Three months left. The storm of succession condensed around her. Each day the edge of unfulfilled expectation cut deeper into the sunless place where she shrouded her heart. The winds of Hyuuga changed every turn of the generation, but for her they grew fierce and unforgiving.
There was only so much an honest soul could pretend to endure. In the moonlight, she became one with the shadows, and slipped from the eye of the storm. The river in the woods lay calm and welcoming. She thought of hiding into its cool embrace forever, of leaving the world by the bank and claiming the weeds and fish as her own. But she reached her feet to the water and did not let them sink. The water trembled with each point of her toe, swirled with each arc of her knee, danced like silk in her hands.
She halted. The river fell from her hands.
Another plop. Two shadow-lengths away, Uchiha Sasuke leaned against a willow, skipping rocks across the water.
The world returned to her then, and she flushed, uncertain. His eyes remained fixed on the depths beyond the river. Slowly, the anxiety bled from her veins, and she took up her forms once more. She imagined a line of ripples and moonlight that divided her waters from his.
Moon faded into sun. Neither said hi.
He claimed the river first the next night, whispering streams of smoke and fire above its depths. The fish scattered and the currents gave way. She sat by the bank some stone-throws away and cooled her feet in the water, watching warmth and light die and flicker to life in his fingers. She wondered if his hands smelled like firewood.
They did not speak, but she found the waters calm and clear for her the next night, even though he had come earlier. She danced and he watched the river.
He spent his afternoons there, she learned. People were most hostile in the bold glare of daylight. The woods and the waters were a quiet refuge. She understood.
The succession loomed close. Mere glances began to suffocate. She murmured "training" for prying eyes and slipped into the woods in the darkening day. Sasuke looked at her and raised an eyebrow above his bento box, a piece of egg between his lips. The glow of sunset softened his face.
Red and sheepish, Hinata hid behind a tree. She thought of catching some fish in the river when Sasuke was not looking. A pause, a rustle of grass, and some footfalls later, a rice ball was thrust in her face.
"Eat it," muttered Sasuke, eyes on the tree.
Hinata blinked and opened her mouth to say no, it's fine, you don't have to, but Sasuke had waited long enough. He looked at her hands, clenched and tight. He looked at her head, a wide open plane, and plopped down the rice ball.
"Balance," he said, and returned to the bank. Hinata plucked the rice ball from her head and stared at it. Something like a laugh formed like froth in her throat, but she bit it down and murmured thank you.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spied a gash on his neck, and thought of the fresh jar of ointment she prepared at home.
Two seats away, Naruto slurped down his third bowl of ramen. Hinata chewed her noodles woodenly. The fragrance of pork broth dampened the storm in her abdomen.
Sakura walked over. Waved to her. Then she punched Naruto, yelling something significant only to the two of them. Naruto threw some bills on the table and let Sakura drag him away by ear.
"Those two are at it again, eh." Teuchi shook his head, clearing away the soup spills and loose change.
Prodding the oil bubbles floating in her soup, Hinata lost herself in thoughts of another life where she had been born with soft pink hair and spirited green eyes. A life where beautiful brave golden-haired young men loved her.
"It's going to get cold if you just poke at it."
She raised her head from her soup. Sasuke dropped into the chair beside hers and waved for Teuchi. "One chashu ramen, please."
"One chashu ramen, coming up!"
Hinata blinked. Flushed. Ichiraku Ramen was not their usual element.
"U-um...good afternoon, Sasuke-san."
He nodded, and withdrew a pair of chopsticks from the steel cup between them. Removed from the shadows of the woods and put under the artificial, fluorescent glare of ceiling lamps, she felt for the first time the strain of silence between them. Sasuke played with his chopsticks and she played with her soup. It would be rude to leave now, she thought, even though she didn't know why.
"Are you done with that?" said Sasuke, eyeing the cold remains of her pork broth.
Hinata bit her lip and nodded, tips of her ears turning red. She had hoped he wouldn't notice, and had hoped he would, and—she just didn't want to come off as rude, and—
"Oh, you're done?" said Teuchi, placing a steaming bowl of ramen before Sasuke. "Would you like me to get the bill, then, Hinata-san?"
"It's on me," interrupted Sasuke. Teuchi raised both eyebrows. Hinata was too surprised to blush.
"...It's thanks for the ointment," he snapped, rubbing the back of his head. She looked at the wound on his neck, which had scabbed and faded into a thin line.
"I-it was no problem," she said.
She let him count the change from his wallet anyway.
He found her crouched over the bank hours after Sakura said yes to Naruto, tears seeping through the cracks in her hands. A part of him wanted to tell her, this is what happens when you love. I loved once and look what happened to me. But Hinata was broken in a different way. Time would fill the cracks in her soul the way it never filled his.
"They're both idiots," he said instead. He knelt over her, lifted her head by the chin, and blew a controlled, chakra-infused stream of hot air over her watery face, a trick his mother taught him all those years ago. Her tears evaporated in wisps of steam.
"...Thank..." Hinata sniffled, surprise and words and broken dreams lodged in her throat. Her weeping grew silent and still under the calm of evening sun. There they stayed, side by side, backs to the world.
He took her back to her compound that night, careful to stay out of sight. Then he returned to his own compound and dropped onto his futon, dark eyes tracing the bloodstains that ghosted the walls in his memory.
Hinata showed up at his doorstep the next morning, fruits and jars of ointment and flustered thank-yous in arm.
He let her in.
Mikoto's old garden was a tangle of weeds and withered leaves. Sometimes, when Sasuke looked out the window, he thought he could see the flutter of long dark hair and hear the gentle chime of a laugh. He could close his eyes and Itachi would be hovering over him, ready to haul him up and carry him over his shoulder. From her garden, Mother would call them over to help her gather this herb or dig up that root.
He opened his eyes. Perched by the windowsill, Hinata was a flutter of long dark hair and a gentle chime of a laugh. She stared at the worn mess of grass outside as if it were some great lost treasure. With a start, Sasuke realized he wanted her to find it.
The Uchiha compound began to smell like lavender and herbs. Late at night, it smelled like tea and laughter. To Sasuke, it smelled like home.
When she left, she took the scents of tea and lavender with her. The halls seemed empty without them.
This was what love smelled like, he thought. Fear gripped his heart. Her presence gripped it tighter. He caught her by her hair the next night as she prepared to walk out the door, and grasped for the right words.
"You have nice hair," he mumbled. The dark strands seeped through his fingers like water.
"T-thank you," she said, face a pretty glow of pink in the lamplight shining from the entryway. That night, she brushed the tangles out of her hair carefully.
That night, the Council betrothed her to another of the Main House.
The storm was nigh.
Sasuke stared at her. Stared beyond her. This is what happens when you love.
He left her right there and then, the lavender and the tea and the laughter and the home. At some point—he should've known—oh, he hurt. How he hurt. He might've remembered that love hurt the most when it was—seemed—for a moment yours.
There was a dark corner at the edge of the bar. He dropped onto the stool and let the steady stream of drinks numb the world. No one tried to approach him.
"Sasuke?! Oi, you bastard, what are you doing out here?"
The world was a strange blur of darkness and neon light. A deep, burning, painful anger crawled behind his eyes. Naruto could have had Hinata. Hinata loved Naruto. Naruto could have had Hinata—
"You...fucking...dumbass," he slurred, drew back his fist, and punched.
The limp back was slow ache. Sasuke stumbled past the entryway and into the embrace of the tatami mats. It still smelled like home. He tilted his head up and squinted past his throbbing bruised eye at the patter of feet.
"What happened to you?" Hinata whispered, a hand over her mouth.
She was still here. Sasuke wanted to keep her forever. But he didn't know what to do with her, and she didn't know what to do with him. He let her drag him to his room and lay him on the futon. Against his hot, throbbing forehead, her hand was a cool drink of water.
"Stay," he murmured. When she tried to get up, he pulled her down, and tucked her in his sore arms, where she was warm and soft and smelled nice.
He was drunk and bruised and broken, but he was home.
Staring at his battered, peaceful face, Hinata thought, I will never leave him. Her body trembled under his strong hold, like a match ready to be struck afire.
"I will not disown you," said Hiashi. He made peace with his elder daughter's destiny a long time ago, when he realized it lay not with the clan. Hanabi was their future; Hinata, he now understood, was someone else's.
"Your sister will be heir in your stead," he said, and presented her with a scroll. She dipped a brush in red ink and signed away her past. Hanabi knelt by her, eyes strong, ready to harness the storm and bear the weight of generations.
"It is done," said Hinata. She bowed to her sister and to her father, assured them she would attend Hanabi's inauguration and wedding, and left for the future.
He was at the river, skipping rocks across the rippling waters. Placing a rice ball on his head, she knelt by him, and smiled.
"Balance," she said.
He took the rice ball in one hand and her face in another, and kissed her like a drowning man. She burned everywhere he touched and drew him in deeper.
"I love you," he breathed into her hair.
"Let's go home," she whispered, and they walked into the sunrise.