A/N: Thank you to everyone who is still keeping up with this story. :) I posted an important news update on my profile last month, so if you haven't seen it yet, stop on by.

Chapter 23

Goodbye for Good

"Kisame!"

Nami's demanding voice brought him awake in an instant, adrenaline enhancing his senses, his body going from at rest to tense and ready in the blink of an eye. He went rushing through the house, bare chested, Samehada in his hands. The instinct to fight was so strong that he never even noticed that the bedroom was empty save for himself. He paused in his headlong dash when he reached the end of the hallway, and gave her a questioning look when he found no immediate threat. In fact, she was standing in the living room, book in one hand, glass of water in the other, looking like she was about to sit down and read for awhile. The only thing out of place was the deep frown on her face when she turned her head to speak to him.

"Hinata's gone."

"What?" he asked, not sure he heard her quite right. His voice was thick from his prolonged sleep as he questioned her further. "What do you mean she's gone?"

"She left late last night. The dog saw her go after we were both asleep."

He just stared at her, waiting for his brain to catch up. Hinata was gone. As in, ran away, left and not coming back, abandoned him, ...gone.

He couldn't admit to himself how much hurt suddenly rolled over him as his grip on Samehada tightened. He could barely breathe for it. His heart squeezed in his chest as the fullness of her betrayal came to bear. He had opened himself up to her, something he did with no one. No one. And now he remembered why. So he did the only thing he knew to do. He let the predator inside him rise to the surface. Cold, efficient, untouchable. Turning an apathetic stare on Nami, he shrugged his shoulders.

"So?"

"Don't play games with me, boy. I know better. Are you going after her?"

"No."

"Kisame, that girl is the best thing that's ever happened to you. I don't know what you did to her to make her feel like she had to leave, but this-

"Just drop it, Nami." he snapped, interrupting her. "And when did you get so sentimental? It's better this way, and you know it."

"Oh? And why is that?"

The shark faltered, and a little of the hurt slipped through. "She's safer on her own. I don't want her to die because of me." Kisame said, his voice pitched low.

"You damned fool!" Nami hissed, dropping her book on the stand as she stalked up to him, her eyes narrowing into a perfect glare. "Death is inevitable, making the cause of it irrelevant. Are you going to deny love for the sake of something you can't prevent anyway?"

Kisame gave her an arrogant look, letting anger wrap around his wounded heart. "What would you know about love? You've spent your entire life running from every man you took to bed like they were diseased."

A furious silence hung in the air just before Nami's hand connected with Kisame's face. She slapped him hard enough to make him wince, a testament to the power that still lay within her small frame. Kisame didn't retaliate except to scowl at her, unwilling to harm her when he would have killed anyone else for even thinking about it. Well, except maybe Hinata, but she hadn't stuck around for him to find out.

Nami raised her hand again, and Kisame braced himself for a second assault, ready to catch her hand should it come flying at him again. She paused mid-swing, and he watched her wilt, the anger suddenly draining out of her, taking her strength with it. Looking older than he had ever seen her, she turned from him and tiredly made her way to the rocking chair, sitting down heavily. It was then that he noticed tears glistening on her wet cheeks. Nami never cried. His words must have really hurt her, more than anyone had done in a very long time.

Too angry and hurt himself to apologize, he turned away. Intent on retreating to the bedroom, Kisame headed down the hall only to be stopped halfway there by the soft sound of Nami's tired voice.

"What I know about love is too painful to even think about, and I can't bear to watch the two of you repeat my mistakes. Go after her, Kisame. You'll regret it for your entire life if you don't."

XXXXXX

Hinata's foot touched down on a twisted branch an instant before she dropped to the ground, surveying the open field in front of her. It seemed safe enough so she started across, toward the tree line on the other side. It wasn't flat, but instead had several small hill-like folds, and when she started down one in the center, she noticed a pond hidden in the tiny valley. It was small itself, but very beautiful. The edges were lined with algae, but the center was clear, with water lilies floating serenely on the surface. As she neared she could see small fish and tadpoles just underneath, trolling for the water bugs that skated in swarms between the plants.

She should have moved on right then, but the secret little world she had discovered was enchanting in its peacefulness, and her whole being was so tired and heavy. She had been traveling nonstop since the night before, every mile she put between herself and the village she had called home for the last couple of months weighing on her heart. She kept telling herself she was doing the right thing, that she was protecting the ones she loved, but each step took more determination than the one before, until she was sure she wasn't moving much faster than a genin on their first mission.

She had just sat down and was preparing to deactivate her Byakugan and rest her eyes when a familiar glimmer on the edge of her vision caught her attention. With a sigh she closed her eyes, letting the veins around her temples recede. He had come after her.

If he was bent on catching up with her she would never outrun him. So she just sat there waiting on him, idly watching the fish and insects continue their struggle for life as she steadfastly ignored both the fact that he was coming to confront her because she had left him, and the tiny leap her heart gave that she would see him again. She shook her head at herself. How pathetic. In all likelihood he would kill her, and she wouldn't blame him if he did. Kami knows it's been a long time coming anyway.

It only took him a few minutes to reach her. She could feel his presence just behind her as he came to a halt, but she didn't turn around to face him. She couldn't just yet. He hadn't made a single sound on his approach, and his chakra was now perfectly masked. It almost felt as if it was just a ghost of her imagination, but she knew he was only inches away, his gaze boring into the top of her head. She closed her eyes, fighting off the sting behind her lids, tensely waiting on him to make his move, to speak, to do something...

"You know, it's rude to run away when someone kidnaps you." he said, his voice low and thick, but not at all angry.

And that's when Hinata burst into tears.

"I-I'm sorry!" she cried out in a pained voice as she started trembling, hugging her knees to her chest.

Immediately she was enveloped in his warmth as he dropped down behind her. His arms came around her and he drew her back into his chest, forcing her to release her legs. Her arms were captured beneath his and he lay his head on her shoulder. The moisture fleeing her eyes as she sobbed wet his cheek when she pressed her face against him, seeking his comfort in spite of the fact that he must be angry with her. He held her close, rocking slightly.

"I was joking, Hinata. Stop crying." he said softly.

This only made her sob harder, completely bewildering Kisame. She turned in his arms, curling up against his chest as she gripped his quickly dampening shirt. Not knowing what else to do, he stroked her hair with one hand and waited for her tears to subside. In all honesty he had been angry with her, and had even contemplated killing her for her betrayal, if for nothing else than to ensure that no one else knew how close he had come to actually falling for someone. But one look at her sitting there alone and upset and all of that flew out the window. The only thing he wanted to do was hold her, find a way to make it better for her, to make her come back. Nami was right. He had fallen for her, and now that he was in the light of her presence, there was no going back to the darkness.

When she was quiet once more he pulled her back a little to look at her. She kept her eyes firmly on his chest, so he tilted her chin up and made her look at him. Her eyelids were swollen from her weeping and her beautiful lavender eyes were completely bloodshot. Frowning, he wiped the traces of moisture from her cheeks with his thumb as he searched for something to say.

"Hinata…" he started, then paused as he pulled her against his chest again and buried his hand in her hair. "I don't understand why you wanted to leave now, and you don't have to explain anything to me. It was your decision and I was going to let you go, but…" here he paused again to release a weary sigh, "I just don't want to be alone again."

Hinata didn't respond, but her fingers tightened in his shirt until her knuckles were white.

Brushing her hair back so he could see her face, Kisame was dismayed when she turned her head and buried it against him. Her voice drifted up between them, raspy and muffled. "I make you weak, and I'd rather see you alone and safe than hurt because of… because of me."

Comprehension dawned and he frowned deeply. "This is about what Midori said, isn't it?"

She nodded.

Gripping her gently by the shoulders, Kisame pulled her back. His hold remained firm until she reluctantly looked up at him again. "I want to ask you something." he said. "If you never had to worry about anyone attacking us or using you to get to me, would you still want to go back to Konoha?"

"No." she answered as a fresh tear fled down her face. "But it's not like that. I won't be a danger to you."

Leaning down, Kisame kissed her. It was languid and slow, with a sweetness that belied the stronger emotions Hinata could see brewing just beneath the surface. She kissed him back with fervent lips, tasting as much of him as she could before he released her. It was most likely the last time she would see him, and her heart cried out in denial, making her already tired eyes prick with fresh tears.

When he pulled back he held her gaze, an unfathomable look behind his eyes. She waited on him to say something but he held silent, though she saw his throat working several times as if he started to speak and couldn't. When he at last managed to find his voice, it was raspy and low, and each word was potently driven home for all their softness.

"I can't guarantee that what you fear won't happen. But I know I would rather die happy with you than alone. I know it's selfish of me, but please stay."

This time her tears betrayed her, running silently down her cheeks as she nodded her head. He smiled as she acquiesced, a genuine one that softened his features and made his eyes gleam. Then he was grinning as he swiped the moisture from her face.

"Good," he said, "Besides, I doubt my next partner will be so easy to seduce."

Hinata gaped at him in shock and made to smack his chest in mock affront when he started chuckling. He caught her hand and brought it to his lips, kissing the back of her knuckles.

"Or as kind and understanding." he continued more seriously as he brought her hand to his chest and leaned down to brush his lips against hers.

"Or half as beautiful." he whispered against her mouth before he kissed her with all the fire she remembered when they first made love. It was intense, but brief, and he was soon moving on to her neck where he buried his face and inhaled deeply.

"Or smell so damn good."

His murmured voice trailed off to nothing as he nuzzled her ear before he pulled the lobe into his mouth to worry it with his teeth. Hinata shuddered in response, her body suddenly aware of everything from his heat and nearness as he kissed her neck to the slight chill in the late evening air that sent gooseflesh along her bare arms and the soft grass beneath her.

When Kisame lifted his head it was to gently turn and lay her down, lowering himself beside her. He kissed her again, his hand roaming over the curves of her willing body as he pressed against her side. Kissing turned to more, and before she knew it her heart was pounding in time to their combined rhythm. Their joining this time was feral and intense, the open air heightening each sensation rolling over sweat-slicked bodies. But as animalistic as it was, it meant so much more. It was a pact, forged in flesh, a promise that as long as they lived, nothing would come between them again. And when it was over they sat in comfortable silence watching the colors wash over the western sky, the crickets in the grass and frogs in the pond singing joyfully as dusk began to fall.

XXXXXX

Hyuga Hiashi glanced about the unfamiliar surroundings of Wave Country as he looked for a place to settle down for the night. It had been more than a week since he took an extended leave from Konoha, placing clan affairs in the capable hands of his nephew and the family counsel. He told them that he had a meeting with an anonymous friend, but they only politely agreed with him, knowing full well he was going out to search for his daughter. He walked a little farther before he stopped again to stretch out his back. It had been years since he had been in the field, and though he trained daily, he still found himself missing his bed and the comforts of home. He snorted at himself and adjusted his pack. He wasn't that old yet.

The sun was beginning to set, and if he didn't find a decent shelter soon, he would be left with whatever he could scrounge for in the darkness. There had been a cave a half mile back, but something about it had turned him away, a warning that danger lay in that direction, even though his Byakugan revealed nothing but emptiness inside. So he continued on until he found a thicket of trees that would serve his purpose. Walking beneath a low hanging bough he entered the sheltered haven.

Not quite satisfied that he was safe, he searched the surrounding area with his dojutsu carefully, noting any houses or movement that might mean an encounter during the night. He was nearly finished with his scouting when his gaze picked up a slight chakra signature at the edge of his vision. He would have ignored it, sure he could avoid or defeat any shinobi that might cross his path, but something about it stoked his curiosity. It was probably the false hope that somehow it might be his lost daughter, as unlikely as it was that she would happen to be in the same middle of nowhere that he was. But he found himself moving in the direction of the flare regardless.

His silent steps quickened as the chakra source came fully into the range of his eyes. It was not only familiar, it was Hinata. Her figure coalesced as he neared, and it was then that he discovered that she was not alone. A darker, dense chakra surrounded her, and his heart started pounding. An unknown fear crept through his heart, telling him that she was in danger.

Forcing himself not to rush to her, he stopped as the details of a wide field came into view. Though he could see her clearly, he knew that he was still beyond the distance capabilities of her Byakugan. She was in the middle of the grassy expanse, close to what looked like a pond. He could see both of them clearly now, despite the dying light. She was sitting in the lap of a man that could only be the missing nin Hoshigaki. He didn't seem to be restraining her, instead his arms were wrapped protectively around her waist. Her head was on his shoulder, and their gazes appeared to be on the pond in front of them. The sight of them sitting there made the small part of Hiashi's heart that he kept secret from the world clench painfully.

She was so very much like her mother...

Hiashi's bare feet were silent on the new wood of the hallway as he made his way through the clan house, head up, hand resting on the pommel of the sword that he hadn't had time to remove since returning from his mission. He had missed dinner in order to give the Hokage a full report, and he was tired and hungry. All he wanted was to bathe and rest, but his wife wasn't in her rooms or his, and none of the servants had seen her in the house for some time. At last he ran into Hizashi, who told him he had seen her heading out a side door and into the gardens.

Ready to remind his wife of her duties to him, he stepped through the ajar shoji door and out onto the porch. The sun was just beginning to set, darkening the golden light in the garden and lighting the sky in brilliant shades of royal purple, rose, and crimson. Frogs and crickets were busy with their evening songs, filling the air with a pleasing chorus of chirps and croaks. Amidst the intoxicating setting she sat, bare feet crossed in front of her as she lounged on the grass in front of the pond, her silky raven's mane hanging to her waist.

Sensing his presence as he approached, she turned her head and smiled at him. The corners of her mouth lifted slightly, genuine pleasure at seeing him alighting in her pale lavender eyes. It was the first real smile she had ever given him, and he found it far more enchanting than the near tight-lipped one he received when they first met at the signing of their betrothal contract less than three months ago.

She invited him to sit with her, and his anger forgotten, he sank down on the grass to her left. She turned her attention back to the sky, and he was beginning to think she had forgotten his presence entirely when he felt her fingers close around his hand. He glanced down at the link between them, and he felt himself softening towards her. Her gentle nature and willingness to make their marriage work when he knew both of them were so uncertain had been an asset from the start, but as the days passed he found it growing into outright admiration. Glancing around as if he were going to be caught doing something wrong, he scooted closer to her, tucking her hand between them and wrapping his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him, a flush coming into her cheeks.

"I missed you." she whispered, turning her face away from him as if her confession embarrassed her.

Touched, he reached for her with his free hand, tilting her chin up so he could meet her gaze. Her lips parted in surprise. Other than their brief spells of passion in the bedroom, the only time they spent together as a newly married couple were in discussions with other members of the clan about the running of the household and at public functions where they were required to attend together. Taken by her fluster, he leaned down to kiss her. She returned the gesture with eagerness, clutching the front of his kimono as if her life depended on it.

All at once she seemed to remember herself and pulled away, clearing her throat and blushing all the harder for her boldness. "I-I'm sorry. You must be tired and I shouldn't keep you out here half the night. Come in and I'll fix you something to eat."

She went to stand up and go inside when Hiashi's hand snaked out and pulled her down into his lap. He suddenly didn't care if anyone saw them, or what they thought if they did. She giggled and smiled at him again before leaning up to kiss him, encouraged by his defiant gesture. In that moment he knew that not only would they be out there half the night, they would be out all night, making love to the sound of frogs and crickets singing while the moon and stars passed by overhead.

That was also the moment he knew he loved her...

Hiashi's fist clenched tightly as he drove the pain and the memory away, back into the darkness. His wife was dead, and the only thing he could do for her now was to look after their daughters. Not that he was doing a stellar job at that. His grief and arrogance had driven a wedge between them, leaving them with a cold set of expectations to meet. His recent interference had nearly cost Hinata her life once, and the resulting events had taken her from her home and family. Staring at her across the expanse of waving grass he realized that she was now beyond his reach. This time there was only one thing he could for her. Drinking in the sight of her peaceful face one last time he turned away, bidding her a silent farewell.

He just prayed he was doing the right thing by entrusting her to Hoshigaki.

No sooner had he returned to the grove and slumped against a tree to weather the night than a shadow caught his attention from a tree just across the clearing. He started to stand, but found himself frozen in place. A moment later Uchiha Madara appeared before him, dressed in an Akatsuki cloak, holding a mask in one of his hands.

"Well, what a pleasant surprise. I never expected the head of the Hyuga Clan to be spending a night in the woods. Tsk, tsk. We can't have such an esteemed guest sleeping in the dirt, now can we? Come, I have the perfect accommodations for you, and I think you'll find the company most entertaining."

Hiashi didn't answer as he struggled to break Madara's hold on his mind, but all he could manage was to groan aloud before he blacked out.