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"When she looks back up, eyes wide, his subtle plea ushering a taut quiet between them, she finds he is already moving to stand, and before she can mourn anything more, her cup clatters to the table, tea spilling in a fine arc, and she – she is already gone." - Hyuuga Hinata, Sabaku no Gaara, Uzumaki Naruto. The loved and the leaving, from root to sky.
From root to sprout to stalk to trunk to branch to leaf to sky. There is an order to these sorts of things.
"Plant each seed with meaning," her mother had told her once, calloused hands covering her own tiny, inexperienced ones. The dirt beneath her touch is warm,
(It is her only comfort when they finally lay her mother down in it.)
Hinata is grown now, or very nearly so, as grown as the black pine her and her mother planted in the center of the tsuboniwa all those years ago. The branches have yet to reach the edge of the courtyard, and from her view along one of the corridors boxing the garden in, she finds that it will not happen for many more years.
Her father calls her name from behind the shoji doors at her back and her fingers grip the tray in her hands all the more fiercely.
It will not do to let the tea go cold.
"Yes, Father," she answers cordially, obediently. She turns away from the black pine.
From root to sprout to stalk…
There is an order to these sorts of things.
Something she has learned in growing up is that Naruto does not love her, not in the way she had wanted, nor in any way she could have settled for even if she weren't utterly in love with him. She has learned to lay that love to rest, or else, risk a grave like her mother's.
She has seen what loving a man does to a woman when he does not love her back, and Hinata means to plant all her seeds with meaning.
Naruto still greets her warmly, but she leaves that soil untouched.
A stalk withered without sunlight isn't worth planting in the first place.
"He might seem surly on the outside, but don't worry, Hinata. He's a good man."
Naruto's voice breaks her out of her thoughts, their steps alongside each other coming to a halt in the hall leading up to the Kazekage's office.
He is right, she discovers some minutes later.
Sabaku no Gaara is a good man. She knows this, because when Naruto grabs her wrist to tug her forward for an introduction, and when he keeps his hand at her shoulder, his smile blazing, and when she is unable to hide the blush along her cheeks or the tightening of her clasped hands, when Gaara blinks those unearthly sharp eyes at her in keen observance of her still-obvious infatuation, his mouth tipping open in what she is sure will be the embarrassing end of her, he says instead –
"Well met, Hyuuga Hinata."
He does not extend a hand (it isn't until much later that she learns his touch is earned).
It doesn't matter though, because when Naruto's hand finally slips from her shoulder, she finds it somehow easier to regain herself.
Yes, Hinata thinks, Gaara is a good man.
Some seeds are planted without us ever knowing how.
In the month that follows, talks are in progress, furthering the development of a permanent treaty between Suna and Konoha. Naruto was perhaps the easiest choice when it came to delegates, given his ties to Gaara and his siblings, and even he understands the reasoning behind Kakashi sending him on this mission, along with the other delegates of their entourage.
Hinata, however, is his choice.
Watching from across the courtyard, Naruto follows Gaara as he walks beside Hinata, the young kunoichi's hands animated with her speech, silent as it is from this distance. Her diplomacy, her rationale, her knowledge of clan economics, her stoic strength, her attention to etiquette – these were all in his favor, in Konoha's favor.
She smiles, and Naruto stops at the sight, because it is not aimed at him, and maybe he had taken that for granted all this time – because it is a strange thing to see it from such a distance and to know its warmth, even when it isn't in his direction.
What is stranger is Gaara's own smile in return.
It isn't wide, or even lingering – just a quick up-tilt of his lips, a curving line as small and momentary as the glint of sunlight off steel.
This is what she is here for, he tells himself. She knows how to talk peace. Even still, he follows a short distance behind them.
Hinata is his choice, he reminds himself.
He does not know why it should matter so much.
She likes him, she finds. This Gaara of the Sand. He is soft-spoken, though not awkwardly so. There is firmness in his quiet. He does not move without intention, does not waste energy on anything less than significant. His every word and motion is filled with definitiveness.
Sand follows him everywhere.
It is right, Hinata thinks, like pebbles in a mountain's wake.
"You are good company, Hyuuga," he says off-handedly, standing on the balcony of his office. Suna is stretched wide and golden before them.
In her estimation of him she knows he never says anything he doesn't mean and yet somehow, it is easier to believe he is simply being kind.
She covers her mouth with a delicate hand and inclines her head in a polite bow. "I am…insufficient, Kazekage, but I thank you all the same."
He looks at her, hands held behind his back. "You are not," he says firmly, inarguably. He opens his mouth to say more, but then closes it, moving closer to the balcony as he looks over his land. His hand rests stiffly along the rail. "I have few friends, Hyuuga. May I count you among them?"
Hinata blinks at him.
In this last month, between graceful pours of tea and Naruto's boisterous story-telling, between official meetings with elders and late night dinners and walks of the compound, between 'Gaara of the Sand' and 'Kazekage', Hinata discovers that sand is not as coarse as they say.
And when she nods her quiet acceptance she never feels the curl of it along her heels.
From root to sprout…
They say goodbye at the gate, as allies, as friends.
"Told you you'd like him," Naruto says, nudging her with his elbow as they make their way back to Konoha.
She nods mutely, eyes on the ground, her smile faint and barely-there. Light and shadow flicker intermittently along the path from the leaves overhead, forest branches lining their way like a cathedral.
Naruto swings his arms back to cross behind his head. "I always said I was a good judge of character – barring Sasuke." He tsks good-naturedly, a lopsided smile pulling at his lips as he looks at her from the corner of his eye.
At this she does giggle, glancing up at him, and then there – she sees it.
What she had fallen in love with in the first place.
And this is the breakdown:
A warm hand, a stiff lip, face to the sun, and every biting breath of freedom the lungs could hold – she fell in love with who she wished to be.
Something slips into place, easier than it should if it was really love in the first place (but then maybe it wasn't – not the kind she thought, at least, and definitely not the kind she had hoped for).
Because loving who you wish to be is not the same as loving who you wish to be with, and maybe it just took too long for Hinata to figure that out.
(Somewhere in the back of her mind she sees dunes upon dunes of sand, and the sun is ever-long.)
"You're a good friend, Naruto," she says sincerely.
And she means it. And he knows.
But his smile falters anyway, and neither of them really understand why.
(Not then at least, but later –
Later they will understand it all, even when they wish they hadn't.)
But the treaty isn't finalized, and so, weeks later, Gaara visits Konoha himself. When Hinata hears of his arrival, she rushes to meet him.
They say hello at the gate, as allies, as –
The sand at her heels stays always just beyond touch.
"You should train with us sometime, Gaara. Get away from all that bureaucratic crap once in a while." Naruto says it between mouthfuls of ramen but somehow both Gaara and Hinata understand him.
Belatedly, he realizes they always have, sans ramen or not, and maybe that should mean something but he's not thinking about that right now (and doesn't ever really, not until it's too late).
Beside him, Hinata politely hands a pair of chopsticks to Gaara as he sits across from them. "If time permits," he answers, eyes lowered to his own bowl as he takes the utensils from her, his fingers always respectfully apart from hers.
"Hinata," Naruto starts, slurping up noodles, "Tell him to come." He grins blindingly down at the Hyuuga beside him.
Hinata opens her mouth sheepishly, a faint pink to her cheeks, and the light is waning at their backs, so that dim shadows are cast upon her dark hair and when those milk-white eyes blink up at him she is suddenly, inexplicably –
Hyuuga Hinata is pretty.
But then she's turning those pretty eyes to Gaara and smiling that pretty smile at Gaara and in the time it takes Naruto to realize that he's staring, Hinata's 'pretty' slides into 'appeasing', so quietly and unobtrusively that it's instantly recognizable how he never saw it in the first place.
But Gaara's groan of annoyance brings his attention back, and then he's stuffing his face again, because he has no room for words and thinks they might fail him anyway.
"Don't drag her into this, Naruto." Gaara raises a pointed brow from across the table, but it's teasing.
Naruto clears his throat, paints amusement on his face (and somehow, he gets away with it – has been getting away with it for years). "So you'll come?"
Gaara's eyes flicker to Hinata, briefly, almost so fast Naruto would have missed it if he wasn't looking for it.
(But he was looking for it).
"Perhaps," the Kazekage answers on a sigh.
Naruto feels Hinata's smile beside him rather than sees it, his shoulders stiffening imperceptibly.
The next morning, Gaara does come.
Hinata is still pretty. And Naruto is still looking.
From sprout to stalk…
"Thank you for your help, Hyuuga," Gaara grunts, adjusting Temari's weight along his side, his drunken sister's arms flung over both their shoulders.
Hinata stumbles slightly under the weight, but bears it well. "Of course."
"I'm okay, Gaara, really, I'm just…," Temari mumbles, nuzzling her head against Gaara's temple, giggling, and then suddenly frowning, face scrunched in frustration. "That bastard, Shikamaru."
Hinata raises her brows in alarm as they continue walking. "Shikamaru?"
"Yeah," Temari near-shouts, her head whipping to Hinata, blinking wildly and then squinting at her, as though only now noticing her presence. "That…idiot. I'm going to kill him."
Hinata is mildly alarmed at the determination of the drunk warrior's voice but Gaara's huff of annoyance somewhat calms her.
"No, you're not," he says simply.
"I'm not?" Temari slurs, head bobbing back to her brother.
A pause, and then, "Because you will?" she says in sudden excitement, shooting up straight, jerking the three of them back a step as they try to regain balance.
Gaara barely resists the urge to roll his eyes, instead pushing her forward and grumbling, "Sure."
"Only for you," he answers, practically on instinct.
"Oh my sweet baby brother," she coos, before belching, and then promptly passing out.
Before Suna, Hinata might have held her breath in fearful anticipation. Before Suna, she might have thought him still capable of it. Before Suna, she might have missed the tender glint in his eye when she looks across the unconscious body between them and watches him sigh, adjusting the appendage over his shoulder.
"Sisters can be…troublesome," he says, as though an afterthought, eyes still ahead.
Hinata pulls her lip between her teeth to keep from smiling. "But we love them anyway."
He doesn't answer, but she thinks she knows .
Because when they lay Temari down along her bed, Gaara's hand cradling her head, movements quiet and gentle, his lips pressed into a tender, worried line –
He never disagrees.
This is how she knows.
Gaara says a lot more than just words, when you know how to read him. And Naruto has learned his friend's language years ago. He knows how to read the outstretched hand that ushers Hinata to her seat, and the way he leans closer when Hinata speaks, and the incline of his head when Hinata laughs. It's the way he offers her chopsticks, and turns her cup of tea, and smoothes the folded edge of her book pages back.
Gaara doesn't touch, no, but he doesn't need to.
And perhaps that is part of his charm. Naruto understands this, to a certain extent.
He understands that Gaara associates touch with pain, and that he does not initiate it himself, not unless you are family, and even then he knows it is still new, still fresh – to be touched, in essence, to be loved, since love and pain have always been synonymous for the two of them.
And in that way they are the same.
Because to be loved is to be touched, and it has been such a barren, void life until –
He sees it in the way she offers tea, in the way she listens intently, even in the way she braces her feet in the dirt, her hands etched in chakra, battle-ready and determined when they train together.
For all the merits of the Hyuuga's Gentle Fist, he thinks perhaps the kind of pain Hinata's touch brings is bearable.
But hers is a hand always out of reach.
And Naruto knows how to read his friend. Gaara speaks volumes in the space between them.
From stalk to trunk…
Something restless settles in her gut when Hinata watches Ino running playfully from the flower shop, her mother yelling at her from the open door. Like trying to cup water in your hand, or balance on a pin-prick of chakra.
From their position across the street, Gaara stops beside her and stares at her, long and silent enough that she only notices it when she shakes her head and looks away from the shop, her eyes catching his.
Some people say loneliness is better than abandonment, but Hinata isn't really sure, and at some point she used to think them interchangeable but that isn't actually the case (she knows this now, hard lesson as it is) and it all comes frothing to the surface, for no apparent reason, none at all except for the look in his eyes and the stillness between them and that damn blistering sun at her back and before she knows what she's saying her mouth is opening and –
"I miss my mother."
Gaara blinks at her.
And somehow the world shifts and everything is a haze because then he's stepping closer (not quite intimate though, just enough to halt her breath because she thinks she might have misspoke) and in the sigh that leaves him Hinata finds a million reasons to stay exactly in this very spot, should he even move closer.
(Should he even move close enough to touch, and Hinata –
Hinata isn't ready for what that might mean.)
"I never knew mine," he admits quietly in the space between them – the not quite distant but more than a breath's space between them.
Enough space for her to realize that this is the first open sentiment he's shared, and enough space to realize that all it took was sharing her own and maybe, just maybe –
Enough space to remind her that loneliness and abandonment are not interchangeable.
Not by a long shot.
"We leave in the morning," Gaara says abruptly.
Hinata stills the cup of tea just before her lips, blinks steadily, lowers it back to the table.
Once, when she was very little, she found a bird frozen on the grounds of the Hyuuga compound. She had torn the scarf from her neck and bundled the dead thing in it, urging it back to life. She had sat there rocking on her haunches as she cried over the tiny, ice-covered bird, for many long minutes. Long enough that winter had frozen the tears to her cheeks, and then even longer. Until a branch house servant dragged her away, back behind the delicate shoji doors of the Hyuuga house.
More than the scarf she never saw again – because scarves are insignificant when the wings they bundle are dead – little Hinata had mourned the knowledge that some things stay gone.
So when Gaara's fingers clench along the tabletop and he shifts in his seat, watching her, she already knows what she must say.
"I wish you a safe journey, Kazekage." She bows her head, a resigned smile settling along her lips.
But she doesn't expect the harsh brush of sand that whips along the table, or the ragged breath of "Hinata" that leaves him, his voice like a ghost at her spine, and when she looks back up, eyes wide, his subtle plea ushering a taut quiet between them, she finds he is already moving to stand, and before she can mourn anything more, her cup clatters to the table, tea spilling in a fine arc, and she –
She is already gone.
From trunk to branch…
Sparring with Hinata is different than sparring with Sakura. Has to be. Where Sakura is all brute force and endurance, Hinata is precision and agility.
She waxes and wanes like the moon, and he's sure there's some kind of unappreciated poetry in there somewhere but he's too busy dodging Twin Lion Fists and chakra-laced kunai to think too hard about it, so in the moment his rasengan obliterates the tree line behind her and she flickers like a mirage back into his cone of vision, he can think only this:
How the arc of her wrist would feel beneath his fingertips.
A rush of blood, the adrenalin lining the underside of his skin, muscles coiled in it, his lungs are suddenly heaving – her calloused fingers rushing by his cheek, knees to palms, elbows to jaws, teeth gnashing – a back-flip into the tree behind him and she follows, footsteps sharp on the branches, bark breaking beneath his heels as he pushes off, kunai flung out wide – too wide – but it doesn't matter at this point, it doesn't matter because she nearly jabs the tenketsu at the juncture of shoulder and neck, he grits his teeth, knuckles scraping, kick to the ankle, her forearms go up, he's already barreling into her, her back slammed into the tree, a hiss of chakra at his ear, grabbing, tumbling, he breaks the fall, her knee in his stomach, she's almost off, almost away, looks back at his grunt of pain – her mistake, and damn because he hadn't accounted for it – he's already slung his kunai and in the whisper of a second she takes to dodge it his other one slices across the smooth skin of her neck and –
The waning moon cut short.
He doesn't think he breathes for a moment, and neither does she, but then she's stumbling and he reaches out, grabs her wrist (he doesn't have to wonder at the feel of it anymore) and yanks her to him. She collides into him, gripping at his shirt with one hand, the other to her bleeding neck and he's pleading.
("sorry, sorry, Hinata, I'm so sorry")
Heated breaths across her cheeks, her eyes wide and unblinking, staring at his temple, unfocused. He keeps her arm in his grip, his other hand against her own over the wound and she's suddenly very warm against his chest, very close.
Even hours later, when her neck is bandaged and night has fallen over Konoha and he sits next to her on a nondescript bench not far from the training grounds, he can feel the heat of her still on his chest.
Somewhere over his heart, he thinks.
"Will it scar?" he asks hesitantly, the toe of one boot scuffing the stone at his feet.
Hinata lights tender fingers on the wound and licks her lips.
But she isn't answering and he's suddenly vibrating in his own skin, so he laughs, abrupt and forced. "Well, at least it's a story you can tell when you're old." And how stupid.
How utterly…not enough.
"There are no 'old' shinobi, Naruto," she says finally, eyes on her knees. "Only those living, or only those dead."
It's not an accusation, he knows, but somehow he can't help but think that maybe Hyuuga Hinata knows a bit about how to wield a blade.
He slumps back along the bench, looks up into the sky, grips his knees with trembling fingers.
There is no moon this night.
He finds the sand beneath his nails the next morning.
Mostly, he thinks she's just lonely. And the rational part of him knows this, understands it even on some intrinsic level, but to give voice to it would mean admitting something he's not yet ready to admit (maybe even to himself) and so he just stares at her in the firelight.
Hinata pulls her knees up to her chest, silent as steel. Their mission has taken them north, far enough away from Konoha that it's not even a noise in the back of his head anymore, and he isn't sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. He only knows that the fire is warm, and so is the night, and she will always sit five feet away.
Because this is Hyuuga Hinata. And he is Uzumaki Naruto. And he should have known this from the start.
"Do you miss him?" he asks, hating himself for it. But the words are borne to air regardless (he never could stop them).
If she looks at him, he might just get up and leave, damn the mission, damn Konoha.
She seems to know this, or know an inkling of it at least, because she only stares deeper into the fire light, her hands gripping her knees tighter. "Who?" she asks to the night air, a quiet release.
Like moonlight bent in half, a trickle of shadow along the backs of their necks – it comes to them in pieces.
This heated understanding – a pocket of dread to bunch their shaking fists in.
Who? she asks, and he has his answer.
Mostly, he thinks she's just lonely.
Mostly, he knows he is.
From branch to leaf…
Gaara arrives unannounced in Konoha and heads straight for the Hyuuga compound. They meet him by chance before he can make it there and in the street leading to the Hokage Tower, Hinata and Naruto stand staring at the Kazekage for many long minutes.
"What are you…" Hinata begins, and then stops, staring blankly.
(Outside her window, Hinata sometimes spots the ume blossoms on the branches, their scent wafting in through the chill air, their flowering late, even this far into winter.
But more often than not, she keeps her latch closed.)
"Our treaty's been finalized, Gaara. Without sufficient reason, people will…talk…about your being here." Beside her, Naruto finds his words far easier than she.
Gaara simply looks at his friend. "You mean to say they will talk about me coming for Hinata."
Hinata swallows thickly, her throat dry, and everything comes spiraling down into a pin-prick focus.
"Yes." Naruto grinds out, almost resignedly.
If she listens hard enough, she will hear the gravel in his voice (but it hurts him more than it hurts Gaara and he can never say this to her).
"They would be right," Gaara answers.
Hinata sucks in a breath. Naruto grabs for her arm. Gaara watches them leave.
It happens in the time it takes for Hinata to recognize that ume blossoms are a signal of change, and she has been sitting in winter for too long.
She watches Gaara's eyes as Naruto pulls her away, hooks in her throat.
They don't make it far. Naruto pulls her along for a couple blocks and then suddenly stops. He lets her go, standing with his back to her, panting heavily, his shoulders rising and falling and how – how –
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
She watches the trembling arch of his shoulders for many long moments, thinking maybe he will be able to catch her breath when he finally catches his because hers – hers is choking on sand.
Naruto finally turns to her, his profile a sharp, golden line, and he is all at once the sun and its shadow and Hinata wonders just how long some stalks take to wither.
Drown it out instead. It will hurt less, she tells herself.
"What do you want, Hinata?" He says it without any rancor, any resentment, and if she'd had any hope of letting this die a quiet death before, those hopes are gone now, because it is suddenly stark and plain before her. "What do you want?"
Naruto turns fully to her now, eyes soft under the furrowed line of his brow, face like something out of her dreams, not so long ago.
Abruptly, Hinata discovers two indisputable truths in quick succession.
The first, that Naruto is in love with her.
And the second, that she no longer is with him.
Hinata takes a stumbling step back with the realization, and Naruto follows, hand reaching out. But it stops midair, lingers between them for a moment, and then slips back to his side.
Maybe because he's come to the same realization.
A loud, drowning rush of blood in her ears and Hinata hates that she will have to say these words. That she will say these words. She'd just never thought to say them to him.
"I used…I used to want to grow old with you, Naruto."
She sees the ruin in his face as she says it, the way he crumbles, that bright, golden light flickering threateningly, and she shuts her eyes to the tears.
He turns his face to the sky, a long, worn sigh escaping his lips, his body hanging back like it's about to fall. But he stays steady, stays with feet planted in the dirt. Because Naruto has always known how to stand.
Even when he's falling.
"There are no 'old' shinobi," he says to her, and she startles at the echo of her own words, eyes flying open to watch him in the sunlight, hands gripping at her chest.
If she looks hard enough, she will see the smirk that graces his lips – momentary, regretful. "There are only those living, or only those dead."
She reaches for his hand, brings it to her lips, whispers "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" over and over until it is branded into his skin, until it fills the space between his knuckles.
Naruto pulls her to him then, bodily, fully, holding her head to his chest. "I know," he breathes into her hair, and she cries harder.
But she lets him hold her until he is ready, until they are both ready.
Until finally, he lets her go.
(He knew long before he ever asked, exactly what she wanted. He would have maybe liked her to lie, is all.)
From leaf to sky…
"If you ask me to leave, I will go." Gaara says it with his fingers tightly clasped over the tabletop. Their tea has gone cold, but that is inconsequential.
Hinata takes the moment to look at him, at this Kazekage, this former jinchuriki. In her estimation of him she knows he never says anything he doesn't mean and to this day, that holds true. He will leave, if she only asks, and he will stay gone. She knows this. Because she knows that Gaara does not speak without purpose, does not move without intention, does not do anything in this life that he doesn't already consider valuable, significant, needed.
So she should have known his intention from the start. She should have recognized the ardency of his affections. In a way, she always has, but there has always been something of hesitancy between them (mostly on her part, she sees that now, and she also sees that Gaara would never move against his friend).
She hadn't meant to plant this seed, and certainly hadn't planted it with meaning and yet –
It grows all the same.
She finds herself fiercely protective of it, even still.
"I want to live," she says in answer, her mind lingering on her last conversation with Naruto, and while painful (because it will always be painful), there is truth to his words, to hers, to theirs.
And she is tired of withering away in winter. She wants to live.
Gaara looks up at her, his eyes sharpened to a narrow focus, gaze on her face, her eyes, her lips, the steady pulse in her throat. She trembles at the look.
"I don't…" He doesn't finish, because she is standing suddenly, walking around the table until she is kneeling beside him. Gaara shifts back slightly, hands moving from the table, hovering uncertainly in the air.
Hinata lays her hands demurely on her knees, bowing her head slightly. "But I want to live with you," she says, "If you will have me." Her voice is steady and sure, and somewhere not far off, she knows the ume blossoms are blooming.
She smells them on the wind.
Gaara opens his mouth as though to speak but nothing comes, at least, nothing either of them can make sense of, because suddenly he is reaching for her elbow, holding her there, and the billow of sand in the wake of his sudden movement makes the breath catch in her throat because it isn't coarse, it never was, and really, she's known this from the beginning.
She looks down at his hand on her arm, his thumb sliding over the inside of her elbow and she shudders. Nothing has ever felt so intimate to her before. She looks back up at him and he's staring heatedly, fingers curling around her skin.
This time, Hinata will be sure to plant all her seeds with meaning.
The heat of his touch promises that the roots will take.
Hinata looks up at the branches of the black pine, the tips of their leaves brushing the edge of the house's roof, the secluded tsuboniwa practically overgrown by the hearty tree. The courtyard is full, after so many years of waiting, and Hinata likes to think that her mother expected this, all those ages ago, when she had pressed her hands to Hinata's impossibly tiny ones and let the soil breathe beneath their fingertips.
Lost in her reminiscence, Hinata does not notice her husband's approach, until his hands wind around her waist and he pulls her back to his chest, his face tucked into the crook of her neck as he breathes her in.
"Gaara." A contented sigh. A fragment of peace.
His arms tighten possessively around her waist, his swift exhale like a plea against the pale flesh of her throat.
In the end, soil is not so very different from sand.
And Hinata has learned that it is not enough to simply plant a seed with meaning. You have to tend it, too. From root to sprout to stalk to –
But then, you already know the order to these sorts of things.
The garden breathes around them.