So I've been OBSESSING over this chapter for three months. I worked all day on it. And you know what? I'm going to stop obsessing and post the dang thing, because you are all tired of waiting for the update:)
Thanks so much everyone for your support. I have the best reviewers in the world:) Thanks for coming along for this ride, and enjoy the final chapter:)
Sasuke sits by her bedside, watching her. She can feel his gaze on her before she even opens her eyes; he is always there, waiting for her. Watching over her. She tries to remember a fragment of a dream, something about white peony blossoms fluttering in the breeze; a stick of incense, its smoke swirling in the air. Her dreams have all been peaceful, ever since Sasuke has slept beside her.
"I was wondering when you'd wake up," he says. She opens her eyes slowly. "I have something for you."
"Mmm," is all she says, pushing herself up. She swings her legs out of bed and wiggles her toes. It hurts less now to move. She relishes the feel of being in her body without being overwhelmed by pain. "Can I brush my teeth first?"
Sasuke snorts. "You don't need to ask permission…"
Hinata blushes, then hurries to the bathroom, closing the door behind her with a click. Once out of sight, her blush cools, and she regards herself in the mirror. Her reflection is less pale, while the scorch marks on her skin have faded. Her white eyes are clear and bright, with eyelashes that are just starting to grow back.
She brushes her teeth, then applies her makeup with care. She puts on foundation, not thickly, just enough to cover up the blotches. She pencils in her eyebrows, then paints her lips. Last of all, she hangs a black scarf over her bare head.
She pads out of the bathroom, smiling softly.
"Makeup?" Sasuke asks, arching an eyebrow.
Hinata shrugs. "Ino got it for me, yesterday. Remember?"
"You don't need it," he mutters. "You looked fine before."
Hinata gives Sasuke a quizzical look, but doesn't say anything at first, just perches on the side of the bed and faces him. "Sasuke-danna…"
"Don't call me that."
Hinata sighs. "But—"
"We're not married."
Another sigh. "Sasuke-kun, do you not like it?"
Sasuke shrugs. "It's fine."
"It reminds you of when I was a geisha—doesn't it?"
Silence. Then: "Yes. No. I mean… It's fine. You should wear what you want to wear."
"Don't call me that!"
Hinata looks down at her lap. Tents her fingers.
"Sorry," Sasuke mutters. "It's just—I— Here," he says, shoving something into her hands.
Hinata blinks, regards the golden tissue paper. "What is it?"
"Just—open it," he says.
Slow and unsure, she peels back the paper, layer by layer. Inside is a pair of leggings, a black mesh top, a black hooded jacket, and a pair of flat sandals. They are unadorned, save for a swirl on the back of the jacket.
"I would have given you weapons, too, but they aren't allowed inside of the hospital," Sasuke says, peering down at her.
"They're lovely," Hinata says. "Thank you."
"They're not lovely, they're practical. Put them on."
"I'll close my eyes."
Hinata worries her bottom lip with her teeth. She doesn't like anyone to see her body, not after the battle. There are scars that cut across large swaths of skin, puffy and pink and purpled around the edges. The scabs sometimes ooze yellow puss. It is one thing for Sasuke to see her without makeup on her face. Her body is another matter.
"I'll leave the room," Sasuke says gently. He rises from his chair, but Hinata stalls him by placing her hand on his arm.
"St-stay," she says. "I trust you."
When Sasuke's eyes are closed, she sheds her white hospital gown, letting it fall on the floor like wilted petals. The sunlight flickers in through the tall window, casting her skin in golden light. It gilds the ridges of her scar tissue, making them look like red mountain ranges. She runs a finger down the scab covering her shoulder blade in morbid fascination, then lets her hand drop down to her side. She's about to put on the mesh shirt when she feels hands, warm and gentle, around her waist.
She whirls around, eyes wide. "I t-told you not to l-look!"
"My eyes are closed."
Frowning, Hinata looks up into his face. He's smirking, but true to his word, his eyes are shut. Just to be sure, she puts her hand over his eyes.
"You're beautiful," he says.
Hinata giggles, despite herself. "How do you know that?" she murmurs, resting her cheek on his shoulder. "You can't see me."
"I don't need to see you to know that," he says, tilting her chin up in his hand.
"But that doesn't—" she begins. She means to add, make any sense but he cuts her off with a kiss, and his hands are on her body, feather-light, like a breath of wind on the surface of her skin. It always amazes her how gentle he is; how she trusts him.
He pulls away and she sighs.
"You still haven't tried on the clothes I got you," he teases, eyes still closed.
"And wh-whose f-fault is th-that?" she chides. Grinning, she puts them on, marveling at how they feel. They're soft, not like silk, but like a fine cotton. They hardly weigh anything, except for the jacket, which is thick and warm.
"I've never worn anything like these," Hinata says, smoothing down the fabric.
"They're just standard nin clothes," Sasuke replies, amused. "It's hardly as nice as a kimono."
Hinata feels a pang at that, remembering the night she had worn the shimmering blue kimono from Sasuke. Then she shakes her head, and forces herself to smile again.
"I like them better than any kimono," Hinata says at last, taking Sasuke's hand in hers. "Thank you, Sasuke-danna."
Sasuke heaves an exasperated sigh. "Don't call me that," he mutters. And then: "You're being released from the hospital today."
"O-oh." Hinata looks down at the floor. She had forgotten. She has gotten so used to her routine in the hospital, she has lost track of the endless days. She stands still, feeling lost, alone.
"Come on," Sasuke says, pulling her forward. "Let me take you home." He kisses her on the mouth, and her anxiety falls away from her like old leaves from a wind-blown tree.
"It will take some time until you can do ninjutsu again," Hanabi says, taking Hinata's hands in hers, "but when you can, I'll train you. I'll take you from genin to jonin in no time." She flashes Hinata a wide smile.
"Th-thank you," Hinata says, staring down at their joined hands. This is all so strange, so surreal. Hinata hasn't spoken to her sister in well over a decade. To be standing in front of Hanabi now, as her sister—as her equal—makes Hinata's heart swell.
Hanabi releases her hands, and Hinata kneels down on the tatami mats, smoothing down her uniform. It feels so strange to not wear kimono. She's not sure if she'll ever get used to it.
Hanabi kneels next to Hinata and pours her green tea. Hinata takes her cup in cold fingers, grateful for the hot beverage. It's a luxury to have someone else pour her tea, Hinata thinks, as she takes a sip. She looks up at Hanabi with a soft smile, and is surprised when she sees Hanabi's brow is furrowed. Hanabi puts down her teacup with a clink.
"You're not mad at me—are you?"
Hinata's eyes widen. "No," she answers. "Why would I be?"
"I shouldn't be head of the clan," Hanabi mutters. "You—"
"Don't be silly," Hinata murmurs, resting her teacup in her lap. She lifts a hand to her heart, tracing the branch seal through her clothes. "I don't have the training or the credibility to be clan head, and you know it. I'm just happy to be…home," she says, though the Hyuga mansion doesn't feel like home—not quite. She lowers her eyes and takes a sip of tea, waiting for Hanabi's response.
"It's good that you've come home, oneesan," Hanabi whispers. Hinata feels a pang at that, closes her eyes and sees Karin, the woman she once called oneesan. Where is Karin now? Hinata thinks, staring at her reflection in her cup of tea. Two sad white eyes stare back at her.
Hinata looks away and clears her throat, wishing to change the subject. "Do you think my plan will work, imouto?"
"Of course it will work, oneesan. I submitted your proposal this morning, and it was signed by all the clan heads. Though I think that Uchiha might have twisted a few arms to get all the signatures," Hanabi adds wryly. She and Neji never call Sasuke by his name, only refer to him as that Uchiha. Hinata's not sure why. She thinks that maybe it is some kind of inside joke. "Speaking of your boyfriend—"
"He's not my b-boyfriend," Hinata mumbles. "He's my danna."
"But you're not a geisha anymore…"
"So he's your boyfriend."
"That sounds so…childish," Hinata says, making a face.
Hanabi laughs at that, a glassy, bubbly sound. Hinata can't help but smile.
The door opens and Neji walks in. Though he still has a slight drag to his step, he no longer needs crutches, and his face has healed. "What's so funny?" he calls, kneeling next to Hinata. Hinata, too flustered to respond, rises to pour Neji tea.
"Just teasing oneesan about her boyfriend."
"Pfft. You mean that Uchiha? He's not her boyfriend," Neji mutters. "He's more like a stalker. It's like he can't bear to me more than a hundred meters away from her. You know he's waiting for her by the compound gates?"
"He is?" Hinata asks, unable to mask the excitement in her voice.
"I think she's actually happy about that," Hanabi says, making a disgusted face. "If I'm ever that dopey about a guy, you'd punch me—right, Neji-nii?"
"Wouldn't that be considered insubordination?" Neji retorts, making a long face.
Hanabi shakes her head. "No. That would be saving me from looking stupid."
"H-hey," Hinata says, giggling despite her affronted tone. "Are you saying I look s-stupid?"
They all chuckle.
"Anyway," Neji says, rolling his eyes, "I actually came here with something important." He clears his throat. "I have been going through…Hiashi's study, and I found something. For Hinata." He reaches into his robes and takes out an envelope, yellowed with age, with Hinata's name faintly written on the front. A hush falls over the room. Hinata takes it slowly, runs a finger down the side.
"It was with Hiashi's will," Neji murmurs. "It was covered with seals that deactivated once he…" Neji trails off, but Hinata can hear the words all the same: once he died.
Hinata turns the envelope over slowly in her hands, seeing, in her mind's eye, Hiashi's casket as it was lowered into the ground. The funeral had been one week ago. She hadn't cried, hadn't felt the need to. With trembling hands, she tears open the top and slides the letter out.
If you are reading this, then I am already dead—and if I am dead, then I am free of my oath to Danzo, may the gods curse him to the lowest hells.
Hinata pauses, her eyes wide with surprise. "When is Danzo's trial?" she asks, not taking her eyes off the paper.
"Three days from now—why?" Hanabi says, leaning forward to peer over Hinata's shoulder.
Hinata doesn't respond. She keeps reading.
First, I want to apologize for being so hard on you, growing up. Danzo had a program where "second-rate ninja," as he put it, were "reassigned" to "alternative programs." In reality, ninja who didn't meet Danzo's criteria were given over to Orochimaru or the Root. That's why I trained you the way I did; why I had to give you to Orochimaru, in the end, when your progress was not deemed sufficient.
It's a crime, what Danzo has done. But I am also to blame. I could have gone to the Hokage and told him about Danzo's program, but I did not. I have a seal placed on my tongue; divulging information about Danzo's secret schemes would have killed me, and there was no one, at the time, capable of heading the Hyuga but myself.
I hope that I died testifying against Danzo to the Hokage, but that, only the gods can know at this point. The life of a ninja is uncertain. But now that I am dead, you know, and if you are not yet free, you can become free with this letter.
Danzo has been running twin underground intelligence agencies, and I believe he has been secretly plotting against the state, wanting to take control of Konoha for himself. At the very least, forcing families to sell their children to his intelligence agencies is illegal and punishable by death. I have proof of at least ten forced sales of Konoha citizens, enclosed along with this letter, as well as a dozen incidences of provoking attack against foreign villages with the sole purpose of enslaving their children.
Hinata blinks, thinking about Karin. They weren't so dissimilar, in the end, Hinata thinks. She wishes she could tell Karin that. Hinata shakes her head and races on to read the rest.
I'm sorry that I wasn't the father you deserved, that I had to keep my distance. Appearances can be deceiving—but you know that, don't you? I know, despite your initial difficulty with ninjutsu, that you have a strong spirit. I am proud to have brought you into this world, and know that you will continue to make me proud.
All my love,
Hinata's eyes cloud over with tears. She blinks them aside, then lays the letter reverently in her lap, shuffling through the included documents meant to incriminate Dazno.
"No way," Hanabi breathes, staring down at the letter on the table. Neji, hovering over Hinata's shoulder, is silent, but his mouth is parted in surprise. Hinata folds the letter and the pages of evidence in shaking hands, replaces it in the envelope, and places it in her breast pocket. She takes a deep, shuddering breath, and dashes the tears out of her eyes with her hand.
"W-well," she says in a small voice, "I was on my w-way to see Kushina-sama a-anyway." She closes her eyes and sees an image of her father, his smile flashing as his face fades into darkness.
She's glad that Sasuke is standing beside her, a silent, firm presence, his hand holding hers. The Hokage's office is stuffy—Neji is here, and Hanabi, and also Ino, with her teammates Shikamaru and Choji. On the other side of the desk, Kushina reads Hiashi's letter, her eyes flashing like fire. Beside her, Naruto is practically growling. Only Tsunade and Jiraiya have unreadable expressions as they stand behind Kushina's chair, reading over Hiashi's documents.
It is Tsunade who breaks the silence.
"Well," she says, her voice rumbling like thunder, "looks like Jiraiya's guesses are now confirmed. With your permission, Hokage-sama, I'd like to call a meeting of the clan heads."
Kushina purses her lips. "Yes, of course," she says, massaging her temples. "I don't suppose anyone's found the elders yet?"
"Oh, those old farts are long gone by now," Jiraiya says, his arms crossed over his chest. "My guess is that they were the ones covering for Danzo and Orochimaru."
"Just—everyone, clear out. I need to think," Kushina says, waving her hand. She looks old, Hinata thinks. There are new lines on her face, and her eyes are red and puffy. "Except for you, Hinata. I'd like to speak to you. And Shikamaru? Send your father in, when he gets a chance. I can't think straight anymore…"
Kushina leans back in her chair and props her feet up on the desk, rubbing her eyes. As the ninja shuffle out, Ino walks by Hinata and squeezes her shoulder.
"Thank you," she whispers, winking at Hinata.
"I-it was n-nothing," Hinata stammers, looking down at the floor.
"We have white peonies again, in the flower shop," Ino says, a soft smile curving her lips. "I just thought I'd let you know." With that, she exits the room, leaving Hinata smiling.
White peonies. Hinata can almost smell their sweet scent, and swears that she will make time to visit her parents' graves.
"Uchiha, I said you could leave. I just need to speak to Hinata," Kushina mutters. Naruto, still sitting next to his mother, snorts.
"Sorry mom," Naruto says with a grin, "I think those two have been glued together, ever since Hinata saved Sasuke's life."
"I—I—" Hinata protests, tongue tied.
Kushina rolls her eyes. "Naruto. Sasuke. Leave my office, now."
"I want to speak to Hinata. Alone," she mutters. "Go. Obey your Hokage."
"Come on," Sasuke says, letting go of Hinata's hand and glaring at Naruto.
Naruto makes a frustrated grunt, then saunters out of the room, winking at Hinata. Sasuke punches him in the arm, and the two start squabbling. The door closes behind them, and she hears a muffled squeal. She assumes it is Naruto.
"You know," Kushina says, staring out through the open window, "when I was a kid, I always wanted to be the first female Hokage. Now, I'd give anything just to have…" She trails off. Her feet fall from her desk down to the floor, and she leans over her elbows, looking intently at Hinata. "I've looked over your proposal."
"…A-and?" Hinata asks, leaning forward in her seat.
Kushina sighs. "To be honest, I didn't know what to do with the geisha, either. It's hard enough to figure out what to do with all the Root members! But the geisha…" Kushina pauses, looking down at her desk. "They've all got the curse mark, for one."
"They can be sealed," Hinata offers.
"But the seal only works if the person refrains from drawing on the curse mark's chakra. We'd have to trust them." Kushina grimaces. "After what Konoha has done to these girls—sorry," she amends with a blush, looking up at Hinata.
"It's okay," Hinata says with a smile. "You can trust me, can't you?" When Kushina nods, Hinata continues, "Then you can trust me to decide who can be trusted."
Kushina exhales sharply. "Fine. There are about two hundred geisha left in Konoha—the rest are dead, or have taken off with Orochimaru. I leave it in your hands what will be done with them."
Hinata sweeps out of her seat, grinning widely. "For the first time in their lives, they'll be able to choose what they want."
Kushina shakes her head. She twirls a pencil in her hand, then chews on the eraser. "It's not much of a choice—continue as a geisha, or enroll as a low-level ninja. Either way, they can't leave Konoha. I'd return them to their home countries if I could, but I can't. They know too much." She gnashes her teeth down on the pencil, and it snaps in two. Wincing, Kushina spits it out. "What a mess Danzo and Orochimaru have made of things."
"We all take what we can get, and we survive, day by day, by any means we can," Hinata says, still smiling. "You're doing the best you can."
"I just wish I could do more," Kushina says, looking out of the window. Hinata follows her gaze up to the Hokage monument. "He would have known what to do…" she says in an undertone, as if to herself.
Hinata looks down at the floor. She doesn't know what to say. Thankfully, there is a knock at the door.
"Come in," Kushina snaps, broken out of her reverie.
It's Shikaku. Kushina is about to dismiss Hinata when Shikaku shakes his head, motioning for her to stay.
"Hokage-sama," he says in a gravelly voice, "we've captured the geisha known as Karin."
Hinata is in the interrogation room, on the other side of one-way glass. She can see Karin, tied to a chair and bound with chakra restraints, but Karin can't see her. Ibiki is about to question her.
"Why do you want me here?" Hinata whispers, wishing her voice sounded firmer.
"To verify Karin's statements," Shikaku says, handing her a microphone. "Ibiki can hear you through this. You're to tell him when Karin is lying."
Hinata gulps. "I…"
"Please. With Orochimaru on the loose, we need all the intelligence we can get on him." When Hinata finally nods, Shikaku offers her a tight-lipped smile. He presses a button on the consul. Ibiki spares a look at the mirror, then proceeds.
"Karin-san. We found you on the outskirts of Konoha with a bag full of explosives, and another bag full of kimono. Explain yourself."
Karin sniffs, holding her head up high, regal as any queen. "The kimono are mine, prick. You better not have damaged them! They're worth a fortune."
"…And the explosives?"
"A girl needs to defend herself," she howls. "Imagine, a poor geisha like me, alone in the woods—"
"Why didn't you turn yourself in to Konoha?"
Karin's eyes go as wide as saucers. "I didn't want Orochimaru to find me. There was a war, and I was scared, and I—"
"Karin," Ibiki growls, "what was your relationship with Orochimaru?"
Karin's eyes take on a hard glint. "He owned me."
"You had a rather high position, for a geisha, did you not?"
"I'm the victim here, asshole," she seethes. "I'm hungry—can someone get me some fried food?"
"You want answers? Bring me some fucking food," she hisses. "And untie me!"
It goes back and forth like that for some time. Finally, Karin is untied, though her chakra restraints remain in place, and she is given a bowl of ramen. She slurps it, slowly, taking obvious pleasure in how Ibiki's face twists with impatience and annoyance. Karin finishes her food with a loud belch, then sits back in her chair with a satisfied smirk.
"Now. What was your relationship with Orochimaru?"
"I'm willing to make Konoha a lucrative offer," she says, beaming up at him. "You want information on Orochimaru? I've got it. I know the location of his hideouts. I know a lot about what he was planning. I even know how to make the antidotes to all his poisons. And I mean all."
Ibiki gives Karin an incredulous look, but Hinata murmurs into the microphone that it is true. He looks at Karin with newfound respect and says, "Well? Tell me!"
"In exchange for this information, Konoha will give me freedom," Karin says with a huff, sticking her nose up in the air.
"We can't do that. You know too much about matters of national security," Ibiki growls. "You will stay in Konoha."
"Fine. Then I want a high-paying job. I want to head the research department, or work on biological weapons—something glamorous that pays well, with my own private, luxurious apartment. And my own maid. Don't forget about the maid," she says, glaring up at Ibiki. "I hate cleaning."
Ibiki is about to offer a hot retort when Hinata speaks into the microphone. "Ask her if she wants to be in charge of the okiya in Konoha," she blurts out. Ibiki shuts his mouth, then opens it, then shuts it again.
"You know," Karin says lazily, looking straight through the one-way mirror, "I know you're in there, imouto. And the answer is yes—I would be delighted to head the okiya in Konoha. My question to you is, would it still be a spy network, or would the geisha simply be geisha? Either way, I want my own personal kimono designer."
Ibiki sputters, then slams his meaty hands down on the table. "You think you deserve that? After what you've done? You helped Orochimaru start a civil war," he growls.
Karin's red eyes burn like fire. "You," she hisses. "You think you are so high and mighty. Let me tell you something, asshole—Konoha burned down my village, killed my parents, and enslaved me to Orochimaru. He used me for experiments. See all these bite marks?" she hisses, drawing up her sleeve. "Most of those marks are from him. He owned me. Do you know what it's like to be owned? To me, Orochimaru and Konoha are the same fucking thing. I just want my piece of the pie," Karin finishes with a snarl. "Now, do we have a deal?"
"You're despicable," Ibiki says, but he lacks conviction in his voice.
"So are you." Karin flashes him a smile. "Have the Hokage draw me up a contract. And imouto?" she calls, looking straight at Hinata again, "Bring me some deep-fried pork chops. I'm famished."
"How can she do that?" Shikaku mutters. "She has chakra restraints on—she shouldn't be able to sense us…"
Hinata shakes her head. "My oneesan is the best sensory-type ninja in Konoha," she says, grinning. "Shikaku-san, do you happen to know where I can get extra-greasy pork chops on this side of town?"
"I'm going on a mission tomorrow," Sasuke says, his voice soft and slow. He is kneeling next to her on the cold stone, looking down at her parents' graves. A cool breeze blows, ruffling the white peonies resting on the headstones.
"So soon, Sasuke-danna?" Hinata says with a frown.
"Tch. Don't call me that. We aren't married."
Hinata tilts her head. "But…"
"And you're not a geisha anymore."
"I know…" Hinata tents her hands in her lap. "But I still think of you as my danna."
Sasuke opens his hands in his lap, palms up. "I'm not your danna."
"Then…wh-what are you?" Hinata turns to face him. "What am I to you?"
Sasuke looks down into his hands. "I…don't know."
"Do I what?"
"Never m-mind," Hinata replies, blushing heavily.
Sasuke puts his hand over Hinata's, giving it a squeeze. "Don't worry so much."
They sit in silence in front of the graves, holding hands. A cool spring wind blows, making the willows that line the cemetery dance. Hinata looks up at the trees and smiles. She hopes that it is a good omen from her parents.
Hinata looks over at Sasuke, who is lost in his thoughts. "Sasuke-danna?"
Sasuke squeezes his eyes shut in consternation.
"I m-mean, Sasuke-kun?"
"Do you want to visit your mother's grave?"
He stares at her. "I don't have any flowers for her."
"I'm sure my mother wouldn't mind sharing with yours," Hinata says, picking up one of the white peony blossoms. "I bet our mothers would have liked each other."
Hinata gives him a curious look. "Stop what?"
"Nothing," Sasuke says with a sigh. "Sure. That's…very thoughtful of you."
Hinata smiles. She holds the flower in one hand and takes Sasuke's hand in the other, rising slowly from the cold stone. The Uchiha section of the cemetery is on the other side of town, and they walk in content silence until the cemetery comes into view.
Graves, mostly new and unweathered stones, line the hillside in endless rows. They walk in silence to his mother's headstone, which is towards the back. The sun shines on it, making the marble glint like silver.
Hinata places the peony on the grave, and they kneel, heads bowed.
"Hey, mom," Sasuke says, his voice so quiet, Hinata isn't sure she hears him at first. Then he says, more loudly, "Meet my friend, Hinata."
Hinata isn't sure if she should say something—maybe she should wave? She clears her throat and whispers, "Nice to meet you, Mikoto-san."
Sasuke takes her hand, lacing his fingers with hers. She smiles softly. Sasuke has introduced her as a friend; she supposes that that is what she is to him. She sits in quiet contentment, mulling that fact over in her head.
"Well," Sasuke says, "my knees are killing me. Nice to see you, mom. Miss you." He turns his head away from Hinata and rises, pulling her after him quickly. She pretends that she doesn't see him wiping at his eyes.
"Sasuke-kun," Hinata says, slowly, making sure to choose the right honorific, "what mission are you going on tomorrow?"
"I'm going to find Orochimaru," he says, after a moment of hesitation.
"Take me with you."
"Are you kidding? You can't even mold chakra yet!" he snaps.
Hinata sniffles and looks down at the ground.
"Sorry," Sasuke mutters. "It's not that I wouldn't want you to come—it's that I don't want you to die."
"Mmm," Hinata replies, unsure of what to say.
"You're still injured," he says. "You can't even use your Byakugan."
"That's true. I was being foolish." Hinata tries to keep her bottom lip from trembling.
"No. No, you weren't. You were just being nice. I was being an asshole."
Hinata hides her giggle behind her hand. "That's one way of putting it, Sasuke-kun." Then her laughter fades, and she becomes serious once more. "Who's going with you?"
Sasuke pauses, which only piques Hinata's curiosity. "Karin."
"They're letting her out of the village?" she asks, incredulous.
"Apparently, she met with Kushina and convinced her that they are long-lost cousins," Sasuke grouses.
"But—why not Sakura?"
Sasuke shakes his head. "Too many injured in the village. The hospital can't spare her. Plus, Karin is the best option to find Orochimaru and…" he trails off.
Hinata's eyes narrow, and her insides twist. Her lips press into a thin line. "You were going to say something else."
"I don't like Karin—not like that. Not at all, actually. You don't have to worry. Trust me."
Hinata exhales hotly. "What do you mean, not like that?"
"Are we really having this conversation?"
"S-sorry. It's just…"
Sasuke takes a deep breath. Lets it out slowly. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you. What's bothering you?"
"You're hiding something from me." Hinata crosses her arms.
Sasuke doesn't answer, and for a terrible moment, she feels her insides churning with jealousy. Why is Karin being put on missions again? Wasn't she supposed to stay in the village?
"Karin is going to help us find Itachi," Sasuke blurts out.
Hinata's eyes go wide with surprise. "…Itachi?"
"Yeah. Kushina pardoned him, after Danzo's confession. My brother is no longer a rogue ninja… I'm supposed to…bring him home."
"O-oh." Suddenly, Hinata feels like a terrible person. "That makes sense," she says into the heavy silence. "Karin is an excellent tracker. She'll find him. I'm sure of it." She means to sound reassuring.
"I might kill him."
Hinata blinks up at Sasuke. "I'm sorry, what…?"
"I might kill him. He killed my mother. And half my clan. So…I might want to kill him." His eyes glint with red light.
"But he was ordered to do it," Hinata counters, worried. "I thought the Hokage forgave him."
"That doesn't mean I have. And being ordered to do something doesn't excuse anybody—you were ordered to kill me, and you didn't."
Hinata falls silent. They walk the rest of the way back to the village in quiet, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, when they come to the cross-roads, where Hinata has to walk left to get home and Sasuke, to the right, they pause.
"Will I see you before you leave, Sasuke-danna?"
Sasuke closes his eyes and takes a long, deep breath.
"I'm s-sorry. I mean Sasuke-kun…" Hinata says, trailing off lamely.
"No. I'll be leaving first thing in the morning."
"When will you be back?"
"I don't know."
"Will you write?"
"No, I can't write—I'll be on a top secret mission," he snarls. And then: "…Sorry." He takes her hands in his and gives them a squeeze.
They stand for a moment in awkward silence.
"Please be careful, Sasuke-kun. I'll be waiting for you."
"Take care of yourself, Hinata." He lets go of her hands, then brushes the side of her face with a calloused finger.
"N-nothing," Hinata says, turning as red as the sun setting behind them. There is a long pause.
"Okay. I'll see you…"
Hinata stands still and watches him walk away from her down the city street, his head bowed, lost in thought. She watches until he rounds the corner, and she can no longer see him. The red sun dips down below the trees. A sharp wind gusts. Then, with slow, wooden movements, she turns towards home.
What am I to you? The question lingers, echoing in her mind like the hum of a vibrating string.
She is up before the dawn, sitting on top of the arched gates. Waiting. When the sun brightens the sky with the first hints of daybreak, she sees them, four proud ninja with packs on their backs. Karin and Naruto are arguing loudly.
"…Isn't that the name of the fishy swirl they put on top of ramen?"
"What kind of a name is that?"
"An awesome name. Come on, we're like cousins—you have to agree with me, Karin oneeeee-san!"
"It's a stupid name. Even if we are cousins. Remote cousins. Naruto is a really, really stupid name. You'll never be Hokage with a name like that. Trust me."
"Kakashi-sensei, Karin's being mean to me!"
Kakashi sighs heavily. "I don't care," he says, flipping through his orange book.
"Sasuke! Karin's being—"
Thwack! Sasuke hits Naruto over the side of the head, and they start shouting at each other. Hinata would laugh if she didn't feel so alone and desperate.
"Oh Kami," Kakashi mutters, smacking himself in the forehead. "Tell me it's not going to be like this all mission."
"Suck it up, old man," Karin huffs.
"You're worse than Sakura," Kakashi says mournfully.
Karin smiles at Kakashi and squints. "Eat shit and die, old geezer."
"…Way worse than Sakura…"
The four ninja pass through the gate, directly under Hinata. When they reach the other side, Karin looks like she is about to whack Kakashi in the shoulder, when her hand stills in the air. She looks up.
"Hey! Imouto!" she calls, waving wildly. "You came to see us off!"
Hinata smiles nervously. She really only came to see one person, but she'll let Karin think what she wants to think. Molding her chakra very slowly and carefully, she funnels chakra into her feet and walks down the side of the archway. When she gets to the bottom, her brow is beaded with sweat, but she tries not to let her exhaustion show.
"Oneesan," Hinata says, giving Karin a quick hug. "Try to be nicer to your teammates."
"But they're all assholes—except for Sasuke-kuuuun," she coos, batting her eyelashes at Sasuke, who glances away, disgusted.
"Hey, I'm not an asshole," Naruto mutters. "Where's my hug, Hinata-chan?" Before she can answer, he throws his arms around her. She squeaks in surprise, then returns the hug, awkwardly. She feels a bit like a gerbil that's been squeezed too hard.
"Careful, idiot, you'll hurt her," Sasuke mutters as Naruto pulls away, sheepish.
"Sorry—I don't know my own strength sometimes," Naruto offers.
"Have a good mission," Hinata says, turning to Sasuke. She can't quite bring herself to meet his eyes.
"We're already late because of the idiot here," Sasuke grunts. For a horrified moment, she thinks he is talking about her, but she looks up and sees with relief that he is gesturing towards Naruto. "Did you want anything?"
Yes. "N-no," Hinata says, shuffling her feet. "I just…be safe."
"That's…all," she says.
"Can you guys go ahead?" Sasuke says. "I'll catch up."
"Says the asshole who says we're already running late," Naruto mutters, striding forward. "Maaaan…"
"Don't talk that way about Sasuke-kun," Karin snaps.
"But nothing," Karin says, slapping Naruto's back.
"Ouch! Karin, that hurt."
"You'll eat worse than that before this mission is over, idiot."
"Kakashi-sensei! Karin is being—"
"Don't come crying to me, Naruto," Kakashi says, raking a hand through his hair.
The voices of Sasuke's teammates fade. They are left alone.
"Hinata," Sasuke begins, "I'm sorry if I was abrupt with you, yesterday. I'm stressed out. About the mission."
"I know," she replies. "It's okay. Sasuke-danna…"
"Yes?" Sasuke says, and for once, he doesn't chide her for using the wrong honorific.
"I love you," she blurts out. Her cheeks burn, and she stares down at the ground, wishing it would swallow her whole. Her throat constricts painfully.
Sasuke brushes the side of her face, but says nothing. She looks up into his eyes hopefully.
"Hinata," he begins, "I have…other things on my mind, right now."
"Of c-course," Hinata says, looking away. She wrings her hands behind her back. "I was just wondering…do you…?"
"Don't ask me things like that. Not now," Sasuke says, and when Hinata chances another look at Sasuke, she sees that his eyes are burning, swirling red with the Sharingan. He is thinking about his brother, Hinata realizes; his eyes are full of hatred.
Instead of feeling rejected, Hinata feels her heart soften towards him even more. She lays a hand on his shoulder. "Try to forgive him," she whispers. "He had reasons for what he did. Even if they were the wrong reasons." She thinks this is the right thing to say. It is how she feels about her father.
Sasuke doesn't respond. He shrugs her hand off of his shoulder and turns away, down the path and away from the village.
"Sasuke-kun!" she calls after him. He looks over his shoulder at her, his eyes still glinting crimson. "Come back alive," she says, meeting his gaze for what feels like a long time.
"I will," is all he says. He turns from her, and she watches him stride down the path, then into the forest and out of sight. A wind blows, ruffling her clothing. She bows her head, feeling aching and empty. She turns back towards the village. She shivers, though the day is not cold, and draws her hood up over her head.
Just as she is about to pass through the gates, she feels a hand on her shoulder. Startled, she turns around. It is Sasuke. He puts his arm around her waist.
"I'm sorry." He leans down and kisses her on the mouth, slowly. "I feel like I'm always saying that to you," he whispers, his breath fanning out against her face.
"Saying what?" Hinata whispers back, smiling softly.
He kisses her again, longer this time. "I'll miss you," he says, pulling away from her. Then he is gone in a rush of wind, leaving only leaves in his wake. Hinata grins ear to ear, plucking one of the leaves from the whirlwind and tucking it behind her ear. For good luck, she thinks, turning back towards the gates.
The golden afternoon light burnishes the village gates until it looks like they are made of bronze. Hinata has come to the gates at this time of day every day for the past month. Watching. Waiting. She sits down on the ground and leans her back against the gate, the stone feeling warm against her back.
All around her, wildflowers bloom, their heady scent making her feel sleepy. Idly, she picks a blossom and twirls it in her hand. It is a forget-me-not, its blue flowers looking purple in the afternoon light. She smiles, hoping that it is a good omen. As is her custom, she raises her eyes to the road and activates her Byakugan.
She's pleased to note that her chakra pathways no longer burn, that her eyes twitch with only the slightest sensation of pain. She tells herself that she is just practicing, though she knows she's not fooling anyone, least of all herself. She looks down the road for a quarter mile and finds no one, then strains to look farther, farther. On the edges of her vision, she can see a group of five people, but she can't make out their chakra signatures, not quite.
Sweating with exertion, Hinata deactivates her doujutsu and waits, sitting up straight underneath the shadow of the gates, telling herself not to be too hopeful. It could be anyone.
When at last she can take the suspense no longer, she raises herself on shaky feet and strides forward into the darkening forest. She can hear voices, coming from far away. She can't hear words, only the faint cadence of voices, voices she thinks she recognizes—but maybe it's just her imagination playing tricks on her. She forces herself to take a deep breath to calm her racing heart.
Then, she can hear:
"Eh, Itachi-san, don't you think it's a stupid name? I mean, it's the swirly thing they put on top of ramen. It's made of fish."
"Yes," comes a gravelly voice Hinata doesn't recognize, "I am aware that it is made of fish."
"Right," says Karin. "It's a stupid name."
A moment of silence.
"I suppose it is kind of silly," he says.
The voices are jumbled after that, garrulous and shouting. There is a squealing sound, which she assumes is Naruto.
What should she do? Hinata wipes her clammy palms on her pants and stands still in the middle of the path. Should she turn around and play it cool by the gates? Or should she continue to stride forward? In the end, she can't make up her mind and continues to stand still in the middle of the path. Her heart is racing like a herd of wild horses, and her mouth goes dry.
"Hinata-chan!" Naruto cries. He darts into sight, then almost knocks Hinata over with the force of his greeting.
"N-naruto," Hinata says with a laugh, hugging him back.
"Eh, imouto, you seem to be feeling better," Karin calls, striding up to Hinata and kissing her cheek. "Did you take care of the okiya while I was away?"
"Yes, oneesan," Hinata replies, smiling, looking up into Karin's face. Karin mouth is upturned in a wide smile, and her eyes are bright. Despite everything, Karin looks truly happy, and the sight makes Hinata's heart light. "I also found you a kimono designer."
Karin's eyes go as wide as the emblazoned swirl on the back of her jacket. "Do you mean a designer kimono, or…?"
"Nope," Hinata says, grinning widely. "A man who designs kimono. He works for you, now."
"My own designer," Karin croons, almost swooning. Karin goes on to babble about how overjoyed she is, but Hinata cannot hear her. Sasuke has come into sight around the bend. Hinata sways, like a tree in the breeze, lifting her hand in a tentative wave.
Rays of sunlight slant through the trees, dappling his hair with golden light. He runs forward, and she notes with a start that a smile splits his face and makes his eyes dance. She's never seen him like that. He looks so…full of life. She almost wonders if something is wrong, because the expression is so incongruous, but then his arms are around her and she can't think of anything, can't look away from his eyes, sparkling like obsidian in the sun.
He touches his forehead to hers. "Sorry," he says.
"For wh-what?" Hinata stutters, feeling her whole face flushing. He doesn't answer, kisses her instead. Before she can recover herself, he pulls away and angles his mouth close to her ear.
"I love you," he says, his breath tickling her neck.
"So this is Hinata," comes a velvety voice. Still stunned from Sasuke's words, Hinata peeks up over Sasuke's shoulder and into a pair of familiar-looking black eyes, a mouth turned up into a wry smile. "Nice to meet you." He holds out his hand.
"Oh. H-hi," Hinata says, drawing back from Sasuke. She shakes Itachi's hand timidly. She opens her mouth, but no words come out. She really isn't sure what to say.
"Sasuke has told me a lot about you."
"He has?" Hinata squeaks.
"Niisan," Sasuke mutters, glaring at his brother.
Itachi holds up his hands, as if in self defense. "Only good things."
"O-oh. Good," Hinata replies, twisting the hem of her shirt.
"Yo, team," calls Kakashi, the last one to come into view. "If we get our report in now, we can get food before all the restaurants close. Hey Hinata, good to see you," he says with a lackluster wave.
"You guys go on ahead," Sasuke says, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "I'll meet you."
Naruto opens his mouth, but Karin slaps a hand over it. "No one say anything. Don't ruin this heartfelt moment for my imouto."
Naruto shrugs her hand off. "Didn't you just ruin it by saying something?"
"No. You did."
Hinata has a strange feeling of deja vu as Karin and Naruto's arguing voices fade with distance. Itachi waves lazily over his shoulder, than stalks after them, leaving Hinata and Sasuke alone.
"You didn't kill your brother," Hinata ventures at last.
"I tried to." He shrugs.
"Oh." Hinata scratches her head. "But I guess it worked out…?" Sasuke smiles, and Hinata watches the way it makes the light dance in his eyes. "You really love him, don't you?"
"Mmm," is Sasuke's noncommittal reply.
"Sasuke-kun…do you…are you…"
"Nothing. I'm just happy to see you," Hinata says, hoping the dark shadows hide her blush.
He takes her hands in his, then rubs them, as if they are cold, though they are not. "We killed Orochimaru."
Hinata's mouth drops open in shock.
"Well, to be fair, Itachi delivered the final blow, but I did most of the work," Sasuke says with a shrug. She has a feeling that what he says might not be entirely true, but she doesn't care, so long as Sasuke is unharmed and the mission is complete.
"That's wonderful news," Hinata says, beaming at him.
"Hinata…do you still…did you…are you—"
"Sasuke-danna," she says, putting her arms around him and smiling as brightly as the sun, "I love you."
His shoulders sag with relief. "Oh. Good. I thought—you didn't answer—I wasn't—"
Hinata angles her head up and kisses him. She runs her fingers through his hair, then pulls back, smiling softly.
"We'll be late for dinner," she says, taking his elbow in hers. Sasuke doesn't answer, simply places his hand over hers, his lips curved in a smile. She leans her head on his shoulder, and they walk, past the shadows and into the last rays of golden light streaming in through the village gates.
Ack, can't believe it's the end! Thanks again for reading and please, review:)