He still remembers the chime of her laugh.
Sasuke sits cross-legged on the tatami mat, a warm cup of sencha on the table. His old, weathered hands flip through yellowing pages of a photo album.
"This is the park by the school we went to." He pulls out an old picture of a young boy and girl holding long bamboo rods with nets tied on the end.
A child climbs under his arms to sit on his lap, and points. "Catching... butterflies?"
"Yes, we were," he chuckles. "She loved it. Wasn't really afraid of bugs…"
She fidgets a little.
"Did you love her, grandpa?"
He looks down to find the little girl peering up at him. She's got Hinata's long, straight dark hair. And his nose. Definitely.
She reminds him of his wife everyday.
"Yes, I did," he smiles, crinkles showing at the corners of his eyes. "Maybe too much."
Tiny hands grip his arm and feather-white eyes gleam brighter.
He reads over the analysis reports and the x-rays for the tenth time, frantically flipping through the documents.
He doesn't understand.
(Snow falls outside and he's reminded of how bitter winter can be.)
"What does all of this mean?" he asks. It sounds like an afterthought.
Hinata sits quietly across the room, hands folded in her lap. He looks so, so tired, but she stays there, watching him scan over papers before haphazardly tossing them onto the table, like separating body from soul. Yet, he somehow manages to do it with such poise and grace that it makes anyone second-guess how old he is.
Even in age, he is still extraordinarily handsome.
She rubs her hands over her fingers, but not out of impatience or anxiousness. The wrinkles on her skin feel a little heavier today.
What does it mean?
She looks up, steeling her voice: "Not enough time."
He shakes his head because he doesn't want to take it away from her again.
The walls start to fall down, but she doesn't let it, and she holds it back up.
(She puts her hand on his shoulder and gives it to him anyway because it was always meant to be with him.)
The quiet has lasted for what seems like an eternity.
Hinata adjusts their newborn baby in her arms and absentmindedly paces around the room, dragging her slippers around, listening to the hollow patter of rain against the window. She can see the whole city ward from up here, and past that, an endless sea of monotone concrete buildings that long ago swallowed green meadows and sunlight. The child sleeps silently and doesn't stir.
This is life far from home. This is life in Tokyo
Their high-rise apartment in the Nishi-Shinjuku ward is absolutely stunning. It's too much space for just the three of them, but Sasuke wanted to give her everything he was capable of giving.
Hinata feels like she should be happy. She tells herself that she has everything she could ever want, but she knows it's nothing like that at all.
All of this doesn't lift weights from shoulders, she learns.
She doesn't say anything to him because he's so busy and works hard every day. Living in the city is like that for everyone: crowded trains, working weekends, overtime without pay, binge drinking, suicide jumping. It's too rancid, too much poison to put up with, so how could she possibly ask him to do anything else?
But he notices—notices in the way her eyes have grown gray-dull, the way her hands lose their grip in his, the way her expression falters when she turns away. When tries to ask what's bothering her, she just smiles prettily and tells him not to worry.
A week rolls by, then four more, before he comes home, shutting the door behind him when he says it: "You're sad."
Her eyes fall on the infant girl asleep in her arms, trying to keep herself from drowning, but she can't find the courage to shake her head, to look him in the eye, to do anything.
He waits, measuring her. She doesn't say anything.
But when Hinata gives him the baby for him to hold, he realizes that it wasn't about the apartment, or the wedding, or quitting her job to stay home. It wasn't about drifting apart in school, or keeping her in the park past her curfew. It was none of that because, now, it's not about the just two of them anymore.
"Will she feel loved?" is all she could manage because she's too tired from the lack of warmth on her skin, the lack of her mother's cooking, the lack of laughter.
His daughter is beautiful, he thinks. Some days she looks just like her mother, but without all of the scars from years of sadness. It scares him because she's so like her, and he's been given a second chance to not mess this up.
He thought could give her the life he and Hinata never had; admission into their choice of good private schools, a nice home, a big city with endless opportunities.
The following March, Sasuke decides to down as the chief of his department. He announces his plans to move back west to his hometown in Okayama. His superiors are in a quiet uproar over losing their best performing employee, and, for weeks, it causes a commotion throughout the building.
It's not until they are standing outside watching the last of their boxes get tucked into the back of the moving truck that he knows he's made the right decision for them and not him.
They are going home.
And when she looks up at him, her eyes tell him to have hope because it's all they've got.
"Why did you do it?"
"Because I think I'm starting to understand."
The very first time Sasuke meets her, he finds her crying beneath overhanging wisteria, cradling a fallen sparrow in her arms. He recognizes the girl from his class, though he doesn't remember if he's ever heard her voice.
This park is so, so green in the spring, and his only regret is that his brother couldn't come and visit with him. Itachi has to do grown up things with his parents today, and Sasuke wishes he could be here.
His eyes drop down to the girl and doesn't think when he says it: "Uncle says that's what happens when birds are let out of their cages. They try to fly when they can't."
When she starts to sob even louder, he knows he has said the wrong thing.
But he doesn't apologize, not yet. He notices that her hair is a little ruffled and the tear stains on her cheeks are sort of ugly. But then he remembers something about her.
He goes to stand beside her with a sigh and continues, "But I don't think it's so bad, you know, not being cooped up all the time, even if you end up...like that."
He looks up towards the sky, bluer today than most others. "I guess it's kinda scary going to someplace you don't know, but you gotta do it."
When she stops crying, he looks down at her again, to get a better look. He crouches down, extending a hand. "You're Hinata, right?"
She is mostly surprised, but nods slowly, putting her hand in his as he pulls her up to her feet. Hinata thinks that for a second grader, he seems much older.
He smiles crookedly, beaming with pride. "I got your name right, didn't I?" he rejoices, crossing his arms. "Try not to cry so much anymore though," he says, peering at her. "It doesn't seem... right."
She tilts her head to the side, as if she is trying to register what he’s asking.
"Okay," she whispers.
He thinks he has somewhere else to be right now, but he doesn't quite remember where. Instead, he bites his lip and, without asking, sits quietly beside her for the rest of the day.
Afternoons are much longer in the summertime, and he's grateful.
"Have you ever thought about what it'd be like to fly?" Hinata calls out beside her. She is laughing and he thinks it's nice.
Sasuke decides that Hinata is his favorite playmate—his one constant in life. She doesn't gossip or cause trouble like the other kids, and they're good at keeping each other's secrets. He's much better than her at almost everything, but it doesn't seem to get her riled up. He wonders if it's because her father keeps telling her she's not good for much to the point of her getting used to it.
"Flying? Like a plane?" he kicks his feet as he swings into the air.
"Uh huh," she nods, slowing down a little. "Or a bird."
He stops trying to swing higher and shrugs his shoulders. "Not really."
"We should try it someday!" She leaps from her swing, glistening streams of deep blue hair and the sound of her laughter trailing behind her. As he watches, he has to hold his arm in front of his eyes up to block the glare of sunlight.
He smiles to himself. He is nine and knows how ridiculous she's sounding, but still, he hopes.
It's the first day of middle school, and the cherry blossoms are already in full bloom. It's supposed to be a good sign, or so she's told. She tries to believe it anyway.
He jogs up the stairs as he calls her name.
"What class are you in?" he asks, coming up behind her, trying to catch his breath.
"1-8," she replies, though hesitantly.
"Good, I'm in 1-7. I'll be right next door." He absently pulls a few flower petals out of her hair. "Promise you'll come and see me?"
She giggles a bit, then a slight nod. "I'll try."
He reaches out his hand to tap the tips of his two fingers to the middle her forehead. "I know. You always do."
In this region, the sound of the cicadas is deafening. She's only glad they stop buzzing in the evening, though only until morning.
In the summer of their 3rd and final year of middle school, Hinata and Sasuke get stuck in the same group for their school trip to Kyoto. The rundown ryokan is a little out of the way, and they learn that the charming garden it encircles is impossibly ancient.
They are kneeling on lumpy cushions over the tatami watching some stupid celebrity game show with the volume on low. Physically, they are sitting only feet apart, but for some reason, it feels like miles.
"You never tell me anything anymore," Sasuke states.
She lowers her head, trying to hide her eyes with her fringe. For the entire year, she had barely acknowledged him in the hallways, turning away whenever they made eye contact. He stopped bothering to greet her months ago.
He turns the TV off, then tosses the remote in the corner.
Hinata brings the edge of the stone cup to her lips, careful not to drink the dregs of the tea leaves lingering at the bottom. She puts her cup down slowly, trying to pool her thoughts together.
"It's dangerous if we're seen talking too much," she says with downcast eyes. "You're a boy, I'm a girl, and we're not kids anymore." She doesn't bring up the fact that he is the most sought-after guy at school, and their 'friendship' would start all sorts of rumors they would never hear the end of.
Her hands clench into fists before she can slip them away from his sight.
Sasuke slams his own cup on the table.
"Oh, bullshit! Since when have you cared for appearances anyway?"
She starts to absently brush the folds in her pleated uniform skirt. She's not sure when she started caring, either.
He's known her long enough to know how this conversation is going to end. He huffs, standing up to leave.
"Fine, have it your way," he bites out, storming for the exit. The shoji screen shuts behind him a little too loudly.
I'm trying, she thinks, tears threatening to spill. He just doesn't understand that I'm trying.
She doesn't let them fall.
Chattering students and camera flashes flood the hallway in the moments after graduation and their final homeroom class.
In the empty classroom, Sasuke walks up to her before her parents can find her, although she's not sure if they even came.
"What those girls did to you—why didn't you tell me it was because of me?"
She sucks in a breath and wants to tell him no, it's not your fault, it never was. She is not surprised he didn't hear about it until now.
"How did you… find out?" Her voice is barely a whisper, a thing she's beginning to make a habit of.
"It doesn't matter," he says, hands firmly hold onto her elbow as if she'll fly away.
The malice in his voice isn't for her, but it still makes her terrified, makes her sink.
He wasn't supposed to know. She was hoping to get away and not drag him down alongside herself. And anyway, Sasuke is the type of person to not get involved in anyone else’s problem the first place, so why bother?
She pulls her arm back and tries to turn away, but he's too fast. He catches her wrist and pulls the sleeve up, revealing a small cluster of angry cigarette burns. His eyes widen in shock, but he doesn't say anything. Instead, he examines them carefully, gently running his fingers over the bone-white of her skin. The wounds are few, but they are not old. His hands shake when he rolls the sleeve back down, and lets go of her arm, letting it drop to her side.
He's looking at her but she tries her hardest to keep her eyes trained somewhere past the edge of her shoes. He's angry for her, and she feels it. But he still says nothing.
"I'll be fine," she whispers, and almost wants to laugh. "They're going to different high schools."
It'll all be over soon, she wants to tell him. She's going to a new place where she can start over, where she can pretend to not know her best friend.
"I want to do this on my own," she confesses.
Sasuke takes in a deep breath and opens his mouth to say something, but shuts it quickly.
She does not expect it when he lifts her chin up gently. But she slowly backs away and shakes her head, shakes the burns, shakes the sympathy away.
His eyes say that he doesn't know how to reach her anymore. She doesn't think any other person could, either.
"Sasuke!" his mother calls from the door, startling the both of them.
"There you are! I thought you were—oh, Hinata? Long time no see! Congratulations!"
As if nothing happened, Hinata bows respectfully. "Thank you."
Mikoto looks between her and Sasuke, and frowns. For a moment, Hinata vaguely wonders if she has figured something out. A long time ago, she learned that Sasuke's extreme perceptiveness came from his mother.
Finally, Mikoto’s demure changes and she clasps her hands together. "Let me take a picture of you two, okay?"
They both begrudgingly nod as Mikoto digs out the camera from her purse.
When he goes to stand next to Hinata, he surprises her by putting an arm around her shoulder. She feels her heart clench and clutches the cylindrical diploma case tighter to her chest.
He turns his head, presses his lips to her ear and whispers: "Smile for me."
The camera clicks.
"Everything will be okay soon."
Hinata looks lovely in the photograph.
She's seen this somewhere before.
It's their high school trip to Okinawa, and they're on a boat leaving Zamami Island with the sun sinking slowly below the horizon and into the sea. Sasuke walks in from somewhere behind her, and she wonders if she's dreaming this time.
"You know, for coincidentally getting into the same school, we really haven't talked much all this time," Sasuke muses. He rests his elbows on the railing of the top deck, dark hair whipping around his face.
It took her a while, but she's doing a lot better now.
They overlook the glistening ocean from the stern, watching the wake trail behind the boat.
Hinata quickly thinks of something to change the subject. "I overheard you're going to try getting into a university in Tokyo."
He chuckles—almost laughs—and she swears that the corners of his mouth twitch upward ever-so-slightly.
"We'll see. Though, it would be nice—no, convenient—living closer to Itachi," he hums.
She knows he misses him by the way his eyes betray the indifference in his voice. For the entirety of high school, Sasuke has been occupying himself with clubs, sports, and anything else he could find to forget the absence of his brother. It's a healthy coping mechanism, she guesses.
"I'm sure you'll get in," she reassures quietly.
He excels at everything anyway: academics, sports, music. She imagines that if he really wanted to, he could get into Todai without studying for the entrance exam.
He spins his head around to look at her. "What about you?"
She ponders whether or not she should tell him, but figures she has nothing to lose. "I think I'd like to move to Yokohama."
He lifts an eyebrow at her, but all she does is shrug.
To be perfectly honest, she's not exactly sure where she plans to go. Not that she has been really sure of anything, recently. Though lately, it's all everyone ever asks, and that's the best excuse she can come up with.
He stares at her for a moment. Right now, she feels more transparent than ever.
"Don't give up," he tells her. "I think... I think that's what Naruto would tell you."
She nods in response, like she always does. It's half-lie from him at best, but she'll take what she can get.
In the distance, the island recedes from their vision as they feel the boat speed up. They hold on tightly to the railing as the force of the wind pushes against their backs and blows through their hair.
Maybe this is what it's like to fly.
She desperately wants them to be seven on a swing set again. But in that moment, she realizes that from here on out, everything ahead is uncertain, and there's no use finding comfort in what they're leaving behind.
"Speaking of Naruto, I should get back to him and Sakura."
She smiles to herself, glad that he was able to make new friends.
Sasuke turns to leave and waves his hand behind him. "Enjoy the rest of Okinawa."
Hinata nods, and wonders if he was thinking about that time, too.
He's almost forgotten about her until today.
The company has hired double the number of employees since last year, which means taking a lot of time out of the first day to listen to their introductions.
When someone announces that the new hires from the accounting department are about to make their entrance, Sasuke inwardly groans in frustration as he is yet again interrupted from completing his work. He stands up, along with everyone else, as the newbies file in. They are all nervous, flitting at their clothes and patting down their hair. He can almost feel the tension rolling off them in waves by just watching them.
He spots her there, third from the left, and his breath is caught somewhere in the hollow of his heart. Her hair is piled high on her head, but those eyes are unmistakably hers. He's trying to count the years in his head, but all he can think about is the way the air is leaving his lungs and how everything is familiar again.
Hinata looks different, but the somehow the same.
At the end of the day, he couldn't even figure out a good enough excuse to say hello.
Today, Sasuke learns that attempting to drown out misery with alcohol proves ineffective.
He tosses back the last of his whiskey before standing up to leave the (unfortunately, mandatory) company drinking party. He takes his shoes from the cubby, slips them on, and shoves himself past the entrance.
Outside, cigarette butts litter every visible walking space, and he squints his eyes beneath bright, flashing neon advertisements of disposable, too-young plastic pop stars in school uniforms. He steps out of the way as a group of men with heavily made-up girls clinging on their arms walk pass him. Ironically, most people wouldn't know that the famously busy Shibuya crosswalk is only blocks away from the city's seediest district.
"Good evening, Uchiha-san."
He tries not to look startled.
Sasuke bows slightly, steadying himself as best as he can, then turns to light the cigarette in between his teeth.
He doesn't want to look at her tonight.
It's been nothing but constrained politeness between him and Hinata lately, and the way she greets him by using his surname makes him feel so far away.
She goes closer to stand beside him, the white of her winter fur coat innocently brushing against his shoulder. "I didn't know you smoke."
He takes a deep drag, and on the exhale: "I try not to. But it's one of those days," he says caustically while leaning against the wall.
"Oh," she murmurs something like an understanding.
It's not the loud, drunk people surrounding them, and it's not the cold weather. If there's anything that makes Sasuke more uncomfortable than being forced to attend company drinking parties, it's having to see her at them.
She shifts beside him, and he's trying to remember a time when it wasn't so hard just being near her. Maybe it's the guilt from never being able to do enough for her. Maybe it's because he wasn't able to fix anything when he had the chance.
For some reason, he still feels the alcohol burning all the way down the back of his throat. Eventually, a co-worker calls out about round two at the next izakaya, but that voice is drowned out by the city.
To him, in this moment, she is a blur of dark hair and powdered snow; this is what he imagines starlight is supposed to be. He doesn't deserve her, doesn't think he ever will.
"You hate me," she says, lifting her eyes. It doesn't sound meek or fragile or restrained like it would have many years ago. The statement resounds with an impossible clarity in his ears, like a slow reveal.
Sasuke tosses the cigarette and forces himself to face her. He brings a hand up to gently brush his fingers through tendrils of midnight blue silk framing her face, and it catches her off guard.
He hates it. He hates they way they act like they don’t know each other. He hates that he passes her in the hallways, only slightly bowing their heads out of formality.
He hates the way her hair is always neatly tied in a high bun. But tonight, it isn't.
"I like it when your hair is down."
Then, he brushes past her.
He hates that she has always been beautiful. Hates himself even more for never admitting it to himself until today.
"Sasuke-kun," she finally calls out, but it's lost.
He wants to tell her, but he keeps walking forward.
"Do you love me?"
Hinata doesn't think when she says it. Not that it had ever done any good when she did in the past, anyway.
He looks over at her from across the room, eyes tired. He turns back to glancing out the window.
Supposedly, she is there on the account of dropping off souvenirs Jugo had brought back from Shanghai since no one has seen Sasuke at his desk for three days. He called in sick, but she had a gut feeling that wasn't the case. She set off for his apartment, deciding not to heed the warnings of an incoming typhoon. Her wet hair is dripping on his floor, but she doesn't care.
Today, she decides to take down her theatrical guards because she can no longer bring herself to keep hiding from him.
She looks back up to see Sasuke narrowing his eyes at her.
"How could you not tell me you've been engaged since last September?" he asks, trying to steady his voice.
She is surprised at herself when she stops breathing for a moment even though she knew he would've found out eventually.
"Of all people, I had to hear it from that—"
"I'm sorry, I couldn't…" she interrupts.
"Stop apologizing!" Sasuke raises his voice. He looks at her, and she sees a storm darker than the one outside the window.
Hinata is terrified, and she doesn't know what to do. She thinks he is angry at her excuses, and he has the right to be because that's all she's been giving him for years.
He lets out a long sigh, running a hand over his face.
"You know what, forget it." His shoulders drop, and he tries to smile for her, because this would be the last time. "Congratulations, Hinata. I wish for your happiness."
He sounds sad and sincere at the same time, and the only thing she's never gotten around to telling him is—
"You're free to go now."
Heavy raindrops pelt the glass window harder as the silence becomes louder, but she doesn't let it scare her away. She squares her shoulders and lifts her head.
A clap of thunder, and then: "I couldn't go through with it," she blurts out and tries not to choke. She shuts her eyes, taking a deep breath. "I was too scared to say 'no' because the pressure was so much and everyone keeps asking when I'll be married, if I'll marry, and father was so upset when I cut it off and I keep thinking about you and I'm just so tired—"
She doesn't notice him close the distance between them.
"Say that again."
" I said… I'm not getting married. I'm sorry I didn't tell you. So, please, Sasuke, don't-"
He crashes his lips onto hers, and before she knows it, her eyes start drifting close as a familiar warmth slowly wraps around her.
For the first time in a long, long time, she finally remembers where she belongs.
"I have, for a while now," he whispers.
She looks up, puzzled.
"The answer to your first question," he breathes, touching his forehead with hers. "I'm just—I don't think I have it figured out, but this is all I know for now."
It stops raining when she leaves the next morning.
She notices that hydrangeas don't look as lovely against the sky when it isn't drowning in gray, but she thinks that this will do.
It is quiet on their wedding day, but there's a sunshower.
The ceremony at the shrine goes by too quickly as streaks of white, red and gold blur around her, but she knows the image of Sasuke's smile will always burn in her memory.
When Hinata finally laces her fingers with his, she realizes that she had entrusted something important to him so that he doesn't have to walk around an ocean to find her.
It doesn't make Sasuke sad to go back to the park they played in more than seventy-five years ago. He's grateful that it's even still there, still a park.
The swing set isn't in the place where it should be, but he knows he sees it.
And he swears he hears her laugh when he closes his eyes.
And he understands.