Hi, again! I hope I'm not forgotten around these parts.
This is going to be a bit of a filler chapter to get the plot back on track to where I want it to go.
My writing style is a bit different now. I'm trying my hardest to revert back to how it was before to avoid any confusion or dissatisfaction on your part. Thank you, readers, for supporting this story!
One last thing – I've noticed that a few people around the web have been recommending this story on forum boards and web-pages. That's beautiful! Thank you so much for that, guys! If I knew who you were, I'd send you a personal message, but for now, just accept this universally-directed virtual ((hug))! (: Please continue to support and read this story.
If you haven't already and if you have some time, please listen to the song "This Woman's Work". It's a very beautiful and moving song.
Naruto © Masashi Kishimoto
. . . . .
There was a note at Hinata's door.
"Hyuuga Hinata, Room 402."
The messenger handed it over with a blank face, and turned on his heel and left the second Hinata wrapped her fingers around the small slip of paper. When she looked at it, she understood. Half of the message was blacked out entirely, censored. And when she glanced at the sender's name, she knew why.
The Hokage wouldn't let her fighting shinobi send classified information back and forth during a state of war. Hinata recognized Sakura's print and Naruto's unruly scrawl. Sakura said that she hoped Hinata was alright, and that the battle was fine on their end.
Naruto said that they were going to give their all to this war, and win, because committing to anything with only half a heart simply never worked. There were countless other lines following this promise, most likely describing the situation on the frontlines and – knowing Naruto – the dreadful lack of delicious food and pretty girls.
And although Hinata never got to know their whereabouts, conditions, injuries or future plans, she felt completely fine with that. She was smiling as she set the letter down on the tabletop and turned her attention to the tray of food that she'd brought up herself from the cafeteria. Her dinner was measly, just steamed vegetables and mushroom spaghetti.
She wondered what Naruto was being made to eat on the battlefield, and forked some spaghetti into her mouth. It tasted a bit flavourless.
She blinked, and then eased herself away from thoughts of Naruto, to where they ended with Sasuke, and how she'd purposefully avoided seeing him today, selfishly ignored her nurse's duty in doing so, too afraid and frankly, tired, of his cutting presence and scathing distaste for everything.
And lost her appetite.
Hinata set down the fork, and threw the rest of the food away.
. . . . .
Hinata was called into Tsunade's office early the next morning.
"Shizune tells me Sasuke's condition is worse today," Tsunade informed Hinata, Her eyes were stone-cold and unfeeling. "I haven't received any reports from you personally, Hinata. Tell me how it is."
Hinata felt very much like she was being interrogated, or even blamed. "I-I apologize, Tsunade-sama, I've been trying – I mean, I'll try harder – no, no, I'll work on him – wait, I mean I'll work on m-myself—"
"I'm not accusing you," Tsunade said firmly, "and I'm not asking you to take any responsibility whatsoever for his condition. You are, after all, not his doctor, just his caretaker."
Hinata thought herself quite a lousy caretaker, if that were the case.
She didn't have too much time to dwell on this. The door sounded three knocks, and in entered Neji. Long hair the colour of coffee the way her mother had always taken it brought a wave of nostalgia over Hinata. Not only had it been a while since she'd been reminded of her mother, but it'd been quite a long time since she'd encountered her cousin.
"Neji-nii-san," she said, smiling politely, and he directed a cordial bow her way.
"Hinata-sama." He turned his pale, hard eyes on the Hokage and said disinterestedly, "Am I interrupting something?"
"Indeed," Tsunade said, hid her drowsy yawn behind a lifted sheet of paper. "Make an appointment next time, Neji. I'm in the middle of discussing a predicament with your cousin."
"Predicament? Is Hinata-sama in trouble?" Neji turned to Hinata, as though she would be the one to give him his answers.
"Not at all." Tsunade tossed the sheet back onto the desk and glared at the black ink. "Uchiha Sasuke's medical file. It looks uglier than the records of all the Third Shinobi World War combined. Where he received such injuries I'll never know…"
"Has questioning failed?"
Tsunade wrinkled her nose in distaste. "He won't surrender to any threats whatsoever, and we also know that we can't go that far – committing violence against him. He's already half-dead, and has no chance of defending himself. It'd almost be like a mercy killing, and it'd give us no information."
Hinata gave a start from the corner of Tsunade's desk, where she'd been stiffly perched, feeling like an outsider rudely eavesdropping on strangers' conversation. "Information?"
"He came from nowhere," Tsunade told the both of them, in a conspiratorial whisper. Somehow, she seemed a bit inebriated, but Tsunade was always somewhat halfway-there anyway – side-effects from excessive sake binging, likely. "We found him in an area where it was confirmed he'd been staying for little over six hours. They couldn't retrace his steps leading from any other place. He might as well have dropped out of the sky and landed in that spot, unable to move."
"No kinetic chakra," Neji muttered. "Just how does that happen, Tsunade-sama?"
"Until now, it'd been thought impossible. Chakra is supposed to regenerate on its own, over time. We're still in the middle of investigating it – both his sudden appearance and his condition – but this is untraceable. It's nonexistent. It can't be found in pathology, or bacteriology, or oncology, or radiology – we just have no idea."
"The examinations a-aren't working?" Hinata inquired. Tsunade seemed much more alert now, fully concerned and wide awake. Hinata concluded that the woman must have lost great amounts of sleep and sanity stressing over this curious case.
"If we can just get his condition to improve, even a bit," Tsunade said earnestly. "Just a bit. If his chakra borders on the brink of natural regeneration, we might be able to help him more easily. The medical file here –" Tsunade indicated the sheet of paper on her desk, "—reads that Sasuke has about thirteen months to live. At around the eight-month mark, his chakra circulatory system will shut down. It'll stop working, and it'll stop trying."
There was a pause while Tsunade closed her eyes, leaned her head back as far as it would go, and sighed to the ceiling.
"Hinata, I need you to try harder. Please."
Hinata opened her mouth, to consent, but Neji interrupted, "Why does Hinata-sama have to help him? He's a traitor to Konoha. All he has is information, and it might not even have anything to do with us. For all we know, he was just some reckless kid who didn't care about anything but himself and his family."
"That may be true," Tsunade said, and she rolled her neck, wincing at the stretch of the sore joints, without opening her eyes. "But I have reason to believe he may be willing to regain citizenship after or during his recovery."
"Reason," Neji scoffed, "and that means Naruto, doesn't it? Are you really going to take the word of a—"
"—shinobi who is probably far more wholeheartedly qualified to be Hokage than I am?" Tsunade finished, and she swivelled her head around to face Neji, eyelids snapping apart to meet his daring stare. "Yes, I am. Completely."
Hinata thought it about time she said something. "Tsunade-sama, I think you should know that Sasuke-san d-doesn't really—"
"—want help? It's fine. Even I can tell he doesn't want to die. Just put a bit more effort into it, Hinata, and he'll listen to you. Talk a bit more. You have full authority, granted as of this moment by me, over him. He has to follow your orders. If he doesn't, report back to me and I'll deal with it accordingly."
Hinata didn't feel at all relieved.
. . . . .
Sasuke's hair was wet when she entered the room.
Hinata knew that in the time she wasn't by Sasuke's bedside, attending to him, there was another medic, a male doctor with a specialty in Bloodline Limits, who examined Sasuke, conducted tests, and also helped him to and from the bathroom. There was the faint scent of shampoo, and his skin was bright from the afterglow of a shower.
She licked her lips and tightened her throat, something she did instinctively when she wanted to speak without a stutter. When she did this, Hinata had to speak a bit slower, more carefully, but where Sasuke was concerned, annoyances of any degree that could spur a potential outburst had to be avoided.
"Good evening, Sasuke-san," she said, a little more quietly than she would've liked. And so she chalked his lack of a reply to his not having heard her, when she really knew that he just hadn't cared to answer. "H-How are you feeling?"
Sasuke turned blank eyes up at her. "Fine."
There was a small white patch on his arm. Hinata concluded that he'd just given blood. She swallowed and blinked, focusing instead on his frown. "Have you been having a good day?"
He spoke in words just as disconnected and slow as she did; her reason was her stutter, and his was a four-track mind. "I just said I'm fine."
She wanted to point out that there was a difference between the two questions, but thought better of it, and instead started to clean his dishes from the dinner he'd just finished. The male medic-nin who had been here to feed it to Sasuke had left without clearing them away.
"Naruto-kun and Sakura-chan sent me a note t-today," she said slowly, wary.
Sasuke leaned his head back a bit, watching the air in front of him with what seemed to be intense interest. "Good for you. I certainly don't get any notes from them."
She had no idea how to respond.
Hinata watched Sasuke's body language from the corner of her eye. His elbows were tucked in, his posture perfect, straight as a nail, and he didn't seem to require any form of entertainment or indulgence like other patients, such as crossword puzzles, television, or visitors. He emitted such a dreadfully blank aura that even Hinata, his assigned nurse, was cautious of interacting with him.
She pursed her lips and drew in a breath. She would try.
"Sasuke-san, I noticed you d-didn't have any of the soup."
He didn't respond. But it wasn't like she'd expected him to, or anything.
"You really should try it, it's very good. I think today was cream of broccoli, a-and it's healthy, too. Um … you d-didn't touch the roasted chicken either … you know, just having the rice and tea won't be enough calories for you, e-especially since you ate the celery and apples and those are actually negative calories."
"I'm full, though." Sasuke didn't look at her. He just stared at the wall, with narrowed eyes, hard in thought.
Hinata decided to end her preaching and took a different approach. "Have you tried walking?"
He shook his head soundlessly.
"You might want to. Tsunade-sama said if you can just get your chakra up to the point where it's on the verge of self-regeneration, they might be able to help it along e-easier. Anytime you want to start, you can just ask and I'll be your support."
"Shut up already," Sasuke scoffed, and his voice had something of a snicker in it, that made a spark of anger ignite in Hinata's gut. "Just shut up. You don't want to help. Why are you saying all of this?"
"Because I'm trying to help," Hinata said simply, forcing the sound of agitation out of her tone. "It'd be b-better if you would just let me help you—"
"But the thing is, Nurse, you don't want to help."
Hinata couldn't tell if he was mocking her, teasing her or seriously fighting her. After a second's debate, she omitted the second option and found that she couldn't differentiate between the ones that remained. Perhaps it was both.
"You're here because you're useless otherwise," Sasuke said, smacked his lips like an arrogant schoolboy, and leaned back onto the mountain of pillows.
"You're injured, aren't you? You can't walk properly. There's a limp, it's barely noticeable. Your left arm doesn't swing when you walk, and the shoulder on that arm is pushed back always just a bit farther than the right, like it's been dislocated before. Also, you take deep, shuddering breaths whenever you've just been rushing here, so your cardio is bad, or your heart is weak, or both."
Hinata looked at her feet. She was overwhelmed, and at first, she passed it off as sadness, once again being looked down upon and condemned by those above her, but she could only be astounded at his vast perception. What observation indeed, to have caught such minor details that not even Naruto had been able to pick out the day she returned from her catastrophic S-class mission.
Then again, he was a bit of a dense little dunce, and dense little dunces didn't change very easily or often.
"Don't cry now," Sasuke said, and his tone wasn't snappish in the least, but it wasn't pleading, either. It was absolutely devoid of anything, so utterly hollow that Hinata half-wished he'd get angry just for the sake of feeling angry. "A girl like you, losing her ability to be a kunoichi … I'd have expected you to commit suicide by now."
"C-Commit suicide?" Hinata repeated in disbelief. "I-I never mentioned anything about losing my ability. Out of the two of us, aren't I more likely to return to the field? I still have my chakra, and I'm recuperating."
"Then shouldn't you be in a bed, just like me, and not running around as a nurse?" Sasuke was skeptical, and merciless. And so very, very cunning. Hinata hated not being able to find answers for his questions.
"We're in a w-war, and I'm doing my best to help out, since I can't do anything else, and Tsunade-sama said that the hospital was in need of some volunteers, a-and that I had good chakra control, so I would be—"
"Shut up. You talk too much." Sasuke lowered his glare to his knees. He knocked one of them with his fist, and didn't flinch, wince, or twitch in the least. He might even have lost all sensation. "Can't you tell, when I've been like this, that I didn't want you to keep talking?"
Hinata bit her lip, uncertain how to respond without being rudely shushed once again.
"You're not observant at all. You're not fit to be a ninja. Did your woman sensei not teach you the basic rule? Underneath the underneath – if you'd been looking there in the first place, you'd have known that I didn't want to listen to you ever since you brought up the stupid issue about the soup."
"I'll r-remember that next time."
And then Hinata fell entirely silent, ankles together and clutching her wrist in anxiousness. She wanted to apologize. She wanted to apologize to Sasuke, for being oblivious to his signals, and to Tsunade, for having tried the wrong way and receiving wrong results, and to herself, mostly, for even doing something she hadn't really wanted to do.
Naruto, after all, had said that trying to commit to something half-heartedly just never worked.
Hinata left the room.
Now she knew.
. . . . .
Hinata had taken the remainder of the night off. Sasuke evidently didn't appreciate her presence, and the dinner rush in the cafeteria was over. She'd have nothing to do if she stayed at the hospital.
She might have visited Lee, if he hadn't been so morose in mourning the loss of Tenten, but the poor fellow just didn't know how to quit, even when he was well aware of the pain that lay ahead.
Hinata wondered what it felt like, self-destruction.
Hanabi stood in front of the Hyuuga gates, eyes wide and delighted and defrosting. Hinata could infer, from the clenched fists at her little sister's sides and the stiff way she held her shoulders that she'd just gotten into another dispute with their unreasonable father.
"Hi," Hinata breathed, watching her words spiral in wisps of cold air in front of her eyes. "W-Why are you out here, H-Hanabi-chan? Let's go inside, it's so c-cold that I'm s-stuttering more than usual…"
"I'm never going back there," Hanabi snapped, and stomped both her feet into the snow as if to implant them into the ground there. "Not to that old man."
Hinata closed her bare fingers around the icy gate poles. "Let me in, Hanabi. I'll talk to him."
Hanabi scoffed. "It's not like you can actually do anything. He hates you. And me, now, for that matter."
"Ever since that—?"
"—Don't say it," Hanabi warned.
Hinata stopped herself and slid her hands off the hard iron. "Alright," she murmured quietly, and took a step back. "Should I not have c-come?"
Hanabi swallowed visibly, and her teeth teased her lip. She stood, uncertain, and not meeting her sister's eyes. "I don't know," was all she had to say.
Hinata's lips trembled, whether from the urge to scream in frustration or from the bitter, icy cold. "R-Right, tell the c-clan I dropped by?"
The younger Hyuuga girl narrowed her eyes off to the side, inspecting one of her own brown hairs that was blowing flimsily at the side of her face. "Didn't you hear me? I said I wasn't going back."
"Where will you s-stay?" Hinata asked immediately, not unkindly, because she knew Hanabi was a stubborn one and that no amount of pressuring would change her mind. "I can't shelter you, Hanabi – you know I don't live on my own—"
"Right," Hanabi said, voice empty, "you live at the hospital."
It sounded far worse than it had in Hinata's mind. It reminded her vaguely of that incident, a while back, when Hinata had been in the hospital for a grand total of four months, all spent in the ICU, after her S-class mission.
"It's different now," Hinata promised. "I like it there. At least I'm doing what I can to h-help with the w-war."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Hanabi said indignantly, too loud for Hinata's liking. "Are you saying I'm useless?"
Are you saying I'm useless?
It was the question that had been in her head only moments earlier, now spoken aloud, and something inside of Hinata contracted when she heard it. Hanabi's voice, so very like her own, repeating the phrase she'd wanted to snap to Uchiha Sasuke.
Hanabi had always been the pile of things that Hinata was not.
In life, those were their roles. Hinata was the beginning, the things that were, the things that started out the way they had and never changed. Hanabi was the shift, the reversal, the things that weren't, everything that was missing, and everything that had been asked for.
"I'm not saying you're useless," Hinata whispered, in a breath so low, but one Hanabi couldn't possibly miss. "I'm saying I am."
. . . . .
Hinata capped the last of the yoghurt parfaits and placed it on the countertop. "Finished," she declared in a soft voice, and the breakfast lady glanced over her shoulder, eyes sweeping over the array of plastic cups.
She smiled approvingly. "Good work, Hinata. Thanks. I made some oatmeal for the patients' breakfast this morning. It's maple and brown sugar. Feel free to have some, and remember to take some up for Uchiha-kun."
Hinata nodded. "T-Thank you."
Yesterday had been Hinata's breaking point. She had expected to snap, out of anger or impatience or even in her own earnestness, but she had only collapsed, folded in on herself, accomplishing nothing and losing her willpower. Her feet dragged themselves up to Sasuke's room, the tray in seemingly dead hands, and her entire face was too drained to exert the muscle force and smile.
Or even to frown. She just looked, ahead, and looked alive.
But just barely, only barely.
Hinata knocked on Sasuke's door and, without waiting for an answer, she turned the knob and swung it open. He was sitting upright in his bed, as usual, and didn't acknowledge her entrance or the bowl of oatmeal in her hands. He didn't seem hungry, either, or pleased to be breathing.
In a lot of ways, he was her reflection.
Hinata set down the tray on the bedside and table and waited for Sasuke to speak.
Anything, she pleaded, anything at all. Just thank me. No, you don't even have to do that. Just pick up the spoon and eat. Or tell me to leave.
Sasuke stared at it, without speaking, an unconscious act of defiance against her very thoughts.
"S-Sasuke-san, it's for you," Hinata said in a low voice, as kindly as she could muster, and she could feel the exertion of that false attempt at sincerity wearing away at her. Hinata felt her cheeks drain themselves of colour before she saw it in his eyes.
He didn't seem concerned for her. He just looked at her, with a knowing sort of look, looking like, This is how I feel all the time. It's great, don't you think?
And she wanted to clamp her eyes shut, right in front of those dark-dark-onyx-rocks of eyes, so sharp and unwelcoming and then to turn away, and leave the room. Instead, she dropped her hands behind her back and shifted her gaze to the bowl.
"It's oatmeal," she tried again. "P-Please have some. The c-cook made it for you."
The cook. Sasuke's mouth twitches.
He nods with a blink, an indication for her to spoon-feed the oatmeal to him. He probably doesn't feel up to using the energy today, she concludes, because normally he would be able to manage half the bowl before his arm fell and he would need to be assisted like an infant.
After a minute that the cold metal spoon is inside his mouth, Sasuke retches visibly, his stomach convulsing and his hand whipping to his ribs to claw at it. Hinata removed the spoon quickly, and saw that the oatmeal, soggier than before and practically regurgitated, and wanted to retch as well.
"What is that?" Sasuke demanded, a little hoarse, but nonetheless irritated
"Maple and b-brown sugar. Oatmeal." You didn't have to spit it back. Maybe then I'd have eaten it, and it wouldn't have to go to waste, like it will now.
"I hate it," Sasuke told her bluntly. "I hate brown sugar."
Hinata opened her mouth, closed it again, and then placed the bowl back onto the tray with a diligent nod. "I'll inform the c-cook."
Sasuke breathed, a sigh of sorts, but Hinata couldn't read the emotion behind it. He leaned back onto his pillows and tilted his head up to stare at the ceiling. "I'm also feeling nauseated today," he said simply. There was no pain in his voice, or disgust, or even discomfort. She wondered if he was lying, because he also didn't make a habit out of telling her how he felt when she asked.
And she hadn't even asked this time around.
But she played along, "I'll tell Tsunade-sama the n-next time I see her."
And Sasuke breathed again, a scoff this time, but he only clasped his hands together on his stomach and closed his eyes.
Hinata intended to let him sleep, and began stealing out of the room as quietly as she could, but was distracted by the vibrant sight of bright yellow blossoms. "Flowers?" she muttered aloud, before she could catch herself.
"I had a visitor last night, when you were gone," Sasuke said, without opening his eyes.
Hinata, curious and unwilling to provoke him further, bent over to read the card wedged between two fat marigold heads. "K-Kakashi-sensei?" Does that mean—
"Naruto didn't come back," Sasuke said immediately. "Kakashi brought back some secret files the team secured for Tsunade. Dropped in for an hour or so."
Hinata's eyes widened as she read the card. Get well. –Kakashi (P.S. there's a note on the back of this card. Show this at the wedding.)
"S-Sasuke-san, which w-wedding is he talking about?"
"Tch," Sasuke grunted, and glared at the bouquet of flowers. "His. And your sensei's. You're invited too, no doubt. The bastard couldn't get me a proper invite, so I just get a bill to show the bouncer."
Hinata was completely taken aback. She hadn't been suspecting that Kurenai-sensei would actually marry Kakashi, but it didn't come as too much of a surprise, either. Kakashi had been lending a hand with Asuma's baby ten times more than Hinata, Kiba or Shino had been able to, and Shikamaru had been preoccupied with his own genin team as of late. Hinata was more surprised that –
"Tsunade-sama is letting you g-go?"
"I'll get a wheelchair."
There followed an abrupt pause. Sasuke closed his eyes, clearly already tired of the conversation. After his previous outburst, Hinata had tried not to bore him with pointless coffee-talk or nurse's preaching anymore, but she didn't drop the matter.
"You don't have the kinetic energy to wheel yourself a-around," Hinata said, feeling like an absolute insensitive bully for pointing it out.
"Uh, no, Nurse, you'll be doing that."
. . . . .
(I hope that ending didn't seem too much of a cliff-hanger. It's not meant to be. I just had nowhere else to end this chapter. So don't let your expectations get too high for the next update, which will hopefully be more timely than this one was. Enjoy the holidays, everyone!)