Hello lovelies, and thanks for being so patient. I am really sorry for the delay- I was sick with the flu for two weeks:( Thanks to the amazing Uchiha.s for her beta'ing, as always.

I'm having internet issues, so I may not be able to thank you all individually for your reviews, but please know that I love and appreciate every single one of you:)

And now, the second-to-last chappy of Better Off Dead!

Chapter Thirty-One: Hellos

Hinata knows she is running behind schedule—she should have made it to Konoha yesterday. It's not just her big belly or her ungainly waddle that slows her down. It is the weight of anticipation and dread that settle like lead into the soles of her feet.

Hinata has made Mei—and her accomplice, Tsunade—swear to keep her pregnancy secret. No one at home knows, besides Tsunade. Although how well Hinata could have hidden her rounded form from the others in Mist is certainly a factor; any number of Mist shinobi or civilians could have told someone in Konoha about her condition. She hadn't used a henge to disguise it.

That Tsunade. How had she known that Hinata was pregnant? And why hadn't Tsunade told her? In fact, how did she become fertile in the first place?

Hinata shakes her head. Once she had regained her wits after Mei had broken the news to her—and had stolen one of her doughnuts, a crime that would not be forgiven—Hinata had come up with a hypothesis.

It's an improbable theory at best, but it is the only way Hinata can explain the phenomenon that is the fetus gestating in her womb. What if—what if Hinata had been dead, but not quite dead; alive, but not quite alive, with incredible ocular powers that compelled her body to regenerate? What if she had been dismembered while undead, and said ocular powers reassembled her parts?

What if her fairytale eyeballs chose that moment to fix whatever tubes were twisted, whatever hollow places that were unyielding, so that when life returned to Hinata once more, her body became capable of bearing the unthinkable?

Stranger things have happened to her, after all—though her surprise at becoming pregnant had outweighed her surprise at returning to life, strangely enough.

Well, she thinks, any cow or civilian woman can breed. That was what Sasuke had told her, once, as they regarded the waves breaking on the moonlit shoreline. He didn't seem to have a high regard for pregnant women, but perhaps his opinion would change if the child in question was his.

Or, maybe it would not. Hinata is under no illusions that Sasuke might want a child. He has told her many times that the Uchiha deserve to be wiped out, blotted out, erased like pencil lead until not even the faintest lines remain—himself included. Perhaps half the appeal of being with Hinata was the fact that she was not capable of conceiving.

She's thought about the possible reactions he may have, but she has not obsessed over them like a frenetic, fretting hen. That's because, in the end, what Sasuke wants does not matter.

What matters is that Hinata wants to keep the child, this affirmation that life has fully returned to her body. It is a candle touching another candle, becoming two flames instead of one. It is the sun's reflection on the waters of a still pond; it is the first buds of spring forcing up green shoots through the melting snow.

There is the sound of her heartbeat: slow, methodical. Underlaying it is a smaller, more delicate tattoo beating in tune with hers. She could no more wish to harm this lifeform than she could kill herself, or Sasuke-kun. It is her, it is a part of her, and it is something entirely separate: two wings of a single bird, then two birds in flight; the branches of a tree, and the fruit that falls. Together. Separate. The same. Different.

If Sasuke no longer loves her—if, in her absence, he remembers Sakura—she will bear him no ill will. She will love the woman he loves. If he no longer desires Hinata because she has become cow-like, because she points to a future that he has sought to destroy—well then, it is not her problem.

This creature inside of her is just as much a part of herself as it is a piece of him. If he does not want to share in the tending of the orchard, Hinata reasons, then he will not enjoy the fruit, even if he has helped to plant the seed.

As simple as that.

Except that, for the umpteenth time, Hinata is standing stock-still in the middle of the road, her feet unwilling to bring her closer to Konoha.

She cannot fool herself about Sasuke. If he does not love her, she will wilt like an unwatered flower. But she will not die. She has important things to do now—things she must live for.

She bites her thumb, drawing blood which she smears on the summoning tattoo on her arm. There is a great cloud of smoke, and a whooshing sound, until she is face to face with a giant tortoise.

"Shell sister?" the tortoise squeaks.

It is not Erishiki. Hinata would not bother the old sorceress with such a summoning. "Jeri-chan," Hinata murmurs in greeting. Jeri is the great-great-great-great-(great?) granddaughter of Erishiki, a bright-eyed tortoise with a red shell and matching eyes.

"Are you in danger?" the tortoise asks, clicking her beak nervously.

"No," Hinata says with a smile, "I was just lonely. Walk with me?"

Jeri snorts, as if insulted. "I'll do better than that. Hop on."

After some negotiating, Hinata accepts. After all, her feet do ache tremendously, and her lower back is starting to have sharp pains. Jeri ambles on at a slow pace—Plod. Plod. Plod. Her footfalls lull Hinata into a soothing stupor as she sits, cross-legged, on the tortoises' shell.

Despite their languid pace, they reach Konoha's gates by twilight, the electric blues and thin oranges coloring the stone walls. She is glad she is resting on Jeri's shell, because up ahead, she can see Sasuke, accompanied by Naruto and Sakura. Thank the gods, it's not a party, it's just those three, but the sight of Sasuke makes her knees turn to jelly. She grips the shell beneath her and forces herself to hold her head high.

There's no way she can hide her belly—she's as big as the buddha himself. So she just sits there, like a statue of the fertility goddess at the spring festival, borne up by a meandering tortoise. Plod. Plod. Plod. Sasuke and company don't leave the gates—they probably can't, Hinata realizes with a start, because Sasuke isn't allowed to leave the village, not while he's on house arrest. So Hinata is the only one that moves, with agonizing slowness, on the back of her summons.

Sasuke's face looms larger as they draw nearer. His shadowed form resolves into the details of dark eyes, thin-pressed lips, and the feigned nonchalance of his hands stuffed into his pockets. Hinata smiles, because he looks petulant, like a child that's been kept waiting too long for a holiday gift. She rests her hands on her belly, and the smile turns more awkward and brighter at the same time. She searches his face for a reaction—there is none, or at least, none that she can gauge from this distance.

Jeri comes to a stop just inside the gates, but Hinata cannot bear to dismount. She peers down at Sasuke, trying not to betray the inchoate emotions fluttering inside of her.

"H-hey, Sasuke-kun," she whispers. She knows it's rude to ignore Naruto and Sakura, but she can't help it. Her vision tunnels in on Sasuke, and there is nothing else.

"You got fat," he says, smirking.

She blinks down at him. "Wh-what?"

Hinata had pictured this going very, very differently. Startled out of her stunned state, she slides down Jeri's back and lands gracefully, despite the pins-and-needles traveling up and down her legs.

Sasuke shrugs. "I knew you had a sweet tooth, but—"

She doesn't let him finish. "Are you k-k-kidding me?" She's staring at him, incredulous.

She can hear Sakura snickering, and Naruto too, he can't help it, they are both trying—and failing—to stifle their laughter. Hinata ignores them, her eyes never leaving Sasuke. She sees warring emotions crossing over his face: a light blush, a tightening of his eyes, a tick in his jaw. Embarrassment, annoyance; ire.

Finally, he mutters, "It's not my fault if you gained weight. What kind of ninja—"

"Sasuke," she snaps, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath before continuing. "I'm not fat. I'm pregnant." Her eyes flutter open, and she keeps her face free of any emotion; she cannot afford to give away her position.

Sasuke blinks at her, slowly, like a cow with its head caught in a fence. His face falls. "Oh," is all he says. Hinata feels her heart skip a beat. It's true, then. He is disappointed. All of her worst fears are materializing.

Sasuke no longer loves her. Worse, he does not want the baby.

But the sensation of falling through space only lasts a moment. Hinata curls her hands protectively around her abdomen and spears him with a glare. "Oh? Just—oh? Don't you have anything else to say?" she asks, her voice quiet but steely.

"I guess…congratulations," he mumbles, looking down at his shoes. "Who… Who is the father?"

Hinata wants to hit him. She wants to smack him in the face and beat some sense into him. She stares at him, her face going from white to red, flushing with rage. He looks up at her with wide, uncomprehending eyes.

That's what does it, that blank look, like she's sprouted another head and he's not quite sure what to make of it. Hinata breaks into hysterical laughter, until she is leaning up against her summon's shell, hot tears trailing down her face. She literally can't breathe, and it's many moments before she can finally manage, through her gasps, "Sasuke-kun? I haven't s-slept with anyone besides y-you…"

His eyebrows furrow. "So you're saying…?"

"Geez, bastard," Naruto bellows, "open up your ears! She's pregnant with your kid!"

"Naruto," Sakura snaps," it's a private moment. Shut your face."

Sasuke is unmoving, unresponsive, so Hinata takes the initiative. She sniffles, draws her arms around her bulging belly, and regains her former gravitas.

"I don't know if you want to be a father or not," she says, slowly, as if the words are heavy in her mouth. "Probably you have no real desire to be one. But I—I've decided to keep the baby, anyway," Hinata blurts out. "No matter what you say."

Sasuke opens his mouth, but no words come out. Doing her best to sound completely calm, Hinata continues, "And of course, I don't pretend to know if you still…well, we haven't seen each other in half a year, and I— Well, I'm perfectly capable of raising her by myself." Hinata hopes she sounds firm.

"…Her…?" Sasuke manages at last.

Hinata nods, staring down at the ground. "It's a girl." Not that you seem to care, she thinks, blinking back tears. "Well, I guess I'll be going then," Hinata whispers. But going where? She no longer has a place to stay in the village since severing her ties with the Hyuga clan. She had been planning on lodging at the local inn, if Sasuke…didn't want her anymore.

Gods, she is such a fool. She can feel heat inflaming her cheeks. Her tongue clings to the roof of her mouth and she—

She feels one hand on her abdomen, and another on her shoulder. She looks up at Sasuke, startled. "Wha…?"

"You're really pregnant? With my…child?" he manages, his eyes searching hers.

Too choked up to speak, she nods her head yes. She'd really like to end this torture, to run as far away from this hopeless scene as fast as her legs will carry her, but she smothers the urge. She is no longer a fearful, mousy kunoichi. She will face this situation calmly, as befits a true shinobi. Never mind that where Sasuke touches her, sparks arc over her skin. Never mind that she is trembling.

"I…don't know what to say," Sasuke mumbles at last.

Hinata takes a deep breath. "If you don't—if you don't love me anymore," she whispers, her mouth going dry, "then just say so."

His eyes meet hers, and she longs to reach out and cradle the familiar curve of his cheek. But she does not. Instead, she drinks in the familiar waters of his dark eyes, roiling like the ocean at night, because this might be the last time she looks into those depths. Already, time draws out like a vast desert between them, and she is afraid of the answer he will give her.

She bites her lower lip until it bleeds. She curses herself for showing weakness, but damn it, this man already knows all her weaknesses, all her strengths, everything, anyway. His eyes flicker to her lips, then he does something unexpected. He leans forward and licks the blood off of her lips.

She melts into his arms as his lips follow, metallic tasting, sweet. Oh, that's right. She had forgotten how to speak without words, how to breath without air; to fly without wings. How could she have forgotten so much in only six months? Her tremulous hand comes to rest on his cheek, while the other wraps around his waist.

When they part, Naruto and Sakura are nowhere in sight—not that they would have noticed them, anyway. Her summons, Jeri, has also taken the hint and returned from whence she came, though Hinata did not notice her departure either.

Sasuke smirks down at her, his eyes gleaming like wet, black sand. "What kind of question was that?" he asks, and Hinata blushes.

"A b-bad one?" She manages a lopsided smile.

"Tch. As if I'd let the mother of my child sleep in the gutter."

"In the gutter? I'm not a hobo," Hinata teases. "I'm a ninja who made a fairly good salary on my last mission. I was going to sleep at the inn." She giggles, her heart feeling like a swollen river overflowing its banks in the spring.

Sasuke clucks his tongue at her, then leans his forehead against hers. "Hokage-sama has already assigned you to be my personal babysitter."

Hinata pulls back. "What?"

"I'm on house arrest. And you are my housemate, bodyguard, and warden."

Hinata laughs at that, a bright, glassy sound. "Oh? And am I getting overtime pay for this mission?"

Sasuke makes a snorting sound before lowering his lips on hers, and she quickly forgets anything else she was going to say on the matter.

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