Summary: AU, post-Pein. Hinata goes on a journey and takes small steps. Eventual NejiHina. Spirituality/Romance
.a blanket disclaimer: Fanfiction authors never own the work of the fandom they write for. So whatever is obviously not mine is obviously not mine. Except the plot...and OCs that will eventually pop up. This work was partly inspired by reading Tadahiko Nagao's book on Professor Saito's innovation: kokology!
*Constructive reviews and thoughts will be appreciated. Enjoy. :)*
The eyes of the mind peer in two directions.- Professor Isamu Saito
Prologue: Adrift on the Breeze
Small talk sat well with Team Eight. Except perhaps Shino.
But they attempted it, nonetheless. Team Eight lay there in the grass, watching the sky fade into sleepy blues and clouds of gold. Sparring did get more boring past the fifth hour after noon, and seeing that even Akamaru was getting restless, Kiba suggested eloquently, "To hell with training! Let's take a break."
Shino Aburame did not lie down, but sat upright and rued the grass that might dare stain his thick coat one day. Kiba Inuzuka snorted at this and remarked about how harmless the grass is. To prove his point lay down and dug his clawed fingers in the warm dirt and the unearthed roots, and relished the feel of tiny green blades tickling his leather-clad back. They seemed as different as night and day, and indeed they were, but that only made their friendship all the more interesting.
Between the two was Hinata Hyuuga, smiling as serenely as ever and quite unsure of what to do. She settled with propping her knees in front of her chest and curling her arms around them, looking out from the hill the four claimed their own. The creeping darkness made her eyes even more luminescent that the noon ever could, curtained by the dark blue-black ridge that her hair formed.
A lot had happened in the three years after Pein's defeat. Kiba had been in training as a tokubetsu (or specialist) shinobi, as well as Shino, and they hoped to be part of Konoha's strongest forces. Team Eight had been promoted to jonin, and was becoming in-demand with their tracking specialties. Kiba had been declared 'heir' to the Inuzuka clan, with his sister Hana marrying another man. Shino himself was courting another non-shinobi girl in their village.
The biggest change to them was Hinata's. It had only been several weeks since Lord Hiashi Hyuuga had made Neji her fianc , and since that date there had been a pronounced silence in the young woman. It wasn't dislike (because the woman never had bad feelings when Neji was concerned), and it wasn't resentment or bitterness (although some say Hinata still pined for Naruto). It was more like a distinct discomfort that stemmed from the events pushed upon her.
Thus their intense training over the past few weeks, creating and perfecting jutsu and coordinating movements, were all to distract Hinata from what the boys perceived was an inevitable bother. This lull in activity left them to their own devices, however, and Kiba had resorted to attempted conversation.
"Is there a need to ask? Not much. There have been no missions for us for a while."
"That sucks. It's so boring. Right, Akamaru?"
There was a woof of agreement.
"Um...I guess it is."
Kiba straightened up and brought forth a paper bag. "Well, I think I've got something to cheer us all up: fortune cookies! Got them off this new shop downtown, and I thought it would be a good treat for a break. Here, both of you take a pick!" He himself plunged a tan hand into the paper folds and brought forth a creamy-colored fortune cookie. Its paper was peeking out of the soft inner wrinkle of the pastry. Shino reached into the bag, and Hinata did the same, drawing from within its depths cookies of their own.
Kiba took a bite of the cookie and drew the paper slip from between his teeth. In between sharp crunches he read the fortune aloud, typed in bright red lettering:
A closed mouth gathers no feet.
"Very appropriate, Kiba," and here a smirk was audible in Shino's tone of voice. Kiba scowled and pocketed the fortune, while chewing on the rest of the cookie. He wiped the crumbs off his mouth with the back of his hand and mock-growled. "Haha, very slick, Shino. Go read your own stupid fortune."
The bug-user bit open the corner of his cookie very carefully and pulled out the fortune. It read:
Smiling often can make you look and feel younger.
Now Kiba was roaring with laughter, and Hinata could spy a tint of red on the pale man's face between her chuckles. "These fortune cookies must be magic! Or is fate really pressing you to break that stoic face of yours?" Shino mumbled something that no one really heard, but continued eating his cookie. "Alright Hinata, your turn."
Hinata broke hers open in half and read:
You have to know yourself before knowing others.
This struck Hinata as something important, but how important she really didn't know yet. "Sounds like a pretty wise cookie, you got there, Hinata," Kiba mused, leaning beside her. Shino nodded in his own quiet way, munching on the rest of his own pastry. The Hyuuga heiress nodded and popped a piece of cookie in her mouth, and allowed herself to zone out.
Knowing others...it would be nice to know Neji more, Hinata thought. He was always so stoic and noble-looking to her, and she realized that that was probably only one side of the Neji she knew. She had heard stories from Tenten of the overtly-critical Neji, the ridiculous Neji, even the unreasonable Neji. Although these might have been exaggerations, they were more than Hinata could ever imagine...so yes, she would like to know him more, and others.
"But knowing one's self?"
Knowing one's self...she knew that she was Hinata Hyuuga, and that she was the heiress to the great Hyuuga Clan. She knew that she was to be married to Neji, who was superior in every way. She knew that she loved her sister Hanabi, and her father Hiashi, and her teammates Kiba and Shino and Akamaru, and her sensei Kurenai. And everyone knew that, right?
"Perhaps the fortune means looking deeper into one's self," murmured Shino, who sensed her pondering. "Why? To gain a better understanding of one's self, probably." Kiba grinned, joking about "psychiatry talk" and sniffed the night air. "Sounds nice, though. Kind of like finding your greatest wishes...like remember when we were younger, and we talked about what we might be if we weren't ninja?"
Hinata remembered that day, of blowing soap bubbles and wooden posts, and lying on this exact same hill not too long ago. They were playing together, with bottles of stall-bought soap suds and waving plastic wands with little toothed loops at the end and making bubbles. The bubbles blew behind Hinata as she giggled and watched the boys compete over who could make the biggest, even going so far as to soak their hands to form circles that they blew into. They laid on the grass, watching the multichromatic spheres dance in the air.
Kiba had wanted to become a veterinarian like his sister Hana, but upon realization that he needed more smarts, change instantaneously to dog breeder. Shino wanted to be an entomologist, but when Hinata was asked what she aspired to be she did not have an answer ready. She wavered between "housewife" and "herbalist" and "teacher" and all sorts of things...until at last Kurenai-sensei appeared and told them it was training time.
"I never did make up my mind, then..."
It struck her that she knew so little of herself, until now, to answer such a question even in the present time. Her chewing continued, although she sensed that Kiba and Shino (but mostly Kiba) were already talking in her midst. This allowed her time to withdraw more into her thoughts...
A housewife? Surely she could be more ambitious than that...though that would soon be realized...
An herbalist? Sounded just about right, but she'd been out of practice as of late...
A teacher? Now that she thought about it, she was intensely shy...
She'd only dabbled in those thoughts, and she'd dabbled in so many things...writing and making salves, and cooking and so on...domestic doing-ons were never bad. But when was the last time she ever concentrated on something other than training on her techniques? Something that, like it or not, would not be the complete dimension of any person?
Something that she did, not for Konoha, not for her clan or her friends, but for herself and herself alone?
Seeing the clouded expression on the young woman's face, the leather-clad tokubetsu-nin inquired what was troubling her. A gentle shake of the head reassured him, and Kiba said, "You know, when I feel like I'm thinking too much I take a good long walk with Akamaru. He doesn't judge me in my face, and we're so close that being together's as natural as breathing. We're practically one."
A good long walk...
Hinata smiled, tucked the fortune into her jacket and stood up, feeling the faint threads of thought weaving in her mind. She thanked Kiba and Shino for the snack and company. "I have to go home now, it's getting dark. See you Shino, Kiba, Akamaru." Her pale lavender-dusted eyes looked at them, taking in their features with a new optical sensitivity that they found new. Kiba grinned and Shino nodded, and Akamaru gave an appreciative bark at this look of warmth.
The rest of Team Eight watched her leave, unaware of a plan budding in her mind.
1. Mind, Spirit, Feelings
The office of the Hyuuga clan head was austere and traditional, befitting the clan's reputation. It was a symphony of straight lines and refined angles: from the washi paper squares of the shoji sliding door to the uniform ridges of the tatami flooring underfoot. The few modern influences in the room was a hardwood desk and chairs-virtually every other thing there was according to the clan's conservative sensibilities.
In this office Hiashi was interrupted from his work by his eldest daughter, who had come to him with a strange proposition. She had come to him, with the proper manner and decorum expected of an heiress and requested for permission to leave Konoha. His forehead was wrinkled in thought, his stern features focusing on the matter at hand. It was unusual for Hinata to come forward with anything as big as this, although as the heiress and as a respected shinobi in her own right Hiashi was accepting of her growing confidence.
"Yes, Father," Hinata answered, respectful as always. "So long as there is peace between the ninja villages, temporary though it may be, I believe that now is the best time to better myself beyond the confines of Konoha. I believe that experiences away from here will do me good."
"And where do you propose to undertake your training?"
"...I am planning to train under Sunagakure's ninja, to develop myself."
The Hyuuga leader sensed that some ulterior motive was at work here, but he was not entirely sure about it. Her body did not seem to doubt, and he knew that honesty was a great virtue of Hinata's. He placed the writing-brush upon the desk and clasped his hands together. His finely carved features were tanned and slightly creased with age, and only his pale living eyes contrasted.
"...Very well. I can see that this is a serious undertaking for you. So be it: I grant you my permission."
"Thank you, Father."
"However, I will place Neji as your escort to Sunagakure: as heiress, you cannot be left unguarded."
"Yes, Father...May I please inform him, myself?"
Hiashi's eyebrows arched at this sudden boldness, something that occurred on rare occasions. This was for the best, he thought: if Neji and Hinata were to wed, they might as well establish a deeper emotional bond. He merely waved his hand and spoke,
"Do what is proper."
The Hyuuga leader's expression softened at Hinata's look of surprise at his lingering words. His face remained stoic, but his tone seemed to mellow a little. "And...return home safe, my daughter."
With a deep bow, Hinata dropped her dark head gracefully and stepped outside. The beaming smile on her face remained as she left, attempting to enshrine her father's momentary tenderness before it faded from her mind.
When Hinata entered the common room she and her sister shared for recreation, Hanabi was lying on the floor, her belly in contact with the floor. She was reading a book, her elbows propped for her hands to support her chin and her feet dangling upward in the air.
This common room was different from the rest in the Hyuuga compound, as it was not in the traditional washitsu style of the other houses. It was modern, albeit small, with wooden floorboards and a small television set inside. Shelves lined with light-reading books were there, and zabutons were placed for sitting around the kotatsu. The kotatsu was a low table with a heater underneath, and covered with a futon on top.
A small cheerful smile from Hanabi beckoned the older girl to sit by the kotatsu beside her. Hinata sat down, folding her legs under the blissfully warm futon and breathing a sigh of comfort. On cold nights like those she liked napping under the soft cover of the kotatsu, but being careful not to sleep to long lest she be burned by the heater. She beckoned her sister to join her, remarking that the floor must be cold.
They sat in comfortable silence, enjoying the blooming comfort around their toes and each other's company. Hinata was the first to break it with her gentle voice.
"...I'm going on a trip. I may be away for a long time."
"I see," the girl said carefully. "A mission?"
"Actually...it's a training trip. To Suna. and maybe beyond."
The smaller sister looked at her sister with a questioning look. "Why, nee-chan? You have proven yourself to the Hyuuga elders already. Why would you seek more strength?" Her worried eyes searched Hinata's face for any clue of her motives, although her eyebrows did not do so much as twitch. "I don't want you ending up like that crackpot Uchiha, or something..."
The heiress smiled at the joke, and randomly began playing at her sister's fingers by interlocking them with her own. "It's not like that, Hanabi-chan. I realized something a while ago, you see." And she drew from her pocket the fortune cookie slip, handing it over to Hanabi. The other girl's lavender eyes widened as they swung across the paper, words silently forming from her lips. "Wha...?"
"I'm afraid I cannot try to lead Hyuuga with eyes unopened. For that I have to truly know others-and before that, I have to truly know myself. Only then am I confident that I will live to the best of my abilities." The gentle woman spoke so seriously that it unnerved Hanabi a little.
Hanabi said nothing, but Hinata knows the tightening of her lips meant that she disapproved of this. Her forefinger idly flicked at the other's knuckle as their hands played together, but the younger sister's voice remained controlled. "And, Neji-niisan...?"
The heiress' shoulders stiffened. "What about him?"
"Does he know of your journey?"
"I will inform him myself," Hinata spoke gently. "He should be returning home soon. I will talk to him before his evening training." She batted at her sister's darker hands like a cat listlessly playing with a soft toy, before dropping her hands and preparing to leave the common room. "He may be at our gate even now."
Hanabi stood up as well, and drew herself up to her full height. The two looked over each other, as if trying to burn each other's face into memory. The younger girl now spoke, her sadness softly tangible. "...I pray that you return home safely, nee-chan. And that the warmth in you will not be blown out by the winds of the world. Many a man had been disillusioned by the real world."
Hinata stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her beloved sister, pressing her cheek against the smooth brown hair. "By those winds my warmth will be tempered and fed. Thank you, imouto-chan." They embraced, a symbol of familial love that tended to wilt in the cage that was the Hyuuga.
Neji Hyuuga felt the smooth motions of his technique run like clockwork and was pleased. Each kata felt unconscious, a mere flicker in the muscle memory, a mark of brilliance that came without thinking. The young man was a figure of solidity and precision, dark brown hair flowing with his movements, pale unbroken skin hinting barely at the refined muscle underneath. He had to keep up his performance, being a candidate for Konoha's ANBU.
And soon, a co-ruler of the Hyuuga.
The engagement did not surprise the prodigy very much, and facially he did not seem fazed by the matter. Lee was being as ridiculous as Gai about the upcoming marriage, while levelheaded Tenten was doubtful. "It's not like you won't take care of her or anything," she had said earlier that day, when she was asked of her opinion, "but I'm not sure if you're...right for each other, in the end. Will you and Hinata be happy together as a couple, and can you last over the years?"
A valid question, all in all.
For under the phlegmatic mask that was his facial muscles was an expression of inner doubt and concern. Something about the whole affair was vaguely repulsive, although he was not entirely sure why. Neji tried, with much trouble, to separate the elements of the whole engagement and tried to see which one had bothered him the most.
Surely it was the loss of bachelorhood? He had not had his fair share of romantic conquests in his life so far. Although to be fair he was not much of a wooer anyway...and though he was desirable (something Neji secretly prided in) no woman approached him because of his aloofness, his cool demeanor, his somewhat frightening aura, his unattainability. Tenten pointed out (as a sister to an overtly cocky brother) these things, but the Hyuuga knew that was the appeal of a certain Uchiha as well.
As Shikamaru Nara (whom he had worked with and respected, and somewhat befriended) pointed out, his "bachelorhood" wasn't lost insomuch as it had never really...manifested.
Neji found that true and yet vaguely insulting.
Despite his loathing for the clan's unbearably tyrannical ways in the past, his hatred had slowly weakened to something akin to a mild irritation. He found the structure of the clan to be comforting, actually, and Neji was always proud to be known as the Hyuuga prodigy, for he brought honor to such a family that brought forth great men like his father.
Besides, being co-ruler would allow him to truly change the Hyuuga by eliminating the accursed Main and Branch distinction and uniting the Hyuuga! A truly noble thing. Surely that wasn't it.
That was always a prickly subject, but Neji knew that not even the cruelest, most evil person could truly hate anyone as sweet and beautiful as Hinata. She had bloomed, under his watchful eyes, into a powerful shinobi the Hyuuga and Konoha could be proud of. She no longer stuttered, and no longer shrank under the gaze of others. Admirers remarked that she was a yamato nadeshiko, the epitome of the Japanese lady, strong and elegant! Neji had known her since childhood, and no doubt he harbored familiar affection for the young lady.
But...as a lover? There the prickles began. It wasn't impossible...but...
"Good evening, Neji..."
The man knows this trailing tone, and stopped his kata as Hinata stepped inside the dojo. "Good evening, Hinata-sama." His black clothes make him sweat more than usual, and he knows this and suddenly becomes...conscious? Nonetheless he is curious as to what was Hinata's purpose in visiting him.
Her hand was still pressed against the side of the shoji as she talked, and he noted the impression of light and curves that Hinata exuded as she stood there. Her voice was light in flow, but her words were grave in tone.
"I will travel to Sunagakure tomorrow, and Father asks that you accompany me on the way..."
"...Alright, Hinata-sama. What time do we leave?"
"Before dawn...if it's alright with you..."
"It will be just fine, Hinata-sama."
"Alright then. Thank you, Neji."
Hinata turned to leave, her ocean hair making ripples with her movement, when Neji spoke out. "If I may ask, Hinata-sama...what is your purpose for your travel?"
At this Hinata couldn't help but sigh a little steadying sigh (this Neji finds odd), and smiled, as if thanking him for asking the question. "...A fortune cookie told me to," she mildly replies, and hides her soft chuckle behind her hand at her fianc 's facial expression. Her pearlescent eyes whispered an I'll explain tomorrow, and the young man merely nodded.
"Well, good night, Neji. See you in the morning."
"Good night, Hinata-sama."
And there she shut the sliding door, and Neji had the distinct feeling of being the victim of a strange practical joke. Or that Hinata had, under the strain of some unknown foolishness, finally lost her mind.
"...You got all that out of a fortune cookie?"
"Yes," Hinata sighed, and she knew both Kiba and Shino could hear her through the three-way telephone line. "And I think it will be a worthwhile journey. At any rate, I needed to tell you guys. You are my brothers, you know, and my closest friends." Her fingers couldn't help but play idly with the telepone cord. As if to distract her thoughts.
The words she heard were soft and reassuring.
"...We know, Hina-chan. We're behind you every step of the way. Come back home safe, you hear?"
"...I'm afraid I'm with Kiba word-for-word in this case."
Inwardly Hinata felt contented, as if her sleeping doubts had been extinguished. "Thank you, guys. I will come home safe. See you." She felt the receiver take the handset with a soft plastic clunk, and tried to remember the sound of their voices. She would not be able to hear them again for many weeks, maybe months.
She sighed and turned to go back to her room. The hallways were dark, but the moon was bright and lit the way through the inner courtyard. The wood under her bare feet was comforting, and Hinata remembered the many years she had walked on it: as a child with Neji and Hanabi, as a preteen in her student and genin days, and even now as an adult. Her bedroom lay only a few feet away, and her fingertips felt for the edge of the sliding partition.
Hinata's bedroom was like the other rooms of the Hyuuga compound, with a dark blue futon on the floor. There was a paper lamp beside it, a set of low lacquered drawers, and a low table with its own zabuton and separate armrest. On the table was a small bonsai, a canister of pens and pencils, and a few books.
The room was getting barer, with Hinata's clothes packed away in her backpack. Clothes, she knew, that could not be frivolous. She rolled some long-sleeves inside, in case she might wander into colder climates, and also a few short-sleeved shirts in case of the heat. "Would that be enough?" she wondered. She hated taking such risks, although right now this risk was necessary.
In some of the pockets of her backpack were ninja tools: kunai, shuriken, easily disposable in the battlefield. There were small compact bottles of healing ointment, and some bandages. Would it be too obvious, Hinata thought, to be bringing first-aid items such as these on an escorted trip? She set aside some of the shorter rolls for her to wrap her hands in, once she dresses in the morning. Kind of like an afterthought on a hot summer day.
The other objects are things of survival: water thermos, matches, a proper utility knife. With all those things crammed in the backpack, there was only a little space left. Hinata pondered this small space, and wondered as she filled the odd hollow with her hands, feeling the cranny that was begging for something. She looked at her low-lying table and looked at the bonsai (it was ornamented and pretty, but restricting), books (she barely had time to read), and writing implements (that were barely used).
She had a notion, and that notion spurred her hands into wandering toward the pencil in the plastic cup, and to the unnoticed notebook hidden under a thin paperback. This notebook had baby scribblings of ornate Ns and little doodles of a white puppy with black lips, and mentions of the number 8 and funny words once uttered by Kiba and Shino. They were of a younger Hinata, a budding Hinata that had not yet bloomed. Revisiting this, she reflected, may be of some help. With great affection she tucked it in, pressing the familiar plain cover under the weight of her clothes.
Hinata, finally satisfied, zipped the pack closed and laid it against the lacquered drawers. Crawling to her futon, the Hyuuga heiress laid down and pulled at the blanket, her moon eyes tracking the paths of stars and bubbles past and wishes, and dreams. They sang softly to her until she fell asleep, waiting for the journey of a lifetime.
~to be continued~