Chapter 1: Introduction
History of Major Characters
Tokuma (Status: Alive)
Following the death of his squad, he is captured by the mercenary ninja, Shin. He makes a deal with him that results in his release. On his return to the clan, he runs into Hanabi - who is engaged in a battle with Mayu (another of the mercenary ninja). Together they defeat her. Although he once harbored deep feelings for Hanabi, he was rejected by her and has not been on the best of terms with her since.
Neji (Status: Alive)
After entering into a forbidden relationship with Hinata, Neji begins to realize that he also has feelings for her younger sister, Hanabi. This realization puts strain on his relationship with Hinata and results in him being tricked into staying away from her during their trip to Kumogakure. After Hinata disappears from the group in the middle of the night, Neji goes after her by himself.
By the time he finds her, she is recovering from a fight with Seiichi, who ran off after a mishap with his byakugan. Instead of chasing after him, Neji and Hinata return to the clan and find that it has been attacked by mercenary ninja. After seeing Hinata to a place of safety, Neji engages in a fight to the death with the mercenary ninja, Ryuu. He defeats him and then returns to Hinata's side. He is presently involved in the clan's rebuilding efforts. He is wary of the strong hold the council has on Hinata and is at odds with Hanabi, although the two seem to get along.
Hiashi (Status: Dead)
He is the first one to respond to the attack on the clan. He engages Shin in a fight, is defeated, and killed.
Hanabi (Status: Alive)
She is sent back to Konoha to get help but runs into a mercenary ninja on her way there. She engages in a battle that almost costs her her life but is later rescued by Tokuma. After being confessed to by her savior, she rejects him. She feels guilty over having been tricked by Seiichi into separating Hinata and Neji. She is presently grieving over the death of her father.
Hinata (Status: Alive)
Becomes the clan's heiress and later head after the death of her father. She was attacked by Seiichi but evades being killed by him after he flees the scene. She is presently in a relationship with Neji but the two find that the pressure of clan responsibilities is taking a toll on them.
Hizashi (Status: Alive)
He learns that Kazuko was the one who murdered the clan's main elder. During the winter attack, he engages her in a fight and defeats her.
Main Elder (Status: Dead)
Was killed by his sister, Kazuko.
Seiichi (Status: Unknown)
His plan to assassinate Hinata goes awry when the counterfeit seal activates unexpectedly and damages his byakugan. He flees Konoha during his fight with Hinata and is not seen again.
Kazuko (Status: Dead)
After murdering her brother, she is defeated during her fight with Hizashi and killed.
Shin (Status: Unknown)
During the winter attack, he is the first one on the scene and engages Hiashi in a fight. He defeats him but sustains severe injuries. He escapes from Konoha but his whereabouts are unknown.
Ryuu and Mayu (Status: Dead)
Shin's associates. Both defeated and killed during the winter attack.
Chapter 2: Chapter One
The story starts off with a new character. Hinata arrives on the scene in the next chapter.
When Rena stepped into the forest that morning, the last thing she had expected to find was a half conscious man sprawled out among the brush and tangle of wood-leaf. Yet, in spite of her initial surprise, Rena was no stranger to the unexpected. Living as she did, secluded and isolated from the rest of the world, she had to be prepared for anything. Had she but known that would include stumbling upon a half-dead man, she would have come bearing her basket of medical supplies and something to help transport the injured person back to the small house she was staying in.
Noticing an odd looking glint reflecting off the stranger's wrist, Rena knelt down to examine the body. Totally beaten and broken he might be but penniless he was not. Upon closer inspection, she discovered that the glint had come from two spherical stones no bigger than small buttons. They were attached to a silver chord and flanked by a row of smaller black stones. Rena admired the stones for their bold color scheme, a mix of fiery red and burnt gold. Each stone piece resembled a volcanic eruption that had been condensed into a miniature bead. The trinket was valuable enough to be of interest to her. She could loosen its clasp, take it, and run. But, leaving the man to die alone when she had the means to help him just wasn't an option.
Two other articles adorning the body stood out to her and Rena took note of them for future reference. One was a scarf made of a thick cotton material. It was red in color and stained with blood. The other was an elongated katana fastened to the man's backside. She didn't even have to pull the blade from its saya to know that it too was covered in blood.
Rena knew that ninja populated the majority of each hidden village. She'd witnessed them pass through her domain on occasion and would conceal herself within her home during those intervals. Sometimes they'd pass through in pairs or groups. And other times they traveled solo. Much of what she observed had come and gone without becoming an issue. That said, the scene before her now was a familiar one.
Eager to return to her dwelling before the last of the sun dipped below the trees, she went about arranging the body for transport. Forced to do everything by hand, she had her work cut out for her. When she was finished, she looked around to make sure that nothing else was amiss. Satisfied with her survey, she began the laborious task of hauling the man back with her.
By the time she reached the house, exhaustion began to seep into her bones. Rena was a petite woman by most standards but she was anything but weak. She had trained herself to pull her own weight and then some. Still, for all her superhuman fitness, the man she carried was twice her size. She'd made it back before the sun set but the few strides it would take to reach her front door were almost impossible to execute.
Rena paused to give herself a short break. She gently deposited the man's body onto a thick patch of foliage. Despite the constant jarring of being moved, he was still out cold. She settled down beside him to catch her breath. Up ahead, the house was a comforting sight to behold. Candle light illuminating it from within shone through the small square windows adorning the front and sides of the building. Rena was tempted to get up, leave her burden behind, and seek out the security and warmth that reached out to her from a distance.
Inside waiting for her was another quite like herself, one whom she had developed an affinity for. She longed to call out to him and reveal her presence. She knew he would come to her aid if she did. Still, the forest had more eyes and ears than she could count. When the lights went out, one had to be wary of what lurked in the shadows.
Steeling herself for what was to come, she readied herself to complete her task. Rena hoisted the man's body up with both hands, making sure not to jostle him in a manner that would cause him further harm. When she'd gotten a secure hold on him, she made her way to the front door.
Her arrival was greeted by a loud bump and a feeling of guilt stewed inside her. She'd forgotten about leaving the chair so close by the bed. With the bandages still wrapped around his eyes, her companion would have failed to realize that he needed to step around the obstacle in order to make his way to the door to let her in. Moments later, the door to her home opened wide. Her companion stood in the entryway, awaiting her orders. He was a tall, daunting figure, what with the accumulation of white wrappings concealing most of his body. The one about his eyes had loosened some but was more or less still in place.
"I'm not alone," Rena told him off the bat. She needed his help to carry her burden inside without losing her hold on it.
"What'd you pick up this time?" her companion asked, as his strong arms reached out to feel for what he could not see.
"I can't be sure," Rena replied. "But whoever he is, he's badly wounded and needs looking after."
She grabbed one of the outstretched hands and guided it to where she needed it to be. With some direction, her companion quickly assessed the large form she carried and moved into position to support it. His expression was difficult to read. But Rena was glad that he wasn't pushing her for more information. They could discuss this matter after she patched up the wounded man.
As she and her companion hauled the injured man over to the dining table, Rena remembered the chair.
"Ah, I'm sorry about the chair. I forgot to move it before I left."
"I didn't expect it."
"Of course. You wouldn't have. It wasn't supposed to be there. I'm still not used to having another person in the house."
Between the two of them, the injured man was safely deposited onto the surface of the dining table. With her hands free, Rena went to work straight away. She began by removing his weapons, pouch, and what she could of his tattered clothes. They were filthy and beyond repair. She would need to find him something to shield him from the cold but first she wanted to address his injuries.
"Can you fetch me the.."
Rena stopped herself before she could finish asking for something which her companion could not locate without his sight. She was also still adjusting to his lack of it. Then she went to gather the supplies she needed: a box of salves, bandages, assorted tools, two clean cloths, a blanket, and a bowl of fresh water.
The process of cleaning and dressing the man's injuries was tedious and time consuming. Deep in concentration, she failed to notice that at some point her companion had deserted her. Rena picked out two salves that she hoped would work to sooth the inflamed areas on the man's body. She used one cloth to wipe away dirt and cleanse his deeper wounds. The other, she soaked in cold water and placed over the man's forehead to cool him down. After applying both salves to the appropriate areas, she bandaged each disinfected wound with care.
Whoever this man was, he had been embroiled in a vicious fight and sustained a brutal beating. Though she'd found him only half-conscious, Rena had a feeling he had come out the victor. It was clear from his sudden trembling and twitching that with every breath, he was hanging onto life.
When Rena finished her ministrations, she covered the man with a large cotton blanket and retreated to the washroom to cleanse her hands of blood, salve, and dirt. She returned to grab the bowl of dirty water she'd been using and proceeded to dump it outside. The forest was darker now. The last of the light was barely enough to see by. She hurried back indoors, finished cleaning, and put the kettle on. Her companion didn't show any signs of returning so Rena prepared to spend the rest of the evening alone.
This didn't bother her one bit. She was worn out and barely managed to serve herself a cup of tea before falling into a chair. She'd been moving nonstop for what had seemed like hours. She hadn't the strength to strike up a conversation, let alone explain why she had deigned to help another needy stranger. Valuing privacy and seclusion, Rena could not explain her behavior even to herself. Taking strangers into her home and putting her safety at risk was so unlike her.
A sound of labored breathing reached her ears and Rena frowned. She wasn't sure if her handy-work would do much to help the man mend, or if he was far too injured to be saved. She wasn't a medic, hadn't even been trained as one. All she knew how to treat were basic flesh wounds. The one on his side had been tricky to handle, as it oozed blood thick as heavy cream. If the stranger was suffering from any internal injuries, there was little she could do for him beyond stay by his side for as long as it took for him to die.
Rena sipped her tea. The liquid was warm and its sweet aroma comforting. She began to think back to three weeks earlier when she'd encountered her first patient out in the forest. The situation had been much the same as today's, except that she'd come across a conscious man at that time. One who was very much aware of his vulnerable state. Rena had been more reluctant to offer her help then. She rarely encountered outsiders and when she did, fear sent her running in the other direction. Since then however, things had changed for her.
She no longer had the house to herself for one. Even though he stayed out of her way, the knowledge that her companion was close by made her feel less alone. Not that she'd wanted company. Rena just felt obligated to adapt to change in all its unexpected forms.
What she knew of her companion didn't make her feel any more or less comfortable around him. He was from Konoha, had gotten separated from his group, and was heading towards Kumogakure. It wasn't much for Rena to go by but it was something. When she'd found him he'd been halfway propped up against a tree trunk, raking his fingers against his face as if he were desperate to claw the skin off his skull. Rena had rushed to stop him, placing her smaller hands over his. He'd had no idea who had assaulted him since his eyes were closed to the sun and his surroundings hidden from view. But the shock she gave him made him still.
The memory of that day was still fresh in her mind. A sharp odor tickled her nose. Alcohol mixed with sweat and blood. It had disgusted her then as it did now. Of course, she'd brought him into her home and attempted to do what she could for him. Her examination of his injuries had revealed that his eyes had been scarred by something sharp enough to break skin. It hadn't been the work of a blade or kunai but something far more sinister and unconventional.
He would not tell her what had happened to him or how his eyes had ended up so damaged. He did however allow her to tend to them in her way. What had surprised her most that day, beyond finding a stranger out in the wood and taking him in, had been seeing his eyes for the first time. All the stories she'd heard about the different types of kekkai genkai came to life that day. Rena would never forget looking into those pale, ghost like orbs. They were mesmerizing, full of mystery and wonder.
She'd been gravitating towards her companion ever since, eager to learn more about him. But he would not budge. They ate their meals together, spent a good part of each day together, and yet the distance between them never lessened. Rena knew her companion was tolerating her because he needed her help. She also knew that when he could rightfully see again, he would leave.
The last of her tea had cooled, so Rena finished it in a single drink. Rising from her chair, she discarded her cup and went to check on her patient. She was pleased to find that his breathing had evened out and his rest was less strained. The salves were working their magic.
She considered looking in on her companion but decided against it. Concern was a funny emotion. It made one eager to become involved in the affairs of others. Rena couldn't admit to having had it control her to this extent ever before. This need to worry about another was something of a burden. She exited the dining area and headed towards her room, leaving a small lamp burning beside the table just in case her patient woke from his slumber.
After getting into bed, Rena pulled the covers up to her chin. Another day had come and gone. As she settled into the warmth, the light from the main room burnt steadily on, illuminating the usually dark house. It reminded her once again that she was no longer alone. Closing her eyes, she prayed for guidance. Rena wished on whatever force was out there for the courage to accept the inevitable. Eventually, this unwelcome sense of attachment would diminish.
Chapter 3: Chapter Two
A baby. This was what was on Hinata’s mind when she emerged from her early meeting with the clan elders. A baby. An heir to present to the clan by next spring. The task was a daunting one but not unexpected. For all her training and years spent mastering the techniques of the Hyuga, Hinata had always been aware that her greatest responsibility would be to provide the clan with an heir. She had believed that the job would be simple enough. Unfortunately, it was anything but. The awareness was hanging over her like a rain cloud. A storm of emotions had coursed through her when she first realized that she was struggling to conceive a child.
Two turnings of the moon had passed since she had become the heiress and the devastation wrought by mercenary ninja was still fresh in everyone’s minds. But the clan had mourned its losses and was finally starting to rebuild. The weather seemed to be reflecting this. The rain had disappeared to make way for white fluffy clouds and a cobalt blue sky. Hinata passed by rows upon rows of buildings, large and small, on her way to the village clinic. The sun was high in the sky, a fiery orb shining down on the earth below. It warmed her skin. It was nice and Hinata paused to take it all in - the ambiance of a world at peace.
As she breathed in the morning air she tasted its sweetness on her tongue. She was alive, heart beating steadily inside her chest. In the aftermath it was her life that had been spared and she refused to take this second chance for granted. If the elders wanted an heir, she would give them one. A strong and healthy child was what she wished for more than anything.
She resumed walking. The first step would be to visit the clinic. She’d been going regularly for her own sake but this time it would be for the clan’s. She came to a more open area and passed a row of orange trees situated beside a paved path. A right turn would take her back to the house she shared with Neji. It was tempting really but Hinata forced her feet in the opposite direction.
Clan life started early for some but most people were still tucked inside their beds, desperate to soak up that last bit of warmth before being forced to face the predawn chill. After her journey to Kumogakure, Hinata had become more or less desensitized to the cold. She could see it raising goosebumps along her arms but its effect no longer made her shiver. Coming home had been a mistake on her part. She gravitated towards her comforts like a moth to a flame.
As she rounded the corner of the path, Hinata hesitated. A soft noise filtered through the silence. A twig snapping in two. She turned towards the source to see a black cat scurrying beneath a crop of bushes. It dove under head first so that all she could glimpse of its behind was a long striped tail. Whatever it was running from, the cat hadn’t even noticed her presence. Hinata smiled. Her footsteps were light on the dirt path. Coming and going, silent and invisible. She developed the habit overtime, learning well what it meant to slip away without being seen or heard. Ninja could employ this technique to gain an advantage over their enemies but Hinata wasn’t supposed to be worrying about things like that anymore. She was supposed to be moving on from a life of keeping secrets and running from an unknown threat. She was supposed to be making an effort to settle down.
She’d tried. With every fibre of her being she worked hard to forget who she was so that she could become who her people needed her to be. But her body didn’t want to comply with their demands. When Neji and she had moved forward with their relationship, Hinata was certain she’d end up pregnant as fast as her mother had. It came as a surprise to all (but none more so than Neji) that after six months of being together freely, she was not only not expecting but struggling to accept the fact.
At first Neji had been by her side, feeding her words of encouragement. But as the days passed with no signs of her being with child, Neji disappeared along with his unyielding faith in her. He hardly spoke to her these days. His feelings were hidden, buried deep inside where she could not reach them. Hinata learned early on not to expect support from the others who saw her as nothing more than a clan icon. But from Neji she had hoped for more concern. She was breaking under the pressure of being unable to conceive. As a women and head of the clan, she was being labeled as inadequate all over again. She didn’t need to listen to every whisper or be privy to every rumor to know what was being said about her behind closed doors.
A whirring soon pulled hinata from her thoughts. Across the way, two children bounded after each other, heading in the direction of the training grounds. She watched them, mesmerized by their carefree expressions. She wanted that, didn’t she? To watch her own child racing through the town, wind blowing their hair in every direction.
Suddenly, she was caught by the arm. Instinct propelled her reflexes into motion. She spun around with as much force as she could muster, ready to engage whoever it was that felt the need to sneak up on her. Lucky for him, Hinata missed her target by a mere inch.
“Easy Princess,” Tokuma said, releasing her arm and backing away.
Hinata huffed. “Really Tokuma you can’t just go around sneaking up on people. I could have hurt you.”
“I’m sorry. You just looked so far away, I thought I should bring you back to the here and now.”
Tokuma offered an apologetic smile in the wake of his recklessness. He was dressed down in a less formal version of a his usual getup. His tracking gear was nowhere to be seen.
“You’re up early.”
“Have to be. Hizashi’s expecting me to help him clear the shed out back.”
“The old shed? Why? It hasn’t been used in over a decade.”
“Yeah, he mentioned that. And something about new beginnings.”
Hinata laughed. It was just like her uncle to search for something, anything to keep himself occupied when he wasn’t being called on by the council. Like her, he was struggling to settle down.
“What does he plan to do with it?”
Tokuma shook his head and brought a pale finger to rest against his lips. “Can’t say. He swore me to secrecy.”
“Right, well keep on eye on him for me. He’s the type to go overboard when he hasn’t anything better to do.”
“I’ll keep two eyes on him.”
Hinata pressed her hand to Tokuma’s arm. It was strong and sturdy.
“You’ve become like a son to him,” she said.
She meant it, but that did not lessen Tokuma’s doubt. His eyes widened and Hinata had the grace to blush. She’d been too honest with him just now.
“Speaking of,” he started, turning his head in the direction of her home. “What’s got Neji so consumed these days? Hizashi won’t say anything to me but I can tell he’s worried about him.”
She didn’t know how to answer his question. She was too embarrassed to admit that she and Neji hadn’t been on good terms lately. Her silence must have tipped him off, for Tokuma smiled and quickly changed the subject.
“Were you running away from your duties just now?”
“Hardly. I’m off to the clinic.”
“Well, I can’t say I blame you for wanting to ditch.”
“I wish my uncle would let me join you. I’d give anything to clean an old dirty shed right now.”
Tokuma’s smile was sympathetic. He said, “You can’t mean that.” Worry creased his brow.
“That’s what I keep telling myself but…”
Hinata pursed her lips. An image of Neji crossed her mind and she couldn’t get the words out. She was afraid to speak openly about what was between them.
“Nothing,” she said, as if everything was fine. No doubt, Tokuma saw right through her facade.
“They’re all counting on you to give them a reason to keep going. It isn’t right but you shouldn’t hold it against them,” he said, the soft tenor of his voice tugging at her heart. “Everyone’s searching for something to put their faith in. Right now, that’s the promise of new life.”
Tokuma’s words did little to reassure her but Hinata nodded all the same. She was moved by pity (if nothing else) to swallow her frustrations.
“You’ve become the voice of reason, Tokuma. My uncle’s wisdom must be rubbing off on you,” Hinata said, smiling.
Tokuma laughed. “I wish his confidence would do the same.”
Confidence? Tokuma was plenty confident in her opinion. Hinata wondered what he could mean but didn’t venture to ask.
They began walking side by side in silence. His gait exceeded hers but he matched her slower pace with ease. Tokuma assumed the position of a body guard, standing close enough to shield her, instinctively eyeing their surroundings. It was a habit of his Hinata could never get used to. It must have been difficult for him to integrate himself into the stagnate atmosphere of clan life. He was so accustomed to being on the go, confronting the unseen enemy, sleeping with one eye open. He reminded her of Neji in many ways but he was practically the polar opposite of her cousin. Unlike Neji, who had relied on his hostility to help him adapt to change, Tokuma's ability to conform and fit in, when the world called on him to do so, was unmatched.
They made it to the end of the path and Tokuma escorted her up the stone steps flanking a detached building. Besides for the arched doorway, the front wall of the clinic was entirely hidden behind a curtain of leafy green vines. Hinata paused at the top of the stair and turned to face her companion.
“I’m on my own from here,” she said.
She thanked Tokuma for accompanying her and made him pinky promise to keep her uncle in check. His amusement at her childish approach was plain in the appreciative smile he flashed her before he left.
Standing outside on the steps, Hinata took a moment to gather her courage before stepping inside the sterilized building. As always, the overwhelming smell of antiseptic assaulted her nose. Her last visit to the clinic hadn’t been very pleasant. It had ended in disappointment and left her hiding tears of regret. Good news was hard to come by. Every medic she spoke with told her the same thing, as if their diagnosis from her first visit had been recorded and left on repeat for her to listen to. Her body was working against her efforts to conceive, preventing her from releasing a mature egg during ovulation.
Hinata could not understand what made her so different from the majority of women, why she suffered from an infertility problem while others did not. She’d been told that she was a rare case, part of a group of no more than 10% of women who struggled with the same issue. Still, Hinata wanted to believe there was hope. Thus, she was here for her follow up, wishing that something had changed. After going a week without her period, she’d practically run to the clinic to be tested. She assumed it was either a sign she was pregnant, desperate to be, or both.
After checking in, Hinata was directed to a small enclosed room by an older woman with wisps of blonde in her dark colored hair. She recognized her from her especially long nails but the woman didn’t seem to remember her. When she left, Hinata made herself comfortable on the makeshift bed. It was hard and uncomfortable. She waited. A female medic she’d never seen before came in around the time Hinata had given up being patient. She sat up straight, hoping for the best.
“Back so soon, Hinata-sama?” she asked. She was short and plump, with rosy cheeks. And her hair was pushed back from her face by a multicolored bandana.
Hinata forced herself to smile. “The elders tell me it’s not soon enough.”
“Of course they would,” the woman replied, sarcasm lacing her words. “They know there’s no rushing these things and yet they insist on putting pressure on all those involved.”
There it was, Hinata thought. That slip of the tongue that would normally have offended her. She’d learned to ignore remarks alluding to the stress this situation was causing others besides herself.
They went through the motions of the follow up routine. Was Hinata relaxing regularly? Yes. Was she maintaining a healthy diet? Yes. Was she sleeping well at night? Yes. Had she been experiencing any discomfort during ovulation? No. When was her last period? A month ago. The last time she had sex?
“Recently,” Hinata said, a blush rising on her cheeks.
This sort of question was hitting too close to home. It was true that Neji and she were trying to conceive, but being intimate had been somewhat of a chore lately. Neither of them would admit this to anyone, least of all to each other.
The woman nodded. “And how’s Neji doing? We haven’t seen him here in a while.”
Again, Neji was being brought up in the conversation. Hinata resisted the urge to ask why it mattered whether Neji accompanied her or not. Everyone she met couldn’t stop asking about him. It was as if they all seemed to believe that it was strange for Hinata to do anything without Neji around to shadow her.
“He’s fine. At home resting, actually. He’s in charge of so much what with the rebuilding efforts in full swing.”
The woman nodded absently as her eyes scanned a clipboard full of papers. Hinata could only imagine how tedious it was to pretend that she was learning something new from reading through her charts. At this point, everyone knew why Hinata showed up like clockwork for her monthly checkup and that the results of her visits were usually identical.
The woman continued looking down as she asked, “How often do you two spend time together outside of clan duties?”
The question made Hinata pale but the monotone drone of the woman’s voice ignited her anger.
“I’m not here for a therapy session!” she burst, eyes wide and glaring. “The state of my relationship is none of your concern.”
Hinata’s outburst caused the woman to look up from her notes. Her mouth fell open and she tried several times to say something but failed to find the words. She was clearly confused.
“Nothing’s changed since the last time I was here,” Hinata informed, annoyance pricking her skin like a dozen needles. “All I need is for you to tell me whether I’m pregnant or not. We can skip the rest, can’t we?”
A tense silence permeated the room. The woman began to move about in a flustered manner, much affected by the stark change in atmosphere. She visited drawers, shelves, and cabinets, as she searched for whatever she needed to continue. Hinata felt her insides clench. Pregnant or not she needed to calm down. The woman was only doing her job. So was Hinata, in a sense.
Suddenly the movement ceased and Hinata looked over at the woman. She stood by a white counter, hovering in front of a pile of bandages, packaged needles, and cotton balls. It was then that Hinata realized that the woman hadn’t known what to do after being put on the spot and so was floundering around the room to buy time. When she turned to Hinata, the expression she wore conveyed that she’d composed herself enough to face her patient head on.
“Do you mind if I speak plainly?”
Hinata shook her head. “Go ahead.”
“There’s a big difference between needing to be pregnant and wanting to be, Hinata-sama.”
Hinata’s hands gripped the edge of the bed in response. Her nails dug into the thin layer of tissue paper covering it. She felt the need to stand and defend herself against this blatant accusation but her grip anchored her to where she sat.
“I’ve seen plenty of women, young and old, struggling to conceive and more often than not when their whole heart isn’t in it, their body can’t help but reflect that.”
Suddenly the woman’s expression turned sympathetic and Hinata understood what was going on without being told. “I’m not pregnant am I?”
Hinata barely managed to get her question out before her eyes started to water.
“Then why?” she asked, feeling helpless. She was running out of reasons not to cry.
“You’re stressed. A missed period isn’t always a sign of pregnancy.”
Hinata’s face fell into her hands. She clenched her eyes shut to keep back the tears, then used her fingers to wipe away any trace of their presence.
“Don’t let this setback discourage you. I would advise you to keep trying.”
Hinata stilled. She brought her hands to her lap, folded them, and knotted her fingers together. Had she heard right or was she imagining things?
She sniffed and readjusted her position so that she appeared more comfortable than she was. “Are you telling me that there’s still a chance I may not be infertile?”
“Then what do you think I should do?”
The woman stepped away from the assortment of items on the nearby counter to retrieve her discarded clipboard. Then, she turned back to Hinata. The green eyes that receded into her round face gave nothing away.
“Go home. Think about what I’ve told you. You know, this isn’t a one person job Hinata-sama. It takes two to make a baby.”
“You think if Neji held my hand every time I came for a follow up things would be different?”
The woman shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
Hinata glanced at her hands and privately acknowledged how empty they were. The first time they’d visited the clinic together, Neji wouldn’t stop opening and closing his palm around her hand. His touch had been warm and just a bit sweaty. At the time Hinata had been comforted by it. She missed that touch and her hands felt naked now, cold and dry. She made a mental note to purchase some lotion on her way home. She was ashamed and embarrassed for trying to pretend that she could do this without Neji. Day after day she saw less of him but never made an effort to bridge the gap that was growing between them. Now, when she needed him by her side and longed for that irreplaceable affection and support, he was far away.
Chapter 4: Chapter Three
Cold early mornings were her favorite. The world coming alive with the rising of the new sun. The trees stretching their limbs towards the sky after a peaceful slumber. Birds greeting the morning light with their powerful voices. A song to celebrate life. An accumulation of fleeting moments coming together in a single verse. A chorus bursting through the silence.
At times like these, Hanabi loved to take long walks into the forest and down by the river bank. There, she would sit and watch for animals that ventured out for a drink. They came alone or in pairs, eager to wet their faces and hydrate their bodies. Sometimes she would imagine that she was one of them, obliviously coming and going, blind to everything, lead on by instinct. But then common sense reminded her that even the animal kingdom was dominated by a hierarchy, a food chain meant to balance the elements. Only the strong survived. The weak perished.
Death was prevalent on every plane. Hanabi acknowledged this and she accepted that change was inevitable. The wheel of time would spin, every full turn counting down the days. When her end came, it would continue to turn round and round like a clock. She was but one cog among the many. For all eternity time marked one passage after another, witnessing new life begin and old life end. That was the way of the world, nature’s ultimate plan.
She waited on the edge of the bank, glimpsing indistinguishable prints in the mud. Then, she took her place beside a large round boulder partly submerged in the water. Its surface was smooth and flat, perfect for sitting. Hanabi settled down and craned her head to catch the image of her reflection. From the pale eyes that gazed back at her to the long dark hair falling over her shoulders, she was every bit a Hyuga woman. The blood of generations of her people coursed through her veins, giving her strength and a stark sense of immortality.
Leaning down, Hanabi used two hands to scoop up a generous helping of river water. It was cold. Ignoring the drops that escaped her barrier to splash onto the folds of her kimono, she brought the cool liquid to her lips. It tasted fresh, like the coming of spring. Looking around Hanabi saw that the trees were still bare but most had begun to recover their fallen leaves. Swelling green buds colored their tangled branches. A tribute to the oncoming seasonal drift. Everyday there was some new change to wake up to. Hanabi never ceased to be amazed at how self-sufficient living organism were. A plant could grow from a seedling to a sprout. And, from a sprout to a blossoming flower, adorned with soft velvety petals and uniquely shaped leaves.
The subtle transformation was mesmerizing and mysterious. Much like the metamorphosis of a butterfly from a sluggish caterpillar to an eye dazzling creature with bright colored wings. She had sat on the sidelines observing her sister grow into something similar. Hinata hadn’t been altered physically. She hadn’t gained an antenna, beady eyes, or wings. But the change she had undergone manifested in the way she carried herself. Poise and grace emanated from her being, warning all who approached to lower their gaze in respect of who she was and what she symbolized.
The reflection of the young woman staring back at Hanabi from the watery depths below was still stuck in transition. No overwhelming transformation was going to happen to her overnight. Unlike her sister, she was nowhere near reaching her full potential.
She and Neji could only really communicate through sparring. That whole concept - actions speak louder than words - applied to them tenfold. This was why they often came together, just the two of them. Hinata was busy issuing the council’s orders and Neji was only an advisor to her. With fewer duties came more free time. Not sure how to spend it, he had turned to training. And Hanabi was the obvious choice for a partner. Like Neji, she spent more time on her own than she did with the clan. They both shared that urgency to be somewhere other than the main house, to flee from all the reminders of the previous winter. So, when Hanabi saw Neji approaching her from afar, she greeted him with a welcoming smile.
“Can’t sleep?” she asked, swinging her legs over the side of the boulder, dipping them into the water.
Neji nodded. “How long have you been out here?”
“An hour. Maybe two.”
“And you didn’t bother to wake me?
Hanabi laughed. “I doubt my sister would have appreciated it if I’d tried to.”
She knew Neji was joking, but she told him so all the same.
He came to a stop beside her and looked around. “This place hasn’t changed much.”
Hanabi agreed. “It’s the same as it was back then.”
“But I do think the trees seem taller,” she added, glancing up at the sky.
“Really?” Neji mimicked her action.
“Less sunlight reaches the bottom of the forest floor.”
The tops of the trees blocked out the sky and all Hanabi could see were distant patches of white and blue among the green.
“The sky’s probably clearer up there,” Neji said, one finger pointing upward.
“Probably,” Hanabi conceded.
She was glad that Neji still reminisced about his childhood. Or more precisely, that he remembered her being a part of it. She was younger than Hinata and Neji. As such, she’d always been forced to trail behind them and grow up in their shadows. It never used to bother her. She loved to admire her sister and Neji, used to observe them at different times as they trained with their respective mentors. But then one day when Hinata failed to impress the main elder and lost the attention of their father, Hanabi gravitated towards him by instinct. She too had wanted a chance to outshine the rest.
Thinking back on these things stirred her memory and feelings of regret resurfaced.
“Come on,” she said suddenly, pushing off from the boulder into the river water below. She waded in slowly, kimono just above her knees.
“We haven’t done this since we were kids,” Hanabi continued, looking back at her cousin.
He nodded and joined her, meeting her about an arm’s length away.
The surface of the river bed was soft. Tiny grains of sand rubbed against her feet and stuck between her toes as she pressed them deeper into the earth. Hanabi felt like a kid all over again, caught in the middle of the past and the present. Neji must have felt the same, for when she looked over at him again his face broke out into an appreciative grin.
This moment couldn’t have been more magical. It felt as though they had been transported back to their childhood and were playing at make believe, enjoying the weightlessness of being in the water. Free is the word that came to mind as Hanabi closed her eyes and breathed in deep. On the exhale she felt a hand latch onto her wrist and suddenly, Neji was pulling her further in. The delight in his eyes was unmistakable.
“It would be a shame to waste a chance like this,” he said, looking around at the wide empty space as if it had been made just for them.
Hanabi glanced down at the ripples traveling across the river’s surface, then back at Neji. “I don’t expect we’ll be needed this early,” she reasoned, contemplating his suggestion.
He released her arm and began to back up. He clearly didn’t trust her to follow the rules.
“Cautious as always, aren’t you cousin?”
Hanabi laughed. She lifted her head, moved her right leg back, and positioned her hands before her to create a barrier between her sparring partner and herself. Across from her, Neji did the same. The atmosphere tensed as they gazed at each other, the space between them filled only by the flowing river.
“I’m only as cautious as I need to be,” He replied.
Hanabi rolled her eyes. “Right.”
A few minutes into her spar with Neji, Hanabi realized that the rules of their duel had changed. She was breathing heavily from exertion. The impact Neji’s hands had been making with her skin felt more forceful than they should.
“Giving up already?”
Hanabi shook her head. “Not yet.”
She lunged at him with feline grace, moving her arms in tandem with his. Their hands touched, skin grazing against skin. Chakra sparked between their fingers. Hanabi could clearly see where her attacks would be most effective. Any spot above the waist was fair game at close range. She caught him on the chin once and twice below his collarbone with the front of her palms. He jumped away from her, a look of surprise on his face.
His praise made her chest tingle.
“I’ve had a good teacher.”
Neji smiled and resumed his stance. The challenging look in eyes beckoned her to him. One of his arms went up when she aimed for his face again. The other shot forward like a bullet. Hanabi hissed when it connected with her hipbone. And just like that he was pulling back again, amused smirk painted across his lips.
Her balance compromised, she teetered after him. She was quick but he was quicker still. Whenever she got close enough to attack, he evaded her with a step and a jump. She chased after him, feet splashing through the water. After all this time Hanabi could read her cousin well. This competition was based on speed and accuracy, both of which she had struggled to develop. Up close, she could do damage easily enough. But if her opponent kept her running around in circles, eventually she would tire and become easy prey. Neji was trying to corner her without engaging her.
Hanabi scowled. All his jumping around was making it difficult for her to keep track of his movements and land a hit.
“You’re playing dirty Neji.”
He had disappeared from sight. Then a deep voice sounded from afar. “You won’t always get the chance to strike from up close. When that happens you need to use your surroundings to your advantage.”
Hanabi was about to ask what he meant when a loud splash made her spin around. Her image in the water was fragmented by ripples traveling across its surface. Neji had been there, staring at her back.
Hanabi swallowed. Her eyes scanned the surrounding forest for signs of her cousin but nothing out of the ordinary drew her attention. She was making this too easy for him, standing out in the open as she was. Taking Neji’s advice, Hanabi sought to hide among the trees. This part of the forest wasn’t as dense as the others but there were still plenty of places to conceal herself from prying eyes. She stopped beside a large trunk with a gaping hole in its middle. She brushed her hand over it slowly. The smallest traces of Neji’s chakra were embedded in the tree bark.
Hanabi made a mental note to thank Tokuma for teaching her the basics of tracking. Then she considered the placement of the chakra particles and the direction in which Neji might have gone. Left or right? Perhaps straight? There were trees to either side of her and before her was an open gap. Neji wouldn’t have made for an open gap less he intended to lure her further away from the water. She could only imagine what he was planning. If they moved further into the forest, the trees would overtake them. They would need to move to higher ground in order to pursue each other at the speed which Neji possessed.
Hanabi moved around the trunk, keeping her back to it. Neji was close by. She could feel him. A low whirring sound made her go still. Her target was on the move. Hanabi followed after the sound which was like that of a passing wind. Seconds ticked by in silent anticipation. The pursuit unfolded as she predicted it would. Her target took to the trees, his speed increasing, and Hanabi chased after him. Her vision adjusted and she was able to pass every obstacle in her way.
Navigating from above was easier to do but it also made it more difficult to pinpoint sounds. So much was going on around her. The rustling of tree leaves, conversation of song birds, buzzing of winged insects, and the thumping of her feet against wood as she leaped from one branch to the next. Somewhere in the midst of it all was Neji, slipping past her surveillance.
She recalled her father telling her once that seeing with the Byakugan was an art few had truly mastered. She hadn’t understood him at the time. His words had been cryptic to her as a mere child of twelve. As she raced through the cacophony of tree tops, Hanabi began to understand. It wasn’t enough to have the Byakugan, to see with both eyes. The only way to enhance her vision was to train her ears to listen.
Hanabi came to a halt and crouched low. She was so consumed with the excitement of the chase, she’d forgotten that most basic of rules. She examined everything around her from the clumps of greenery to the scurrying rodents populating the tree tops. She lowered her breathing to a whisper and concentrated on an image she had in her mind of Neji moving to a fixed rhythm. She gathered that he was at least five to six paces ahead of her, maybe less depending on the distribution of his chakra. The particles were spread out across the immediate area.
He’d caught onto her then. Hanabi wasn’t surprised. Neji was familiar with Tokuma’s techniques and also knew that she had been training with him from time to time. That wasn’t such a bad thing, Hanabi decided as she focused on the image she had conjured of her cousin. She didn’t dare close her eyes. She needed to visually take in her surroundings and place him among them. With Neji busy throwing her off his trail, she would have time to dictate his location.
The man in her head was scaling the tree tops with precision. His max speed lessened when he realized he was no longer being pursued. That’s exactly what Hanabi wanted, for him to be confused by the change in her behavior. Let Neji wonder and fret over what she was doing. With every blink of her eyes she was seeing him clearer. The image took on a more definite shape and materialized before her. She observed as Neji twisted his body to avoid colliding with an oddly shaped cluster of foliage. He angled his head to the side and used one hand to push himself up onto a shorter but wider branch.
He couldn’t sense her but he must have reasoned that she was close by. Her cousin absently reached into his pouch, eyes scanning the expanse before him. Hanabi couldn’t determine what he grabbed but she had a good idea what was about to happen. She shifted into a more temporary position, ready to move at a moment’s notice. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six. She counted down in her head as she waited, her body tense. Here they come!
Seven kunai sped through the air in unison. Two in the lead, three behind, and two at the rear. Overhead their distinct formation would have resembled that of a winged bird gliding towards her. The first two missed her completely. The following three she dodged with ease. Then, as the final two flew towards her, Hanabi readied herself. When they were in range, she dove forward, positioned herself between them, grabbed both by their handles, and sent them flying back in the direction they came from.
Aware of Neji’s position, Hanabi took after the kunai. It was time for them to quit playing hide and seek. Hanabi chased, evaded a barrage of shuriken that came from all directions, and eventually caught up to her target at the place they’d started at. The river greeted her as it always did, rushing to meet her. Neji was standing before it, waiting for her expectantly. Hanabi dropped from her perch up in the trees and approached him cautiously.
“You did well keeping up with me,” he remarked, when she closed in.
“That was real creative,” she returned. “What you did with the kunai back there.”
The sarcasm in her voice made Neji smile. “You liked that, huh?”
“I never took you for an artist.”
Hanabi began to move forward when suddenly wisps of smoke appeared on the surface of the water. The sight made her pause.
“What’s this now? A diversion?”
“I’ve only just gotten started,” Neji said.
The smoke screen thickened, enveloping Neji’s ankles, then his legs. It continued to spread and climb. Choosing to stay put, Hanabi got caught inside it.
“You can’t keep up these parlor tricks forever Neji.”
Across from her, her cousin shrugged his shoulders as if to say, You never know. Then as the smoke encircled him, he disappeared again. Hanabi huffed. Neji was really something else, testing her Byakugan like this. She couldn’t see anything past her own body. Again, she needed to rely on sound to navigate through the mounting haze.
The voice of the river reached her ears and Hanabi instinctively moved towards it. Most likely, Neji was still around, using the smoke as a cloak to conceal himself from her. When the ground felt softer, Hanabi sighed in relief. She was at the edge of the river bank. So far, Neji hadn’t moved in to attack. He was giving her eyes time to adjust to the thick atmosphere.
“It’s no fun for you if I’m entirely blind, huh?” she muttered under her breath.
In answer to her words, Hanabi heard metal cutting through the air. More tricks then? Hanabi retrieved twin kunai from her pouch and gripped them tightly. She used them to deflect the ones being aimed at her.
A loud boom made her heart jump. Again and again. To the left and right, in front and behind, above, Kunai went zipping through the air, explosive tags attached to their hilts going off whenever they connected with something. Apparently, Neji had an arsenal of weapons at his disposal.
Hanabi didn’t know which direction to go in. Anytime she settled on moving, another explosion sent her crouching low to the ground. In the middle of all the smoke she began to move slowly across the ground on hands and knees. She reminded herself to make use of the environment. The river was next to her. If she could reach it without being spotted….
A group of shuriken were headed her way. She could hear them spinning through the air. Judging by their speed and trajectory she had but one way to evade them. Hanabi stopped. She released her kunai and felt them fall from her hands when she brought them together. She quickly employed the body replacement jutsu and rolled to the side to avoid becoming a human pin cushion. She was just quick enough at forming the hand seals. And then, she was barreling into the river with a splash. Its icy water seeped into her skin, making her shiver all over.
Righting herself, she slipped beneath the surface and swam forward. The other side of the river had to be clear of smoke. Neji would have heard the splash she’d made though. She had to swim faster. Hanabi proceeded against the current. She wasn’t the best swimmer but her adrenaline was pushing her to do things she didn’t believe she was capable of, such as holding her breath for a minute longer to remain hidden from her opponent. She was nearing the adjacent bank. Emerging too soon would give her presence away.
Underwater her vision was distorted. Spider-like patterns of light rippled across the sandy floor. Noise from the surface vanished and the sound of her breathing flooded her ears. Her lungs were begging for air but Hanabi did not give into them. She could only hope that Neji was still searching for her back on the opposite side.
Feeling she had waited long enough, Hanabi rose from the water and broke through its surface with a gasp. Her lungs felt liberated when she sucked in her first taste of fresh air. Dripping wet, she made a break for the path to circle back. Neji was bound to be on her trail by now. Thinking fast, Hanabi left two clones behind in her place and sent three others ahead of her to scope out the area. All seemed clear, so she carried on.
The smoke no longer an issue, Hanabi capitalized on the opportunity to lay a trap for Neji. She stationed herself besides a tall, gnarly tree root and signaled for her clones to fall back. Neji would come for her from the east. If she could use her clones to cut him off, she’d have a chance to corner him. She had five clones at her disposal and five sets of trees were spread out before her. She couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setup. Being the key player, Neji would be expecting her to hide among the clones she had lying in wait. In contrast, Hanabi was going to act as the bait to lure him into her trap. It was a risky move but the best plan she could pull off with limited time and resources.
Her insides knotted together and she swallowed hard. If luck was on her side, Neji’s chakra would be more or less depleted at this point. He’d used quite a bit putting on that show of smoke and aerial attacks. Not to mention how much it cost to maintain the Byakugan. Hanabi reminded herself that she had the field advantage as she abandoned her hiding spot in search of another. She didn’t want to waltz out to meet Neji right away. So, she pretended to move with caution.
She sensed the anxiety of her clones and instantly knew that they had eyes on him. From up high, their depth perception was better than hers. Her clones relayed Neji’s coordinates and Hanabi instructed them to stay put until she returned with him. Then, she hurried off
Hanabi stepped out of hiding to meet Neji. He had followed her from the river and was making sure to maintain a comfortable distance between them. She wasn’t shy about revealing herself and he appeared to be impressed by this. A lift of his brows indicated his wonder at her boldness.
“Let’s try this again,” she said, drawing closer with the intent to fight him.
Neji nodded and assumed the all too common stance. He kept his form tight, holding a sharp kunai in one hand and positioning it at an angle. Hanabi kept one eye on on his face, watching for subtle shifts in his expression that might tip her off. The other she kept trained on the blade in his grip.
It was rare for a Hyuga to incorporate weaponry alongside the gentle fist, but it could be done. Considering all she’d witnessed so far, Neji wasn’t opposed to change. He embraced it. Hanabi admired him for this. All the same, her upbringing was rooted in tradition. She wanted to prove to him that she could beat him by trusting in years of intense training.
The one to make the first move was Neji. He lunged at her at full speed with his kunai pointed at her neck. Hanabi aggressively stepped forward and brought her hand up to deflect his attack. She pushed the base of her palm against his arm to keep the kunai away from her face and then turned her body inward to land a kick to his gut.
Neji compensated for his error in judgment by bringing his other arm before him to shield himself. Their limbs smacked against each other. Failing to execute the kick, Hanabi brought her leg down and opted for a less obvious approach. She moved as if to repeat the motion but this time aimed lower. She hooked her foot behind Neji’s calf and connected with accuracy. This made his knee buckle and for a moment, Hanabi had the upper hand.
She retracted her leg and rotated slightly before extending it again. Her heel slammed into Neji’s abdomen and he lurched forward. Hanabi smirked. At this range, she was a far better match for him than before. Neji staggered away and resumed his stance. He was none the worse for wear.
“You’re going to have to do better than that,” he told her as he twirled his kunai around by its hilt.
His confidence irked her but Hanabi didn’t argue. Neji was right. It was going to take more than a few kicks to disarm him. What happened next was unexpected. Neji dodged her second frontal attack and countered it as if he’d known what she was going to do. His palm met with her forearm and his chakra pierced through her skin like needles. Hanabi grit her teeth. The pain stung but she bore it without complaint.
She returned his hit with one yielding more force. Neji reacted instantly, leaning back to avoid being hit. And as soon as he righted himself, came at her. Slaps bounced off the objects around them, resounding from ear to ear. Then, without warning, Neji thrust his kunai at her. Hanabi saw the blade glinting out of the corner of one eye. She weaved to the side to avoid it but got nicked by the kunai’s pointy tip. A sliver of blood dripped from the inflicted scratch and slid down her cheek. Blood smeared across her fingers as she wiped it away.
Neji was the first to draw blood. If their spar was a real match, she’d be docked a point for carelessness.
“Don’t think, just do,” he instructed, gripping his weapon tighter.
Hanabi looked at Neji suspiciously. “What? Aren’t you contradicting yourself?”
Earlier all he wanted her to do was think. Analyze his behavior, listen for movement.
“When you’re forced to fight from afar, you need to read and consider your opponents moves. Up close though, you throw everything you have at them. When you hesitate, you put yourself at risk.”
Hanabi nodded and refocused. The brief break gave her a chance to start over. She fell back into position and waited for Neji to attack. The ball was in his court now. He rushed forward and they began to dance once more. Attack, block. Attack, block. They continued like this for a while, neither able to land a decisive blow to outmaneuver the other. They were reading each other well and knew when to defend and when to engage. But this almost calming rhythm didn’t last long. Soon, Hanabi found herself struggling to acclimate to Neji’s increasing speed. He went in for one expert hit after another, close guarding the most vital parts of his body. Hanabi attempted to do the same but the monotonous tempo they danced to filled her with impatience. Something needed to change or they’d be at this all day.
Just as she thought this, Neji volunteered to bring about that change. He lifted his leg into the air and brought it down over her head. Hanabi ducked under it in time to evade the attack but her concentration broke when suddenly the man before her vanished inside a puff of smoke. Hanabi blinked. A shadow clone?
The chop to the back of her neck rendered her immobile. Pain shot down her spine like a bolt of electricity.
“When did you have the time?” she breathed out shakily.
Laughter filled the air. “I didn’t.”
Hanabi was about to inquire further when she realized how he’d done it. She kept forgetting just how much Neji and she were alike in the way they thought things through.
“Right,” she replied, rubbing her sore neck.
So, Neji had brought an extra man with him into battle. Hanabi sighed and turned around to meet the real Neji. He’d been hidden all this time, observing her spar against his clone. Hanabi wasted no time taking advantage of this turn of events. She reached into her pouch for a scroll, tossed it into the air, and formed a set of hand seals. The scroll produced two pairs of star shaped shuriken. Hanabi grabbed them and flung them at her opponent. The quick attack caused Neji to weave and duck. This threw him off, giving Hanabi a chance to engage.
When she was close enough, she swung her arm outward. It struck Neji with enough force to push him backwards, his sandals sliding roughly across dirt. More, more, more! Hanabi chanted internally. She needed more power to move him, otherwise he wasn’t going to budge. Hanabi followed up her initial confrontation with an attack aimed at the ground. She rushed forward and slammed her fists into the earth, making it quake and rupture. The ground cracked as a large crater formed around her.
Unprepared, the power of the impact sent Neji flying. His back connected with a broad trunk several feet away. Hanabi watched as he fell forward and struggled to shake off the pain from the hard collision. She smiled triumphantly. She’d succeeded in getting him into position. All that was left now was for her clones to move in for the final attack.
Right as Neji regained his footing and staggered forward, a group of armed clones descended from above. They came from five different directions to converge at the desired point. Hanabi joined them, charging towards her opponent with renewed strength. She was seconds away from claiming her victory. Vision sharpening, Hanabi eyed the spot closest to Neji’s heart. She didn’t dare aim for it and yet everything was happening so quickly she had no time to decide where to direct her final blow.
Her clones dematerialized into puffs of smoke as Neji fought them off, one by one. And then, it was just the two of them and the colorful forest paling in comparison to the translucent shade of her cousin’s eyes. It was so mesmerizing that Hanabi almost forget where she was and what she was doing. Neji did’t even try to block her when she shoved her palms into him. Ice blue chakra flared up between them and the sound of the hit reverberated through the forest. In that moment, Hanabi faltered and froze. Her heart thumped wildly. She stared in horror as blood burst from Neji’s mouth. He was still standing but his Byakugan had receded and his face twisted in discomfort.
I didn’t win, she thought dejectedly, as her eyes focused on the exclusive damage inflicted to her cousin’s body. She could see the places where some of his tenketsu had been affected and the pathway her chakra had taken, targeting his vital organs. He faced her attack head on with nothing to shield him, but somehow she’d failed to bring him down. Across from her, Neji’s smile shown through the blood covering his face. It was one of approval and…was that appreciation she saw there too?
Hanabi felt her legs weaken and suddenly she crumpled to the floor. Tears pricked the back of her eyes. She hadn’t known how quickly victory could turn into defeat. Even in pain, Neji was anything but weakened by her. Panting and wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, he stood straight as an arrow. Hanabi sensed that her chakra was depleted. She had channeled every last bit of it into her final assault. Yet, Neji still had enough reserves to fight back if he chose to. Again, he had bested her without even trying.
“That’s not possible,” she muttered, gazing at him as if he’d died and come back to life.
Neji began to approach her. His steps were deliberate and his expression sympathetic.
“You had the opportunity to make your attack count but instead you hesitated. That’s twice in this spar that my use of clones tripped you up.”
Hanabi heard Neji speaking to her, heard the accusatory note in his voice, but she wasn’t listening to him at all. All she could do was replay the moment in her mind and search for the unpredictable factor that was the cause of her defeat.
“Think back Hanabi,” Neji urged, getting closer. “When I was fighting off your clones, there was a brief moment where you hesitated.”
“No…no I…I didn’t! I went forward, I lunged at you!”
She cursed and argued and the defiance in her voice made Neji frown. Hanabi didn’t understand, she couldn’t. She’d timed it all perfectly. But then, why was Neji walking towards her now, eyes shining with unrestrained glee? Neji stopped in front of her and crouched down to her level.
“You were distracted by something and held back. You’re attack didn’t hit me directly.”
“You’re lying!” She screamed at him, anger pulsing through her veins.
Neji’s expression hardened. “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept it.”
“I don’t,” Hanabi said. She lifted her head and glared at Neji for all it was worth.
Maybe she had hesitated. Maybe, in that split second Neji had summoned a second shadow clone to lessen the brunt of the impact. Maybe, her attack had only grazed him.
“At least I’m not the one painted in my own blood,” Hanabi spat, shoving her cousin out of her face. She couldn’t bear to look at him.
Neji wasn’t phased in the slightest. He watched undisturbed as she stubbornly stood up, brushed herself off, and stormed angrily away. He neither went after her, nor did he say a word to anyone about their match. But when Hanabi saw him again later that day, she brushed right past him in a flurry of irritation.
Chapter 5: Chapter Four
The days passed quickly for Rena. She had so much to attend to between two needy patients that at times she wholeheartedly regret involving herself in the affairs of outsiders. She had learned new things however and was acclimating to the cramped conditions they were all subjected to while living under one roof. For one, she now knew when it was safe to walk around without disturbing one of the two men. And she also had discovered the name of her companion - Seiichi.
Seiichi was about her age but younger by two years. Fresh from the clan of his ancestors, he knew very little about the world beyond his home village. He had been traveling with several others and had become separated from them. His eyes, which were still healing but no longer covered by bandages, had been marred during a heated argument between him and one of his party.
Rena had acquitted this information to memory with the hopes that one day she could persuade Seiichi to tell her more. His story was as awful as it was fascinating. She used to belong to that world of secrets and shadows but it was so long ago. Seiichi brought it all back, the memories of what it was like to have companions, allies, and a real home to return to whenever one went away.
As she sat picking herbs, Rena smiled to herself. She’d done well to help those she’d taken in. Her new patient was recovering quickly as well. His bodily injuries had all but healed, except for one - a deep gash made by a kunai. And his strength was beginning to return to him. Like Seiichi had been when they first met, he was keeping quiet about his identity. He had allowed for Rena to call him by whatever name she fancied and so she had taken to addressing him as Satoru. It was a fine name by her standards and not lightly bestowed upon the man, for it had once belonged to a dear friend of Rena’s who had perished in battle. Her patient accepted it graciously and whenever they spoke (which was very little under the circumstances) responded to it as if it were his real name.
Rena pressed an assortment of leafy stalks into her traveling basket and placed a thin cloth over them when she finished. It was still early, only midday, and she needed to be getting back to check in on Seiichi and Satoru. Pleased with what she had managed to hunt down, she rose from the ground and started back towards the house. The forest was quieter than usual, which caused Rena to feel most at home. She moved between the trees, brushing a hand against the trunks of the ones closest to her.
Every forest giant had the strong and sturdy wooden armor she required. The bark mixed into ointments could soothe muscle aches and do her recovering patient a great deal of good. Stopping, she reached for the small knife she had tailored to her belt and used it to strip the choicest pieces from the trunk. When she had a handful gathered, Rena tucked her knife inside it’s leather sheath and placed the bark into her basket.
By the time she reached the house her stomach had started acting up. Her last meal had been taken with Seiichi around daybreak and since Satoru had been sleeping at the time, Rena was sure he’d be hungry as well. She hurried inside, deposited her basket on the table, and proceeded to look in on Satoru. After his first night with them, Satoru had been moved to a side portion of the house that Rena was using for extra storage. She had created a place for him to sleep out of a spare mattress and blankets, and Seiichi helped her move him from one room to the other.
Stealing into his room quietly, Rena saw that he was wide awake. “How are you feeling today?” She asked as she came to sit beside him in the chair she had left close to his bed.
From the bed, Satoru gazed up at her. “No better than last night.”
“Is that so…” Rena muttered, suddenly disappointed. She had hoped his appetite would have distracted him from the lingering pain in his side.
“Did ya think I’d be up and walking already?”
Rena shook her head. “No, of course not. You should wait until you feel ready”.
She’d never admit it, but she actually had expected Satoru to be making more progress than he was.
“Can’t tell you when that’ll be but some help to the toilet would be nice.”
Rena’s face flushed.
“Right away,” she stammered, rising and then running out of the room to fetch Seiichi.
She returned with her companion in tow and they both assisted Satoru as best they could. When he was ready, they helped him to the dining room and seated him at the table.
Rena proposed to cook up something they could all share. A plate of thinly sliced pork and lettuce wraps made its appearance not twenty minutes later, along with a sauce for coating the meat and a jug of water. Rena served the dish and made a mental note to head into the village sometime soon to restock her pantry.
Seiichi reached for the water jug. Looking uncomfortable and out of place,
Satoru waited and watched. Rena was expecting for one or both to go for the meat first but neither one seemed eager to take anything from the plate she’d prepared. Being quite hungry, she ignored this and helped herself to a generous portion of pork. Then, as if they had been simply waiting on her, both men grabbed what they could from what was left.
Rena laughed and right on cue, Satoru and Seiichi turned to look at her, slices of pork pinched between their chopsticks.
“You’re both so alike,” she told them.
Satoru stuffed his pork into some lettuce, drizzled sauce over it, and stuffed the entire thing inside his mouth.
“How so?,” he asked, chewing between talking. “I don’t even know this kid.”
Seiichi followed suit. “I agree. We’re not alike.”
“Just similar then,” Rena insisted, lifting a wrap to her open mouth.
Though they hardly made time to interact with one another, Seiichi and Satoru’s mannerisms were oddly in sync. She’d noticed this only a bit at first. They each had an air of mystery about them, were quiet for the most part, and had overpowering aura’s that made them appear unapproachable. But Rena didn’t start piecing the puzzle together until she noticed that they also shared a number of behavioral traits one would typically attribute to two persons related by blood.
Seiichi shook his head in denial and resumed eating. Across from him, Satoru was busy separating his meat from his lettuce. He created a gap between the ingredients, using his chopsticks. Immediately, Rena was drawn to inspect Seiichi’s plate. And sure enough his meat and lettuce were divided to either side. She resisted the urge to point this out to the two.
Seiichi for one couldn’t actually see all that clearly what was going on around him but Satoru was either ignoring it or simply didn’t care to comment. Maybe they’re long lost relatives Rena theorized, as she was washing down her first few bites with a drink of cool, refreshing water. Then, as Satoru picked out a hunk of pork and shoved it into the sauce dish wildly, tipping the entire thing over so that it made a mess all over the table, Rena sighed and decided that she was probably wrong.
“Someone pass me the sauce,” Seiichi demanded suddenly.
Rena observed the mess and raised her eyes in time to meet Satoru’s. He appeared to be silently wondering how to explain the incident to Seiichi.
“Anyone?” Seiichi asked, his foot beating the floor impatiently from under the table.
Rena placed her chopsticks over her plate and pushed her chair back.
“I’ll just have to go make more,” she said, settling for covering up Satoru’s mistake.
Being fast to act, she left the table. When she was back in the kitchen mixing ingredients, Rena couldn’t help but ask herself once more why she ever felt the need to involve herself in the affairs of outsiders.
Chapter 6: Chapter Five
Seconds ticked into minutes and minutes into an hour before Hinata summoned the will to return home. She’d been to the clinic again, her third visit in under two weeks. No one could say she wasn’t dedicated to the task at hand. But, in reality she went there more for herself than she did to speed up the process of conceiving.
Over time she became aquatinted with the staff and in turn they memorized her routine. She’d stop by, speak with a medic (or two), then leave before it got too late. Home again, she’d try to relax as much as her patience would allow. She mostly saw Neji at night. Out all day, the two of them hardly ever crossed paths. As for her sister, Hinata was convinced that Hanabi was avoiding her. She wasn’t surprised, didn’t even blame her, but disappointment settled around her heart all the same.
The walk back to the compound was short. Hinata passed under a paper hanging over the entrance to her uncle’s dwelling. She was on the hunt for somewhere else to hide out until her meeting with the clan council. Diplomacy was on the agenda, along with a slew of other clan issues, and Hinata wasn’t looking forward to attending.
As she expected, the house was empty and her uncle was nowhere to be found. No doubt, he was still working on that outdoor project of his which Tokuma had mentioned to her a while ago. Hinata made herself at home in the kitchen. She set the kettle on the stove and searched the cabinets for a clean cup. A pile of used dishes were stacked beside the sink - several bowls, cups, some spoons, and two matching pairs of chopsticks. Hinata washed and dried them.
So her uncle had been entertaining a guest recently. That was interesting. Hinata wondered who it could be. She was just pouring her first cup of ginger tea when the the sound of shuffling from somewhere inside the house drew her attention away from the stove. The mystery visitor made his appearance. Tokuma wandered into the kitchen with his hands raised. They were stained black from the tips of his fingers to the heel of his palms.
“Hinata?” Tokuma stepped around her to get to the sink. “What are you doing here?”
Hinata noticed a thin cobweb sticking to his hair. It dangled in front of his face, before a layer of dust that had settled over the bridge of his nose.
“I could ask you the same question,” she replied, reaching up to brush the gauzy strand away. It caught on her hand and she stuck it beneath the open tap alongside Tokuma’s.
“Helping out again.”
He shook his hands out over the sink, then reached for a towel to dry them. Hinata did the same.
“So is the shed cleaned out yet?”
“Just about. There’s a couple of old tools still, some boxes, and a ton of dirt, but it should be done within the week.”
Noticing the kettle and tea pot, Tokuma grabbed a cup and poured himself some. He acted quite at home and appeared to know the place well enough to locate what he needed. Hinata found this odd but kept her thoughts to herself.
“Where’s my uncle?”
Tokuma sipped his tea. “Sorting through a pile of dust I imagine.”
Hinata laughed. “So you gave up early and left him to it.”
“Not at all.” Tokuma shook his head. He took a seat at the table, cup in hand. “I’ve gotta head out real soon.”
“Training session with the guys.”
Tokuma must have seen the conflicting expression on Hinata’s face for he set his cup down and added, “It’s routine, Princess. Nothing serious is afoot.”
Even in times of peace ninja had to keep a fixed training regime. Hinata was aware of this. Still, Tokuma’s words unsettled her. Though, not for the reasons he was imagining.
“Would it be alright if I came with you?”
“You mean to watch? Sure.”
“Uh, no,” Hinata said, biting her lip. “To train…I could benefit from the exercise.”
The room got suddenly very quiet and Hinata knew that everything Tokuma was going to say to her next was precisely what she didn’t want to hear.
“The thing is…” He ran a hand through his hair. He was clearly nervous.
“It was silly of me to ask,” She cut in, stopping him before he could get the words out. “Forget I did.”
Hinata looked down at the table, concentrating on the fine lines embedded in the woodwork. Straight, horizontal lines overlapped and stretched from one corner to the other.
“How about some other time when its just us two,” she heard Tokuma say.
As hard as it was to look up, she did. “I’d like that.”
Hinata couldn’t help but return the smile Tokuma graced her with. His cheeks were dimpled and his gaze was right on her. He seemed to want to say more but didn’t.
Then his hand appeared before her, pinky extended. “Next time then. It’s a promise.”
She knew all the reasons she couldn’t go and understood why Tokuma had been pressed to decline her request. He didn’t want word to spread that the head of the clan was off playing ninja when she was supposed to be executing her duties. Hinata intertwined her pinky with his and then they separated. Tokuma left his cup on the table, stood up, and headed out. When he was gone, she missed his presence.
Alone again, Hinata sighed. She brought her elbows together and rested her chin in her hands. Every muscle in her body was fighting the urge to follow Tokuma, rules be damned. Hinata longed for her freedom back. She realized now why her body was resisting her efforts to conceive and why every time she saw children out playing her thoughts turned sour. She wanted to be the one running through the streets, wind through her hair, feet kicking up dust. She was sick of being confined to the compound and as crazy as it seemed she was tired of resting.
She was restless and eager to stretch her legs, do something with her time other than drift from meeting to meeting to listen to the elders argue and debate. She was done being put on the spot about Neji, finished waiting for something that wasn’t going to happen to her. Cup half full, Hinata gazed down into the amber colored liquid mirror. Her reflection gazed back at her, solemn and unhappy. Unless she could convince the council to relax the rules, she’d might never be ready to have a child.
Chapter 7: Chapter Six
The evening breeze stirred the tree leaves. An orange tint blanketed the sky. Long shadows stretched across the ground, connecting rows of headstones together so that they appeared to surround her like the walls of a gigantic labyrinth. Hanabi passed them by quickly. She kept going and going until finally she came to a stop before an obelisk that was taller than the rest. It stood out from the others, like a leader would in a crowd of unassuming people.
The solid stone was as permanent a marker as any. It was embedded in the earth and part of the changing landscape. Though not unmovable, it was there to stay. Hanabi swallowed hard as she stepped up to confront its rectangular shape. She touched it, dragged her fingers across the engraved characters on its surface, and tried to suspend her disbelief in the afterlife. Hanabi thought that if she could feel for her father’s presence she’d be able to communicate with whatever he was now - spirit or soul, ash or dust. If he was out there, he might be watching and listening.
“What comes after?” she whispered into the silence. “Is there a place for me, for us?”
“If there is a place, I hope we find it when our time comes,” Tokuma said as he came up behind her to pay his respects.
He must have seen her leaving the compound and followed her to the cemetery. Hanabi hadn’t bothered to stop him or tell him to go away. She was glad for the company, if only for now. She turned to look at him.
“Is that what you hope for?” She replied. “If so, it could mean that we spend an eternity searching for something that doesn’t exist.”
Tokuma’s pearlescent eyes gazed into hers. Hanabi waited for him to speak but the moment passed and he said nothing. She dropped to her knees and leaned forward to place her offering - a single white flower she’d picked up along the way - upon the graves threshold. It looked just a bit lonely against the gray surface of the headstone.
“All this has made me realize that I shouldn’t take anything for granted,” she said, addressing the man behind her.
Tokuma moved in so close that Hanabi could almost feel him pressing into her from behind.
Hanabi stepped to the side to give them both some space. “Thank you,” she said.
Hanabi shrugged. “For everything. Ever since last winter we’ve had our differences but you’ve been there when I’ve needed someone to talk to.”
“You mean when there’s been no one else to fill the position.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Tokuma crossed his arms. “Don’t play dumb Hanabi. You know as well as I that you’ve been avoiding Neji like the plague. You can barely afford to give your sister the time of day. And everyone else you brush off.”
Each of his accusations spurred her to anger but Hanabi kept her tone in check.
“I take it back,” she said calmly, leaning away from Tokuma to hint at how uncomfortable she was in his presence.
“Take what back?”
“My thanks. You don’t deserve it.”
Tokuma wielded his sarcasm like a weapon. “Oh. So, I decide to be honest with you and now I don’t deserve your thanks? You’re a fickle woman.”
“And you’re a jerk,” Hanabi retorted angrily. She was put off by this change in Tokuma. This was supposed to be her alone time with her father. He had no right spoiling it like this.
Tokuma ran a hand through his hair. His dark locks shimmered whenever the sun touched them.
“Don’t.” Hanabi shook her head. “Don’t pull this crap with me.”
“Pull what? I’m apologizing.”
He stepped in and reached for her but Hanabi smacked his hand away.
“You don’t get to change your tune because you feel guilty.”
“Is that what you think?”
Tokuma looked down at the ground for a moment, his hands gravitating to his hips. He lifted his head.
“Guilt has nothing to do with this. I’ve told you the truth. How you take it is up to you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Just go.”
Hanabi turned around. She ignored Tokuma when he tried to apologize again. After several attempts, he went silent. Hanabi knew that he was still standing behind her, waiting for her to acknowledge him. She didn’t. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing that his words hurt her.
“I want to be alone.”
“As you wish.”
Tokuma’s footsteps sounded against the dirt path as he retreated. Hanabi continued looking only at her father’s decorated headstone. She wasn’t going to look back, not even for a second.
Eventually the sounds died away and Hanabi spun back around. Tokuma was gone and the space around her was void of everything but the drone of the restless wind. It blew through her hair and made goosebumps appear on her skin.
The rest of the evening followed without a sign of Tokuma. Wherever he was, he’d made certain to stay out of her way. Hanabi was relieved by this, as she couldn’t bare to face him again so soon. She arrived home just as people were filing back inside their houses. Lantern shaped lamps gave off a familiar glow, illuminating the otherwise dark pathway that lead back to the main house.
Being home had a way of paralyzing Hanabi. She felt so free everywhere else but here she was beset by months of buried fears that inhibited her mind like an untreatable disease. The migraines set in as soon as she stepped foot through the village gates. With a heavy head, she dragged herself to the section of the house that she shared with her sister and Neji. Once there, she sought out the silence of her father’s vacant room.
She went there often to sleep, to find a sense of warmth and security whenever her room felt cold and lonely. There was nothing for her to return to besides old furnishings and silly trinkets that reminded her of a life that felt so far away from the one she now lived.
In her father’s room, the futon was spread out on the tatami mats, ready for her to crawl into. Hanabi forwent changing into her sleep clothes and fell upon it, onto her back. She sighed and let her body sink into the cushiony bed. As she lay there, tired, her mind began to wander. She thought of her father and wondered if he would recognize her if he were still alive. Would he see her as a beloved daughter, promising protege, or disappointing failure?
Hanabi had lost the old version of herself. She’d traded it away for a hallow shell, one so tough its walls could not be breached by anyone, not even those who beat against it with harsh words and veiled threats. She wondered if her father would side with the clansmen who spoke badly about her behind her back. And whether he would proclaim her to be a betrayer to her people. No one had really accepted her back, not after everything she’d done.
Hanabi rolled onto her side and pressed her cheek into the corner of her pillow. It smelled of her father, pleasant and a tad sour. She breathed in the scent greedily, squeezing her eyes shut. Hot tears spilled down her face slowly, and then in excess. Her nose was stuffy and her body naturally curled inward to ward off the impending loneliness. Hanabi silently wished that crying would soothe her to sleep the way it had when she was a child. Her eyes stung as they never had before. She cried and cried until her pillow was damp. Then, she let the darkness envelop her.
In the midst of the all-encompassing night, she longed for the feel of strong arms wrapped around her and the sound of a steadily beating heart against her ear. A face that was not her father’s came to her mind as she dreamed. She imagined eyes white as winter’s first snow and hair black and feathery as a raven’s wings. A shadowy figure materialized and the image of a young man took shape, piece by piece. She recognized him instantly. She willed the only ally she ever had to call out to her to return to him. She visualized the ever present smirk she’d come to know so well. Then she quieted her breathing and waited, listening for his voice.
Chapter 8: Chapter Seven
Waking up to darkness made him question his existence. Was he alive or had he become a spirit, cast into limbo, devoid of light? The last thing he could recall was pain, needle sharp, pricking his eyes. Before that, he remembered little.
Seiichi searched for answers in the darkness. He focused on the rise and fall of his chest, wriggled his fingers and toes, and felt for the beating of his heart. When he’d tested these things, he concluded that he was not dead. Next, he tried to make sense of his blindness. The pain in his eyes was back but it was less intense. It did not drive him to madness as it had before. He could ignore it. Elated at this discovery, hope took root inside him.
Seiichi accepted that the road to recovery wasn’t smooth. Nevertheless, he was glad that his patience and endurance was paying off. He no longer had to wear bandages for one and slow though it may be, he was adjusting to the changes in his vision. As he rose from his bed to join Rena outside in her search for medicinal materials, Seiichi wondered if she would congratulate him for overcoming another hurdle.
Every day he imagined what she must look like underneath all the face paint she wore. He wanted to put a natural face to the sweet voice that encouraged him to recover. On its own, it was enough to convince him to try. But a bare, honest face, one to match his idea of her, would satisfy his nagging curiosity.
“Tell me again,” she pleaded, childlike. “What was she like? The girl from your home. The one you speak of sometimes.”
Seiichi, now standing beside her, was all too happy to oblige. “Afraid,” he said. “She was full of fear when we first started to get to know each other.”
Next to him, Rena studied the ground from where she sat, a basket of recently gathered herbs in front of her. Her hands were loosely clasped in her lap. “Not that,” she said. “Tell me about her, Seiichi. What did she look like? What’s her name?”
As Rena began separating the herbs she’d collected, into three piles, Seiichi took it upon himself to help out. There was a whole basket full to attend to.
He tried to answer her questions, saying, “Hanabi is her name. She looks a lot like all the other Hyuga women. And like them, she is strong willed.”
Rena wanted to know what Hyuga women looked like. So, Seiichi proceeded to describe the ones he was closest to. He started with Hinata, oddly enough, as she looked nothing like her sister. But Rena didn’t seem to mind. She enjoyed hearing about the different shades of their hair and the pale skin that made most of them appear like porcelain dolls.
“They must be so beautiful,” she said, stopping to admire a thin slice of tree bark. She felt it between her fingers, looking entirely satisfied with it.
Seiichi wondered what the big deal was but didn’t venture to ask. It was best to let her concentrate on her work, if that was what she was doing.
Then he said, “Yes, they are beautiful. But I wasn’t interested in Hanabi for that reason.”
“Because like me, she desired change.”
When he turned to look at Rena, she was deep in thought and the bark was still caught in her hand. “Did you care about her?”
“I did,” he confirmed. “I wanted to teach her to chase her desires.”
“The way you chased your own?” Rena asked, glancing up at him. A twinkle in her eyes suggested she was eager to hear more.
A hush fell over the forest as Seiichi contemplated her question. Nature quieted to let him concentrate on what he wanted to say. It wasn’t easy to speak about the past. Not as easy as it was to speak of the future.
“I tried to impress her but I failed.” He sounded despondent but the voice of the proud man inside his head was laughing at him. It had no sympathy for the Hyuga, least of all those who had failed him.
“But you can try again.”
Seiichi nodded. “I could, but it wouldn’t do me any good. I realize now that Hanabi and I are too different.”
“You miss her,” Rena said. She moved in closer so that their shoulders touched. Seiichi did not recoil. He let her warmth seep into him.
“I won’t ever go back, not to her or to Konoha” He told her. “I’ll go forward.”
The trees began to buzz with life again. Seiichi could not see a thing but he heard it all, the sounds of creatures close to them and those farther away. He felt calm in the outdoors and began to understand why Rena hid herself away in this place.
“When I can see better than I can now, I will set out for the Hidden Cloud,” he said, realizing the one ambition he had left was to see the place his father came from.
“Take me with you,” Rena suggested, expression hopeful.
Seiichi wanted to give in to her proposal but instead he denied it. “I can’t do that. When I go, I must go alone.”
The warmth left him. “Then come back when you finish what you need to do.”
He missed it - the warmth. It’s loss made him turn to the woman beside him. She was an arm’s length away, waiting on his reply. Seiichi licked his lips, prepared to respond, but when the words he needed to say stuck to his lips, he sighed. He extended his arm and his hand brushed empty space. He waited, mastering his newfound patience. Then he felt Rena’s fingers wrap around his. They touched and lingered on his skin.
He grabbed Rena’s hand and pulled her with him in the direction of the house. When they were inside again, he brought her to the door of the room in which the other man was staying - the one she had brought home with her some time ago.
“Knock,” he ordered.
Rena gave him a questioning look but did as she was told. She knocked twice and waited for an answer. When none came, she tried again. On the fifth rap, a deep voice sounded from within. It called on them to come in. Seiichi pushed open the door and stepped through first, with Rena behind him.
“What are we doing here?” Rena whispered, when they came to an abrupt stop.
Seiichi glanced behind him. “Shh. Wait here.”
He released her hand and left her standing in the doorway. Further in was the man Rena called, Satoru. Seeing only what was inches in front of him, Seiichi crossed the room. He stepped over strewn cloths, bandages bundled into loose balls, and around dusty furniture that jutted out from the walls. A short tower of cardboard boxes occupied one of the corners, taking up even more of the small space. When he was at the bedside, he gazed down at the long legged man who lay there.
“Did I miss dinner?” Satoru asked, looking up from a paperback book. Seiichi noted that the cover was worn and had a long strip of white tap running down its spine.
He fought off the urge to roll his eyes. “Hardly. I need to speak with you.”
Seiichi looked back at Rena and motioned for her to join him. She did so, albeit hesitantly.
“How long till the worst of his wounds heal?” He asked.
Rena leaned forward to check to be sure but Satoru scooted back to avoid her prying hands.
“Let me,” she said, trying once more. This time, he allowed her to touch and examine him.
It took less than a minute for Rena to conclude that Satoru would need three or more days of bedrest before he could safely be up and about on his own. His side was still a problem but she was hopeful that it too would heal in time.
“Good. Then, here’s the deal.”
Seiichi nudged the girl with his elbow. “Once he’s back on his feet, I’ll go with you to fetch him a medic.”
“You will?” Rena’s face brightened.
“Yes. But after I do, you two will be on your own.”
“Hey, what are you saying?” Satoru was now halfway sitting up on the bed, dark eyes fixed on Seiichi, book forgotten.
“I’m not staying.”
“Hold on, when’d you decide this?”
Seiichi looked between his two companions and said, “Long before I ended up here.”
“You may not find what you’re looking for even if you go.” Rena’s warning made them both turn to look at her. She was serious.
“Maybe, but I can’t stay here.”
The atmosphere changed and so did Rena. Seiichi could sense anger coming off of her in waves. It was overwhelmingly similar to that which he had felt towards her when first they met, out in the forest, when his eyes had stung and all he wanted to do was tear them out to stop the pain.
“You’re going to run,” Rena said as she took a seat at the edge of Satoru’s bed. Her small frame sank forward with worry.
Satoru didn’t seem to mind that she was making herself comfortable. He shifted his legs away to give her space.
Seiichi could tell that Rena was torn by the finality of his words. He let her seek comfort in Satoru presence while he explained why he had to leave them.
“They’ll come looking for me. I have no choice,” he said.
“But you do!” Rena shot back, eyes blazing with intensity. “You’ve always had a choice…ever since you got here.”
Seiichi tried to conceal his indecisiveness. On the one hand he could stay with them and pretend not to care about how close he was to the village. On the other hand, he could flee, find some other place to bunker down, and return when it was safe. Either way, he had his father to consider and that alone added pressure to the mix.
“He’s made his choice. Just let him go,” Satoru contributed, taking pity on Rena.
Seiichi ignored his remark. “None of us really knows anything about each other. We’re together now but this,” He gestured to the space separating the three of them. “It’s never going to last.”
“That’s not the point!” Rena turned her disappointed expression on him, brows pinched, mouth a grim line.
“Then tell me what is. Why do you want to keep me here?”
Satoru remained quiet now, refusing to offer his two cents on account of having been ignored earlier. To Seiichi, the older man felt like a third wheel.
“Ever since I brought you here, I felt that I could help you.”
“And you have Rena,” Seiichi affirmed. He brought his hand to his face, closed one of his eyes, and dragged his fingers over it. Then, he spoke.
“The only reason I can see at all right now is because you took the time to treat my injury.”
He wished to convey how grateful he was, but nothing he said resonated with the girl. So, Seiichi had no choice but to look to Satoru for help.
“Listen Rena,” the older man began slowly. He inched towards her and placed a hand on her bony shoulder. “It’s better this way. Once he and I are gone, you can go back to your life.”
An estranged quiet came over them, during which Rena shrugged off Satoru’s large hand. It reminded Seiichi of the calm before a storm. Rena refused to look at him, he continued to look only at her, and Satoru studied them both, waiting for someone to react.
When Rena finally broke the silence, she said in a tight voice, “I’ve never thought of either of you as a burden.”
There was nothing for them to say after that verbal slap to the face. Seiichi held his tongue, even though his instincts were willing him to argue. Satoru sighed defeatedly. The two of them had lost this battle. Rena eventually rose and left the room, leaving Seiichi and Satoru to themselves. After she was gone the air felt less suffocating. Seiichi admonished Satoru’s failure, turning his anger on him only seconds after Rena was gone.
“How long were you going to hide it from me?”
Satoru appeared perplexed. He sat up straighter and held one arm across his abdomen.
“I admit it took a while for me to notice, but now that I can see a bit better it’s blatantly obvious.”
“What are you on about kid?”
Seiichi glared. “The scarf. That weapon of yours. The resemblance between us. Did you think I’d overlook it?”
The accusatory note in his voice gave Satoru a clue as to what Seiichi was talking about. The older man opened his mouth, then closed it; opened it again, then sighed.
“I wasn’t sure how or when to bring it up,” he confessed.
“Well, now you don’t have to.”
Seiichi nervously drummed his fingers against the side of his leg. He was about to give in to his urge to pace back and forth as he went about digesting everything that had happened, but the messy floor kept him from doing so.
“Rena should really clean this place up,” he mumbled.
“What was that?”
Seiichi shook his head. He needed to remain calm. Rena wasn’t exactly out of ear shot.
“Speak any louder and she’ll hear you,” Satoru warned.
“To hell with her!” Seiichi sneered, control slipping. “And to hell with you too!”
“In all fairness,” Satoru said, keeping his voice low. “I had no idea who you were until those bandages of yours came off.”
Seiichi recalled the white cotton pressing against his eyelids and the tight bandage holding them in place. He could vaguely feel the ghost of those bindings plastered to his face. A shiver passed through him involuntarily.
“Doesn’t matter now.”
“Sure it does,” Satoru corrected. “Don’t think I haven’t a clue what you’re running from, son.”
Seiichi looked away and gazed out the solitary round window across from them. Through the thin pane of glass he could see Rena’s figure moving about outside. She was holding something between her hands. It resembled the whicker basket he was used to seeing her with but from afar it could be anything and his eyesight wasn’t yet good enough to place the object she carried.
“Think I don’t know she’s covering for you?” He returned, still staring at the girl outside.
“Don’t be angry with her. She’s got no idea we’re related.”
“No, but she’ll catch on soon enough. She already has her suspicions.”
“Then stay and I’ll go,” Satoru suggested. He hugged his stomach nice and tight as he made to swing his legs over the side of the bed.
Seiichi tossed his head and laughed. “That’s not a solution,” he said. “Neither one of us can stay here. We’ll both be putting her in danger if we do.”
“Well I for one can’t go anywhere until this pain in my ass lets up.”
“I thought it was your side that was injured.”
“Very funny,” Satoru dead panned.
Against his better judgment, Seiichi sidled over to help his father up from the bed. He helped him out of the room and over to the dining table to sit down. They each took their pre-dinner snack in silence, waiting for Rena to join them at some point. When they were done, sick of sitting, and Rena had not returned, Seiichi guided Satoru to the toilet and then back to his room.
After the older man was safely deposited onto his bed, Seiichi felt it was time to leave. He wanted to be alone and think over his options. He’d spent more than enough time playing house.
“Wait,” Satoru called after him when he reached the doorway. “Before you go, you should know that your mother didn’t make it.”
Seiichi leaned against the door frame for a moment, taking in the news. He wasn’t surprised by it.
“I wish I could say I’m sorry, but I’m not.”
Upon hearing this, Satoru nodded. It seemed as if they were both in agreement over this matter.
“So who’s the girl?”
“The one Rena’s always bugging you about. She from back home?”
Seiichi pursed his lips. He didn’t want to answer another question about the girl, as they kept referring to her as. In fact, he was altogether tired of thinking about Hanabi.
Before he left his father for the night, Seiichi clucked his tongue and said, “She means nothing to me. I don’t have a home. I never did."