Forgive me for the long delay! Sheesh, I thought first year was hard, second year is even harder! The assignments seem to multiply, and the Muse hasn't been kind to me. So yeah, 'nuff said. SHaPbY never forgot to ask of the update but I was always the one who stopped her by saying 'No update yet' before she said anything, effectively getting rid of her fussing XDD But a sudden review appearance after long delay instantly remind me to update. Note: it's very effective to do this. Beforehand, I warn you, my beta is busy so there might be many mistakes. So here it is…

Audriel proudly presents

What Are We?

Of Hope

"Congratulations!"

Along with those words, popping sounds of confetti could be heard from the residence of the newly married couple of rookie nine.

"So how does it feel being a Nara?"

Ino sat in the middle of her close friends, her beautiful blond locks cascading loosely on her shoulders; shades of pink adorned her features and a shy smile on her lips. However the other girls –or women- didn't fail to notice the sparkle in her eyes and how the mind jutsu expert seemed to glow. She looked happy and they felt the same for her.

"How's your wedding night?" Sakura asked teasingly, further reddening her already blushing features.

"Oh, he's that good?" Tenten added coyly. Hinata smiled inwardly, they were really in teasing mood. It was no wonder, Ino was rarely one to be flustered easily and she was usually the one who did the teasing, so the others took this as an opportunity to get it back.

"Just stop that, guys! It's not funny," Ino pouted though there was no hint of anger for being the object of her friends teasing. The girls just laughed it off. Deep down inside, after two of them already getting married they knew they wouldn't be able to spend much time together like this anymore so they decided to cherish the moment they had to the fullest.

"I'm glad," finally Hinata spoke after they regained composure once again, "You seemed very depressed after the engagement. Everything worked out fine, though, didn't it?"

"Yea. Not after I did some drastic measures though. I confronted him just a day before the wedding" Ino told them.

"Really?" the kunoichis were surprised.

"You know… I've always had these… insecurities that I didn't fill in Shika's criteria. Being his friend since childhood, I know he wants to be an average shinobi, married to an average wife, have two children, the eldest a daughter and the youngest a son and grow old together after quitting. I know I'm not his type. So I have reached a conclusion that I was the cause of his change of attitude before the wedding, I thought he regretted the engagement…"

"Oh Ino," most of her friends weren't aware how much of her insecurities were, after all, Ino was the most confident one among them.

"Until that night… The first thing he said to me was whether I really wanted to marry him. I've just realized… that he had also insecurities of his own. And do you know what the first thing in my mind was? I thought it was a big joke. The always laid back and lazy Shikamaru, the best strategist in Konoha, was capable of feeling insecurity? I know I sound rather cruel, I suppose I was fed up. He never said the three simple words, ever! So you can understand why I always feel insecure all those times, his attitude wasn't helping.

"But as I looked into his eyes, I knew… that he felt insecure too. I saw fear, anxiety and self-doubt. Somehow I understand… that I wasn't the only one. Then I asked him… if he loved me. I half-expected he would avoid it, like he always did, but instead, he looked me in the eye and said it, he said those words." Ino's eyes turned misty as she recalled the memory; however, it was not sadness that caused it, it was happiness.

"Then all I said was, 'It's more than enough'"

The women were unable to find the right words to say to their friend.

"I know it's not going to be easier after we're married. After all this is the man I fall in love with, the one I chose to spend the rest of my life with, I can't and I don't expect him to change overnight. But as long as there's trust and love between us, it's more than enough," Ino smiled, there was a hint of melancholy in her eyes, yet there was also strength and resolve within it, showing the mature side of Ino they rarely saw.

"Oh, Ino!" They took the initiative to hug their blonde beauty, trying to give their silent support and strength.

"Since when you've grown up?" Sakura commented, wiping her eyes.

"Hey! So you mean I've never acted like one?" Ino looked at Sakura accusingly, and soon the mood was replaced with much more familiar and normal mood, like their old times. Hinata laughed along the others, but only for a moment. Her face turned into a more thoughtful one, Ino's words kept repeating in her mind.

Time flew fast for the four best friends, they used all the time they could have together, not wanting it to last, but eventually they had to end it, Sakura had to check on the hospital and visit Tsunade afterwards, Tenten had a mission, and both Hinata and Ino had additional duty as a wife. Sakura and Tenten left after giving a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek and some words of encouragement to Ino, leaving Hinata as the last to leave.

Hinata didn't make any move to approach Ino or even to leave, instead she remained. Ino tilted her head slightly; she knew that it was better to wait, so she stood still close to the door. Hinata was grateful for Ino's patience; she needed time to collect her thoughts to make the right question without sounding stupid, which was strange because she never had to worry of sounding stupid around her friends. Ino was in the same line of thought herself as she watched the Hyuuga heiress, so she reached a conclusion that whatever Hinata wanted to say was rather serious.

"…Ino," Hinata paused, seeing that she had Ino's full attention, "How do you know that you're in love with Shikamaru?"

Ino frowned a bit, then it hit her like a thousand bricks fallen on top of her. She had forgotten that Hinata was married without love, unlike her and she had spoken about it, forgetting how it might affect her friend. Suddenly she felt guilty for talking about it openly; however, Hinata wouldn't let her. Hinata didn't fail to notice the fleeting look in Ino's eyes, and she knew how incredibly fast Ino was in putting things together when it came to her friends.

"Ino, it's nothing. I just want to know," Hinata smiled reassuringly. The guilt was slowly gone, replaced by understanding.

"Well… I'm not sure how to describe it, because it can be relative for each person…" Ino folded her arm; while her hand absently rubbing her chin, it was Ino's thoughtful pose. Hinata waited patiently, knowing that Ino was trying to provide the best answer for her.

"I can explain it the way romance novels explain it, but it's way too exaggerated. Not that it's not right, but well…" Ino frowned, trying to get the right words, "But I think it's deeper than simply tingly feeling, butterflies in your stomach, his face haunting you in your dreams. It's more than that, how you feel comfortable around him, just being yourself, just knowing that he accepts you they way you are. No need for pretenses, no need for lies. Most of all, how you feel happy around him, even without him really trying, and all of those feelings are sincere. His happiness is your happiness, his pain is your pain, you feel for him, more than anyone else and you would try to do everything to make it right for him. He completes you in a way you can never imagine"

"Everything about him just… seems right." Hinata could see the love shining in the blue depth, and she knew that Ino was describing her own feelings. Then Ino looked at her sheepishly, "I didn't seem to explain anything, did I?"

"Not really," Hinata laughed lightly, easing Ino's worry, "But it's better than nothing." Ino's face softened, a gentle smile on her lips, she gave the smaller woman a firm hug.

"Don't let go of hope, Hinata…" Hinata reveled into the warmth and concern her friend gave her, holding for what it seemed for an eternity because deep down inside she didn't share Ino's optimism.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

Meanwhile, Sasuke could be found sitting in the far corner of a bar with an expression that those people who knew him well enough to decipher as bored. He was dragged by his best friend slash rival to join the celebration held for Shikamaru's first day of his married life, because they never had the chance to throw a bachelor party for him before the marriage due to many reasons, Sasuke suspected that Ino's famous temper was one of the reasons. Kiba was the one to initiate and reserve the whole place for the whole day only for the special occasion. It was like ordinary bachelor party with all the free unlimited alcohol, blaring music and chaos, except there was no stripper. All of Konoha shinobi was invited, male only. He could see the old members of rookie nine who graduated together with Shikamaru and team eight's Lee and Neji, the last two was the ones who took his interest, because he knew both didn't have strong reason to come, Lee with his low tolerance for alcohol and Neji with his indifferent attitude. Sasuke could see him sitting across him; his posture mirroring his own.

Sasuke took a sip from his cup of sake; he never had trouble with alcohol. He could drink twice the amount of average people tolerance limit and still be able to fight against hundred men easily. He wasn't the only one though; Lee could do it with his drunken fist style with a bad hangover afterwards and Naruto whose relation with the fox also seemed to heighten his tolerance limit to alcohol without getting hangover –that lucky bastard.

However, both Neji and Lee had a reason to be there, considering how close they were to the lazy genius, especially Neji; their duties required them working together. Sasuke was the only one who had no reason to come, or even to stay. He didn't come for the drinks or the fun like the other jounins –he could see Kakashi, Gai, Genma, Raidou and surprisingly Ibiki, or even for simply Shikamaru, because their relationship was rather strained after his flight from Konoha resulting his –both Sasuke's and Shikamaru's- friends and comrades injured under his command. Not that he blamed him, he wasn't proud of it either; he still carried the guilt as the reminder of it until now.

Sasuke himself wondered why he remained either way, already knowing that he had no reason to, that his presence wasn't exactly welcomed: Shikamaru had never once laid his eyes on him or even acknowledge his presence; Shikamaru practically greeted everyone he knew with a smile on his lips betraying his lazy bored look he always wore, except him. However, he remained, unmoving from his lone spot at the corner. Shikamaru was still a friend, a comrade and it was the only thing he could do for him, because he knew Shikamaru wouldn't accept any apology from him. So he leaned back, filling his empty cup, prepared to stay where he was until it was over.

After what it seemed to be his third fill of sake, Sasuke felt a shift on the couch, indicating someone sat on the other side of the couch. He didn't give any acknowledgement to the person whom he easily recognized from the chakra signature, so instead, he merely poured sake into his empty cup. When he raised the cup to his lips, the person spoke,

"Such a troublesome party"

The laid back statement gave away the speaker's identity and Sasuke who already knew it even before Shikamaru spoke didn't bother to give any sign of acknowledgement, knowing probably any reaction from him wasn't wanted, so Sasuke kept his eyes anywhere but the man next to him and continued sipping his drink slowly. Silence stretched out between them, despite the blaring sound of music in the room.

"You're the last person I expect to be here," Shikamaru surprisingly was the one to break the silence. Sasuke couldn't hold back a smirk; despite the casual tone the lazy genius always wore he could detect the sharpness and seriousness in his words.

"No disagreement there," Sasuke finished his round, not giving a glance toward his fellow shinobi.

"Why are you here?" Sasuke was slightly surprised; Shikamaru was rarely one to push things, it was few things that usually were associated with his newly-wedded wife.

"Getting free drinks," the sharingan wielder answered curtly.

"You're not a drinker, Uchiha. If you were, chances that I would at least once find you in a bar drinking." Always the logical one, Sasuke mused and he didn't miss the slight wariness and hostility in his tone.

"Bar isn't the only place for getting drinks," he replied calmly, filling his cup once again without sparing the shadow user a glance. However, Sasuke was fully aware of his sharp eyes bore into him, eyeing him, judging him, weighing him. He was used to with such kind of scrutiny, Shikamaru wasn't the first, and he doubted he would be the last so he had no difficulty in ignoring it.

"You know it's not what I meant, Sasuke. Stop dancing around. Why are you here? I don't see any reason why you're here," Shikamaru's tone was not accusing nor blaming, he was simply stating the facts and most of all, curious. Sasuke was tempted to explain, but he wasn't sure if it was the right move and he doubted whether any good would come from it, but he got what he wanted, he was acknowledged, and that was more than enough.

"You're right; I don't have any reason to," Sasuke spoke calmly; he drank his cup in one gulp. He stood up and on his way he put the empty cup on the table. He was about to leave when a unexpectedly stern voice stopped him,

"I'm not telling you to leave."

For the first time since their conversation started, Sasuke finally turned and had a good look of Shikamaru. The man was obviously sober, there was no sign of drunkenness and there was no smell of alcohol around him. His eyes was the clearest indication of all, it held the typical sharpness of the brilliant strategist of Konoha whose reputation had been known throughout the entire shinobi world. There were some advantages being his comrade, his fellow Konoha shinobi, one of them was being able to see through the lazy façade and return his gaze impassively, without giving anything away, but then again, he was the Uchiha Sasuke, Shikamaru didn't forget that fact.

They were staring –maybe glaring was the more appropriate word- down on each other, trying to read each other's thoughts, but in the end, Sasuke realized that Shikamaru actually meant it, that he didn't mind of his presence and it was difficult for him not to simply leave and be gone, so instead doing what both of them expected from him, Sasuke broke their gaze first and claimed his seat once again –he didn't fail to notice the obvious surprise in Shikamaru's face. Even though so, Sasuke did nothing more, leaving the initiative of making the decision to Shikamaru whether to keep the silence between them or start a civil conversation.

It would be an understatement or a complete utter lie if Shikamaru said he wasn't surprised and a surprised Shikamaru spoke many things. Being the lead strategist of Konoha force, he was required to be prepared for everything. He was to assess the situation, to analyze every available possibility and to determine the best course of action, in order to do so, he had to know and notice everything. He never failed to do so in the field, but when it came to certain things, including his certain blue-eyed wife and some people, there were times he failed to notice. But then again, he rarely spent time together with the last remaining Uchiha and usually they had company so there was no time for him to really think of Sasuke or to be honest with himself, he never let himself to. He glanced furtively -and warily- towards the quiet man sitting not far from him.

If he were to be objective, Shikamaru thought, this Sasuke was not the same Sasuke whom he tried –his heart clenched painfully at the thought- to save in his first Chuunin mission. It might not be obvious to those who wasn't sharp enough or didn't know the Uchiha well enough to even be able to tell the difference between an annoyed and an amused Uchiha. It was difficult for him to forget the mission, his first mission as a leader and ended a failure, a huge failure that nearly cost his friends, his comrades' life. He was no longer the same Shikamaru anymore afterwards, the Shikamaru who always tried to avoid responsibility and having responsibility. Through that experience, he knew that people could change, either for better or for worse, Sasuke was no exception. He knew that, but knowing and believing was completely two different things. He let out a sigh, his hand found its way to his temple; making circular motion to ease the headache he knew was coming. His brain was utterly overworked, while he was supposed to be relaxing in the party that was intended for him.

Shikamaru once again glanced toward Sasuke whose posture seemed to be relaxed enough, his charcoal eyes registering everything he saw without really giving much thought of it. Or at least tried to, the Nara added to himself, the perks of being shinobi. Whatever reason that made Sasuke come or even stay, he had to at least appreciate it and strangely at the thought, he could hear Ino's voice mixing with his mother's telling him about behaving properly. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes and used it instead to start a civil conversation with Sasuke.

"How's Hinata?" It was the only topic available other than regarding missions and anything related their shinobi life. He knew it wasn't the safest, but he couldn't think for better topic.

"…Fine," Sasuke didn't answer immediately, pretty much taken aback due to the fact that Shikamaru actually initiated a conversation.

Shikamaru was prepared for a one-worded answer so he was about to ask something else when Sasuke elaborated further, to his surprise.

"I was told that she and the others were going to visit Ino today"

"Their own version of celebration, huh?" Shikamaru commented.

"Seems so."

Shikamaru paused, "Hinata told you?" He leaned back intentionally, trying to see the change of expression in the other's face.

"Briefly at breakfast," Sasuke answered easily.

"I see. Does she know you're here?"

"She knows I'm with Naruto." Shikamaru raised an eyebrow in interest, which meant Sasuke didn't come by his own will, most likely he was dragged by Naruto to come, it should occur to him but still, he could've left. The dead last and the prodigy's friendship were few of the things he couldn't fully comprehend.

"So it makes two." Sasuke waited for Shikamaru to elaborate, which he did, "It makes two of us of the nine to get married"

"True"

"It feels strange, now you're not only living but also sharing your life with someone else" suddenly Shikamaru found himself talking of his deepest thoughts regarding his new life, "In a sense, downright scary"

A chuckle was heard in reaction to his statement, coming from the Uchiha heir. Shikamaru turned sharply, only to find it wasn't out of amusement, instead it was out of understanding.

"It is," Sasuke admitted, there was a slight smile on his face as he remembered of his own marriage with Hinata, "but I think you have nothing to be worried about"

"Why is that?"

"You had better reasons than I did"

The two married men looked at each other; one was calm while the other was taken aback, knowing the depth and meaning of the statement.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

Hinata didn't return immediately after leaving Ino's house, instead she chose to take a stroll around town. She could see the blazing orb in the sky leaning toward the horizon, in few hours it would be setting, giving its turn to the night to come. She knew she should return home soon, to prepare dinner and everything, Sasuke had hinted –he never really said it, she thought in amusement- that he would be home for dinner. Breakfast and dinner had somehow become their routine, their time to really talk, to converse and she had grown to look forward to it, because she always learned something new from her husband, from serious things such as his first killing to simple things such as his dislike to carrots and that his mother used to have minced carrots in his curry so he wouldn't notice which he noticed either way, making curry an exception for food with carrots he could eat. In exchange, she told him about her first failure as medic nin, her embarrassing moments during her genin days, times when she got back at her sister for her pranks -the best was when she made Hanabi confessed her feelings about Konohamaru and the said person overheard it, it was a mystery what really happened next but she suspected that her sister had been seeing him discreetly ever since-.

Hinata could remember clearly his expression when he heard of it. She could see the surprise and amusement in his dark eyes. She was surprised to remember how talkative she was back then. After the comfort he gave to her when she lost Anzo, she felt less the need to be guarded around him. She became more comfortable around him to talk about things she had never shared before and she was relieved that he did the same even not everything, their routine was the result of it. She found out how much Sasuke could be an excellent listener if he wanted to and how attentive he could be, she found out that he remembered every single conversation they had. She also became more familiar of the changes of her husband's emotions. Sasuke was more a man of action than of words. Every gesture, every expression meant more than words could say, but it was his eyes that spoke most. He rarely smiled nevertheless laughed, she often wondered how his laughter sound and if he laughed in his old genin team's presence or in anyone's presence. She felt a pang of sadness and other feeling -that felt suspiciously like envy which disappeared as soon as it appeared- at the thought.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

Finally, what it felt like an eternity for Sasuke, who was never used to –and not going to be- with crowds and any kind of celebration, the party was over. He let out a relieved sigh, which didn't fail to be noticed by the man sitting next to him and he could really care less. The party nearly turned into a mess, started by a drunken Kiba or Genma or maybe both who slipped some alcohol into Lee's drink. The oblivious Lee kept drinking it and the result was instantaneous, the green spandex clad jounin began creating havoc, saying things such as flower of youth and many more that ordinary shy and polite Lee wouldn't have spoken out loud. Fortunately, Neji who was already familiar of the signs and among the few who was completely sober reacted quickly and was able to stop further damage by knocking him unconscious with some others' help –Shikamaru and Sasuke lent a hand, metaphorically, of course, without moving an inch from their seat-, other than that, the party resumed pretty much smoothly. Onyx eyes scanned the dispersing crowd and easily spotted the one he was looking for, his spiky blond hair stood out among the rest. He stood up, prepared to leave with his friend.

"Wait," a voice stopped him from reaching Naruto, it was Shikamaru. Sasuke simply raised an eyebrow in question, not really bothering to look at him.

"You owe me an explanation, Uchiha," Shikamaru was once again surprised himself by pushing the question which most likely went unanswered until their dying day, but somehow, in a short time, he found many times his judgment of the last Uchiha was proven to be inaccurate. There was only silence as an answer and Shikamaru thought he'd pushed his luck too far.

"Sasuke!" a familiar loud voice called, "Still sober to go home?" The cheerful and obviously sober face of Uzumaki Naruto appeared next to his best friend.

"Hn," Sasuke simply nodded, returning to his infamous one-worded grunt. Naruto noticed that Sasuke had company in his seclusion,

"Hey, Shikamaru. Nice party, just make sure you won't get any trouble at home later," Naruto gave his signature grin.

"Don't remind me… So troublesome," Shikamaru rolled his eyes; Naruto didn't hold back his laughter. The lazy jounin stood up and craned his neck a little, a result after sitting for so long.

"That's my Shikamaru; glad married life ain't changing any of you," the blond Uzumaki spoke of his two married friends.

"Let's go," Sasuke urged him; he had promised to be home for dinner.

"Ooh, someone's eager for dinner," Naruto gave him a knowing grin, and sometimes in times like these, he really wanted to give his friend a good smack in the head.

"Bye Shikamaru!" Shikamaru merely nodded with his usual bored look, when he started to walk to the direction of exit, he thought he heard a familiar voice spoke in quiet whisper,

"Because it's the least I can do"

Shikamaru raised his head sharply, looking for the source of the voice that suspiciously sounded like coming from the exit and found a figure with familiar red white fan emblazoned on his back.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

Hinata was walking down to the Manor with a brown paper bag filled with groceries in her hands; she decided to make something else for dinner.

"Hinata!" a voice she easily recognized calling her name. Hinata turned slightly to see the boy-turned-man who inspired her in her difficult years waving his hand energetically with his silent companion whose appearance brought a smile to her face. She waited until they approached her.

"Where did you go today?" she asked politely –Hinata was always polite, Naruto noted-.

"Shikamaru's celebration party for his new life," Naruto snickered, Hinata merely giggled.

"Hopefully you had a good time," the Hyuuga heir didn't fail to notice the slight scent of smoke and alcohol but she knew it didn't come from them for she knew none of them smoke and both looked completely alert and sober, but maybe it was because of their high tolerance to alcohol. She tilted her had in amusement.

"I did, but dunno this guy," Naruto gestured to his best friend. Sasuke's face remained impassive, completely ignoring the blonde's remark.

"It's already late; do you want to join us for dinner, Naruto-kun?" Although she wanted to have dinner together with her husband, she wanted to Naruto to join them. She was aware he spent most of his dinners alone and the thought of it saddened her.

"Nah, don't wanna be a bother, especially I know how rare you two have dinner together," Naruto shrugged, putting his hands behind his head. He was touched by Hinata's thoughtfulness but heck; he was not that insensitive to be a third person in the household, even only for dinner.

"You're never a bother," surprisingly it was Sasuke who spoke. His words pretty much made Naruto speechless, but slowly a genuine smile appeared on the whiskered face, knowing the double meaning of his words.

"Thanks, but I think I'll pass this time. I'll find a way to make Sakura eat with me," Naruto had mischievous look in his face, "Ja!"

The two watched their friend went to what it seemed the direction of Hokage tower where Sakura was supposed to be. Hinata blinked few times, "I wonder what he's up to…"

"You'll know sooner or later." Hinata could sense a hint of amusement in his voice and knew the meaning of his words, they would hear from either Sakura or Naruto later. Without a word, they turned and resumed walking towards Uchiha complex side by side, their steps echoing one another, Hinata noted and the silence was comfortable, like always. Halfway to their house, Sasuke initiated a conversation,

"Did we run out of supply?" Short and succinct, the distinct way of Sasuke speaking and if one were not used to it, they would have difficulty in understanding it.

"No. I just have better idea what to have for dinner," Hinata told him, Sasuke titled his head slightly, his eyes met hers, asking her to elaborate. Hinata smiled a bit sheepishly whether it was best to tell him now or later, but then again it didn't really matter anyway,

"Curry"

There was silence and frozen look in her husband's face that made Hinata squirmed uneasily if it was a bad idea, she was about to stutter an apology when she heard an amused chuckle.

"With minced carrots?"

Hinata was stunned speechless, Sasuke was smiling, a small smile, but a smile that reached his eyes and seemed to be gleaming with amusement. The only sight she had ever seen once in the old dusty photo album of the Uchihas. She felt her heart skipped a beat, warmth filling her and she felt how contagious his smile was.

"Hmm," Hinata smiled warmly, "With minced carrots"

Maybe… Maybe, there's hope after all


Author's Note: Done! Finally! It's funny that I finished this fic near the end of my semester holiday. Dang, it'll be a long time for me to update… Hopefully not. And I reaaaally hope I haven't lost my touch. The idea of carrots came from Whistle! which one character hates carrots so much and one of the tricks used to make him eat it was by mincing it into the curry sauce. So, whaddaya think? Your reviews are greatly appreciated! And I need beta reader!