project: Fifty Days
disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
dedication: To everyone who has stuck with me.
summary: "In fifty days, Uchiha Sasuke will be executed." For fifty days, she will visit him. For fifty days, he will fall steadily in love.
I'M AN AWFUL PERSON.
But hey, A Levels now, guys—and I swear, I might be 50 when I finish this, but I will finish it.
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The sky was cloudless—pale grey and bright.
Hinata squinted, shielding her eyes, and tried not to think too hard about anything, because, recently, all that she'd been doing was thinking—thinking about her, and about Sasuke and Naruto and all the people she'd lost and would lose, and now wasn't a time for thinking. Now was the time for sitting back, legs kicked out in front of her, fingers splayed loosely across the grass, squinting up the sky and just—not thinking. Yes, now was the perfect time for that because, in a few seconds, all of it would come rushing back to her and she'd have to think again—
She closed her eyes against the bright grey sky and breathed in slowly, through her nose.
Ahead of her, a single bird circled, slowly and lazily. A blot of black against grey, she thought, monochromatic but still beautiful; and then a shadow fell over her, and she cracked open one eye, peered up at Neji. He was wearing black, like the bird—a beautiful black kimono, no finery, and a black sash pulled across his forehead, his usual Konoha headband elsewhere. He looked too pale, she thought; paler than the bright sky, and his brow furrowed as he looked down at her, as he spoke, said, "Are you ready?"
She closed her eyes again—breathed in through her nose.
He stayed where he was, too still.
Waiting, she supposed, and then opened her eyes—forced a smile, and said, "Yes."
She wasn't lying, though—not really—but she supposed she wasn't ready, either.
She took his hand though, when he offered it, and let him pull her to her feet, giving her a few seconds to smooth the crinkles and rumples out of her own kimono; her fingers paused at the hem of the black fabric, lingering there for a moment. Then she straightened, fixed her features into another smile—this time gentler, but still not quite genuine; although she didn't understand how anyone could really, properly smile right now. She wondered absently if Naruto would smile with his all, the way Kakashi would want him to, at the funeral, and then ended the thought as quickly, as fleetingly, as it came. Thinking about Naruto brought back all the things she didn't want to think about—all the confused, jumbled feelings she was still waiting to sort through and rearrange, and the way she'd watched Sasuke's face flicker like lights in darkness, broken and aching, and that made her head hurt. She didn't want to think about that, not right now—not when she could be thinking of Kakashi, she reasoned, and her smile turned bitter at the edges. If Neji caught it—if he caught any of the emotions playing across her face—he didn't say anything, and she was glad for that, because she didn't know what she'd say if he had mentioned it.
He had noticed, though—she knew, because he let his shoulder bump very gently against hers; so quickly and gently that, had she not been looking for some sort of acknowledgement, she would have missed it completely. Her smile softened, then, and for a few seconds, she felt like she was a little girl again—she felt like she'd felt before, when she'd peeked around from behind her father's leg and seen Neji looking back at her, with something akin to a wide-eyed frown.
She let her fingers tangle very loosely with his, by their sides.
He still didn't say anything—just swiped his thumb across the back of her hand, and then moved his hand away altogether.
That's okay, though, because that was all she needed.
Ino combed her fingers through her hair, sweeping it back into a bun—it was getting too long now, beginning to knot at the ends, and she would have to cut it soon. It was an absent thought, flitting briefly through her mind—a respite, she realised, from what she had been previously thinking about; or who, rather, and the same who she was certain everyone in the village was currently thinking about. She ran her fingers through her hair again absently, clipping her fringe away from her face and peering at her reflection in the mirror—there were bags under her eyes, deep dark shadows, and she thought she looked older than usual.
Older than she really was, she thought, and let her fringe fall back in front of her face.
Downstairs, Shikamaru knocked at her door.
She knew it was him—could tell almost immediately, because there was no one else who could make something as simple as knocking at a door seem like a chore, but hey, he managed it. She straightened, arching her back, gazing at her reflection—and blue eyes stared back at her, cold and angry at everything and everyone, before softening into something just a little bit like misery. She tucked her fringe behind her ear—because somebody should see the scars, she decided—and then headed over to the front door, slipped away the latch and peered at her friend.
"Yo," he said, and raised a hand in a lazy wave. "You ready to go?"
"No," she said, simply, and he let his hand fall to his side.
His features were troubled—curiously so, she decided, as if he hadn't expected such an honest answer—before his eyebrows furrowed, and he got that expression he usually had when he was trying to figure out a difficult puzzle. "You want to stay for a few seconds—"
"No," she repeated, and shrugged a shoulder. "I need to do this now."
"Oh," Shikamaru said, as if he understood.
Ino's laugh was very nearly genuine—just a bit too sad—then, at his mildly confused expression, and she slipped out of the door, locking it behind her, let her feet carry her so that she was just a bit ahead of him. He caught up with her easily enough—or perhaps she slowed down to meet him, just like she always did—and she let her shoulder press against his as they walked to Sakura's place; there was no way she wasn't going to be with her friend today, of all days, and she was just glad for Shikamaru's support. It had always been that way, after all—if there was someone you could rely on to be there for you to, to be silent and understandingly so, then it was Shikamaru; like a shadow, she mused, and let a little smile play at her lips even as she knocked on Sakura's front door.
Surprisingly, it wasn't Sakura that answered, though.
She found herself face to face with Sai, and she blinked, eyebrows raising slightly.
"You're here," she said, mildly surprised.
"I am," Sai replied, and his usual smile wasn't in place.
He looked—different, she thought; not older, not like her. Without his smile, there was something oddly vulnerable about him; something small and afraid, she thought, like a child; something in his eyes as he looked at her, fingers gripping the edge of the doorframe too tightly—and then he stepped aside, stepped backwards, let her slip past him and into the room beyond. She lingered for a moment, waiting for Shikamaru—but the other shrugged his shoulders, offered her a lazy smile, and said, "I'll wait for you here."
"Right," she nodded, but didn't turn back to look at him.
Instead, she just walked forwards, head held high.
"Can we j—just stop here quickly, Neji?"
Neji looked puzzled, if only briefly, glancing up at the apartment they had stopped beside—then his eyes widened, only a fraction, and he nodded sharply, the understanding bright in his eyes. In those few seconds, Hinata felt such an extreme love for her cousin—surging and brilliant—when she thought of how he used to be; how he would have scoffed, no doubt, at her asking, but still would have agreed, even with the contempt and disdain glittering in his eyes. Now, though, he was looking at her like she was someone brave and wonderful, and that—
That was what she needed right now.
She let go of his hand and crossed over to the door; knocked once, gently, softly.
There were a few moments of silence, and they seemed to stretch on for far too long.
Then the door slid open, and Kurenai stared wearily back at her, appearing years older than she really was; there were deep, heavy bags beneath her eyes, and she wasn't wearing any make-up, her hair pulled back into an unkempt, messy bun. It was strange seeing her without that characteristic bright red on her lips—without that vibrancy, Hinata realised, and felt awkward standing on her doorstep, unsure of what to say, what to do. She shifted from foot to foot, waiting for Kurenai to open the door, to invite her in, to at least say something—but there was nothing. Kurenai just looked at her, eyes tired and exhausted and not really seeing Hinata at all; seeing ghosts of the men she once loved.
"I, ah," Hinata began, and then trailed off, unsure. "I wanted to see if you were okay."
"I'm alright, Hinata."
"Really, I am."
"I didn't think you should b—be alone, sensei."
Kurenai stared unseeingly back at her, and her lips pulled into the smallest, saddest of smiles.
"What an awful thing to say," she said, and smiled, "I'm completely alone now."
"That's not—that's not true."
It was almost like she wasn't really there—like the strong, beautiful woman who'd convinced Hinata to be something more than she was had just faded away completely. She wanted to look back at Neji for advice, but she felt like that would be cowardice.
Instead, she stepped forwards—stepped towards and into, and enveloped her sensei in a hug.
It was awkward and uncomfortable, balanced precariously on the edge of the doorframe, and Kurenai was stiff and didn't react at first, just standing there, her hands limp by her sides. And then Hinata pressed the flat of her palm against her back, pulling her in, and she just crumpled, like a house of cards—like a paper doll—leaning in and against Hinata, one hand reaching to claw up at her back, her head buried in the crook between shoulder and neck. She was silent, if only for a minute, but her entire body was quivering as if she were on a livewire; and then she began to sob, quiet at first, before growing louder and louder, the wails of a woman who had lost completely everything and didn't know what to do.
Hinata stayed silent—let her weep and held her close.
Behind them, Neji turned his head and allowed them something like privacy.
She leant against the door, watching as Sakura scraped her hair back into a harsh, severe ponytail, fingers clawing at her scalp almost as if she were trying to cause herself as much physical pain as possible—and, for someone with monstrous strength, Ino supposed that would be a lot of physical pain. She let her fingers drum absently against her biceps, arms crossed, and watched as Sakura let her hair fall back around her face with an angry tut, before tugging it back and repeating the entire process again.
"Have you even brushed it," she asked, absently, with a tilt of her head.
"Be quiet," Sakura snapped, without any real bite to her words, no force behind it.
Ino tutted loudly, stepping forwards. "Give it here."
She held her hand out for the brush Sakura had abandoned on her dresser table.
There was a brief, frosty silence, and Ino met the gaze of Sakura's reflection in the mirror, lips tugged into something that was a half a smile and half a frown. She held her hand out patiently and, when Sakura still didn't move, her entire pose softened, shoulders slumping, fingers curling and uncurling, and she said, "I can do it right for you, forehead—you know I can."
"Don't call me that," she replied, absently, but picked up the hairbrush nonetheless, "Pig."
"Yeah, yeah—don't pretend you don't love it."
Ino crossed forwards, then, took the brush gently from her friend.
She'd always liked brushing hair, especially when the pair of them were younger—Sakura used to have the loveliest, softest hair, like the petals of a rose, and Ino used to like running her fingers through the strands, picking out each little piece and tying her hair into tiny little plaits, braiding her hair as they sat together in her bedroom. Sakura always used to complain about it—about the length, about the colour, about the style—but Ino saw the little smile in her eyes, at the corners of her lips, when Ino insisted she'd never seen nicer hair; that she'd trade her boring blonde hair for Sakura's at the drop of a hat, if she wanted to. Things had changed with Sasuke—and that had been very, very stupid—but she'd never stopped wanting Sakura's pretty, pretty hair. Even now, cut short and jagged, a practical style but not necessarily pretty, she wanted it, because it was still feather-soft, still so easy to brush, still so beautiful.
Neither of them said anything, and Ino pretended not to notice the tear-tracks down Sakura's cheeks.
Instead, she plucked the black sash from her friend's hand and said, "You've always been useless at this."
Sakura's voice was only slightly choked when she asked, "At what?"
"At getting things right," Ino said, gently, as she swept the hair away from Sakura's forehead.
"Thanks," she replied, and her chuckle was dry, sarcastic.
"And brilliant at getting things wrong," she continued, and looped the hair back into a bun, tying it into place with a bow. Her fingers lingered, if only briefly, in Sakura's hair, and she said, ever so softly, "He wouldn't want you to cry, you know."
There was no reply for a moment, then, and Ino let her hand fall to Sakura's shoulder.
Then fingers brushed gently against hers, and Sakura's green eyes were strong in the mirror.
"I know," she said, and there were no more tears.
"Hatake Kakashi was—"
There was a pause, then, as Tsunade stopped, thought for a moment.
Hinata was standing with her hands clasped loosely in front of her, fingers pressing together nervously, with Kiba at her side, shoulders touching, and Shino standing behind her, head ducked slightly in respect. There was a slight breeze—nothing too fast nor cold, and no rain; it was just sad, she thought, like even the wind was in mourning, and she ducked her head, tried not to look at Naruto out of the corner of her eye. He was standing at the front, Sakura by his side, and they were holding hands tightly, as if each needed the other just to keep standing; they were acting as lifelines for one another, she realised, and it felt cruel to watch.
By her side, Akamaru let out a soft, pitiful whine, and Kiba rubbed his knuckles absently across his head, murmuring something quiet and quick into the silence.
In front of them, the coffin shone black in the light.
It hurt her eyes to look at it, and so she looked away, out of respect—
Out of cowardice.
Ahead of her, Naruto and Sakura were lonely together.
It was all so sad and so cruel and oh, so unfair.
Akamaru let out another low, soft whine as if in agreement, and this time she knelt, ran her fingers through his fur, let them wrap around the soft strands and just held herself there, pressing her forehead against his fur. Kiba crouched with her, slung an arm lazily around her shoulder, and Shino stepped to stand beside her, his leg nudging gently across her side; and it was unfair, because how could Naruto be so lonely when she wasn't? She thought of Sasuke trapped in his cage, mourning without being allowed to mourn, and thought again that it was all unfair—so, so unfair, and Akamaru let out another little whine, shifting to nudge his wet nose against her forehead. She smiled then, through watery eyes, and then straightened, let Kiba almost guide her to her feet.
She caught Naruto's glance in her direction—saw his bright, sad smile and it broke her heart.
And then she thought of Sasuke—
She thought of the half-smiles he did.
She thought of the way he'd looked like he was shattering, breaking, the last time she'd seen him.
And then she thought of Kakashi, cold and broken and dead, in his coffin, and everything suddenly seemed so bright and so dull all at once, so unfair, sparking in and out of existence and becoming this mess of colours and fury that she didn't even slightly want to think about anymore. She let the half-smile she'd been offering Naruto slip off her face, even as he turned away to face his sensei, and then she looked around the room, at all of the faces; at those she knew—at Neji and Tenten and Lee, stood shoulder to shoulder, and then Shikamaru, no longer slouching, back ram-rod straight. She looked to her left and saw Kurenai, and she wanted to cross over to her sensei, to sling her arms around her and just hug her, promise her things would get better—that she wouldn't have to lose everyone, because she hadn't lost Hinata, not yet. She just looked so small and fragile and—defeated.
She wondered when everyone had had to grow up—why it had happened so quickly.
Hinata pressed her fingers against the inside of her palm, and heard:
"Kakashi was a great shinobi—"
Ahead of her, she saw Naruto close his eyes, bowing his head.
She watched his hand curl uselessly, helplessly into a fist, before loosening.
In those moments, she wanted nothing more than to cross over to him and pull him into a hug.
After that, she couldn't look at him anymore.
She kept her eyes trained on the coffin in front of her, a black stain, so unfairly beautiful in such a simple manner—her fingers twisted together, knots with her hands, and the rest of the funeral passed in a blur of cold, stony silence and Tsunade's clear voice, strong against it all. She wondered if that was maybe the worst thing about being Hokage—having to stay strong even when others weren't, even when maybe you couldn't—and then she didn't think about it anymore, instead letting the words flow over her, overtake her. She closed her eyes and just listened; thought of the shinobi she'd known, albeit not as well as she'd have liked to, and let herself feel regret.
"He was a brilliant man," Tsunade said, finally, and the words choked in her throat—she sounded hesitant, unsure.
She noticed—even though she didn't want to—Naruto stiffen.
"And—and a friend to all of us."
The Hokage fell silent then, bowing her head and closing her eyes.
Hinata mimicked her, and so did everyone else in the room—and their prayers mingled as they closed their eyes.
One by one, they left—fell away, she thought, like dominoes.
She lingered, if only for a second, watching him—saw the way his shoulders hunched and then fell, all in one fluid motion, hands furling into fists before falling loosely by his sides. She watched the droop of his shoulders—the way he seemed to just become smaller, to turn back into that little boy she'd seen hunched on the swing, broken and so scared, she realised, saw it in the way he flinched when Sakura's fingers brushed across the back of his hand. She watched as they leant in together—heard Sakura murmur something low and soft, before bowing her head in respect, stepping away from the coffin and letting Ino (and where had she come from, Hinata wondered, or had she just been watching, like she was?) lead her slowly and carefully away, like she was something fragile.
Like they were both made of glass, she thought, and stepped forwards.
And then she hesitated, paused—watched as Sai swept forwards to take Sakura's place, saying something she couldn't quite catch; it was comforting, no doubt, and she saw the little smile flit briefly across Naruto's face. She waited a few seconds longer, and saw Tsunade hovering to their left, obviously waiting for a chance to step forwards and offer her condolences.
In those few moments, she thought that maybe Naruto didn't need her.
Maybe there was someone else who would need her more.
She smiled a sad little smile and then left without another word.
"The funeral was today."
Sasuke closed his eyes, letting his head fall back—for a few seconds, he was calm, collected; waited for his heart to stop pounding in his chest, to stop leaping and falling, and then, when he opened his eyes, she was looking at him with such concern that it hurt and he wanted to close them again. It was stupid, and ridiculously so, but in those moments he didn't want to see her look so broken, especially not for him—didn't want her to look so fragile and hurt and—
"What happened?" he asked, and almost immediately regretted it.
He didn't voice that, though—instead, he held her gaze, steady and cold.
She looked back at him, brow furrowed, uncertain.
For a few awful moments, he thought maybe she pitied him, and he didn't want her pity.
He didn't need her pity.
He needed her to speak, and keep on speaking, until he could forget it all, but he didn't know how to ask for that, so instead he closed his eyes and said, very quietly, "Tell me."
She seemed uncertain, unsure, opening and closing her mouth as if she didn't know what to say.
"Please," he said, and very nearly broke.
She paused then, but only for a brief, fleeting moment—paused so that she could look at him, features softening into something like a smile, but her eyes were breaking for him, he thought, and she stood up, straightened. Then she crossed over to the glass, placing her palm flat against it, and she began to speak, in a soft voice, with words like clouds, like a soft breeze, and words like daggers; words that hurt and hurt and hurt, until he wanted them to stop—until he had to close his eyes, because he didn't know what else to do. She told him how Kurenai had cried, had screamed, like a wounded animal; told him how Sakura hadn't shed a tear; how she'd stood straight and tall, held her head high, and clutched Naruto's hand so desperately, so tightly, that she feared he'd end up with broken fingers. She told him how so much had been said, because there was so much to say about Kakashi, but, in the end, how it had all come down to a few choice words. She told him how they'd left one of his books on the top of his coffin, like a joke only a few of them were in on; how they'd burnt it at the end of the funeral and scattered its ashes into the wind.
She told him how Naruto hadn't said a word, not through it all.
She told him how he'd stood with his shoulders shaking.
She told him how he'd been lonely to the end, but not alone at all.
And then she told him that she didn't want him to be lonely anymore—but Sasuke wasn't sure if she was talking about Naruto anymore, because her eyes were soft and gentle on him, and her fingers curled against the glass, as if she were frustrated, as if she didn't know quite what to say or do anymore.
Then she ran out of words, and she didn't say anything at all.
He learnt that that was just as nice as her voice—just as enchanting.
He closed his eyes and tried not to think about anything; but he couldn't stop himself from opening his eyes again, from letting her capture him, gaze steady and strong locked with his, as if she were willing him to pick himself up. He felt as though she was fixing him, bit by bit, word by word, tiny little look by tiny little look—and he didn't know what to call it, the way his very being seem to surge for her—seemed to need her, drinking up her every little movement and using it to fix himself, like she were a medicine, an ointment, made solely for him.
When at least an hour had passed, his lips curled into the smallest of smiles and he tipped his head back, closed his eyes.
"He was a great shinobi," he said, echoing the words Hinata had told him Tsunade had spoken.
She hummed in agreement, dipped her head in a nod, echoed, "A truly great shinobi."
"And a brilliant man."
"Yes—one of the best."
His voice choked—the words ended there.
Her eyes were gentle on his, and she smiled, ever so slightly.
He didn't realise his cheeks were wet, even as he finally spoke.
"I'll miss him."
notes2: While writing this, I listened to Adele songs and wept.
notes3: Please vote for us, too, remember guys!