Dearest Sophia,

I have stolen away your request and killed it. I took it to the stove to simmer and accidentally set the heat too high. Seriously. I swear the original plot for this matched your request, I SWEAR it did. However, something changed and halfway through I realized that my light-hearted comedy had turned into a slightly angsty little monster, and that there was absolutely no turning back. I beg your forgiveness. I still hope you enjoy this, but if you want, I can write another story that actually matches your plot. :P

After watching Antique Bakery and Sam-soon (Korean movie/ drama), I had to do a cake story. I'm setting this one in S. Korea, but all characters from the Naruverse are still Japanese. Like they moved, you know? I just wanted someone to say "Unni," really.

Disclaimer: I do not own any part of the Naruto franchise.

The sunlight leeched through the blinds, signaling morning and spilling into her bedroom. Her desk, situated snugly against the window, was made of oak that had been stained blue and painted with neat white spirals. Unfortunately, at the time the artistry was hidden under piles of crumpled paper and a mess of black hair.

Groaning, Hinata stirred. Somehow, she'd managed to fall asleep working again. This was the fourth night in a row. She lifted her head and rubbed her cheek, knowing full well that it was probably stamped with a wood grain pattern, and lazily wiped the half-dry drool from the corner of her mouth. Blearily, she stared down at the piece of Bristol paper that had served as her pillow. The pencil had smudged badly, distorting what had once been the outline of a three-tier wedding cake into a dull, uneven gray cloud. She couldn't bring herself to care. It was a crap design anyway.

For as long as she could remember, Hinata had loved to draw. Her bedroom back at the Hyuuga manor had been plastered with sketches (mostly still life,) her bookshelves full of encyclopedia volumes but the drawer under her bed piled with artbooks. For a while, her father entertained the habit, assuring himself that she'd one day grow out of it, but for her, art was a passion and not a hobby. She hadn't resisted his initial attempts at getting her interested in medicine ("Doctors are never without jobs or respect, Hinata") and later in economics ("We keep the company with the Hyuuga where it belongs")—on the contrary, she'd tried desperately to love them, but blood made her squeamish and the stock market put her to sleep. Eventually, she'd given up entirely. Four years ago, when she was seventeen and only a year away from inheriting the great Empire, she'd told him so. His response was reasonable enough for a Hyuuga father—he'd kicked her out of the house. She figured she was lucky not to have her ears chopped off and placed in a jar for future Hyuuga-lings to see as an example or forced to work as kitchen staff or something. He even gave her enough money to buy a small condo. She'd bought the cheapest she could find and saved the rest in a bank account she swore only to touch when she absolutely had to.

For a few months, she wandered around listlessly, worked a couple very short-lived jobs, barely finding enough time to sleep, let alone immerse herself in her art. She'd come home miserable and exhausted from a day of enduring abuse from customers and managers all belaboring her incompetence. She'd never had to even clean her own room before; it was only natural that she have absolutely no clue what to do with herself when asked to clean other people's messes. Before she could even consider quitting, she'd been fired.

It was pure luck that brought her to Louise's. She'd been walking home after losing her second job, wondering how the hell she was going to pay for electricity this month and whether she should cut off her phone or the Internet when her eyes caught the glaring red letters, 'Help Wanted,' in a window. Without even checking what kind of help this was, she'd opened the door and walked in and smelled the fresh breads and cakes and knew that this was it. She'd told the quiet boy at the register her intentions, and then sat at a small round table and waited. It was late; she'd slipped in just before closing, and thus had nothing to occupy herself with but classical music droning in the background and the blue and white polka-dot wallpaper.

Louise's wasn't a beautiful shop. The ceiling tiles were browning with mildew, and the wallpaper was faded and needed replacement. The tables were rickety, their only decoration small vases with fake flowers that sat, out of place, on doilies on the center of each.

The cakes, however, were extraordinary. The owner, a woman in her mid-forties named Kurenai, had taken over the shop right out of high school from her weary father, who had inherited it from his mother. She'd done little in the way of formal training, taking a few culinary classes here and there, but honestly, Hinata thought she didn't need it. What she lacked in professional finesse she made up for tenfold in expertise, the kind that could only be acquired with time and talent. The recipes she used had been passed down and perfected for generations, and any new ones that came to the market she adopted and made even better. She could guess the secret ingredient of any confectionary with only one bite, and then not only replicate it, but improve upon it.

Still, it wasn't the taste that most attracted Hinata. The moment she'd sat down in one of the rickety chairs, her eyes had caught sight of the display.

It was almost Easter, and so the case was decorated with decals of cute wide-eyed bunnies and chicks and eggs. The cakes displayed were mostly small, pastel-colored confectionaries with egg-shaped chocolates on top, with a series of cupcakes on the side. In the center was a wicker picnic basket slightly open basket from which several small chicks peeked. It seemed to be placed on a patch of wide-bladed grass that decorated most of the shelf. She averted her eyes- the whole set-up was mildly garish— and then looked again, because, when she turned her head, the chicks had seemed to sparkle.

She got out of her seat to take a closer look. The grass suddenly seemed a little too perfect, the individual blades overlapping each other in a manner far too aesthetic to be natural, because, she realized with a start, it was icing. The down on the small chicks looked to be spun sugar, their small beaks and eyes shaped candies. Even from so close, she wasn't entirely certain that the basket wasn't real, except that it looked slightly too lacquered. She'd been staring for several minutes, trying to distinguish between what was real and what was edible with extreme difficulty, when the boy returned to the counter.

"She'll be out in a minute," he announced blandly.

"She?" Hinata asked, tearing her eyes away from the cake to look up at him. He had strange colored eyes, brown with a reddish hue, like her mahoghany nightstand back at the manor.

He shrugged. "I call her mom. You call her Kurenai." He pushed his hair out of his eyes. "No formalities, though. Makes her feel old."

"O-Oh," she stammered, "Thank you." Her eyes darted down to the cake again. "Is this-?"

He grinned, as though he'd seen her exact expression of awe on a thousand other customers. "Yeah, it's a cake. It's entirely edible, too."

"Wow," she mouthed, bending down to look at it again. She'd seen all manner of fancy desserts in her lifetime, but nothing like this. Nothing even close.

A set of footsteps interrupted her thoughts. She immediately jumped to her feet, locking her heels together. The owner looked down at her bemused. She was a beautiful woman, the picture of the person Hinata wanted to look like when she grew older. Her hair was pulled back into an easy bun, her white sleeves rolled up and and her fingers still dusted with flour. Her eyes were brighter than her son's, nearly red. Thin lines like spider threads branched out from the corner of her eyes.

Hers was the kindest face Hinata had ever seen.

She worked for Kurenai for two years. The pay was admittedly bad—her son was going off to college in the United States and her husband had passed before he was born, leaving her to provide for her family and his aged mother, and honestly, there wasn't much she could spare—but the lessons she learned were invaluable. Kurenai caught her drawing one of the cakes during her break and immediately taken her under her wing, teaching her how to design a cake on paper and then build it.

"Like building a house," she'd explained, gently guiding her hands as she sliced a precise slab from an ordinary circular-12-inch yellow cake. "You need blueprints, and bricks, and mortar, and a helluva lot of patience."

She'd fallen in love quickly and efficiently after that. Customers made the most interesting requests—an anime character bust, elaborate White Day hearts that she had to detail with gold leaf, once even a sushi-plate, complete with a green lump of fondant wasabi. It was challenging and initially frustrating, but exhilarating. And she was good at it. It felt great to know that she was good at something for once.

At the end of the second year, however, Kurenai had announced that she was moving down to America. When her mother-and-law passed as well, leaving her alone in her apartment, her loneliness had become unbearable. She sold the shop, leaving Hinata with a final paycheck and a sizable bonus, numerous bone-crushing hugs and kisses, an international phone number, and a bound book of recipes.

Alone, young, and with little less to lose, Hinata took her paycheck, the money left over from the condo, and what was probably the last of her luck and opened a new patisserie in a lazy part of town. Alone, she'd painted the walls a light caramel, revamped the kitchen to include three more stoves, bought display cases galore, ransacked the local antique stores for tables, stools, chairs. The furniture she painted as well, gentle blues and greens. It was bitter work and labor was expensive, so she did most of it on her own. It was a wonder, she supposed, that she'd never even thought of giving up once, even when her bank account hit a record-low, even on the months that she went without electricity and slept in the unfinished shop. Regardless, ten months passed and she opened for business.

At first, she'd been disheartened by the public response. She earned a few faithful customers, but they were far and few between, and hardly anyone ever actually sat down to eat. However, one day, Fate smiled upon her and sent Park Hyung-bin, an important magazine editor and food critic, into her humble shop. After a glowing review from his esteemed hands, she'd gotten so many orders that she had to hire a staff.

These days, she mostly took orders. Her assistants, In-hae and Ju-Eun, took care of the basic cakes and she covered the more interesting, novelty ones. She worked like she always had, imagining Kurenai's tired, proud smile every time she succeeded in fulfilling a more complicated request. Everything had been going fairly well in her life for once, and though she couldn't call herself happy, she was certainly content. After all, how many twenty-one year-olds could claim her accomplishments? Without those stunting voices naming off her faults, she'd begun to find a peace within herself, a level of confidence she'd thought she'd never be able to attain.

That is, until a stunning pink-haired woman glided into Joy.

"Hinata?" Sakura had said, her green eyes wide in shock. She'd asked to speak to the manager, who also happened to be the owner, who, unfortunately, happened to be Hinata.

Hinata smiled feebly up at her. Sakura had always been civil to her in high school—after all, one had to be to the heiress of the Hyuuga fortune—and Hinata had always been madly, impossibly jealous of her. She'd been born with long legs and a slender figure, a pretty face and a quick mind to match. Beauty and brains all at once, she'd been the picture of perfection and the object of Hinata's long-time crush's undying affection. It seemed that very little had changed. Standing next to her, lightly covered in flour and her hair piled messily atop her head, Hinata felt as dumpy as the Pilsbury doughboy next to Jessica Rabbit.

"It's been a while," she said with a warm smile. "How are you?"

"Wonderful," Sakura said, and then sighed wistfully. "I'm getting married."

Hinata smiled even wider, her eyes slipping to the generous but tasteful ring on Sakura's hand. "Oh? That's great." And then, sincerely, because she'd seen loneliness in Sakura's eyes before, "I'm so happy for you."

"I'm happy for you, too. I read the review in Bride, and I saw a creation of yours, a Christmas tree cake, at a friend's party, and I just knew that I had to get my wedding cake from you." She beamed, and then grabbed Hinata's hand. "I know your customers usually give specific requests, but I don't want to. I think I can trust you to come up with a design that can represent us. Something that represents unity. Set your own price when you're done." Her smile turned shy. "Really, I'm just not creative enough to come up with this myself."

Hinata's resolve wavered for a moment. This was dangerous territory. It was far too easy for her to make a mistake, design a cake that the newlyweds would hate, and consequentially earn bad press for the shop. Yet, perhaps because this was Sakura, the girl she'd once idolized, refusal sounded like defeat. And she didn't want to lose to her again.

"I'll do my best," she said, squeezing the hand in hers. "So, who's the lucky guy?"

Sakura's eyes sparkled with pure adulation, but Hinata still didn't miss the tiny flinch, the flash of guilt that passed over her face. "You know him," she said slowly, licking her lips. "It's Naruto. Uzamaki Naruto."

"Honey," Ino said, knocking back a shot of soju with ease that could only come from years of practice. "You need to go out more. Seriously."

Hinata looked up at her blearily, tracing her shot glass lazily. It was her own, a gift from Kurenai's son Kenji for her 21st birthday. The base was decorated with adorable looking rabbits who were wasted beyond reason, many of them lying passed out along the base with tiny, smoky skulls rising from their mouths. "Why do you say that?" she said blearily, throwing hers back as well. The green bottle next to her was growing light in her hand.

Ino snorted as though the question were entirely unfounded, which, admittedly, it was. Hinata couldn't remember the last time she'd eaten out at a real restaurant, let alone done anything fun other than drink at her favorite soju bars. "Look at you. You're twenty-one, and still never been kissed. You've never dated, never done anything fun and crazy. Your youth is just eking away, and you're watching it go and don't even care."

Hinata frowned. "I haven't had time to date. I've been too busy trying to, you know, survive."

There was a subtle sound of clothe rustling; Ino, slowly crossing her legs in her long, denim skirt. "But you've made it. You're surviving now. Why don't you try thriving?" She smiled deviously. "I mean, under the raccoon-eyes and bad taste in clothes, you're a beautiful girl. So give yourself a day off to rest and live a little!"

Ignoring the barb, Hinata sighed. "You know why I can't. I have two months to get that cake design ready, and I have no idea what I'm doing. I don't know what to do."

Ino was the only friend she'd managed to retain from high school. Once upon a time, she'd been something of Sakura's lackey, but come junior year had gotten tired of being second fiddle and broken free. Hinata told her everything, sometimes unwisely, considering the fact that Ino could be unreasonably impulsive and judgmental and frequently gave the worst advice known to man. Still, it felt good to have someone to bitch and complain with, even if said person got you into all sorts of messes, usually involving horrific hangovers, on a monthly basis.

"Get up," Ino suddenly instructed, slamming down her glass emphatically. She waved the owner over and handed her a generous wad of cash. (When she sobers up, Hinata thought with a knowing smirk, she'll regret throwing away her cab fare.) "Ajuma, keep the change. Your soju has given me a great idea."

The older woman tucked the money into her apron and walked away shaking her head, likely recalling that most of the ideas her soju engendered weren't particularly good, no matter how passionately her customers believed in them.

Ino's was no exception.

"Girl's night out!" she declared, throwing back her shoulders triumphantly. "We're going clubbing, and I will accept no refusals."

"F-Fine," Hinata acquiesced, knowing how useless it was to deny Ino when she put her mind to something. Besides, she thought, this could be fun.

It was only when she woke up the next day with a blaring headache and wearing one of Ino's little black thongs (and precious little else) did she realize just how god-awful her idea really was. Regardless of Ino's suggestion to take a day off, Hinata knew that doing that would put her behind on five orders for people who expected their cakes made by her hands and on time. She had to get to work. She had to give Ju-Eun and In-Hae their month's (meager) pay. She had to come up with a proper design for Sakura's cake...

She hauled herself out of bed sluggishly, supporting herself against her nightstand. Her legs felt like jam, her throat felt tight, and worst of all, her stomach like it wanted to upend all of last night's contents onto her recently steam-cleaned carpet. This didn't feel like an ordinary hangover. Ordinary hangovers involved all of these things and felt like hell on earth, but were still not this bad. Her vision blurred; she staggered forward and caught herself with a hand against the wall before she could fall.

Okay, she sighed. One step at a time, Hinata. You can do it. One step at a...

The world turned black.

When she finally came to, alone in a dark room, her headache pulsing distantly in the back of her head, Hinata realized something terrifying.

She was alone. So very alone. And that would be fine, plenty of young women lived by themselves these days, but those women had family, friends, people who cared about them, people she could call because she was sick and who'd rush over and make her a batch of rice porridge and massage her stomach and sing her sweet childish songs to make the pain go away.

If she'd laid there and died, perhaps no one would notice. At least not for a few days. Eventually In-Hae and Ju-Eun would become overwhelmed with work and try calling her, or maybe Ino would stop by for a much-needed sit-bitch-and-drink session, and they'd find her then, when her body had gone ice-cold and her skin grey and there was absolutely no saving her.

No wonder you can't figure out Sakura's cake, a voice in her head spat. You've never known unity. In your family, in school, in your life.

You've always been alone.

"I said, can you do it by tomorrow?"

Six weeks left until Sakura's wedding, and the cake was yet to be designed and the bride yet to call. Part of her hoped Sakura was a hit-and-run customer so that she could dump this whole project; mostly she wished she'd been strong enough to refuse her from the start. After all, such an open-ended order was a recipe for disaster. She frowned; why were her assistants giggling so happily when she was so miserable? and then realized that she had a customer, a very agitated, very handsome young man who looked about ready to walk out. He was a strange figure in their sweet and dowdy shop, with hair the color of pitch and eyes that seemed to suck light right through their depths. All of the warmth of the room seemed to be drained by his presence. Under his patronizing gaze, she suddenly felt small.

"I'm so sorry," she said, dusting off her apron nervously. "Y-Yes, you said you wanted a small cake, shaped like a...a hydrangea blossom?" She hadn't had a floral order in a while. People these days usually asked for ramen bowls and burgers to amuse their friends.

He nodded gravely, his irritation still worn plainly on his face. "A one-person cake," he corrected.

"A cupcake?" she tried.

He furrowed his brow and then cupped his hands into a circle. "Five inches or so in diameter." Then, "Can you do it?"

"Of course," she replied. She knew precisely the location and shape of the mold she would use, the colors of icing, blue and white and just a bit of violet. She was a professional, she reminded herself.

"Good," he said. "I'll expect it done by noon tomorrow."

And then he was gone, his hands in his pockets, walking with such crushing confidence that Hinata had to look away lest she be blinded.

She looked down at his written order. Sasuke Uchiha. The name was oddly familiar. Shrugging, she tucked it into her apron pocket and thought little of it afterward.

At noon sharp, Sasuke Uchiha returned, took his cake, scrutinized it silently and reproachfully (so much so that Hinata, even with all of her humility, was mildly insulted) and promptly left the shop, leaving her assistants in a fangirl-ish frenzy and her rather peeved. He was so curt, not even managing a thank you when she put the cake in a wrapped box for him, and his ever-present scowl reminded her of her father.

The next day, she'd just opened up shop when he walked into Joy once more (making poor In-Hae, who was working the register that hour, turn bright pink) and demanded to see her. At first, she'd been wary— had he found her hydrangea cake lacking in some way? She scowled. Maybe there was a petal out of place, or perhaps the color a bit too blue for his tastes. Or maybe he'd been careless with it and destroyed her handiwork but come to place blame on her (It had certainly happened before, though the customer in question had been at least a foot shorter and far less attractive than the man glowering at her now.)

"You're out of order forms," he said sternly.

She blinked, and then looked down at the order pad on the counter. Lo and behold, it was empty. She looked down at In-hae, who had been charged with the task of replacing it, but saw her expression—somewhere between ecstasy and horror—and decided to save it.

"Oh. We are. Sorry about that." She turned to Ju-eun. "Can you please get me a new pad?" While her still-functioning assistant bustled off to the supply closet, Hinata turned to her customer and smiled and dived under the register to get a pen and slip of paper. "Please go ahead and dictate your order for now. I'll write it down."

He stuffed his hands in his pockets, tilting his head back to look at her down his nose. "A carnation this time," he said. "Yellow and white, same size as the last. I'll come for it tomorrow."

She scrawled his order quickly, then looked up. "For Uchiha Sasuke?" She said with a smile.

He glared at her for a solid ten seconds. Her smile withered. "Yes," he said, and then turned and left.

The moment he was gone, In-hae was at her side, her face pale, her flour-dusted fingers latching onto her arm.

"Uchiha Sasuke, you said?" she said in a small voice.

Hinata spun on the spot, narrowing her eyes and ready to scold. "Yes. In-hae, those kind of men-"

She cut her off. "Hinata, don't you know who he is?"

Hinata shook her head, remembering that slight feeling of deja vu she'd encountering when she'd first read his name. In-hae looked scandalized.

"It was about thirteen years ago, but they're constantly reviewing the case on the news. The Uchiha family, all of them except for the youngest boy, were killed in cold blood. His older brother's body was never found." Her gaze drifted to the door, from which the Uchiha had entered twice and would be entering again. "I think it's him. The last one."

Hinata remembered that cold, unreadable look in his eyes and wondered whether what she'd seen was coldness or simply pain.

Or perhaps he was just lonely. Like her.

She didn't understand.

When In-hae had first told her the story of the Uchihas, she'd felt a bout of sick relief— so he was the same as her!— followed by an almost crushing guilt— how dare she be so glad for another person's tragedy? It had made her sick to the stomach, made her think of the kind girl who cried for other's misfortune she'd once been in high school and wonder where she'd gone.

And he kept coming. Every day, he would stop by to either make an order or pick one up, each day ordering a different flower. Dandelions, roses, sunflowers. At first, his presence terrified her; she looked into his black eyes and saw contempt at everything and everyone. But then she realized something else- that each time she saw him, that hate seemed a little more muted, a little less haunting.

Where did all of those cakes go? Each time he disappeared through that door, box tucked under arm, she wondered where he was going, with whom he was sharing. It was a lot of money to be spending every other day; her novelty cakes were barely affordable on a once-a-month basis let alone a daily one, and so she figured this person was important. A woman, perhaps? Maybe pregnant, craving bright colors and sweets. Or perhaps he had friends who really liked cake and had lost some sort of sick bet.

"How are you liking the cakes, Mr. Uchiha?" She asked innocently as she boxed a particularly difficult lily cake.

Sasuke glanced up at her coolly. "I wouldn't know," he said smoothly. He really did have a nice voice, low and steady and controlled. "I don't like sweets."

She tried to keep her smile sunny. "O-oh. I see. I hope whoever does eat the cake has been enjoying them."

"Hn," he replied noncommittally. Only an entire week of earning grunts instead of words from him told her that this wasn't an angry-hn, just an I-don't-want-to-answer one, so she waved him pleasantly out of the shop.

"On this one," Sasuke instructed one day, as she boxed another order, "Write, 'For Mi-joo.'"

"Mi-joo?" Hinata repeated, writing the name with steady hands on a hanging tag. He nodded.

Mi-joo. A woman. Of course. A man as handsome as he was could never be without a lover. How nice. So he wasn't like her after all.

"I hope Mi-joo enjoys it," she said with a smile, though she couldn't keep the sadness out of her voice.

The next time he came, he bore a gift. It was a single picture, a doodle of a stick-figure girl sitting amongst a field of flowers, her red-crayon mouth open and smiling, drawn by a child's hand.

"Mi-joo sends her thanks," he said simply, in Japanese. She blinked- she only spoke her language with Ino, and had it not been for her would probably have forgotten it by now- and then smiled and thanked him likewise, but could he please just try to keep it Korean so that her assistants didn't get any weird ideas?

He blushed, narrowed his eyes, and gave his order in Japanese before sweeping out.

She smiled and accepted it. The next day, the picture had traversed the room into a walnut frame above a small round table.

Mi-joo must be a sweet girl, she thought. How she'd love to see this.

Sasuke's eyes had definitely warmed upon seeing Mi-joo's creation in a place of honor.

"Why don't you bring Mi-joo?" she asked once. "I'm sure she'd love to see it."

"I can't," he said with a shrug.

"Why not?" Hinata said. She toyed with a loose button on her blouse and waited patiently for an answer. So did In-hae and Ju-eun, who had very conspicuously stopped working to eavesdrop.

"I can't," he repeated stolidly, and then abruptly walked out, the door swinging noisily behind him.

"She's in the hospital," he supplied suddenly after picking up his dandelion. "That's why."

Hinata spent an hour looking up at the picture, and the pudgy, childish hand she had seen drawing it shrunk, withered, and turned bone-white. She closed her eyes to dispel the image but it lingered, engraving itself into her eyelids.

"What her?" she muttered, wondering whether she would have to wait another day for the next answer.

"Life happened.," he muttered. "And leukemia. The next cake should be a chrysanthemum."

Four weeks until Sakura's cake was due, and still nothing. Exasperated, she'd settled for just making an elaborate three-tier that meant absolutely nothing but at least looked fancy, and tacked the design spitefully on the wall. Stupid Sakura and her stupid vagueness. Why was she even worried? Sakura'd like whatever she gave her. She'd make some bullshit story about how her perfectly unextraordinary cake represented unity, and she'd buy it, because, after all, Hinata was the artist here, and she knew best.

It was a Saturday night. Hinata was almost out of wine and had watched all of her sappy Jane Austen movies about three times over that week, Ino was in Seoul doing a photoshoot, and she was stressed and without an outlet.

Exasperated, she threw herself out of the sofa, brushed her hair, pulled on an acceptable coat and boots, and walked down to Joy. It was a quiet walk and bitterly cold, so she walked with her chin buried into her scarf and her hands stuffed into pockets as far as they would go. At nighttime the shop seemed so still; it became her own, her place. She tossed her coat onto a chair and tied on her apron, not the white one she wore during hours but a bright purple one with small frogs embroidered in the corners, one of the many little gifts from Kurenai. Her hair went up, but only loosely, the playful half-bun she'd worn in high school suddenly making a comeback.

It had been a while since she'd baked just for the heck of it, tasted one of her own creations. She'd learned over the years to kick the finger-licking habit, and given the sudden volume of orders, hardly had time within hours to finish her day's workload. Even now, her body moved automatically, mixing ingredients without even really thinking about them, blending, pouring. When she'd popped the small cake into the oven, she untied her apron and tossed it next to her coat haphazardly, and then glided behind the counter. Fishing her mp3 player from her purse, she plugged it into the surround sound system and pressed play. The shop was instantly drowned in Tchaikovsky, just like Louise's had been not so terribly long ago. Kurenai loved classical music, and if the speakers weren't blasting Tchaikovsky they'd be blasting Bach, or Winter or Kraus. Once, at closing, she'd danced gleefully out of the kitchen, her dark hair loose and falling in waves down her shoulders, and grabbed her son. He'd protested half-heartedly but let her place his hand on her waist, and they'd spun in graceful circles in the shop while Hinata watched, laughing. When the song ended, he'd dashed back behind the counter and Kurenai had reached out to her, smiling widely.

"I c-can't dance," she had stammered.

"Neither can I," Kurenai had replied, although she'd been waltzing through the shop hardly a minute before. She winked. "C'mon. Family tradition."

Slowly, Hinata stepped out into the small, open area between the counter and the seating area, one hand settling on an imaginary shoulder, the other lightly grasping an imaginary hand. It had been years since she'd danced, but she let her feet guide her motions, closing her eyes and feeling the music, just the music, pounding into her rhythmically. Step forward, back, turn. Bow.

A sudden rapping broke her reverie, and she jolted, whipping around to face the sound. And then immediately wanted to hide herself under a rock, because of all of the people who could see her dancing by herself like a freak in her empty shop past closing, it had to be him.

Sasuke knocked again, one eyebrow going up expectantly. She froze, pondering the wisdom of letting him into her haven, and then darted to the door, turned the key and let him inside.

He stepped in without so much as a thank you, shrugging off his coat. It was dusted lightly with white— when had it started snowing?—and inhaled deeply.

"Tchaikovsky?" He asked, so softly that she nearly missed the question.

"Y-yes," she replied automatically, and then pushed her hair behind an ear. "Um... How can I help you? It's past closing..." She murmured it to the floor, and then looked up shyly, catching him looking down at her.

"If I was coming as a customer," he replied, tossing his coat on the table, "I'd have come when you were open." He sat down, the little wooden chairs too small for a man of his height, and looked up at her earnestly. "I was passing by, and you were here."

She blinked. She'd never heard him string quite so many words together at once before. "But...nothing's open at this time. Where...where were you going?"

Or where are you coming from, she thought.

His eyes glided up to the drawing on the wall, to the smiling red-crayon mouth and scribbled blue sky.

"I just want to talk," he said, evading the question smoothly. She bit her lip.

"I don't really understand," she said truthfully. His eyes slid from the picture and back to her, looking up though his lashes. They were beautiful eyes, really, like dark, dark gems, lined with lashes that most girls would envy, except that they were always so sad.

"But you let me in, regardless."

"Because it's cold, and you knocked," she retorted quickly. "Listen, Mr. Uchiha, I think you should-"

"Mi-joo died this morning," he said suddenly.

Her hand dropped to her side, her mouth going slack. Unconsciously, her eyes flashed up to the picture on her wall, and suddenly it hit her- a child was dead, she'd died in a grey room, in a dead room, she probably hadn't been able to feel the sun's embrace in months...

The song changed to a slow ballad, droning in the background like a funeral dirge.

Her throat tightened. "O-Oh." She looked down at him, at the cold, expressionless, emptiness that was his face. How much was he hiding behind that mask? "Was" she asked.

He shook his head. "No- yes, she might as well have been."

"I'm so sorry." It wasn't enough. It would never be.

"Not your fault," he said with a sigh. "It was only a matter of time. I knew that. She knew that."

She let out a shuddering breath, feeling an overwhelming urge to cry for this man who couldn't. Instead, she swept silently into the kitchen, ignoring the hollow pounding in her head, and pulled two mugs from the cupboard, heated milk and stirred in instant cocoa mix. (It was sweet, but she'd learned long ago that ailments of the heart were sometimes best treated with chocolate and wine, and the former was all she had available.) She returned with the steaming mugs and placed one down in front of him. When he didn't look at it she touched his hand gently. It was still freezing cold, and she had to make an effort not to recoil.

"Have some," she instructed. He took a sip obediently, and then cleared his throat.

"She was all I had left," he breathed into his mug.

"Please drink," she said a little more firmly, her heart feeling like it wanted to burst inside her chest.

"My family...everyone is dead. What do I have left?"

"Oh, oh..." She put her own mug down, watching him gulp his down hungrily. Wasn't he burning his tongue? He took a slow, gasp-like breath.

"I have nothing. It was bad before, but now- it's just..."

She pulled him into her arms. He stiffened for a moment, and then his arms had wrapped around her as well, pulling her tightly against him, and she felt him trembling, shaking against her, his breath labored against her neck.

She didn't know why she did it or what came over, but damn it she'd never seen anyone look so miserable, and she wondered when he'd last been held like this. He latched onto her like a child to his long-lost mother, wanting to be cradled and protected, never wanting to let go. In the background a cheesy Christmas song droned, "All I Want For Christmas" blasted at full volume though the holiday was still months off. He shuddered bodily, and she pulled him closer, because she too knew how lonely it was to spend Christmas alone, with nothing but your thoughts.

Minutes later she felt him slack and began to pull back. His face was dry, but eyes were still red, and he looked more like he hadn't slept for days than sobbed his heart out.

"Are you feeling better?" she said softly.

He nodded curtly, refusing to meet her gaze. She grinned coyly- it wasn't often that she had grown men crying on her shoulder, and definitely not men as prideful as the Uchiha.

"Was she your sister?" The moment she'd asked, she wondered whether she was being too intrusive too soon. After all, most of what he'd just revealed had escaped involuntarily, amidst a crippling emotional fallout. What if he closed up again? What would she do then?

She wasn't able to hide her shock when Sasuke actually answered.

"Our old housekeeper's daughter," he explained. "My mother...loved that woman so much. passed, she took care of the two of us. When I was about seventeen, she got into a car accident, and a year after that Mi-joo was diagnosed." He glanced up, as though searching her eyes for some kind of telling reaction; as though daring her to pity him.

"How old are you?" She asked instead, something in his story stirring a new reaction in her.

"Twenty-two," he said automatically, and then frowned. "Why the hell does that matter?"

"Five years." It was miraculous, really. "She fought off cancer for five years." she placed her hand over his. "She lived five years longer than she was probably supposed to. She must have been strong." Constantly locked away in a cold white room, weak and cold from the chemotherapy, deprived of all that she was entitled to as a child- and yet she'd managed to hang on, to draw happy pictures for patisserie owners, to even ask for cake even if she couldn't always eat it. "I really wish I could have met her. I really admire t-that kind of strength."

He turned away, and a bit of her knew that he had warred with this himself.
Mi-joo hadn't laid down and given up. She'd probably smiled and cracked jokes and teased the nurses. She'd decided that while she was dying she might as well be living, and so rooted herself against the storm that was buffeting her body every day to ensure that she could at least have fun while she could.

"I know," he said softly. "Me too." He smirked, as though recalling a funny memory. "She knew when it was coming. You know what she asked me for, a week before-a week ago?"

Hinata shook her head.

"A garden," he said, chuckling. "She'd always liked flowers. She used to joke that it wasn't fair that we could eat grasses and leaves and stalks and fruit, but not the prettiest part. So she asked for a garden of edible flowers."

Her hand stilled on his, her smile dropping.

"Thank you for helping me give her that last gift," this he said with conviction, willing strength into his voice. "I wish she didn't have to go, but at least she was happy when she did."

Her lungs bucked for air and she gasped it bak down; she hadn't even realized that she'd been holding her breath. She'd never met Mi-joo; she'd been too late, now she never would. Still, faraway as she was, she'd made some impact on a child's last days, brought out a smile where none should be possible.

Joy. She'd named her shop such in the hopes that it would bring her customers and herself just that. And now, finally, it seemed as though it had done just that.

Hinata didn't hesitate. Didn't think. Just brought her hand to his cheek lightly and smiled.

"Thank you," she said, "For telling me this."

Behind them, the oven went off. She smiled apologetically, her years as a patisserie chef forcing her out of her chair instantly, and then moved to go take out the cake-

His hand caught her wrist. His hold was surprisingly gentle, and she thought warmly that she'd grossly misjudged him, he was really a softie under that rock-hard shell, but then he stood, and his hand slipped to hers.


It was the first time he'd ever called her by name; he'd go with Hyuuga-san
usually, had once had the gall to call her 'Ajuma.' ("Ajuma?" She'd repeated in stunned disbelief. "I-I'll have you know that I'm only twenty-one!") It fell so tenderly. When was the last time a man had spoken to her with that kind of warmth in his voice? Maybe Kiba, in her third year, when he'd surreptitiously snuck a box of friendship chocolates into her locker on White Day, and wrapped his arm around her shoulders and told her that he loved her like she was a part of his pack. Or maybe that time she'd taken the blame for one of Naruto's pranks (in a futile attempt to earn his affections) and he'd thanked her, voice soft and caring as his smile.

When he pulled her to him and caught her lips in his, however, her mind could procure no memories with which to compare it. The oven alarm droned on distantly, and, instinctively, she made to pull away. His arms tightened around her in response.

"Leave it," he muttered, and vaguely she wondered how he could still be making demands at a time like this, but then he kissed her again and she promptly stopped thinking about anything, everything, except the way he felt around her.

Outside, the tiny flurries clumped and gathered into flakes.

On most Saturday nights, Hinata would buy a pint of orange sherbet, relax in front of her television, and watch reruns of her favorite period dramas.

That Saturday, she visited her mother's grave instead.

A fresh bouquet of white roses lay at the foot of the stone. It was snowing, but the petals were only fringed with flakes, as though they had been placed there only moments before.

Ju-eun took orders most of the next day, as her boss was behaving very strangely and taking down everyone's orders as butterflies, penguins and rainbow-colored unicorns. Seeing as In-hae suffered from incredibly-absent-minded-syndrome everyday of her seventeen-year old life, Ju-Eun very kindly offered to avert utter catastrophe by taking over half of her coworker's duties and grumbling about how, after this, she absolutely deserved a raise.

Her eyes flickered to the clock around noon. Sure enough, barely a minute had passed before Mr. Tall-Dark-&-Angsty strolled through the door. She smirked, having grown accustomed to his pretty face (and hence, discovered that he was kind of a douche) and straightened.

"Afternoon, Mr. Uchiha." She pushed the pad of order forms toward him. "What will you be having today?"

"Can I speak to your boss?" he said stolidly. Her lips quirked in displeasure- how was she supposed to tell him that 'her boss' had suddenly flown off her rocker? She looked implorably down the room at In-hae, who was sweeping the floors. She shrugged back.

Ju-Eun sighed. Well, if he insisted...

"Unni!" Ju-Eun called out. "You have a customer!"

A flurry of movement nearly sent Ju-Eun's apron flying over her head. Suddenly, Hinata was at her side, beaming like a girl with a secret. Ju-Eun was surprised to see that the Uchiha was actually smiling back.

"Hey," she said softly, rocking back on her heels.

"Hey," he responded, leaning over the counter to kiss her cheek.

A loud clatter resounded through the room. In-hae had dropped her broom, Ju-Eun her jaw.

"Sasuke-kun," she murmured as they sipped their coffees. (Hers French vanilla, louded beyond recognition with cream and sugar, his black, no sugar added. It looked vile. He drank it like water.) " you think a wedding cake that represents 'unity' should look like?"

He made a sour face. "What are you talking about?" He said, dabbing his mouth with a napkin slowly. "Don't all wedding cakes symbolize unity?"

Hinata furrowed her brow and put down her coffee. The past few days being with Sasuke had been nice, they really had. She'd never been in a relationship before, and she was still wary to call what she and Sasuke had one yet- he'd kissed her that once, in the shop that night, but he'd been drunk on emotion and grief and she still wasn't sure whether he was taking her out these days because he considered her an ally or love interest-but he made her happy and that was all that mattered.

"Of course they do," she said primly, circling the rim of her cup despondently. "But this one has to be a little more obvious, don't you think?"

"Make it shaped like a rope or something," he said offhandedly.

Rope. A rope with only one strand was weak- with two, much stronger. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole... She looked thoughtful for a moment. "You know, that could work."

Sasuke looked at her in disbelief. "You're not serious."

She ignored him, the gears turning, and then whipped a pen from her purse and began to sketch. The cake itself could be a fairly normal asymmetrical three-tier. What would matter here was the piping. She would have to find a way to make strands that curled around each other. Icing probably wasn't strong enough, but too much fondant could be too bitter-

A hand on hers drew her swiftly back to reality. "Hinata."

She pushed back her hair, fighting back a blush and avoiding his concern. "I have to finish by today. Sakura's coming by to approve the design in three hours." She chuckled disparagingly. "I-I can't believe I procrastinated this much. It'll be bad the first time around, but if she rejects this, she'll have to give me at least a few clues as to what she really wants."

Sasuke took a long draught of his coffee, and then set the still steaming drink down heavily. "She didn't tell you anything at all?"

Hinata nodded, rubbing her temples in slow circles. "Just that it should represent unity. Like I know what the heck that's supposed to mean." She held up the finished sketch. It wasn't her best, but it was pretty damn good for three minutes. A two tier cake, this time, with ribbon-like forms that started at the base and drifted up to connect at the top in an elaborate bow.

"It looks like a present," Sasuke said dispassionately. Hinata frowned, knowing he was right, and then shrugged.

"It'll do," she said, reaching into her purse and retrieving her sketchbook. "You don't mind, do you?"

He didn't. He was a fussy man, she'd quickly realized, vocal about his pet peeves, but he liked watching her draw. Most people got annoyed when she sketched during a conversation, interspersing their dialogue with irritated "Are you listening"s that she nodded to in assurance. Sasuke, on the other hand, would become just as involved in her work as she was, following every line carefully with his eyes, lapsing into intense concentration that would leave them both in silence.

When she finished, they regarded the product together, two pairs of artist's eyes.


"I'm sorry," Sakura said, her voice grainy and tired over the phone. "I really hope you didn't worry too much over this."

Two weeks spent scrambling, stressing, and worrying cannot suddenly be recovered by apologies. "It's no problem," Hinata said emptily.

"Still, I feel awful. But I saw that sample in your store the other day, and you know, I just knew that that was it, that it had to be mine. Like it had sprung right of my dreams. You know what I mean?"

No, I don't know, I've never been a blushing bride, she thought sourly, and then relented, deflated. Sakura was enjoying possibly the most exciting part of her life; it was only natural for her to be a bit fickle. 'I should be glad,' she reminded herself. The sample that caught Sakura's eye is a staple at Joy, one she has made so many times that she could probably whip it out in a day. This was load off her back, really.

"Breathe, Hinata," she told herself. And then smiled.

"Don't worry about it, Sakura," she said, the warmth in her voice genuine this time. "I'm glad you chose Joy for your special day. I wish you the best."

Something in her throat loosened; her load lightened.

Ino called that night around ten, excitement leaking shamelessly through her voice.

"Hinata! It's been so long! We should go out, there's a new club opening, like, four minutes from the strip-"

Hinata recalled the fiasco that was their last trip to a club-spilled drinks, wobbly heels, random phone numbers stuffed into her bra that she found the next morning-and shook her head. She learned from her mistakes; Ino reveled in hers.

"Ah, not tonight, Ino," she said, twirling a lock of hair around a finger.

"Why not?" Ino's whine was so loud that Hinata pulled the receiver from her ear.

A hand reached out in front of her and plucked her cell from her fingers.

"She's occupied," a masculine voice drawled, and Hinata fought back a smile when she heard Ino-who had never in her life been at a loss of words- stammer and sputter an apology.

Sasuke hung up in the middle of her blabbering, and then turned the phone off. "Just you and me," he said, pulling her half onto his lap. She brushed his hair back, out of his eyes and kissed his forehead. He smirked, and then dragged her down to his lips.

"You're beautiful," he said suddenly, when they parted. Her eyes widened- no one had ever said that to her before, not even hinted at it- and then she looked away. Sasuke was not one to waste words, and not one to mince them either. It made his admission that much more flattering.

"You're the beautiful one." He was. Sasuke looked like the quintessential male lead of a romance movie, dark eyes flashing, shirt slightly open to reveal a glimmer of skin and promises of more. She poked his cheek, double checking that he was real.

A month had gone, another Saturday come. For once she wasn't cooped up in her apartment in care bear long john's, but settling in the sofa in his. His home was considerably larger than hers-to her understanding, after the massacre, he had been bequeathed about four family's fortunes (that wealth should come from such tragedy seemed like the gods' sick method of compensation)- and Spartan in its design. The walls were black, white, and, on one side, a deep, pure blue. It was her first time there, although he had been visiting her almost daily, and she planned on taking a little tour through it the moment she got the opportunity.

Unfortunately, Sasuke could be incredibly distracting.

Wedding cakes are the most elaborate, time-consuming, and tiring products that Joy offers in its ever expansive-catalog. Hinata followed her predecessor's mantra- everything was made by hand if she could help it, so she prepared copious amounts of fondant earlier in the week separate from those she used for typical orders and stored them, set out her tools, and left Ju Eun and Inhae to take care of new orders. Then, before the sun could breach the horizon, she arrived at the shop, tied on her apron, and disappeared into the kitchen, only to emerge twenty hours later.

The cake that Sakura chose is an asymmetrical three-tier, and one of Hinata's greatest feats as a pastry chef. She recalled the days when setting it caused her great anguish (she toppled and destroyed more layers than she cared to admit over the years,) but given the unconventionality of the design, had received so many orders for it that she was forced to perfect it. Each layer was a different flavor and color, and this was up to the customer's discretion- she could advise as much as she wanted, but in the end the customer was always right, even if they demanded that their cake be bright orange and green.

Luckily, Sakura was more sensible, or at least more fashion conscious, than that. She ordered chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry layers, in that order, and then, after discovering the nearly endless list of flavors, changed the order excitedly- chocolate mint, vanilla bean, and, because the groom was dead-set against anything even vaguely fruity in his cake, tiramisu. Same colors-"Let's make it a bit more unpredictable"- plain, buttercream fondant, a single, expansive rose on the top layer.

It was a beautiful cake. Probably the most perfect wedding cake she'd made yet. It almost looked sculpted, and would be painful even for the bride to cut into it until, of course, she took her first bite. After that, the beauty of the cake would no longer matter (Far too tasty to just have one slice.)

With a final appreciative glance, she boxed and boarded it up. The transport-service Sakura hired arrived to pick it up barely an hour later; she watched it go with calm resignation.

Sasuke visited at closing. In-hae and Ju-Eun had grown entirely accustomed to his presence, and whirled out of the shop with nods and smiles in his direction. Sasuke waved them off genially and then rang the bell at the counter.

"Sorry," Hinata called, rushing out of the kitchen. "We're closed." Turning the corner, she spotted him and relaxed. Her hand fell out of her hair, where she had been wrestling to tie it back, and settled on her hip.

"Hey," she said softly.

"Hey yourself," he replied. "How'd it go?"

Hinata shrugged. "We'll see when she sees it."

He smirked. "That good, huh?"

A flood of emotion broke over her face; he'd broken the dam. "It was perfect," she said a little sadly, a little joyously. "Best one I've made yet."

He assessed her coolly for a moment, silently taking in the haggard bags under her eyes, the way she swayed almost imperceptibly on her feet.

"You need to rest," he advised. She nodded, but to someone far away, somewhere over his shoulder. He realized with alarm that she'd been putting in extra hours to finish smaller orders in the days before and thus had been on her feet for far longer than she'd been in bed.

"I'm done," she breathed.

"Then let's go home."

She didn't ask where home was, just locked the doors to the shop and followed him to the train station, blocking out the noise of the other passenger's, the heat of so many bodies heading home after long days at work, closing her eyes and feeling for peace in the darkness.

They went to his apartment. He led her to his room. Even in her stupor, she began to wonder whether it was time, whether he was hinting at something deeper than frantic kisses and fleeting touches. (They were old enough now, she reasoned, and she was ready- if it was him, she'd been ready a long time ago.) But he simply fished a shirt and boxers from his drawers for her, brushed her bangs from her forehead, and demanded she sleep.

Nestled into his pillow and his sheets, she dreamed of fondant cakes and white dresses and a beautiful bride with pale eyes and a quiet smile.

She awoke to screams.

They reverberated through the walls, unending, hoarse with breathlessness, panicked. Her body shook with them. The room had darkened to near greyscale, only a touch of amber from the streetlights leaking inside.

Suddenly wide-awake, Hinata slipped out from under the sheets. It wasn't coming from outside, and the longer she was up, the faster the realization set in— Sasuke.

Terror seized her senses. What was going on in there, past the door? What could possibly happen to make Sasuke, who could barely allow himself to cry over his dead sister, scream like that?

She opened the door a crack. It was dim in the living area, the light on in the kitchen. She couldn't hear anyone else, much less see them, but she knew how these things worked- a burglar could spring up and surprise her from anywhere. She skirted to her bag and grabbed her mace- better to lose time and be prepared than empty-handed and dead- and pushed the door open as quietly as she could.

No one. The room was empty. No creeping shadows were splashed across the walls, but the screaming persisted, choking on itself now, just a semblance of the deafening sound she'd heard before. It sounded like the last, desperate breath of the suffering.

"Sasuke?" He was alone. Tangled in a thin bed sheet, layered with cold sweat , chest heaving and breath tight. He had finally run out of air. Her throat tightened; she'd never seen anyone like this, let alone Sasuke. What horrors could possibly have infiltrated his mind while he slept?

His couch was large. She didn't think, just pried the sheets from his furled fingers and slid herself under them, settling against him, rubbing his back in slow circles until his trembling stopped, his breath set.

When morning came, they spoke nothing of the night before.

That day, wordlessly, he gave her a key. The presentation was sneaky, he simply placed it next to her purse on the nightstand in his bedroom, on top of a yellow sticky note. "Yours," it said.

A key to his home, a key to his heart.

He was hers.

The first time they fought, it was vicious and bitter and, despite the insistence of daytime soaps, did not end in mind-blowing make up sex. Instead, Hinata found herself curled up on top of a crate in the kitchen of Joy long after hours, too hurt to go home, fighting back tears valiantly. Trying, and failing, to keep him from her mind.

...Have to write Inhae's paycheck, call the baking wholegoods store for a few more molds, what if we expanded and included a small coffee bar, Sasuke is such a goddamn freaking bastard, oh, oh no, unicorns llamas glitter...

It had started with an invitation. Sakura had sent it, and she'd opened the envelope knowing precisely what it was. She'd never been to a customer's wedding, had always preferred to imagine her work on display or be content with photographs, but technically, Sakura wasn't just a customer. Of course, she wasn't a friend either, not really, but perhaps it would be rude to turn her down...

...And, Naruto'd be there. Naruto was the groom.

That made things difficult.

She was sure she didn't love him anymore, but she remembered the intensity of her feelings only a few years ago and it was impossible to say whether they were truly gone or simply muted by time and distance.

And she loved Sasuke. Of this she was certain.

He found the invitation open and on her dining table. He picked it up, studied the gold embossed vines that lined the sides, and replaced it. There would not have been an issue had he not flipped it over.

"What's this?" Sasuke asked when she came back from the bathroom. His voice was even and steady. He flicked the envelope over in his fingers, showing her the card.

"An invitation to Sakura's wedding," she'd said simply, not quite understanding.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "What is this?" he repeated, turning the envelope to her. Four versions of Naruto- smiling, scratching his head, eating, frowning into something in the distance- graced the back. They were done with a practiced ease evidenced in the sparsity of lines and the uncannily close resemblance to the subject.

"Sketches," she said simply, a stone in her throat.

"Of the groom?" She jolted- how did he know-? "Why would you be drawing Naruto?" She could almost hear an unuttered addition, a 'When you've never drawn me.' She couldn't answer either, so she plucked the envelope from his fingers and responded, "How do you know Naruto-kun?"

"We were classmates," he said automatically, "You haven't answered my question."

She stared up at him, at the emotion gathering in his dark, dark eyes. She'd never lied to him before, she realized at that moment. Not even once. It had never even occurred to her that she should have to.

There was no good reason to start now.

"I loved him once," she said, "I used to draw him everyday. I felt like it was...appropriate to do it one last time, while I still can."

But perhaps telling the truth was a bad idea. Hinata had seen Sasuke irritated, annoyed, upset. She'd seen cool anger, controlled and poisonous. But she'd never seen him furious.

The envelope, invitation and all, lay in tortured shreds on the floor.

He didn't even look at her, just walked past her as he said it.

"I don't even have the words to describe the kind of woman who thinks about other men in front of her own boyfriend."

She would have preferred that he'd yelled at her, thrown things. At least that way he would have still been there, and they could have yelled it out, and she could explain.

But instead, he'd walked out, slamming her apartment door behind him.

She picked up the pieces of her past from the carpet and didn't wipe the tears that crept from under her eyelids. They laid liquid tracks down her throat for others to follow.

Five days passed. He hadn't sent so much as a text. She forced herself to turn off her phone, holed herself in the kitchens preparing senseless amounts of orders to keep herself from looking to the door expectantly everytime the bell rang and let in someone who wasn't him. Ju-Eun and In-hae did not ask questions— they'd seen the way their older sister (for all it was worth, that was what she'd become to them) had withdrawn, the fact that a certain ghoulishly handsome customer had not come by in quite a while.

On the fifth day, she threw away the key. It glinted in the trash can, never once used. She emptied her crumpled sketches into the bin to smother its shine, and then took a bottle of chocolate Bailey's from the fridge to help her forget.

It worked. She called Ino, for once not conscious of the fact that she was completely drunk, and complained and bad-mouthed thoroughly until her friend decided that such things were more fun in person and took the train over to her apartment, bearing two pints of rocky road ice cream under each arm.

By the sixth day, she had recovered somewhat. Sasuke had issues. She'd known that from the start. In-hae had warned her, in a way, in the beginning, when she'd told her about his past. After all, how could a man who had lost so much possibly be ready for a relationship? She'd been too enamored with the prospect of being loved to see that he wasn't prepared for her, for them. No, she was too enamored with him. A beautiful, tragic man with eyes only for her? It had been too good to be true from the start.

This she told herself over and over again until she nearly believed it. It was a tough pill to swallow, but she forced it down, had almost managed to push it down her throat completely, when one night the door to her apartment creaked open and Sasuke entered.

She was sitting at the bar at her kitchen, stirring her coffee with the handle of a fork when he came in, pocketing a key.

"I didn't give you that," she said. Her voice sounded tired even to her own ears. In the back of her mind, she'd wondered why she hadn't

"I know." He took off his shoes, as though he'd just come home.

She couldn't even be properly angry. Her eyes were still taking him in, following the curve of his back as he curled down to arrange his shoes more neatly and straightened. For the past three months, she'd seen him every single day without fail. After a week without him, she had to readjust.

"How did you get it?" she asked, cocking her head toward his pocket.

"Your landlady gave it," he said simply. "She quite likes me."

Hinata placed the fork against the table, tearing her eyes away. "She shouldn't have. I'll have to go talk to her. Leave it here, please."

He heard the unspoken words— on your way out.

"I wanted to talk," he said.

"You could have called."

"I didn't think you'd pick up."

Anger surged into her suddenly, violently. "You could have at least tried!" She would have answered. She would have been happy to answer.

There was silence, and the sound of the tap dripping. He crossed into the kitchen to turn it off. That set her off.

"Get out, Sasuke," she said coldly.

His eyes met hers.

"Get out!" she hadn't realized that she'd leapt off of her seat until her hands were on his chest, shoving him hard. Her throat was tight.

He stumbled back a step, and then caught her wrists, holding them high and away from him. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said over and over again, and she started to cry because dammit she didn't want to feel a thing for a guy who would leave her out to dry for something as stupid as an innocent drawing of an old flame but here she was, bawling over him and this situation.

"Get. Out," she managed through sobs. "I don't want to have to look at you."

"Hinata. I-"

"Y-You can't just barge in here like that." She pulled against his hold, but his grip was firm if gentle. "You can't just expect-"

"Please," he said. "I was being stupid. You didn't deserve that. I'm sorry-just listen, will you?"

Listen. He hadn't listened. He'd walked out, tail between his legs, because he was too much of a pussy to actually assess the situation.

"Why couldn't you just knock like a normal human being? This isn't your place-you had no right to just invite yourself up here-"

"You wouldn't have let me in otherwise-"

"But that would have been my choice! You can't even respect that-!" Hinata froze, her teeth grit. "You're a coward." She spat it venomously.

"Yeah," he said, eyes somber and fixed on hers. "I am a fucking coward. Now can you sit so we can talk?"

"D-Don't talk to me like that! It's my flat!"

"Look, let's just sit, okay?" His tone was oddly devoid of the exasperation of his
words. He sounded like a patient parent trying to reason with a belligerent child.

"I-I..." she sighed, running her hand through her hair. "Why are you here?"

"To apologize," he said, so candidly and unnaturally that she squinted in skepticism. "I mean it, Hinata."

"You might as well have called me a harlot, Sasuke," she said. His calm was catching; she collapsed into the sofa behind her and rubbed her temples. "And then you left without a word. I don't...I don't intend to date half-heartedly," she admitted bashfully. "I was with you because I...really care for you, and because I thought we were going somewhere. B-But if you can't even listen to me now, there's no point-"

Finally, she saw some emotion- panic. He knelt in front of her, grabbed her hands. She watched his knees hit the carpet.

"I'm sorry," he said for the umpteenth time. "I can't promise that I won't be like this. I...I've lost everything I've cared about, Hinata. I thought you were heading out too. I..." he turned away, and she realized that perhaps the stony-faces and awkward wording and effusive apologies came out of his own insecurity.

"I'm a shitty boyfriend," he admitted. "And I don't know how to do this. I wish I could tell you that I won't react over something like that again, but I will. I'll probably be a dick the next time you so much as look at another guy. I'll be worse if you mention him. I don't know. It's...wrong; it's messed up as hell, but...I just want you to myself."

She looked up and met his eyes, felt his hands squeeze hers, and exhaled, feeling something in her deflate.

"Why...did you avoid me?" then, the truth. "I thought you hated me." she hadn't done this before either.

"I was...thinking," he said a bit tightly. She could swear his skin had turned greenish.


He reached into his pocket, and she waited patiently for the brass of her stolen key.

Instead, he pulled out a small velvet box.

Her heart stopped.

"Of a way to keep you by my side," he said, "Always."

She didn't say yes the first time.

("Y-You aren't serious.")

("Why wouldn't I be?")

("You can't be serious.")

("What's your answer, Hinata?")

("…I-I…I can't. N-Not right now. Not like this.")

Or the second.

('He isn't ready,' Then, when she suddenly saw that he was, 'I'm not ready.')

By the third, however, his relentlessness prevailed.

They decided to bake their cake together. It was a bit unorthodox for the bride to prepare her own wedding cake, but after making so many for so many others, it seemed fitting to Hinata. She tossed the purple apron over Sasuke's head and pushed him around the kitchen to do grunt work, showing him how to knead the fondant so that it would go on smoothly, giving him dish duty. They mixed the batter, poured the molds together. He laid his hands over hers as they built it, supporting it with both their hands.

Next to them, a blueprint design, sketched messily in a coffee shop months before, smudges of French vanilla along the top. Ropey but elegant strands twined all the way around.

They would take care of each other. The sum greater than the parts.

"I love you," he said, as they laid the final piece on top.

Hinata had found her Joy.

A/N: This fic, my comic, and the advent of the new semester's ridiculousness () have taken up my entire life.

I'm so sorry to my College Quirks readers! I'm still working on the next chapter, so don't worry about me abandoning it, but just prepare yourself for really erratic updates. It'll be ending soon, so at least you won't have to put up with my crap for much longer. :D

I don't know what happened with this fic, it just didn't want to end itself. I mean, I could have kept going even from here, but I decided that enough was enough (25 pages! EGADS!) and brought my fist down. This is my first serious attempt at a quasi-angsty relationship fic, and though I like it now, I'm not sure how I'll feel about it in, say, a week. I mean, I'm not sure whether the short, jumpy sections were annoying or actually flowed the way I wanted them to.

Remember, Sophia, since this changed so far from your original request, just let me know if you want me to redo it. Thanks for your astounding patience; you're a real sweetheart. 3

Don't forget to review! :D