Everything seemed to fall apart once they made it back to Sora’s house. They lay Nori’s body in one of the side rooms while Yasu bawled and a newly awakened Miki screamed. Hinata took it upon herself to calm the girl, as Yasu seemed to be in no condition to do so. They spent hours together, Hinata holding the small girl as she cried. Miki was just old enough to understand what was going on. Her father had left forever, and her mother was too caught up in her own grief to comfort her. Hinata had remembered what it was like when her own mother had died, and would not let the girl out of her sight, hoping to give some comfort to the child, and maybe find some comfort herself.
Sora shut herself in her room and didn’t come out for five days. She locked the door and wouldn’t talk to anyone, saying she needed time to recover her chakra, but refusing to eat the food Hinata left for her outside the door. Naruto and Hinata stood in the kitchen and talked in hushed tones about what could possibly be wrong with her. It had to be something she had experienced under Itachi’s illusions, but neither of them knew what. Finally, Hinata simply picked the lock and went in armed with a plate of food and Miki. A few minutes of Miki’s big blue eyes pouting at her and Sora was at least drinking the miso soup. Still, her hair changed color three times in the following week until she finally settled on a deep, almost blood-red color which she wore straight down, hanging partially into her face.
Naruto watched everyone, drifting quietly from room to room. He did whatever Hinata asked him to; cutting vegetables, doing laundry, sitting with Yasu. The job of keeping them all together had fallen to Hinata simply because there was no one else. But she had risen to the challenge, presenting a calm “in control and in charge” side to herself that Naruto had seen on few occasions. She hurried up and down the hallways, Miki on one hip and her other shoulder still bandaged from where he had wounded her when the Kyuubi had taken partial control.
He couldn’t look at that shoulder without wanting to throw up. He had done that to her. What sort of a monster was he?
Every once in a while Hinata would pause and ask him if he was okay. He would nod and she would smile slightly, reaching up on her toes to give him a soft kiss before returning to what she was doing. He had always known that she would be the head of the Hyuuga house, but this was the first time that he had actually been able to see it.
Things seemed to float around him in a haze. The only thing he could be certain of was his own guilt. That had settled dark and heavy on his shoulders. He had caused all this pain, and now Hinata was trying to hold it all together.
The funeral had been almost unbearable. Yasu had asked that they follow the traditional rites of the West, which Naruto and Hinata had only seen once before and had not been asked to participate in. Now they found themselves entangled in unfamiliar rituals. Any mistake they made was met with Yasu’s icy glare. She had started to wear completely white again, the color of mourning in the west. It washed out her face, framed her unkempt white hair that she no longer bothered to put up. She looked more like a ghost every day.
They bathed and clothed Nori’s body, placing small amounts of strange smelling powders on his forehead. The rituals seemed endless, taking well over a week to perform, although Naruto couldn’t pin down an exact date. The days were starting to blur together. The body had to be prepared to move on into the world between before they went on to the next life. Food and money to aid him in his journey were bundled and placed in his arms before they carried him out into the courtyard. Both he and his possessions would be burned so they could follow him up to the heavens.
The five of them walked through the courtyard gates and off onto the grassy cliff. They placed him on the edge, then Naruto, Sora, and Hinata with Miki backed off silently, giving Yasu one last time to say goodbye.
“Watch her,” Sora said quietly. “A hundred years ago it was customary for wives to throw themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyres.”
Naruto and Hinata looked up at her in shock. “You don’t think she’ll…” Naruto’s voice trailed off as Sora shook her head.
“No, but I want to be certain. She’s not thinking straight right now and she was raised in an extremely traditional family before they were killed. The fact that she would want all of this, the fact that she’s not hell-bent on revenge yet…” she sighed. “It just worries me.”
Hinata gulped and looked down at the girl who was crying in her arms. How could Yasu be so far into her grief that she would forget her daughter? Hinata simply didn’t understand it.
As Sora walked forward to light the pyre on fire, Hinata went with her. Naruto hung back and watched as his girlfriend lifted the little girl into Yasu’s arms. The woman seemed startled for a second, then gently held her daughter.
The pyre burst into flames, backlighting the three figures of the women; Sora in her long black coat, Hinata in her kimono, and Yasu in her sari with Miki in her arms. They stood there watching the blaze in silence, until Yasu let out a wail and fell to her knees, clutching Miki to her chest. Hinata and Sora both rushed over to comfort her.
Naruto wanted to go to them, but he couldn’t get his feet to move. It wouldn’t be right for the cause of all of this to try to comfort them.
Tears streamed down his face and his fists clenched.
Hinata knocked softly on the door to Naruto’s room before sliding it open a little bit. “Naruto?” she asked softly.
The room was dark and for a second Hinata thought he might be asleep. But then his voice came softly to her.
“Hina-chan,” he said, his voice coming from the far corner of the room.
Hinata opened the door far enough to slip in before closing it behind her. Technically they weren’t supposed to be in each other’s bedrooms alone with the door shut, but she didn’t think Sora would mind. They weren’t going to do anything Sora would get upset about; Hinata just needed to be where he was for a while, and where he was happened to be in his room.
She waited for her eyes to adjust somewhat to the dark before slowly making her way across the floor, picking her way around the various ramen containers, books and clothes that Naruto had left scattered all over the floor. He was sitting on his futon, a couple of pillows propped up against the wall as he leaned back into the corner. His knees were bent and he rested straight arms on them, hands flopping loosely at the ends.
She knelt down next to him and brushed the hair out of his face, just barely able to make out his features in the dim light coming through from the window. He looked over at her and smiled thinly before dropping his knees so that she could crawl sideways into his lap. She wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed her ear to his heart.
“How are they?” he asked quietly, running his hands up and down her back.
“We gave Yasu and Miki a sedative and tucked them both in bed. They’ll sleep through at least until tomorrow,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. He felt her shiver and leaned over to grab the blanket from the foot of his bed, wrapping it around her as best he could with one arm. They sat there in silence for a few more minutes before she spoke again.
“I just don’t understand,” she whispered. “I don’t want to make light of her grief, but Yasu…” She shook her head slightly. “It doesn’t seem like her to completely fall apart like this. She’s barely even paying attention to Miki.”
Again Naruto said nothing, silenced by a mixture of guilt and feelings of helplessness. Like he knew what to say to make them feel better!
“Onee-chan is worrying me too. She’s barely eating anything, and I can hear her wandering around at night,” she continued, squeezing him harder.
“I don’t know, Hina-chan,” Naruto, whispered back, although what exactly he didn’t know was unclear.
Hinata sighed. “We have five months left until we go back. Maybe that will be enough time to get her back on her feet again, but god Naruto,” she said, her voice trembling. “I’m scared to leave them alone like this.”
Naruto’s arms tightened around her and he leaned down to kiss her forehead. There she went again, talking as if he was one of the strong ones, one of the sane ones. She had been there, she had seen it. He had been in denial for so long, but now even he had to face the cold, dark truth.
He held her tightly with his lips pressed to her brow for a few seconds before finally speaking.
“I love you. You know that, right?” he asked quietly, a soft break in his voice.
She smiled and snuggled in closer to him, curing tighter against his shoulder. “Of course I do. I love you too.”
Normally her declaration would have warmed him, but now it was like a hand clenching around his heart. He wanted to be with her forever, but it just wasn’t going to be the case.
He kissed her forehead again. “I’m not going back,” he whispered, lips brushing her skin.
Her spine stiffened and her eyes widened in the dark. “What?” she asked, pulling away.
Reluctantly, he let her go, but his head flopped to his chest. “I can’t go back to Konoha, Hinata.”
Her voice wobbled hopelessly as she spoke. “Wha…what do you mean you can’t go back?”
His hands tightened into fists at his sides. “I have things I need to do. Plus, I don’t belong there. I never really have.” She could just barely make out the last part, his voice just above a whisper.
“Of course you belong in Konoha!” she cried. “What about your friends? What about your teammates? What about becoming Hokage?”
“I don’t expect you to understand!” he said, louder and more forcefully than he intended. She grimaced and slid off of his lap as he stood up. She’d always understood before when he would talk to her. Why wouldn’t she understand now?
“Naruto!” she cried, sniffling back shocked tears.
“I can’t go back!” he yelled, stomping towards the door. “It’s as simple as that!” He slammed the door behind him.
Hinata sat in the dark and cried. What was happening?
It took Hinata half an hour to compose herself enough to leave Naruto’s room and go find Sora, which took another fifteen minutes. It took Sora five minutes to haul herself out of the tub where she was lounging with a chocolate martini and get dressed, yelling curses the entire time. It took ten more for Sora to locate Naruto standing on one of the higher balconies that looked out into the mountains. His head was bowed as he sagged against the railings.
The tirade that Sora had been planning drained out of her. The boy was clearly upset, and yelling at him wasn’t going to do any good. But she sure as hell wasn’t going to go easy on him. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at him from the opposite end of the balcony.
“Hinata’s downstairs in the kitchen crying,” she said, only some of her irritation coming through her voice.
Naruto winced and looked over at his sister. She looked exhausted, washed out and too thin. She had used almost everything she had in the fight, and the rest getting them back here. She looked haunted, the same way she did when you caught her wandering about in the middle of the night. He couldn’t take it; he looked away again.
Sora crossed over to lean against the railing a few feet away from him. “For some odd reason she decided that I needed to come talk to you. Probably because you’ve got her so upset that she can barely put a sentence together.”
He winced again and continued to stare out at the mountains.
“You’re thinking about staying here?” she asked.
He swallowed hard and forced himself to talk, his voice quiet and raspy. “It’ll be better. I could stay here, train with you some more. Then go out and kill the bastards.”
“Hina-chan has to go back. Her clan is waiting for her. No one’s waiting for me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Obaa-chan’s waiting for you. That perverted guy’s probably waiting for you, and that ass Kakashi too, if he has any sense in that egotistical head of his. You had teammates, you had classmates; what about them?”
“I’m the Kyuubi, remember? They hate me for what I’ve done to the village. I destroyed-“
Sora slammed her fist down on the railing. “THAT’S IT! You want to tell me what the hell is wrong with you! Ever since we fought off Itachi and Kisame you’ve been moping around and acting like an idiot! I know you’re grieving; we’re all fucking grieving! We all feel like shit about what happened! But it’s like you’re not even you! You’re Uzumaki Naruto, remember that? The one who’s always loud, always playing pranks? The one who’s going to surpass every other Hokage and get everyone to acknowledge him? Do you remember him, because for the last few weeks he seems to have disappeared!”
“Maybe he shouldn’t have existed at all!” he screamed at her.
“You saw what I did! I lost control completely! What the hell would have happened if people were there instead of rice fields? With all that destruction, how many people would have died? Did you see what I did to Kisame? He didn’t even look human by the time I finished with him! I broke Hinata’s shoulder! I’m the goddamn Kyuubi! A monster! A demon! And if I hadn’t existed, Akatsuki never would have attacked Nori in the first place! It’s my fault this happened!” He was red in the face, his throat hurting and his stomach lurching.
“Would you just shut up?” Sora yelled back. “You’re started to sound like those goddamn villagers!”
“Maybe they’re right!” he screamed, tears running down his cheeks.
There was a lengthy silence. They stared at each other for a long moment before breaking eye contact. Sora gripped the hair at her temples and balanced her elbows on the railing. Naruto leaned against one of the posts, eyes squeezed tightly shut and arms crossed over his chest. It was many long minutes before either of them spoke.
“Your mother saved my life twice,” Sora said quietly.
Naruto looked up at her, trying to figure out how this connected to the conversation. “I know about one; she rescued you from your father when you were seven.”
“Well,” she said, dropping her arms and raising her head, “that’s actually not quite right.”
“What do you mean?”
She leaned her head against a post and looked out at the sky. “My father is one of the biggest assholes to ever walk the earth. He wanted the power of my bloodline limit, so he snuck in, murdered my clan, and put seals on all the children who lived. Unfortunately for him, sealing is a rough process, and I was apparently the only one who survived it. So he took me in, lied to me, trained me, raised me as some sort of ward, and told me that one day we would kill the people who had killed my family. He was always very vague about who it was, probably because he couldn’t decide who he wanted to have me hate. He had a whole little gang of us, all talented bloodline-gifted children without any parents. But he always made it clear that I was the favorite; I had the most powerful bloodline limit.”
She fell silent again, as if trying to decide what she wanted to say next. Flickers of memory passed over her face, but she continued to just stare. Finally, Naruto prompted her to continue. “What happened?”
She didn’t move, just started talking again, her voice sounding detached and far away. “I accidentally found out what he intended when I was seven. I found out that he had killed my clan. I realized that I was nothing to him except the Taifuugan.” She sighed. “Up until that point he had been my entire world. Everything I did, I did for my father’s love. So when I found out that he didn’t care about me and that I had been essentially living a lie, my world came crashing down around me. And I lost it. The last thing I remember thinking was that I was going to find him and kill him. I blacked out and woke up here with Nanashi.”
“She had rescued you.”
“She had picked me up out of the rubble, broken my father’s seal, and nursed me back to health. But she didn’t face down anyone, or steal me away. I had already killed them all; everyone in my father’s compound. There had been other students, teachers, probably fifty people in all; my friends, many of whom had no more of an idea of what they were doing than I did. When I found out what I had done, I hated myself more than anything in the world. I tried to kill myself. That’s the second time Nanashi saved my life.”
“You tried to kill yourself?” he whispered.
She shrugged. “The world seemed so strange and disjointed, like I was looking through a fractured lens. It was a bizarre strange place I can’t describe, and the only thing getting through was the guilt. I couldn’t take it. I had the knife in my hand, ready to go through with the act when your mother stopped me.”
“She told me that taking my life wasn’t going to bring them back. She told me that everyone has things that haunt them. Everyone has things that they did or things that happened to them that they would do anything to change. They can either break you or they can make you stronger. But sometimes you go damn close to breaking before you become stronger. In the end it is those who do that make the greatest difference in the world.”
There was a long silence between them.
Sora snorted. “Don’t fucking pity me, Naruto. Poor girl with a tragic past; life was so hard on her that now she created this whole persona to fight evil; kicks ass to fight the pain inside. It would be great if everything were that simple. But the fact of the matter is that everyone, no matter how cushy their life seems, is fighting something from their past.”
She reached over and pushed a finger into his stomach. “You’ve got a fox demon inside you kid, and that’s worse than any other curse I can think of. And I will be the first to admit to you that it’s as dangerous as hell. But, as much as I love you, and as much as I wish I could just get you to stay here with me, if you stay up here and hide away you’re just hurting yourself.”
Naruto glared at her and stepped away. “So you’re saying that I should just look at it as a growing experience! Something that makes me stronger! Like it happened to another person in another lifetime, but it made me grow up and now I’m a better person so that makes it okay!”
She slammed her hand against his chest, catching him my surprise and pinning him to wall of the house. “Tragedy never makes anyone into a perfect person,” she hissed. “It doesn’t suddenly make moral decisions black and white, or prevent you from doing things you wish you didn’t. You don’t go through this and come out the other side with nothing to show but positive changes. I wish I could say that another girl in another life did what I did. But it was me. I will never forget and I will never forgive myself!”
She sighed and dropped her head, burgundy hair covering her face, before letting him go and stepping back. She stood for a minute with her head bent, pinching the bridge of her nose before she swept her hair out of her face and looked him in the eye. “And in the end, I’ve spent my life ridding the world of people like my father, who’ve lot all sense of right and wrong; those who hunger for power above all else, going to lengths others wouldn’t dream of. Some were so powerful that they themselves were a danger. Others were more like my father, manipulative bastards who tried to twist others into things that were barely human. I haven’t always used methods I’m proud of; there are a lot of things I would change, and sometimes I wonder if I’m any better than the criminals I’ve chased. It defined my life, and in the end I suppose that’s all I can do as atonement.”
They stared at each other for a long time, tears starting to form in the bottom of Sora’s eyes. Finally she threw her arms in the air in a helpless gesture and sniffed loudly. She smiled slightly and shook her head. “I don’t know, Naruto. Everyone has to find their own way of dealing with themselves. In my mind, you haven’t even done anything wrong, but obviously in your mind you have. In the end, we all have to work these things out for ourselves.” She turned and started to go.
“Nee-chan?” Naruto called after her.
She turned and looked back at him.
“Are you ever afraid you’re going to do it again?”
She gave him a seemingly sad half-smile. “Every day.”
“How do you…” his voice trailed off, unable to form the question.
“I know my limits. We think a lot of what happened had to do with my bloodline limit and my father’s seal working together. There’s a second level to the Taifuugan that I never use. I worked hard to figure out how far I can go without anything happening. Yasu and I spent years slowly working out how much I can use the Taifuugan without losing control. I’ve never gone beyond that.”
“And that’s enough to make you feel like you’ve got it under control?”
“I haven’t shown a sign of doing anything even remotely like what I did then in twenty years. Nothing will ever make me feel like I have enough control. But I keep going, no matter what. That’s what Nanashi wanted me to do.” She stepped through the doorway and closed the door shut behind her.
He must have stood there for hours just staring out at the landscape, but he wasn’t aware of the passage of time. When the sun started to rise over the tops of the mountains, he hadn’t moved yet.
He heard the sliding door open and turned to see Hinata coming out onto the veranda. Her hair was down, hanging straight down to her lower back. It was strange seeing her like that; she almost always had it up in a bun or pulled into a low tail. Her eyes were still red and puffy from crying.
“How are you?” he asked, turning back towards the sunrise.
She stood there staring at him, wondering if he understood just how ridiculous the question was.
“Confused,” she finally said. “I…I don’t understand what’s going on. I don’t understand what it is you want,” she whispered, her voice trembling.
He wanted to take it all back; to reverse the wheels of time and make everything different. He wanted to not be the cause of her pain. “I want to do what’s best for you and what’s best for the village. I want you to be happy. I want to do what you want, but…” He stopped, hands clenching into fists.
“But what?” she asked hesitantly.
“Never again,” Naruto forced out between his teeth.
“Never again what?” Hinata asked, her voice filled with sorrow.
“Never again will anyone die protecting me!” he yelled, whipping around to face her. “I’m going to get stronger; stronger than Sasuke, stronger than my father, and stronger than the goddamn Akatsuki! I don’t care what I have to do! I’m going to become so strong that nothing is ever going to happen to Konoha, or Yasu and Miki, or Sora!” He reached up and grabbed her face in his hands. “Or you. I am never going to let anything ever happen to you,” he finished in a fierce whisper, his face inches from hers.
Her eyes started to fill with tears as she placed her hand over his on her cheek.
“Do you remember why Raoul said those who tried to copy the Kaze partner training failed?”
Of course he remembered. Everything about that day was seared into his memory. “Being a partnered pair does not make you two halves of a whole. Being a partnered pair means realizing that one plus one doesn’t always add up to two. Sometimes it adds up to more,” he quoted Raoul back to her.
She smiled and reached up to brush some wild yellow hair away from his face before turning out of his arms and walking over to the railing. “Three years ago you would have been able to easily convince me that we were two halves of one whole. We were just such opposites. You were loud and I was quiet. You were confident and I wasn’t. You had no family and I had too much. All of my faults seemed to be your biggest strengths.”
She sighed slightly and dropped her head. “I never told you about the first time I saw you. It was on the first day of academy training when we were six. My mother had just died and I was so frightened. I stood outside the schoolhouse staring at my feet while my father lectured me on the duties of a Hyuuga. And then out of the corner of my eye I saw you marching into the schoolhouse, head held high and a huge grin on your face, happy to be starting school. I wanted to be you so badly. And as we got older, I continued to admire you more. I had always wanted to be your friend, but somewhere in there I started to want to be more than that.”
Slowly, Hinata lifted her eyes to his, willing him to understand how important this was. “But even then, back when I felt like I was the weakest person on earth, I never dreamed of a world where you would come and rescue me, protect me, and keep me safe. You could have convinced me that it was what was supposed to happen, that you would step in and protect me from my own faults, but I’ve never dreamed it that way.”
“What did you dream?” he asked quietly.
She smiled. “I dreamed of being able to stand beside you. Of being a girl who had overcome all of her faults and could hold her head up high. And now, I feel closer to becoming that girl than I thought possible.” She turned to look at him, warmth overflowing in her eyes. “It’s because of you that I feel so close, but not because you complete me, but because you helped me complete myself.”
“Hina-chan-” he said, eyes starting to water. She put her fingertips to his lips to silence him.
“And things happen to the girl who I want to be. She is always becoming stronger so that she can protect those who are precious to her. So if you want to become stronger to protect those who you love, I understand and support you completely. And if you want to protect me, I understand because I want to protect you too. But don’t ask me to hide myself away. We’re not two halves of a whole; we’ve made ourselves into more. And somehow we’ve also managed to make ourselves into very similar people in some ways.”
“And so that’s what I want,” she concluded, slipping one hand up to cradle his cheek. “That is what I think is best for us, and best for Konoha. I want you to come back with me to Konoha as my partner. I don’t want you to stay here in an attempt to protect me. And I think that once the other villagers start thinking past their prejudice, they’ll realize they wouldn’t want you to stay here either. Konoha is a better place with you in it.”
He was started to bawl, large healing tears that wiped out some of his guilt. Sora was right in that the guilt would never go away completely. But the worst edge of it was fading away with his tears. He grabbed her and crushed her to him, his arms tight across her back. He picked her up slightly so he could bury his face in her hair at her neck.
“Shhhh…” she murmured, running her hand through his spiky blond locks and lightly massaging his scalp with her good arm. Slowly, they sunk to the floor together. After a minute, Hinata kissed his temple and started to pull him towards the wall of the house. Leaning up against it, she pulled him into her lap, cradling his shoulders. He leaned his head against her chest, clinging to her arm.
She leaned down and kissed his hair. “It’s all right, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be all right.”
He pushed her kimono sleeve up to reveal one of the two jagged semi-circles of lines that had formed when some of the Kyuubi’s chakra had leaked into her system while trying to summon the falcon.
“I hurt you,” he whispered, his voiced still sounding choked.
“The Kyuubi did it, not you,” she said firmly.
“They’re already starting to scar!” he winced painfully.
“I don’t care.”
“But your shoulder-“
“Again, it was the Kyuubi, not you. Itachi killed Nori. You cannot blame yourself for this.”
He sniffed and buried his face in her shoulder. “Do you really think that the village would be better with me in it?”
She sniffed back tears as well and ran her hand through his hair. “Of course I do.”
“I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you came with me. I still don’t know why Nee-chan decided you needed to come too, but I don’t know what I would have done without you, Hina-chan.”
She smiled. “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t come. I needed to come; I needed to get away from the village.” She smiled. “I needed to be with you. So that we could both figure out what we meant to each other.”
He grinned and sat up to face her, breaking their embrace but staying close. “Of course, since I’m Uzumaki Naruto, even if we had stayed in Konoha, I would have figured it out eventually.”
She leaned back, and smiled at him. “Really?”
“Sure I would have! I would have realized who the most perfect girl in Konoha was and beaten down your father’s door to get to you!”
“Even with Sakura there?”
He shook his head. “Sakura-chan is nice and all but she just isn’t you. She doesn’t listen like you do, and she doesn’t try like you do. Besides, the only thing she cares about is Sasuke.” He made a face and she laughed.
“I’m glad you’re back,” she said solemnly.
He ginned. “It’s good to be back.”
He tugged at her hands to move her into his lap. “So we’re still on for going back to Konoha, winning everyone’s respect, changing your clan, getting me as Hokage, defeating Akatsuki, and keeping Konoha safe the whole time?”
She smiled as she sniffed, wiping the tears out of her eyes with one hand, and nodding.
He grinned down at her. “It will be easy, don’t you think? Not a problem for two amazing ninjas like us. ”
She sniffed again and put her hands back on his shoulders. “Piece of cake,” she whispered.
He grinned. “Exactly.”
She smiled slightly and closed her eyes as he bent his head to kiss her, but they shot back open again as his lips touched hers. There was something different going on, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. He tightened his arms around her, pulling her in closer to him and her eyes slowly slid closed again. Her fingers tightened on the top of his shoulder as they continued to kiss.
After a long few minutes they broke away, breathing hard, staying close together, just moving their faces apart so they could look at each other.
And they realized something had changed. Maybe it was being back here, back where it all began, but suddenly the contrasts in time became blatantly clear. His arms around her still held the same comfort and thrill, but there was another edge to it; something deeper that wove around her heart, squeezing it tight.
They’d said all of it before, in one way or another. They had known their futures were bonded together since the day they accepted the partner training. They had known they were more than that for over a year. But what that had been they had been a little unsure of. They were family, that much had been certain; Naruto had known what he wanted with Hinata when he saw Nori and Yasu together. Sora had teased them that it was like they were playing house and acting like an old married couple. She would remind him to wear his coat and he would laugh and kiss her softly.
Somehow, things had changed. The first time he kissed her, back in the days when he always asked her permission first, it had just been a shy, sweet touching of lips. Now when their lips made contact it was like something was attached to their hearts, pulling on them. Something that made them want to cling together and never let go.
They stared into each other’s eyes as the weight of all they were carrying together flashed over them: her family, his demon, their village, their hopes and dreams. It was like the world was pressing down on them, but together they pulled at each other’s hearts and kept each other from collapsing. And somehow they both instinctively knew what was going on.
They were growing up.
He kissed her again.
The door to the porch slid open and Sora slipped through. “You two making out out here?” she asked, moving to lean against the porch rail, spoon stuck in a carton of Death By Chocolate ice cream.
Naruto snorted from where he was perched on the railing and pulled Hinata closer into his chest as her cheeks colored. “No, we were just talking.”
Sora snorted herself. “Yeah, right. You two better get it in now before you head down tomorrow. Because I don’t think that Hinata’s father is going to be as lenient with you two as I am.”
“Lenient?” Naruto scoffed. “What the hell are you talking about? You put a huge picture of the two of us kissing up in the kitchen asking us to ‘please control ourselves’.”
Sora swallowed another bite of ice cream. “Hey, I said to control yourselves in public. I don’t mind if you two suck face as long as I don’t have to watch it.”
Hinata let out a small ‘meep’ of embarrassment and buried her face deeper into Naruto’s shoulder.
“Hey, cut it out, you’re embarrassing Hina-chan!” Naruto yelled, causing Hinata to wince. “Sorry,” he added with a rueful smile.
“You two ready to go back?” Sora asked, her voice taking on a more serious tone.
Naruto sighed and looked back out at the mountains. “As ready as we’re going to be.”
The last five months had proved to be some of the hardest Naruto and Hinata had ever been through. They had gone to Sora and told her they wanted to train harder than ever. They were good, but they needed to get far better if they were going to make Konoha into the place that they wanted it to be and defeat the Akatsuki. Sora had snorted, smiled, and shaken her head.
“Took the two of you long enough; I was expecting this to happen weeks ago,” she said. “Come on, let’s go talk to Yasu.”
“Why?” Hinata had asked as they left the kitchen to go up to Yasu’s room, where she had sequestered herself for the past month.
“Because first of all, she needs something to distract her, and helping me train you two is a good idea. Second, she can’t train you just staying in that room and she needs to get out of it. Third, because she’s still the best jutsu creator I’ve ever known and she needs to start getting back into the flow of things in terms of research.”
“Why does she need to get back into the flow of things in terms of research?” Naruto asked.
“Because eventually she’s going to start channeling her grief towards killing the man who did this. She can’t go out and hunt them down with Miki, but she can give us the tools to do so.”
And when they had found Yasu, she was sitting at the desk in her room, staring at the picture of her, Nori and Miki in front of their house. Miki was at her feet, quietly looking at a book. They both had become entirely too withdrawn since Nori’s death, barely even interacting with the rest of the world.
“You,” Sora said, pointing to Yasu, “are going to the library with Hinata where the two of you are going to start looking to see if we have anything on the Sharingan. And you missy,” she said, picking up Miki off the floor and pushing her into Naruto’s arms, “are going with Naruto, where he is going to teach you the first of the Shina-To-Be sets.”
“Sora,” Yasu said with a warning note in her voice.
“No, Yasu,” Sora replied, grabbing her arm and hauling her to her feet. “It’s been a month. You need to at least do something, and if we’re going to prevent these men from doing this to anybody else, you’re going to have to get your ass in gear.”
“Doing this to someone else?” Yasu asked, slightly startled, as if the idea that they wouldn’t stop at just her husband was surprising.
Sora opened her mouth to speak, but Naruto beat her to it. “If we don’t stop them, how many more people will die? We don’t even know what their plans are, Yasu. Unless we have your brain working on it, how the hell are we going to figure it out?”
Yasu took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Right.”
And so they did. For their final five months on the mountain, the four of them worked harder than they ever had before. They barely ate or slept, training all day and working on creating jutsus with Yasu late into the night. The training itself had taken on a different tone, a more focused, pressured feel. It took Naruto and Hinata a few weeks to realize that it was partially due to the fact that Sora had started training herself as well as them. They were still young and had a lot to learn from her, but something had changed. They were no longer her students as much as they were her training partners.
Yasu refused to go down off of the mountain. She explained to them that she was never going to leave the house and Nori’s ashes, buried deep into the side of the mountain. She intended to stay by his side for the rest of her life. Sora tried to explain to her that it was not what Nori would have wanted nor what was best for Miki, but Yasu wouldn’t listen.
And so when the time came to pack their bags and return to Konoha, it was only Sora who walked down the stone passage with them. Wrapped in some of the best cloaking jutsus they could find, the three of them made their way back towards the village, keeping off the roads and camping out in the woods.
Every night, wrapped in the same blanket, Naruto held Hinata tightly. Once they got back, she would return to the Hyuuga household, and somehow he didn’t think her father would let him spend the night.
Finally, they reached the part of the forest surrounding the village. It was night and the winter wind nipped at their cheeks as they stopped just off the road to say goodbye. The three of them stood there staring at each other, until finally Sora spoke.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “You’re going to fail your mission because of me. I’d go back with you, at least for a little while, but Yasu…”
“Eh, it’s okay,” Naruto said. He hated the idea of failing a mission, and he hated the idea of having his sister walk away even more. But he couldn’t bare the idea of Yasu and Miki up on that mountain all by themselves. “You’ll come to visit soon, right?” he asked hopefully.
She gave him a half smile. “Just give me a while to get Yasu back on her feet and I’ll come for a nice long visit, I promise.”
“You better, or I’ll come up that mountain and kick your ass!” Naruto exclaimed with a grin.
Sora snorted. “Like you could.”
Naruto’s grin widened. “Just wait!”
Smiling, Sora wrapped her arms around him to give him a hug. Suddenly she burst into tears. Naruto hugged her tighter, looking over her shoulder at Hinata. The girl just smiled, a stray tear running down her own cheek.
“Hey, hey, what’s going on with all this crying?” he asked jokingly.
Sora sniffed and laughed a little at his tone. “I’m sorry, it’s just…you’re taller than me.”
“Huh?” he responded, pulling away slightly to look at her.
“You’ve grown a hell of a lot in the last three years, kid.” She sniffed and reached up to ruffle his hair. “Told’ya you’d reach six feet.”
He grinned at her and pulled her back for another quick hug. She squeezed him back and then turned to face Hinata. They smiled at each other and then embraced.
“You’re going to stand up for yourself with your father, right?” Sora asked.
Hinata pressed her lips together and nodded. They were both crying, while Naruto looked on awkwardly. Sora sniffed and jerked her head towards Naruto. "You're going to keep him from doing anything too stupid, right?"
With a half smile, Hinata nodded again.
Sora grinned. "You're pretty kick ass now; don't forget it and let people walk all over you."
Naruto snorted behind them. "Like I'm going to let that happen." They all chuckled a little, trying to shake off their sadness.
Finally Sora cleared her throat and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “All right; well, we can’t stand here forever folks. You two scat off to your village and fix it already.”
Naruto held out his hand and Hinata slipped hers into his. He squeezed it once before they both turned to say goodbye one last time.
Sora smiled at them, eyes glistening with tears. “You know you’re always welcome up at the house. You’re both family, you know, so it’s basically yours anyway. If this place becomes too unbearable, just come on up. And the two of you better keep in touch; that’s what the falcon’s are for.”
“Don’t worry,” Hinata said. “I’ll write you about everything.”
“Good,” she nodded and chewed on her bottom lip for a second. Then she took a deep breath and said, “And if you need me for something, just let me know, and I’ll come down.”
“Eh, we’ll be fine,” Naruto said.
“But if your not-” Sora started before Naruto interrupted her.
“We’ll let you know,” he said.
She smiled and choked back another round of tears. “All right, that’s it. This time you two really need to get going. I have to get back up to the mountain. I’ll send one of the falcons with the rest of your things when I get there.”
“Give our love to Yasu and Miki,” Hinata said, a few stray tears sliding down her face.
Sora smiled. “I will. Now get going.”
They nodded and turned to walk back towards the gates of Leaf. “Bye Nee-chan! See you soon!” Naruto called back over his shoulder.
“Don’t get into too much trouble!” Sora yelled back.
She watched them walk down the road that would lead them back to the gates of Konoha. Suddenly her mind flashed back to the day they left, Naruto pulling Hinata along by her arm, anxious to get going.
“I hope you’re happy with me, Nanashi, wherever you are,” she whispered into the dark. Her eyes filled with tears once again. “Be safe,” she wished to the two barely visible forms in front of her.
She turned and headed back towards the mountain.
Naruto and Hinata walked hand and hand back towards Konoha.