest infatuation for me.
Worst of all, Neji won't have time to do the works of the Hyūga clan leader and captain of ANBU squad simultaneously. He would have to relinquish ANBU for good. How much more must Neji sacrifice? She was tormented, not knowing whether or not she wanted to marry Neji. She cogitated and concluded her contemplation with 'My consent doesn't matter; the marriage will happen at any rate,' and closed her eyelids, her mind clouded in grief.
The next day, Neji approached her as she sat under a tree during her short break from training with Kiba and Shino. He was still in his ANBU gear with a falcon mask dangling at his side and seemingly neither pleased nor displeased.
'Hinata-sama,' he remarked, 'We need to fix a timetable for your jōnin preparation training.'
'Hinata-sama'. Although we are to marry, will there ever be a day when Neji calls me 'Hinata' and only 'Hinata'?
Let alone Kiba, even the taciturn Shino failed to hide the surprise of hearing about Hinata's extra lesson. In preparation for the jōnin exam six weeks to come, the three of them were practising to the point of complete exhaustion on a daily basis whenever they didn't have official missions. Kiba commented how tough it must be to be a Hyūga with all the prestige to preserve, and Shino grunted in agreement while Hinata and Neji sorted things out.
Neji excused himself as soon as they figured out the schedule. Replacing his mask, he turned and stepped away.
'Um … Neji nī-san,' asked Hinata, blushing as she watched Neji's back glinting in the sun, 'A-a-are you … a-all right with … with my father's arrangements?'
'Hinata-sama,' Neji turned back to face the seated girl, removed his ANBU mask and knelt, 'There is no greater honour.' With these terse words, he left.
'What the … he's been calling you with "-sama" honorific for years, but … kneeling? Since when? Why?' Kiba blurted as soon as the Hyūga prodigy was out of sight.
Shino cast him a reprimanding look; it was the Hyūga clan's internal business, not theirs. But Hinata's face grew redder as she mumbled, 'This … this is the first time he ever knelt to me…'
'Why does he need to be so polite to you now then…,' replied Kiba, '… considering he was doing okay with no kneeling before?'
'Does this mean you have officially become the Hyūga clan leader?' surmised Shino.
'Not yet.' Hinata shook her head, 'I'm expected to become the clan leader and his wife after the jōnin exam though.'
Predictably, Shino chose to chew the matter over inwardly, that must be marriage proposal courtesy then, while Kiba blurted, 'WHAT?!'
Hinata explained, 'It is not uncommon for the Hyūgas to marry each other's cousins to conserve bloodline purity. Besides, given Neji's capabilities, it is no surprise either that he will eventually become our clan leader. I've sensed this for years now.'
'But … marriage?! What do you feel for Neji?' asked Kiba. He tried to mask his tone with pseudo curiosity, but years of teamwork with the ninja dog trainer allowed the Hyūga heiress to suspect that he would sneak up to threaten her fiancé not to mistreat her.
Hinata let out a small sigh, 'Well, I suppose things could be worse. My father could have appointed one of the council members' sons—someone whose name I might not even remember. I have known Neji nī-san nearly all my life; surely it won't be that hard to get to know him…,' she inhaled, '… more.'
Muteness swept overShino and Kiba. This was one of those times when they felt how helpless they could be despite their friend's trouble; the situation was way beyond their reach. 'If he mistreats you or you need to run away from your clan one day or face some troublesome assassins … or something like that, well, you know we're here for you.' Kiba managed to speak after a while.
Smiling, Hinata thanked her teammates. They resumed to practice and the marriage was not brought up again.
After dinner that night, Hinata met Neji at the family dojo as scheduled.
'First of all, demonstrate every jutsu that you know, Hinata-sama.'
No matter how many practices they had spent together all those years, Hinata always felt nervous to show Neji her capacities. She knew how far she was from his fighting standard and it pained her heart to disappoint him with poor results despite all of his efforts to train her. What made her feel even guiltier, however, was the fact that she enjoyed Neji's touches while correcting her posture or even any skin contact during an attack.
Comments, such as 'Lower your shoulder!' and 'You need a steadier stance!' were nothing new to Hinata, but never had she imagined that he would also suggest her to strengthen her attacks especially through genjutsu. Her lack of strength only allowed her taijutsu to work effectively against chūnin-level shinobi at most, but, being the pupil of Konoha's best genjutsu-tsukai, Kurenai, gave her an upper hand in genjutsu. She had been experimenting with multiple possibilities and with Neji's current assistance, Hinata was in the process to create a new technique: Hiwameimō—Hidden Story of Illusion—her signature genjutsu.
Hinata's best fighting point was not strategy, stealth, strength, speed, stamina or agility, but accuracy, thanks to her Byakugan. If Hinata could direct her opponent to a certain situation with ninjutsu and apply her genjutsu accurately when taijutsu failed, she would still gain a victory.
Hinata had been able to manipulate water back in her genin days, since she perfected her Shugohakke Rokujyuyon Shō which indeed worked best with water. She had even evolved that jutsu into Shugohakke Hyakunijyuhachi Shō—Protection of the Eight Trigrams One Hundred Twenty-Eight Palms—a couple of years before.
To partner her Shugohakke Hyakunijyuhachi Shō, Hinata had invented Suiton: Suidammaku—Water Release: Aquatic Barrage. When the jutsu was activated, a handful of water would swirl in mid-air briefly before bursting into bead-sized drops. These water drops, however, did not fall to the ground, but instead surrounded Hinata's target and shot themselves like multiple bullets. This technique could come very handy when facing numerous enemies.
Since a jōnin was required to be able to use at least two elements of nature, however, Hinata still needed to work out the other element. She had started to focus on earth element for the last sixteen months, which Neji was best at, and was glad to find out their compatibility. Nonetheless, her Doton: Tsuchibeki—Earth Release: Earth Wall—was still far from perfection.
Friday ten o' clock finally came. Most of the elders in the council, Hyūga Hiashi and his two daughters, Hyūga Neji and his mother, Hyūga Nanae, and the portraits of Hyūga Hizashi and Hyūga Haruka—Hiashi's wife who died from brain cancer seven years prior—all assembled in the main hall.
It had been years since Hinata saw Neji wearing a kimono and now that he did wear one, he simply looked stunning. It was as though the haori's price had multiplied tenfold while it covered Neji's stately build. His charisma, his demeanour, his exquisiteness … he truly fits to be the future leader of the Hyūga, she secretly admired him.
The furthermost seat from Hiashi's family was designated for Hyūga Nanae, who was flanked by two asylum staff. Hizashi's death and Neji's departure to the main house to be Hinata's protector had been too much for her to endure. She had suffered from a mental breakdown and was taken care of in Konoha Asylum ever since. She would behave like a happy little child for most of the time, but wailed whenever the memory of Hizashi or Neji or both came back to her. For this day, Hiashi had obtained her a special permission for a temporary visit, accompanied by her caretakers. Even so, she came without realising that this was her own son's engagement ceremony; the Neji in her mind was never older than four and a half years old.
At length, Hinata couldn't bear seeing Nanae's pitiful state, as well as all the carefully studying looks that she was receiving from the council members. Hence, she kept her gaze low, scrutinising the orthodox yuinōhin betrothal gifts on the tatami floor.
Noshi. Dried abalone. Do they seriously expect me to live a happy life with a man whose life is ruined because of me?
Surume. Dried cuttlefish. Do they even expect me to get pregnant from a man who doesn't love me?
Dashi. Dried bonito. Yeah right. Neji's a strong man. At least something fits.
Konbu. Seaweed. They expect me to beget children with him; very little surprise there!
Tomoshiraga. Bunch of white hemp yarn. How could they expect me to grow old with such a reluctant man!
Suehiro. Fans. Eventually everything leads to gradual prosperity, don't they? Prosperity of the Hyūga clan!
Yubiwa. Rings. So these are the chains that bind us, the two sacrificial pawns, together.
A burning sensation stung Hinata's eyes. Stop it Hinata; a Hyūga does not cry!
Hinata turned to Hanabi and complimented her sister's kimono with a smile.
After the ring exchange, Neji kissed Hinata on the cheek, near the corner of her lips. Carefully he angled his head to block anyone from witnessing the kiss … unless they dared to activate their Byakugan.
So it's true that Neji dislikes me too much, even for a kiss on the lips. I don't blame him; he probably wants to kiss someone else instead. Nevertheless,this foreknowledge did not prevent Hinata's heart from sinking in disappointment.
At the family gathering after the ceremony, Aunt Hanako advised Hinata about how to keep a husband's passion from decaying after years of marriage. Hinata pretended to listen whole-heartedly, yet bearing in mind that in Neji's heart there was no passion to decay for, since the slightest dreg of passion never existed in the first place.
That evening, Neji acted as if the betrothal had not happened. He honed Hinata's posture, sparred with her and assisted her developing her Tsuchibeki—Earth Wall—just like the evenings before. Hinata was relieved; at least nothing changed between them.
As genjutsu was Neji's weakest point, and missions often took him away from Konoha, he also arranged special sessions to assist Hinata in developing her potentials. For this purpose, four of Neji's ANBU colleagues contributed with their skills on different evenings by cornering her into such situations where she could not rely on taijutsu, hence leaving her to resort to ninjutsu and genjutsu.
One evening, Neji had Lee polish Hinata's taijutsu. Lee had become a tokubetsu jōnin and a teacher since last year, so this was an effective way to strengthen Hinata's feeble offences. Still, Lee was having a hard time catching up with Hinata's speed and accuracy.
The following evening, Tenten showered Hinata's Hakeshō Kaiten—Eight Trigrams Palms Heavenly Spin—with myriads of weapons from Sōryū Tensakai or Dragon Scattering Destruction. The weapon mistress had become a full jōnin in the same year as Lee, and had become a part of the weapon specialist squad—another of Konoha's prides, although not quite as elite as the ANBU. Hinata was unsure if she was imagining things, but Tenten did seem a bit too eager to attack her. Could it be that she became bitter that Hinata got to marry her old crush, Neji, especially since her current boyfriend did not excel with Neji's quality?
The most important genjutsu session, however, fell to Ino's hands. Yamanaka's Shintenshin no Jutsu—Mind Body Switch Technique—was the crucial key to break Hinata's newly acquired genjutsu. Hinata needed to push her concentration beyond its limit against Ino's soul dominance. Therefore, Ino's session was held weekly. Ino didn't mind, since the stronger Hinata's resistance got, the more she had to increase her power. The training, in other words, helped her to be tougher for her own jōnin exam preparation.
One of those evenings, Hinata noticed that Neji was more lifeless than usual. His shoulders sagged slightly as if burdened by a great weight. The stoic set of his jaw that was tightly clenched. There was even an angry gleam in his eyes, mixed with guilt. Of course, none of these would be apparent to anybody who was not close to him, therefore nobody tried to comfort him.
'Is something wrong, nī-san?' Hinata asked, concern laced in her voice.
He looked at her for the briefest of moments, then back down at the floor, avoiding her eyes. Just when she thought he wasn't going to answer, he finally spoke. 'One of my teammates died today, under my command,' he answered tonelessly, still refusing to meet her gaze.
Not knowing what to say, she stared concernedly at him. All these times, to her, he always seemed so aloof, capable, dependable … ideal! Now that she finally got to witness his human side, how she wished he would allow her to share his sadness! She drew herself closer with the intention of hugging him, of caressing his streaming hair, of wiping his unshed tears … but all she got was his glare instead. She stopped dead in her tracks.
'It's nothing to be concerned about!' he barked, 'Now back to our practice!'
Hinata sighed. There's no doubt he will continue to treat me as an outsider even after we're married. Nevertheless, she obeyed her fiancé. What a fool I am, thinking the Hyūga genius would let his guard down around me—fragile me—to whom he is bound for life!
One Thursday afternoon, Kurenai summoned Team Eight. She assigned them an A-rank mission that consisted of retrieving a daimyo's heirloom robbed by a group of Grass shinobi. That night, when Hinata informed Neji she would be going on a mission starting the next day, he wished her the best of luck.
His phrase was unelaborated, but any word which Neji's mouth emitted sounded precious to Hinata all the same. Out of happiness, she blurted out, 'Given I have the time, is there anything you would like for me to return with?' The moment she enunciated the first word, she realised that she shouldn't have asked such question, but there was no turning back.
Nonetheless, he answered, 'Your safety is the best possible present.'
Hinata's eyes widened in disbelief. Is this really Neji? The last time I asked him the same question before I left for a genin mission years ago, he answered me with a disappointed tone, 'I thought you could distinguish a mission from a vacation, Hinata-sama,' and left straightaway.
Our betrothal has some effects after all! Even bearing in mind that his current answer was likely to be out of politeness rather than sincerity, Hinata still couldn't help dancing around once she was safely inside the bathroom. She kept on humming merrily while cleansing herself and a smile enveloped her face as she drifted off to sleep.
Unknown to Hinata, however, Neji was still in the dojo, staring at the spot where Hinata had been standing moments ago. Nor had she got any inkling that, for him,theHyūga compound without her meant no more than a place to live in.
Chapter II: The Sick Bed
One of the perks of being the largest and oldest clan in Konoha, was the fact that the Hyūga owned their own funerary complex. A part of this site, formally known as 'the Hill of the Heroes', was in fact where Hizashi had been buried. It was for this reason that Neji became a frequent visitor.
That afternoon, only three days after he last saw Hinata, Neji stood before his father's tombstone yet again. Words that he would have said to his father, were his father alive, travelled through his mind.
Dad, last week I became engaged to Hinata. Mom came to our betrothal ceremony, but she didn't recognise me and I doubt she ever will. Even though I'm happy with our new bond, I'm sure that Hinata will be just as equally unhappy with the arrangement, though. I wonder how it will feel like when we're finally married … the two of us sharing the same bed but with Naruto still in her mind.
Should I kill that ramen-maniac?
Should I abduct Hinata to a deserted island where nobody else but us live there and force to learn to love me and me alone?
Should I let her to have an affair with the future Hokage?
At this point, the winnowing wind blew Neji's hair as well as the grasses below. While closing his eyes and removing the dark strands of hair from his face, Neji concluded, Well, her happiness is my first priority … As for myself, I'll probably die a virgin.
Upon sensing chakra drawing nearby—Hinata's chakra, to be specific—Neji quickly concealed his own chakra and hid behind a tree. So, she has returned from her latest mission unscathed, he surmised with a hint of relief perforating his thoughts.
From afar, in his current hiding spot, he spied her kneeling before Hyūga Hizashi's grave, as she presented a bundle of hydrangeas before praying in silence. This was not the first time he had seen her do so; he had known for quite some time that she came there once every three months, but every single time he always hid himself from her gaze. Outside training times and missions, Neji always tried his best to avoid any open encounters with Hinata. It was because he was afraid that he could possibly lose control of his feelings and end up appalling Hinata with a display of aggressive behaviour, a love confession, or, worse still, a ravish upon refusal.
As much as he desired to continue watching her motionless figure in prayer, he sensed another's chakra; Hiashi was approaching. Come to think of it, Hiashi occasionally visited Hizashi's tomb as well. To avoid the risk of being caught by Hiashi and having to explain his reason for watching Hinata in such a stealth mode, Neji chose wisely to leave, his thoughts of seeing Hinata in their evening training pacified him as he retreated from the grave. Unfortunately, things didn't turn out as he wished.
A last-minute request came into the Hokage's office for a goods convoy—a B-rank mission. Konoha was currently lacking in manpower, which caused team eight to be delegated, dog-tired as they were. Hinata had not even set foot on her father's manor when Kurenai called for her. The genjutsu mistress herself, nevertheless, was assigned to a different mission, leaving Hinata, Kiba and Shino to cope on their own.
The very next day, Neji received an order to wipe out the spies at the border of Numa no Kuni or Marsh Country. Upon arrival, he encountered four spies. He assessed that three out of four spies were chūnin and the remaining one was a jōnin, but since they fought him in different venues, this proved to be no challenge to an S-rank shinobi like Hyūga Neji. In a mere few minutes after he engaged them in battle, two of the unfortunate chūnin already lay dead. Neji had knocked the last chūnin unconscious with Hakke Kūshō—Eight Trigrams Empty Palm—for the sole purpose of future interrogation. Only the jōnin remained.
The only part that troubled the ANBU captain was the resistance of the Fūjutsu Kyūin—Sealing Technique Absorption Seal—launched by the jōnin. Thankfully, it had been nowhere nearly as powerful as Pain's technique. The enemy jōnin then tried to corner Neji into a nearby swampy area. The reason, as he discovered later, was to take advantage of the topographical area.
The two shinobi circled each other in a deadly waltz; each waiting for the slightest opportunity to strike. One was anxious, the other, fierce. With one swift movement, the Hyūga prodigy displayed why he was one of the youngest ANBU captains that Konoha ever had. His enemy rushed onto him, intending to lunge a pre-emptive strike, but Neji was already appeared in front of him and nestled his bone-breaking 'gentle' fist onto his opponent's ribs before the latter's attack could hit him.
Nonetheless, Neji's victory was more short-lived than he expected, giving him quite a small surprise. The enemy had purposely let him have the previous hit so that he could tackle Neji on the shin. Once the Falcon masked ANBU lost his balance, the spy jōnin unleashed a hell of an attack—so deadly that the Konoha shinobi could not maintain his footing. Like a vicious dragon distributing its fury, this single attack was ostensibly straightforward, and yet, its power was far more overwhelming than Rock Lee's Konoha Senpu.
As Neji lay supinely on the ground due to the enemy's taijutsu—Dai Ryūken or Great Dragon Fist—his opponent tried to punch him again. The ANBU captain quickly rolled over and his enemy's fist cracked harshly onto the earth below him. The hole on the crumbling ground, nevertheless, dilated wider and wider that made even the Hyūga prodigy fall into the quicksand waiting underneath. No matter how hard he tried to avoid its deadly grip, kicking the air, his struggle did not prevent his limbs from plunging into the quicksand. A surge of panic started to creep within him.
The enemy, taking an advantage of Neji's disposition, proceeded with a series of sophisticated hand seals. 'Aka Honō!' As the name suggested, his ninjutsu emitted engulfing red flames at Neji's unprotected and still exposed unburied body. The enemy sneered triumphantly on perceiving the fire scald the falcon masked ANBU captain faster than expected: the natural methane produced by the morass accelerated the combustion.
In order to prevent these flames from thoroughly consuming him, Neji applied his own Doton: Chiryūdan or Earth Release: Earth Exploding Missiles. The quicksand was disintegrated and elevated as soon as Neji finished his hand seals, leaving the ANBU captain to fall even farther below. However, the grains of sand poured down like pelting rain upon the enemy shinobi. This did not cause any significant damage, but it did manage to buy Neji the time he needed to move to a safer ground.
The spy had already prepared himself to face Neji's next attack by then. Withal, even his full strength was no match for the Hyūga prodigy's Hakke Hazangeki. When his stomach received the Konoha shinobi's palm of extended chakra wave, he perished under Neji's Eight Trigrams Mountain Crusher. The murky swamp became his sepulchre.
Having killed the enemy jōnin, the falcon masked ANBU approached a nearby Sugi or Japanese Redwood tree and extracted a small portion of its bark with his kunai. The presence of tannic acid in this piece of bark was a strong natural defence against wildfire, so it could soothe his scathed skin in an emergency.
After leaving the surviving chūnin in the qualified hands of the Marsh Country Investigation team, Neji headed home. While passing the Konoha Forest, Neji spotted the youth whom he had always exalted and considered his love rival. Yet, Uzumaki Naruto was not alone. Sandwiched between him and a tree was a pink-haired medic nin. They shared an arduous kiss while he held her in a tight embrace as she snaked her fingers along his blond hair.
Seeing Naruto dating Sakura, a mishmash of satisfaction and anxiety arose within Neji: sure, this meant he would have one less love rival to worry about, but… What if Hinata can't endure the anguish of rejection? Naruto may be loud and hyperactive, but he is still a good man at the very least. What if eventually Hinata finds herself a jerk for a new lover and things become even worse than ever? His concern for his cousin continued to grow and weigh heavily upon his mind. As soon as he arrived at the Hyūga mansion, Neji went directly to the shower. As he stood under the showerhead, the pounding current of the water managed to wash away all the dust and dirt from his body, but not the thoughts of his first cousin.
Years ago, he would have wondered: What if it had been Hinata who was taking the shower? What if he had burst through the door and pinned her to the wall in spite of her screams? There, his arms against her arms … his body against her body … their faces only inches away… She would have rebuked him of shame and incest, but he would have muffled her protests with many a ferocious kiss. She would have succumbed to the incarceration of passion at the twist of their tongues. Yes, he would have then been free to plant his ardent kisses on her mouth, earlobe, neck, collarbone and most especially … her voluptuous breasts!
It would have not been long until he parted her legs and made his blessed entry into her. She would have winced, whimpered and desperately clung onto him. Her virgin blood would have trickled down her legs only to be washed away by the water of the shower. He would have thrust back and forth into her lithe body until she moaned his name in ecstasy. Then he would have grinded his body onto hers, tugging one of her legs onto his hips to open her wider to allow his body to penetrate her own deeper.
Between sweat and desire, he would have told her how much he had yearned for her all those years. Between pain and pleasure, she would have told him there had been no one else she'd prefer to surrender herself to. He would have lifted her whole, grasping her by the hips, as they prolonged their lovemaking. Her legs would have encircled his lower back like a ring. They would have climaxed together as if nothing else in the world had mattered.
Such was one of the thoughts he had when he had been but fifteen years old. As time went by, his visualisation grew more and more vivid, almost burning in their intensity. He could even distinguish her ooh-and-ahs to indicate which part of her she wished him to tease. This time, however, he remembered one of the chūnin shinobi he fought with this afternoon, who used chains to ensnare his opponent and attack after he got his target trapped.
Neji started fantasising if only Hinata desired him so! She would tie his wrists and ankles with ribbons, forming a human X on the wall. Then, engulfed in passion, she would kiss, suck and lick all over his aching body, teasing him until he begged and moaned for release. Hang on … Hyūga Neji did not beg! But since this was the girl he had yearned for nearly all his life … perhaps he could make an exception. Yes … NO!
Those are things of my past. I mustn't think about Hinata that way anymore. Neji switched to picturing a scene of their upcoming wedding night.
'Don't worry, Hinata! I won't get any more intimate with you than a brother will' was what Neji would say as soon as he entered their room. 'If people ask about the consummation of our marriage, we'll tell them that nothing went wrong with the sex, but I am not ready to be a father until a few years down the road. Tell them I always use contraceptives, so they must not demand an heir anytime soon.'
Hinata would feel so grateful to him. The burden on her shoulders would be gone. She'd thank him with an expression of joy and relief.
As long as she smiles, that's enough for me. Thus we will live in lies for a few years to come. When the time comes, if we're both still alive, we'll get a divorce. I'll tell the council that my inability to procreate any heir is due to sterility and step down from the clan leadership for this reason. I'll use my last authority to let Hinata choose whom she wishes to remarry. I thought Naruto would make the best candidate, but it's clear that he loves Sakura instead. Hinata and her new husband, whoever that may be, will lead the clan; I'll get my old life back and stay away from the Hyūga compound as frequently as possible. Of course, it would be nice if Hinata falls in love with me—I wouldn't mind even if she treated me as Naruto's replacement—but that's just a wishful thinking. In spite of her meek appearance, Hinata is one stubborn individual.
Neji turned the water tap off. He did not proceed to the ōfuro—a relaxing bath was a waste of time for Hyūga Neji. As he towelled his hair, he recalled what had happened after his father's death.
He had been four and a half years old. He blamed the main branch.
His mother wept day and night, often with prolonged wailings. He blamed the main branch even more.
He was admitted to the main house to be trained as Hinata's live-in protector. He blamed the main branch yet again.
His mother started to behave peculiarly and had eventually been taken into the asylum. He couldn't have blamed the main branch for more; the main branch had taken all his blames that he no longer had any more blame to give away.
Hinata was the only Main Branch member who had been kind to him despite many disapproving servants' eyes. He kept shooing her away, telling her to leave him alone in the bereavement of his parents, but she shared her toys with him and spent her time in his company instead. She had done all a three-year-old girl could do to try to make him feel better. And if he had been honest, he had started to find a refuge in her warmth. Hinata, as her name indicated, indeed felt like a 'sunny place' to him.
One day, Hinata tripped into a river while she was playing alone. Neji, who happened to pass by, took notice of his drowning cousin and came to her rescue without further delay. He was barely a swimmer back then and almost drowned too, had it not been for a protruding tree branch he managed to cling on to.
When he took her back to the manor, the servants scolded him for not keeping an eye on Hinata properly. Worse still, the servants caused a misunderstanding that drove Hiashi into thinking that Neji had been drowning Hinata on purpose for vengeance of Hizashi and punished him with the Caged Bird seal as a result. That day little Neji swore he would have nothing more to do with his cousin.
Ever since, Neji always kept his distance from Hinata and all other Hyūgas. He came only when summoned and spoke only when spoken to. Conveniently enough, the following year Hanabi had been born and Hinata had received something to divert her attention away from him. The year after, he had entered the academy and been able to busy himself with studies and practices. Nevertheless, when Iruka-sensei defined aesthetic, little Neji couldn't help but think of the Byakugan. He had only had regarded the Hyūga's eyes to be no more than useful before, but each time he saw Hinata's, he knew where to find aesthetic manifestation.
How he used to loathe Hinata, or, more precisely, how he had loathed himself for loving her! At the age of thirteen, he thought that perhaps if he had killed her in the match of the third preliminary chūnin exam, he could get rid of this utterly useless feeling. Yes, that would have been better than letting her die by the hands of another. She had been inept with the Hyūga's art—Jyuken—in spite of being the heiress. She had been weak and meek, for goodness' sake! What would happen if ruthless enemies attacked her, the future leader of the most prestigious clan in Konoha? Why couldn't he rule the clan in her stead? Why couldn't he face the dangers so that she remained safe? Of course he couldn't! He had received the cursed seal of a lowly ancillary branch member, the cursed seal of destiny.
In the end, everything had been predestined; such had been the fate of being born a Hyūga … until that boy, Uzumaki Naruto, taught him that the future was to be built with one's own hands instead of all unfortunate events on destiny. It was really no wonder that Hinata had fallen in love with the boy! Henceforth, Neji had vowed to himself to protect Hinata—not only her life, but also her happiness … even if it meant he had to step aside for Naruto and bear his own grief.
Such were Neji's thoughts. However, he was disrupted by the sound of the Hyūga butler striding along the corridor alongside a herald.
'How serious are her wounds?' the Hyūga butler asked in a disquieted tone.
'Hinata-san has not regained consciousness yet. Apart from several other minor grazes, she has a deep cut on the stomach, she is currently suffering from severe blood loss, so we need a blood transfusion, but finding a donor is proving to be troublesome: because of the kekkei genkai—bloodline limit—issue, the donor has to be another Hyūga with A or O type blood.'
'Hanabi-sama is indeed A, but she is currently away in a mission. Hiashi-sama is B.' but the butler's eyes flickered at the sight of Neji's room.
'Excuse me, Neji-san. What is your blood type?' he urgently inquired outside his door.
After receiving the O blood type from Neji, Hinata's condition stabilised and she was no longer in a grave danger anymore. When she opened her eyes, she found herself surrounded by her teammates. Naruto, Lee, Sakura and Tenten came to wish her well. Her family, along with some of the elders of the Hyūga Council paid her a visit and wished her a speedy recovery. The person she wanted most, however, was not there for her: Hyūga Neji was resting in another room while recuperating from the transfusion. Hinata, nevertheless, was unwitting about that fact, since she did not even know about the transfusion in the first place.
Hiashi wore the same old gaze, showing how she had let him down by such a failure, and on a B-rank mission no less. Hinata too, was back to her own old stuttering self. 'I-I'm sss-so-sorry father.'
Since Hiashi made no sign to answer and Hinata's face grew paler and paler, Shizune took charge, 'Take it easy, Hinata! You should consider yourself lucky to survive an attack from Raikage's right hand man and his assassination brigade; after all, there were four of them and at ANBU-calibre each. If it weren't for you, Akamaru would have been killed. In fact, Kiba and Shino might even not have been able to make an escape route to Konoha and live to tell the tale. This mission should have been S-ranked, but the courier bloke didn't know that his consignment was smuggled with whatever stuff the Raikage's after. He only considered common bandits and robbers as threats. So relax, lass. The consignment's gone, but nobody died.' Thanks to this explanation, Hiashi's expression softened and Hinata could exhale in relief at last.
Eventually her visitors left. With all the injuries covering her body, Hinata thought it best not to relinquish the bed for a while, leaving genjutsu as the only training she could do for the next few days.
Hinata formed hand seals and released the chakra necessary for the Genjutsu. She concentrated on creating a lush forest environment. A clump of trees swaying in the breeze … birds chirping … the smell of grass still wet with morning dew … a racoon bringing back a pecan to its lair … the cool air…
After successfully creating six different environments, Hinata ran out of chakra. Exhausted, she watched trickles of rain drip from the hospital window. She remembered that it had been in a rainy day like this, two years before, that Ino, Tenten and herself had held a girls' party in Sakura's house.
It had been the weekend after Valentine's Day and the kunoichi had been talking about their partners. Ino had had a sweet celebration of 'candle light and bed of roses' with Sai.
Sakura had eventually decided to accept Naruto's feelings and apologised to Hinata about this. Hinata had told her it was all right without letting them know that it was Neji, not Naruto, who had been the man of her dreams all along.
Tenten had sobbed when it had become her turn to tell them. 'Neji,' she had said back then, 'Only looked at me as a sister, and Lee, a brother. You know he's left with no family, so he couldn't help thinking of his teammates that way. True that Lee's overzealous spirit doesn't suit Neji's tastes, and he gets along better with me for this reason, but there's no romantic feeling involved. He told me he wasn't interested in love and when I insisted him on a once in a lifetime date, he firmly refused to accept my kiss no matter what.'
Thunderclaps in the sombre empyrean terminated Hinata's nostalgia. Now her imagination ran wild, far into pure fantasy. She pictured Neji in her room, so that she could nuzzle conveniently into his chest, secretly adoring his chiselled torso. He would envelop her in a warm embrace, telling her not to be afraid of thunder, as he was there to protect her. She would chuckle and say, 'I don't fear the thunder, but if it gives me a reason to hold you, I'll be afraid as many times as necessary.' His reply would be 'Sweetheart, you don't need a reason to hold me!' and he would land a passionate kiss on her lips.
After they broke the kiss due to lack of air, Neji would trail his fingers along her curves, stopping only when he found the zipper of her coat. He would unzip it, along with her slight gasp, revealing the mesh garment underneath it. She, in turn, would reach slowly for Neji's shirt and unbuttoned it. Thus, they would undress each other, letting nothing but fervent breaths to wrap their nakedness.
It would be shivering cold with the heavy rainstorm outside, but here Neji and she would be melting into the oblivion of their warmest embrace. He would kiss the tip of her finger, and then brushed his lips onto her arm, shoulder, neck, breast, abdomen, navel…
Hinata sighed as her girlish fantasy came to a skittering halt by the sound of knocking from the other side of the door.
As the door opened to display a figure none other than Hyūga Neji, Hinata felt her heart skip a beat. She fell speechless and blushed uncontrollably at the sight of the young man before her. Not only did he mysteriously seem handsomer with little rain droplets lingering on his hair and clothes, but he had also arrived right after she had such lustful thoughts about him. In addition, although this was a hospital room, it did not change the fact that the two of them were practically alone in a room with a single bed in it. If only her old habit of easy fainting returned!
Tenderly he addressed her, 'It's good to see you alive, Hinata-sama.'
Hinata made a low murmur without any knowing as to what kind of word that left her mouth, since her mind had somehow become feather-light simply by watching Neji.
He stepped closer and presented her with a small bunch of yarrows. 'I've never seen you fancy a particular type of flower, so I picked the one which means "health" or "healing".' His countenance was as tranquil as ever, as though he couldn't care less of what Hinata thought, as long as he fulfilled his duty as her fiancé.
The phlegmatic, nearly anti-social Hyūga Neji actually bothered to learn Flower Language? Hinata was unsure whether or not she was dreaming. Little did she know that he would do lots more as long as it were for her sake.
Seeing the cochineal faced gawking Hinata, Neji asked, 'Hinata-sama, are you all right?'
Something finally clicked in Hinata's mind and she quickly answered, 'Y-yes, thank you. That's very kind of you.'
Hinata's throat felt dry. She couldn't say Neji's name, afraid lest she would lose control and start to pull him towards her in a tight embrace. After all, she could still feel stickiness in her lower region.
Neji placed the yarrows in the vase next to Hinata's bed, together with other flowers her friends and relatives had brought her.
Minute by minute passed, the silence not a peaceful one. Only an awkward predicament remained. Hinata stared at the blanket covering her limbs. In a flash she saw the vision of Neji's head emerging from in between her thighs. No! She shut her eyes tightly. Go away! That's the last thing I'd ever want when the relevant performer is here! Hinata tried to shoo the continuation of her reverie away.
'It sure has been raining a lot recently.' Neji broke the silence without letting his gaze wander off from the window.
Relieved, Hinata nodded in agreement and continued to ramble on about the weather until Neji ended his visit. This is lame, she reproached herself, but what else can I speak to him in this kind of situation?
As soon as he left the room, Hinata reached out for the yarrow bunch. Holding it affectionately and twirling it happily across her bosom, she hummed. These were in Neji's hand.
Half an hour later, Hinata heard another knock. This time, it was Ino paying a visit; she was on duty as a medical ninja. Upon seeing the bunch of yarrows on Hinata's lap, she raised her eyebrows in surprise and whistled, 'You've got yourself quite a devotee, haven't you, Hinata-chan?'
'N-no, these are just … just…' Come to think of it, Hinata was not sure why Neji brought those yarrows, so she presumed '… an obligatory gift'.
'Aw, come on, who would feel obliged to hunt these under such downpour? In many other places, yarrows ubiquitously grow in wasteland, hedgerow and pasture. In Konoha, however, only a few habitats can be found even after a thorough exploration. If anyone feels like presenting flowers to a sick acquaintance, it's far easier to buy flowers from the florist. Flowers like gardenia, rose, chrysanthemum, or hibiscus are surely more noticeable due to their physical beauty. But instead, he or she chose these herbs with narrow serrate leaves and small white florets since they symbolise healing or health over those pretty flowers with irrelevant meaning.'
Hinata could not counter Ino's teasing, for not even did she have the slightest clue for Neji's reason.
'So, tell me who the one that holds you so precious is!' Ino inquired with a wide grin on her face.
'It was Neji nī-san who brought these yarrows,' answered Hinata softly.
'Oh,' replied Ino in a disappointed tone. Maybe you're right then. It maybe was obligatory, considering Neji's personality (venture loving), ability (Byakugan and high agility) and status (fiancé plus first cousin). But yarrow hunting before he fully recovered from blood loss … he could have swooned in the process; lucky me Sai isn't as keen in pushing his luck! Poor Hinata for having to cope with Neji.
The blonde florist stayed in Hinata's room for ten more minutes after that, carefully shunning the subject of Neji from their conversation. Everybody knew their engagement was caused by family arrangement rather than genuine affection.
But why did Hinata separate Neji's gift from the rest? Ino decided she'd better not ask as she wished Hinata well and made her exit.
With the sudden silence around her, Hinata impulsively resumed her castle in the air. She returned the yarrows to the vase with a heavy sigh. If only Neji had had a shred of infatuation for her…
She wanted him to conquer her, to win her over, to dominate her, to claim her in a most seductively tantalising way. She wanted him to part her legs despite her pleas to stop. She wanted him to crush her body with his, to bury his member inside her womanhood. She wanted him to rock her so hard that they'd shake the bed. She wanted him to fill her with ecstasy, with passion, with ardour, with love…
No, the last part is not even possible! She thought with an inward frown, depression slowly sinking into her along with realization. There is no 'love for a Hyūga sōke'—ever—in Hyūga Neji's dictionary. If Neji were to touch me in the future, it would be nothing more than procreative obligation.
But there are couples whose love is woven through times—they fall in love eventually after growing old together!
Given Neji's personality, wouldn't it be far more likely that he'll bury himself in work and find every excuse not to be around you unless necessity demands it?
Chapter III: The Jōnin Examination
During her hospital stay, Neji paid Hinata no more visit. However, he had a Hyūga retainer deliver her books and scrolls. Most of the texts were of only mild interest to Hinata. The delivery consisted mostly of other clans' histories, as well as a smattering of survival texts and some combat strategies.
When Ino came to see her again, she proposed another practice session and this time she managed to deflect Ino's Shintenshin no Jutsu.
Hinata couldn't help but feel nervous as she was released from the hospital only five days before the exam. Under Neji's careful supervision, Hinata demonstrated what she had learnt in her training. All of her old taijutsu had been honed to a razor's edge and her genjutsu was entirely solid. Even her Earth-style ninjutsu was at a proficient level and Neji found himself nodding once with grim approval.
On the eve of the jōnin exam, as Neji bade her to rest well, for tomorrow she would need all of her stamina, he noticed how restless Hinata was becoming. He had learnt from experience that she was not the type who could be calmed or became confident just because the others assured her with something like, 'You can do it.' In fact, the more she realised the existence of pressure—including a 'Do your best!' encouragement—the worse her performance became. Therefore, he halted her in her tracks.
'Hinata-sama,' he said as he took both of her thin, delicate hands in his, 'One more thing: whatever you do, have no regrets.'
Hinata beamed as Neji turned his back and stepped away. How his simple words brought peace of mind and built assurance on their own she never knew. True, she was head over heels with him; but tonight she saw him as a devoted teacher who was sending his disciple off to get an assessment. Hinata bowed deeply from the waist until Neji was lost from sight.
The night broke swerve to become dawn—and so dawned Hinata's most arresting day yet in her career as a kunoichi. If Hinata thought the jōnin exam would keep her mind off Neji, she was dead wrong. Hinata was sure that she got at least eighty-five per cent of the written exam correct; as the five-minute warning was called out, Hinata could swear she saw an image of Neji, smiling as he said, 'Great, Hinata! Your written score was even higher than mine!'
Before the practical exam commenced, she imagined flirting with Neji again: he gave her a good luck kiss. As if he would lift his stoic face just for her … as if someone who was neither a participant nor an invigilator was allowed here … Hinata sighed.
Unlike the chūnin exam which employed an elimination system, the jōnin exam required its examinees to take part throughout the entire process; if an examinee excelled only at certain fields, he or she was still eligible to graduate as a tokubetsu jōnin.
In the second part of the exam, the examinees were asked to individually enter a room according to their control number. Three examiners would inspect the performance of the entrant's trademark jutsu, as well as a minimum of two elemental ninjutsu. The candidates were then asked to proceed and await further instructions in the assembly hall—the very same hall as the one used for the annual chūnin exam.
She fidgeted as time seemed to move ever so slowly. Even the tension of the exam would not keep Neji from her mind's eye and, yet again, she found herself daydreaming. At the end of the day, when she walked home, he would be there, standing, ready to embrace her. 'You've made it…,' he would whisper, his body enclosing hers in delicious warmth, '… I'm proud of you, love,'
What a nuance, she sighed deeply in aggravation. One day this must end; she ought to live with reality instead of daydreams.
As soon as the invigilators entered the room, all the conversations—previously exchanged among the entrants to calm their nerves—died down. Every candidate was anticipating for further supervention with full alert.
Hinata glanced nervously at Shino, Kiba and Akamaru. It was a good thing she took the jōnin exam together with her teammates; somehow, knowing that she was not alone calmed her a little bit.
One of the invigilators then instructed, 'You are to draw lots to group yourselves into four, and then escort your designated invigilator unharmed, to his or her destination. You will be given enough impediments equal to A-rank missions and left with to your own devices.'
This can only mean that the client's safety is a requisite and that the examinees' means of accomplishing it will be their score at the end, deduced Hinata.
'Group number one, this way please!' the first invigilator declared. Yamanaka Ino, a shinobi from the Mist Village and two from the Grass Village followed, disappearing through the door.
'Number two, this way please!' another invigilator called next. Inuzuka Kiba and Akamaru, as well as shinobi from Cloud, Mist and Stone Villages came forth. Shino and three Sand ninja followed the third invigilator walking towards the door afterwards.
Hinata glanced at her paper with palpitating heartbeats. She stepped forward as soon as she heard the fourth invigilator's summon. Chōji wished her luck as she passed him by and she bid him the same—he will be called next, she thought.
Outside, her examiner introduced herself as Midorikawa Hotarubi, then cleared her throat. 'Here's the story, kids,'
Hinata smiled inwardly. This invigilator can't be more than half a decade older than me, yet she addresses her team with such mirth. Well, one of the Rain shinobi seems to be approaching eighteen, although the other one is at least forty and the Sound shinobi appears to be entering her thirties.
'I am an aristocratic ambassador travelling to deliver a secret message between two emperors.' Midorikawa began narrating, 'On my way, enemies killed my escort, yet I managed to escape. Then, I hid myself in a nearby inn and coincidentally met you four. I offered a considerable remuneration for acting as my safeguards despite our unfamiliarity to one another. The message has to be delivered to the emperor before noon tomorrow and all of you accepted the job.'
The two Rain shinobi glanced at each other from the corner of their eyes; Midorikawa's appearance and behaviour told another story.
Midorikawa went on, 'Let's make that mountaintop with the Fourth Hokage's countenance our destination, shall we? And since I am your client, I will do nothing even if you're in the gravest of danger. Questions?'
The Sound kunoichi raised her hand. 'Do all teams have the same arrangement?'
'Nah, each team has a small difference in time limit and distance, same level of difficulties, though!' answered Midorikawa casually, 'Anything else?'
Silence retorted to her, and taking this chance, she continued, 'Good. Let's start…' she clung, '… NOW!'
Just as Midorikawa's declaring words rang out, a metsubushi—smoke binder—had been flung out at them. Alerted to the situation, Hinata quickly activated her Byakugan. She noticed five shinobi, wearing dark outfits and paper-mâché masks, appear from thin air within a near distance of the group. A storm of shuriken and variations of offensive jutsu besieged the chūnin and the client. Hinata chose not to concern herself more with the stream of offences rather than with what her Byakugan identified as two kinds of smoke: a nemuribi—soporific gas—blended with the metsubushi.
As expectant-jōnin, all the four examinees had managed to swiftly inhale a lungful of clean air before the battle was joined in earnest. Midorikawa, on the contrary, fell asleep in an instant and was swiftly seized by one of the enemies. The examinees were struggling to keep themselves from being killed by the onslaught of jutsu and shuriken; there was nothing they could do but watched in horror as one of the enemy shinobi seized their objective and took to the treetops with blurring speed. Hinata desperately tried to catch the culprits en route, but the enemy eluded her grasp and slipped into the canopy. The one carrying the unconscious invigilator away disappeared, while the others turned back and engaged the examinees in close combat.
So that's why there's an overnight time limit! Hinata mused, Without the added difficulty of combat even non-combatants could reach the ridge by nightfall!
Sidestepping quickly to avoid a trio of deadly kunai, the Sound shinobi called out, 'We have to retrieve Midorikawa-san!' It was apparent that there was an edge of near-panic in her voice.
The older of the two Rain shinobi leapt forwards into the air, slicing like a knife across the clearing at the hostiles, deftly snapping his fingers into a hand seal. 'Why don't you go after her while we engage these four?'
Without another word, the Sound shinobi jumped to leave, but the nearest enemy ninja spun with terrifying speed and leapt into her path. His arm blurred into a deadly horizontal crescent. With a harsh shriek of metal on metal at high speeds, a senbon needle slammed into the hole in the centre of the thrown shuriken, pinning it to a tree at the forest fringe in a stunning display of accuracy and reflexes.
The younger of the two Rain shinobi sprinted forwards, following the path of his earlier projectile. One arm snapped overhead in a low, tight arc and a sphere of water and chakra sped out towards the oncoming enemy shinobi. The Rain ninja's right arm then blurred and a hail of senbon whistled through the air with pinpoint precision. The attack was a deadly rain—certainly suitable for someone from the Rain Country to use. The young ninja's shoes drew ragged scraping noises from the hard-packed earth as he came to a stop, his hands saltating through the kata for Suirō no Jutsu—Water Prison Technique. Splaying his palm, he slammed his hand into the chest of the surprised ninja and the water sphere shattered between his hand and the chest of the enemy, spraying arcs of twisting water that suddenly multiplied and converged to form a solid, spherical tomb around the unknown assailant. The black-clad shinobi began to writhe grotesquely as the rushing currents began to force their way into his mouth and throat, choking him, as his fingers fiddled on the front of his neck.
The older Rain shinobi was engaged with another taijutsu battle. The two fighters prolonged their deadly dance around each other, until his masked opponent managed to hit him in the gut, causing the latter to yelp in pain.
Another enemy, the tallest of them all, sent his shuriken flying towards the younger Rain ninja, who was trying to break his own team member free. Instantly Hinata rushed forward and reached out with her palms, her chakra being released as a tiny, sudden bolt to deflect the wedge of tempered steel. With a snarl, the enemy's fist blurred into a swift punch straight towards her shoulders; but Hinata was ready and with the perfect poise available only with the Byakugan she flexed her body to the left and spun her feet out so she could freely evade the blow. 'Hakkeshō Kaiten—Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms Heavenly Spin!'
Neji's dedicated training has come to fruition, she told herself with a small smile twitching almost against her will against her lips, only to disappear quickly as the fight raged on.
By the time the two Rain shinobi and Hinata were able to catch up to the Sound shinobi, she had come close enough to the fleeing hostile to assault them with her Ranshi no Hika, or Blazing Elegy—a perilous ninjutsu that caused the flesh of the listener to ignite. The more he struggled, the more carbon within his body became suppressed by this ninjutsu, and the flame that engulfed his body intensified. Hence, a sleeping target like Midorikawa would not be affected. With a horribly agonised scream, the fleeing enemy crumpled. Midorikawa was relinquished on the leaf-covered ground; however, Hinata quickly retrieved her unmoving body.
As they regrouped, the older Rain ninja offered, 'Shall we introduce ourselves and organise our teamwork?'
The others nodded in agreement.
The oldest of them was Nakata Tetsuya, a Rain Shinobi who specialised in long-range combat. Alongside him was Kuroda Genichirō, another Rain Shinobi who preferred mid-range. The Sound shinobi, named Watanabe Mayumi, also had skills that complemented Nakata's expertise in at-range fighting. Hinata specialised in short to mid-range combat, and with regard to her excellent defensive capability, she was assigned to guard Midorikawa.
'You're a local resident; any suggestions on the route?' Watanabe asked, looking expectantly towards Hinata.
The Hyūga heiress answered, 'There are three possible routes. The first is through the forest, the other is from the plains and going along the lake. The last, which is the shortest, is through the village itself.'
Their whispering suggested contemplation.
She carried on, '… I personally won't recommend going through the village since ambushers can disguise themselves; as this route is crowded, it will be hard to detect them.' She glimpsed at both Rain shinobi with her roundabout sight, 'Since three of us use the water element, it will be advantageous if we go through the lake. We can also acquire food supplies there.'
'Sounds agreeable,' remarked Nakata.
'We should also be in henge form…,' Watanabe suggested, staring at the soundly snoring Midorikawa, whose sleep remained unperturbed by all the commotions, '… so enemies can be thwarted, at least.' Thus, when Midorikawa awoke later on, she found herself surrounded by four other Midorikawas—the candidates in disguise.
Their formation was bound to be protective and deceptive at the same time. Hence, as long-range combat specialists, Nakata and Watanabe positioned themselves at the first and last in line, respectively. Their client must not be at the centre—the safest position—in order to confuse the prospective attackers. For this reason, the real Midorikawa followed immediately behind Nakata, Kuroda was stationed in front of Watanabe and Hinata occupied the centre of the formation.
Upon reaching the plains, the five Midorikawas marvelled on the verdant grass and serene welkin. The blades of grass danced against the sole upright boulder—the landmark of the place—in the waft of the winds. The sunbeams were weightless and warm. The earth smelt like Gennoshōko—Japanese Geranium—and Dokudami—Fish Mint. The gentle, soothing breeze washed over them, inviting them to relax, to let down their guard.
Hinata stiffened and felt the others follow suit. It is the jōnin exam, they reminded themselves, there is no opportunity for laxity in our defence. They stopped in their tracks and within a heartbeat, smoke trailed away in thin streamers on the remnants of the breeze as ten shinobi wearing papier-mâché masks leapt out in ambush.
Watanabe let out her Fūton: Rotenbakuha—Wind Release: Air Blast—at her opponent. Her smirk of victory was quickly replaced with a frown of irritancy, for her opponent dispelled her attack with another Fūton: Kamikiri or Wind Release: Wind Cutter. Apparently these examiners had not acquired their jobs without the skills to compliment them.
'This'll be a long battle, won't it?' she complained to herself before launching Daitoppa—Great Breakthrough. Cupping her hands around her mouth and spreading her fingers, she blew streams of air towards the masked opponents, the thin streamers of breath quickly shifting into scything arcs of deadly air. Sliced blades of the grass twirled through the air as the wind scythes raced towards the examiners; a criss-crossing network of scarring cuts were carved deep into the solid rock of the boulder. Nevertheless, the wind scythes shattered as they impacted the chakra barriers of the impassive ambushers who remained standing, unfazed and prepared for their counter-assault.
The sun had started to dip below the horizon when an opponent created three shadow clones, which later on slipped into the earth in and pulled Kuroda from underground with an astonishingly fast earth technique. Nakata readied his seals, unleashing a torrent of flames against his opponent's direction and they seemed overwhelmed by his fire ninjutsu for the moment. The opponents had suspected which of them was the real Midorikawa and Watanabe was having a hard time manoeuvring their client to safety.
Hinata wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. Her breathing was ragged and unsteady, for she was putting up with the injuries inflicted during the hours of fighting. Her opponent's latest taijutsu had just sent her stumbling back with a large bruise on her stomach—so powerful was the punch that it brought the acidic bile up into her throat. Her chakra was approaching its limit. In a battle of endurance, surely the masked opponents would gain the upper hand. The team needed a decisive victory, and quickly.
'Nakata-san, could you possibly wrap the four of you in that floating hydrous bubble again?' asked Hinata through heavy breaths, trying to find her sync.
On hearing this, Kuroda snapped his arms down, sending three knives laced with electric chakra slamming into the shadow clones and causing them to release their grasp. He sidestepped to join Nakata immediately. As Nakata began his hand seal, Watanabe, who was the closest to the former, brought Midorikawa in, almost unimpeded. Thus, Hinata's teammates and their invigilator floated, the sphere enveloping the four of them, leaving the Hyūga heiress with all ten opponents, or thirteen, if the kage bunshin clones were included, on the ground.
Hinata quickly flashed through the series of seals and slammed her palms down onto the ground in her Doton: Tsuchibeki—Earth Style: Walls of Earth—jutsu. Five metres ahead, the ground to her right and left shot skyward, buckling and cracking as though being wrung by an earthquake. After rising ten meters, the walls halted, creating a chasm in the landscape with a narrow opening in the centre, wide enough for only one person at a time. Her clever use of the jutsu bottlenecked her opponents into a straight line ahead of her, while her teammates and client were carried to safety at the top of the walls.
Next, the Hyūga heiress skewered them in a single, lucid strike with her Eight Trigrams Empty Palm Hakke Kūshō taijutsu. Swift fingers released chakra as they forcefully struck the opponents. Two of the examiners managed to escape above as they pushed themselves onto the air, but not for long; they had been expected by Nakata and Watanabe, who attacked them with fire element ninjutsu almost simultaneously.
As soon as the Tsuchibeki was released and they joined ranks, Kuroda complimented Hinata, 'Ingenious! Rumour had it the current Hyūga heiress was shamefully weak. But today I witnessed with my own eyes how false rumours can be!'
Hinata shook her head, smiling on the surface but feeling pain bubbling sickeningly on her insides, 'M-mm-many are better than me within the clan.'
'You're being too modest for your own good; it's either your clan underestimates you or doesn't know you so well!' was the reply. Mustering concord within themselves, they soon traversed for the lake.
The firmament was already dark blue in its hue, signalling nighttime; the air turned from sweet caresses into bitter kisses as they roasted some fish on an open fire for dinner. There were no stars, but the moon shone ever so brightly that their campfire, despite its wispy glow, was enough to glimmer their resting place. They had to replenish their chakra, and thus agreed for each one to maintain a two-hourly-watch while the rest of them retired into slumber.
An hour before dawn painted the welkin with its reddish colour, welcoming the first rays of the sun, the five of them readied themselves for the rest of the journey. Thus, savouring the chilly early morning breeze that was reluctant to bid farewell to the night's comforting embrace, they went through the overhanging shadow of the sombre empyrean.
Since Midorikawa was supposed to be a client, she wasn't expected to walk on water. She had to be carried, and their henge tactic would thus be nullified. Thinking that the two Rain shinobi would be best suited for this, Watanabe maintained her transformation to serve as decoy while Nakata carried her, while Kuroda would do the same to Midorikawa. Hinata, who carried nobody, was requested to keep an eye for their safety.
They stepped on the dark water in alert, as though some predatory aquatic monster would surface and bare its razor-sharp fangs at any second. The group increased its pace but encountered nothing out of the ordinary until they had moved roughly two-thirds of the lake. Hinata and Nakata stumbled suddenly as human hands crashed through the surface of the lake in sprays of water, grabbing their ankles and holding them fast. Kuroda managed to lead to safety—for the moment—carrying Midorikawa.
As soon as the capturers and the targets came to skin contact, the targets suffered from chakra disorder as well as paralysing frigidity that had nothing to do with the water they were being immersed in; unequivocally, the contact was laced with poison.
Thinking that the opponents might have hidden themselves inside their own aquatic sphere in order to enable them to breathe while waiting to ambush them from underneath the water, Kuroda threw his seijoken into the water. These were not ordinary throwing knives, but were imbued with chakra to dissipate water element ninjutsu. The aquatic spheres should be broken and so their occupiers would be compelled to rise to the surface in need of air. Yet, after a while, no assailant came into view; Kuroda's calculation had failed him.
Meanwhile, Watanabe, who had been on Nakata's back and as such untouched by the paralysing hands, swam to Nakata's rescue as the man sank into the water. As soon as they emerged on the surface, however, Nakata disappeared. In front of her was a masked attacker, similar to those on the plain earlier. Assuming that his colleague had abducted Nakata, Watanabe fought this shinobi.
Nakata danced back a few paces from her newfound adversary and snatched a kunai knife in each hand, holding them so the blade pointed downwards. She leapt forward in the space of a heartbeat and she and her opponent began a frenzied dance of flexing limbs and gyrating bodies in a blur of taijutsu—crescent kicks, chops, slashes, knees, elbows, locks, throws and holds all exchanged, broken, and parried within the space of a human eye blink.
At the same time, Hinata could not move a muscle. The water pressure tortured her eardrums as the gravitational force pushed her deeper and deeper to the bottom of the lake. Her Byakugan did not detect any enemy; how could she not see those hands? Why were her assailants invisible to her when she could see every fish, every clump of algae, even the rotifers and the microscopic organisms in the lake? Why must her illustrious bloodline be ever so useless in this situation? The cold penetrated her ruthlessly, freezing her bones. Motionlessly she gazed at the rippling surface of the water as it slipped farther and farther away from her sinking form.
I'm numb and cold.
Is this how it feels when one is close to death?
Neji, I've never told you that I have been in love with you for nearly eighteen years now … I want to see you once again … but you will lead a better life without me … there shouldn't be any casualties in the jōnin exam, and yet I fail; I'm a defective product after all … maybe my death is what's best for you and for the Hyūga clan…
Ostensibly drowning, her earshot was penetrated with clanging sounds, and soon did she realise that it was Neji's resounding voice. 'Why are you disappointing me like this Hinata-sama? Is this the result after sacrificing my time training you for weeks? Am I to bear the shame of my failing fiancée before my colleagues, who trained you too? Pathetic!'
'N-Neji nī-san, I—' She tried to speak, but the water soon entered her lungs and she coughed violently.
'You are a failure; not because of your lack of skill, but because of your lack of drive!' The voice retorted unsympathetically.
He is right. Even a genius like him did not master Hakke Hazangeki in a single try.
White light started to consume her sight; she tried to remember what Kurenai had told her about how to solve seemingly impossible problems: 'Analyse the problem calmly. Go through the basics first, Hinata!'
Why didn't Byakugan react to the enemy's presence despite its functionality in indicating the lake ecosystem?
Byakugan can see through anything concrete within at least fifty metre radius: solid, liquid or gas. But it cannot see abstract things.
'Kai!' Hinata stopped the flow of chakra within her body and released herself from the genjutsu at once. Her vision began to clear up. She was indeed submerged in the lake, but its depth was less than two metres; she was much closer to the shore than the genjutsu allowed her to see. She hastily surfaced and perceived Kuroda throwing his knives aimlessly into the water with Midorikawa still laid on his back. Some seven metres away from him, Nakata brandished his nunchaku to Watanabe whereas she tried to hit him with her jitte and tekitaihishin—a hidden needle in each of her shoes.
She deduced that one of the hidden examiners must have secluded Kuroda from everyone as the second examiner did the same to her other teammates, making them believe they were enemies with genjutsu; the third examiner cast genjutsu upon her and Nakata to give them the drowning and poison hallucinations. If she were to approach them and release the illusion, they would unequivocally attack her, for they would see her as an enemy, as well. She'd better attack the examiners herself and dissipate their genjutsu.
'Byakugan!' Hinata activated her bloodline ability again and quickly located another trio of assailants around the periphery of the lake, well hidden in the lush foliage of the trees. But their cover, she determined, will not avail them.
'Suiton: Suijōtama!' With her hand seals, vortexes appeared in the lake, spinning rapidly, tossing up cascade of water droplets. The droplets afterward danced through the air as they grew in size until they resembled beads of water. They then cracked off through the air at eye-confounding speed to slam stingingly into the hidden assailants.
All the three hidden opponents whimpered in pain. Suijōtama did not impair them gravely—it was never meant to—but it was enough to ruin their genjutsu. Hinata's teammates realised what was really happening and came to her aid without further delay.
Since their location had been compromised, the three examiners had no choice but to reveal themselves from the leafy branches, preparing to fight openly on the lake surface.
With her teammates in liberty, they ambled carefully, grouping themselves. Kuroda looked at the aurorean vault of heaven; half a day more to the deadline! He lifted Midorikawa from his back, conferring her to Watanabe for safety, before addressing his senior with a meaningful gleam, 'Nakata-san.'
Nakata nodded and quickly ran through the hand seals for his water prison, with Kuroda remained to stand on the lake's surface while the other four were held high in the air, encapsulated by the sphere of water. With a single hand sign for lightning jutsu, Kuroda released his chakra into the lake, causing a massive charge to race across the surface. His Raiton: Kanryūdenki or Thunder Release: Flowing Electricity had taken action. From their high vantage point the other shinobi could see three jagged lines race across the lake towards the enemy in an instant, and they were flung from their feet to lie sprawled on the lake's surface, bobbing gently, limp limbs and lolling heads demonstrating the posture synonymous with unconsciousness.
After ensuring that the coast was clear, Nakata undid his seals and the bubble popped. The four of them landed safely onto the lake and joined Kuroda to proceed with the rest of their journey, all disguising themselves into Midorikawa once again.
They made it! They reached the mountaintop without further obstructions, except for some otoshiana—concealed pitfalls—which were easily avoidable even without Byakugan, thanks to their years of experience. They could see another team that stood on top of the mountain with the Second Hokage façade. So we are not the only team to get this location, thought Nakata.
'Nice weather!' Watanabe smiled, stretching her arms upwards and inhaling the mountain breeze.
'Nice view!' Kuroda looked at the settlements of Konoha that rested below. The buildings looked like miniatures from here.
'Yes, the view of Konoha village is best seen from here!' Hinata remarked in agreement.
'And the view to our jōnin graduation too!' replied Kuroda.
'Where's that invigilator?' Nakata asked with a tinge of worry.
The four of them dismissed their henge and looked around, but Midorikawa was nowhere to be found! What they had assumed to be Midorikawa's henge all along turned out to be none other than a bunshin.
Kuroda fumed, 'Holy crap!'
'There are five more hours before the time is up, yet all of us were too assured of our success. This is the jōnin exam!' Watanabe lamented with a dismayed groan, 'What do we do?'
Lending her Byakugan to the search at Nakata's request, Hinata scouted around the mountain. She could see the ibises and cormorants flapping their wings about; a squirrel flew past her back, and some ripe berries a few feet below them fall from their branches. She looked sideways, combing deeper, finally descrying Midorikawa's presence by the foot of the mountain, well hidden in the shrubbery.
How did she manage to travel there in mere seconds, she asked herself, unless she wasn't in the mountaintop to begin with. She mused further, Why couldn't I have suspected that Midorikawa substituted herself with a bunshin and had it disappear as we travelled for the summit? If I activated Byakugan, I should have been able to identify the chakra difference between a bunshin and a real person. I definitely have much to learn!
Hinata pointed out Midorikawa's location to her teammates. 'Please wait,' she contested immediately, and the readied Nakata backed down, 'Give me a chance to try something first.'
With a set of hand seals, she mustered her energy down to the tip of her hair, extending her thoughts as her aura lengthened, casting Hiwameimō—Hidden Story of Illusion. This genjutsu evoked Midorikawa to firmly believe she received an order to go to the mountaintop at full speed.
In the space of only a few short minutes—Naruto-kun would be sure to say it took less time than making instant ramen noodle, Hinata thought with a trace of amusement—Midorikawa landed beside the group on the top of the mountain. Kuroda let out an appreciative whistle at their invigilator's true capacity.
Watanabe stated her suspicion to the invigilator, 'Your earlier faint, at the beginning of this exam, was entirely a sham, wasn't it?'
'Indeed,' she sighed, released from the trance, 'However, concerning about the last part of our journey, if the client had not been a shinobi, it would take him or her hours to reach you, and you wouldn't have passed the exam.'
Watanabe replied, 'But if our client had not been a shinobi, there wouldn't have been bunshin to confuse us in the first place.'
'True enough,' the invigilator laughed heartily, 'It wasn't really a requirement. I was just bored getting carried and all that.'
Hinata could only smile contently. Tiring though it was, her experimental genjutsu did work, and at such distance to boot!
Chapter IV: Success and Failure
The examinees made their way back to the assembly hall. Some were talking in excitement with enthusiasm and pride lucidly swelling up inside them; others were unsure that they had done well enough to pass the test. However, the Hyūga heiress lagged behind quietly, overcome by her chakra exhaustion due to the usage of genjutsu in such a vast distance.
On her way, Hinata spotted an insect, speckled like a tea strainer, except that its body was shiny with jet-black colour—a Yomogihamushi, also known as Chrysolina aurichalcea or Mugwort Leaf Beetle—on the grass. She then squatted just to watch the beetle a little longer as the other examinees went on ahead without her. Not that the beetle did anything extraordinary, but whenever she saw this particular species, she couldn't help but to think of Neji.
When she had only been three years old, about a week before the river incident, Hyūga Honami, Neji and Hinata's second cousin, had visited them. Honami had been only six months older than Hinata, so the two little girls had got along quite well.
Back then, they were playing in her family's garden, if she remembered correctly, and it had been a beautiful day outside. Honami and Hinata stuck near each other like glue, but Neji stayed a moderate distance from them. He kept them fully in sight, but never got within one-and-a-half metres of them, as if the girls had a giant unseen boundary around them that Neji refused to cross.
Finally, Honami had turned around and gave Neji a questioning look. 'Why are you staying away like that?'
'I don't want to play girlish games.' Neji had responded almost monotonously, his face stiffening and his posture straightening.
'… Then why don't you go away?'
'Because it's my duty to protect Hinata,' came the firm answer.
Honami grew a grin almost in an instant, an idea popping into her young mind. Of course, she didn't know the full implications of love at her young age, but she knew as much about cooties and how 'men' were supposed to act when they got the love bug. 'You must really like Hinata if you stick around her like that!'
Neji's pride suddenly fell into a frown and a small slouch. 'That's not it.'
'Careful Hinata, I think he's got cooties!' Honami elbowed Hinata in her side, but Hinata dared not to respond. Rather, she had taken to blushing as she clutched the edge of her yukata's sleeve and stared at the ground in a desperate attempt to hide her embarrassment from her cousin.
'I do not! It's my responsibility to make sure she's safe!'
That was when Honami began to chant over and over in a sing-song voice: 'Neji likes Hinata!' And with each chorus, Hinata's face grew redder and Neji's lips curved further downwards.
As he began to scan his surroundings for any sort of distraction, Neji spied a passing Mugwort Leaf Beetle. 'Look!' he exclaimed with a slight degree of relief on his face to finally be able to change the subject—being teased and unable to tease back without dishonouring himself was not his favourite pastime.
Hinata watched the beetle creeping forward with mild interest, but Honami squealed in horror and even had retreated a few steps behind Hinata.
Seeing a chance for revenge, Neji seized the Yomogihamushi, ran towards Honami and placed it on her shoulder before she could flee.
As soon as the beetle had hit her shoulder, she screamed, and when she saw that the bug had not yet gone away, she broke out into a long lingering bawl.
Hinata, who knew that the bug was upsetting her cousin, and whose conscience was too kind and soft to let the girl's anguish continue, quickly took the jet-black bug off from Honami's shoulder. Her small glance towards Neji caused him to realise he had to apologise. With reluctance written all over his face, he did so, but his apology only calmed the bawl to small sniffles.
But before Honami was called to return home, she had teased Neji once again: 'I knew it: you must really like Hinata; you were mean to me, but not to her.'
'That's because she's not afraid of bugs. It would be meaningless if I put the beetle on her!' he had insisted, sounding agitated as he glared at Honami. Notwithstanding this, Honami had walked away with a wide grin on her face and sung 'Neji likes Hinata' repeatedly, yet again.
At that time, Hinata had really felt secretly happy at the implications insinuated by Honami, thinking of the possibility that Neji really indeed liked her. Now that she thought of it, though, little boys usually bullied the girls that they liked. Could it be that Honami was the one Neji wanted to be married to? But it couldn't happen now; Honami had already been married to a non-shinobi and moved abroad.
Hinata pondered. She had never seen Neji dating anyone, but the fact that she hadn't seen him doing so didn't necessarily mean that he hadn't done so. But then, who was Neji's love interest? Hinata thought of every girl she had ever met and calculated the possibility.
Tenten-chan was flatly rejected. Sakura-chan … there doesn't seem to be anything special between her and Neji. Ino-chan … likewise. Shizune-san … I don't know if Neji is interested in older women. Cousin Hiroko … probably too talkative for Neji's liking. Cousin Harumi … Neji wouldn't fall for an eleven-year-old, would he? Cousin Hiyori … I don't think Neji can cope with her extravagant life. Cousin Hisako … she—
Hinata stopped her daydreaming at once, as she felt a nudge on her left shoulder. Not too many people were bold enough to touch a Hyūga heiress so freely; therefore, surprised at the sudden contact, she swerved to see the culprit, only to find Kuroda, bending behind her, smiling amiably.
'Do you have any particular interest in beetles, Hyūga-san?'
Well, it isn't the beetle, but… 'Just a little, Kuroda-san.'
'Oh, I see.' Kuroda gave her edgy glances while delivering his answer.
Taking this as the anxiety for his exam result, Hinata heartened him, 'Don't worry about the exam, Kuroda-san. Judging from the high skills you performed earlier, I'm sure you will pass.'
'Ah, that … thank you Hyūga-san.' His expression seemed no less nervous nonetheless.
'Uh…' His next sentence broke off with a sweeping glance across the ground, but then he quickly resumed, 'I like beetles, too. Hey, there's another one over there!'
Inspecting the direction he pointed, she spotted a green tiger beetle or Cicindela campestris preying upon an earthworm about three yards away from them. The worm kept wiggling. At first, it was trying in vain to get away, for Cicindelinae could sustain speeds of eight kilometres per hour. Then, the worm's wiggles turned into a reaction of agony of having its last dying minute being gnawed upon.
Kuroda inhaled another big gulp of air before continuing, 'I can take you for more beetle watching in the future if you want.'
Shedid sense the hanging end of his sentence, but dismissed the discomforting thought with a smile, mustering her tone so that her question would sound half-joking half-quizzical rather than purely sceptical, 'Surely you wouldn't travel to Konoha again just to watch some beetles?'
Kuroda did not answer her straightaway, but took a deep breath and shut his eyes very briefly before opening them again as he enunciated, 'No, I will come for you.'
As expected, she only looked at him without interrupting his speech. The question of 'why he would go that far' was limpidly written in her eyes.
He inhaled deeply again. 'Go out with me?'
Hinata blinked; did she mishear Kuroda because of exam stress and chakra exhaustion?
But Kuroda made it clear that he meant what he had stated, 'Look, I know we've only known each other briefly, but I can't help feeling what I'm feeling. I've fallen in love with you.'
Hinata became momentarily petrified. Her face began to discolour. Appreciative though she was to Kuroda's affection for her, she could not elate while hearing such feelings unless it came from the mouth of the man she had wanted all her life. In fact, any love confession other than Neji's sounded like a problem which would worsen her relationship with her fiancé—a menace—to her ears.
She had never considered that anyone would actually become her suitor. No Konoha resident had ever bothered to go through all the procedures to woo a girl from Hyūga main branch before; Hiashi's existence was threatening enough to keep even the most audacious boys off of his daughters. In Hanabi's case, however, her bold character did help; if people refused to get close to her because of mere status, she'd approach them. Hinata, of course, was far too shy to behave as such … it was not that she had any interest in anyone apart from Neji anyway. Furthermore, from the frustration she'd seen on her father's face when he found out about Hanabi's temerity, she assumed her father was at least slightly grateful that she behaved honourably.
Kuroda was totally different from Neji. This Amegakure shinobi was a burly man, rippling with muscles, with short, wavy hair, a rather prominent chin, a squarish face and very deep voice. Sure enough, he was physically manlier than Neji was … but she was considering a prospective husband—her prospective husband—not a wrestling athlete. He was a fine man, but not the one she would like to see each time she woke up; not the one she would kiss goodbye at each mission; not the one with whom she wanted to discuss her future child's name. In fact, she did not even want to imagine any man other than Neji to be deeply involved with her life.
Only after gulping nervously, she managed to reply, 'I-I do appreciate your feelings, Kuroda-san, however—'
Nevertheless, before Hinata completed her explanation, Kuroda noticed the ring on her hand glinting in the sun. 'You're engaged?'
She gave him a tiny nod.
'Well, I had never thought a demure girl like you would… Wait a minute, is it an arranged marriage?' he asked with furrowed eyebrows
Her guilty glance confirmed it.
'You're too kind; you don't need to obey those who force you into it. Elope with me!'
Hinata held her breath in shock. 'Elope'? How could a man she barely knew speak such a word so easily, unhesitatingly and with fiery eyes, too! But then, the Konoha kunoichi realised that one of her suitor's reasons must be induced by their village situation. An overnight travel was not enough to cover the distance between the Leaf and Rain villages. Moreover, there was no alliance between Fire and Rain countries; he would have to invent all sorts of excuses just to see her. If she thought it that way, his elopement proposal sounded less incredulous due to its practical function. Hence, she regained her composure and shook her head. 'Thank you Kuroda-san.'
'Then why not?' inquired Kuroda in a demanding tone, 'Are you saying this is a consensual marriage?'
Hinata shook her head and answered gently, 'I'm sorry, I don't have any special feeling towards you.'
'But does he love you more than I do?'
Hinata swallowed, her eyes modestly downcast. Neji despises me. 'I don't … think so; he does not love me in the way a man loves a woman at least.'
'Come on! What's worth staying in a relationship with a chap who doesn't even look at you? With me, you can be happy. No, I swear I will make you happy. You can learn to love me gradually; there's no rush.'
'To you I am just a benign girl—'
However, Kuroda interrupted, 'No, you're more than that. You're a yamato nadeshiko, a perfect lady. You're beautiful. You're skilled. The first time I saw you, I knew I had found my type. The more I spend time with you, the more I'm certain: you are the girl of my dreams. I don't know what else a man can ask that is not found in you.' He stated proudly, a small grin twitching the corners of his mouth upwards.
Hinata gave him a courteous smile, 'You only see part of me; hence, in your eyes I am a flawless entity. But he … he has witnessed how imperfect I can be. I find peace in him and there's no one else I want to share my life with, even though he considers being with me a duty.'
'You love him!' Kuroda was wide eyed now, seething with fury.
As Hinata made no attempt to deny this, Kuroda raised his hands exasperatedly and turned to leave.
Hinata did not move from the spot; instead, she spent more time reflecting upon this recent development. Surely she felt sorry for Kuroda, but she still couldn't understand what had made him propose the elopement. What had even made him think that her marriage had been arranged in the first place anyway? Even though he had declared that he had loved her because of her appearance and manner, that alone shouldn't have been sufficient for making such a bold request. After all, from the sound of it, his feelings for her were no more than puppy love.
Concluding that Kuroda must be more susceptible than she had previously thought, she rebuked herself, 'Well, just because you're not impulsive doesn't mean other people can't be, silly girl!'
The assembly hall was bustling with tumult: murmurs, handshakes, squeals, claps, exclamations and jumps. Words of congratulations and consolation were exchanged. Some examinees wore dejected expression, but others were gleeful.
There were only a few people remaining in that hall when it eventually was Hinata's turn to be called forth. Hinata stepped forward to approach the examiners' desk, accompanied by the palpitating heartbeats from her own trembling body, resisting the urge to fidget. With sweaty hands and many a gulp, she received the scroll containing her result. She then chose a corner which was unlikely to be overseen from any direction. There, fighting the sudden urge to faint, she unrolled the scroll.
Candidate Number: 37
Name: Hyūga Hinata
General Performance (0 to 5)
Mandatory two elemental ninjutsu:
Suiton, Suidammaku: 4
Doton, Tsuchibeki: 3.5
Advisory other jutsu:
Taijutsu, Shugohakke Hyakunijyuhachi Shō: 5
Genjutsu, Hiwameimō: 4
Overall Result: passed with excellent grades
After reading her result, Hinata clutched the paper in front of her bosom and smiled with closed eyes. She finally accomplished something that made her father proud. Hyūga Hinata passed the jōnin exam at the first attempt with excellent grades. Well, Neji passed at the first try too, at the age of sixteen, with impressive grades, undoubtedly, considering the many job offers that came to him afterwards. He even completed two S-rank missions at that age. In terms of power, I am out of his league, but at least he wouldn't be disappointed with this result.
'It seems you are doing well, Hinata-sama.'
Hinata opened her eyes at the familiar voice and saw Neji approaching her. As always, despite the number of years they had known each other, whenever she saw Neji, rapture soared within her—a sensation she was never able to suppress. Since he arrived right after she was thinking of him, she couldn't help but eye him in puzzlement. Soon her signature blush made its appearance and she now strove to remove it. Nevertheless, he sensed the question in her eyes and answered it before it came out of her mouth. 'Every year, during the jōnin exam, some ANBU members are asked to ambush the candidates in the escort part. I was one of the selected participants but fortunately, we didn't meet each other.'
Hinata smiled. 'I wouldn't have made it without you … all the training, the books and scrolls, your encouragement … thank you, nī-san!'
'But you did look upset earlier.' Neji scrutinised his fiancée.
How long has he been observing me? 'Nothing special.' Hinata tried to give a casual reply, 'I was just … nervous about my exam result, that's all.'
'You were never good at lying, Hinata-sama, and you still are.'
Hinata stared at the floor, her anxious fingers clutching her zipped coat.
'Well?' insisted Neji.
'Er … it's not a big deal.' Hinata's pitch sounded higher than she meant it to be.
The teenage Hyūga Neji would have snapped—Hinata was sure of that. This Hyūga Neji, however, the twenty-two-year-old Neji who stood before her, was looking at her concernedly. Age had endowed him with patience and tolerance, it seemed. But now it became Hinata's turn to find him irresistible … not with his tacit demand, not with his unwavering eyes.
Hinata finally decided to spill the beans, 'I feel bad for rejecting a man's confession of love.'
At first, Neji seemed at loss at what to say; he was no expert when it came to emotion. At long last, after pondering over and over, he said, 'Time will heal his wound and yours … and even Ino's.'
'Ino-chan?' asked Hinata uncomprehendingly, worry slowly laced into her delicate facial features.
'She failed again this year. My team happened to ambush hers.'
Hinata's scroll-free hand quickly covered her mouth. She excused herself from Neji and dashed outside with a disquieted gleam in her eyes.
Neji opened his mouth again in attempt to comfort her, but no word came out. And as much as he knew Hinata cared for her best friend, he was never a master in socialising and could only watch Hinata leave with his hand suspended in mid-air, as though it had just failed catching an incorporeal wraith.
'You are Hyūga-san's fiancé, I take it?' an unfamiliar bass voice tore Neji's attention from Hinata.
Outside the assembly hall, a couple of dragonflies traversed the air while the mild autumn breeze blew the white dandelion clocks in the field, making them flutter daintily. Still the soothingly pastoral scene could do very little to ease Ino's disappointment over her failure.
The blonde was sitting on the grass. Her fingers were fiddling with a dandelion stalk, but it was plain to see that her mind was elsewhere. She smiled weakly as she saw Hinata approaching with a worried look on her face. 'I got the hunch I wouldn't pass this year when you bent my Shintenshin no Jutsu when you were still convalescing at the hospital.'
Hinata expression grew even more concerned.
Ino reasoned, a sad smile adorning her pale face, 'It shows how much I need to strengthen myself. Maybe I'm lucky to have failed in this exam. Otherwise, if I become a jōnin and get a tough mission, how will I survive merciless enemies?'
'Um…' Hinata did not know what to say. Ino seemed to be able to console herself better than she could.
'It's all right, Hinata-chan! I'll try again next year with Chōji,' Ino smiled at her, 'For now, though, I want to be alone.' Ino laid herself on the grass.
'Are you sure?' asked Hinata.
'Yeah, don't worry Hinata-chan! I just want to have a good look at the clouds for a while—one of Shikamaru's influences maybe,' Ino still gave her answer with another smile.
It pained her not to be able to help a true friend in need, but Hinata had no other solution to offer. 'Uh, okay then. See you, Ino-chan.'
Heavy-hearted, the Hyūga heiress left.
Ino gazed at the cirrus-clouded infinite empyrean above, lost in her thoughts. At first, back when they were younger, everyone seemed to walk in line. As time went by, gradually they had stepped ahead of her.
For a start, her boyfriend, Sai, was from ANBU's Root, whose existence was only known to Hokage and very limited ANBU staff. And he, like everybody else in that combat unit, had been educated in secret since childhood. Neither did the ANBU's Root members partake any public exam, including the jōnin exam … although judging from ANBU standards and Sai's skills, it was highly doubtable that ANBU's Root personnel were any less than jōnin-level regardless of the official certificate's absence.
Naruto had created a new record in history by becoming the first ninja who passed the chūnin and jōnin exams in the same year after Pain's invasion. It was these achievements that made the majority of Konoha residents acknowledge Naruto as their future Hokage.
Shikamaru had become a jōnin two years before. The motivation to be a proper teacher for Asuma-sensei's progeny had sufficiently changed his lazy, ambitionless life. Besides, his parents and friends kept urging himto be on equal ground with his date, Temari, who was a few steps ahead of him in becoming a jōnin.
Sakura and Tenten successfully became jōnin last year too. At the same time, Lee became a tokubetsu jōnin. Hinata, Kiba and Shino had passed the test this year, as well.
Ino was at the same level with Sakura during their first chūnin exam; since when had their difference become so enormous? Thinking on it now, she realised that she was always aware, deep down in her subconscious, that not only her chakra control was never as precise as Sakura's, but her talent as a medical ninja was also never nearly as impressive as Sakura's. Moreover, she did not possess Sakura's Herculean strength, which most certainly placed her rival into a higher tier of skill, but still…
Ino felt two hot streams of tears on her cheeks. She bit her lip and closed her eyelids.
When she opened her eyes again, her view of the welkin had been blocked by the face of a dazzling, raven-haired young man with smooth alabaster skin and unfathomable obsidian orbs, as he bent next to her.
'Sai,' murmured Ino in a moment of shock, her pale face tinted cherry-pink, seeing how close his face was from hers.
Indifferent though he was, the young man did not fail to descry traces of tears on Ino's cheeks. 'Let's get some practice for next year's exam,' he exhorted in his usual expressionless tone and unemotional face. In a blink of an eye, he tucked her in his arms, bridal-style.
'I can walk!' Crimson now replaced the formerly pinkish colour of Ino's face.
'Do you feel like walking right now?' replied Sai, toneless and pokerfaced still.
Ino was astounded. Sai had been her boyfriend for the last thirty-eight months. He rarely showed emotion, but somehow he knew how to make her happy.
'No.' Ino sunk her head onto Sai's chest, gathering her arms around his neck. He gave her no time to depress herself and she found her castle in his embrace.
Hinata turned back as she saw the couple go away. She was thinking of returning to Ino's side after a few minutes, but changed her mind upon perceiving Sai's comforting presence.
At that same moment of comforting peace in a placid field, two shinobi were facing each other in the shadows and chilly waters of Shūmatsu no Tani, or Valley of the End.
The valley bordered the Fire and Rice Field Countries and was easily distinguishable through its waterfall, which was flanked on either side by colossal statues of the first Hokage, Senju Hashirama, and the Uchiha Clan founder, Uchiha Madara, sculpted in commemoration of the epic battle in which the valley had been created, back in the old time of yore. The seventh Hokage-to-be, Uzumaki Naruto, and the last surviving member of the Fan Clan, Uchiha Sasuke, had also fought against each other there, at the age of twelve, in a futile attempt to prevent the latter from being lured into Orochimaru's dark domain.
Yet, unlike the previous famous battles which had occurred in this place, the current occupiers possessed no dramatic reason such as to protect their country or friends' lives. They simply went there because Kuroda wanted a quiet place for a duel and Neji chose this place since the other, closer places were still being used for the jōnin exam. Kuroda was aware, of course, that even if he had beaten Hinata's fiancé, the engagement would remain unaffected. The gleam in Hinata's eyes for this Konoha shinobi at their earlier conversation confirmed this. Still, his pride demanded him to show her that he was a better man than her fiancé even if they never were to be together. Besides, surely it would feel good to threaten him, to say something like 'If you don't make her happy, I'll snatch her away from you.'
The two jōnin were standing vis-à-vis on the water surface, in the middle of the lake with Suimen Hokō no Waza. Kuroda wasted no time in launching a storm of his chakra-laced seijoken, forming a shower of pointy blades towards Neji. However, the ANBU captain deflected the attack with Hakkeshō Kaiten, sending splashes of water to dance in accordance with his movements.
Compelled to accept that his throwing knives could do nothing against Neji's Heavenly Spin, Kuroda muttered silently and resolved to electrify the water using his thunder technique—Raiton: Kanryūdenki or Thunder Release: Flowing Electricity. Unfortunately for him, Neji recognised his ninjutsu seals before they were completed and sent him a Hakke Kūshō—Eight Trigrams Empty Palm—chakra wave, sending the nearby rocks burst into smithereens. This kept Kuroda's attention on dodging in defence only and therefore he had no opportunity to finish his seals to create an offensive technique.
Next, Neji employed Hakke Hyakunijyuhachi Shō—Eight Trigrams One Hundred Twenty-Eight Palms—to close Kuroda's tenketsu points. His hands glistened warningly with the build-up of his chakra and alerted his enemy to his oncoming attack. However, Kuroda, having witnessed Hinata use the jutsu during the fight against the masked examiners in the plain, had prepared himself for this with Chakra Kyūin Jutsu—Chakra Absorption Technique—successfully causing Neji's attack to become null and void.
Neji backed off at once, panting slightly. A small portion of his chakra had been drained, nonetheless. There weren't many shinobi who mastered Chakra Kyūin Jutsu. In Konoha itself, the only known user was Akadou Yoroi and the Hyūga prodigy certainly hadn't expected his current opponent to have such a trick up his sleeve.
Nonetheless, Kuroda did not let the time for Neji's withdrawal go to waste. He released another seal, this time, of almost gelatinous water. At the sound of 'Tō!' command, the water underneath Neji congealed to form an aquatic block—solid enough to bind Neji's feet, yet too liquid to be touched, effectively trapping the Hyūga knee-high in the unmovable fluid.
Not ony was he unable to move his lower limbs, but Neji also felt chakra being sucked from his body. This block of water wasn't an ordinary one, but contained an advanced Chakra Kyūin Jutsu!
Perfect timing, Neji thought in relish, I've been itching to try Kirigenko—Drill Fist—in real battle. Hence, the Hyūga prodigy wasted no time in applying the newest jutsu of his own invention. It was punch that looked like a Straight in boxing, but was thrown inward while twisting the shoulder, elbow and wrist. The combination of a spinning chakra and excessive force caused a greater impact. It was most effective for destroying thick objects, and when applied to humans, the wound would penetrate deep into the internal organs.
At Neji's Kirigenko, the hydrous block dispersed into water droplets that sparkled like bright jewels contrasting with the fluttering dark strands of his hair. Kuroda was somewhat impressed with Neji's ability to escape the attack, but that only increased the bitterness of his feelings towards Hinata's fiancé. Amidst the splashes, Kuroda attacked Neji with an aquatic dagger. The Hyūga prodigy let him approach close enough for a Hakke Rokujyuyonshō—Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms—hitting range, so his opponent would not have enough time to evade.
However, aware that Kuroda did not harbour any killing intention in the first place, Neji only hit his opponent with restrained power and even spared the tenketsu on Kuroda's legs on purpose, so the latter might still be able to use Suimen Hokō no Wazato stand on the water surface. Conversely, this chakra-filled strike seemed to drain the rambunctious energy from his opponent, his body unused to that particular attack with a direct hit.
Kuroda wobbled. His hands trembled so much that the aquatic dagger fell and dispersed into the lake. It was his first time having his tenketsu closed and his body failed to sustain him. No longer had he the power to employ Suimen Hokō no Waza and his body faltered, dropping into the water. Nonetheless, had the veteran ANBU used his full strength, the rookie jōnin would unequivocally have suffered some internal organ damage and coughed blood accordingly, in addition to this.
Neji extended his arm to help Kuroda stand.
Kuroda pulled Neji, hoping he could plunge the latter into the water.
'That's not going to work,' Neji stated, mildly surprised that the newly promoted jōnin was such a hopeless cretin who thought that a ridiculously childish method like that would actually be effective against any jōnin, but letting the beefy man grip his outstretched hand nevertheless.Why is it that even without Lee around, I somehow manage to find a fool who behaves like him?
'Pity! I wanted to see that conceited face of yours wet and sullied,' sneered the Rain shinobi as he tried to stand up again, a deep look of detest written across his rugged face. Deep inside, he knew that Neji's words were true, but couldn't resist the temptation of trying.
'In your dreams,' replied the ANBU captain, turning to leave.
'I can't believe your damn luck! You've got the looks, the strength, the bloodline speciality, and even the girl! Nepotism sure rules these days.' He whined while still sending a contemptuous glare towards the ANBU captain's direction.
This made Neji halt his step. 'Nepotism? You sure it isn't "incest" instead?'
'What? Are you her brother or something?'
'I'm her cousin,' he added, 'First Cousin.'
'So what's wrong with that? Come off it; we're ninja! There's this bloodline limit purity issue and everything!'
'And yet you were trying to steal her yourself?' chided the Hyūga genius. Hinata is mine and mine alone.
The Rain shinobi replied with a smirk on his lips, 'Dude, I may be a ninja, but I'm still a man. And one with excellent taste on top of that.'
'Especially when it comes to kunoichi?' added Neji sarcastically.
But Kuroda proudly answered, 'Not just kunoichi, but women in general!'
'I'm glad Hinata-sama rejected you.' There was no scornful intention in his voice, but it was lucid that he meant his every word.
'Hey, that hurts! Do you have put it so bluntly … wait a minute! "Hinata-sama"? You seriously refer to her with "-sama" honorific?' He blurted out, surprise leaking out from his tone.
'She is from the main branch. Her status is higher than mine,' averred Neji as aloofly as he could. He scoffed inwardly. What did an uncouth bloke like Kuroda know about etiquette?
'You can't be thinking she'll be happy with your uptight attitude … speaking ever so politely with keigo all the time, calling her "Hinata-sama" even in bed?' Kuroda prodded sceptically.
Something within Neji's reaction—from the way his eyes flickered to his halted breath—tickled Kuroda to tease him further, 'Oh, Hinata-sama, you are extremely talented at cock-sucking!'
Kuroda's instinct was right; Neji flustered at once, with both fists clenched tight. 'Well, well, well, what have we got here? Don't tell me … after living for more than two decades, your dick's only function is for peeing?! Who'd have thought a hot shinobi like you is still inexperienced! And to think that your name means "screw"… Ha-ha-ha…' Kuroda enjoyed his little achievement of fazing Neji's previously confident expression by bursting into a roar of laughter.
'I demand you cease spouting that ridiculous notion this instant!' Neji half-shouted with a mixture of irritation and discomfiture, his stance poised for another Jyuken.
When the scroll bearing her grades reached Hiashi's hand, Hinata had never seen her father seem so proud of her before. He relinquished his stern face and smiled for her. Really smiled. Not the courteous smile he usually gave to some distinguished political figures, but the kind of genial smile that he gave Hanabi when she made noteworthy progress in her training: a smile fatherly enough to make Hinata feel like she was his daughter, too.
That evening, Hinata nervously waited for Neji in the family dojo. Earlier, her teammates had invited her for a party—a little merrymaking to celebrate their newly acquired jōnin status.
'I'm sorry, Shino-kun, Kiba-kun, Akamaru-chan,' she shook her head apologetically, 'I have to practise.'
'Hinata, c'mon, skipping one day of practice wouldn't harm! Everyone deserves rest, even the Hyūga heiress.'
'Now that I've become a jōnin, the clan leadership ceremony must be just months away.' She cast another excusatory glance before turning her heel to leave.
Nonetheless, come to think of it, her jōnin exam was over; there was no reason for Neji to keep training her on daily basis. The silent minutes passed by. Her cousin had not arrived. Hinata stood in Jyuken stance and started to practise alone.
Fifteen minutes later, the Hyūga heiress sensed her fiancé's chakra approaching. He stormed into the room, still in his ANBU uniform though unmasked. 'Sorry, I'm late, Hinata-sama.'
Hinata replied kindly, her gaze flicking over her cousin, 'Nī-san, you didn't have to come. You must be tired after your mission.'
No mission would have delayed me from seeing you on time, had it not been for that git Kuroda. 'I'm not that tired.' I never tire when it concerns you. 'Shall we spar?'
Hinata was tempted to say yes immediately. Sparring was the only activity where Neji's attention was devoted solely to her, so far. However, when she gazed at the drops of sweat on his temple and the ruffled shirt he wore, she said, 'Why don't you comment on my performance first and then we can spar as I make amendments based on your criticism?'
Realising it was Hinata's goodwill letting him have a short break, Neji agreed. He watched his cousin and fiancée danced the art of the Hyūga—Jyuken—proficiently. Her progress was not rapid, but certain. Years of endurance had forged skill and aesthetic into her movements. No matter how hard he strove to suppress it, his pores still exuded euphoria when he saw her in this state.
Why do my jaws have to clench whenever she appears? Why does my mind have to be numb whenever I traced her scent in the air? Why do my knees have to buckle whenever her voice filled my head? Why does my skin have to be on fire whenever our bodies touch, even while we're sparring? Why must I feel this way?
'So, which of my movements need correcting, nī-san?' Hinata's euphonious voice brought Neji back to reality.
'You will emit stronger power if you hit your opponent with your feet firm, but not stiff, on the ground. You still have the tendency to bend your knees more than necessary. Your shoulder posture is better than before. In fact, your overall movements are better. Good work!'
Then they sparred: body against body, with their hair rustling along with their movements; chakra against chakra, with warm feelings for each other yet to be unveiled.
Hinata hopped around Neji in her assault while he waltzed around any attempts of attack. That fight back in the chūnin exam preliminaries felt like so long ago, and her feelings for him had only deepened since then. He was still her better in the arts of the Hyūga, but the gap between them was slowly getting smaller.
Hinata aimed for a strike on his upper-body, which Neji ducked forwards to avoid. Her chakra-conducted hand shot over his head, grazing through his lengthy ebony main, splicing the band that held it all together neatly behind him. He whipped his head back, noticing his hair loose around him and held back a laugh as she looked ready to apologise mid-fight.
He lunged towards her again, and all apologetic thoughts were forgotten.
At the end of their spar, Neji looked at her with a cheerful expression, his long hair in his eyes. He ran a hand through it, pulling it out of his face and remarked, 'Congratulations on becoming a jōnin, Hinata-sama!'
The Hyūga heiress doubted there would ever be a happier day in her life.
Chapter V: Hinata's Jōnin Missions
The day finally arrived when team eight was assigned their very first jōnin mission. The three-person cell—without Kurenai—was ordered to retrieve a dossier about the Bird Country's national security, which had been stolen by a Sound shinobi.
'Sounds like an S-rank mission to me,' Kiba shrugged when Kurenai informed them of their soon-to-be mission, Akamaru sat by his side, his doggy tongue lolling happily.
'No, it's really meant to be an A-rank one … unless you screw up, are detected and forced into a confrontation! Your job is to steal back the relevant document, NOT to assassinate all of its guards. You would do well to avoid any fighting at all, since you need to be in and out without detection. That's why Team Eight was chosen, you three; you all excel at stealth techniques and spying,' explained Kurenai, 'This is going to require a lot of extra work from Akamaru, Kiba; not to mention Hinata's Byakugan and Shino's Kikaichū insects—make sure they are all in top condition.
The three of them couldn't help but feel a small tingle of excitement: they could finally participate in a real jōnin-level mission—they had reached a goal they had wished for so long, and now they were going to prove themselves worthy of it. Sure, the exams had given them a sense of real worth—but the exams were under guidance and there they knew what they could basically expect. This mission would be the real proof to them that they were ready for the label 'jōnin.'
The night that team eight fell upon the village, the conditions could not have been more perfect. A lunar eclipse provided a window of perfect darkness that prevented the team from being noticed, yet they could monitor their environment thanks to Byakugan. The air was clear of rain; hence, Akamaru and the Kikaichū insects' sense of smell were unimpeded. They reached the village about three hours after dusk fell, after a speedy, but steady journey. Shino then flew his insects overtop the village and their contrails of soporific powders soon shrouded the entire village in the deep silence of slumber. Once his bugs returned, the trio entered while the village before them lay dormant, save for the occasional cats scurrying in a dustbin or the cawings of a nocturnal bird.
This is it, Hinata thought with a pounding rising in her heart. My first jōnin mission starts now.
Kiba and Akamaru went in first; the dog began sniffing the air, and after a momentary pause, located the direction the scent of their desired object laid. The two headed in that direction, keeping close to the walls of the buildings instead of running through the streets and chancing the waking of a slumberer. Hinata followed suit, activating her Byakugan and pinpointing their route through the village's streets while Akamaru kept track of the general location. Shino followed last, keeping track of that around them with his bugs.
After weaving through the maze of buildings, the scent became strong to Akamaru's nose; he nuzzled Kiba's leg, letting Kiba know they stood nearly in front of their location.
Good boy, Akamaru! Kiba thought with enthusiasm, his trademark smirk appearing on his face. He turned his head to face Hinata and Shino as the two stopped behind him, and the two got the message.
What stood before them was a recently rebuilt Shinto shrine—there was still a fine patina of sawdust in the far corners of the small building and the lines of the timbers were clean and not rounded with age. The shrine itself rested high atop a stone platform into which was cut a long stone staircase, and the approach was bedecked with a row of freshly-painted vermillion torī gates. The dark shadow it cast upon the lofty staircases in the night seemed daunting and looming, as if it had stood the test of time and intended to chase away anyone—or anything—that might harm it. The ancient spirits that kept it standing were not the shrine's only guards; at its entrance stood a pair of ferocious komainu statues—divine leonine dogs with mouth open to pronounce 'a' and 'un', the counterparts for the alpha and the omega—to ward off evil.
Hinata understood her next task; with her Byakugan still activated, she could see that the treasury was accessible by a hidden route in the shrine, through a dondengaeshi or a revolving trapdoor in the wall. In contrast to the newly rebuilt part of the shrine's façade, this hidden part here was made of ever-decaying wood and was older by at least centuries. Next, detecting which safe stored the wanted items with Akamaru's nose was a cakewalk; the problem was how to get that particular safe open. Explosive tags as well as jutsu like Kiba-Akamaru's Gatsūga—Double Piercing Fang—were out of question to avoid giving away their location and alerting the village.
Hinata found herself mentally rejoicing. It's time to test my theory. In the shadows, she headed towards the sleeping sentry nearest to the safe. At the first chance she obtained, she pricked him on the finger to get a sample of his blood before activating Hiwameimō—Hidden Story of Illusion.
As soon as the drop of blood and the genjutsu interacted, Hinata got a vision of the sentry's life. He was the eldest child in the family, but had been outshone by his brother. Even his first girlfriend had used him as a stepping-stone to get closer to his brother. This brother had expired in a mission, however, and he knew that his parents thought it would have been better if he, in lieu of his younger brother, who had died.
Shino and Kiba had witnessed Hinata's Hiwameimō as they faced Raikage's assassination brigade, so they were not surprised. They were taken aback, nonetheless, when they noticed tears glimmering on her cheeks. Kiba looked at Shino in momentary surprise, but Shino gave a mute shake of his head, eyes hidden behind opaque lenses. Hinata knew what she was doing, he knew, and it was best to let her be.
Her mind racing, Hinata quickly hatched a plot. She then proceeded to induce a hypnotic hallucination on the sentry, Watase Ryu, whose name she had gleaned from her genjutsu. In his mind's eye, Ryu found himself standing on a bleak rock precipice, gazing out over the ocean. Behind him, his parents came from yonder hill. 'Ryu?' He heard his father's voice calling, 'Jiro's soul is not in the sea. Your brother rests in peace. Let's go home.' His mother's voice joined his father's as she exhorted him, 'No more shall we grieve, for now we must live in his stead.' Peace descended on Watase Ryu as he followed his parents away from ledge. At last, at long last, they accepted his younger brothers' death. He turned the doorknob of the house, noting in the corner of his mind that his parents must have replaced the sliding door with a swinging one—not that he cared in his joy.
The door—the house door in Watase's mind, the safe door in reality—flung open. Hinata whispered her thanks before knocking Watase unconscious. In her momentary thoughts of success, she grabbed the box containing their target; but this action proved to be her biggest mistake.
As soon as the box' weight was shifted from the safe, the alarm of string-tied bamboos vibrated. Why didn't she expect something intricate from a place that was once run by the master of tricks, Orochimaru? She could feel her throat tighten; what have I done! It was too late to regret; team eight had to make their escape NOW!
They hopped down the staircases, four or five steps at a time, extinguishing the lanterns on both sides as they descended. Trusting their comrades' sight and smell, the three of them advanced through total darkness. So swift were their steps that the white zigzag gohei paper strips that dangled from the braided shimenawa sacred straw rope hung over the outermost torī gate fluttered as they whooshed past. Excitement and fear grew in their minds and bodies as they imagined being caught; but their shinobi instincts wouldn't let them be caught at any costs, so they ran using every piece of knowledge they had that revolved around escape.
At least, their journey wouldn't be far: they just needed to break through the forest which directly bordered Rice Field Country and the north part of Fire Country. It was in this forest, however, that the deadliest traps were set. Team Eight tried their best to avoid these traps based on memories of their travel through the forest during the day, but rush and panic did not let them progress smoothly. One of Kiba's legs snared a chakra-coated string and he became ensnared in an intricate web of steel-strong strands. When Akamaru tried to bite off the string he, too became entangled- forcing the others to stop and free their comrades.
By the time Shino and Hinata managed to free Kiba and Akamaru, their pursuers had caught up with them. Three of them seemed to bear the age of genin whereas the other eight were older. Since, by logic, the one who kept giving them instructions on where to move ought to be a jōnin, that made the other seven to be chūnin.
A-rank mission now? The three of them thought miserably as they remembered their sensei's words. They now formed stances as the enemy shinobi advanced on them.
Five started advancing upon Hinata, but she had already formed the seals for Tsuchibeki—Earth Wall—and had trapped them in an inescapable crater-like crevice. She allowed Kiba and Akamaru, who howled with joy at the idea, the honour of jumping in the crater and knocking out the mere genin and chūnin trapped inside. Both the master and the dog were surprised; they never thought that once they became jōnin, overwhelming genin and chūnin would be this easy.
'This is a blast, huh, Akamaru? It seems that either we've become much more awesome, or these Oto shinobi just aren't a challenge to Konoha!' Kiba laughed as he tore through his opponents amid Akamaru's yapping.
However, this complacency was their undoing as they inhaled one of their opponents' attacks of sleeping gas. Though five enemies were down, seven was the number of bodies dropping to the packed earth.
Even with the nullification of their beast-master ninja, Kiba's Garōga proved to be a blessing in how swiftly it had neutralised his five enemies. One of the Sound kunoichi hit Hinata with Kyōmeisen—Vibrating Sound Drill—and shattered her concentration. With the rumbling of falling earth, Hinata's earth wall crumbled into nothingness once more. Even though Shino had his hands full with the other enemy shinobi, he diverted some of his bugs into a Hijutsu: Mushi Dama, or Secret Release: Insect Sphere, to drain Hinata's foe's chakra to neutralise her disruptive attacks. The Oto kunoichi had then cursed at her chakra being drained.
With her opponent effectively unable to fight Hinata came to Shino's aid in return. Lashing out with her Aquatic Barrage—Suidammaku—from her flask, she pummelled four of Shino's opponents with pellets of water, accurately aimed to paralyse their mobility, and thus flooring them by default. These Oto shinobi and kunoichi, whimpering in pain, would be the perfect targets for Kikaichū next.
Shino's Kikaichū bugs swarmed to envelope the ninja bodies with their tiny forms until the flesh became seemingly black with their colour and began to feast on their chakra. Nonetheless, the remaining one was ignored; instead, some of the bugs flew further behind a tree—it happened that this particular man specialised in using sonic illusion as his kawarimi. The trained bugs however, could still rely on smell to detect the fourth target's real body, and the opponent's kawarimi tactic came into nothing. The dying tune of his screams lingered momentarily until … silence.
The last one who remained unaffected by all jutsu so far had to be the jōnin, and a veteran one at ANBU calibre at the very least. Shino was determined to protect Hinata with his life, as his enemy began an attack, but even his trusty bugs could not do anything against the enemy's Suna Arashi or Sand Storm. The moment the Sound jōnin released this ninjutsu, Shino and his beloved pets were swallowed within the tumultuous air.
As the maelstrom engulfed him, Shino had a little time to wonder why a Sound ninja would master a Sand Country technique until he, too, lapsed into unconsciousness.
The Oto jōnin now turned to Hinata, a small nearly-inconspicuous smirk of triumph gracing his lips.
Facing the veteran shinobi alone, Hinata couldn't help but back herself as the enemy moved forward; she knew she had to remain conscious at the very least since her teammates remained still. But the only way she could avoid deadly blows of his air blades was to back herself into a corner among the trees and rocks; and yet, that corner might be her death as well.
Like a game of cat and mouse, Hinata thought subconsciously. If the mouse is cornered, the mouse loses. If the mouse squirms away and finds a hole, the mouse wins. Her problem, however, was trying to find that hole while avoiding the deadly strikes of the cat before her. Moving with the assured grace of a practiced predator, the veteran cornered the rookie jōnin in mere moments. He left no openings; she could only dodge, barely succeeding at that alone, as cuts appeared on her body from the wind strikes. And yet, despite her lissom attempts at evasion, his air blades scored her flesh several times, so rapidly that she could not pause to wipe away the sweat that stung her eyes. As seconds ticked away into minutes, her situation grew direr still. The enemy had planted noxious leeches to drain her chakra on her right shin and left shoulder.
My jyuken is nothing to him, I'm barely a threat! Hinata was growing increasingly easily deflected her every strike at his tenketsu, for as great as Hinata's celerity was, his was greater still. Compounding the issue, suddenly an excruciating blow spread ripples of pain through the left side of her diaphragm where her spleen was.
Hinata panted in fatigue. Her chakra was running low. Her ruptured spleen was throbbing with pain. Her blood was being drained by those leeches. Whatever jutsu she was going to perform next was to be her last, for sure. She had to judge very carefully which jutsu to use, and yet at the same time, she needed to buy herself time to think!
Without the luxury of a flourish, Hinata drew her kunai and lunged with it extended towards her opponent, but with a contemptuous sneer he sandwiched the blade between his palms. Hinata pressed with all her strength but could not drive her Kunai forward, as the man's own strength and experience far outweighed her own. With a swift motion of his hands, Hinata's kunai snapped- while she held the handle, the ninja possessed the blade and he wasted no time embedding the steel blade deep in her hand by her knuckles.
Hinata grimaced as more blood was drawn out of her. She gritted her teeth; she would not scream. No, she would not give the enemy the satisfaction of wringing from her sounds of pain! Nonetheless, she could not refrain herself from thinking: Is this the end of me?
In the eleventh hour, she spotted a blur approaching fast behind her enemy; it was Kiba and Akamaru. They must have come to! She thought with a small amount of relief, although she kept her eyes on her enemy as Kiba and Akamaru launched Jinjū Konbi Henge: Soutourō—Man Beast Combination Transformation: Double-Headed Wolf. The double headed gargantuan Akamaru charged towards the Sound opponent with a furious roar, slamming him away with an enormous paw.
'You disgusting monster!' The Oto veteran yelled in surprise and disgust, he tossed a kunai at the man-beast fusion which struck one of its front legs, impairing the movement of what Hinata had dubbed Kibamaru before in training. Nonetheless it did not stop their final offensive as they bit the seemingly unstoppable shinobi before retreating back to a safe distance to circle the enemy.
Kibamaruhad managed to injure the Sound jōnin, albeit these were mere scratches to their invincible opponent. Nonetheless, this was enough. Shino awoke next, and as he raised himself from the ground as fast as he could, he commanded his bugs deliver the drops of the Oto jōnin's blood to Hinata. She understood that her teammates had lent her their strength to actualise her ultimate Hiwameimō—Hidden Story of Illusion.
Their opponent drew another kunai to attack the transformed Inuzuka pair, whose breath had become steadily faster and shallower as they were torn down by the enemy. He threw the weapon with immense accuracy and speed, and only with the best luck did they dodge it, before he walloped them with a chakra-powered fist creating an audible crunch, immediately dispelling their transformation.
Nevertheless, Kiba and Akamaru bought enough time for Hinata to invent the story. In a quick few moments, the genjutsu-tsukai used the last of her reserves to stand firm against her opponent. The forest floor crumbled away into sand. The trees and bedewed grasses disappeared. Only a desert of sand dunes with rock cliffs on its background existed underneath the blazing heat of the sun.
Kitajima Satoru, the Sound jōnin, was at least fifteen years younger and wore the Sand forehead protector. He carried in his arms a lifeless thirteen-year-old girl, his sister, who had become one of the victims of Gāra's sandstorm. Nobody listened to Kitajima's pleas of revenge; Gāra was still a toddler and he was the Kazekage's son. It was then Kitajima deserted Sunagakure—the Hidden Sand Village—to create a force that one day would avenge his sister's murderer.
However, the corpse of his sister now opened her eyes and spoke in a hushed and broken whisper, 'Onī-chan, I miss you.'
'Sayuri … how?' He whispered, reaching trembling hands towards the girl.
'My shinigami—death god—allowed me to take care of whatever unfinished business I have before taking me to the netherworld. So here I am onī-chan; I want to say a proper ninja-style goodbye by showing you how far I've progressed since the last time we trained together. Let's spar!'
The siblings faced each other in the traditional posture for sparring. Sayuri attacked first, and though her brother managed to evade her first attack, she began to step up her speed and delivering hits. Breathing heavily he asked, 'Sayuri! Where did you learn to spin and twirl like that?' Keeping his power capped, he attempted to launch a counter-attack.
Yet, at that moment, he was caught by surprise: no longer was he able to emit his chakra. Hinata—the Sayuri in his illusion—got his tenketsu points covered with Shugohakke Hyakunijyuhachi Shō—Protection of Eight Trigrams One Hundred Twenty-Eight Palms. Being summoned through Kuchiyose no Jutsu, the leeches vanished as soon as their summoner's chakra was blocked. 'I'm glad to have a brother like you, onī-chan. In the next life, I hope I can be your sister again.' With these words, she knocked Kitajima out.
Hinata tottered. Her vision became blurry. Kiba and Akamaru made some distant choir-like noise. A phantasm of Neji came up in her head, although she didn't quite catch what he said. Then, everything dissolved into nothingness. Chakra overexertion and major blood loss had pushed the kunoichi over her limit and she lost her consciousness like the opponent she had just defeated.
Upon opening her eyes Hinata found herself on Akamaru's back on their way to Konoha. 'Shino-kun, Kiba-kun, Akamaru-chan, thank you and sorry I messed up.'
'Don't worry about it, Hinata, everyone makes mistakes but we're a team and we're there to help one another,' Kiba consoled her.
'And we couldn't have completed this mission without you,' added Shino.
It was sheerly through good fortune that the Sound Country was the closest hostile nation to the Land of Fire; Hinata could be swiftly placed in friendly hands for treatment and recovery, and could avoid losing any more of her life's blood. In yet another stroke of luck, Haruno Sakura was also returning from a mission; her eyes picked out a bedraggled flash of red amidst the dense foliage at the roadside and she immediately investigated. When she got closer, she realised the flash of colour was Akamaru's fur drenched in the conspicuous crimson of the Hyūga heiress' clotting blood. With anxiety written all over Kiba's face and, less notably, Shino's, Team Eight was advancing towards the Konoha Village Gates. These gates bore the hiragana of 'A' and 'N' letters—a writing all Konoha ninja would relate to finishing a long hard mission. And this time, this small word truly reflected what was in Team Eight's heart: they exhaled in relief as thanks to Sakura's administration of triage, Hinata only needed rest and medicine rather than blood transfusion and that she was not in mortal peril like their previous mission against Raikage's henchmen.
Team Eight received two more team missions, which they accomplished with satisfying results, before each of them was finally assigned their first solo mission.
The terms 'S-rank', 'solo mission', 'guard for an S-class criminal' and 'Iwagakure' were unmistakeably clear even as Hinata re-read her assignment posting for the fifth time. Below this, in red wax, was pressed the Hokage's personal stamp. Kiba and Shino, she knew, had received only A-rank missions despite having received only one grade below her due to their less-than-spectacular written tests. Surely, the skill differences could not be so pronounced? Moreover, she had been the one who had thrown a wrench in the gears of their first mission! Nevertheless, if Hokage-sama would entrust such a duty to her then it was not her place to second-guess the senior kunoichi's decisions.
The transport vessel was imposing and solid, resembling nothing so much as a coffin made of dark metal and sealed shut with a plethora of ninjutsu tags. Using various techniques, the prisoner to be transported had been put to sleep and sealed into this transport container. Ever since a horrific accident half a decade before the convict had been paralysed from the neck down; despite his gruesome handicap he had learnt to master a forbidden mind-control jutsu and had utilised it for criminal purposes in the village. The reason this jutsu was forbidden was that unlike the Yamanaka clan's technique, this jutsu had no time limit and could be extended to control multiple targets. Should the technique be used for long periods of time, the victims would suffer irreversible brain damage. The jutsu had been stricken from the list of kekkei genkai or bloodline limit technique but was instead a kinjutsu, or a forbidden technique. When a concerted effort had been made to capture the renegade, he had successfully foiled the plan by possessing the minds of his would-be captors as well. Only recently had his defences been overwhelmed and had he been captured. Now it fell to Hinata to ensure he reached the Sunless Manse—the gaol for lifetime prisoners within the Hidden Stone village—without incident. Hopefully, the tags on the coffin would prevent the man from using his forbidden jutsu should he awaken during transport.
The reason for classifying this mission S-rank, however, did not lay in the delivery duty itself, but rather, the situation at destination. After its defeat in war with Konoha in the past, the Hidden Stone Village or Iwagakure had grown into a motley outlaws' lair. It was now one of the most dangerous countries in the ninja world. Few who entered the country left alive without grave mishap.
Unsurprisingly, the difficulty lay not in Hinata handing the prisoner over to Iwagakure but in leaving the country. Within two miles from the gaol, at the foot of a mountain, seven Stone shinobi closed in on her from all corners of the wind, blocking her escape and falling in like a pack of rapacious wolves preying upon a single rabbit.
'Don't you wanna grope those melons?' leered one of them, smirking vivaciously at Hinata.
'Oh yeah, and split 'em open of course,' replied another as he span his kunai playfully.
'I wanna know what those thighs have in store,' added yet another shinobi, his tongue sneaking out to lick across dry and cracked lips as he stared at the girl.
'I prefer licking her snow-white skin,' said a shinobi with yellow teeth and extremely foul breath.
A shinobi with a lost ear uttered nothing, but pulled a whip and two candles from his pouch, grinning mischievously.
'Come, boys! Let's make this whore scream and beg!' exhorted a shinobi with numerous scars, swinging his jojutsu—metal ball with chains.
'But the first to taste her ravine is me!' declared the last one, who had the largest built of all an appeared to be their leader.
The enemy moved en masse. Hinata concentrated hard, accumulating her chakra. She was going to need a vast quantity of it to deal with seven people at one go. As if I'd let you have your way; not even Neji has touched me. 'HIWAMEIMŌ!'
Hinata was a gentle soul—she had been—until now… since no one in the right mind within Konoha would sexually harass a Hyūga heiress. Whenever she was in mission outside Konoha, her teammates would be there for her. When she was assigned solo missions during her chūnin years, she was always stationed within safe grounds, in other words, a B-rank mission at most. Now was her first time to face a real challenge. Hokage and her officials acknowledged her as a jōnin, and she was determined not to let them doubt her capacity.
Meanwhile in Hokage's office, Tsunade's irate voice reverberated, 'What's this?!'
Shizune scurried to her mistress' office at once and asked what went wrong.
Tsunade was obviously agitated, but a Hokage would put more pressing matters before her own emotion no matter what. 'Get me a list of ANBU members who are currently available!'
Shizune darted outside and returned within minutes with Tsunade's request.
Tsunade had only to glance at the list before she snapped, 'Send Falcon to back up Hyūga Hinata and Walrus to back up Chikamatsu Shōtaro! At once!'
Only after Shizune had done as she was told dared she ask what had been bothering her teacher.
'How in the world…,' growled Tsunade, '… did the ANBU assignments got mixed up with the novice jōnin ones?'
Shizune looked at the two sheets of paper Tsunade was clenching. She, too, was surprised at how two fresh graduate jōnin could end up with S-rank ANBU solo missions.
'Tsunade-sama, I was here while you were stamping the document piles, but these are different from what I saw at that time.'
'You mean someone breached my office just to swap these documents?' roared the senior woman, clutching the sheets tighter that they extremely wrinkled under the pressure of her forceful fingers.
Shizune squinted before giving out her suspicion, 'Kurenai and her child were here that day and we all know that little prankster is one hell of a genjutsu-tsukai. Did you go to the toilet at all during Kurenai's visit?'
'No, it was Kurenai who went to the toilet. I only left my guard on those documents for seconds when I called out for Sakura from this window. And yet, those mere seconds were enough for this kid to cast name swap illusion!' Tsunade's fury was now replaced by astonishment, 'To be tricked by a toddler's genjutsu like that… I must be getting really senile now. Perhaps I shouldn't have let those villagers reinstated this Fifth Hokage title to me after that jerk Danzō's transient reign as the Sixth Hokage.'
Tsunade's next sentences returned to their former firmness, nonetheless, 'Right! I'm going to have a good talk with Kurenai and that little scoundrel. Make the appointment, Shizune!'
Thus, Falcon, a.k.a. Hyūga Neji, left immediately for the Tsuchi no Kuni or Earth Country, wherein Iwagakure was located. He didn't know specifics, but if Hinata needed backup in that hellhole, that spawning ground of scum… The possibilities for worst-case scenarios flashed through his mind. At any rate, he could only hope that he did not arrive too late to save his innocent Hinata from those baleful hands.
Spurring himself to ever-greater speeds, Neji activated his Byakugan to trace Hinata's chakra and leapt to her position, for the chakra spoor of seven other shinobi was also present at the vicinity. As he was getting closer, his Byakugan detected that the chakra movements gradually lessened. When he arrived on the spot, however, he found the opponents' chakra signs significantly fading and his fiancée preparing to depart. Fatigue was stamped on every line of her face and her bowed shoulders; yet neither wounds lingered on her frame nor did tears sully her cheeks.
Behind her was what appeared to be the aftermath of mayhem. Stone shinobi's palsy bodies lay on the ground. Blood spattered here and there, emitting a potent rancid odour. Nobody had died, but there wasn't a single body of these shinobi which was spared from laceration. Most of them had their fingers and toes cropped in addition to other corporeal injuries revealed through their torn clothes. All the ripped body pieces were in situ, scattered like debris. One shinobi actually even had his genitals vertically bisected whereas another one's mouth horizontally sliced extending to both cheeks near his jawline. They shared a common similarity, however, in that their rears were gruesomely exposed and bleeding.
'Yes, nī-san?' Her voice was calm for a mutilator, too calm.
'How…' Neji wanted to say more, but the shock about his fiancée's involvement in such morbidity got the better of him.
'I made them fight one another with genjutsu. Luckily, there wasn't any jōnin among them, so my jutsu could still work despite their number,' answered Hinata. Equanimity was all over her voice, but the gleam in her eyes was dauntingly unrelenting.
Neji's voice choked somewhere in his throat; the figure before him wasn't the mild Hinata that he knew. 'Why did you spare their lives, and yet…'
'They didn't deserve to die; they didn't even try to kill me. They only tried to violate me. What else is better than making them regret their felony all the rest of their lives with the marks on their bodies as reminders?'
Neji fell momentarily silent. Hinata waited. Every second felt like an hour. Still she waited. Eventually he spoke to her, 'Shall we go home?'
'Don't you have any business to attend here, Neji nī-san?'
'I was sent to back you up, though it's plain to see my presence was not required.'
That's not true. This is actually the first time in years you have spent time alone with me outside our training sessions. All the same, the Hyūga heiress couldn't bear to say more than a small 'oh'.
Hinata was still recovering from chakra overexertion: she'd only used one genjutsu, but it had lasted for more than an hour and applied to multiple targets simultaneously. Therefore, they walked like ordinary people instead of travelling in shinobi-style speed. Neji walked in front and Hinata followed a few steps behind. As she saw her fiancé's fluttering hair and shoulders, she felt a mad desire to join ANBU, to do anything just to be assigned a mission with him, so that she could watch his back forever.
They prolonged walking in silence, both Hyūga jōnin turned inward into themselves, each left to their own thoughts. Neji wondered how the recent events had affected her; the last time he saw his fiancée, her face was expressionless and impossible to read.
After several more turns, the two of them passed through the countryside and arrived at a secluded field. There was nothing but a few birds in the twilight sky and a blanket of golden barley, rocking rhythmically as zephyr blew upon each stalk. Hinata felt her throat dry, but decided to let out what had been bothering her mind. 'Neji nī-san, I am aware of the consequences of my own actions, so tell me the truth…,' Hinata took a deep breath, 'Do you find me appalling, making those Stone shinobi mutilate and sodomise one another?'
Neji weighed his words carefully before answering, 'Yes, I would have undoubtedly found you appalling had you done those without a good reason. However, I personally would have done something similar or worse if it had been me whom they tried to rape. Although the acts themselves are not exemplary conducts, I'm glad that you decided to defend your honour instead of cowering in fear and simply weeping in defeat.' Better those sordid bastards than you who lay molested.
After answering this question, Neji slowed his pace and took Hinata's hand in his own. He no longer walked in front, but beside her, hand-in-hand, for the remainder of the journey. That day, Hinata discovered that by simply walking with Neji, each and every pebble on the ground was special, the leaves were somehow greener and the sky could actually sing enchanting melodies to those who listened.
Chapter VI: The Beginning of a Courtship
After reporting the result of their mission, Neji and Hinata met Naruto and Sakura outside Hokage's office. They saw the ideal picture of a happy couple as the kyūbi vessel's hand rested lightly across the medic nin's shoulder and she had laid her own hand around his waist. Both parties greeted each other briefly before parting ways; the Seventh Hokage-to-be and his fiancée entered the Fifth Hokage's office whilst the Hyūga cousins heading straight to their family manor.
Neji brought Hinata to the family dojo. Their daily practice hour was, after all, not supposed to end until some twenty minutes later. There, he told her, 'If it makes you feel better, you may cry. Don't mind me.'
'W-what should I cry for?' the Hyūga heiress raised her eyebrows in bemusement; never before she was asked to cry, especially if the request came from her composed cousin.
The Hyūga prodigy hesitated, but spoke his mind nonetheless, 'You saw Naruto and Sakura together after an attempted gang rape.'
Hinata gaped in disbelief; never had she expected the Hyūga Neji to think that much about her. Maybe, just maybe, it would be all right to tell him what he deserved to know.
'Five years ago, while combating Pain-san, I told Naruto-kun…' Hinata drew a sharp breath, '…that I loved him. But later, he replied that he considered me as a precious nakama and loved Sakura-chan solely. The pain in my heart was that of a failure of a mission rather than of a love-induced heartbroken.'
Fighting every urge to avert her eyes from his own, she carried on, 'It was then I realised that what made me interested in him in the first place was his rebellious nature. I envied him for how he got the acknowledgement from all the people who used to seclude him because of the Kyūbi … he found himself … he made you and I realise our ways of ninja … he befriended former enemies, like Gāra-san and his siblings … I hoped I could escape my destiny as a clan leader and live freely just like him.'
Now she gripped her trousers at his continual stare. 'It's ironic that the feeling I have held for him for years turn out to be envy instead of love, but all these times it has never truly upset me whenever I see Naruto-kun and Sakura-chan kissing or hugging.'
'You mean you've never actually fallen in love after living for two decades?' Neji mocked his cousin in pretence to hide the surge of hope that secretly leapt in his heart.
Hinata blushed torridly, hesitated for the briefest of moments, gathered her thoughts as she closed her eyes, took a deep breath before answering, 'When I was six, I realised that one day I would have an arranged marriage, so I tried to close my heart from falling in love in order to avoid disappointment, but it was already too late…'
The older Hyūga squinted at his cousin's words.
'I've already set my mind on you since the first time we met, when I was three,' she went on articulating her words hastily with a face as scarlet as sunset—almost too hastily for her speaking adversary to catch her every word.
Neji's heart raced, thumping so loudly in his chest that it echoed through his eardrums.
Hinata gulped with visible difficulty before continuing, 'I-I idolised you as a kind cousin and a talented hero … well … um…,' she lapsed back into her old habit of stammering, '… you see … uh…' Taking another breath she fought to calm herself in an attempt to avoid further embarrassment before continuing, 'Nī-san, you frequently helped me when naughty kids picked on me … you retrieved my ball when it got stuck up in a tree … you saved me from drowning in the river … and you did say you liked playing together with me…'
Neji did not dare to blink. His secret yearning for Hinata had been mutual all along… could this really be? He felt some hot air pervading on his cheeks; Hinata was not the only one to blush. Yet, at the same time, he could sense guilt within himself, remembering how bad he used to treat her.
'B-but you hated every single person in Hyūga main branch since your father passed away and you hated us even more after that river incident, so I searched for a distraction … that's why I started paying attention to Naruto-kun. I attempted to bury my feelings towards you, ensuring nobody—not even my family—knew that I ever had a crush on you … even now.' Hinata emitted a slight gasp—a confession of love for the man she had longed for nearly all her life could never be free from embarrassment. Yet, she had to go on; she had to finish what she had started.
'Besides, I knew Tenten-chan loved you…,' she pronounced these words speedily, then slowed down, '…although I … couldn't help feeling relieved when she cried telling all the kunoichi in Rookie Nine that you didn't love her back. However, just when I thought I could finally get rid of you from my life for good, father announced an arranged marriage for us…'
Hinata felt uneasy as Neji's stare was transfixed on her. She could see his nostrils inflating and deflating rapidly, but she had no idea that Neji's stomach was also giving him a jolt.
'I am sorry that you are dragged into this; you must have a dream of your own … and yet, my existence devastates not only your love life but also profession.' Hinata was at the verge of tears as she delivered these words.
When she moved her hands to cover her face, however, Neji caught her by the wrists. Hinata looked at him with rivulets of tears, imploring him tacitly to let her be. But instead, he gazed at her with the gentlest expression he could muster. Then, letting go her hands, he placed his own fingers on her cheeks, wiping her tears. Only after she calmed down, he told her, 'Please don't be sorry regarding our marriage, Hinata.'
This was the first time in years, since he had been branded with the Caged Bird seal, Neji dropped her honorific. Yet, it was too early for her to be astounded, for this was not the most surprising part of his speech.
'Has it ever occurred to you why I never get interested in female companion in general? Or why I wanted to become an ANBU member in the first place?'
Hinata shook her head. However, her mind started to be anxious. Could he be in love with a man within the ANBU squad?
'Hinata, you were not the only one who fell in love at the first sight when we met—yes, when I was four and you were three. I meant it when I said that I enjoyed spending my time with you. I loved you, I really did. It's just that…,' he paused for a moment before continuing again, '… I blamed the main branch for my father's own choice and did terrible things to you. I hated myself for wanting you still, so I thought that killing you in our first chūnin exam would probably solve my problem. That has become the thing I regret most in my life, and yet, it also made me think more and more about you, more than necessary … even … well, promiscuously sometimes…'
Hinata sunk her head, staring at the floor. Neji drew breath with a shade of scarlet on his face.
'I vowed myself to protect you with my life since that chūnin exam incident. I respected you from the heart since you were not as meek as I initially thought, but at the same time, I can't deny how much you've grown into such beauty.
I never dreamt that you actually wanted a deeper bond between us. On the contrary, I assumed that you were uncomfortable with my presence, that you didn't want to acknowledge me even as a relative, as long as you could help it. Thinking that you would never be mine, I joined ANBU, busying myself with missions to keep a distance from you. I might not have been able to control myself otherwise…'
Hinata swallowed. Her cousin's unexpected confession set off fireworks in her head. She blinked, but those sparks wouldn't abate.
'Furthermore,' continued Neji, 'when you risked your life to rescue Naruto from Pain's attack, I thought it was a matter a time that you would become Uzumaki Hinata.'
Hinata's sharp intake of breath interrupted Neji's words. He gazed at her concernedly, but he startled at the gentle gleam of his pearly eyes.
'You … you were there … you knew what I told Naruto-kun back then…' She swallowed thickly.
'I didn't hear the words,' he admitted, 'but my Byakugan was within range to read your lips.'
She seemed all the more uneasy, and even fidgeted, so he hastily added, 'Come on, the entire Konoha knew that you used to have a crush for Naruto. Five years ago, you asked me to train you to get stronger all for the sake of protecting him, didn't you? And the way you confess to him was so brave … brave enough for the words of the wife-to-be of the future seventh Hokage.'
Hinata quickly averted her eyes from Neji's, for her face had turned nearly as red as a beetroot. She mumbled something about 'father wouldn't allow that' while grasping the fabric of her trousers real hard.
'Perhaps.' Neji smiled. 'Still, it is not impossible for you to defy the will of the entire Hyūga once you've up your mind; after all, nobody fits the definition of "obstinance" more than you do.'
'And … and you … are fine with my obstinacy?'
The curl on Neji's lip arched more upwards. 'Isn't it obvious?'
In attempt to conceal her joy, Hinata asked, 'Are you sure? I mean, ANBU is the top elite and what's more, you have been newly promoted as a captain … so many shinobi try and fail, yet you have to forsake your achievement, colleagues and adventures for…' She felt too embarrassed to say 'for my sake', so she settled with, 'for the clan's sake' instead.
'Does it matter? As long as you're at my side, what more do I need?' His eyes softened as he spoke; possibly this was the gentlest gaze she had ever seen in years.
The Hyūga heiress shuddered at heart, coercing herself to believe that this was not indeed a dream. And if it had been, she could only hope it would not end soon. 'But I'm weak and full of flaws. I can never be a distinguished clan leader.'
'I'm here to help you; together we will complete each other.'
She could see his face drawing nearer. She could hear his heartbeats chasing hers in a clamorous race. She could feel his breath enveloping hers. Meekly, words found their way from her mouth, 'I am not a Yamato Nadeshiko like what people assume me to be.'
'I've grown up with you; I know that what you have in yourself has been achieved through persistent effort of continual practices after each mistake. Yet this is only one of the reasons for falling in love with you. I love you for who you are, not what others want you to be. I am not a Yamato Damashī myself and I never asked for a Yamato Nadeshiko as a wife, to start with.' With these words, he reached for her flowing hair and kissed a handful of it, indulging himself with every scent the lock offered.
Hinata froze on the spot. The dojo floor, walls and ceiling dispersed into naught. There was only her, the man she loved and bliss. All the burdens in her mind were enlightened. Floating in mid-air, she ceaselessly stared at the wonderful entity named Hyūga Neji. 'So this is how it feels when a man kisses a woman's hair,' or so she thought.
At length, she felt suffocated. It was then she noticed she had entirely forgotten how to breathe from the moment his fingers touched the strand of her hair. Smiling at her own silliness, Hinata enclosed her arms around Neji's shoulders. All these years they could have been lovers … if only they had confessed to each other sooner!
When Neji had gathered his courage to place his hands on Hinata's waist, however, he spotted Hanabi standing on the doorway.
'Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt,' the youngest of all Hyūga sōke greeted them with a guilty tone.
'N-no, it's all right. It's your turn to use the dojo, isn't it? Besides, we're done here,' Hinata answered her sister with a flushed smile.
Neji stayed silent, but blushed furiously. He, the renowned genius and the best Byakugan master throughout the clan, actually let go of his guard due to some elated feeling! Grabbing his fiancée's hand, he stormed outside.
No words were exchanged between the couple until they reached the garden. Watching the koi fish in the pond, Hinata opened her mouth to speak, 'Don't be mad at Hanabi … she did not do so on purpose.'
Neji replied, 'No, I'm not angry with her. I am ashamed of myself … of how I can be so off-guard; I should have at least sensed her chakra approaching. How can I protect you in my hopeless state?'
Upon hearing this confession, Hinata's cheeks burnt with the colour of glowing ember once again, but she smiled and rested her head on the crook between his neck and shoulder, her arms enveloping his back. The both of them spent the evening with no more words, just listening to the chirps of the cicadas and the flowing water on the fishpond with exuberant feelings.
The next day, Neji and Hinata asked Hiashi's permission to hold a western-style wedding rather than a traditional Japanese one. When Hiashi asked why, Hinata blushed and answered in a high-pitched voice, 'Childhood fantasy.'
Hiashi peered at his nephew, 'Pray tell, do you also share the same fantasy as Hinata, Neji?'
'No, I have never planned my wedding before. However, this is the first step to change Hyūga, since no sōke wedding has ever deviated from the traditional Shinto ceremony until today. How can we revolutionise the clan's abiding rules if we cannot even add personal touch to our own wedding?'
'Yes, that's fairly reasonable,' Hiashi mused at Neji's reason, 'But is that all?' Years of leadership experience endued the old man a hunch when his subordinate or clan member hid their partial reasons.
Neji's heart throbbed. There's no way of hiding it now! 'That and I wish for Hinata's happiness,' he answered truthfully.
It was Neji's expression, more so than his words, that gained Hiashi's approval. The old man was surprised to see how his phlegmatic and proud nephew could make such beseeching eyes. But then again, he was phlegmatic and proud, not emotionless… Before, Hiashi had been under the impression that both Neji and Hinata had to acquiesce to their marriage. However, from the look of it now, his nephew and daughter were mutually in love; things were getting better than he expected. No harm would come from pampering the pair once in a while; after all, it is their wedding, not the clan leadership ceremony, which they request to be out of the ordinary, he concluded.
Hence, Neji and Hinata went to place orders, book and shop for their wedding equipment. Thus, they had to squeeze the unfinished matters into their free timetables for weeks to come. No matter how hectic that day was, both were feeling gleeful inside. First of all, they had expected to get a cold shoulder from Hiashi, but he concurred instead. Then, this was, technically, their first date. They had never spent time together outside training before; he thought she loved Naruto and kept a distance from her; she had been too shy to approach her cousin.
When they dropped by at Yamanaka Florist, Ino detected that Neji's glances upon Hinata were more affectionate than before and there was no shred of reluctance in whatever Hinata did, in fact, she was eager. However, she made no mention about this until later: business went first. Instead, she let the Hyūga pair explore her little shop for now.
'Any thoughts of which type of flowers you'd like to get?'
Hinata made an apologetic answer. 'Uh, I don't know, Ino-chan. The shapes of these flowers don't seem to go well with the room decoration. As for the ones over there, their colours will be unsuitable with the ambience at the reception.'
'In that case, here!' Ino smiled as she pulled some catalogues from behind the counter and presented the whole pile to the bride-to-be. 'Have a look at these catalogues. Your wedding is in mid-January and some flowers don't grow in winter, but we can order them. There are some corporations that breed flowers in greenhouses so they can grow perennially. Of course, the price will be higher, but this is for your W-E-D-D-I-N-G—the event of a lifetime! When else will you go splurge?'
Only after the three of them had finished discussing the type and quantity of the wedding flowers did Ino ask, 'So you two have fallen in love with each other now?'
Neji and Hinata instinctively looked at each other briefly before answering 'yes' with flushed faces.
Hinata is expected, but Neji … blushing? And his blush put Hinata's into shame, on top of that! Wow, this is serious! Ino gazed at them with a growing smirk. She was truly happy for Hinata, but couldn't help getting excited by Neji's reaction.
Neji couldn't take it anymore; he was not accustomed to being laughed at for emotion-related issue. 'I'll wait for you in that shop,' he pointed at a shop across the road before darting away, leaving Hinata to chat with her close friend.
So the usually stoic ANBU captain can get embarrassed. Ino giggled as soon as Neji was outside. Hinata felt rather guilty, but decided to let him be. She thought it best to ask Ino's advice on how to please a sulking boyfriend. She also inquired how Ino and Sai's love story came to be.
'It all began when I learnt that when Sai called me gorgeous, he actually meant the opposite. His teammates and mine were there at the pub. Sai tried to make a joke after Naruto told us his. Well, Sai's joke wasn't funny at all, but Sakura appreciated his effort, saying he had been making progress in socialising. When Chōji asked how come, she explained about how Sai used to give people nicknames, including her own case and mine.
So I demanded Sai's reconfirmation and he unfolded the bitter truth. It was too much for me; I had taken a liking on him after all, and yet he humiliated me in public. I splashed my drink into his face and called him "monster" and left in tears. I really hoped that had become our last encounter back then, but the next day, his team and mine were assigned a joint mission.
Our enemies intended to separate us so that they could do us in with ease. In my case, I was trapped in a cave created by an enemy's earth element ninjutsu. The mouth of the cave was blocked, but Sai drew loads of animals with Chōjū Giga—Super Beasts Imitation Picture—to drill a hole on the cave from above and rode his bird of ink to my rescue. Okay, the sight of him at that time, from my angle and not-so-good situation was rather … breathtaking.' Ino had shades of pink on her cheeks now. 'But even if it hadn't been so, I still had no choice but to accept his help anyway since I didn't want to end up dead there.'
Hinata grinned, but made no comment. Ino carried on, 'Anyway, when we were riding that bird, I inquired why he saved me instead of any other. Of course, I knew I was weaker than the rest, but that question just sort of escaped from my mouth. Sai's reply was exactly that. It wasn't something I'm proud of, but it's the truth nonetheless. I started to build trust on him since then.'
Ino let out a small sigh before continuing, 'We didn't fly for long; our opponents ambushed us. I tried to use Shinranshin no Jutsu, but one of the enemies shot dokuken—poisoned shuriken—at us in the process. Sai also hadn't finished drawing, so he shielded me with his own body. Eventually I managed to make one of our opponents attack his colleague with Mind Body Disturbance Technique, but his colleague was stronger and killed him.
Meanwhile, Sai had the time he needed to finish his Chōjū Giga drawing. His Kirin didn't take long to annihilate the enemy, but poison had spread through Sai's body. As I extracted the poison out of his pallid skin with my chakra, he told me, "You look hideous, crying like that."
"You shouldn't have sacrificed your body for my sake!" I wailed.
"Shinobi Essentials # 58: A medical ninja's safety is to be placed above the rest of the party. " His voice was weak.
"Screw that guidebook!" I screamed, "Don't you dare die on me! I won't forgive you … you foul-mouthed bastard … you impertinent liar … you … you … my hero!"
Sai wore a painful smile that tempted me to kiss his insolent lips, but our teammates arrived; they heard my shout earlier. Sakura delegated the boys to find specific herbs while she herself helped me extract poison from Sai.
At last, Sai was no longer in mortal danger. However, he was too weak to move around or create another inked animal for his means of transport, so Naruto summoned that frog, Gamakichi, with Kuchiyose no Jutsu to carry Sai back to Konoha.
While we visited him in the hospital room, a nurse came to remind us that the visiting hours had ended. Naruto complained that rules sucked, but Sai smiled and told him, "You've got to cope with even more rules when you're Hokage. Besides, sometimes rules can be quite convenient."
I remember that Naruto was unconvinced and asked how so, but Sai only dismissed his question with a smile. I gasped—Sai must have been hinting to the poisoning incident! I felt like punching him, but oh well, we all left anyway.
A few days later, I met Sai by the riverbank. He was sketching the geese that were loitering around there. His dark hair and clothing were in contrast with the geese's white feather. I liked what I saw and I blurted out "I love you" out of thin air. He gave me a thank you along with polite smile, but said he did not know how to return my feeling, since love was a stranger to him.
I initiated a date, convincing him that we should stop the moment he felt uncomfortable in my presence. He agreed to try. Well, he has never asked me to stop … not even now and I'm not the only one who has looked forward for our dates … so it works.' Ino looked rather shy, but happy, nevertheless, as she ended her tale. Feeling bold once more, Ino looked at the heiress and smiled coyly with a mischievous glint in her eye.
'Hinata-chan, tell me about your beau: is the ANBU genius also a genius at kissing?'
Hinata dropped the catalogue of flowers at the sound of Ino's question. Her renowned blush revisited her face at once and a tiny squeak tore from her mouth.
'You're not going to say that you two never kissed, are you?' Ino tried not to laugh.
'W-well, w-we only confessed to each other last night…' Hinata busied herself picking the catalogue, so that she did not have to show Ino how red her face had become. But then, she braced herself to face the florist and enquired, 'So … when you kiss, what kind of sophistication is required after pressing lips against each other?'
Ino fought the urge to roll her eyes as the rhetorical question 'Is Hinata really going to be twenty-one in a few weeks?' popped in her mind. Instead, she asked in what she hoped to be a compassionate tone, 'You haven't shared your first kiss either?'
'Um…' Hinata swallowed, 'Neji did kiss my cheek in our engagement ceremony.'
Ino exhaled. After a long moment of silence, she gave her friend tips about kissing's do's and don'ts based on her own experiments with Sai.
Before Hinata left, Ino also lent her some brochures concerning honeymoon ideas. 'May I recommend this one?' the blonde pointed at one particular sheet containing the information about a private cruise in the Moon Country with a small yakatabune pleasure boat.
'Imagine this…' she said dreamily, '… the sky is grey with clouds. The droplets of rain trickle down the ceramic tile roof, underneath which, a flicker of light can be seen dancing from behind the shōjigami paper door. Inside, you are playing a koto. The clear sound comes out of the kiri wood, filling the cool evening air with euphonic harmony. Just a couple of metres behind you, Neji is intoxicated by the melodious sound from each of the thirteen strings that you pluck.'
'Ino-chan!' Hinata's face flushed deep red at once.
'What? You do learn koto as part of the elemental skills required for an heiress, don't you?'
'Yes, but my musical aptitude is just so-so and … and …' she continued with a tiny voice, 'about Neji…'
Her friend disregarded this and went on with her fantasy. 'Okay, to be precise, he is not inebriated by the zither performance, but by the performer.' … Ino smirked to see Hinata's face grew even redder, rivalling the redness of the tulips in her shop. 'He then rises from his seat and next, you hear him blowing the lantern off and his arms are enveloping you in a tight embrace from behind. After that, he slides one hand under your kimono—'
Ino spoke no more; there was no point continuing now that her listener passed out. Literally.
Neji and Hinata managed to visit two more places to place orders for their wedding cake and cards before going home. When they reached Hyūga manor, after dinner, the incandescent moon hanging high in the firmament caught their eyes.
Neji felt heaviness in his heart; he was reluctant to part with Hinata, but he had no proper reason to stay with her. Just as he opened his mouth to bid her good night, however, he felt Hinata's fingers grasping his own. Tightening. She was at a loss for words and stared at his toes instead of his eyes. Even in the dim moonlight Neji could tell cochineal shades were all over her face.
The fact that Hinata was involuntary to leave too cheered Neji up in an instant. 'Will you watch the stars with me?' he offered surprisingly instead of saying farewell. It was just a whimsical idea, but he was glad since she gave one of the most avid nods he had ever seen as her reply.
Thus that night, on the roof directly above Hinata's bedroom, a madly-in-love couple sat side-by-side with interlocking hands. High above, the stars sparkled like myriads of ethereal diamonds in heaven's vast velvety robe. Down below, two hearts were beating as one.
If the so-called 'magical moment' really exists, this must be it, both drew the same conclusion.
After that first date, their trainings were never the same as before. Before, his looks were always withheld into purely instructive mode; he made their trainings seem no more than obligatory tasks to him in spite of how, in the inside, he craved for them since they were his only excuses to meet Hinata. Now, whenever Neji held Hinata's arm or shoulder to hone her posture, he no longer concealed the affection in his gaze. Sometimes, when their eyes met, Hinata blushed and when Neji smiled, she smiled back. At other times, when she was about to trip, he embraced her for longer than necessary and she clung to him without hesitation.
They beamed when they passed each other. They walked less than an arm distance from each other when they were together. They exchanged opinions on many aspects of life. As if all of these had not been enough, they even invented all sorts of excuses to meet each other: he would take a detour passing her room to say 'good morning'; she would not start dinner without him.
In spite of his previously standoffish behaviour, he was actually devoted to her. Hinata was more than delighted to perceive her first and only love's affectionate side—a part of him never before shown to others after his father's death. Sure enough, Neji only did these when they were alone. Whenever they were in public, he would not even hold her hand and to most people they looked more like a marriage-compelled couple.
They also took ballroom dancing lessons, for Hinata wanted a fairy-tale wedding. As twirling and pirouetting were no strangers to Jyuken, their lessons went smoothly. They could perform decent gavotte, foxtrot and waltz within a month. Neji did not mind; all these practices gave him a reason to hold Hinata and every time he held her, he felt glad to be alive.
'MayIkissyou?' was what Neji brought out while they were dancing gavotte in one of their extended evening practices, after their dancing instructor went home. Feeling a sense of embarrassment at his stumble, Neji's cheeks glowed a shade of red that was believed only to be worn by the Hyūga heiress.
How Neji wished he could have done better! Hinata comprehended what he meant to say, nevertheless. She let out a 'yes' an octave higher than her normal voice then laid her hands on the crooks between his neck and shoulders.
Neji gulped. Hinata's face flushed with vivid red, but judging from the rushing heat on his cheeks, he must have been blushing too. Struggling to suppress the ripple of excitement that made his body tremble, he braced himself to encircle his fiancée's waist and drew his face closer onto hers. He held his breath. God, late Hokages, dad in heaven, this is going to be my first kiss during the twenty-two years of my life … please let it be right!
Hinata tried to remember whatever Ino's tips on kissing had been again, but when Neji's face was three inches away from hers, she could only think of one absolute subject: Hyūga Neji.
Sure enough, no elaborate technique was involved during the kiss; in fact, it was awkward: they narrowly escaped the bump on the nose. And yet … when their lips met, there was a jolt of electric current flowing in their heads … when their skin brushed against each other, there was rapture … when intakes of breath traversed in-between them, there was craving. The more they looked at each other, the hungrier they became for further kissing.
The first kiss turned out to be so unlike what they had imagined it would be: it was intoxicatingly delicious, confusingly delirious, and better in every possible way than their daydreams.
Chapter VII: A Farewell
Vultures circled in the darkening crimson sky above. A gust of wind blew the murky leaves. The cicada began to chirp, greeting the nightfall. There was no one else in the precinct, save for himself and some occasional passing lizards. At least that was all Hyūga Neji could gather presently. He was barely aware of anything else. His entire body throbbed with pain; it was agonising enough just to breathe. Still, the gold band that encircled the ring finger of his left hand kept his mind unswerving from a single thought.
When the sun had been higher in the sky it had found him on a solo mission, engaging five Smoke shinobi, four chūnin and a jōnin. None of them had any noteworthy jutsu, but one of the Smoke ninja who was a puppet master, had managed to administer some poison to Neji while the ANBU captain had been fighting his companions.
The poison was smuggled inside a puppet. Less than three inches high and shaped like a thin cylinder with four limbs, the puppet had managed to evade detection in the heat of battle. As Neji landed the killing blow on one of his opponents, the puppet landed on the nape of his neck—Byakugan's one blind spot—and injected its' entire reservoir of poison into the Konoha shinobi's bloodstream. As Neji killed the rest of the ninja, he saw the puppet master die with a smirk on his lips and knew the poison was lethal—and fast.
He had to get to her, had to see her before he died. Kemurigakure—the Hidden Smoke Village—was only four hours away on foot—less than an hour for a shinobi. Nevertheless, every step Neji took tortured him. The pain was as if his arteries were being ripped apart. The more he moved, the more poison spread through his veins, the more toxin contaminated his bloodstream, the darker every second grew. However, he pressed on. He had no other option.
'Eek!' squeaked a horrified Yamanaka Ino, who had just finished her working shift, as she caught sight of Neji staggering down the street towards the Konoha hospital two excruciating hours later. 'Neji-kun, why is your skin green?!'
The ANBU captain had collapsed into a crumpled heap in the street before he could offer the stunned medical kunoichi any answer.
Neji's eyes snapped open and he winced as the rays of the bright midday sun lanced into his eyes. As the room swam into focus he realised he was in a hospital bed, and that Hinata, in a rose-tinted soft focus with a backdrop of pure-white from the window behind her, was at his side, holding his slack hand tightly in her own. Her face was haggard from sleeplessness and tears to course freely down her face the moment his eyelids opened. He could barely look anywhere else—he had made the girl he loved cry!
'Neji… Neji…' She brought his hand to her mouth, kissed it, and then held it to her cheek.
'Ninja aren't meant to shed tears.'—that was what Neji was considering to tell her, and yet he found himself at a loss for words for quite a while. As always, whenever he heard his name coming out from her mouth, the whole world faded away. He couldn't tell if Hinata was crying from relief that he had come around or in grief for their parting that was still to come. All he wanted was to look upon his beloved forever, and to never speak of his pending mortality. But his conscience reprimanded him as sternly as it could, given the circumstance. Hinata's wellbeing had been—and would always be—his priority.
Weakly, feebly, he uttered in a voice which was broken as much by emotion as by pain, 'Hinata, you must find your own happiness.'
The careworn girl made no pretence about failing to comprehend what her fiancé meant, but squeezed his hand in hers instead. Ino and Sakura had told her earlier that the poison in Neji's bloodstream was incurable. She shook her head in silence, trying her best to restrain the tears that kept escaping from her eyes.
'How can I protect you while I've been unable to protect myself? How many times have you suffered because of me?'
Though her tone was wracked with grief, her reply was steady, 'I want your love, not your protection! Do you think I could live happily in a world without you?'
'You must try.' Neji's voice was hollow and broken, and the brave façade he tried to project was a poor mask indeed for his grief and sense of loss, and the knowledge that he would soon be ripped from Hinata's arms by a force no mortal could defy. But through it all, in his tone rang a resolve that he knew he was right and that Hinata must learn to live a life without him in it. He removed the engagement ring from his finger and handed it to her.
If Neji's words hadn't torn Hinata's heart asunder, his action did. Again, tears streaked down her cheeks. The next second, however, she dropped her face directly above his, pressing their lips against each other's.
The world went perfectly still. Neji did not move a muscle. He even forgot to breathe—caught unprepared for such supervention. Hinata was kissing him.
The usually shy Hinata was kissing him of her own volition.
She was pouring bliss into him right now … but what about her own future joy? How much would she grieve over his death?
Neji's lips quivered with hesitation. This could be their last kiss. There might not be any more after this. She'd marry someone else, rule the clan with him and live the rest of their lives together—the life which wasn't meant for him. The life that could no longer be his.
Hence, surging forward with all the strength he had left, he responded to her kiss. Passion and desperation clung to him at the same time. She had always been his childhood friend, his lover, his treasure all life long. He would prepare himself to accept the fact that she would climb to another man's bed in the future, but for now, her delicate lips, her gentle touches, her tremulous soul, every part of her belonged to him and him alone.
After the kiss, Hinata withdrew with no more words and left without once looking back. Neji could only watch her go from his hospital bed. Long after she passed through it, Neji continued to stare at the doorframe, listening for the last sounds of the pitter-patter of her footsteps as she walked down the hospital corridor. A part of him wanted her to stay—to be at his side until he breathed his last—but he knew he shouldn't burden her with such a selfish request. Their last kiss would remain, eternal, in his mind and that alone would have to suffice.
With surprised faces draining into the slackness of sleep, the two guards of the main gate to the Hyūga compound collapsed from Hinata's Jyuken. She started towards the gates when a succinct voice behind her murmured 'Where are you going?' The single sound shattered the silence of the night around Hinata but carried only a few feet in the still night air.
'Outside,' Hinata responded without turning as she opened the main gate. She recognised the speaker instantly and readied herself for another Jyuken battle if worst came to worst.
Much to her surprise, as Hinata stepped outside the Hyūga precinct the speaker replied, 'Fine. I'll go with you.'
Shock stamped on her features, Hinata whirled to face the speaker. 'Hanabi-san! What are—'
But Hinata's sister mutely shrugged off her remonstration and stepped outside.
Hanabi closed the gate behind her. Once it had been shut, the gate could not be opened from the outside. The massive wooden beam over the gates, the one that bore the Hyūga family crest and at other times seemed so majestic, now stared down at the two in dismay. Leaving a hidden village without permission could, after all, cause one to be declared as a missing-nin.
'With Neji nī-san dying from poison, father starting to search for a new candidate to be your husband-to-be, and you leaving stealthily, it's not that hard to guess where this is leading. Am I not your sister?' Although conceited—as usual—Hanabi's words still conveyed her affection for the one and only sister she had.
'It's because you're my sister I want you to stay out of it! Please, Hanabi-san, I can't let you get involved with this.'
'Yes, actually, you can. You do have a choice. And so do I,' she smirked, 'Meaning, I can follow you whether you want me to or not.'
'You're running out of time? Then let's go!' Hanabi said, starting to walk off. 'Two heads are better than one—bigger chance to find the antidote for Neji nī-san.'
Years of experience with Hanabi's stubbornness made Hinata realise that whatever she did to oppose her sister—through words or actions—would end up as nothing but a waste of time. Right now Neji's safety was paramount.
As the two kunoichi raced off into the trees, leaping through the darkness with footfalls so light that the leaves lay silent beneath their passage, they could hear the soft calls of far—off owls hinting in the night, and a night hawk flapping its wings as it preyed on an unfortunate leveret.
'This is the direction for Takumi no Sato, isn't it?' asked Hanabi.
To which her sister nodded and answered, 'The herbal medicine grows inside the mausoleum of the Craftsman Village.'
Hinata recalled her conversation with Sakura in the hospital earlier that afternoon.
Right after Neji bade her farewell, the indigo-haired kunoichi sought out her medic nin friend. Thinking how distressed the Hyūga heiress must be, the pink-haired kunoichi spoke first in attempt to console her, 'Hinata, I know it must be hard on you. I was always crying my eyes out when Sasuke—kun abandoned Konoha. I wouldn't be able to … to go on without Naruto, now. But you have to be strong, Hinata … You still have your friends. We'll be here to help you.'
Hinata allowed the words, meant to comfort her, to fall on silence before she asked Sakura the question she had come to ask. 'Sakura-chan … can't your Saikan Chūshutsu no Jutsu heal Neji, like when you healed Kankurō-san from Sasori-san's poisons?'
Hinata's composed request for Sakura's Fine Affliction Extraction technique surprised the pink-haired kunoichi, and it showed in the shock that flickered across her face as she pulled herself together. Shaking her head, Sakura answered, 'I'm sorry, Hinata. Kankurō-kun didn't move very much after he was poisoned, and the Sand villagers immediately tended to him back then. Neji-kun came all the way from Kemurigakure back here, unaided. The poison has spread too much in his bloodstream. In which case, Saikan Chūshutsu can only extract seventy-five percent of the toxin from Neji-kun's body. The rest of the poison would have to be neutralised with herbal medicine; but four of the plants required do not grow in Konoha! Hyssop, Platinum Nightshade, Ribwort Plantain and Verdolagas are all findable only outside the Fire Country's borders.'
Hinata narrowed her eyes slightly in confusion. 'Platinum Nightshade? Not Black Nightshade?'
'No. In spite of the similar names, these two are entirely different species. Platinum Nightshade is very rare. Rather than grow in soil like most flowers, it grows on stone; but only in locations with a certain degree of humidity and sheltered from direct sunlight. The nearest of such location to Konoha, I think, is inside the mausoleum in Takumi no Sato.
As for the other three plants, they are not that rare; they simply don't grow on Konoha. But relax, they do grow in Tea Country and I'm going there tomorrow in a mission, so I'll be able to get them for you. You just need to find that Platinum Nightshade. Rifling through a pouch quickly, Sakura pulled out a charcoal sketch of the flower and handed it to Hinata. 'This is what Platinum Nightshade looks like.'
Getting to the mausoleum was not a problem at all. The tricky part was identifying the correct plant in the dark. The two Hyūga sisters were fortunate indeed to have the Byakugan as a kekkei genkai.
'Found it!' Hanabi almost squealed with joy. After nearly an hour of perpetual Byakugan searching and on the verge of near chakra exhaustion, she managed to find the one which looked like the picture Hinata had showed her.
Hinata examined the herb in her sister's hand and remarked, 'Thank you Hanabi-san, but this is not the correct plant. Look, the picture of the Platinum Nightshade has slightly pointed serrations on the leaves, but these ones are rounded.'
After another thirty minutes of painstakingly thorough searching, Hinata managed to get what she needed. It was just like Sakura had warned her: extremely rare—one stalk of Platinum Nightshade among thousands of other plants. She triple checked the plant and after making sure it was indeed correct, she exhorted, 'Let's go, Hanabi-san!'
Thus, the two sisters came out of the mausoleum, passing a street with empty stalls on both of its sides. During daytime, this was a busy marketplace where the local craftsmen sold their works and buyers crowded around their stalls like bees buzzing around hives. At this hour of the night, however, the place was no less deserted than the cemetery they had visited earlier.
Nevertheless, both Hyūgas realised that they were not alone. The younger sister threw a kunai sideways, onto a stall on their left.
A skimpy lilac-haired shinobi in his late teens wearing Yugakure no Sato or Hidden Hot Springs Village forehead protector with a large horizontal scratch across its middle emerged from behind the stall. Extracting Hanabi's kunai from his torn clothes, he yelled, 'Ugh, how dare you ruin Masaki's favourite skirt!'
Hinata and Hanabi spontaneously looked downwards. Unless their sight deceived them, he was indeed wearing a skirt, just as he had alleged. The floral-patterned pink miniskirt draped the hips underneath his belly, leaving the rest of his smoothly shaven legs bare, save for some mesh garment covering a small portion of his upper thighs.
As the missing nin stepped forward, with a flounce, to the Hyūga sisters' clearer view, they could see him having a hand clapped to his thickly powdered cheek in shock, 'How absolutely scandalous!' He smudged his lip-gloss unintentionally.
'Now that you know about Masaki's presence, things will go faster. Be good girls and hand Masaki over that Platinum Nightshade!' demanded the transvestite ninja effeminately with his best attempt at an adorable pout, which only made the corner of Hanabi's mouth twitch.
'And what makes you think we will say yes,' answered Hanabi, 'Ma-sa-ki?' her voice mocking, sarcasm incarnated in her speech as she drew out each delicate syllable.
'How dare you call Masaki's name with your rotten mouths just like that! Only Hidan-sempai had that privilege, and you, Konoha filths, killed him!' With these words, the so-called Masaki drew his nichogama—double sickles—spun, and threw them deftly at Hanabi.
The younger Hyūga evaded, her all-seeing eyes catching the nichogama's path. She predicted the trajectory, and balanced backwards on her palm dodging narrowly, her hair whipping upwards only to be caught by one of the sickles as it cut the tips of her long locks. 'You will pay for that!' with a sharp annotation, she launched into the Hyūga clan's famed Hakke Rokujyuyonshō—Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms. As her attack finished, she realised with horror that the flamboyant missing-nin stood calm and unscathed, and Hinata had suffered the effects of the attack.
'Nē-san!' Hanabi rushed to Hinata, as the latter coughed up blood. 'When did he hit you?'
But her elder sister hushed her, 'Quick, go back to Konoha and give this to Sakura-chan!' She entrusted her with the Platinum Nightshade.
Masaki struck again. His nichogama sickles hissed through the air about each kunoichi's neck like a pair of razor-edged boomerangs.
Hinata's hands lashed out in tandem, each clutching a kunai knife, and knocked aside the whirling sickles. Hanabi, on the other hand, stood staring dumbstruck at her sister. It was truly unusual for gentle-mannered Hinata to speak in such a peremptory tone. Although Hanabi was perfectly aware that her sister wouldn't have done this without Neji's life hanging in the balance, Hanabi still felt goose bumps prickle the back of her neck.
Choking down her surprise, Hanabi managed to retort, 'Why don't you go instead and I'll take this okama down?'
'We can't; I've been marked and am currently under his curse. But you are still unaffected. Go!' Hinata replied without taking her gaze off the flying nichogama.
Hanabi looked at her sister uncomprehendingly.
'There's no time to explain,' Hinata nearly shouted out of desperation, 'Trust me; I know what I'm doing! Just go!'
'Promise, no, swear to me that you'll come after me alive!' Hanabi gave her sister one last look as she finally took the Platinum Nightshade from Hinata's hand. At the sound of Hinata's 'I swear!', Hanabi dashed forward.
The Yugakure missing nin threw his nichogama towards Hanabi again. This time, having familiarised herself with her opponent's pace, Hinata threw herself into the weapon's deadly arc, snapping out her arms and grabbing the handles of the spinning sickles in her bare hands. As she landed on the cobblestone street her arms lashed out and the two scythes hurtled back at their owner.
One of Hinata's missiles slammed harmlessly into the dirt by the missing-nin's right foot, but the other would have scored his left arm had he not dodged—and narrowly at that. The ninja calling himself Masaki growled in anger; it had taken him months of training to be able to perform the exactly-timed manoeuvre to catch his own nichogama and many years to be able to perfect his technique, but this Konoha whelp caught them by a fluke of luck!
'Annoying bitch!' she heard him complain before feeling a sharp new pain on her right diaphragm: he had inflicted a wound on himself and she received the same wound, located identically to his. 'Looks like Masaki has to deal with you first before going after your bloody sister!'
'How did you curse me without the ritual circle and change of skin colour?' asked Hinata, who had heard about how Konoha shinobi had fought Hidan from Ino, 'When and how did you get my blood?'
'Is a Hyūga too conceited to see or feel a mosquito sucking her blood?' he gave her a sarcastic answer.
Hinata squinted and spotted a mosquito flying around Masaki. So he is a ninja animal trainer in addition to being a Jashin follower, she surmised, or perhaps he used Kuchiyose to summon the mosquito. And he licked my blood before encountering Hanabi and me.
'Hee-hee-hee…,' Masaki scorned her again in a shrill, high-pitched derision, 'Just because Hidan-sempai chose a flashy way to apply the Jashin circle, it doesn't mean all circles have to be applied in that way, you stupid twat!'
Masaki reached behind him and tugged an enormous scroll off of his back, spreading it open in front of him. As he surged chakra into the scroll and hundreds of nichogama were summoned into the air above the combatants, Hinata saw where her adversary had his Jashin circle—drawn in blood on the palms of his hands. The nichogama began to fall in a deadly rain, slamming into the street between the two ninja, and Hinata realised what her opponent's plan was—Masaki intended for the both of them to be cut to ribbons by the falling sickles.
Were the Jashin circle drawn on the ground, could be broken by forcing the performer out of the circle. But with them drawn on his hands, what am I to do?, Hinata thought frantically while struggling to evade and deflect the hundred showering nichogama with her Hakkeshō Kaiten—Eight Trigrams Palms Heavenly Spin. No matter how hard she thought, she couldn't solve the mystery why Masaki's curse could activate without his change of skin colour.
Masaki found a solace at Hinata's troubled expression; he had been irritated that none of his sickles had injured the girl. He extracted one of the embed sickles from the ground and cut a part of the Achilles tendon of his left leg with it. 'Ooh, this pain … is ecstasy!' He licked his lips, satisfied, when he saw her wincing in pain.
Holding her injured left leg, Hinata muttered inwardly, Great; now he reduces my mobility too! Looks like I have to rely on genjutsu to distract his mind.
Forcing her damaged leg to be in motion, Hinata swooped forward into Masaki's direction. With Hakke Hyakunijyuhachi Shō—Eight Trigrams One Hundred Twenty-Eight Palms—she attacked him. Her movements were so rushed and disorderly that he dodged her without much effort despite the same injury which he suffered on his own left leg.
'The pain on your leg impedes you this much? What a spoiled princess you are!'
Hinata disregarded Masaki's jibes and continued her feeble offensive.
'Don't tell Masaki this really is the best you can do!' he continued mocking her. In this distance, Hinata could see clearly that Masaki's mosquito was still flying around its master's hands, twining between long, thin fingers with a vibrantly painted butterfly on each manicured nail.
What's the purpose of keeping that mosquito there? If it is a kuchiyose animal, it could have vanished long ago, as soon as its mission was accomplished. If it is a trained ninja animal, like Shino-kun's kikaichū, it should have other functions.
None of Hinata's punches hit Masaki.
What if this mosquito's presence is due to necessity rather than choice? Every jutsu has its own condition to activate. What if the condition for Masaki to perform the ritual was not the change of skin colour, but having this mosquito on his side?
'What are you? A genin? Some just idiot who was born just to taint Hyūga's eminent name?'
Hinata struck again. This time, however, her fist was different from before. It was solid with years of accumulated experiences, filled with the upsurge of her previously unreleased chakra, calculated with precision to aim at the spot which caused him cough blood, and clad with strength measured just enough to injure him without sacrificing too much of her own energy. Expectedly, she received the same impact on her body. This, however, did not hinder her from reaching her goal: collecting some of Masaki's blood.
Next, with the chakra wave from Hakke Kūshō—Eight Trigrams Empty Palm—Hinata killed Masaki's mosquito, only to find that her suspicion was right. As soon as the mosquito dropped dead, Masaki's complexion changed into black and white, no different from the late Hidan when his curse had been activated.
Masaki's eyes widened with shock. Had his opponent feigned impuissance all along just to catch him off-guard? Now he had the look of the Jashin curse side effect—the appearance which he had always considered to be grotesque. Unforgiveable! he thought. Seething with uncontainable anger, he cut his right thigh and both forearms, cognisant that she would suffer the aftermath more than he would.
Hinata withdrew to a safe distance. Despite the agony from Masaki's laceration she strove to execute Hiwameimō—Hidden Story of Illusion. She had collected a few drops of blood that he coughed earlier, and combining this with her hand seals, she started to analyse his past.
There he was, at the age of thirteen, still wearing a pair of trousers instead of a skirt, unpolished by any make-up, conferring enthusiastically with the nineteen-year-old Hidan; no crimson-clouded black Akatsuki uniform was attached to the latter's body.
'Must Hidan-sempai really leave Hidden Hot Springs Village?'
'Yeah, Masaki. Yugakure no longer thrives as a hidden ninja village; in fact, I've got no future in this country at all. I'm off to see the world.'
Masaki did not reply, but his shoulders slumped sadly as his gaze was slid to the ground.
'What's with that sad attitude?' Hidan put one hand on Masaki's shoulder, cheering him on. 'If you miss me, then sharpen your skills and come after me! I'll be waiting for you out there.'
'But … but … Masaki is not a genius like Hidan-sempai. How many years it will take for Masaki to be able to reach for Hidan-sempai, Masaki wonders?' he besought, 'Hidan-sempai and Masaki will grow too old by then.'
Hidan smirked. 'Go to the underground library. On the fourth shelf to the left, you will find a book called "How to Fight Cholesterols" among other medicine and health books. Open page seventy-seven. There, you'll see several lines underlined with pencil. Copy the structure into a piece of paper then go through a dondengaeshi—revolving trapdoor—in the furthermost southern wall. Behind it, there are staircases leading to another sublevel library.
The staircase you will descend is a grimy yet wide passage, but do not be mislead. Each step is divided into five slabs of stone and is guarded with seals. This part is important, Masaki— there is a pencil line, drawn down the steps. You must follow that mark—EXACTLY. Take one wrong step, the seal will activate and you'll be buried alive together with the library.
Once you get down in the deep, dark library,' said Hidan, affecting a cheesy horror-movie voice, 'search for a chest with a Monkey Seal on the lid. Then find the key for it—it's on the topmost shelf of the wall shelves immediately to its left. Inside is a scroll, spattered with…,' he paused for dramatic effect, '… blood! The scroll has the formula for personal rejuvenation. Try that!' Hidan gave his cohort a brief wink.
'Rejuvenation formula?' Masaki's eyes twinkled, 'Has Hidan-sempai tried it?'
'Nope. I'm short of three ingredients: Platinum Nightshade, Silver Centaurium and the skin of a white snake. And this is also why I want to see the world: to search in more places for this rare species.'
So that's why he wanted the plant, Hinata deduced. Based on this vision, she wove an illusion for her opponent.
Masaki was standing with an erupting volcano as his far background. The air was swelling with extreme tepidity. Yet, neither the molten magma nor the terrain-melting lava around them could rival the pervading warm feeling in his heart. The figure he obsessed with was currently standing tête-à-tête with him, although this sempai appeared mirage-like due to the optical phenomenon which was resulted from the temperature inversion. Smiling cordially, the usually bloodthirsty Hidan greeted him, 'After all these years, I didn't expect you to still be such a cry-baby, Masaki.'
'Hidan-sempai!' the younger of them broke into a run to hug him, tears brimming in his eyes. 'Masaki's sorry Masaki hasn't got Masaki's hand on those two plants. Masaki's a failure. Masaki disappoints you. Masaki—'
'Hush now, my dear kōhai, it's all right. I've got those two right here.' Hidan extended his hand wherein two different fauna species nested.
'Then we can start the ritual preparation right away!' exclaimed the younger of them breathlessly.
'Sure,' his idolised person patted his head, just as a father who was happy to see his young son getting excited at his surprise birthday party. 'I've prepared all the other ingredients in my new dwelling place. Follow me.' Hidan extended his hand to the boy.
Masaki was about to take Hidan's hand when he realised that his both hands still had the Jashin circles of his own blood. He wiped the bloodstains clean first, and then eagerly accepted Hidan's offer.
As Masaki took Hidan's hand—a tree branch in reality—the explosion tags that Hinata had planted earlier began detonating. They then walked into the light, the bright light of the explosion. With the Jashin circles erased, this explosion could no longer impinge on Hinata. Thus, finally able to join his idol in the netherworld, the life of the Hidden Heat Haze missing nin concluded with a bang.
The Hyūga heiress, however, had been a quarter mile away.
Heedless of the excruciating pain from her injuries, most especially from her partly severed Achilles tendon, Hinata rushed back to the village of Konoha. She pressed on for the Fire Country, taking no break throughout the entire journey without respite nor care for her surroundings, while branches kept slashing at her and inflicting a multitude of shallow gashes on the kunoichi's frame. The sun was barely cracking the ebony façade of night when she stumbled, crashing to the ground in a new wave of agony, the awkward three-point landing abrading her knees and one elbow. Nonetheless, the Hyūga heiress ignored this additional pain and forced herself doggedly onwards. After all, what was her agony to compare to Neji's safety?
At last, she arrived at Konoha hospital at the point of exhaustion, covered in cuts and bruises and with a swollen ankle; her injuries had aggravated due to her reckless travelling method. The first thing she demanded as soon as she stepped her foot into the building, however, was 'Let me see Neji!'
'All right, but he's sleeping now. I brewed the concoction the first thing in the morning, as soon as I received the leaf from Hanabi-san, and administered it intravenously into Neji-kun this morning. It should take about half a day to start working. But he seems to be okay. At least, his skin colour is no longer green.' Sakura escorted Hinata to Neji's room.
Only after the Hyūga heiress had caressed her fiancé's flowing hair with a sigh of relief did she let herself to be led into her own room and have her wounds tended. It was her father, rather than herself, who had the chance to see Neji when he first awoke.
'Why is he tied with chakra ropes?' asked the Hyūga clan leader as he entered the room where his nephew was sleeping.
The medical ninja explained, 'This is our safety precaution. He was screaming the moment he came to. Next, he Jyukened the nurses; he could have been more violent if we had not removed his weapons earlier.'
Only seconds later, Neji woke up with a start. He began to scream as he fought against the chakra-infused ropes.
The medic nin performed a hand seal to put Neji back to sleep again.
'What happened to him?' Hiashi asked the medic nin after his nephew drifted off into slumber.
'He kept hallucinating, Hiashi-sama. Apparently, this is the side effect of some concoction that most medic nins have no knowledge of. We can only deduce that this is some sort of mental disorder, but as for the cure, we are in the dark.'
That night, as soon as Neji opened his eyes again, the tormenting phantasm came back to him.
In his mind, he was fighting against an assassin in a crevice near a waterfall in Tani no Kuni or Valley Country. The air was thick with moisture and the mist reduced their vista, though nowhere nearly as troublesome as the rock surface they stood on, which was moist and slippery with moss, just as all the other rocks around them. At the bottom of a sixty—foot ravine, the sky was visible only as a dim slash of murky indigo between two towering rock walls.
Never had the Hyūga prodigy realised that the mist that had been swirling around them all along was toxic: whoever inhaled it would not be able to exert any chakra for the next twenty-four hours. The enemy had prepared an antidote for himself, naturally.
Hence, unable to use Hakke Hazangeki, as well as his other signature jutsu, Neji was forced to lunge with chakraless attacks. He dodged the short jab from his opponent, but realised it was a feint. The real attack was coming from the top with a roundhouse kick. The Leaf shinobi nimbly side-stepped the kick and delivered a palm thrust to the enemy shinobi's chest, only to have it countered and redirected to where it was harmless.
His arm a sinister blur of motion, the assassin drew an axe and hewed it horizontally across Neji's face, carving a deep gash across the heir's eyes and drawing gouts of blood. Spinning, the Konoha jōnin's hand encountered part of the rock wall and, bracing himself, he spun to face his attacker. Before the ANBU ninja could lay a hand on his assailant, however, the enemy buried his blade in Neji's stomach. As the hostile shinobi's hand emerged, dripping with ichor, from Neji's back, the prodigal Hyūga knew his odds of survival were rapidly approaching zero. Blood was gushing torrentially from this new, invasive hole in Neji's guts and worse still, parts of his jejunum were showing, bathed with blood. He felt his eyes—his ivory, smooth eyes—rolling back in his head and the world was fading in a cacophony of darkness and pain and sorrow and…
But no! He must live. He had to live on. He absolutely didn't want to leave this world behind because of something … someone! A girl with eyes similar to his own. A girl consanguineous to him. A girl he had always cared about since childhood.
Yes, that was the one true happy time in his life. His father was alive. His mother was still sane. He was free to play with his first cousin without calling her honorific. Wouldn't it be nice to return to that time?
The Hyūga prodigy struggled from the chakra ropes for one last time. His pearly orbs kept staring at the dim light of the moon that crept to the window—the dim light which illuminated the otherwise total sombreness with its silvery glint. And then, his body grew rigid. His mind grew languid. He gave in.
The next morning, when a nurse checked Neji's condition, she could only stand deadpanned before finally managed to fetch the doctor, stuttering with her explanation, for her patient, the current ANBU captain, demanded, 'I want my robots and building blocks! I want them! I want them now!'
Chapter VIII: Neji's Amnesiac Days
When the news reached Sakura's ears, she told her fellow medic nin, 'Please keep Neji-kun's, uh, condition a secret from others for now; I will tell Hinata in person.'
'I'm sorry Haruno-san, I believe the doctor had informed Hyūga Hiashi about this.'
Hinata could only gaze crestfallenly as Sakura broke the news to her about Neji's aberration. The Hyūga heiress had been sound asleep for two days, exhausted by her battle with Masaki and the overexerted journey that followed. Sakura had tended to her wounds in the hospital, most especially her severed tendon. Now she was allowed to leave—only to find Neji had mentally regressed to childhood.
'I have told Tsunade-sama about this and she agreed to grant Neji-kun temporary relief from his ANBU duties,' Sakura said before leaving.
Subsequent to the pink-haired medic nin's departure, the Hyūga heiress rose from the bed and approached the window. There, sitting on the window ledge with both knees tucked up to her chest, she looked outside the window gloomily. People came and went. The sky still had its sun and clouds. Nothing seemed to change, but she knew her life would never be the same again. Or, at least, her father would not let it be so.
The news was not totally unexpected in spite of Hinata's hope that this sort of thing would not happen. Before her quest for the Platinum Nightshade, Sakura had indeed warned her that the potion might induce undesirable side effects for the cerebral system: amnesia, mental disorder, coma…
Hinata inhaled and leaned her back against the glass window. She had decided to take the risk. Therefore, when it failed, she had to accept the consequences. Life and reality had never been as smooth and perfect as hopes and dreams.
In the end, deciding to visit Neji's sickbed, Hinata got up and left the hospital. Neji should be in the Hyūga manor right now; the medic nins had confirmed that although he would behave like a young child, he would not hallucinate nor endanger himself or his surroundings any further.
However, back at the Hyūgas, before Hinata reached Neji's room, Hiashi called her to halt, insisting that they needed to talk that instant. Heavy-heartedly, Hinata followed her father to his study room. He did not invite her for another tea ceremony, for his schedule was quite tight at present.
'Daughter, I shall be direct. Today, I summon you here to inform you that your engagement to Neji will be annulled.'
Hinata froze on the spot, her eyes widened with shock and her face was robbed of its colour. Her greatest fear had come true!
Her father continued, 'Last night I tested Neji's physical condition and although he managed to dodge my offence, he replied with, "Hey Mister, you meanie, why attack me all of a sudden?" You see, daughter, not only he has become amnesia, but he also behaves immaturely. I cannot entrust the fate of our clan in the hands of a man with a mere child's mind.'
'There is no guarantee that he will stay the way he is now for the rest of his life,' she tried to defend her fiancé.
'Exactly,' asseverated the head of the clan, 'His condition could aggravate; he could even follow his mother's path.'
'He could also get better,' Hinata endeavoured to argue in desperation.
'How long must I wait for that farfetched dream of yours to come true? The prime of youth no longer resides within me. Will my aged body be able to vanquish vernally vigorous enemy when they invade our clan?'
'Neji has not lost his fighting abilities or any other physical strength.'
'Which is why he will stay as the clan chief's—your future husband's—protector. Kō will remain your protector. A week after your twenty-first birthday, you will meet the newly appointed candidate for your husband-to-be in an o-miai.'
So, father has even decided an arranged matchmaking session for my future husband? Hinata was at the verge of tears while her father conveyed his decision. Nevertheless, she did all she could so as not to evince her vulnerability to her father by maintaining the outward semblance of a spectator whose life remained unaffected by the tragic story of a play. No matter how much she deplored his order, she must not display a disdainful look or denounce a dejected word to him. Since her father did not hesitate to trample her in her current condition, he would surely do something worse if she appeared in a weaker state.
Hiashi cast one last penetrating look to his daughter before saying 'That would be all; you are excused.'
She retreated after a bow.
On her way back, Hinata passed Neji's room. She hesitated, but after much pondering, decided not to meet him until she sorted out her feelings. She then turned to look skyward and heaved a sigh. She did not want to return to her room, lest she might cry there. And mere tears, as her years of experiences indicated, never solved her problems.
Thus, Hinata walked onto the backyard. Sakura had warned her not to practise excessively since her Achilles tendon was still in the healing process, but Hinata supposed a bit of practice wouldn't do her any harm; she did not want to get an atrophy and did need to let her stress out anyway.
As Hinata practiced, it was mere muscle memory that performed the kata of the Jyuken, leaving her rational mind occupied with Neji. Why must he slip through her fingers after she knew their love was mutual all along? Must she vow to share her life with another man for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until death do them part, with Neji haunting her mind? Was it inevitable for her future children to address Hyūga Neji as 'uncle' and not 'father'?
The man who haunted her thoughts, however, came soon afterwards: Neji arrived carrying a rubber ball. 'Hi, won't you play kickball with me?'
Neji with his usual adult appearance but the tone of a child? It took Hinana five full seconds before she was eventually able to force her voice out, 'Um, Neji…'
'Oh, you know my name! Who are you?'
At the sound of Neji's words, the tears that Hinata had been holding back did fall: facing him in his amnesiac state was different from hearing the news that he got the memory regression.
'Don't cry! Could it be that you don't remember who you are either?'
She only stared at him ceaselessly, unable to respond.
Hence, he went on, 'I also face the same problem. Yesterday, I got up and saw a stranger's reflection in the mirror and heard a stranger' voice while I gasped. I was really worried so I ran and ran and then a carer told me that what I saw and heard was none other than myself, except all grown up now. I thought she was lying: people wouldn't grow up that fast in just one night. I was less than five years old the day before yesterday, but I turned to twenty-two yesterday. But then, she told me that I had lived a long time and forgot about what happened during the last seventeen years!
And what's more, when I asked where my parents were, she said that my dad was dead and my mom was in the special hospital for crazy people. She told me to be more worried about the fact that I'm getting married soon and sent me home.'
With trembling voice, Hinata inquired, 'And what are you going to do about that marriage?'
'I can't marry somebody I don't even remember. The servants told me that my fiancée was away, but once she gets back, I'll ask her not to marry me.'
Hinata swallowed hard, 'I see.'
'So cheer up, you're not alone. If anybody here is mean to you, like the grumpy old man from last night, I'll protect you.'
Hinata chortled upon hearing Neji referring to her father as 'grumpy old man'.
Seeing her smile, he commented, 'That's the spirit! Now let's play kickball!'
'Sorry, my injured ankle is not fully healed. Can we play something else?'
'Sure. What about Snakes and Ladders?'
Thus, the two cousins sat across each other on the wooden engawa veranda. Neji was excited to get a playmate at last; the servants had been too busy to keep him company. Hinata, on the contrary, felt more dejected with every step. The closer her token to the final square was, the closer she felt to the end of the final opportunity of spending her time together with Neji … she would be married to someone else soon.
After the game was settled with her win, Hinata took a deep breath and said, 'I need to get going. It's been fun playing with you.'
Neji grinned widely at her with an innocence and happiness that she had not seen since Hizashi's death. She smiled back at him, her hands clasped together in a familiar nervous gesture.
'A-ah, if only I got to marry somebody like you!' she heard him sighing just as she rose from her seat.
Staring at her former fiancé with disbelief, the indigo-haired girl could not even open her mouth to speak. She merely listened as he went on saying, 'You're fun to get along with. If it's with you, I want to be buddies forever.'
Why do you have to say those words right when I've decided to give up on you? Hinata could no longer suppress her emotion; she bent and hugged the sitting Neji.
He was surprised by this abruptness, yet it only took him seconds afterwards to return her hug with equal enthusiasm. But at this point Hinata startled: she shouldn't flirt with a man whom her father disapprove of—in the open. Hastily she broke their embrace and ran while saying 'S-see you!' without looking back at Neji.
Striding fast towards her room, Hinata's cheeks were still flushed crimson. It was then that her sister saw her in the hallway and decided that they needed to talk.
'Nē-san,' she uttered, once the two girls were sheltered within the safety of Hinata's room, 'I want you to know that no matter what father has decided, I will do whatever I can to help you gain your happiness.'
'Hanabi-san…,' her sister hugged her, '…thank you.'
The younger of them squinted her eyes. 'So, what's your decision?'
'I will make father acknowledge Neji as the only one suitable to be my husband.'
Resoluteness rang strong steel within Hinata's voice and Hanabi wondered how her used-to-be frail and bashful sister could be this determined when it came to Neji.
'Good decision,' Hanabi smirked, 'Seems like you were having a good time with Neji nī-san earlier.'
This set Hinata's cheeks ablaze with rosy colour. 'W-what m-makes you think so? Did you see…'
Hanabi giggled. 'You two kissing each other in the backyard.'
'I—we didn't!' panicked Hinata.
Hanabi giggled again. 'Of course not. I was just kidding. You're still gullible even at this age!'
Hinata flushed even more furiously, but Hanabi went on, 'You know what, I met Neji nī-san this morning and with pure curiosity he asked, "Back in the hospital, the medic nin said that my fiancée was a Hyūga girl. Is it you?"
I told him, "No. It's my sister you ought to marry."
"Thank goodness it's not you. I don't like you enough to marry you."
"Thanks very much," I made a sarcastic reply, but without the absence of relief. "By the way, do you know what marriage is?"
"Sure. Just like mum and dad, right? They have to live in the same room, work, cook, clean the house and raise kids."
So, nē-san, basically I think you'll be doing okay even with the childish version of Neji nī-san. Well, he's got a grip on the very basic table manner—he did not lift the meat plate from the dining table or anything—but you'll need to teach him more elaborations in time,' Hanabi cheered her blushing sister on. 'Now tell me how can I help you?'
'Could you investigate whom among the council members' sons were S or A class jōnin and still single?'
After Hanabi stepped out from her room, Hinata was lost in thoughts again. She remembered that two years before she had been on a mission to escort and guard the Mitsu no Kuni or Honey Country daimyō's niece named Akemi. Akemi had been delegated to marry Hideki, one of the next daimyō's candidates in Yasai no Kuni or Vegetable Country. The Vegetable Country daimyō, Haruna, had been barren. Hence, she had selected five candidates with promising talents to compete as her future successor. The competition itself had been meant to be a healthy one, but the candidates had plotted to murder one another behind Haruna's back. It had been for this reason that Akemi's parents had arranged a chūnin bodyguard during their daughter's first month as Hideki's wife, until she had been to adapt to this new lifestyle.
There were three reasons why Hinata had been chosen for this particular task. One, she had been neither a male ninja nor a normal girl, but a kunoichi. Two, she had had the Byakugan to ensure, say, there had been no poison added while Akemi's food had been being prepared in the kitchen. Three, she had been the Hyūga heiress; her demeanour would befit a daimyō's household manners and she had understood the consequence of putting Akemi's life in danger more than anyone else since she herself had had similar status. This last reason had also brought friendship between the two girls.
The convoy had encountered no serious danger in the journey. Some other candidates' hired hitmen had attempted to assassinate Akemi on the way, but they had been easily overcome, non-shinobi as they had been. The real conflict—though this had been for Akemi, rather than Hinata—had lain ahead.
Hideki had turned out to be an eleven-year-old boy whereas Akemi's age had been twenty-three. Even so, he had been prepared with all the necessary educations fitting to be the leader of the country; hence, he had been more erudite than most adults. He had also been brilliant, sophisticated, and not spoiled; in fact, he had behaved far more maturely than his age should. He had not had much free time to flirt with Akemi due to his educational obligations, but when he had met her, he treated her like a gentleman would. He had taken her for a walk, presented her with a flower and placed it behind her ear while both were seated on a bench; his inferior height wouldn't allow him to accomplish this while standing.
Akemi, on the other hand, had treated Hideki with the kindness of an elder sister. She had sympathised with him; with all the harsh competitions and murder attempts he had to endure since tender age; with the lack of love from his own family, who had treated him as a mere tool to acquire prestige; with his uncomplaining nature…
Therefore, when the bride and groom retired to the bridal chamber after the wedding ceremony, Akemi certainly had not expected her little husband to copulate with her. Nevertheless, things had not always been as planned; the recurrent moans audible even to Hinata who had been standing on guard in the garden outside corroborated this.
Hinata had decided not to bring such private subject into conversation when they had chatted the following day, but Akemi had mentioned it. 'I can't believe it, Hinata-san! He is such a young child, so I offered to read him a bedtime story, and yet, his answer was "Sure, as long as you tell the story with your body instead of words." And then he began to undress me seductively.'
The kunoichi was unsure she wanted to hear the rest of the story, but the excited newly-wedded wife had carried on, 'When he parted my legs, he said, "I may not be the man of your dream now, but I will be." And sure enough, what he lacks now he will gain one day, since he is still growing up. But the most amazing part is that he made up his inferior size with superior technique.'
At this point, Hinata had said, 'Akemi-san, please proceed no further.'
'Oh, pardon me, I got carried away,' Akemi had blushed, 'But Hinata-san, are you possibly still a maiden?'
But even before the Hyūga heiress had verbally answered, her client had seen the gleam of honesty in her eyes and blurted out, 'I'm sorry. I was going to seek your advice on the technicalities since I assumed that all kunoichi used sex as a part of their fighting strategies, but now I know that I was wrong.'
The current Hinata sighed. Perhaps I should have listened to Akemi-san back then. That way, I might get a clue how to deal with a 'younger' husband … but then again, maybe not! Neji's situation is the complete opposite of Hideki-san's: a child's mind within an adult's body vs. an adult's mind within a child's body.
The very next day, Hanabi gave Hinata the list she wanted. 'Here. Christmas present is not supposed to be opened on Christmas Eve, but just this once, I'll make an exception,' she left with a smile to let Hinata scrutinise the list. Among all the Hyūga council elders' sons, there were seventeen who were jōnin ranked A-class or above. Of these seventeen men, only three of them were unmarried.
Suddenly a pair of hands covered Hinata's eyes from behind. Surprised by this abruptness, she ceased from her memory recollection and activated her Byakugan on impulse.
'That's unfair! You are supposed to guess, not make sure who I am with the Byakugan!' Neji pouted as he let go of his palms from Hinata's face.
Realising that she wouldn't have received such treatment from the normal Neji, Hinata couldn't help smiling.
'Let's play hide-and-seek!' exhorted Neji.
'I'm sorry Neji,' she stroked his silky hair, 'I have something to do right now, but I will play with you another time.'
'Promise?' Neji extended his pinky and sang, 'Yubi kiri genman, uso tsuitara … hari sen bon nomasu, yubi kitta. (Linking finger promise, if you tell a lie … swallow a thousand needles and severe your finger.)'
Hinata coiled her little finger with Neji's as she sang along.
As soon as the promise was made she darted away, out of the Hyūga precinct, to where her teammates were. 'Shino-kun, Kiba-kun, Akamaru-chan, I need your help.'
Three days later, on her twenty-first birthday, Hinata was summoned to Hiashi's study. There, after wishing his daughter a happy birthday, he gave her a birthday present—a box containing a kimono set of finest silk with golden embroidery, fitting for a clan leader to attend important ceremonies. The cost of which, no doubt, was sufficient to buy a small house.
After expressing her words of gratitude in a deep bow, Hinata spoke again, 'Father, there is something I would like to give you too.' She presented him with a disc in its case, and then bowed again, lightly this time, and took her leave.
After sliding the fusuma door closed, Hinata took a deep breath. Right, this is it! Hopefully father will change his mind after seeing those recordings.
The disc contained Hinata's activity that Christmas. Based on Hanabi's list, Hinata, Kiba and Shino had spied upon each one of the three possible candidates to find out their weaknesses. She then duelled against them, in turn, and all of their battles were recorded by a hidden camera. This was cheating; yes, she wouldn't deny that. But if it was for the sake of securing her future with Neji…
As expected from a possible candidate for her future husband, Hyūga Hiroaki was not easy to defeat, in fact it was near impossible for her to gain victory, had it not been for Kiba's report that he had the tendency to be overly speculative, and therefore vulnerable to a simpler trap within other more convoluted traps.
Hinata sprinted towards him, her hands flipping through hand seals as she ran. Hiroaki judged her as she moved, Why does she attack me? What is her motive for the fight? After all, she had come to him out of the blue earlier that morning, declaring a challenge with no further explanation. Hinata landed a hit on his ribs, impairing his ability to bend and move, and then brought him to his knees with her Hakke Hyakunijyuhachi Shō—Eight Trigrams One Hundred Twenty-Eight Palms—in his incapacitated state.
He retaliated with Hakke Nihyakugojyuroku Shō—Eight Trigrams Two Hundred Fifty-Six Palms. Clearly, his was the skill of a master practitioner; the gap in their skill was conspicuous indeed. He was a master of poise, a pinnacle of lethality, a gold standard among ninja, a perfect assassin. She was barely able to keep pace. Falling back, she disappeared into the surrounding trees.
Hiroaki kept his focus on her; his Byakugan range exceeded hers. He built up his chakra for what Hinata felt to be an even more sophisticated technique. Yet, she would not let him finish what he had started. Flashing through her seals for Suidammaku or Aquatic Barrage, she waited until her opponent concentrated purely on his attack and therefore lost his focus on her before pelting him down. Her beads of water circled, chased and eventually cornered him into the location of her trap.
Before seeking him for battle, she had planted what seemingly to be a triple layer metal wire trap on the terrain, having a wire visible and open to dodge, with another two wires supposedly painted green to blend in with the surroundings. She had calculated that he would see them all and would try to dodge them, and he, unknowingly, went along with her scheme.
In truth, the third wire was harmless—a toy from children's shop. By evading it, Hiroaki fell into an otoshiana or concealed pitfalls—the very basic trap in the ninja world that even most genin could easily avoid. The Hyūga heiress watched as he cleared her wire traps in a single jump, failing to notice the explosive tag tucked to the underside of the stone he landed on inside the pit. The explosion was small enough as not to deprive his life, but it still more than capable of robbing him of consciousness. Hinata dragged his swooned body to a bench and left him to sleep off the fatigue.
Hyūga Hideyuki was even more formidable to tackle. He was a member of ANBU, though not a captain like Neji was. Naturally, Hinata couldn't have triumphed over him without Shino's information regarding his trauma. As a child, Hideyuki had narrowly escaped blindness caused by the blunder of some bullies. Ever since, he had become sensitive to any attack to and around his ocular area.
Leading with the most elementary of combat strategies—a feint—aimed at Hideyuki's right superciliary arch, Hinata proceeded towards her oponent. The Hyūga man flinched in surprise, while she launched into her Shugohakke Hyakunijyuhachi Shō—Protection of Eight Trigrams One Hundred Twenty-Eight Palms—targeted directly at the vulnerability exposed by his over-reaction.
Fate almost snatched the victory from her hands as her tender Achilles tendon nearly failed her, marring the pivots necessary for the jutsu. Nonetheless, the agony was worth enduring for: the Hyūga heiress persisted through the pain and upon the final One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth palm, Hideyuki collapsed to the floor, much like a puppet whose strings were cut, and she was able to pocket her second victory, wincing in pain all the while.
Hyūga Hisao, Hinata's last opponent, possessed neither special traits in strategy nor exceptional skills in speed. He was, however, endowed with a perpetual stamina to make up what he lacked. Therefore, Hinata had to vanquish him quick while he remained defenceless. Really quick.
Hinata darted forwards, using her Jyuken to push Hisao back. Next, she closed swiftly, shutting off his tenketsu with the infamous Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms and then dropping him with a ferocious barrage of Jūho Sōshiken, or Gentle Step Twin Lion Fists,on the pit of his stomach. Her blow to his solar plexus caused his diaphragm to spasm. While he had difficulty in breathing, she took the opportunity to strike him on the mandible. Her second Jūho Sōshiken landed hard. This was the one time she did not hold back against a Hyūga. Speed must remain her first priority and much though she excelled in chakra control, time would not wait for her today.
Her opponent could feel blood gushing in his mouth. His tongue was not hitting anything. His jawbone must have broken. He tried his best not to stagger; he didn't want to lose to a girl—heiress or not. The majority of his tenketsu had formerly been closed by her Hakke Rokujyuyonshō and she applied a sharp strike to the carotid artery in his neck. The compressed artery starved Hisao's brain temporarily of oxygen. As a result, he dropped unconscious without any chance for retaliation, tumbling to the ground at her feet.
That night, Hiashi had an uneasy sleep. When he did fall asleep at long last, he had a nightmare about Hinata's wedding.
His elder daughter looked positively radiant in her white wedding kimono. The ceremony went well until the married couple sipped their ceremonial sake. After that, forming a seal with her hands, the bride said with an unfaltering voice, 'Father, I have obeyed you to marry a candidate of your choice. With no regret, I shall declare that I shall obey you no more; he cannot have me, not even my corpse.'
Hiashi transfixed his Byakugan upon her, but his action was too late. No more than a second had passed since the end of her words than Hinata's body burst into smithereens, though her surroundings remained unaffected. Hinata had smeared special gunpowder on the major parts within her body and tucked an explosive tag in each sode sleeve. A simple ninjutsu seal was all she needed to ignite the detonation.
All who stood there stared in horror. Amidst the nervous glances and chaotic screams of the spectators, Neji approached Hinata's remains. Taking a piece of her remnants, he held it tenderly across his chest. Childishly aberrated as he was now, he did not fail to understand the loss of his most treasured person. Cradling the singed flesh in his arms, he murmured softly, 'Hinata…' The next second, he charged chakra in his other hand and planted a Hakke Hazangeki—Eight Trigrams Mountain Crusher—into his own stomach, ending his life alongside his beloved's in an instant. His lifeless body was suspended for a moment by the amount of chakra, but soon fell beside her.
'What have I done?' came out vaguely from Hiashi's mouth, chill descending to his bones. More uproar broke out at the commotion ensued.
Hiashi woke up with a start. The wintry weather did not preclude cold sweat from trickling on his forehead and back. The pain in his chest would not subside; that one single nightmare was enough to blow somnolence away from him for the rest of the night.
He had indeed been considering Hyūga Hideyuki as his intended son-in-law. Earlier that evening, however, after watching the recording of his daughter's fights, he changed his mind to ordain Hyūga Hajime to divorce his wife so that he could marry Hinata; Hajime was, after all, still thirty-four years old and the best Hyūga fighter after Neji. Hinata was his daughter but she was also a Hyūga heiress and a ninja; she could—or should have known better to—consider marriage as a long-term mission rather than a sentiment-induced commitment.
Nonetheless, his nightmare just now started to change his point of view. Perhaps, it was better for him to let his daughter and nephew unite their loves while still alive, here and now, rather than in the afterlife later. But then … how could he let Neji's childish figure to lead the most distinguished clan in Konoha?
Should I let Hinata lead the Hyūga clan alone, with Neji only as her protector and the father of her future children? No, her ability is nowhere near enough for a leader; the council elders wouldn't approve.
Hanabi? No, although her fighting skill is better than Hinata's, her characteristics are more suitable for a general or lord-of-war, rather than a king. At her bloodthirsty command, it is quite likely that Hyūga will wage war with other clans.
Hinata and Hanabi co-ruling? Given their personalities, undoubtedly Hinata will just do as Hanabi says.
Adopting an heir? Voting? Contest?
After myriads of unsatisfactory possibilities jamming in his mind, the old man decided to employ the dishonourable tactic that his great-grandfather had supposedly used on his son. There was a rumour that a real mage lived in the Forest Country who was supposed to be a practiser of a forbidden deviation of Jashinism and was said to specialise in manipulating the mind of any living creature. Hiashi excogitated to gain the mage's favour—through gold—to falsify a love for Hinata and her new fiancé, Hajime.
This was inhuman. This was unfatherly. Yet, this was the best solution he could offer for the glory of the Hyūgas.
Therefore, the next morning, Hiashi told her elder daughter to have her last date with her beloved. This was a gift from a father to his daughter; granting her a piece of heaven before compelling her a lifetime of hell was the least he could do.
'Neji, there you are!' Hinata greeted her beloved cousin as he was playing with a car toy in the snow, under a tree on the Hill of the Heroes.
Neji looked at her. A tendril of vapour slipped between his lips, accompanying his question for her, 'Someday, are you going to leave me too?'
Hinata answered him with a confused face, 'W-why would I?'
'Without me remembering a thing, dad has gone. Just there, twenty steps from here, there's a gravestone with his name on it. I don't even remember when and how he died. He just … left,' gloomily he answered her, 'Mom was said to be in the lunatic hospital, but the servants forbade me to visit her in my current state. Again, I have no clue how she could end up there.'
'Oh, Neji…' Hinata hugged the young man before her, 'I won't leave you; I promise.' Until death do us part.
'Today will you play with me?' he asked her again, his tone pleading.
Happily she replied, 'Yes, as a matter of fact, why don't we go to explore a cave, as well?'
'Treasure cave? Cool! Shall we go now?'
Hinata nodded with a smile adorning her face.
'What's your name, by the way?' he asked as they walked.
'Hinata? Uncle Hiashi's daughter, my favourite cousin and my fiancée? Or do you just have the same name as her?'
'I am her.'
'Whoa, I didn't recognise you a bit! You've grown so beautiful!' he stared at her from head to toe in awe, but then his expression changed into a sulk, 'Hey, you could have at least told me that you were the one I was supposed to marry! I wouldn't want to cancel the marriage if I knew my bride was you.'
'Sorry,' she answered with a tint of pink. Rapture surged inside her.
'No, you won't get away without punishment.' Neji folded his arms across his chest.
'W-what am I to be punished with?'
Neji pretended to think, but it was plain to see how his eyes twinkled with slyness. 'You must kiss me.'
Hinata halted her steps and blushed more prominently. Nonetheless, Neji waited for her and even bent a little so that she did not need to stand on tiptoe. Hence, the heiress gave him a quick peck on the left cheek.
When she was about to walk again, he protested, 'I didn't say once was enough. Besides, that was way too quick.'
Blushing with even deeper colour, Hinata pecked Neji's right cheek, a little slower this time.
Only then, Neji smiled. 'You are forgiven. Now that we're not crossed with each other, we can arrange our wedding as soon as we return from the treasure hunting.' He then and took her hand in his and kept her on the lee from the wintry wind for the rest of their journey.
After the two Hyūga shinobi arrived on the mountain, played a game of tag, built snowmen, had a snowball fight and finished their sandwiches, Hinata entered the mouth of a cave. This cave was quite safe, since it did not have any stalactites or stalagmites. Neji followed behind his fiancée, feeling content merely by watching the cascading hair on her back.
'Neji,' she swallowed after they were quite deep inside the cave, 'I want to ask you something.'
Neji advanced to walk beside her, but she precluded him. 'No! Don't! Just … answer my questions from where you are, please.' I'm too embarrassed to see your face right now.
'Uh … all right,' he answered, though not without hesitation.
After inhaling intensely, Hinata went on, 'If someone else cancels our marriage, what will you do?'
'I will do everything I can to marry you, even if I have to make enemies out of them.' There was no shred of hesitation in his voice. 'I want to play with you … eat with you … sleep with you … walk with you … practise with you … spend my time with you as much as possible. Every day in our life.'
Hinata drew another deep breath. How red her face must be now she did not know. Nevertheless, she had confirmed Neji's feelings and this was enough to proceed to the next step.
When she had made her inquiry about the possible cure for Neji, Sakura had shaken her head, 'I've checked many scrolls, but none specify the cure for the side effect of this potion. I'm sorry Hinata. But if I may suggest, it is quite a common sense that amnesia is sometimes curable through shock therapy, so you may want to consider that.'
That being said, giving a shock therapy through accident to someone as agile and capable as Hyūga Neji was unachievable for her. If she wanted to shock him, she had to penetrate his mind!
'Neji,' she swerved and peered at him, 'I need your blood.'
'Just a drop will do,' she added upon perceiving his puzzled look.
'All right.' Neji bit his index finger and let his blood drip onto Hinata's hand.
Wasting no time, Hinata performed all the seals she needed for HiwameimōorHidden Story of Illusion.
The horrifying scene in a crevice near a waterfall in Valley Country replayed in Neji's mind. His arm a sinister blur of motion, the assassin drew an axe and hewed it horizontally across Neji's face, carving a deep gash across the heir's eyes and drawing gouts of blood. Spinning, the Konoha jōnin's hand encountered part of the rock wall and, bracing himself, he spun to face his attacker. Before the ANBU ninja could lay a hand on his assailant, however, the enemy buried his blade in Neji's stomach. As the hostile shinobi's hand emerged, dripping with ichor, from Neji's back, the prodigal Hyūga knew his odds of survival were rapidly approaching zero. Blood was gushing torrentially from this new, invasive hole in Neji's guts and worse still, parts of his jejunum were showing, bathed with blood. He felt his eyes—his ivory, smooth eyes—rolling back in his head and the world was fading in a cacophony of darkness and pain and sorrow and…
But no! He must live! He had to live on! He absolutely didn't want to leave this world behind because of something… someone… a girl with eyes similar to his own… a girl consanguineous to him… a girl he had always cherished since childhood… and she was right here even now!
The girl he held dear was looking at him, just two steps away.
Vaguely Neji's memories were drifting back to him…
Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to the Solar System, is 1.34 parsecs, or 4.37 light years away from the Sun…
Cos C = a2 + b2 - c2…
Like other chordates, tunicates have a notochord during their early development, but lack myomeric segmentation throughout the body and tail as adults…
4Al + 3O2 2Al2O3…
And my reason for always trying so hard to be the best was to impress Hinata—not late dad, mom, my classmates in the academy, Team Gai or my ANBU colleagues. Yes, it has always been she that matters most. Hinata…
When they were small, she used to wear her hair short. Over the past few years, her hair had grown so much it exceeded his. She was now one of the kunoichi with the longest hair in Konoha.
She regularly treated herself with Sweet Zenzai Bean Soup at the end of each month, but preferred Cinnamon Rolls for a quick breakfast.
She was the only one who kissed him, as well as the only one he ever kissed, and their kisses always left his head reeling and his lungs breathless even long after they had been finished.
She was the love that completed him. Whenever she was by his side, neither time nor space existed. And with each passing year, not only his physical height, but also his affection for her had kept increasing.
Hinata, oh Hinata…
He reached out for her at once. 'When I first saw you nearly eighteen years ago, I simply thought you were cute. As the years go by, to me you become irreplaceable.'
Neji looked down at her, and he remembered how he had last seen Hinata in a sheen of white in the hospital. He could not help but notice how different she was now, how much stronger she had become to help him recover from his amnesia.
She looked up at him, speechless. No words could convey her vicissitude of joy upon perceiving his return of memory. Only crystalline tears continued to flow from her pearly orbs.
Under the twilight's unfurled serenity, the two lovers entwined their arms in each other's embrace. The Hyūga heiress had just received the best belated birthday present ever.
Chapter IX: The Winter Wedding
In the evening of 16 January, in the honeymoon suite of a hotel, Neji was undressing himself. As he laid his attire on top of a six-panelled gold-leaved byōbu folding screen painted with a dragon ascending to heaven, he couldn't help smiling as he saw the foot-weight for the screen, located nearby. At the age of three, three days before the river incident, Hinata stumbled upon a foot-weight like this and fell while running around in the manor.
At that time, tears had begun to swell around the corners of Hinata's eyes. Hiashi, who had been working at his desk on the other side of the screen, heard the noise and approached her. Neji had become worried about his cousin—his favourite cousin.
In some families, when a child tripped over a piece of furniture like that, the parents would say, 'Are you all right, sweetie?'. In other families, the parents would say, 'Oh dear, is the expensive furniture broken?' In the Hyūgas, main branch or not, the parents would say, 'Stop embarrassing us!'
Pride had always been the foundation of the clan and therefore mattered more than the comfort of one's self and one's loved ones.
Even so, the moment Hinata had noticed her father's reproachful gaze upon Neji, she had tried her best not to let tears slip down her cheeks. It had been then that little Neji noticed Hinata would rather bear the pain in silence than watch him be scolded by her father for not being able to keep her out of harm's way. And although Neji had regarded Hinata as a cute girl the first time he had laid his eyes on her, this quality of hers had been what had initiated his inextinguishable infatuation.
At the beginning of his teenage years, he had noticed Hinata starting to 'divert her attention' to Naruto. How irritating that had been! He had indeed tried to stay away from her and to search for his own distraction, but in the end, she remained the only girl that filled his head. He had managed, temporarily, to pour his hatred for Hiashi upon her and even endeavoured to end her life, but this had only proven to deepen his love for her afterwards.
When he entered adulthood, so many girls had passed him by—fellow shinobi, crafty courtesans, daimyō daughters, street vendors, opponents and clients—all but Hinata failed to catch his interest.
And today … he had wedded the only one he ever fell in love with!
All that happened during the last twenty-four hours felt jubilantly surreal. Earlier this morning, he had finally married Hyūga Hinata. As soon as their wedding reception ended, they departed in a horse-drawn carriage. True, they could have journeyed faster in shinobi-style, but a honeymoon wasn't about speed. The hills and glens outside the carriage window looked resplendent with a dusting of snow, but none was more breathtaking than the beautiful head leaning on his shoulder on that journey.
Tonight they rested in this hotel and tomorrow they would resume their journey to their honeymoon destination: the Moon Country. While waiting for Hinata, who was in the bathroom, he reminisced about their wedding.
It was snowy this morning. Yet, neither hail of snow nor frosty air held their friends and relatives back from gathering in Konoha's most prestigious restaurant, where the wedding ceremony and reception were held. The room was bedecked with blue, white and silver ornaments, mostly resembling snowflakes. In one part of the room was a table ladened with a seven-tiered wedding cake, also meticulously embellished with the same theme, and topped with a sugar-frosted castle. Every dining table had a single-branched crystal candelabrum in its middle, on which a spiral white candle perched.
Hinata's fairy-tale dream wedding required Neji's participation in wearing a prince costume. He was grateful for her consideration, nevertheless, since she chose for him the military-style dark blue top attached with silver epaulets and white trousers in lieu of the ridiculous pumpkin-style attire with tights and a cape.
As the flower girl spread white floral petals, walking side-by-side with the ring bearer, Neji's heart thumped faster and louder; his wife-to-be was only a few steps away! He wondered whether he had ever been this nervous the first time he received a solo S-rank mission. But then, in near death situations, it had always been her that he thought of, and today was finally the day his long-awaited dream would come true. When he saw the princess-like Hinata, he felt weak in the knees. Every spot in his heart was craving with desire for her. He must be the luckiest man in the world to be given her as his better half!
She was Splendour in person. Her every movement was filled with grace, no less graceful than a swan swimming over the lake. Radiance adorned her countenance. A magnificent electrum tiara with meticulous design bedighted her majestic head; an empress silhouette gown of gradating light to dark blue with a glittering silver train adorned her slender figure; and a moonstone necklace embellished her dainty neck. A bouquet of Blue Salvia—I think of you—and Eucharis Lily—maidenly charms—bedecked her hands. Six bridesmaids in silver gowns followed her, including Hanabi, her maid of honour.
One step after another, his soon-to-be wife continued treading along with Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March'. When she reached him at last, he had to clench his fists so as not to hold the Sylph-like figure. When she let go of her father's arm, his heart skipped a beat. When the priest started speaking, he wished those words would finish soon; how he craved to kiss her!
After what felt like an aeon of minutes, his waiting came to an end. She intoned 'I do' when the priest asked of her. Blushing. Resolute. Ecstatic. As Neji unveiled his bride, he descried how the thin silvery blue make-up accented her mesmerising pulchritude. They shared a kiss—a kiss that marked the start of their life-long affection, passion and devotion.
Gai cried, 'Oh, my little Neji has grown up so fast!' and Kurenai, who shared the same feeling for Hinata—only that she did not weep—calmed him down.
When the bride and groom lit each candle on every table, Hyūga Nanae congratulated them. She also remarked, 'You have the same name as my son. I hope he'll grow up into such a fine man like you.' To many other ears this was no more than a lunatic senile woman's blabber, but to Neji's, this evinced how much his mother was proud of him. He beamed and smiled, 'Today, may I call you "mother" then?'
'But you already did, hah!' the disrupted woman snorted then busied herself by pouring some of the water from her glass onto the plate and twirled her index finger on the mini pool she had just created.
It was a good choice that Neji asked Nara Shikamaru to be his best man. They were not exactly close friends, but the shadow manipulator was one of the few shinobi Neji admired. He did not question Neji on anything, even the reason for not holding a bachelor night; he was a trustworthy person who did his duties rightly. He never claimed that he was delighted to do the job, but at least he did not utter 'this is troublesome' to honour the wedding; but most of all, when he proposed the wedding toast, it was for Neji and Hinata's happiness, not for the interests of the Hyūga clan.
As for Lee, who became one of the ushers, the springtime of youth really did come for him: love appeared before him without a warning. The girl was the only daughter of Neji's distant relative, fathered by a wealthy, non-shinobi merchant. The brunette hardly had brows and was so enticed by Lee's fuzzy brows and cheerfulness. Opposites attracted each other indeed!
Lee's fellow ushers noticed how red his face was and how peculiar he behaved. When Naruto asked whether Lee had drunk any sake, Kiba smirked, 'He's love-struck.'
However, it became Kiba's turn to gape when he saw Shino deserting them to court a girl. He had always been convinced that girls found insects more repulsive than dogs; therefore, there was no way Shino would get a girlfriend before him. But that girl… wasn't she the client Shino was assigned to protect for his first solo jōnin mission? Kiba was there too when the assignment was given, but he was ordered to deliver a confidential document instead.
As for how on earth that girl got attached to Shino, or even got invited to a Hyūga wedding in the first place, Kiba never knew; Shino was the type of person who would carry his secrets to the grave. The dog manipulator could only guess at random that either Shino saved her from a really scary event involving massive bugs or she was a keen entomologist.
Kiba ruminated further. All the shinobi in Rookie Nine but Chōji and myself have already found their love interests. Chōji is fat … er… overweight, so that's that. But I … am I that repulsive to girls? Am I ugly? Am I boring? Am I annoying? Am I stupid? What do girls think about me? Wait, what do I think about girls? Never. Exactly! ... So that's why. Even Akamaru has had grandchildren but I never thought of girls in my life.
When it came to girls, Kiba always thought 'That's future concern'. Perhaps he should make that 'future' today. He had always considered Neji to be the least affable bachelor, but perhaps it was he himself who should earn the title. Even Neji, whose marriage to Hinata he presumed to be loveless, promulgated 'I will make her happy even if that's the last thing I do!' in the dressing room shortly before the ceremony when Kiba nagged him to take care of Hinata properly.
The cake cutting was nothing out of the ordinary, apart from the fact that the bride blushed fervently when the groom's hand covered her own while they were holding the beautifully decorated knife together. Neji tried his best to hide his smile; every day from now on, he could—and would—officially touch Hinata. Hinata herself was secretly thankful that Neji had behaved like a small child weeks before. Had it not been for their daily snack practices, she would probably have swooned today when her groom fed her the cake.
As the bride and groom had their first dance with the chamber music accompaniment, many of Konoha residents felt out of place notwithstanding the prior notice in their invitation cards. On the contrary, some, especially the girls, were delighted; Sakura was one of them.
Sakura knew Naruto had never ballroom danced before, so she rose from her seat and insisted on a dance. As Naruto clumsily followed her steps, Sakura kept humming to herself. She might be a bridesmaid today, but she would be a spring bride when the sakura flowers were blooming. Naruto had used a thousand of his taijū kage bunshin to form a gigantic formation of 'WILL YOU MARRY ME, SAKURA?' on the Hokage mountain eight months before—a wedding proposal conspicuous enough for the whole village to witness. She would then become Konoha's first lady after Naruto's inauguration as the Seventh Hokage in June.
Ino could see that Sakura had beaten her again, not only in jōnin ability, but also matrimonial issue. She could picture herself becoming a bridesmaid again—Sakura's bridesmaid, just as she became Hinata's today. She reminded herself, 'Oh well, getting married faster doesn't guarantee the couple to be happier.' Sai loved her and that was sufficient for now.
Sai, however, would not let his girlfriend sit longingly in silence while he was around. He bowed before Ino and addressed her, 'Would you dance with me?'
Ino beamed blithely. How does he always know how to soothe my insecurities? 'Yes, I'd love to.'
It was then that Sai betrayed several people's guesses, even including Ino's: He was a good dancer, the best dancer in that room, in fact. 'Maybe it's one of those books he read,' commented Sakura, who was eyeing him and Ino rather enviously over Naruto's shoulder. However, this guess, too, only proved to be wrong.
'I never knew you could dance,' Ino complimented her boyfriend in adoration.
'ANBU's Root educated children with various subjects for infiltration and disguising purposes,' he answered with his usual poker face.
Ino kept smiling as they danced. Sai's obsidian orbs drew her like magnets, mesmerising her, and she was content by merely gazing at them. However, all of a sudden, Sai asked, 'Will you believe me of what I am about to say?'
Ino gulped. 'Sai, I can't promise something I don't even know about. The real question is whether or not you believe the prospect of my credibility to be your audience.'
Sai glimpsed at her before leaning next to her ear and whispered, 'A long time ago I gave you a nickname with the opposite meaning of what was in my mind. I've abandoned the nicknaming ritual ever since. Yet now, when I see you and hold you like this, I feel like saying, "you are even more gorgeous than usual" and I don't mean the opposite.'
Ino stopped dancing at once and snatched Sai's lips with her own.
Drops of sweat accumulated on Shikamaru's temple as Temari surreptitiously crept behind him and whispered in a sweetly dangerous voice to his nape, 'I do believe you owe me a dance.' Shikamaru knew too well that his girlfriend was impervious to any argument whenever she used that tone. He made no resistance as the Sand kunoichi dragged him to the dance floor. When he thought the sooner it ended, the better; she, on the other hand, thought today would be the day she proved to him that fighting was not her only strong point.
While dancing, Tenten's date noticed that she cast occasional glances at the bride and groom. He knew Tenten's unrequited love history and asked, 'Will you give up on me for him?'
'No. Never!' Tenten answered earnestly, 'I have no more infatuation for Neji; I just wonder which parts of Hinata make her a better person than I am. I mean, she is the only one Neji set his eyes upon, he wouldn't even make the tiniest wink for another girl—he never admitted that, of course, but I just know it from the way they look together.'
'When you truly love someone, it doesn't necessarily mean he or she is the best from objective point of view. It could be that he or she is simply your type, your soul mate, your Mr or Ms Right, the person you're accustomed to or comfortable with and many other reasons besides.' Tenten's boyfriend finished his answer with a peck on her forehead.
Lee made a robotic march towards his future wife, to whom he also made a wooden, Japanese style bow, 'I-I'm … n-not m-much of a dasher—I mean, dancer—but if you don't mind … may I have the honour of dancing with you?'
It was hard to tell whether the sautéed prawns on the table or Lee's face was redder, but the curly-haired girl left her chair and answered, 'It would be my pleasure to have this dance.'
Romance was in the air. Numerous Hyūga couples, too, were swaying sprightly on the dance floor. Décolleté gowns were whirling to the enchanting melody, clasped in the arms of their pristine partners. Observing this tramontane influence, Hiashi started to realise that the era was changing and the new Hyūga generation was ready for this change; Hyūga was no longer a stagnant pool of ossified tradition, but a growing clan. He smiled at Hanabi, nonetheless, when she proposed a dance, 'You know I don't know how to, dear daughter.'
Hanabi's teammates gulped; they had never seen her dressed for such festal occasion and once she did, the result was overwhelmingly splendid to them. Both boys asked her to dance, in turn, and she accepted, fully aware of her father's penetrating peers.
As one of the dancers unintentionally stepped on Hinata's train, bringing her to the state of nearly tripping, Neji caught her. Again, the newly-wedded-couple was in a world of their own when their gazes interlocked. The room and its guests ceased from existence. There was only the two of them, drifting in the ocean of love, enclosed in each other's exuberant arms.
Neji's ex-colleagues from ANBU, meanwhile, were whispering among themselves:
'Have you ever seen Neji-san smiling non-stop like that?'
'Good heavens! I wonder if the sky might crumble tomorrow.'
'My, my, and here I thought this was supposed to be an obligatory marriage.'
'No wonder captain didn't seem upset while submitting his resignation letter.'
At the photography session, some of Hinata's married cousins asked whether she had started feeling the post-wedding jitters. The Hyūga heiress simply answered that she was nervous, not letting them know that she was referring to the honeymoon rather than anything else; marrying Neji had always been her secret dream since the age of three. Fortunately, none of these girls pursued her with further inquiries: the usually stoic Neji proved to be more photogenic than everybody had expected, and the guests were too excited to draw their attention from this matter—they did not have a clue that the reason for his affectionate gleams was induced by the fact that he held his bride in every pose.
Only after the thrown bridal bouquet unexpectedly fell on Temari's head at the end of the wedding did Shikamaru's trademark utterance return: 'This is troublesome!' The shadow manipulator, nonetheless, was not the only troubled bachelor on the scene: the garter fell and got entangled in Kiba's hair. As the only girlfriend-less chap, the ninja dog trainer could only quirk his eyebrow, 'How am I supposed to get married soon?'
Hoping to find someone in the same boat, Kiba then approached Chōji. To his disappointment, however, the food lover was discussing the party food quality with a food critic—a female food critic.
The bathroom door clicked, revealing Hinata in a white bathrobe and Neji's mind returned to the present. He watched her in silence as she approached him timidly. She halted three steps away from him, drawing a deep breath. The moment she undid the knot of her only drapery, however, he felt his own erection arise at the sight of her uncovered skin and neither of them knew whose face was redder.
Of course, as an ANBU member, Neji had faced a wide range of enemies who resorted from pure strength to elusive strategies, and seduction was one variety of them. Yes, he'd seen naked kunoichi before, with their various shapes and sizes, but no further than that. He always finished off his opponents before they had further access to seduce him. Today, however, he knew he ought to do more than merely stare and this made him tense.
There she stood, nude. She was no goddess—he knew that; she was a human with whom he would be a partner for life: his wife. And yet, there was this sudden urge to worship the sublime lady and it took quite a while before his senses managed to find their way back to him. Could the Hinata standing alone before him be the very same little Hinata who hid behind her father on their earliest encounter?
As the robe lay on the floor, he looked at her. She seemed to be fighting every urge to cover her body from his stare. She was a kunoichi, not a princess; her complexion was not unblemished, but bore battle scars here and there. A two-inch horizontal scar, made by an assassin still lingered on her neck—which explained the role of her necklace during the wedding. A huge scar stretched diagonally across her back, made by a Smoke chūnin. This was what had driven Hinata to make her first kill in defence, four months before she became a chūnin herself. The gravest wound, the one on her diaphragm, was still there. On her left thigh, there was also an old wound where she had planted a kunai herself to keep her concentration in dissipating an enemy's genjutsu six years before. Her most recent wound, the partly severed Achilles tendon, acquired while she had striven to save him from mortal peril, was also present.
Neji cherished what he saw. These battle scars were proof of Hinata's accomplishments, her pride and joy. He loved her not only because of her beautiful appearance and graceful attitude, but also for her unyielding choice and true strength in times of need. How he loved her—every corner, every part, every bit, everything about her!
He stepped forward to meet her. For a moment, he did consider asking for her permission, but when he looked into her eyes, he understood her tacit consent.
Neji kissed Hinata urgently, passionately, esuriently, lovingly. His deft fingers trailed along the nape of her neck downwards, culminating at the small of her back. Like a calligraphy brush dancing across a sheet of paper, his strokes upon her skin were both beautiful and purposeful; he finally did what he had been aching to do for years. Hinata couldn't help making some convulsive motions under Neji's sensuous skin contact. Never before had anyone touched her naked.
'Hinata, when it hurts, please share the pain with me,' Neji told her after their ardent kiss.
Hinata nodded. Before her was the man she had longed for many years. Painful though it might get, it was worth the risk.
As Neji's virility made its way though Hinata's moist, cavernous womanhood, a tiny, yet sharp gasp escaped from Hinata's mouth. She clung tight to Neji's neck with an abrupt shutting of her eyelids, her whole body tensed up. You can do this, Hyūga Hinata; how can you call yourself a jōnin while whimpering at something that even non-kunoichi women can do! Your secret dream is coming true! This is Neji whom you have loved since the age of three…
Neji swallowed. Although he knew a priori that first consummation was supposed to be a throe, his heart wavered at the sight of his beloved's agony. He was artless himself, a virgin, a stranger to seduction. He had desired her for so long, but he would spend the rest of his life with her… surely he could wait. It was for this reason too that he decided to have their first time in standing position: so that both could withdraw at the earliest sign of discomfort; had it been sleeping or sitting position, only one of them could have done so.
'Do you want me to stop?'
Hinata reopened her eyes at the sound of Neji's gentle voice. She glimpsed at her own reflection in Neji's pearly orbs—so bare and lustful. Therefore, shaking her head, Hinata replied determinedly, 'Whatever you do, I will accept; whatever I do, I won't regret.'
Neji beamed at his newly-wedded-wife and kissed her again. This time, he did not only kiss her lips, but also pecked her inch-by-inch, with a prolonged stay on the twin mounds of her breasts. She bit her lips, apparently too embarrassed to moan, but her face flushed more and more whereas her body became tremulous from his every touch, most especially when his nimble fingers straddled her inner thighs. She did squeak, however, when the tip of Neji's slick tongue almost reached the area where her hymen had been before his manhood entered. Nonetheless, earlier she had said that she would accept whatever he did; she had no choice but to let her essence, mixed with his saliva, trickle from her feminine area down to her legs.
Neji perceived how much restlessness his playful tongue had caused Hinata to be. Thus, deciding that she had been readier this time, he rose from his knee and inserted his hardened member into her once again. Both couldn't believe how fluent the course turned out to be, now that she was as wet as a canal and he became the boat.
Hinata had always been a quiet one, so even though this was her first time engaging in Venus' sport, she did not scream, though she breathed hard, writhed and occasionally gripped him tight. Neji did not demand Hinata's screams either, for she had shown him an expression he had never seen before. It was an ultimate sultriness—a mixture of pain, pleasure, submission, addiction, longing and fulfilment. Bliss crept over Neji's mind; his long-awaited dream was coming true: dear Hinata—his dear Hinata—was amalgamating with him! Their fervent breaths were undulating, sometimes overlapping, at other times chasing, forming a symphony that would be planted in their memory for years to come.
Like a snake, filled with desire, slithering to devour its victim, Neji, consumed with passion, held her by her back and on her leg. Like a bird spreading its wings to shield its young from harm, his mighty arms protected her from the agony of their first consummation.
Hinata shivered; the only man she had ever wanted was inside her. He thrust. She held her breath. He thrust. She gasped. He thrust. She bit her lips. He thrust. She quivered. He thrust. She tipped her head back. He thrust. She whimpered. He thrust. She arched her back. He thrust again, and again, and again. Within her, a plethora of desire was dancing.
As their two shadows on the floor blended into one, Neji felt a backdraught inside him. He had fantasised making love to Hinata myriads of times, but the real experience was beyond insurmountable!
Her passionate eyes … her palpitating heartbeats … her sharp intakes of breath … her tightening cling… her smooth flesh … her trembling body … this friction between us … this augmented heat… this sheer delight … this alluring sentiment … this pulsating trepidation … it's paradise!
He couldn't hold it any longer. She, too, followed as soon as his spurt of fervent liquid voyaged within her.
As he noticed her jaw muscles contracting in due course, he instinctively moved to retract his member from her. She would not let him, however, and this time she employed action in lieu of words. Blushing and panting still, she groped his buttocks, fondling and squeezing them as to encourage him to extend his stay. Neji was amazed, but not at all displeased by this development. Complying with Hinata's wishes had always brought him self-satisfaction before and it endued him even greater effect now.
Hinata gazed at the man whose body was still intertwining with her own: her husband. With tears swelling at the corner of her eyes, she murmured, 'Neji, I'm the happiest creature alive. I can't believe this day has finally arrived.' I have truly become Mrs Hyūga.
Neji returned his wife's confession with mutual affection. He caught her tears with his own fingers before kissing her lips. Not even all diamonds in the world could buy the mirth he felt when she was with him. Then, as he carried her to bed in his embrace, softly he spoke, 'Hinata, I love you.' More than the entire Hyūga clan. More than Fire Country. More than myself. More than anything.
Chapter X: Inauguration and Banishment
In just three days after their return from the honeymoon, Neji and Hinata were to be inaugurated as the new clan leaders. On that very morning, Neji found himself to be extremely nervous; he was so jittery that the glob of toothpaste he was putting on his brush missed and dripped onto the washbasin. However, his anxiety couldn't possibly compare to his wife's, which in turn caused even her to leave her breakfast unfinished.
Taking a deep and short breath to compose himself, Neji forced his best smile towards Hinata and offered his arm to her for the first time for their public attendance, 'Shall we?'
Neji never did have a tendency to enjoy displaying intimacy; the fact that he chooses to appear holding hands with me proves how much he cares for my unease to such extent that he is willing to be uncomfortable for my sake. A fresh wave of bliss and relief to sweep over her frazzled nerves, calming her ever-looming fear. She knew that she would be all right; her husband was there for her. That was all she needed.
Hinata beamed unabashed at Neji before nodding and taking his arm. Both drew nervous breaths as the servants opened the seemingly-looming door for them. Together they proceeded into the meeting hall, where all the council members were assembled.
The most senior member of the Hyūga council elders called the old leader and his successors onto the podium where he was standing. He then addressed everybody in the room, 'Hiashi-sama, Hinata-sama, Neji-sama, my fellow Hyūga council members, today we have all gathered here to commemorate the dawn of a new era: the inauguration of our new clan leaders…' The Elder's speech was continued monotonously with prayers to God and the ancestors.
Just when the Elder lifted the vial of holy water that would be used to 'purify' the heiress, Hanabi stepped forth and snatched the very vial from the Elder's hand, effectively stopping the ceremony. The Hyūga council froze; Hanabi's scandalous actions would inevitably result in severe consequences.
'I refuse to acknowledge such a weakling as leader,' Hanabi snarled furiously, veins already bulging around her eyes with the use of her Byakugan. As soon as her words were spoken, she aptly ran towards Hinata, upraising her fist to attack her unready sister with Hakke Hyakunijyuhachi Shō—Eight Trigrams One Hundred Twenty-Eight Palms, attempting to close her chakra points.
Much though Hinata wanted to ask why the sister who had been supporting her all these times chose to oppose her now, she kept those questions in her head. Promptly she assumed a defensive stance and countered with arch-shaped beams of her Shugohakke Hyakunijyuhachi Shō—Protection of Eight Trigrams One Hundred Twenty-Eight Palms. Her hands swung back at Hanabi's attack; the attacks soon cancelling each other out.
Both sisters' movements were swift, purposeful and meticulous, if not impeccable. Nonetheless, the nearby bystanders of the Hyūgas did not need their Byakugan eyes to note the difference between the two styles. Hanabi's movements were representations of might whereas Hinata's flowed with refinement.
Hanabi lunged at Hinata, her hands charged warningly with the chakra required for a finishing Jyuken strike.
Hinata's eyes spotted with ease the rough movement of Hanabi's shoulders and arms. Predicting where the strike was aimed for, she darted quickly underneath the blow managing to elegantly avoid the hit and bending backwards with unmistakable flexibly, her head resting on the floor lightly.
She used a parrying strike to quickly close one of the tenketsu in her sister's arm in this evasive stance, the attack working effectively as the hit caught the left side of her arm. Hanabi felt her tenketsu close and in her frustration provoked Hinata, 'You shameless bitch, how dare you claim the leadership when you are no competition to me!'
Hinata unfolded from her evasive stance and leapt forward at Hanabi who evaded her sister's following attack, her leg darting swiftly forward and sneakily hitting a tenketsu in Hinata's thigh, shocking her elder sister. The two circled each other, minds racing, they each considered tactical approaches to defeat the other.
The meeting hall was their battleground as the fellow Hyūgas looked on; indeed, this was no ordinary spar in which one could relax their body, knowing that their opponent would not strike, but rather a deadly dance representing the Hyūga's powers.
The bystanders, some who had expected an attack and some who had not, stood either with looks of surprise or looks of stone. Neji felt an urge to aid Hinata and to prevent this fight between sisters; Hiashi felt an urge to end this feud between his daughters. Yet, they both knew the severity of this situation. The inauguration of a leader often guaranteed challengers; should a bystander intervene in the fight, weakness was shown to either party that was aided. If they were to aid Hinata or were to prevent this fight, Hanabi would use this to display Hinata's incompetence as a leader. For that reason, no one in the council would interfere. The fight alone would prove the worthier of the two.
Nevertheless, Hiashi's tolerance did not extend as far as letting his own daughter speak like a barbarian. He shouted, 'Watch your tongue, young lady!'
'I don't give a damn about your shitty concern, old man!' Hanabi spat back viciously, never tearing her gaze away from her elder sister as their attacks momentarily came to a still, each one daring each other to make a move. Both preserved a defensive stance, ready to strike if necessary.
Upon hearing the council of elder's murmurs of disapproval, she added, 'Nor the opinions from those fucked-up senile scums matter to me either!' Fire burned in her heart, but it was not a fire for the passion of the fight; it was a fire that fuelled her animosity, her anger, her aggressive acts, both in her words and in her swings.
'The sisters continued to perform their predatory dance, as they searched each other for weaknesses in defence, the council crying in outrage over Hanabi's latest insulting remark. The younger Hyūga smirked at their reaction while Hinata's analytical mind rapidly worked on picking out Hanabi's weaknesses.
She just missed my most important tenketsu for mobility, Hinata noted, her skill is slipping in her anger. I should capitalise on it!
Hinata countered with her Jūho Sōshiken—Gentle Step Twin Lion Fists—her arms flitted forward, the technique designed to smoothly close each tenketsu in her opponent's defensive stance, but Hanabi had predicted her attack pattern and struck back with her own technique, Washi no Mai—Eagle Dance.
The Eagle Dance was the perfect counter to Hinata's technique, as the kata continually changed depending on the method of attacks.
The ruler of the land met the ruler of the sky in a clash. Both movements were beautiful; both movements were dangerous. Where the elder struck, the younger would elude; where the younger charged, the elder would evade. Their duel looked like some terpsichorean movements, as fluent as a river's flow, yet as deadly as a waterfall.
The attacks ensued, as did counteracts; the fluidity of the arms and the swiftness made it difficult to clearly see exactly where the one sister would then strike the other. Amidst their dodges and lunges at one another with the long-ancient clan techniques, Hanabi's temper began to rise again; her opposition of her sister's inauguration as a clan leader fuelled her attacks, each swing rising a notch in ferocity and barbarism. Her attacks then became verbal as she provoked Hinata further: 'You think you can defeat me with such feeble offences, soft-boiled quim?'
Hinata's retaliation to Hanabi's statement was the Hakke Nihyakugojyuroku Shō—Eight Trigrams Two Hundred Fifty-Six Palms. The jutsu itself had not been perfected; Hinata had only begun developing it after her jōnin exam. Although the result was still more overwhelming than Eight Trigrams One Hundred Twenty-Eight Palms, Hinata's flaws were evident.
Hiashi, who knew nothing of Hinata's most recent developments, became disquieted about his elder daughter's safety, more so than what Neji felt at that moment. Though he had in the past hidden any concerns for his daughter, and in some cases he had displayed his absence of concern through harsh words, now he felt the concern come to life inside of him. Regardless of his elder daughter's new acquired jōnin status, he had never, in all his life, witnessed Hinata's Jyuken aptitude to be inferior to Hanabi's. Furthermore, the disc containing the recording of Hinata's combats with the three prospective candidates for his intended son-in law showed her debilitating state—he did not know that she still had been recuperating from her severed Achilles tendon at the time.
Based on their daily training, Neji personally thought that if the both sisters fought with their utmost abilities, Hinata would still have won, although with barely more than a close margin. The question was, would she do her best to conquer her little sister?
Hanabi had once again made the daring move to restart their spar. Their fight had escalated to a point where they were slowly circling one another, swinging, defending, striking, turning their waists and spinning on their toes; their hands became motion-filled blurs, and their attacks well beyond a normal point that could accept interference safely. Gracefully they moved, but with striking accuracy they aimed. The dangers presented by the two sisters were certainly worthy of a battlefield, the deadly gazes never once leaving the other's.
After a few more passes, Hinata ducked and struck her fingers into a tender location of Hanabi's skin; with the little time she bought during her sister's slight backing, she activated Suidammaku—Aquatic Barrage—which swirled into a circle surrounding Hanabi's body. Hinata was cognisant that the council elders would not appreciate the ceremonial water in the vial to be used as a weapon, so she used her own blood instead.
I'm sorry, Hanabi … I am going to end this. I will free our clan from the despicable Caged Bird Seal. I have to prove once and for all that I am fit to become a leader! Hinata thought, her strength growing inside her.
Knowing the danger she was in, Hanabi attempted to use Hakkeshō Dai Kaiten—Eight Trigrams Palms Great Heavenly Spin. But she was too late. The jutsu had burst into blood balls that flicked quickly at Hanabi's body and the girl's eyes widened in surprise as she felt the tenketsu literally shut down in her body, blocked by her sister's bullets of blood. She collapsed to one knee. Her breathing became hard and staggered.
Hiashi stood flabbergasted; he had finally witnessed how much his elder daughter grown in strength before his eyes. No longer was she the frail child who shed tears when her little sister beat her in a sparring combat as she used to be, but now a strikingly adroit kunoichi, fitting to be a leader of his clan. The council elders, too, became more and more impressed more and more by Hinata's skill, notwithstanding the fact that some of them had formerly objected the idea that she, in lieu of Hanabi, should become their new leader.
Although Hinata's battle proficiency was nothing new to Neji, he felt as though he had been falling in love with her all over again. He could picture himself sitting behind a desk, a mountain of paperwork ever-growing, but all his weariness was swept away in an instant by her single smile. Will there ever be a day when I get enough of you, Hinata?
Aware of Hanabi's state, Hinata did not proceed to attack, not wanting to hurt her sister any further. Hanabi, contrarily, prepared herself to launch her next offence with the last of her remaining chakra. Her battle lust had yet to be doused; she would not yield easily to any opponent. It was not her nature to lose and it never would be. She reawakened her Byakugan that had faltered when Hinata had struck a tenketsu that connected to her nervous system, and through this, affected her control of her optic nerve.
'Enough Hanabi, Hinata is no longer weak and you know that well!' Hiashi warned his youngest daughter.
'I can still beat her!' Hanabi insisted persistently, focusing her chakra through different tenketsu in an attempt to continue to use her tenketsu effectively.
At this point, Hiashi lost his patience. 'Know your place, obstinate fool!' He aimed Hakke Hazangeki—Eight Trigrams Mountain Crusher—towards Hanabi.
Hinata shrieked, 'FATHER, NO! PLEASE!'
'I tolerated Hanabi's insatiable bloodlust since she had slain none other than enemies. Now she has gone overboard by attacking the clan leader. She even disrespectfully used such foul language before the elders!' thundered Hiashi, his face clouded with dire ire.
She must have her own reason!' screamed Hinata; she scurried to block her father from reaching Hanabi.
However, Neji stepped forth to halt the advancing man. 'Father-in-law, at least have some faith in Hinata's judgement!' His voice was calm and rational, but it did not mask the lethality underneath it. He was ready to launch Jyuken to whoever threatened his wife's safety. Although he did not show it much with his upper posture, it was apparent that his footing was posed for an ideal Hakke Hyakunijyuhachi Shō—Eight Trigrams One Hundred Twenty-Eight Palms.
Hiashi was taken aback. They were still in the middle of the inaugural ceremony; Neji's Caged Bird Seal had not been removed yet; he could torture his son-in-law. Why would Neji go as far as to risk his life for Hinata's silly request? Love shouldn't be that blind.
While still pondering on this turn of events, Hiashi heard Hinata's voice again, 'She didn't want me dead; she didn't ambush me when I was alone, but chose to declare her attack openly in a room full of many Hyūgas.'
Hinata's face was wet with both sweat and tears. A mishmash of fear, despair and supplication was conspicuously reflected in her eyes under those bristling brow. 'Hanabi is your daughter too.'
'Not anymore!' roared the old man, 'From this moment foreword, she is banished from this clan—no longer a Hyūga and no longer my daughter. Go, ingrate! Set foot here once again, and your carcass will be thrown for the dogs outside the gate!'
Hanabi turned to leave. She silently made her way towards the door, but still regally walked with no regret upon her face. Some council members wished to punish her impudence, but they did not dare to defy Hiashi, Hinata and Neji. With silent tears, Hinata watched her sister leave, but Neji placed his hands on her shoulders so as to soothe her anguish with unspoken understanding. When the ceremony was resumed, Hiashi sank back to his chair with exasperation, lost in thought.
Since when has my little baby grown into a beast? Hanabi's disciplined daily practices … her uncomplaining nature … her devoted attention … where have they gone? Hanabi has always been an adept martial artist, and yet she has never hesitated to sacrifice her free time for extra training. She resolved to prepare herself to be an heiress befitting for Hyūga out of sisterly love, rather than thirst for power. She wanted gentle Hinata to live in peace and would carry the burden of responsibility for the clan herself. Yet why does she betray everyone's hope?
Hyūga was the most ancient, the most prestigious and the biggest clan throughout the Fire Country. Surely, for such clan's sake, losing a daughter—even his favourite one—was not a high price to pay: after using Hanabi to serve his purpose, she was discarded when no longer needed. What a hideous father he had been! Hiashi closed his eyes, grief swelling inside his chest.
Come to think of it, other fathers might have carried their toddler children on the shoulders and bought them balloons at the festival or played ball with them in the park when they were a little older or discussed their opinion on certain movies as they ripened with age… but all I have done with my children is give them Jyuken practice, Jyuken practice and more Jyuken practice. Do I still have the right to consider myself as a father?
But then his thoughts of guilt ceased as his strength in mind returned. Enough Hiashi; a Hyūga mustn't cry over spilt milk!
Hiashi was brought out of his thoughts when he heard Hinata pledge a vow of loyalty to Hyūga clan and to the Fire Country, followed by Neji. Their voices sounded so distant despite the mere few steps away that separated them from his seat. Hinata would not leave his household since Neji was the one who would become part of it, and it was this comforting thought that kept Hiashi cheerful during their wedding. Now, however, he had no assurance that he would not lose his other daughter on the inside. Unlike Hanabi who sometimes sought his advice, Hinata did not even come to him apart from tea serving, practice, or when she was summoned.
When he was called for to remove Neji's Caged Bird seal, Hiashi hesitated. This seal was his last defence for protecting Hinata from Neji should things become out of hand.
He quickly shook that thought out of his head. Neji loves her, Hiashi reminded himself insistently.
How ironic it was that for many years he had always thought to leave the power in Neji's hands, so that he could lead the clan gloriously! And if something happened to his daughter, the clan leader's wife, who'd care? Neji could find another wife to provide the Hyūga heir. It's been more than enough that his fragile daughter lived long enough to get married; he even thought she would have breathed her last in one of her genin missions. Now he cared. Since when did Hinata weigh more than the entire Hyūga clan to him?
For better or worse Neji loves Hinata. Profusely. Immensely. Steadfastly. Profoundly. Insanely.
Thus the aged clan leader released the caged bird into the sky of his daughter's open arms. He passed the leadership to his posterity. He needed not to remind them to rule wisely, for in his heart he knew they would.
One cloudy day on the following October, Hinata walked with a grim aura about her. She was on her way home from an escort mission in Mori no Kuni or Forest Country. She did not face any tough assassins on her way, but her client, the daimyō of the Forest Country, vexed her to no end; it was enough to ruin anyone's day.
The daimyō was not targeted by any enemy at all; in fact, a non-shinobi bodyguard should have sufficed for the job. However, the haughty man deliberately requested the protection of the Hyūga clan leader just so that he could brag about it with his friends and subordinates, regardless of the amount of gold he had to pay for this service. The entire voyage turned out to be Hinata's personal interview instead.
She quickened her pace, wanting to go home as soon as possible, to take a relaxing bath, to sip some warm tea, but most of all, to see her beloved Neji. While passing an avenue of Momiji or Maple Trees, she sensed a familiar chakra she missed for so long: her sister's. She hesitated and glanced around, searching for her.
There, standing by a maple tree, of which bright reddish foliage glinting in the autumn sun, was Hanabi. She seemed to have matured a bit and become more beautiful than the last time Hinata set eyes on her. Nonetheless, a Mist shinobi head protector encircled her forehead. Hinata then felt a sense of familiarity flutter through her heart; and the irritation that the daimyō had caused her had disappeared, and instead, she became filled with joy.
'Hanabi-san, you've grown into a charming young lady!' remarked Hinata with an earnest smile.
Hanabi returned the smile and hugged her older sister, 'Thank you, nē-san. I'm glad you seem to live a happy life with Neji nī-san.'
Hinata blushed. She had become Neji's wife, but she still heard a euphoric melody in her head whenever the name 'Neji' was mentioned. Twirling the tip of her hair, the indigo-haired kunoichi inquired, 'Is life good on your side too?'
'Generally, yes. Well, sometimes I have it rough, but that's all right as along as Mizuhiko—my fiancé—is on my side.'
'Do most other people treat you badly?' Hinata cast a concerned glimpse at her sister's head protector.
'Only at first. There's no alliance between Fire and Water countries, so they sorta suspected me. To make matters worse, my teammates and I did kill Mizuhiko's teammates, as well as other Mist shinobi in the past, just as they killed Leaf shinobi.
Therefore, when Mizuhiko convinced his family that I would be his future bride, they performed various tests on me. They made me fight a prisoner, whom I killed in about six seconds after our battle started. Then they had me face their strongest henchman. They were surprised of my victory despite my refusal to make use of sexual charm for battle. I told them that although the application of sex as a weapon is not uncommon, especially among the kunoichi, no Hyūga shinobi alive had ever done so. We didn't need to; Hyūga did not become one of the most powerful clans for nothing.
After they learnt that my maidenhood was still intact, they began to test me for wifely skills. I wanted to let them see that the Hyūga was made of not only strength but also elegance. I had no problems with elocution, ikebana (flower arranging), shamisen (lute-playing) chanoyu (tea ceremony) and so forth—you know, stuff we were educated with … only cooking posed to be my feeble point. There's no helping it … in Hyūga manor food was prepared by the servants, not us.
His family, especially his grandmother, tried to use this as a reason to disapprove my relationship with him. She said it would be shameful if a Mizukage's daughter-in-law-to-be didn't even know how to cook properly. Personally, I didn't give a damn if his family disapproved; it wasn't them I fell in love with. But Mizuhiko chose to oppose his entire clan, if necessary, to stand by my side.
The clan couldn't afford to lose such a prodigy. Despite being the fourth child of seven siblings, Mizuhiko had the most potential. He has no ambition to be a ruler, though. He loves roaming and adventure, and therefore he belongs to ANBU in Kirigakure—the Hidden Mist Village. In fact, he became one of the few teenagers admitted in there throughout the Mist history. This is where I am about to enrol too. But it only accepts jōnin, so I've come here to take the test. He passed the jōnin exam last year, by the way, although the two of you may not remember each other.
Back to the story, eventually his family acquiesced. One of his sisters convinced their parents that nobody was perfect and asked where else they would find such a tough, pretty and capable bride with only so little flaw. Another sister also said that my water element ninjutsu reminded her of the fifth Mizukage, who perished in the Fourth Ninja War, and not many kunoichi could accomplish that. Plus, it's not like I can't learn to cook or that they don't have servants anyway!
Nonetheless, as I mentioned before, the Mist shinobi didn't treat me well, but only initially. Now I am one of the top ninja there, specialising in spying and assassination. They even call me Benihime—Crimson Princess—in respect for the number of victims whose blood I shed. Besides, since Mizuhiko is the strongest teenage jōnin in Mist and the fourth son of the sixth Mizukage, who'd mess up with me?'
Hinata wondered why her sister would go to such length for a fellow she just met. 'So you fell in love at the first sight?'
'No, I met him in Januar—' Hanabi gasped at what she had just revealed.
As an epiphany crept over Hinata, she glanced at her sister. Had Hanabi never forsaken Konoha, as the previous clan leader's second daughter, she would one day have her arranged marriage too. In her case, however, it was more likely that Hiashi would choose a man from another strong clan to gain an alliance; Hanabi would have to marry a total stranger. Both she and her future husband would be as involuntary as could be about their arranged marriages—just as prisoners whose execution date had been set.
The current Hanabi froze. However, Hinata addressed her kindly, 'So that's why you left the Hyūga. You wanted to be with Mizuhiko-san, but knew it would be unlikely to get parental blessing since he was from Mist. You had yourself banished by attacking me. You also used that opportunity to show the elders that I wasn't as weak as they had led themselves to believe. You even went as far as haranguing us to make the elders disapprove of your leadership no matter what. And what's more, you never wanted to harm me since you avoided attacking my vital spots on purpose and I also suspect that you did not use your full strength back then.'
'Nē-san…' Hanabi's eyes became watery.
'Hanabi-san, you have always carried your burden alone since young age. Why don't you share them with me from now on? Just send me a message whenever you are in need and I'll be there for you—in Kirigakure or anywhere else.'
All her life Hanabi had never felt so grateful that she had such an understanding and benevolent sister. Hanabi nodded and sunk her head in Hinata's embrace. 'Thank you, nē-san.'
Hinata was content that Hanabi was still her same old self, a strong and proud kunoichi; neither harsh environment nor Mist shinobi did any damage to her. After a minute or so, Hinata resumed their conversation. 'So tell me how you met this lucky guy!'
Hanabi seemed hesitant at first but looked at Hinata dead in the eye, 'Promise you won't tell anyone, especially father!'
'When you and Neji nī-san were on honeymoon, I was on a rescue mission at a gorge near the Wind Country. He and his colleagues were the shinobi my team had to beat. After long battles, one of our comrades died from each side; the others were heavily wounded, running out of chakra or unconscious; he and I were the last to stand. We fought still, on equal ground of course, but it was his water lance that changed everything.
One of his wounded comrades used the last of his power to attack me from behind while I was fighting Mizuhiko. Seeing this, Mizuhiko hurled his water lance to prevent his comrade from putting me at a disadvantage. As a result, he didn't have time to defend himself from the full blow of my Hakke Hazangeki—Eight Trigrams Mountain Crusher. His body collapsed the very next instant, scattering the dust.
Nē-san, you know how I love killing my enemies. But not that one time. The sight of this boy coughing blood from his mouth did not make me happy at all. I couldn't believe he made me experience remorse from attacking an enemy, but it really did happen. It was my first and last time shivering in front of an opponent. Yes, opponent; he could no longer be my enemy after what he had done.
"If you want a fair fight…," I told him, "… you'll get it. Nine days from now, I'll come here alone at dawn. Don't you dare to die before that!" We then parted ways. My comrades and I were back at Konoha and your inauguration was actually on the seventh day after I rescheduled that combat. The remaining time was used to prepare for the journey and rest. On the promised day, I did come to that gorge and we fought alone, as agreed.
Now nē-san, you may think me mad, but I did feel that my love for him deepened with each attack he made. I admired his fighting style and I wanted someone like that to be on my side for the rest of my life.
Mizuhiko refused to use any dirty tricks. Just to name one out of numerous examples, he could have stood with the rising sun behind him, so it might have hindered my eyesight while attacking, but he didn't. He did not take advantage of our gender difference by attacking any feminine weak points, but he did not hold back his power simply because I'm a girl either. Unlike many male opponents I've encountered so far, he managed to fight with a sense of gallantry without looking down at my skills.
We fought as fair-and-square as could be. Our movements were rapid, yet to the point; each swing held its purpose. We both showed signs of great fighting ability, the tension becoming serious between us. He moved with grace and power flowing through his body, his strength obvious even to any naked eye. My attack did not flaunt the vigour that his' did, but glided with accuracy and swiftness.
His style was dependant on forcing his opponent back and using brute force to make them submit. However, at the same time, he moved with a quickness which was natural and not created by the use of weights or constant training. He moved so quickly I would sometimes have to rely on the feeling of the wind on my skin to find which direction he would strike from next.
You might find that hard to believe, knowing how extensive the Hyūga's Byakūgan's range is. But you know full-well that you can't react to someone who's quicker than you! The fact that he could in a way, surpass our bloodline limit excited me, made me want to fight more and more.
I battled him for what felt like a festival that ended too soon. All my life I've never felt so content while contending with someone; it was as though I've found my missing part at last. Every nanosecond I spent with him made me feel so … glad to be alive! I didn't want this battle to end, but the minutes just eluded from my grasp. The climax was coming; our battle ended in stalemate: my Hakke Kūshō—Eight Trigrams Empty Palm—hit his diaphragm whereas his Mizukagami—Water Mirror—genjutsu entrapped me in a world of his own.
"It would be nice if we could spar sometime." He extended his arm for a handshake. However, I pulled him crushing against me and captured his lips while he was working out his balance.'
A horrified squeal escaped from Hinata's mouth.
Hanabi looked exasperated and huffed, 'Nē-san, get real! I'd got my first kiss before I became a chūnin!'
'B-but you were only twelve when you passed the chūnin exam.'
Hanabi told her impatiently 'So? It was just a kiss. Besides, that experiment was based on mutual consent between my kissing partner and me! Not everybody's a late bloomer, you know!'
It happened; there's no point arguing. 'You're right. Sorry, please carry on with the story.'
'Well, Mizuhiko was surprised by the kiss, of course. It took him a moment to judge whether he was under a genjutsu or some other trap. But I broke the kiss to answer his previous offer with "Sure, I have decided to move to your village anyway, even if I have to face Mizukage himself." He stood astounded, statuesque, though not for long.
He then leaned his head and kissed me … he was a brilliant kisser when he put an effort into it.' Hanabi cleared her throat, 'Anyway, he then said there was a better way to arrange my moving in. So I asked him how and there he proposed to me without further warning.
It sounded crazy; both of us were still sixteen and we didn't even know each other's names back then. And yet … with his arms holding mine and his gaze so affectionate, only one syllable came out of my mouth: yes.'
As Hanabi ended her tale, Hinata remarked, 'You seem to have an absolute trust on him.'
Hinata's voice was kind, but Hanabi knew better than to ignore the disapproval detected within her sister's tone. Hinata was likely itching to advise Hanabi something along the line of: You shouldn't, Hanabi-san; he sounded too perfect to be true.
'Don't worry, nē-san, I'm not that stupid. I always have plan B at hand for the worst-case scenarios. After all, I've inhabited one of Konoha's enemy zones now. Besides, people can change with time.'
'You've spoken with wisdom beyond your age, Hanabi-san. Well, as long as you don't let your guard down, I shall have peace in mind,' replied her sister.
It was then Hinata sensed another chakra coming: a silver-eyed teenage boy with Mist head protector approached them; Hanabi's fiancé, Mizuhiko, arrived on the scene. He bowed and gave them a smile, 'Good afternoon, you must be Hanabi's sister, Hinata-san. Nice to meet you.'
This milk-coloured hair… he undoubtedly has bloodline limit too, postulated Hinata. 'Good afternoon and nice to meet you too, Mizuhiko-san. Thank you for having taken care of Hanabi, I shall leave her in your care from now on too.'
Mizuhiko gave his oath before leaving with Hanabi, their hands entwined. Together, their waist-long hair fluttered in the wind, like a harmonious blend of white and dark chocolate. May their life also be harmonious now and always, Hinata wished as she walked to another direction: the Hyūga compound. There, seal-free Hyūga members were waiting for her, one of their clan leaders. But most of all, Neji, her reliable co-ruler and loving husband, greeted her with a smile … a smile reserved solely for her—his first and only love.
For those who wonder why Hinata did not wear white wedding attire:
White became standard choice for wedding gowns after popularised by Queen Victoria in 1840. There was no official wedding dress colour before that and Hinata's gown theme was based on a typical French gown in 1804 (Empress Silhouette is a type of fashion worn by Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon's wife). Personally, I think its shape goes along nicely with Hinata's curvature.
Hinata called her friends 'Ino-chan' and 'Sakura-chan' but her sister 'Hanabi-san'. Relationship within Hyūga family was still meant to be strict and etiquette-abiding instead of casual. Of course, Hinata spoke with keigo (polite language) all the time to her father and sister. Hanabi, on the other hand, chose to use keigo inside the Hyūga precinct only. While outside, except when she communicated with her father, Hanabi spoke almost as casually as a normal shinobi did.