"Hinata-san? It's your father."
Hyuuga Hinata clamped down on her sudden desire to hide under her desk. "Thank you, Noriko-san," she said to her assistant, and picked up her telephone. "I have it."
She pressed the button for line one and motioned Noriko-san to close her office door. "Hello, Father," she said as the latch clicked quietly shut. "Is the family well?" The red light in the lower corner blinked off as Noriko hung up her own line.
As always, her father made a brusque noise -- either dismissing her question altogether or compressing 'we are Hyuuga; we are always well, except for the shame your failings bring onto our name' into a single syllable. Hinata was never quite sure which interpretation she preferred.
"Uzumaki's bilateral free trade agreement will come before the assembly tomorrow afternoon," her father said. "It is, of course, out of the question for Fire Country to show any favor or weakness toward Thunder Country, particularly when their intelligence service still directs more than half the actions of the Sky Country insurgency."
"I mourn Mother and Hizashi-ojisan too, Father, but--" Hinata began.
"You will vote against the measure," her father said. "I know Uzumaki was a childhood friend of yours and I understand that you share acquaintances, but sentiment has no place in governance. You cannot destroy our country for a childish infatuation. In fact, this would be an excellent chance for you to show that you were not elected merely as a clan figurehead. You will make a speech before the measure is brought to a vote."
"I do not speak well in public, Father, but--" Hinata said.
"I will have your sister write something appropriate," her father said. "Expect an email tonight or tomorrow morning. Let the Goddess of Pure White Skies guide your path to bring us honor."
"Yes, Father, but--" Hinata tried one last time.
Her father hung up.
Hinata set the telephone carefully back into its cradle, laid her head down on her desk in the circle of her arms, and refused to scream.
She couldn't hide all day -- as an Assemblywoman, she had responsibilities to her staff, to her colleagues, to her district, to her country -- but Hinata fully intended to stay locked in her office as long as she could under pretext of reviewing letters from her constituents. Unfortunately, Noriko-san had developed a regrettable habit of trying to mother her and Haruno Sakura had never met a lock she couldn't open.
"Hinata, guess what! It's time for an emergency lunch meeting of the Leaf Shadow summer camp women's survivor club!" Sakura announced as she slipped a tiny glint of metal into her trouser pocket. Hinata wondered if it was an actual lock pick, or if her friend simply had master keys to every room in the capitol complex. She wouldn't bet against either option.
"I would love to come, but I have work," Hinata tried, waving a hand over her desk in demonstration.
"No excuses!" Sakura proclaimed, striding around Hinata's overloaded desk and pulling back her chair as if it and Hinata herself weighed nothing. "We are going to eat disgustingly overpriced sushi, reminisce about the stupid things we did as kids, and complain about everything under the sun until we're all grateful we don't have each other's jobs. Trust me, it will help."
"Yes, Sakura-chan, but--" said Hinata.
There was an awkward moment of silence when Sakura didn't interrupt her.
Hinata felt her face burn. She looked down and pressed the tips of her fingers together, that old nervous gesture she'd never quite managed to overcome.
"Your PA told me your father called," Sakura said, more gently. "I won't make you talk about it if you don't want to, but I know sitting here and stewing in your own thoughts can't possibly do you any good. At least come have something to eat and let us entertain you for a while."
"I-- yes," Hinata said. "Thank you."
"What are friends for?" Sakura said. She took hold of Hinata's left hand and tugged her toward the doorway of her office. "Now, onward! The great sushi quest begins!"
Hinata grabbed her purse from the hook by the door and let herself be distracted.
The restaurant barely deserved the name -- it was basically a kitchen in a basement, with four tables indoors and another four crowding the sidewalk to the point where pedestrians nearly had to walk in the street itself. A little voice in the back of Hinata's mind whispered that this was unsuitable for a daughter of the Hyuuga, that it wasn't safe, that it probably wasn't sanitary, that she should turn around and leave.
She set her teeth and waved back to Yamanaka Ino, who had borrowed a chair from a group of teenagers at a four-person table and climbed onto it to be seen over the midday crowds that thronged downtown Konoha.
"Karin and I count as our own security, and Neji wrangled an official protection detail for Tenten as soon as she told him about the baby," Sakura murmured into Hinata's ear. "Relax. Nobody will touch you in the middle of Konoha."
"I am not worried," Hinata said.
Sakura smiled, placing one hand on the small of Hinata's back and steering her through the press of the moving crowd. "Say that again without white knuckles and I might believe you. Hi, Ino!" she added as they broke through into the little respite of the restaurant's makeshift patio area. "Where are Tenten and Karin?"
"In the bathroom and flirting with the chef, respectively," Ino said, jumping lightly down from her perch on the white plastic chair. "Hinata! Long time no see! Well, in person. I see you all the time on K-PAN, casting your votes like a good little Assemblywoman, but besides that I don't think I've seen you since Naruto threw that college graduation bash." She leaned forward and hugged Hinata enthusiastically, trapping Hinata's arms at her sides so she was unable to return the gesture.
"Hello, Ino-chan," Hinata said as the teens reclaimed their chair. "You look well today."
Ino let go and tossed her head, flicking her long blonde ponytail through the air. "As if there'd ever be a day when I wouldn't look great. But thanks. You look cute yourself. A bit tired, though. Have you been getting enough sleep?" She swept a measuring gaze up and down Hinata's body as if assessing her for a makeover.
"Behave," Sakura said, swatting Ino on the shoulder. "Hinata has her own PR hacks and you have too many clients already. Stop looking at her like fresh meat."
Ino pouted melodramatically. "I can't help it, I love what I do!" But she turned and gestured toward the stairs leading down into the dark basement interior of the restaurant. "Shall we go order? I reserved the whole interior so we won't have to be super-ultra-careful what we say, just in case."
"I am not going to spill state secrets to you," Sakura said in a disapproving tone, but her eyes were laughing.
"We'll see if you change your tune after a few cups of sake," Ino said with a toothy smile.
Hinata bit her lip to hide her amusement as she followed her old friends out of the midday sun.
Half an hour later, the five women were clustered around a too-small table, leaning in to hear each other over the bustle of the kitchen and the steady parade of delivery drivers -- apparently the restaurant made most of its profit on takeout orders, not sit-down dining. Street noise trickled steadily down as well, a mixture of engines, car horns, and the endless rise and fall of layered human voices.
"--see in him?" Sakura was asking. "I mean, okay, the man is sex on legs -- I am woman enough to admit it! -- but how can you stand to talk to him for more than five minutes, let alone work with him?"
"Oral sex," Ino said, straight faced.
"Ino-chan!" Hinata protested, her face burning. Karin-san and Sakura whooped with laughter, and even Tenten giggled.
"I'm not kidding about that!" Ino insisted. "But more seriously, Sai's brilliant. Okay, he sucks at talking to people, but he's a freaking genius with numbers and polling and social systems analysis. He knows what topics are going to hit home with what people. Then it's my job to put that in the right words, and make sure our client projects the right image to match those words."
"And what if the 'right' topics and the words don't match your client's beliefs?" Tenten asked, suddenly serious. "What then?"
Ino shrugged. "Not our problem. It's up to the media and the voters to keep the government honest, don't you think? If they can't see through a pretty picture, that's their own fault."
"Mercenary," Sakura said, a fond tone undermining the condemnation.
"Did I ever claim I wasn't?" Ino asked. "Somebody's going to make a lot of money painting pretty faces on garbage. It might as well be-- oooh, look, inarizushi!" She stabbed her chopsticks toward the new assortment one of the harried chefs brought to replace their first sample platter.
Tenten made a face and carefully moved all the sauces away from herself. "Another bowl of plain miso, please?" she asked as the chef turned to leave. He nodded and took her empty bowl. "I hate being pregnant," she said. "I can't eat anything lately, just bland, bland, bland. I'm starting to have fantasies about swimming in soy sauce once the baby is born."
"Bleh," said Karin-san. "Can you imagine the smell? I bet you could shower for days and not get it out of your hair."
"Mmmm, yes," Tenten said with a longing sigh.
"And that right there is why I am never getting married or having kids," Ino said, wrinkling her nose. "No offense, Tenten, but that's just disgusting. Come on, Sakura, agree with me."
Sakura shook her head. "I don't know, kids might be nice. And we're all closing in on thirty-five now. It's something I think about sometimes."
"Kids, but not marriage?" Karin-san asked, adjusting her glasses so they caught the light at a dramatic angle. "Haruno! How forward of you." She leaned over the table and said in a stage whisper, "Which one would you pick for the father: my cousin or my commander?"
Sakura was very still, her hands clenched tight on the edge of the table to restrain herself.
Hinata took the chance to stand abruptly. "I'm sorry, please excuse me, I have to take a moment in the facilities," she said, and fled.
The bathroom was tiny, just a single room with a toilet, a sink, and a roll of paper towels and a bar of soap on a board nailed to the wall. The mirror behind the sink was dim and spotted, the metal flawed behind the glass where no cleaning could reach it. Hinata looked at herself for a second -- soft round face, unflattering wedge bangs, creepy gray-violet eyes, boring black suit that made her look neither like a woman or a man, just a washed-out ghost trying too hard to please everyone and always failing. Then she looked away.
She didn't resent Sakura for her relationship with Naruto, whatever the truth of it was. Those two and Uchiha Sasuke had been locked together since they were eight years old, no matter how long it had taken them all to admit it. And however much Hinata had loved Naruto from afar as a teen, she had always respected him more. He never let anyone push him around, never let anyone tell him what to think or who to be. He was kind about it, too, in his brash way. He'd take the time to say hello to her and be her partner in various activities.
(He really only partnered her when Sakura and Sasuke were angry with him, but even so. Naruto was never cruel the way some other campers were. He'd smile and give her a hug and tell her she was cool. Nobody else ever said anything like that to Hinata. Not before-- before, and especially not after.)
But it hurt, seeing people she'd grown up with so confident in themselves. Ino was one of the most sough-after PR consultants in Konoha, Karin-san was a colonel in the army and Sasuke's closest advisor on the unified military command council, Tenten had argued cases before the supreme court, and Sakura practically ran the domestic aspects of the executive branch as Naruto's chief of staff while he focused on international diplomacy. And where was Hinata? A junior Assemblywoman, shoved into office last year at her father's orders without any practical experience or freedom to act on her own choices. Father dictated her votes on all important issues.
Like he was doing now, again, with Naruto's trade agreement.
"I have as much reason to hate Thunder Country as you do, Father," Hinata whispered, meeting her own gaze in the dirty mirror. "I have more reason. I watched while the insurgents killed Mother, right in front of me and Hanabi. I heard Hizashi-ojisan scream before they closed the door. I was there. You weren't."
The cold helplessness of those three months in the mountains that formed the border between Sky Country and Thunder Country seeped back into her bones despite all the years between twelve and thirty-three. The darkness of the cinderblock cellar where she and Hanabi huddled in Mother's arms. The stink of gunpowder and blood that lingered around their guards. The heartless calculation in the eyes of the Thunder Country intelligence officers who visited now and then.
Even now she didn't know if they'd been after ransom, or political influence, or even the oracular sight that touched certain members of her clan from generation to generation -- a gift from the Goddess of Pure White Skies in return for faithful service. They'd certainly talked about all three. "Rich daddy loves his money more than you, girlie," they said. "What do you think your bastard father will do to get his little princess back? Will he tear your country apart? Do you think you're worth it?" they said. "Can't you see a way out, white eyes? Can't you prophesy how this is going to end?" they said.
Hinata still heard their voices in her dreams.
Mother always singled the intelligence officers out, no matter how they tried to disguise their accents or dirty their clothes. She insisted that whatever threats or bribes they offered, neither Fire Country nor the Hyuuga would ever bargain with terrorists.
Except it turned out the Hyuuga would. Father would. Father did.
Cousin Neji had never forgiven him.
Some days Hinata thought she never had either.
"I let it go," she whispered to her reflection, her eyes blurring into a replica of her father's frozen gaze -- different from the intelligence officers only because his emptiness was masked by anger instead of false regret. "I was there and I let it go. Why can't you? Why can't you let me go?"
And what would you do if I did? she imagined him saying. Do you think you could keep your seat in the Assembly if I told our district to vote for one of your cousins? Do you imagine that you, so useless and scared you can hardly speak to friends, could mount a campaign? Do you think you have the strength to stand on your own? Don't be foolish, Hinata. Be a good girl and do as I tell you. I see further than you, and I have the best interests of our family and our country at heart.
"But you don't," Hinata said to her father's imagined face. "You don't. You just want us locked up where nothing can touch us -- not even to make us happy. Not even to make peace. You froze everything when Mother died and you're too scared of losing anything else to try making anything better."
In her head, Father had nothing to say. Not because she thought he would agree, but because she had no idea what he would say to those words. He had never let her speak enough to get anywhere near such dangerous waters. She had never pushed back and made him listen.
Hinata closed her eyes and wondered why it had taken her nearly two decades to realize that Father had taken her hostage as surely as the terrorists had done. He had driven Cousin Neji away. He had turned Hanabi's heart as cold and empty as his own. And yet, even now, she still hoped he might unlock the door of her prison, smile as he led her into the sun, and love her again, the way he had when Mother was still alive.
Somebody knocked on the bathroom door.
"Are you all right, Hinata-chan?" Sakura asked, barely loud enough for her voice to carry through the flimsy wooden door. "If it's food poisoning, I'm sure Tenten will sue this place into bankruptcy for you."
"No, no, I'm fine," Hinata said. "I just-- I needed a minute. Thank you for your concern." She turned on the water and dabbed at her face with a dampened paper towel, letting the cold water break the grip of her spiraling thoughts.
"We're about finished, anyway," Sakura said. "Do you want me to walk you back to your office?"
"It's the opposite direction of the Cliff House," Hinata said. She dried her hands and unlocked the door. "I will be fine. As you said, no one will touch me in the heart of Fire Country." She had said the same thing to Father for years. Somehow, after two decades of bodyguards and recurring stretches when she spent weeks without leaving the clan compound in Byakugan province, it was hard to believe her own words -- but she was Hyuuga. She would not give in to fear.
Sakura rolled her eyes. "I know, I know, but humor me? If I'm obviously talking to you, I'm less likely to get ambushed by passing idiots. Besides, we're going the same way. I have to remind a bunch of Assemblymen that they owe Naruto a truckload of favors and they'd damn well better pay up in tomorrow's vote."
Something in Hinata's face must have cracked.
"Oh," Sakura said. Her hand crept forward to touch Hinata's shoulder, feather-light. "That's what your father called about, isn't it?"
Hinata turned away.
Sakura's hand pressed down more firmly, a comforting weight. "Come on, let's get out of here."
She guided Hinata back to their table and picked up her wallet and Hinata's purse. "Hey, sorry to run, but I just got a text from Abe Shinzo's PA that he's actually manned up and agreed to meet with me, so Hinata and I are heading back to the capitol office complex. What do we owe you?"
Karin-san closed her eyes for a second, lips twitching as she did rapid arithmetic. "Oh, twenty each and we'll call it even. Yamanaka's rich, she can cover the difference."
"No problem," Sakura said. She tossed down the bills and nudged Hinata toward the stairs and the street, using Ino's strident protests over her relative financial status to cover their escape.
Sakura kept the conversation light all the way back to Hinata's office. She complained about Naruto's inability to follow a schedule, the way her left knee had started acting up more and more since she turned thirty, Sasuke's tendency to take "keep the army out of politics" as a way of shutting them out on a personal level when he was feeling grumpy, the unfairly high prices of quality chocolate, the difficulty of tamping down on leaks now that everybody and their dog had a smartphone and a blog, the way the media always had to mention her hair color even in articles whose point was to highlight her management style or her past in ANBU, and so on and so forth. Hinata made 'yes, I am listening, please continue' noises in the appropriate pauses and let Sakura link their arms so they presented a united front as they walked.
When they reached the office complex, Hinata expected Sakura to turn down the other corridor toward Assemblyman Abe's suite. Instead, Sakura continued walking with her.
"I am sorry for taking so much of your time when you have an urgent meeting," Hinata said when they reached the outer door of her modest two-room offices. "Please give Abe-san my regards."
"There is no meeting," Sakura said with a sharp smile. "Or rather, there will be a meeting, but that's only because I'm going to break into that arrogant twit's office and keep him there until he shuts up and listens for once in his life. But here and now, I need to talk with you." She turned her head to look at Noriko-san, who was doing a bad job of pretending not to watch them. "Sato-san, please find somewhere else to be for an hour."
"I answer to Hinata-san, not you," Noriko-san said.
"Oh really," Sakura said, stepping forward. "And yet, it was my understanding that Hyuuga Hiashi is the one who pays your wages and gets a report on Hinata's actions every other week. How does that count as answering to my friend? Please, tell me, I'm very curious!"
"Noriko-san, please, don't worry," Hinata said hastily. "You may leave for the day if you wish. I have no meetings and I can read the details of upcoming motions for myself."
"You're sure, Hinata-san?" Noriko-san asked, looking dubiously from Hinata to Sakura and back again.
"Yes. I will be fine," Hinata said. She opened the inner door and made little shooing gestures, hoping to separate her friend and her assistant. Sakura gave Noriko-san a hard look, but stepped into Hinata's private office.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have said that about your father. Did you know that your PA--"
"Noriko-san told me on her first day at work," Hinata said. "Of course I know that Father wishes to know what I have done. It harms no one if Noriko-san earns extra money for her family by telling him the truth. I have no secrets from him." Or rather, she had no secrets he would consider important. He never considered her thoughts and desires important, so long as her words and body obeyed.
"It's still not right," Sakura said. She pressed her ear against the closed door, apparently listening to be certain Noriko-san had left. Then she locked the door and moved to sit on the edge of Hinata's messy desk. "So. Naruto's trade agreement. Your father wants you to vote no."
Hinata looked down at her clasped hands. "I am only in the Assembly as his proxy, because Iwate-san had his stroke last year before Father had groomed a proper replacement. You know that."
Sakura folded her arms. "You're here because you were legally elected by the voters of Byakugan's fourth district. I don't care that your father runs the province as a feudal fief and intimidated everyone else into staying out of the race -- the law is the law. You're the Assemblywoman. He's not. Therefore your vote is your right and responsibility, not his."
"I owe him--" Hinata began.
This time, Sakura interrupted her. "No. Stop that. I know you love him, Hinata. He's your father; of course you love him. But you don't owe him anything. He's not even the one who saved your life. Your uncle did that, and I don't think he'd want to see you still trapped in a cell, even if the bars aren't physical anymore." She sighed and uncrossed her arms. "You know, Naruto wanted to talk to you before he started the negotiations, but you keep ducking out of any contact, until I had to break in just to take you out for lunch. Just... please, what do you think about Thunder Country?"
"I--" said Hinata, and ran out of words.
The silence pressed down like an interrogator: cold hands, hard eyes, and not a shred of pity.
"I think--" Hinata tried again.
Sakura slipped off the desk and wrapped her in a hug. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have pushed. But I hate seeing you act so small. You're one of the bravest people I know, and nobody should make you feel scared or ashamed."
Hinata raised her arms, tentatively, and looped them around Sakura's waist. The contact was nearly a shock, the feel of skin and body heat and flesh over bones almost alien after the distance Father and Hanabi maintained even within the safety of their home, compounded by her own distaste for touching strangers.
"I want to support Naruto-kun," she whispered into Sakura's shoulder. "I don't trust Thunder Country. I'll never trust them. But if we don't reach out and try to create true peace, nothing will ever change. And I want things to change. I don't want anyone else to face what I faced."
"So vote yes," Sakura said.
"Father would never forgive me," Hinata whispered, her fingers digging into Sakura's back through the fabric of her shirt.
"You don't need his forgiveness. You haven't done anything wrong," Sakura said, her voice low and sure in Hinata's ear. "If he disowns you, you have friends to take you in. If he makes someone else run against you in the next election, who cares? If you want to campaign, we'll help you; if you don't, you can stay with us in Konoha anyway. I won't lie. It's useful that you're in the Assembly, and that you have the Hyuuga name behind you. But that's just annotations on the scroll. The important part is that you're you. You're our friend. And we want you to be happy."
"I-- that is-- thank you," Hinata said.
She managed to loosen her fingers and pull back her arms, tucking away that hungry need for touch. "Thank you," she said again. "I will think on your words. But for now, I do have work, and as you said, you have meetings to attend, whether the other people know to expect you or not. Please don't let me keep you from your job."
Sakura's face twisted in an awkward mix of anger and sorrow for a second, before she covered with a wry smile. "As my lady commands," she said, bending at the waist in a deep, respectful bow. "Remember: do what you want, Hinata. And don't be a stranger. You'll always have friends ready to lend a hand."
She let herself out of Hinata's office and left the door open behind her.
The next afternoon, Hinata sat at her desk in the Assembly chambers with the printout of Hanabi's speech in her hands. She responded when her name was called in the attendance roll and sat attentively while the chairman of the day read the main text of the carefully negotiated bilateral free trade agreement. When he called for arguments in favor and against the proposal, she continued to sit silently.
Naruto was not present, of course. It was a drastic breach of protocol for the prime minister to enter the Assembly except during ceremonial investitures or the seasonal question sessions. Sasuke and Karin-san were obviously also absent, since Sasuke's position on the subordination of the military to the civilian government was well known. But she spotted Ino and Tenten in the gallery, and an hour into the speeches and the inevitable follow-up debates, Sakura slipped into the room through a back door and leaned against the edge of the stage that held the chairman's podium with folded arms, her bland smile and sharp eyes a tacit threat and reminder to any wavering supporters.
Hinata looked down at her sister's speech, repeating Father's hatred and fear and sublimated guilt in smooth and nearly innocuous words.
She turned the papers over and laid them flat on her desk.
In the next gap between speeches, she held up her hand and strained her voice. "Please excuse me, Chairman Izushima-san. I would like to speak on this issue."
"The Assembly recognizes Hyuuga Hinata-san, representative of Byakugan province district four, to speak on the issue of the proposed trade agreement with Thunder Country," the chairman said. "In favor or against?"
Hinata drew a deep breath. I am sorry, Father, she thought, and rose.
She walked forward through the startled rustle of her colleagues shifting in their seats, shuffling papers, and urgently tapping on their PDAs. She reached the microphone next to the podium and turned to face the sea of hungry faces.
Hinata closed her eyes, praying for the words and the voice to make her stand. Goddess of Pure White Skies, lend me your strength. You who are always and only yourself, help me be true to the path I choose to follow. Guide me through the blank wilderness of the future to the most favorable end -- for my country, for my family, for my friends, and for myself.
A faint touch, like cold arms made of wind and snow shaped into human form, pressed against her in a fleeting hug.
Hinata opened her eyes. And she saw the future change.