The two of them met in a place neither of them were supposed to be.
In Hinata’s case, it was hiding from her family in one of Konoha’s run-down, close to abandoned city districts. It wasn’t the first time she had lied about late training sessions with her team, and Kiba and Shino were always willing to take her in for the night.
But not yet. Hinata had needed a moment to herself before she would burden others with her issues.
In any case, that was Hinata’s excuse. She did not, however, have an explanation for why she was currently staring at one of the other rookies when she had picked this alley for the exact reason that she wouldn’t run into other people. Especially not someone she knew.
She wasn’t going to say it out loud, but Hinata was fairly sure there was something extremely suspicious about Sakura sneaking through Konoha’s dark alleys while spattered with blood.
Hinata stared at Sakura. Sakura stared back. “This never happened,” Sakura blurted out and proceeded to disappear in a blur of pink hair and red blood smears.
Hinata was left behind, looking at the empty spot Sakura had occupied in stunned silence.
When it came out that Danzō had disappeared without a trace, Hinata felt an icy sense of foreboding and vowed to never investigate on the matter as long as she was still breathing.
Sakura hunted her down after Team 8’s training session the next day, and Hinata had the unnerving feeling that she had been following them, waiting for an opportunity to catch her alone. Sakura fell into step beside her, but Hinata froze on the spot.
She couldn’t help but look for traces of red on Sakura. There was nothing, her clothes and hair impeccably clean where they had been tainted with blood the night before.
“Sooo,” Sakura said, dragging out the word and failing hilariously at acting casual. “About yesterday–”
“I-I’m not g-going to tell a-anyone.” Hinata cut herself off, mortified at having interrupted Sakura. “I-I’m sorry.” What had gotten into her this morning?
Sakura blinked. “You’re sorry? I mean, it’s fine. Don’t worry. Glad that that’s out of the way.”
Sakura did not offer to elaborate, and Hinata didn’t dare to ask. The silence between them was strained and uncomfortable.
“So um,” Sakura said, “did you have any plans for the rest of the day?”
Hinata was too stunned to answer, and Sakura took it as an invitation to keep going. “Let’s get dango. My treat!”
“B-But…” Hinata trailed off awkwardly. Sakura beamed at her, the sun reflected in her bubblegum pink hair, and Hinata didn’t find it in herself to decline.
A few days later, Hinata came out of training bruised and shaking. Hanabi had managed to master another technique, and the session with her father had been set at a punishingly difficult level.
Hinata contemplated seeking out one of her teammates, but she didn’t want them to see her as a burden. She knew that they would welcome her with open arms – and they had, regularly. But that was the problem. Hinata was tired of being the weak link. She was tired of having to be consoled and coddled.
“Hinata.” Sakura made her way through the streets carrying groceries, and Hinata wasn’t as surprised as she had been before. It seemed like Sakura had a knack for showing up unexpectedly. “You okay?”
“I-I…” Hinata tried to assure her that yes, of course she was alright, but the words got stuck in her throat.
She was aching all over, and some of the bruises were open on display. She should have made an attempt to heal at least the obvious ones, but after her training session she had been exhausted. She’d used up too much chakra in her attempt to please her father.
Sakura’s eyes flickered over her bruises, easily filling her in on what had happened, and Hinata wanted to cringe in shame. Why did she have to be so weak? She was a disgrace of a shinobi, and especially for a clan like the Hyūga. Not that her father ever let her forget.
“Ino and I are having a girls night out,” Sakura said, surprisingly dropping the subject instead of confronting her. “Which means we’ll probably beat each other to a pulp in a spar, then go to a bathhouse and do each other’s nails. You wanna join?”
Hinata was speechless. Of everything she had expected, that hadn’t been on the list. Feeling like she didn’t have anything more to lose, Hinata nodded.
Sakura was awesome. How had she never noticed the other girl before?
Hinata was left starstruck in the wake of their “girls night out”, marvelling at a side of Sakura she had never seen before. The evening had led to the three of them visiting a bar, after a very entertaining conversation in which Sakura and Ino convinced the owner that yes, they were indeed genin and that there was nothing he could do against their presence.
They weren’t there to drink, of course. It had started with Sakura’s victory in a match of arm wrestling between her and Ino. Ino had admitted defeat with a huff.
“Fine. Maybe you’re slightly stronger than me. Slightly. But don’t let it get to your head, cause I’ll catch up to you soon enough.”
“Oh yeah?” Sakura had smirked, her eyes gleaming dangerously. “Wanna test that out?”
So now they were here. In a pub. Challenging every patron indulging them – or rather, after Sakura’s third victory in a row, every patron reckless (or drunk) enough – to compete with the twelve year old girl with bubblegum pink hair.
“Shannaro!” Sakura shouted, slamming her current
victim’s competitor’s hand on the counter. “Who’s next?”
Laughter and drunken cheers erupted from the crowd that had formed around the three genin, roaring through the pub. Hinata felt incredibly uncomfortable, even though she wasn’t at the center of attention.
It was worth it.
“You show them, missy!”
“What did you expect from a shinobi? They don’t train them to be pushovers.”
“Come on! Next one! Someone make this a goddamn challenge already!”
Ino sighed, crossing her arms where she stood watching. “I fully acknowledge my fault in this.” She snatched some of Sakura’s winnings – people had started a betting pool about halfway through – and Sakura either didn’t care or didn’t notice, too engulfed in the spectacle she was at the center of.
“You want anything? I’m gonna get some food,” Ino said. “Looks like we’ll be here for a while.”
Hinata stole a glance at Sakura, shouting challenges and taunts left and right, her cheeks colored red from the thrill of it. “I-I think you’re right,” she muttered, and didn’t try to hide the smile tugging at her lips.
The barkeeper threw them out an hour later, after Sakura had managed to smash the counter in one over-enthusiastic match too many.
Despite that the walk to Sakura’s house was cheerful, none of them particularly bummed about the turn of events. They stayed overnight, and Hinata found herself laughing more often and more genuinely than she cared to remember in the past.
Hinata woke up lying in a hospital bed, alone and already fighting the urge to cry. She tried to sit up, but slumped back into her pillows with a cry of pain as liquid fire coursed through her body. Internal bleeding tended to do that to a person.
She had done her best, but when had Hinata ever stood a chance against Neji? The Chūnin Exam had been a lost cause for her as soon as their names had blared up together on the giant billboard.
Hinata had known that, and yet… She’d tried. She’d wanted to give it her best, no matter how hopeless it had been. She’d wanted to be like Sakura, strong and confident and everything Hinata had ever wanted to be as a shinobi.
But she had failed. She hadn’t been good enough.
The door burst open and Hinata flinched, dragged out of her thoughts.
“Hinata!” Sakura’s eyes widened in surprise. “You’re awake. I was just stepping out for a bit of fresh air.”
Hinata stared. Sakura had been here before? She’d waited here, in the bland, boring hospital room for Hinata to wake up?
“Those are from Ino,” Sakura said, and pointed to the biggest bouquet of flowers Hinata had ever seen. How had they even got it through the doorway? “And if you’re up for it, I brought food! How are you feeling?”
The ‘alright’ lay on the tip of her tongue, but Hinata swallowed it back. She didn’t want to lie to Sakura. “I-It hurts,” she admitted, clutching her chest where the pain was the most intense.
Sakura hummed and looked her over with a critical gaze. “It must be wearing off. Wait just a sec.” She sat down on the bed next to Hinata, reaching out with hands that glowed in a soft green.
The pain started to fade almost as soon as her hands made contact, and Hinata sighed in relief.
“Neji really did a number on you,” Sakura muttered, and it sounded like she was talking to herself more than to Hinata. She answered regardless.
“I wasn’t strong enough,” Hinata said, looking down at her hands. She had started to fiddle with the hospital blanket without realizing it.
“Don’t say it like that,” Sakura said. She tilted her head until Hinata raised her eyes to look at her. “You gave it your best shot. I could tell; I’m proud of you, Hinata!”
Warmth spread through Hinata’s chest even as her eyes widened in disbelief. “B-But I didn’t achieve anything.”
“You showed that you want to get stronger, and you proved that you’re willing to work for it.” Sakura raised an eyebrow. “You are, aren’t you?”
For a moment, Hinata was speechless. She met Sakura’s eyes and saw the confidence and strength she so admired. Hinata clenched her fists, her resolve hardening. “I-I am!”
Sakura’s face split into a grin, and Hinata soaked in the pride and the happiness radiating off of her.
Seeing as some of the rookies had advanced to the next round and others had not, the rookie teams were rather split for the month of preparation. Kurenai surprised Hinata by announcing that they would have a trip outside of the village with Sakura, Ino and the older girl from Team Gai, Tenten.
“It was Sakura’s idea,” Kurenai said, “and I agree that it sounds like a marvellous idea.”
“B-But,” Hinata stole a glance at Sakura. “Shouldn’t you be preparing for the third task?” Sakura, in contrast to her, had won against Ino in the preliminaries and was qualified to fight in the third task.
“I am,” Sakura said, a smile on her lips that bordered on unnerving. “This is for training. And we’re gonna have lots of fun.”
Their training trip passed in the blink of an eye, and by the end of the month Hinata had learned the utility of genjutsu for various types of missions she had not even considered before, could name more than three dozen types of flowers and their varying degree of lethality and learned how to kill a person with a carp.
Unrelated to any of that, she had taken on a vow of silence. No matter how much Kiba begged upon seeing the scorch marks: What happened in Taki, stayed in Taki.
The third task rolled around and Hinata felt like a completely different person. She was not competing herself, that much was true. But nevertheless, she could not remember a time she had felt as calm and at peace with herself as she did now.
That was, of course, until her eyes fell onto the billboard announcing the fights and saw Sakura’s name right next to Neji’s. Hinata’s eyes widened. Dread pooled into her stomach in icy waves.
“Hey, it’s alright.”
“Y-You didn’t t-tell me–”
“Just trust me.” Sakura grinned widely. “It’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
After everything, Hinata found that she believed her.
Hinata came home to the apartment she shared with Sakura and Tenten late at night. They’d lived together for over a year, since neither of the two owned a clan estate, and for Hinata the Hyūga compound had not felt like home in a very long time.
On a related note, the past year had also been the happiest Hinata had been in all her life. She opened the door exhausted, but shaken by a giddy happiness that made flashes of warmth course through her body.
Tenten was away on a mission, so Hinata knew not to expect her, but Sakura had passed out on the couch.
Or not. She raised her head as Hinata stepped into the room, her eyes half closed but a smile on her lips. “How was it?”
“We did it.” Disbelief clung to her voice, almost turning it into a question.
Nevertheless, Sakura shot up, her exhaustion driven out by excitement. “You did it?”
“Yes,” Hinata said, and while it sounded less like a question, it hung in the air between them unsure and lost. “There’s still some more meetings we have to complete. The elders are having a fit about it. But they can’t change it.” She sat down, a hesitant smile blooming on her face. “Neji will be the first to be freed of the seal.”
She caught a glimpse of Sakura’s wide grin before she threw herself at Hinata in a hug. “I’m so proud of you! All that hard work, and now look at what you did!”
The words hit her like a sledgehammer. Sakura was right. Hinata had done this.
Neji had been a big factor, as had Tsunade and, surprisingly, Sasuke – freshly returned from his vacation as a missing nin and entirely too enthusiastic about burning down Konoha’s hierarchy system and dancing on its ashes.
But it had been Hinata who had initiated the discussion in the Main Branch. It had been Hinata who had stood her ground, had thrown herself into arguments and debated with every high-ranking member of her clan for the better part of the last two years, and Hinata who had gladly laid down her rights as a clan heir in the process.
And it had been Hinata who had, with Neji at her side, won the conflict.
“I did it,” she whispered, sinking into Sakura’s embrace and shrugging off the uncertainty of her victory. And it was all thanks to you.