Hinata's mournful wail streamed out of her along with the last of her strength. She collapsed just inside the door of the cottage, and Neji could only watch, could only stand perfectly still in the calm eye while the hurricane of his anger boiled and churned around him.
He didn't know that Hinata, little sweet Hinata who always had a smile for everyone, could grieve with such ferocity. Sobs exploded from her chest and resounded from the rafters. Downpours of tears and snot streaked her fine-boned features as she sank into her private ocean of pain. Her silken wedding kimono pooled around her. There was no grace in her grief, no loveliness in her loneliness. Ugly cries tore from her throat.
Neji watched her as one might watch a landslide erase a village, powerless and awed, and said nothing.
He hadn't looked at her all day. Through the ceremony, the dinner, the marriage festivities, he avoided her gaze as she avoided his. They shared the same fear. If one looked into the other's eyes, those milky white eyes set into that pale face and framed by dark hair, one would see the reflection of pain as surely as through a mirror, and then they would both shatter. Their pride bore them up through the day and into the night.
He might have been proud of them still. The whole family had gathered around to bless their union, smiling with teeth that glinted like daggers, and neither of them winced. If Hinata's cheeks colored as her grief rose inside of her, she looked to them like the model of a modest, blushing bride. If he did not kiss his new wife or touch her hand, he appeared as a the gentleman groom, full of restraint and good-breeding. If they walked slowly from the wedding feast to their new cottage on the edge of the family compound, as they had, or if she hesitated at the entryway and needed his hand on the delicate arch of her back to encourage her to enter, as she did, then they were the purest of innocents on their wedding night, shy and skittish as deer.
Now, out of sight of the others, Hinata curled into a ball on the floor and gave herself to the tidal wave of her heart break, and Neji wished that he could be capable of that surrender. Her tears would wash out some of her strength. Her sobs would exhaust her and leave her slack, eventually. His anger had nowhere to go. It swirled around him, mocking his inability to lash out and strike down the source of his pain. His tense muscles ached for release, but there was no one to blame and no face to smash in with his fists.
They had agreed to the marriage. They both said their vows in low voices that did not waive. They promised.
Neji stared at the unpacked boxes containing both of their belongings and the new furniture purchased as wedding gifts that filled the cottage. He imagined breaking it all. He longed to splinter every chair, smash every glass, and step into the cool night while flames consumed the wreckage. It would be so simple.
Hinata hiccupped, and Neji looked down at her. He did not know how much time had passed, but her tide of tears was receding. Sweet Hinata whose heart belonged to clueless Naruto since childhood. Strong Hinata who became a fine warrior in spite of the father that cast her aside as unworthy. He had made mistakes, been cruel, been selfish. Perhaps he had not earned his happy ending, but Hinata... She did not deserve this.
This new purpose helped him dim the storm of his rage. He knelt down and gathered her into arms. She was too weak to protest. Her arms hung limply as if she were asleep, but her eyes stayed open.
He carried her into the bedroom. Some well-meaning relative had decorated the room with flowers and candles. The fragrant smoke of incense swirled around them as Neji laid his cousin and now wife on the downturned bedding. She hiccupped again while he pulled the sheets up to her shoulders. Then he knelt down beside her. Her red-rimmed eyes searched his, so he began to speak.
"Neither of us wanted this, but we both agreed to it. I cannot bring you the happiness you crave," he said in a low voice. His hand smoothed back a rogue strand of hair from her damp face. "Still, I will care for you, Hinata. I promised to never shame you or bring you needless sorrow. Those promises I intend to keep."
Then, he stood and turned from her. After blowing out the final candle, he left her alone in their marriage bed, pulling the door closed softly behind him.
Hinata slept a dreamless sleep, and when the horizon lightened, she woke up slowly. Her head ached with the empty feeling that comes after a night of keening. What was left of her hope rattled around inside of her chest, as if grief had hollowed out her heart.
She had held onto a romantic dream throughout her girlhood. In her dream, she would catch Naruto staring at her. She would blush, and finally, at long last, he would understand what her blushes meant. His face would break into that carefree grin. His hand would reach for hers.
But Naruto would never love her now. She closed her eyes against the horrible truth.
If she had any tears left, she could cry again, but the ocean of pain inside her had dried into a desert of emptiness. How could she bear it? That piece of hair that never would stay put dropped over her eyes and tickled her nose. The warm memory of hand skimming over her face and tucking back that wayward strand washed in to comfort her.
She rose from the bed. She hung up her wedding outfit in the closet and put on a soft pair of trousers the color of mother-of-pearl with a matching tunic, one of the many outfits in her new wardrobe as a married woman. She washed the remnants of last night crying jag from her face in the bathroom sink. The face in the mirror looked like someone else's, like some other member of the Hyuga clan. Like her own long lost sister.
Like her little lost sister.
Hinata had been out on a mission when the word came to her. Hanabi hadn't come home in three days. She had taken to training alone in the woods, and one night she didn't return. The entire clan turned out to search for her and found nothing, even with their deep-seeing eyes. The messenger told her as much and advised her to come home as quickly as possible.
"It's okay. We'll finish the mission tonight and start back tomorrow," she told her team. Her pride. The mission. They came first.
Kiba set his jaw and then put his arms around her. She broke down into his chest while Akamaru rubbed his large muzzle on her legs and whined. Even Shino, who so seldom showed any flicker of emotion, reached out and put a hand on her head. She couldn't fool them. For the Hyugas, family came first.
By the time she made it back to her kin, her father had gone quite wild with grief. Night after night, Hinata heard his wailing through the walls of the main house while her mother's gentle voice tried to comfort him. Only when someone found Hanabi's body, broken on the rocks below a waterfall, did the wailing cease. Silence rollled in like suffocating fog and filled the space left by loss. There had been an inquiry, of course, that came back inconclusive. Accident or murder, it hardly mattered as the clan gathered for the funeral. Hanabi, the future of the clan, was buried on a misty morning.
A short time later, her father summoned both Hinata and Neji before the elders of the clan. He spoke mostly of the past wrongs he had done: rejecting Hinata at such a young age, keeping his brother's last letter from Neji, pushing Hanabi too hard, and more.
Hinata thought he was apologizing. He wasn't. He was explaining.
He proposed that Hinata and Neji wed. Through their union, they would unify the Hyuga clan, join the main house with the powerful fruit of the branch, and rectify the injustices of the past. Their children would be the new hope of the clan and symbolic of a clean start for the family. Speechless, Hinata searched for the words to protest as one by one the elders agreed. Then, her father looked to Neji.
"Will you accept my daughter as your wife?" he asked, his voice breaking with sadness and hope.
What could Neji say besides yes? What reason could she find to reject him after that?
Hinata moved into the kitchen, filled the new kettle, and set it to boil. She pulled out the tea cups and leaves. Although she felt nothing but emptiness inside, Hinata remembered that neither she nor Neji had eaten much the night before at the wedding. There were more than enough dishes to choose from among the myriad supplied by aunts and mothers. A frown tugged at her face while she lifted the lids on pots and baskets until she found what she was looking for.
The sun's face broke over the horizon as she joined Neji on the veranda. He, too, had changed from his wedding clothes to soft robes. He resembled a statue of Buddha, legs crossed in half lotus and lost in thought.
As she settled near him and placed the tray between them, Hinata sensed a familiar presence nearby, but it vanished in that same moment. She decided now was not the time to mention it.
"I want to apologize," she began before the silence became too thick. "For last night."
"You have nothing to apologize for," he answered flatly, but Hinata smiled her little smile when he tasted the tea and reached for a rice ball. She served him enough breakfasts while he trained with her father to know that he preferred this one. It, too, was part of her apology, which he accepted. As long as she could remember, theirs had been a subtle language.
The sun rose slowly. They sipped tea and said nothing.
Would this heaviness press down on her for the rest of her life? A solid rush had filled her time for the past month. Her father's haste to see them married broke the old traditions. The engagement lasted only four weeks, just long enough to gather together the clan and stitch the wedding clothes. The ceremony, attended only by family, preceded the public reception for the village, which required more preparation, by a week. They were supposed to be on honeymoon until then- no visitors, no trips, no missions. Just the two of them and the cottage on the edge of the forest and seven empty days to fill. How could nothing be so terrifying?
The hollowness ached inside her. Her head ached. It was too much and not nearly enough. Naruto. Neji. Nothing. Everything. Her breath caught, and she looked up, alarmed by her rising panic. Neji fixed her in one of his unreadable gazes.
"Would you, um, like to train with me today?" she asked.
He took a long sip of tea before responding.
"I would like that very much."
Hinata found her breath again. His eyes were warm, relieved.
They trained hard all that day, pausing only to take in water and consume the light lunch Hinata remembered to pack.
At first, Neji held back too much, and her frown reprimanded him for the insult, though she said nothing. Cautiously, he scrolled back his restraint until he only withheld the most lethal of his arsenal, and she surprised him by matching blows. Hinata's incredible grace balanced what she lacked of his strength. She wasted no movement. Was this the same girl he fought, and nearly killed, all those years ago?
Although they both depended on the Gentle Fist style, each developed an individualized variation based on their talents. Neji depended on his strength and strategy. Hinata used her flexibility, speed, and something else. In the morning, he could not name it. Not knowing plagued Neji all day. Toward evening, she threw herself in front of his terrific attack, used her grace to avoid it, and turned his over-confidence against him to spend him sprawling. Only then did he understand.
Hinata's technique depended on bravery. He was the genius, yet she did not fear him. She trusted in herself, risked more than he did, pusher harder. He wondered when she acquired this courage and whether her adoration of a certain spiky-haired blonde had encouraged her metamorphosis.
He realized he was smiling at her when a real smile lit up her countenance, too.
"You are stronger now," he commented, sheathing his weapon.
"I'm trying," she returned, as modest as ever.
With the last light of the sun slipping away, they packed up their gear, pulled the shurikens from the tree trunks, and headed back to the cottage. The silence they shared as Hinata made rice and he reheated one of the many prepared dishes felt nothing like the heavy, oppressive silence that hung over them all the past month and into that very morning. This silence whispered comfort.
Neji watched Hinata's hands as she moved through the kitchen. Her long, slender fingers danced across the dishes, coaxed the burner to flame, and released the cooking spoon with unconscious flourish.
She surprised him by scooping out a portion of rice, quick as a flash to keep in the steam, for herself, and then letting the rest cook longer until it was nearly overdone. This rice she served to him. He looked at the bowl, dumbstruck. How did she know that he liked his rice cooked just so? He thought back to breakfast with the tea brewed as bitter as he would have made for himself. She knew him. All these years, she watched until she understood and then took care to serve him well.
Was it that terrible to be bound to such a wife?
Still, neither of them could bear to eat amid the boxes and the flowery scent of the cottage. They returned to the veranda to watch the stars blink on.
Afterwards, he cleared the dishes and let her take the first bath. He waited outside until the door of the bedroom clicked close before he dared to approach the bathroom for his turn. She set out all of his toiletries and a clean set of night clothes as well.
"A good wife, a thoughtful wife," he chanted to himself as the hot water closed over his tense body.
Hinata met his at the door with her secret smile and a bottle.
"Please?" she asked, eyes shining. "I've always wanted to try it."
"Yes," he nodded, just to keep the light in her eyes. She found two cups and poured each of them a portion. Their grandfather specialized in brewing an unfiltered sake that tasted both smooth and sweet. It began as a joke long ago, something about the whiteness of the sake causing the Hyuga clan's trademark eyes. The adults of the family always passed around a bottle on memorable occasions.
Neji found he enjoyed it.
Hinata filled her cups again and sat back with a giggle.
"I was thinking about Lee when he drinks," she explained. "I've only seen it once."
He sighed. "On our last mission, our clients gave Lee sake over dinner."
"Tell me," she asked.
And so he did.
Many people in the village found Neji too quiet or mistook his economy of words for haughtiness. Hinata knew better. If she asked the right questions and listened, he would talk for hours. Like her, Neji watched and saw with great clarity, so his stories filled with bright detail. He could tell a good tale. Lee's drunken escapades. Guy's bizarre yet effective training methods. She laughed and laughed and kept their cups full. Neither of them drank enough to get drunk, but the sake lent an easiness to their conversation. Hinata found herself telling stories, too. The time she walked in on Temari and Shikamaru kissing. When Kiba got fleas. She tried to make him laugh, and once or twice succeeded.
The night flowed along so easily that she started when she felt that chakra again, closer this time. She had felt it that morning as they passed into the woods to train, too. HInata had elected to let it pass then. Now she opened her mouth to speak, but Neji had already risen and taken the bottle with him.
"Let's get some rest," he said on his way inside.
She caught up to him while he washed the cups out in the sink. She gave him space, waiting patiently, until he had no excuse to avoid her any longer. When he finally turned to her, head down as if ashamed, she caught his face between her hands. There was one name that he avoided mentioning in his stories, as she had avoiding bringing up Naruto. She had suspected, and tonight confirmed it. There would be a time to address that hurt later.
Instead of speaking, she stood on her toes and kissed him where the mark of the branch family branded his forehead and quietly slipped off to bed.
They began the next day in the same way as the last: breakfast with the dawn and preparations for a day of training.
All day long, they sparred. She was proud when he paused to ask about one of her signature spins and glad to show him the technique. In exchange, he helped her with a tricky, curving attack that her father never deemed her worthy to learn. Neji was patient as she stumbled. She only had to show him once, and he could mirror any move perfectly. In contrast, Hinata's success came hard won with practice. The look of pride on his face when she finally mastered it felt like redemption.
Neji would not write her off, as her father had. He would teach her anything she asked. He respected her.
Was it that terrible to be bound to such a husband?
"Are you hungry?" Neji called, breaking her thoughts. It was getting late.
She shook her head.
"One more round," she asked.
"On one condition: use the new attack," he bargained.
A good husband, she thought.
"If you use the spin," she agreed before dropping into her combat stance.
The fight was sloppy by their measured standards. They had trained too long and hard, and Hinata realized almost immediately that it was dangerous to push so hard with such deadly moves. Neji dodged her new attack too slowly; she could sense the weight of fatigue weighing him down, as it pressed on her.
Suddenly, she felt the white anger of another's presence again. She knew that flash of chakra. Hinata snapped her head to find the familiar face in the high branches of the tree. She forgot to think.
Neji's attack caught her hard, right over the old wounds. She hadn't been paying attention. It all started going dark.
Stupid, a voice whispered to her as her eyes closed.
Neji let his temper get the better of him as he carried her limp body home. He cursed her for asking to continue the training despite their weariness. He cursed himself for agreeing and then challenging her when he knew she would never back down from a challenge. As he watched her sleeping, more than anything, he hated that he could do nothing, nothing to undo this fate.
Hinata stirred in the bed. She must have caught the sharp edge of his anger as she opened her eyes because she sat up right away.
"How do you feel?" he asked coldly from his post across the room. He didn't bother to move to help her.
"I'm just a little dizzy. Shall I start dinner?" she asked and tried to get to her feet. Her legs crumbled as soon as she stood, and he hated himself again. Hinata would never admit to pain or lie in bed willingly when she could comfort someone else.
A good wife.
He had to force her back into bed and still her protests with a gentle touch.
"Stay put," he commanded, smoothing back her hair. "I will bring you something to eat."
He made it to the door before she spoke again.
"Neji," she said softly. "Tenten is waiting for you outside."
"She can wait," he shot back. His anger surprised even him.
Hinata flinched but pressed on. "You should talk to her."
She looked at him like he might fly across the room and slap her for even suggesting it, but she wouldn't back down. Neji hesitated.
"Aren't you afraid that I might run off with her?" He meant to cut her, to hurt her.
Hinata only blinked.
"Yes," she answered simply.
He closed the door without responding.
Tenten had been hanging around since they arrived at the cottage. He had hoped that Hinata wouldn't sense it, but he was foolish to think anyone could escape a Hyuga's notice. Even so, Tenten lacked subtlety. She wanted them to know she was there.
The last time Neji had been alone with Tenten ended badly. He broke the news of the engagement as gently and as frankly as he could, yet she raged, threw things, screamed. Theirs was a new romance, so he hadn't expected her violent reaction. It frightened him, but he should have anticipated that if she felt anything like he did, her grief would be a tsunami.
"Why?" she had yelled, and he knew that no answer could appease her. Every half-reason he could think of would only hurt her more, and she would fight. She would fight tooth and nail to keep him. He didn't have the strength to argue, so he had walked away. Although her cries ripped out his heart, he walked away. Now he would face her again.
Four weeks had calmed her. He saw as much in the moonlight that brightened the night for them and glistened in her hair. He went to the edge of the forest where she waited.
"I won't fight you. I just want to know why," she said. He heard the pain in her voice and the restraint, too. Maybe she could listen now. She deserved to know.
He took a breath before beginning.
"I did it because my family asked it of me," he said. The mark on his forehead showed clearly in the bright night.
"They treat you like a servant," Tenten hissed. "What do you owe to them?"
"They are my blood, and my duty belongs to them first. We have all made mistakes," he tried to explain.
"So you hated them for years, tried to kill her, and now you want to make up for it by marrying her?" she scoffed.
"No, I want atonement. For all of us. The Hyuga clan. How could I bear to pass this along to any child of mine?" His voice rose as he pointed at the mark. "This ends with me and with Hinata. Try to understand. Please."
"I don't understand at all, Neji. I can't." Tears leaked from Tenten's eyes as she shook her head. "I'll never understand why you would leave me when I love you so much."
Neji ached to hold her and kiss her again, but he willed his feet not to move. He picked his words carefully.
"I do love you, Tenten. I might always love you, but I made my choice."
She sagged against a tree. "I wish I could hate you, Neji. I wish it didn't hurt so much."
And then she was gone.
It took more strength than he knew he had to stop himself from following her. He promised Hinata. What would she do if he left now and fled into the night with another woman?
He had told Tenten the truth. His time to choose was over, yet each step on the way back to the cottage was harder than any battle, and he was so, so tired. He didn't notice he was crying until he couldn't see for the tears. She was gone. It was over. He finally knew who to hate, whose face to smash. His own. He couldn't be strong enough to leave with Tenten. He couldn't school his heart to stop loving her even though he married Hinata. He did this to himself.
Some inhuman sound escaped from his throat. It terrified the part of his brain that could still think. He couldn't bear to take another step. Just when he couldn't stand to be him for another second, two thin but strong arms caught and held him.
"Neji. Come home," Hinata pleaded, and like a dumb animal, he followed her. She led him into the lit cottage. She pulled off his shoes and his tear-soaked shirt. She made him lie down in the bed. She wrapped herself around him and held on, even as he struggled against her. She stroked his hair and whispered comfort until the fit passed and sleep overtook them both.
In the morning, Neji woke up cold and alone. All the terrible things he had said cycled through his mind, and his shame pressed him down like a hand. He had promised not to hurt Hinata, and already he broke the vow. He wanted to hide in bed.
Something was missing, though. He searched inside himself and found the sadness and the shame. He sensed the headache and the heartbreak, and then he realized with wonder that his anger had left him. His fit drained out the heat of his rage, and now he felt cold with self-hate.
Without thinking much, he got up and wandered out of the bedroom. As he passed a window, he noted the dense overhang of grey clouds and the rain streaking down. No training today.
He stumbled into the kitchen. Hinata hovered over the stove, stirring a pot. Its contents smelled delicious.
She turned then and smiled at him. Smiled like he hadn't said those terrible things to her. Smiled like he hadn't fought her like an untamed thing while she held on and tended to him. He tried to find something to say.
As she wrapped him in her warm embrace, he realized how unnecessary his explanations would be. She felt so warm as she pressed her cheek into his shoulder that he dropped his head to rest on hers, and his body leaned into her of its own accord.
Strong Hinata who understood exactly how his heart felt. Brave Hinata who held him through the darkest night of his life and filled him with the warmth he craved in the morning.
"Thank you," he murmured into her hair. She pulled away to find his eyes. "Thank you."
"You frightened me," she exclaimed as her hand squeezed his. "Did I frighten you when I…?"
"Only a little." He found a smile for her. Her entire being radiated warmth, and he needed her understanding so much.
"Do you have a headache? I did." She pulled him into the adjoining room.
"Yes…" he trailed off as he looked around. Hinata had unpacked the dining room. Soft, richly-colored cushions lined the new, traditionally low-set table, which she had set with new plates. She had laid out her mother's tea set, put away the boxes, and hung up some of the scrolls. It looked like a home. How long had he been asleep?
"Do you like it?" she asked, a little breathlessly, searching his face.
He couldn't find the words, so he pulled her to him. When he felt her held breath leave her with a whoosh, he knew she understood.
The soup tasted as good as it smelled, and Neji felt better for eating. Midway through his second serving, he caught Hinata watching him. He lay down the spoon.
"You had something to say," he prompted her. Her head gave a quick nod.
"When I was hurting, you said something that made me feel better. I wanted to tell you something, too," she said in that soft voice of hers. "Would it be alright if I said it now?"
He turned his full attention to her. "Yes."
"I wanted to make you a promise, too. I promise to try to make you happy because you deserve to be. You said that you couldn't bring me joy, but that's not true. When you're happy, it makes me happy, too."
Neji put her palms to his lips and pressed a kiss into each one.
The rain poured down all day, so they spent the hours unpacking. Neji realized soon enough that he had no knack for decorating. Everything he put away looked wrong until Hinata moved through. Whatever she arranged fit exactly right. He couldn't find the balance that made a space feel like a home. A month ago, his ineptitude at anything, even decorating, would have grated his ego and made him resentful of her natural talent. As it was, Neji found himself reaching for her. He found any excuse to touch her. He needed to know that someone could watch him lose control, look into his black heart, and care for him all the more because of it.
If his caresses surprised Hinata, she showed no sign. Instead, she started to reach for him as well. A hand between his shoulder blades. An arm around his waist. Dimly, he wondered if she, too, felt like a shipwreck survivor who would cling to anything to stay afloat on a tumultous sea.
By the end of the day, they had cleared out most of the boxes and found places for all of the furniture. Hinata made a face as she threw out the flowers; neither of them cared for the sickly sweet scent. With the offending blossoms gone, the house took on the agreeable smell of new wood.
After their turns in the bath, Hinata came to him. Her face flushed crimson, but she found the courage to speak.
"You can stay with me tonight," she offered. "I mean, just to sleep."
"Yes," he replied without hesitation.
She blushed furiously again as he climbed into the bed beside her. He felt his own face go hot, too, but as soon as he extinguished the light, she stole across the sheets to him. He lay on his back and she curled up besides him, one arm thrown across his chest. He ran his fingertips through her dark hair. He was almost asleep, lulled by her soft warmth when her voice came out of the darkness.
"I was wondering. Do you think love can be learned through practice?" She rose up on one elbow to see his face.
"Perhaps." He traced the curve of her face with his free hand. She tilted her head into his touch, and even though his heart ached, hope grew in his chest.
"Do you think that if we tried that eventually we would feel married?" she asked carefully.
He considered the question. Her cheek was so soft.
"Yes," he concluded.
Hinata sighed and settled back into his arms.
"I think so, too," she whispered.
Hinata slipped out of his arms before the sun came up. He looked wonderful, even in his sleep, and tending to him did much to ease her own hurts. Still, something troubled her. She needed space to think.
The morning broke blue and brilliant. In the light of the new days, she saw a little clearer. As she padded barefoot through the house with a mug of tea, she noted that, despite the made progress yesterday, the cottage needed a great deal more work before it felt like a real home. From what she observed, Neji lacked any talent for such things, and to complicate matters, she had not recovered fully from the hit she took two days ago. When he finally met her in the kitchen for breakfast, she greeting him with his tea and a boxed lunch.
"I thought you would want to train alone today," she smiled and pressed the wrapped box into his hands.
He accepted it with a wary eye.
"You want me out of the way," he observed.
"I thought we both might need time…apart," she told him. She could tell that he didn't agree with her, but he left without argument.
After that, she threw herself into the housework. Training would have been better. She thought better when activity occupied her body, but the menial labor of the home would suffice. Her hands washed and dried dishes as her mind worked.
The brief weeks between the engagement and the wedding were a numb blur in her memory. Her father asked the Fifth for a reprieve from duty for her so that her mother could run her through a crash course in homemaking. Cooking lessons, flower arranging, hostess ettiquette. Her mother taught with patience and urgency, and Hinata obeyed dutifully and dumbly. She spun a web of work to protect herself, so she could collapse into her bed at night without thought or dreams. She turned off her mind, so she wouldn't heed her heart, which beat fast and whispered Run.
The night before her wedding, her mother sat with her and explained the bedroom matters of a married woman, and Hinata choked back the bile at the thought of giving herself to anyone, save Naruto.
Thinking about him cut her as sure as a blade. All those years of watching and hoping wasted. Why did her heart adore him so? He never gave up, even when everyone turned from him. She remembered catching him crying once on the playground when they were young. She hadn't known what to say, so she didn't. She stayed hidden in the shadows while he sniffled, shoved the pain back down, and rejoined the class with that wide grin that bespoke nothing of his loneliness. Had she loved him from that moment?
Her girlhood was lonely, too. Perhaps her love for him grew from the childish notion that by saving Naruto from that empty place, she could save herself, too.
She learned to cry alone because of Naruto. She taught herself to be brave and never surrender, no matter the cost, to follow his example. His success proved his worth to everyone who scorned him. How she longed to do the same. She used to dream that she could shine so brightly that everyone would whisper that her father had made a mistake, a terrible mistake, for choosing Hinabi.
Was this the source of her unease? That her father named her as his worthy successor at the cost of her sister's life? She stared into her reflection in a newly polished serving platter. She touched the inner wound of her sister's loss. It stung, but it would heal. Her trouble lay elsewhere.
Her thoughts drifted back to Naruto. She loved him for years, loved him before she understood what loving someone meant. The choked-off hope of her unrequited love hurt. She paused to examine the pain. She could not will herself to stop loving him; a part of her would always love him. She knew the old adage- you never really get over your first love. It applied, but her tantrum on her wedding night was her final salute to that doomed dream. With time, this wound would be bearable, too.
Her thoughts circled, picking up memories, searching.
Was she angry at Neji for hurting her during the chuunin exams? No, she understood, even back then, that Neji acted out of pain and pride and not hate for her. Since his defeat at the hands of Naruto, he had treated her kindly, even respectfully. It was not his way to be warm, but she understood his apology through their subtle language. The way he paused to let her pass through every entryway first. How low he bowed every time she put a cup in his hands while he trained with her father. Although they never spoke much, Hinata sensed that Neji had grown to care for her as she cared for him- as a member of the Hyuga family and as a fellow defender of the village.
Pain twisted through her. She was close to figuring it out. Her hand busied themselves with closets now: putting away and unpacking.
Yesterday, as she and Neji worked through the stacks of boxes, she had been embarrassed by the way he kept reaching for her. It was unlike Neji to solicit contact. She never knew him to be so vulnerable. It had never occurred to her before that he could need someone to comfort him.
Strong, silent Neji reaching for her hand like she could save him from his hurt as he tried to save her.
Her heart stopped. Her hands flew to her chest as the truth broke over her.
She wanted Neji to need her. She needed him to want her. They promised to try, but she couldn't broke failure. She needed real love. The tender affection of family and comrades was not enough and could never satisfy her.
But he loved Tenten. Tenten loved him. Hinata could heal herself from the loss of Naruto, who had never held her or kissed her or whispered lovers' promises to her willing ear.
What if Neji could only love her as a wife and not as a woman? The thought made her sick with worry. That was her trouble.
Yes, she realized, it was stupid to mistake yesterday's caresses for desire. She recognized that pain had ground down her defenses, sapped her will, and left her so raw that any comfort felt like the sweetest of relief. But Hinata had never woken up in the intoxicating tangle of someone's arms before. She never buried her nose in the warm curve of a man's bare shoulder and breathed his scent while he whispered her name and pulled her even closer.
Bound by her vows, no one but Neji could love her like that now, and Hinata realized with horror that she had absolutely no idea if he would.
She hadn't noticed the rain until lighting stuck nearby, and thunder rattled the house. She hadn't noticed how dark the inside of the cottage had become until the door opened and she could recognize Neji only by his outline.
"Hinata?" he asked the darkness. She opened her mouth but nothing came out.
"Hinata!" he called again, and she almost wept to hear the worry in his voice.
"Here," she managed to croak. His arms were about her shoulders in the very next instance.
"What's wrong?" he demanded, still alarmed.
She shook her head into his rain-soaked shirt.
"You're shaking." He pulled her tighter and rested his cheek against hers. His warmth, his scent, it was all too much. She broke free and fled.
"You're wet. I'll draw the bath," she tried to explain, but even her voice shook.
Weak, a voice hissed inside her.
She tripped over a box.
"Hinata!" Neji's voice sounded far away. She stumbled into the bathroom and fumbled with the faucet.
"Hinata, stop." He caught her, but she twisted away with a cry. His hand grabbed her chin and jerked her around to face him. His voice was soft when he said her name again. "Hinata."
She dragged her eyes up to meet his, but they snagged on his lips, and suddenly she was kissing him, arms thrown about his neck and tears pricking her eyes.
He went rigid against her touch. His eyes wild with shock.
She released him. Even as she backed away, he still stared at her.
The first sob burst from her as she ran.
Neji didn't understand, but something told him to go after her so he did. She hadn't gone far. Where could she go? he thought bitterly. He found her in the yard. Sobs shook her shoulders as the cold rain poured down around her.
He tried again. His hand took her arm.
"Come back," he coaxed.
She leaned into him and let herself be guided back inside. He put her on the bed and gathered the blankets around her. She tucked her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around them.
He couldn't understand. She was trembling, then running, then kissing him, then running again. It didn't make sense.
"What's wrong?" he asked again.
She shook her head and fought like mad to quell her tears. What could he do?
"Try," he very nearly begged.
HInata shook her head again. The rainwater in her hair flew off and made a little circle of drops on the bed.
"I can't," her small voice explained.
Neji sat down beside her, wet clothes and all, and racked his brain trying to figure her out.
"I didn't want to train alone today," he began to test his hopeful theory. "I only went because you asked me to go."
She leaned into him, and he slipped an arm around her shoulders. It was a good sign.
"I needed to think," she mumbled.
"You can't think when I'm here?"
She drew a ragged breath and pushed it out with a half-sob. He realized that he was asking her to risk too much. He changed tactics.
"You are very beautiful, Hinata. I didn't notice it much before, but you are."
"Oh Neji," she whimpered and tried to turn from him. Instinctively, he held on tight as he cursed himself for the misstep.
He had made her be the brave on from the start. He didn't know that he was doing it then. Even so, he needed to take his turn and take it now, so Neji let her go. Hinata fled to the far side of the bed, and he let himself fall backwards to stare at the ceiling.
"Don't go, Hinata. I'm trying," he pleaded.
She didn't turn back, but she didn't run any further either. He had this one, final chance to say the right thing. He stretched out one hand to her.
"I think I'm falling in love with you."
It seemed like years passed before he felt her pick up his hand with both of hers. She turned it over and kissed his wrist.
"Me, too," she whispered.
"I'm not over Tenten, but I missed you all day," he went on. "What does that say about me?"
Hinata tipped his head to her and met his eyes, and he lost some of his fear in her bright face.
"It says that you're trying. We said we would try," she reminded him. Her sad smile returned. "I think I'm trying too hard."
"I wasn't expecting you to kiss me. I thought you were upset," he explained, talking fast to keep her near. He wasn't sure what he would do if she tried to run again or started to cry.
"I wasn't upset. I was afraid," she began. She seemed lost and so very far from him.
"Come here," he breathed. She did. She crawled across the covers and settled her body along his. He propped her head with his arm so he could look into those eyes.
"I'm afraid you will run again," he confessed.
He took a breath, leaned in, and kissed her. Her rose-petal lips parted and pulled on his, and when he remembered to come up for air, he wondered if she felt as light-headed as he did.
"Am I doing it right?" she asked. He almost laughed at his forgetfulness. It was her first real kiss.
"Yes, very much so," he said. He took a kiss from those lips again and pulled her over him so her could wrap both arms around her and bind her to him. He kissed her deep and long, and when they broke apart again, they were both near breathless with desire.
"I was afraid you wouldn't want me," she admitted.
"I'm afraid of how much I want you." He slipped hand under her shirt to marvel at the softness of her skin.
She bolted up, startled. His heart dropped, but she did not run this time.
"I'm afraid," she cried out even as she reached for him again. He stood up and shook the clouds of desire from his head. They couldn't stay on the bed. He pulled her to her feet, and she stepped into his embrace despite her fear.
Brave Hinata. His Hinata.
"I won't hurt you," he swore.
"Go slow," she begged.
She kissed him, softly this time.
For the most part, they succeeded. Long, unhurried hours passed as they took time and moved slow. They had a lifetime together, after all. Only once did her desire get the best of her. She moved his hand to touch her where she so wanted to be touched, but as soon as he did, she started to cry. She wiped back those inexplicable tears as he paced the house and cursed his impatience. He could never bear to see her cry.
After that, they tried to train again, but neither of them put much force behind the blows. When she broke through his defenses yet again, she pressed a kiss into his throat instead of the punch that would have brought him down. The kiss turned out to be just as effective. He dropped to the ground.
"Unfair," he panted.
For some reason, it struck her as hilarious. She laughed until her sides ached. She went weak with laughter and dropped beside him. She pulled him down with her as she laughed, and something tight in her chest finally eased. They made love for the first time under the trees.
Back at the cottage, Neji drew a bath for her. He seemed concerned that she would be sore, but she smiled and pulled him into the warm water with her. When he held her, she felt wanted and loved, and she didn't want to be apart from him for a second.
"I'm fine," she told him. "I'm happy."
"Then I'm happy, too," he said as he found her lips again.
Hinata couldn't imagine why she was so afraid that time would pass too slowly. Their seven days seemed to disappear like mist in the morning. Before she wanted, they were dressed in their finest, again, and walking on the path back to the main house. The lights and music from the celebration- their wedding reception- reached them through the thick forest.
As they neared the party, Neji reached for her hand.
"I won't leave your side," he said.
Hinata caught a glimpse of a spiky blonde head. She spotted two buns of brown hair. She wanted to run back to the cottage, but she took care not to slow their pace.
"I know," she replied.
The cheer went up from the crowd as they stepped into the lighted clearing together.
A/N: Thanks for reading! This story came to me while I was preparing to go to a wedding. I started thinking about the days of arranged marriages and unions based on social entanglements instead of love matches. I wanted to write something with Hinata as well because she is such a loveable character, and so this came out of my head.
Of course, I don't claim to own any of this.