It took 10 months for Naruto to return her feelings.
Hinata was heading out on a routine mission with her team. It was a simple courier mission. The Hokage had sensitive scrolls to deliver to the Daimyo of the Land of Fire. In return, the Daimyo had sensitive secret documents for the Hokage. Her team was to deliver the scrolls to him in his palace in the capitol city of the Land of Fire – and wait to receive the documents the Hokage needed before heading back to Konoha. Naruto was seeing her off. They walked hand in hand to the East Gate. Kiba, Akamaru, and Shino were already waiting just outside the gate. Hinata smiled – grateful to her teammates for the privacy they were giving her.
“I love you, Naruto-kun.” Hinata said softly. She marveled at how easily the words rolled off her tongue.
“Be careful out there, Hinata-chan. I’ll miss you.”
Naruto leaned forward and gave her a kiss that made her toes tingle and her heart beat faster. Even after all these months, kissing him still made her feel like she could fly. She didn’t want to go! She just wanted to keep kissing him! She sighed sadly as Naruto pulled back.
“I’ll be careful. Good-bye, Naruto-kun.”
The capitol city was beautiful. The Land of Fire was prospering. As a result, wealthy patrons could hire artists and architects to make their city great. There were tall white buildings with marble columns. Enormous stained glass windows decorated the Great Library. The smallest of the city’s public parks was at least twice the size of the Konoha Public Park and boasted even more exotic blooms.
She and her team had arrived at the capitol with no trouble – and they had personally delivered the scrolls to the Daimyo. However, they had made such good time that the return documents were not yet prepared for them to take back. So they were staying at a plush hotel in the center of the city courtesy of the Daimyo. The suite they had been provided with was luxurious – consisting of three individual bedrooms connected to a common sitting room with large floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the beautiful city. At night, lanterns and streetlights twinkled like small stars creating a spectacular view. All of them – even Kiba and Akamaru who usually liked to explore the big city – had retired early. But Hinata had been unable to sleep. So she had pulled one of the armchairs closer to the windows and gazed out into the night. It really was a beautiful city.
Hinata hated it.
Being here only reminded her that her time was running out. Three of her arranged marriage proposals came from wealthy noble families living in this city. They were generous offers – the clan would benefit greatly (both politically and monetarily) if she accepted any one of them. But Hinata loved Naruto.
Telling Naruto that she loved him was as easy as breathing. She couldn’t understand why it had been so very hard to confess that first time. The second and third times she said those words (“I love you, Naruto-kun.”) she had been surprised at how natural it had felt. It seemed that once he knew… she had no difficulty confirming it. It made her happy to say those words to him; it filled her with euphoria and brought all her feelings rushing to the surface.
Unfortunately, it also hurt every time she said it, because Naruto never said it back. In the first few months, Hinata simply pushed the hurt feelings aside. Of course, Naruto didn’t love her, not yet. He was just getting to really know her. As time passed, that excuse became more and more flimsy. She and Naruto had been dating for almost a year. They spent all their free time together. Times were peaceful, so neither of them had been sent away for long missions. They had the luxury of time. Time to date. Time to talk. Time to laugh. Time to kiss. She could honestly say that she learned more about Naruto than she ever expected. The same held true for Naruto, as well.
He really knew her – all of her – now. And it seemed as if, he still couldn’t love her. (She didn’t doubt he cared. But love?) No matter how many times she said, “I love you” – Naruto never said it back. She wondered if he ever would.
The sound of a bedroom door opening jolted her from her depressing thoughts. Kiba walked into the common area simultaneously yawning and rubbing his eyes. He was halfway across the room and pouring a glass of water from the pitcher before he woke enough to notice her sitting by the window.
“Hinata? What are you doing up in the middle of the night? Are you… Are you crying?” That last word came out almost like a yelp. If there was one thing Kiba – battle-hardened ninja that he was – could not face, it was tears from the girl who was like a sister to him. Kiba was horrified, panicked, and half ready to run to get Shino’s help.
“Am I?” Hinata brought her hands to her face and was surprised to find tears. “I guess… I am. I didn’t even notice.”
“What’s wrong?” Kiba eyed Shino’s closed door even as he dragged another chair to Hinata’s corner and sat next to her.
“Nothing.” Hinata looked back out the window trying – and failing – to ignore Kiba’s penetrating stare. He didn’t believe her. Obviously. She sighed, “Everything.”
“I’m not going away, unless it’s to go get Shino. Would you rather talk to him?” Kiba asked after a moment of silence. Hinata shook her head.
Damn! I guess it’s up to me then. Kiba almost wished she said yes. I’m just not good at this touchy feely girl talk stuff! The one (and only) time he saw his older sister cry, Hana had tried to kick him. He’d only been trying to help! How was he supposed to know that you just don’t tell a girl who’s been crying that she looks terrible – even if it was true?
“If you don’t want me to wake him up, you can talk to me instead. I’ll listen.”
“I was just looking around the capitol city. Being here… it depresses me. I keep thinking… in a few more months, this could be my new home. I might live here. And I hate it – because it’s not Konoha.”
“What? Why?” Kiba nearly jumped to his feet. Hinata was leaving Konoha? Leaving Team 8? When? He was way out of his depth. Why him? Why didn’t Shino get up for a glass of water?
“You know about all of the arranged-marriage proposals that I’ve been getting since I turned thirteen, right?”
“The only reason I haven’t been married off is because my father is letting me choose. But the elders on our clan council want me married – or at least engaged before I’m twenty. Father’s put them off for years. He’s always told them I was too young. But I’ll be nineteen soon. Girls from noble families are nearly always married before they turn twenty. Father won’t be able to put them off forever.” Hinata shrugged. “Three of the best offers come from families that live in this city – so they want me to pick one of those three.”
“But they can’t force you to get married, right?”
Hinata didn’t answer.
“They can’t. Right?”
“No. They can’t, but they can make things difficult for Father – and for me.”
“Then… I don’t understand. What’s the problem?”
“I’ve decided to… to accept one of the offers – for the good of the clan.”
“What?!” This time Kiba did leap to his feet. He almost couldn’t believe what he was hearing – except all Inuzuka had enhanced hearing. When an Inuzuka channeled chakra to their ears, he could hear a twig snap from over half a mile away. Even without chakra, they could hear whispers across the building and behind closed doors. So there was absolutely no way he’d misheard her.
“What about Naruto?”
“Naruto-kun…” she whispered. Hinata wrapped her arms protectively around herself. “I don’t think Naruto-kun loves me.”
“What? Are you crazy? He’s nuts about you! Whenever the guys get together, he always talks about how great you are!”
“Has he ever said he loves me?”
Kiba’s first instinct was to say, “Of course, he has!” but the words died on the tip of his tongue. He carefully thought back and couldn’t recall Naruto ever using the word “love” when he talked about Hinata. Naruto always talked about how “great” or “beautiful” or “wonderful” Hinata was. But…
“Well… No,” he said slowly. “But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you… That’s not something he’d say to his guy friends, you know.”
“Apparently, that’s not something he says to his girlfriend, either.”
Even without his superior hearing, Kiba couldn’t miss the heartbreaking sorrow in her voice.
“You mean all this time… all these months you’ve been together… and he’s never told you he loves you?” Kiba knew he was gaping like a fish, but couldn’t seem to get his jaw off the ground.
“He knows you love him, right?”
“Yes. I told him before our first date – and hundreds of times since. Every time I tell him… he smiles and kisses me or tells me I’m beautiful or how happy he is that I’m his girlfriend. But… He’s never said it. Not once.”
Kiba growled, suddenly angry on his sister’s behalf – because Hinata really was his sister in every way that mattered, just like Shino was his brother. He clenched his fists. “When we get back, I’m going to kick his ass!”
“No! Kiba! Don’t!” Hinata pleaded. “You can’t force someone to love you. Naruto-kun has been very good to me. He gave me a chance. He gave me ten of the happiest months in my life. Only… I failed. I had a chance… and I couldn’t change his heart. Now I know that Naruto-kun’s never going to fall in love with me.”
“I’m sure that’s not true. Just give it a little more time.” Kiba awkwardly gave Hinata a hug and did his best to comfort her. It would have been more comforting if Kiba actually believed his own words, except he didn’t. Naruto usually wore his heart on his sleeve. (It was almost embarrassingly easy to read Naruto’s emotions at times.) He usually said exactly what he was feeling. Was Hinata right?
“No. I’ve already had almost a year. Naruto-kun is kind. He won’t break up with me even if he can’t love me. So… I’m going to let him go. That way, he’ll be free to find a girl who he can fall in love with. And… I think it would be better for me if… if I left Konoha. It would hurt too much to stay and watch him love someone else.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to get married though!” Kiba protested. “Couldn’t you just take a long term assignment or transfer to one of our allied villages?”
“It’s ‘for the good of the clan.’” Hinata smiled sadly. “If I had a chance to marry Naruto-kun – I would take it in a heartbeat. But if I can’t be with him… It just doesn’t matter.”
“If you tell Naruto…”
“No! I’m not going to pressure him into marrying me!”
“No! I’m not going to tell him. And you won’t either. Promise me, Kiba.”
Kiba wanted to say “No way in Hell!” but… Hinata looked so fierce just then. He sighed. He was a sucker for his sisters. It was good thing he only had two – and it was also a good thing that neither Hana nor Hinata took advantage of him too often.
“Fine. I won’t say anything. But please, please don’t do anything yet. Just give it some more time.” Kiba crossed his fingers behind his back. He wouldn’t say anything to Naruto. But he was definitely going to talk to Shino. This affected their pack. Shino needed to know – and maybe he would have some idea of how to help because Kiba was stumped.
A few days later…
Naruto dashed almost frantically to the Konoha Hospital. He had been chatting with Izumo and Kotetsu when the news arrived. Team 8 was back, but not without injuries. He didn’t wait to hear more and took off in a flash for the hospital.
Hinata-chan! Please be okay! Please be okay!
The last ten months with Hinata had been the happiest of his life. Training with Hinata, smiling with Hinata, being with Hinata became his life. He needed her more than he needed oxygen. How would he cope if she were gone? The spike of fear that thought generated spurred him to go faster.
Kiba and Shino sat outside the doors leading to the operating room. The green light above the doors was on, indicating a surgery in progress. Akamaru lay at their feet whining pathetically every few minutes. They all sported minor injuries, none of it serious. Shino had sprained a wrist. Akamaru had been singed by a fire jutsu that had gotten too close for comfort. He suffered a few second-degree burns and still smelled like smoke. Kiba had flesh wound caused by a kunai to his leg and a few other minor scrapes. Their injuries had been treated in the hallway because all of them refused to leave. The only reason they had survived the ambush mostly intact had been because of Hinata and her absolute defense, the Shugo Hakke Rokujuuyonshou. Only in order to protect them all, she had expanded the sphere of coverage to almost triple its normal size – and she had been forced to maintain that defense for too long – much too long. After the initial onslaught was over, they were all unscathed and ready to fight back. But Hinata had been exhausted – keeping the Shugo Hakke Rokujuuyonshou going at triple its normal size and for so long… it had drained her chakra to dangerous levels. By the time they were locked in close combat, she barely had enough chakra to use her Jyuken.
Their mission was a success. They had protected the secret documents entrusted to them by the Daimyo and delivered them to the Hokage. But Hinata…
Kiba clenched his fist angrily. Hinata had incurred serious injuries. She might even die!
Just then, Naruto burst in. He caught sight of Team 8 and sprinted to them, ignoring the indignant nurses and doctors that he nearly bowled over on his way.
“Hinata-chan! Where is she? Is she okay?”
“Hinata is currently in surgery with Tsunade-sama,” said Shino curtly. “Her injuries were severe. We do not know her current condition.”
“Oh.” Naruto paled and almost collapsed on the bench across from them.
Kiba stood up slowly – with anger blazing hot in his chest. Logically, he knew he wasn’t actually angry with Naruto. His anger was directed inward at himself. He should have been able to protect his sister! Why didn’t he protect Hinata? Instead, she had protected him – and paid the price for it. But Naruto was a convenient target – and he was right there.
“’Oh.’ Is that all you can say?” Kiba almost shouted. “Don’t you care? Don’t you love her?”
“Of course, I do!”
Naruto-kun… I don’t think Naruto-kun loves me… Every time I tell him… he smiles and kisses me… But… He’s never said it. Not once.
Her words and the memory of her tears combined with Naruto’s immediate self-righteous defense… How dare he! It was too much. Kiba lunged forward and slugged Naruto as hard as he could.
Naruto – and even Shino and Akamaru – looked at him in shock.
“Bastard! What was that for?” Naruto put a hand to his throbbing cheek and looked up at Kiba furious at the unprovoked attack.
“Liar!” Kiba hissed. “She loves you. Right before she passed out, she asked me to tell you that she loves you. Even when she’s about to die, the only thing she can think of is you! And you… you don’t love her – or you wouldn’t make her cry over your sorry butt!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Naruto shouted. Then, in a quiet voice, he asked, “Do I really make her cry?”
“But… Why? What did I do?” Naruto sounded so honestly bewildered that Kiba took pity on him.
“Hinata thinks that you don’t love her.” Kiba gave him a long measuring look. Naruto looked horrified by that revelation. “Do you?”
Naruto nodded once, but didn’t say anything – though Kiba was close enough to hear him gulp.
“Then why haven’t you told her?” Kiba exploded.
Were it not for his naturally enhanced hearing, Kiba would have missed the choked whisper. As it was, it only made him more furious. He moved to hit Naruto again – who was doing nothing to stop him – until Shino caught his fist. Kiba had forgotten all about his teammate. Behind the sunglasses and tall collar, he could tell that Shino was frowning. He cringed.
Shit. Shino is pissed at me.
“Attacking Naruto will not make Hinata happy. Let’s step away for a moment. I would like a private word with you. I was not aware that Hinata was in such distress.”
Kiba could hear the silent accusation in Shino’s clipped tone. (He hadn’t found a chance to talk to Shino without Hinata around.)
Yup. Definitely pissed.
The next day…
Naruto arrived at the hospital early, long before visiting hours started. Several hours after his confrontation with Kiba, Tsunade had announced that Hinata would make a full recovery. He almost collapsed; the relief he felt was nearly overwhelming. They had all wanted to see her right away. But Tsunade had forbidden visitors. Hinata was being kept sedated in order to hasten her recovery. Despite their protests, Tsunade remained firm and sent them all home to rest – especially the remaining members of Team 8. (Kiba had glared at him, as if it had been his fault that they couldn’t see Hinata.)
“Hi, Naruto. Are you here to see Hinata?” asked Sakura when she found him waiting listlessly in the visitor’s lounge. She was getting ready to make her rounds at the hospital.
“Yeah. Tsunade-baa-chan wouldn’t let me see her yesterday. Is she… Is she really going to be all right?” Despite Tsunade’s words yesterday, Naruto craved the extra reassurance.
“Of course. She’s doing much better this morning. Tell you what… if you promise not to tell Tsunade-shisho I bent the rules, I’ll let you in early to see her.”
Sakura led the way to Hinata’s room. Naruto followed quietly beside her.
“Just so you know, Hinata’s still under sedation. She won’t wake for a few more hours.”
“That’s okay. I just want to be with her.”
“You should talk to her, too. It’s a proven medical fact that injured people recover faster when the people they love talk to them. Even when they’re asleep their subconscious knows that the people they love are there – and they can hear them.”
Sakura frowned. Naruto was unnaturally subdued; he should have been much happier since he knew that Hinata would make a full recovery. Maybe Shino was right.
“Here we are, Naruto. I’ll leave you here. I need to check on the other patients, but I’ll be by to see Hinata later.”
Naruto pushed the door open cautiously. He was almost afraid of what he might find. Hinata lay on a hospital bed asleep, like Sakura had said. Her face was pale – and there were bandages wrapped around her torso, but she appeared to be breathing easily. He sat next to her and took her free hand in one of his. Her other hand was attached to an I.V. (intravenous drip) with a pulse monitor over her index finger that kept track of her heartbeat. The steady beeping of the machine calmed him. She was still alive. She was still with him. His other hand reached out to stroke her silky black hair. He sighed.
“Hi, Hinata-chan. Sakura says that I should talk to you while you’re sleeping because it’ll help you recover faster. But I don’t know what to say.” Naruto felt awkward and clumsy, but pressed on. He would do anything to help Hinata.
“I’m sorry, Hinata-chan. Kiba says I made you cry because you think that I don’t love you.” He bit his lip and hesitated.
“That’s not true, you know. You mean everything to me. I would die just to see you smile. I can’t even think of living without you because when I do… it hurts so much that it scares me to death. I’ve never ever felt this way about anyone else in my life – not even Sakura.
“But I’m afraid.
“When I was young, old man Hokage hired a long line of child minders to take care of me. This was after I’d been kicked out of the orphanage and before I started the Academy and started living on my own. Most of them… well… it just never worked out. They did they’re best not to take care of me. Old man kept firing them and hiring another one. I must have gone through at least ten of them in just two or three months. And then… he found someone for me who worked out. She was an older lady, probably old enough to have grandkids of her own. She took good care of me and treated me well. At that point in my life… well… No one besides the old man had ever treated me like just another kid, you know? So I l-l-loved her. One day, I told her so.
“Do you know what she said?”
Naruto waited a moment. Her eyes were still closed and she didn’t respond – not that he expected her to.
“No, of course you don’t,” he laughed bitterly, “because I never told anyone.
“At first she didn’t say anything. She just kind of looked at me, like I was stupid, or something. Then she said she didn’t want it. She didn’t want it because… it was worthless – just like me. She was a professional child minder and she would do her job right because she had a reputation to maintain. She said, ‘You love me, brat? Well, take it back. I don’t want something so worthless. I’m just doing my job like a professional.’
“No one has ever wanted it, you know. No one has ever actually wanted me to love them, except for you – not even Sakura or Sasuke. Sakura… she just wanted to be my friend. And Sasuke? You know what happened with Sasuke… He never even wanted to be my friend in the first place. I kind of… I don’t know… just forced him to be my friend.
“All my friends… I’ve always had to work hard to earn them. No one has ever just offered to be my friend for free. I’ve definitely never had anyone offer to just love me, like you do, for free. I keep thinking… I didn’t earn this. You love me, but I didn’t earn it. The best thing that ever happened to me just fell into my lap, for free. I didn’t even have to try to win you over.
“I’m afraid, Hinata-chan. Someday, you’ll wake up and see just how worthless my love really is… and you’ll take yours back. I thought that as long as I didn’t say it… you’d never find out. But all I did was make you cry. I’m so stupid! I don’t understand how you can love an idiot like me!
“I’m a coward because I can’t tell you this while you’re awake. It would be too risky. If you threw it back in my face… like my dear old child minder… it would kill me. It really would. You’re sleeping and Sakura says that even though you’re asleep, a part of you can still hear me.
“I l-l-lo…” Naruto took a deep breath and cursed. “Damn it!”
The only sound in the room was the beep… beep… beep of the heart monitor. Naruto watched the steady rise and fall of her chest; the proof of her breathing calmed him. He didn’t say anything for a moment as he collected himself.
“I love you. I do. Even if… even if you find it’s worthless… don’t leave me, please.”
He didn’t expect her to answer.
“I love you, too.”
He froze – then whipped his head around to stare at her face in shock. Her beautiful eyes were open.
“Hinata-chan? You’re awake?”
Hinata sat up with some difficulty – and Naruto moved to help her, even though he wanted to run. He almost jerked away when her hands reached out to touch the tears on his face. Some time during his speech he’d started to cry and hadn’t even realized it. She gently pulled him to her until their foreheads were touching.
“It’s not worthless. It’s the most precious thing in the world to me. I’ll never throw it away. I’ll take good care of it. I promise.”
She sealed that promise with a kiss.
Outside the hospital…
“Thank you, Sakura-san.”
“No problem, Shino.” Sakura shrugged. “Naruto is like my brother. I’d do anything to help him.”
“So you think this will really help Naruto and Hinata?” asked Kiba.
“Yes. It is obvious from his actions that Naruto is deeply in love with Hinata. However, for some reason, he has a mental block that prevents him from expressing it. Though it is clear to us, Hinata still needs to hear it. If he thinks she is still asleep, he may have an easier time overcoming this block.”
“I checked on Hinata earlier,” Sakura added. “The meds keeping her under have all worn off – and she was sleeping naturally. The minute he talks to her, she’ll start to wake up.”
“That’s just… sneaky.” Kiba whistled in appreciation. “When did you get so devious, Shino?”
Shino simply smiled; his sunglasses glinted in the sun.