Title: Smoke and Ink
Characters/Pairings: NejiHina, one-sided NaruHina. Lots of Hanabi being adorable and tsundere.
Notes: Hinata's bookshelf is my dream bookself. AU in which there are no ninjas. There are instead high school and college and a ton of western classical literature. In any case, enjoy and remember to review!
"Angel indeed," Hanabi quips as she snaps Tess of the d'Urbervilles closed. "I can't imagine why you'd want to read this rubbish, Nee-chan." She cranes her delicate neck around to peer up at Hinata.
"Stop that," Hinata gently scolds, repositioning her little sister's head so that she is facing forward again. Hinata resumes brushing her Hanabi's long hair, which is the color of crushed coffee beans, with long, gentle strokes. "And it's not rubbish."
Hanabi snorts, short and very un-lady-like. "Fine, then, it's not rubbish. But there's—" Hanabi struggles to find words, which is a novel experience for her, and one that often occurs around her sister. Hinata, Hanabi has learned, despite her name-sake, is like smoke: she is at once elusive and solid, undulating and ghosting along roads and to tunes that Hanabi cannot see nor hear. Right now, though, Hinata is corporeal, with her knees at Hanabi's back and her gentle hands moving softly, lithely though hair.
"There's what, Hanabi-chan?" Hinata asks.
"He's such a pig," Hanabi mutters, flipping through the worn pages again. "He has no right to abandon her like that, not when he himself has gone and slept with that older lady! And it's not like it's Tess's fault—not like she wanted it at the time, with Alec."
"Hm," Hinata hums.
Hanabi is silent for a moment. She can picture the look on her sister's face right now without even glancing—there will be the same comforting sweep of cheek, slightly rounded and red, even after all these years, the fall and swish of hair thicker than Hanabi's own, and richer in color, so inky black it is almost blue, the small mouth, so pink and perfectly molded it could be a doll's mouth. Her eyes, though, will be different. They will still be pale and ringed with thick, smoky lashes, but they will not be looking at Hanabi. They will be focused, instead, on something Hanabi cannot see and cannot touch, lost in the pages of her beloved books.
Hinata has many books, enough to fill all the shelves in her room. Hanabi has the titles memorized—Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Ruth, Lady Chatterley's Lover, The Turn of the Screw. Tons by Shakespeare and everything by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, entire shelves dedicated to Roald Dahl and a special place given to Shel Siverstein. There are books by Oscar Wilde, poetry by Emily Dickenson, essays by Joan Didion. There's even a collection of all the speeches Abraham Lincoln ever gave, peeking at her from a corner, lying next to the Arabian Nights and an old, dusty copy of the Shah-Namah. There are tomes full of Dickens and Hemingway, next to rows of Steinbeck and Twain.
Hanabi knows all of the titles by heart, has run her hands over their spines a thousand times, but no matter how hard she stares at the text, she cannot evoke the magic her sister does, cannot lose herself in the wiles and ways of words like Hinata does so effortlessly. Every day, even when Hinata is not reading, there are times when her eyes will grow distant, and peer at scenes that Hanabi cannot see.
And Hanabi's heart aches. Hinata draws comfort from her books, but when she is lost in Middle Earth with Tolkein or creeping through mores with Bronte or slaying dragons with McKinley, Hanabi cannot reach her.
And Hanabi is terrified, far more terrified than she is of anything else, that one day, when Hinata finally looks up from a jaunt into the wonders of a book, there will be no place for Hanabi in her eyes.
Hanabi is accustomed to sharing her sister with books, as accustomed as she ever will be.
But she will never consent to sharing her with anyone else.
Hinata is shy, is retiring, and is forever dusty and smelling of paper and ink. She has eclectic friends—a boy who breeds dogs and another boy who breeds bees—but they are harmless, more interested in their animals than they are in Hinata. They do not worry Hanabi.
Neji, however, is a different story.
Hanabi hates Neji, not because he is unkind to her. He isn't, but he isn't mean, either. His entire existence is ambivalent, a construct of neat and tidy lines. His face is unexpressive, his mouth a hard line, his feet steady and his back ram-rod straight. He is quiet enough to ignore, and Hanabi would have been content to do so forever.
But he discovered Hinata's love for books. And, like the viper he is, he leapt upon it, and now, he and her sister talk about books and meaning and symbolism and themes, and hundreds of other things that Hanabi does not know about. She does not know how to feel about this new development, for Neji has done what Hanabi could never do: he entered Hinata's world, the one populated by words and their shadowy, dancing meanings. Hinata reads books with patience and love, waiting for each page to whisper to her its secrets; Neji is more aggressive, tearing through the prose like he is opening a letter with a sharp letter-opener, chiseling layers; Hanabi does not know how to read like them at all.
No sooner does she begrudgingly accept Neji in her sister's life, another force comes barreling through.
His name is Uzumaki Naruto; he is the son of the mayor; he is loud and obnoxious and very blond; and apparently, he is friends with everybody, including, miraculously, her stick-in-the-mud cousin, Neji. She does not know the details of their friendship—all she thinks she knows is that there was a fight, as Neji came home that day with a massive black eye and a new friend.
She would dismiss the blond idiot, like she dismisses all other unimportant things, but Naruto, is his annoyingly good-natured way, blows a hole in Hanabi's life: he makes Hinata fall desperately in love with him.
Hanabi, this time, has a partner in her bewilderment: Neji is just as surprised as she is. They watch together as Hinata turns red as a beet root in Naruto's presence, blushing to the very roots of her hair, fiddling with her hands and stammering. Stammering. She only stammers when she is with their father, when his gaze, so stern and strict, pierces right through Hinata. Neji, like her, is also quite bemused by Naruto's complete ignorance of it all, but she supposes it is a good thing. At least, this way, things cannot go further, not without Hinata's help, and she has yet to master completing a sentence in Naruto's presence.
Things do eventually go further, though. Hinata bursts though the door that day, and makes a bee-line to her room. She does not stop to check on her garden, nor does she place her shoes carefully on their customary rack. Even more strange, she does not stop by Hanabi's room. Hinata, that day, runs to her room, locks the door, and does not emerge until noon the next.
Neji simply rubs his temple with two fingers when Hanabi accosts him later that evening as he explains, "She confessed."
"The very same," Neji replies, and decides to continue with his calculus homework.
Hanabi will not be so easily deterred. She grabs Neji's shoulder and spins his chair around. He only raises an eyebrow at her, which would normally set her teeth on an edge, but there are more important matters to ascertain.
"You are sure about this?" she hisses. "You are sure there is no mistake?" A confession! A confession could change everything.
"Yes," he grinds out. "She confessed to him in front of the entire school at the rally today."
And in that instant, she notices there are changes in Neji's face—the tension manifest in his jaw, the set of his eyebrows, the glare of his eyes, the knots in his shoulders. He is just as displeased with this as I am, she realizes. And suddenly, Hanabi sees the world in sharper focus, sees again the small acts of kindness Neji reserves only for Hinata—how he tutors her in math, how he carries her school bag home, how he hunts down rare editions of her favorite books and tells her he just happened to come across them at the county fair.
He's in love with her, Hanabi realizes. Suddenly, she cannot bear to look at Neji anymore, cannot bear to think of the entire mess. They may be sixteen and seventeen to her twelve, and, for the first time in her life, she is very glad for it.
Hanabi comes across Hinata a few days later, sitting at the kitchen table. He face is resting on a propped fist, and she is staring at a bouquet of white flowers with an expression Hanabi has never seen before.
"Ino-san," Hinata says before Hanabi has the chance to say anything, "is playing a bad joke on me." She touches the flowers. "Abor vitae, meaning 'true friendship' and asphodel, meaning 'regret'."
"Nee-chan," Hanabi asks, for once cautious with her words around her sister. "Did, by chance, Naruto give you that?"
Hinata smiles a wry, unhappy smile. Hanabi's heart squeezes.
"Yes," she says softly, like always, "he did. He was very…sweet about it."
Hanabi holds her breath.
Hinata just sighs and rubs her face with her hands. When she looks back up at the flowers, her expression is once again something Hanabi cannot read. She gazes sadly at the flowers for a few more seconds and gets up to leave.
Hanabi really wants to punch Naruto, and suddenly cannot stand to look at the flowers.
"Can I throw them away?" she blurts, and just as soon as the words leave her mouth she wants to gobble them. But that does not change the fact that she wants to feed the flowers to the garbage disposal in the sink.
Hinata stops in the doorway for a long moment. She shakes her head, though, and says, "Whatever Naruto-kun's feelings towards me, it's not the flowers' fault." She turns to smile at Hanabi. "Let's go, Hanabi-chan. Say, I haven't brushed your hair in a while. Would you like for me to do that?"
Hanabi does not like seeing fake smiles on her sister's face. "You deserve better, Nee-chan," she declares forcefully. "Much, much better."
Hinata smiles again, a touch ruefully, but it is not painfully forced like her other one. "I don't know what I deserve, Hanabi-chan. But for now, let me fuss with your hair."
Hinata, for the most part, grows out of her crush. From what she can gather, no one lampoons her for it in school. Hanabi knows why—Hinata is so shy and quiet and so wonderfully nice that no one would ever make fun of her. It would be the equivalent of kicking a kitten in the shins. In any event, Hinata slowly regains her momentum and then life continues as it should.
Neji leaves for college, which is something everybody knew would happen, but nobody had guessed that he would go so very far away. Hinata seems happy enough for him, and he's almost cheerful, and Hanabi finds that to be greatest anomaly of all.
Hinata seems to be fine after he is gone. Presumably they e-mail regularly, because Hinata seems to know what is happening in his life. Hanabi should be happy about this; she has her sister to herself again, with no annoying cousin in the way. Now she can loiter in Hinata's room for hours, just the two of them, and talk about things that sisters talk about.
But Hinata misses him, in her own quiet way. Hanabi sees it in her sister's slower smile and how she reads the books Neji has given her more and more often.
The separation is not forever. Neji does indeed come home in the summer. Things return to a pace that is semi-normal.
And then, something else happens.
They're avoiding each other, Hanabi realizes as she peers at Hinata and Neji very pointedly not look at each other from behind a prodigious potted fern with narrowed eyes.
It's almost like a game—one would spot the other from afar, and react in a manner more suited to a situation in which one was being charged by a particularly hungry bear, and positively flee in the other direction.
Yes, something has most definitely happened.
She corners Hinata in her room. When subtlety doesn't work, she shines a flashlight directly into her sister's eyes, smacks her with a leather glove, and says, "You sure you don't want to tell me? I have ways of making you talk."
Hinata just laughs at her, though when she tries the same trick with Neji, he is decidedly less amused: he carries her out of his room by the scruff of her neck and deposits her in the hallway.
More somethings have happened, and Hanabi is slightly panicking now. Hinata and Neji are talking again, albeit…differently. She still turns redder than it should be humanly possible to become, and he still shifts around uncomfortably, but they are talking. And, since they won't tell her anything, she has takes to stalking them, at peering at them around corners and from under tables with a periscope her friend Konohamaru helped make. It's their fault, really, making her do this; they should just spill the beans and have at it.
But she catches them almost by accident a few weeks later. There they are, both of them, standing in the kitchen in the middle of the night. Hinata is standing at the sink, rinsing off whatever dishes they both had used, and he's standing next to her, leaning against the counter, arms folded and looking more relaxed than she has ever seen him.
Hanabi's heart is galloping in her chest. It could mean nothing. They could have just bumped into each other in the kitchen. There is nothing to overtly suggest intimacy.
Except there is. She cannot hear what they are saying over the hum of the furnace and the sound of running water, but she does hear snatches of her sister's laughter and the rumble of Neji's own accompanying chuckle; can see them clear as day as he reaches out and strokes her hair, and then strokes her face with the back of two fingers, can see her sister lean—lean!—into the touch; and then, most damning of all, she sees him step behind her, so that her back is to his chest, and he leans his head down to rest on top of hers.
Hanabi has seen enough and stomps back upstairs. Betrayal is curdling in her gut.
"We didn't want you to find out that way," Hinata says for the umpteenth time. Hanabi refuses to listen, or, refuses to stop pretending she is not listening. The white headphones remain glued to her ears.
Hinata does not give up, though. "It all happened so fast, Hanabi-chan. I don't even know where or when it—well, I do know, but—but—" she sighs. Hanabi can picture her now, seated on the bed behind her, head bowed and eyes shut in contemplation.
"It was just so new, Hanabi-chan," Hinata says at last. "Everything was just so new and strange. It took some adjustment in both of us. We're still getting used to it, so it didn't seem like the right time to tell anyone what was going on until we had words for it ourselves."
Hanabi doesn't want to hear any of this. She turns the volume up on her iPod punishingly, so all she feels is Hinata's hands caressing her hair before she spies her bedroom door closing out of the corner of her eye.
And, inexplicably, Hanabi suddenly wants to cry.
"You need to stop, Nee-chan," she whispers, "you need to stop going to places I can't follow."
Still, Hanabi is not so childish that she cannot come to grips with her sister's engagement to her cousin. She is fourteen, after all.
However, she will relish in needling her cousin to near death, popping in at the most importune moments—like that one excruciating family dinner, when Neji and Hinata had attempted to sneak away, but she had been cleverer than them and ambushed them and made them play cards with her all night—and other things that make her sister giggle and drive Neji up a wall. As far as Hanabi is concerned, Neji would receive the right to put his horn-dog hands all over her sister once the two are wed; right now, he could very well keep them to himself.
Hanabi could and would come to grips with her sister's engagement, but she does not have to stop being a pest.
Hinata is her sister, after all. And no matter where Hinata goes, Hanabi will keep an eye out for her, because Hinata is a dreamer who reads more books than can be healthy and does not always live in a world where other people—corporeal people, not those who live between lines on paper—exist.
So Hanabi will do what she can. She loves her sister, after all.