Who: Hinata, Sakura, Ino, Tsunade – in that order, yes. Others are mentioned.

What: gen, character study, angst. Weirdness. You've been warned.

When: post-war.


Best Left Unsaid

by DreamCharmer

-/-

I speak my mind; I'm honest and I'm cruel

-Anna Ternheim, "Terrified"

-/-

I love you, she says, in a voice that is little more than a whisper, and as usual, he doesn't answer, because she says it to his retreating back. She watches as he strolls down the street – hands in pockets, spring in his step, sunlight making his windswept hair look like molten gold – and finds an odd sort of pleasure in knowing that it's not her he's walking away from; even if the result is the same, and she is left behind. Away doesn't figure largely in his personal world, it never did; and when he moves, it's always toward – not necessarily toward something tangible, as it is with most people, but simply toward the future, which is usually a good place to be because he makes it so.

It's been many years since she first saw him; both of them children, both failures, unwanted and unloved by those around them, although in different ways. Her, in a great, sprawling house where she could never feel at home; helpless and useless compared to every other member of her arrogant clan, feeling unworthy when she should have been proud. Him, in a small, cramped apartment, left alone to fend for himself, always trying to fit in and catch up. Her, bent double under the weight of the name she was unfit to wear, under the pressure of her father's flat, calculating gaze, knowing exactly why she didn't belong and unable to change it. Him, scorned and reviled by people he had never wronged or even seen in his life, desperately seeking for reasons and answers and finding only more resentment and hatred.

She decided, back then, that they were alike, and was glad of it because to her it meant that there was a friendship waiting to happen between them. It never came to be the way she hoped it would, but even now, every time she remembers the joy she felt upon realizing she wasn't the only failure in the village, she is ashamed of herself as if she somehow betrayed him by hoping he was made of the same soppy, amorphic stuff as her. As if by craving his friendship and understanding she degraded him to her level. There is a shadow of guilt in her heart, and it makes her blush when he looks at her, and she stumbles and trips over the words as she tries to string them together; and when she finally lets them out, he is already gone, bored out of his mind with listening to her sigh and stammer. There are better things to do.

She doesn't blame him. She wouldn't chose to listen to herself either – if she had a choice.

It's been many years since she first told him she loved him – whispered it to the cloud of dust he left in his wake as he rushed past her and her teammates – and quite some time since she made her one and only real confession on the smoking ruins of the Leaf village. Whenever she remembers this moment – and it happens quite often because there hasn't been enough work to keep her occupied recently – she finds herself astounded at how easily it all came to her: the right words, the steady voice, the determination to fight the losing battle.

The image of the man in a heavy black-and-red cloak stands out clear as well: skin paper-white and dry even to look at, face impassive and emotionless, mask-like as only a face of a man long dead can be, the swirling pattern of the Rinnegan in his eyes promising nothing but the inevitable end. Oddly enough, she suspects that it was this mechanic detachment that made it easier for her to confront him. He seemed almost inhuman; and he spoke of things so terrible and twisted that she was unable to wrap her mind around them. Unlike the enemies she had encountered before, he had no real goal ahead of him, no final destination, only the never-ending cycle of suffering and hopelessness. She saw it clearly as soon as she looked him in the eye, and then, for the first time in her life, she knew no fear. There is no room for fear when you have nothing to lose.

It has never returned, that feeling, Pathetic though it may be, she suspects that she will need another Pain to become brave again. Naruto, who is brave every waking moment, brave without trying to be, without thinking, will never understand it. He was born fearless, she thinks as she watches him leave, and it's the best thing that can happen to anyone. No matter what she says or does, he will deserve much more.

As he disappears behind the corner, heedless of all that is going through her head, of all the feelings and words clogging her from the inside, she thinks she can hear him whistle.

She smiles and stays silent.

-/-

I love you, she says, and watches the lips of the woman in the mirror move to form the words, I still love you, I think. Each vowel comes out perfectly shaped, each consonant rich and resonant, and they fall into their respective places obediently, well-trained little things that they are. She doesn't say the name, however, because every time she does, it feels like a death sentence, and she can't even be sure whose or why. But if she lets the words hover in the air, mingling with the dust, it gives her the precious illusion of freedom and hope.

There were times when she used to say these things to a picture; a photograph that is so old and tattered now that she fears it might dissolve into dust in her hands, if she touches it again. To prevent this from ever happening, she confined it to a place on the shelf, where it still stands, looking slightly ashamed of the cheap wooden frame and two tiny cracks in the glass. She can see its reflection in the mirror, and for a moment, she hesitates. Then she shrugs and crosses the room to stand in front of it.

The faces that look back at her are too young; and she can hardly recognize herself; oh dear, she thinks, my hair is long here, it's so long, it's been ages, but I look so stupid, more stupid than Naruto even, how come I never noticed, how come I never noticed my hair's so long here, and what's with this face, I mean, I spent hours staring at this thing and I never saw anything.

She closes her eyes and tries to clear her mind. She doesn't need to be a genius to answer her own questions, she knows the reason all too well and doesn't like it. Every time she glanced at the picture, she saw him, and next to him, the world might as well cease to exist.

What else? What else did I miss?

Her mother – now dead due to a completely civilian, peaceful disease that all medics somehow failed to notice, which is a rather cruel joke seeing how she is a medic herself – liked to repeat that if a woman truly loved a man, in her eyes, he would outshine the sun, and she would see nothing but him. She remembers all the times that she declared her love and announced her loyalty and promised to lay her life at his feet, and finds it ironic that he chose to step over her and go away, and never spared a glance for all the treasures she desperately wanted him to have. She asks herself if, perhaps, that light she saw whenever she looked at him was so bright that it blinded her to the fact that she got in his way and interfered with his plans, instead of helping. She asks herself if everyone else knew, and suspects they did, although they never mention it.

She wasn't even unique, after all. There were so many, tripping over each other's feet, ready to tear down all mountains and turn back all rivers, should he wish for it. It might have been quite hard for him to keep walking with people trying to force a thousand useless gifts down his throat. No wonder he preferred to be alone – she knows she never showed any patience for either Lee or Naruto; and how was it any different? She chased love, or at least, what she believed was love; and for him, power and revenge were more real and more tempting than any woman. It was, in the end, all the same.

She sighs. It is vexing when there is no one to blame, not even herself; as if the outlines of the world that used to be solid and reliable began to waver and wash away. And yet there is a calmness in her, like a sea after the storm; and it suggests that the knowledge has always been there, waiting to be rediscovered and relearnt; a memory of a lesson so ancient that it became ingrained into her very bones, and mixed with the blood, and they never changed or forgot. She is not the first woman to find out there are rivals she cannot compete with; and not the last.

Thoughtfully, she inspects the contents of the shelf above. There is a photo album there, cheerful pink and sparlking silver in the twilight of the bedroom; a birthday gift from someone whose name she can't remember right now. She takes it down and opens it, and she is delighted to see it's still half empty. She pulls the old picture out of the frame and holds it in her hands for a while, and then, very carefully, slips it into one of the compartments. It looks a little lonely there, bereft of the usual affection, but this is where it belongs, from now on. She closes the album and puts it back on the upper shelf.

It's going to be a long time before she lets any careless I love you's slip past her lips.

-/-

I love you, she says and pauses, breathless, pinned to the bed by the weight of a man whose name she is going to forget in a few hours. Even now, as they move against each other, bodies sleek with sweat, she is glad that the light is almost non-existent – no lamps, no candles are lit, and outside the hot, stuffy room with only one window, the wind blows and chases clouds across the night sky, hiding the stars and the new-born moon.

Her lover's face is a jigsaw of darkness and shadows above her; it might belong to anyone and everyone, and so she avoids looking at him directly, so that she doesn't see any familiar features.

"Something's wrong?" he asks, not really concerned, just eager to continue. She thinks he's frowning, but she cannot be sure, and in the end, she doesn't care. They hardly know each other.

"It's nothing," she replies. "It's nothing. I love you."

He makes a sound in the back of his throat, a low rumble of smug satisfaction; and she has to stifle laughter that threatens to escape and shatter the momentary balance into a thousand tiny shards. She bites her lower lip, thankful that to him, it looks like ecstasy. It is an important job she's doing, and she has wasted the better part of the day to get where she is; and she is not going to let anything ruin it.

As usually, she wonders if he really believes the words, if any of them do; and if so, what is the magic behind them. It must be old as stones, old as the bones of the world, she thinks, as her hands move and touch and caress. It must date back to the day when the first woman realized that if she wanted to get anywhere in the world of men, she'd have to twist, and bend, and go sideways. And she passed it on to her daughters, and daughters of their daughters, and all the way across the centuries until it reached this room where another woman is going to betray a man by these ancient words.

Her hair brooch, a pretty flower-shaped thing adorned with intricate silver work, lies on the very edge of the bed. It conceals a secret blade, short and narrow, but very sharp; not nearly good enough for a fight, but just the thing for an assassination, for one precise strike meant to separate life from death. She only has to fling an arm to the side, and her fingers will close around it. It will look quite natural. She is very good at pretending.

She closes her eyes – there's still some time before she strikes – and enjoys what he has to offer, what he gives without meaning to give, as they all do. She finds it amusing how much power the empty meaningless words can grant, how much damage she can deal with them. Winning is so much easier if the enemy thinks he has nothing to fear. It's almost laughable that the same old trick works, again and again, as if hearing a woman say I love you in the right voice cancels out intuition and self-preservation in people who would in other circumstances rip out her heart before she could as much as blink. But here, only arrogance remains.

She doesn't know if she will kill him yet. She won't, if he knows what's good for him and answers her questions. She's not cruel, just diligent.

As soon as the dawn breaks, she will leave him, alive or dead, and go on and back to those who will never hear these words from her. Only they matter.

-/-

I love you are three words she hasn't said in a while. Even as she thinks them, only thinks, twirling and spinning them in her mind like knives, her mouth goes dry. She can feel an unpleasant metallic taste on her tongue, and it reminds her of crusted blood on a blade, dark and full of old death, and she has to fight the urge to spit.

She thinks of the many ways words can be used as a weapon: how they can be sharper and more precise than a razor when they cut; and how the wounds they make take the longest time to heal, and sometimes the longest time is more than one can afford; and how, once spoken, they refuse to leave the victim alone, crawling under the skin, infecting and poisoning every single moment, like a terminal disease, chewing languidly on joy and happiness until it's all gone and won't return.

If anyone asked her – they never do, and for that she is rather grateful – she would tell them that the words Orochimaru said to her hurt more than his sword did when he stabbed her. After she stopped the blood and healed the wounds, she never thought about the sword again, but she thinks about his words all the time, and hears his voice, like a snake slithering through dry leaves, as it whispers and echoes and reverberates inside her head.

Orochimaru, she admits with bitter amusement, was undoubtedly the most talented of them, and his weapons always had more than one hidden edge. It's almost funny that he was still bested in the end, or at least it would be if he hadn't been so important to her. Even dead, he remains alive in her heart, and she knows better than to hope he is going to leave any time soon. His life, as well as Jiraiya's, has long since become fused with hers, so that even the sharpest scalpel won't be able to separate them from one another.

Other people are there too, other voices in her mind, the never-fading imprints of their faces and smiles: her brother; and the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with; and her grandfather who she barely rememberes because he died too soon for them to get to know each other properly; and she knows that she is doomed to carry them around until her dying day, unable to forget that all her words and promises could do nothing to alter the course of events or change their minds. She is not sure whether she said too much or not enough. She is not sure she should even think about it all.

She looks out of the window and across the sleeping village, and into the night sky stretching over the country she calls home, the only love she has yet to lose. Somewhere under the velvety blackness, her girls are struggling with their lives, fooling themselves into believing that even a house built on the treacherous quicksands of shinobi life will stand if you try hard, making hundreds upon hundreds inevitable mistakes without even realizing it. Two are in the village – sleeping? dreaming? – one is abroad and will return tomorrow.

She thinks a lot about them, as they are the closest thing she has to a family, now that Jiraiya is gone; those three and Shizune, hovering somewhere between favorite students and daughters she never had. She stuffed them with all the knowledge they could handle, and gave them as much as they could take from her; and her girls didn't fail to live up to her expectations. She made them into excellent weapons – weapons that proved their usefulness during the war and will do it again, if need be. She should be proud, she knows, proud because her duty as a Hokage is done.

These days, however, she often finds herself in doubt. It must be the old age finally creeping up on her because however young she might look on the outside, it is, in truth, nothing but a tribute to her vanity. Death can come from the inside as well, and often does. Sometimes she almost feels it squeeze her throat in its bony fingers, squeeze and let go – for now. It is said that the old age brings out all that was locked up and forgotten, after all. Maybe it's time to pay the price for all her loves and hates, for all the things she's done and even more, for all the things she has never had the courage to do.

She wonders, with dry amusement, if the lives she saved will eventually outweigh the death she distributed so freely. Quite a question, that. The most important question of all, perhaps. Well, she is going to find out quite soon. Her job here is mostly done; it's time to let the younger generation decide where they want to go. Her girls, and Naruto, and everyone else will now be the ones to steer the village in a new direction. She managed to keep them alive, letting them grow up and become strong enough to take her place; and that's all she ever hoped for. She will step aside now.

She wishes she had taught them more than how to kill an enemy and heal a friend, though. It seems that in concentrating so hard on these practical aspects, she has inadvertently cast aside what truly matters. She wishes she had taught Hinata to follow her heart; Sakura, to forget and let go; Ino, to understand that a woman should not overuse some tricks even if they seem to come in very handy.

Perhaps she should have taught them to be careful with the words they said as well. There is only so much love and admiration a man can bear before he breaks under the weight of these feelings. She knows she made Jiraiya and Dan carry her hopes and dreams, and it's her fault too, that they died; and she wishes she hadn't been so selfish, and worked more and talked less.

Some things are best left unsaid, but to learn it, one has to say them first.


-/-

A/N: that's an oooold story, but I only write stuff like this when I'm in the mood. Besides, I'm currently out of touch with my Naruto muse, due to the fact that both anime and manga are rather boring these days. Hopefully, it's going to change now that we're finally finished with these horrible fillers.

Anyway, please, leave me a review if it's not too hard! I'd really like too know what you think about this creepiness. :D