Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, but whoever does, they're doing a heck of a great job.

I can't even begin to say how thankful I am for all the kind reviews. It's great to see how many of you like the story so far, and even nicer to see a whole bunch of people have this on Alert. :)

Anyway, you know what happened last time, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Do you really think Hinata can convince Naruto of her feelings? Even more pressing, will Naruto respond in a manner that is a bit more in line with what Hinata is hoping for? Well, I already know the answers, but you don't. Not yet, at least. So go ahead and read the rest of the story. Just remember...

We all have to grow up sometime.

Without further adieu, the conclusion to 'I'll Never Let Go'.


Amidst the darkened splendor of a star dusted canopy, one lone ninja darted from branch to branch, stripping serenity from the boughs with a nearly tangible sense of misery and regret. The young shinobi cut a swift path through the night, disturbing not a leaf in his singular desire to get away.

Stupid Hinata.

A strong leg kicked off from an adjacent tree trunk, propelling the boy another dozen feet or so. When he made contact with the next outstretched branch, Naruto momentarily aligned a bit of chakra with the soles of his feet and pressed on several degrees to the left.

Stupid Sasuke…stupid Kiba.

The youth slammed his foot into the next limb with enough force to crack it down the middle.

Stupid everybody.

At that precise moment, a heart-wrenching scream echoed faintly amongst the treetops, and despite his dismal outlook, a thin smile settled upon the young man's lips.

Good. Let her feel bad. She deserves it.

He continued on without so much as a backwards glance, shrugging off the effects of yet another unseen blow to his already depleted reserves. The events of their moonlight encounter repeated themselves over and over against a backdrop of murky thoughts; each retelling of the tale burrowing a bit deeper into his soul.

Hinata had obviously led him into a trap.

As the memories once again started over from the beginning, at no point did it occur to the young shinobi that it was in fact he who had approached her in the first place.

Why would she go and do something like that? I always thought Hinata was such a nice girl. Kinda weird, but still nice. What made me go and tell her about my birthday? It's not like being thirteen means anything. She could have just said she didn't care. That probably would've hurt less than being kissed as a joke…

An exceptional moment of insight began to shine within the boy's mind, and he silently wondered upon that last thought.

Why did it hurt so much? Would it have been different if Sakura had played such a prank on him? And if not, then what made Hinata so special? Maybe they had planned it together…

Nah, it's not Sakura's style. She would've said she hates me to my face.

That of course led to a whole different set of questions about what made Sakura so great either. To say the least, Naruto was even less capable now more so than usual of delving into the inner workings of a kunoichi, and thus gave up on the subject all together. Anger was a much more reliable source of distraction.

I don't need either of them, or anyone else! All that matters is that I become the next Hokage and finally get some respect in the village! Once everyone finally notices me, it won't matter what Hinata or anyone else thinks; I'll be looked up to by everybody!

A great smile momentarily slipped across his face, polished and cleansed by the brisk midnight air. Within moments, that too fell to the wayside and left it's blackened mark amidst the foliage.

Tch, yeah, except anyone that actually matters will still think I'm a loser…

With that thought in mind, Naruto continued on throughout the night, eager to just get home and go to bed. Maybe things would look a bit brighter in the morning. If he could sleep it off, having a birthday all to himself might not be so-

Suddenly, the young man was plummeting to the ground, a great howl of wind ripping past his face. In that short-lived moment of panic, the image of a young woman crying on the grass inexplicably burned itself into his mind's eye. Soft earth met him in an instant, cushioning the brunt of his fall with spongy ferns and tilled soil. Several moments later, a dead branch landed on the path next to him.

Though he had not been hurt in the jarring fall, Naruto remained sprawled out upon the cool bedding, unable to shake that last fleeting picture. He absently groaned and rolled onto his back.

I…I shouldn't have pushed her like that. It was just a dumb joke. She could've gotten hurt, and it would have been all my fault…

The young shinobi shut his eyes tight against the ache.

Why can't I just stay mad! It hurts less when I don't think about Hinata…how come she had to go and do that? I wouldn't have shoved her if she just left me alone!

Naruto shook his head against the sight of the young woman falling to the ground, her pale eyes boring into him, hurt and shocked that he would do such a callous thing. His bottom lip began to quiver.

This is so stupid! I can't even get angry right! What's the big deal, anyway? It's just a dumb birthday; not like it really means anything…not like it ever did…

Despite the cold words, a gentle sob began to take hold of the youth as a few select words bubbled to the surface of his memories.

"Well…Neji, Hanabi and Father usually just smile and hug me. Sometimes we'll order fresh sushi from the marketplace and have a nice dinner together, as a family…"

As a family…

Indecisive tears began to trickle down the cheeks of the blonde boy, wearing thin the wall that had been so hastily constructed around his heart.

All I ever wanted was a family… someone to worry if I was ok, or to scold me when I got in trouble. Someone to be there, to love me…to care. Iruka-sensai was the only one who ever believed I was worth anything, but even he kept his distance in the end…

More tears began to fall unwanted towards the ground, creating miniature rivulets throughout the soft earth beneath his head.

Hinata's so lucky, having people who think about her all the time like that. She doesn't even know how it feels to be weak and useless! How can anyone say they love a screw up like me? I'm no good…everyone knows that. They always tell me, so it's got to be true! Why can't Hinata understand? What makes her different from the rest of them? Can't she figure out I just want to be left alone!

Naruto's eyes shot open wide; the utter duplicity of that last claim stung him terribly. Without warning, a great swell of hidden despair and torment abruptly flooded into the confines of his heart. Ancient memories immediately began to battle for prominence, vying for the honor of deciding which would harm him the most.

I never meant to hurt you …it was just a stupid joke…I'm such a bad friend…

Tendrils of moonlight began to descend through the trees, laying siege to the crumpled form of a boy huddled beneath his own dark thoughts. As he unwillingly opened up to the pain, a sharp cry echoed throughout the surrounding area, heralding the capture of an exiled fox caught in one of life's many unfortunate snares.

Hinata…I'm sorry…I'm so, so sorry…please forgive me…I don't want to be alone anymore…

For the longest time, Konaha's loudest and most energetic ninja somberly buried his face in a patch of dirt and cried bitterly, forgotten and unwanted, as twelve severed leaves drifted down to their final resting place.

As the darkness wore itself on, Naruto forcibly made his body rise up once more, brushing the dust from his tear-stained features. Thoroughly beaten and cowed by the events of the day, the young man trudged his way home by foot. For the rest of the trip, he wished with all his heart that Hinata would find him again, while likewise praying she would remain far away.

Whether by a blessing or a curse, the male shinobi arrived at his small second story apartment undisturbed. He quietly let himself into the bleak and hollow dwelling; a constant reminder of how empty life really was. The misery of this evening reached even beyond the allure of left over dumplings, and it was with a heavy heart and an empty stomach that Naruto simply plopped onto his bed, content to let the rest of the night take him.

The last conscious action he performed was to toss a pillow across the room, unable to stand the chilling touch of grief-stricken tears staining the cotton fabric.

A veil of dreamless tidings governed his time spent asleep, allowing the tortured boy several hours reprieve of peaceful slumber. All too quickly, a light rapping at the door brought the young man once again into the realm of action and consequence. Still groggy from his nap, Naruto took a moment to notice light gray had replaced the earlier black of night, signaling the inevitable approach of dawn. Another quick rap set his legs into motion.

"Just a minute!"

The youth shook his head vigorously, then promptly walked over to the door, flicked on a small lamp, and undid the latch. As a gust of fresh air hastily swept into the room, his sleepy expression was immediately replaced by a fierce scowl.

"What do you want now, Hinata?"

Despite an earlier lament, the sight of the young woman revived a sense of agitation, though by now it had been reduced to mere annoyance. The girl in question simply stood there, head held low, refusing to meet his gaze. Naruto was in no mood for one of her bizarre little episodes, and quickly surmised that she must be here to poke fun at him again. His annoyance quickly became irritation.

"Yeah, well, if you're not gonna say anything, then just leave, ok!"

He began to close the door.

Instantly, a set of arms shot forward, stopping him from shutting her out. Held gingerly between two small hands was an even smaller white box. Upon it's top was fastened a curly orange bow.

Even though her features were still hidden beneath wisps of navy blue hair, the young man could almost sense that she had her eyes squeezed shut, fearing he would reject the gift and kick her out of his home.

For several seconds, Naruto entertained that very thought. Eventually, a solid dose of vulpine curiosity overpowered his distrust, and he gingerly removed the small item from her hands. With just one sidelong glance at the girl before him, the male shinobi delicately peeled back the wrapping and opened her present.

A child-like smile quickly exerted its will upon the boy's lips.

Inside the small container was an oversized cupcake decorated to look like a bowl of ramen. Various shades of powdered sugar spelled out MISO SOUP on the sides, and thin little wavy strips of butterscotch frosting made for the noodles. All that was garnished with a dash of cinnamon, resembling the beef flavoring he added to almost every meal. Two yellow candles poked up at an odd angle atop the little marvel, looking suspiciously like a pair of chopsticks.

Had she made this for him? When had there been time? He couldn't have slept for more than three or four hours, and she had only just found out about his…

Naruto gently cradled the small package to his chest as if it were the greatest treasure in the world. The young man's eyes began to flicker back and forth between the gift and the giver. His voice nearly cracked as he responded in an unusually meek and humbled tone.

"…Thank you…Hina…"

He placed the confectionary jewel on a table beside the door, and only then noticed a tiny note attached to the ribbon. He slipped it off, reading silently. It was so simple.

Happy Birthday, Naruto.

Love,

Hinata

Both shinobi remained mute for a long time, allowing the moment to settle down upon them. Naruto simply stood there, fixated upon the words. When Hinata gathered the courage to glance upward, a bit of hope began to tug at her heart. She watched silently as his eyes welled up with cerulean-engraved tears.

A great lump had formed near the top of his throat, and he swallowed it with much effort. The young man began to struggle against something for which he had no defense.

Just as quickly, he crumpled the small piece of paper and threw it to the ground.

Before the young woman could even register the action, his face rose to meet her own, thoroughly eradicating any chance of escape. Naruto was beset by a paralyzing expression of anguish mixed with fury, disallowing Hinata even the option of averting her eyes.

"You think you're so funny…" His gaze resounded with the pain of a thousand wounds. She could not find the breath to refute. Any regret he had felt before evaporated in an instant.

"Don't you know how much this hurts?" He dug into her soul with the voracity of a wild beast, trying to find the core of her hatred for him. A glimmer of wetness began to dab at both their eyes, though neither party was aware.

"Everyone thinks I'm just a nuisance; no one even cares if I live or die! You think I need you to shove this in my face? You think I don't already know how they all feel about me?"

The young man snapped both eyes shut in an instant, unable to look upon such scathing, judgmental features. Hinata in turn remained silent, though by now her face had crinkled into a weak barrier, scarcely holding back wave upon wave of renewed heartache. The boy's words coursed with venom; irritation bloomed into anger as he addressed her once again with fire in his voice.

"All I ever wanted was to be the next Hokage, no matter what! I'll do it all by myself, too, without anyone else to get in my way! No one's gonna keep me away from my dream! And when I am Hokage, everyone will have to like me! They won't have a choice! I'll finally be looked up to! No one will call me baka; no one'll think I'm worthless! I can do it all by myself! I don't need help from anybody, and I especially don't need you! So just go ahead and believe it!"

He spun on the ball of his foot, too angry, frightened, timid and ashamed to look her in the eyes. His tone devolved into a harsh bark.

"Get out of my house! I don't want you here! I don't even want to see you again! You're the reason everyone hates me so much! It's people like you that make everybody laugh and point when I walk by! It's bad enough when people talk like I'm not even there; and now you're going to mock me, too? Just get out of my life, Hinata! Get out and don't ever come back!"

When his anger finally ran itself dry, a recurring, stifled sob was all Naruto could hear as the girl he hated most in the world stood behind him, christening his doorstep with a river of tears that would not abate.

Seconds passed, or years, he could no longer be sure which. All that truly registered were the terrible whispers of emotion pounding for entry into his soul. Her continued sobs were biting into his mind, trying to tear loose what little control he still had left. In the end, it was too much to withstand; too much for one lost adolescent outcast to endure. He circled back upon the young woman, his voice carrying little more authority than a plaintive whine. Hinata once again had her head held low, sniffling quietly.

"Why are you crying! Isn't this what you wanted? I don't have anything more for you to take! Can't you understand that?"

When she did not budge, would not even look up, he sighed, unwilling and unable to fight any longer. The youth took on a mask of strained indifference.

"Fine. Do whatever you want. I don't care any more. Just make sure to close the door when you leave. I don't want any of Shino's bugs in my food again."

With that, he turned his back on her, and walked away.

Naruto took only one step before hearing the door slam shut, followed by the creak of floorboards right behind him. Before he could even think to react, a small pair of hands slipped underneath his arms and locked themselves in a vice-like bear hug.

"Hinata! What are–"

"You're not worthless! Don't you ever say that again! Not ever!"

The young man was caught entirely off guard.

This is all she had to say, after everything he had just yelled at her for? Her only response was to…comfort him? Hinata in turn buried her cheek into his shoulder blade, unable to contain the dreadful sobs that racked her petite frame. Ten fingers interlaced right above his heart, trying to hold back the pain she so desperately wanted to take away.

His mind went blank. All five senses seemed to dissipate beneath her sweeping embrace. Too many thoughts, too many emotions; they all canceled each other out. He clawed at her fingers to no avail; her grip was like steel. A valiant attempt at floundering clipped her in the head with an elbow, but she said nothing.

Through it all, Hinata would not relinquish her hold on the boy she cherished above any other.

Naruto racked his brain for a means of escape. Panic began to override the emptiness, and it was with a horrible sense of unexplained fear that tears began to mix with sweat. Words formed of their own accord.

"Get off of me!" She ardently shook her head. No.

"Get off now! I don't want you here! Just leave me alone!" She would not. Panic soon rekindled into anger.

"I like being this way, alright! I don't need anyone! I don't need you!" Her grip only tightened.

For the first time in his life, all the hatred and sorrow that had been steadily building up over years of torment finally found a point of focus. Everyone and everything that had ever hurt him was currently pressed right up against his back.

"Hinata! I told you to let me go!"

An extraordinary surge of emotion erupted from the young woman, terrifying both of them in one heartfelt scream of unconditional love.

"I'LL NEVER LET GO!"

In that single moment, anger exploded into unforgiving fury.

Naruto's arm shot outward to its full extent. The young man curled his fingers into a ball, forcing every last muscle to clamp down with frightening intensity. A fleeting sensation of agonized shame was all that prevented him from striking harder.

Fueled by nothing short of blind rage, he drove an iron fist straight into her fingers.

Hinata cried out in pain, both knees buckling slightly at the unforeseen blow. Her grip wavered, and the young woman began to whimper.

As time itself slowly ticked away, the youth could no longer hold on to his wrath, and he began to tremble like an abandoned child.

All at once, she could see with perfect clarity that he needed her now more than at any other point in his life. Her feelings for him were suddenly rejuvenated a hundred-fold.

Both male and female, girl and boy, man and woman, drifted along the currents set forward by life with little more buoyancy than a meek sense of longing for something greater than being alone.

As the ache began to subside, she positioned her chin right below his ear, and kissed him tenderly on the neck. Her breath was a mother's love set free unto the world.

"I'll never let go, Naruto…not as long as you need me to hold on…"

The boy's eyes glazed over as a harsh rasp filled his lungs. Even as the warmth of her lips gradually began to recede from his flesh, a deep chasm of impenetrable solitude slowly began to fill with the untold strength of but one girl's heart. Something deep inside him shattered.

Naruto's hand began to rise once more, now followed by the other, causing Hinata to brace herself for another blow. The young man spoke in a barely audible whisper.

"Shadow Clone jutsu…"

Out of a stark cloud of smoke materialized another figure directly to his side, facing the pair. Light from a small table lamp could not hope to pierce the swath of shadows set before his eyes. For an instant, the Hyuuga maiden thought she would be pried off and discarded.

Instead, the doppelganger pivoted in place, content only to shamble off into the kitchen. From her position behind the original, she could hear the squeaking of hinges, followed by a loud smash as something tinkled across the floor. The clone returned a moment later, and then promptly vanished.

Hinata scarcely had time to wonder what just happened when a small dishtowel packed with ice chips pressed gently against her hands. Naruto lowered his head.

The chilling sensation brought a sharp sense of relief to her throbbing fingers. Cool moisture began to seep through the thin fabric, coating her skin with a soothing balm of comfort. More liquid dripped down from above, though for some reason it felt…warm. Naruto's head was bobbing up and down.

He's crying! But…for me? Or…or for himself?

She meditated upon that for a time.

Does it really matter…?

He did not register the movement, thus remaining unaware that she had detached her hands from their resting place beneath the ice. In their absence, he had simply pressed the frigid cloth tightly against his chest in the hopes of extinguishing the white-hot flames that were engulfing everything. Hinata made her way to his front. The frozen package soon found rest on the floor beside them, and the young woman swiftly took its place.

Only when the delicate press of an ear against the side of his throat presented itself did he notice the change. Naruto tried to stifle a sob.

"I'm sorry I'm not a better person…" She could feel the vibration of his vocal cords. There was something fragile in the tone.

"Don't say that, Naruto…you're perfect just the way you are..."

His eyes welled up with tears, and it was with the gradual awakening of a fresh sunrise that he lowered his face into the folds of her hood. Two strong hands surrounded the girl's middle, warily coming to rest upon the small of her back. Brilliant strands of red and gold tore through the apartment in spectacular fashion, basking them in the forgiving graces of a brand new day.

After what seemed an eternity, Hinata guided him back to arms length. Her eyes were directed towards the floor.

"Do you remember your first real mission…the one with the bridge builder?"

The young man looked up briefly through his tears.

"Tazuna…" His eyes could not seem to focus. He already missed her warmth…

"Mmm hmm. Do you remember what you told me when you first got back?"

No response. Then…

"Zabuza…Haku…Inari."

"Before them."

Silence.

"The Oath of Pain, Naruto."

The youth tried to focus on her words, but they had grown fuzzy beneath so much that had already happened. He felt almost woozy.

"You were scared, and frightened, and just wanted to run away…but you didn't." She took another half step back, leaving him to stand upright under his own power. It was almost beyond the boy's capability.

"When everything seemed at its worst, you wouldn't give up, even though it might have been easier. When everyone was counting on your strength, you refused to let them down…"

Hinata's right hand dropped to her thigh, unbuckling a small pouch strapped to the legging. Naruto took it all in with subdued perception.

"On that day, you grew into a real ninja…and you never once looked back…"

Her eyes rose slowly, revealing twin lavender pools overflowing with warmth and compassion. He didn't understand.

"Hinata, what are you…"

Her left arm rose, and the young woman shushed him with an outstretched finger, delicately stroking his cheek in the process. As her hand gradually left his face, she allowed the small appendage to float idly between them.

"Naruto…it's about time I grew up too."

Without further comment, the Byakugan heiress plucked a kunai from her hip pocket and thrust the blade right through the top of her outstretched hand.

"Hinata!"

Blood began to pour from the wound, dribbling down the length of her arm, splattering upon the wooden floor beneath their feet. His hazy mindset burned away in an instant. She hadn't even flinched.

"Are you insane? We need to get to a hospital! Y-You need stitches, and-"

He reached for the blade. She cast him an arresting look.

"On this day, I also pledge an Oath of Pain." The sheer gravity in her voice stopped him mid stride.

"But not of my own…"

He was captivated by the stubbornness in her gaze. The young woman adopted an expression of pure acceptance and true understanding.

"I make my promise upon your pain, Naruto…" His eyes slowly widened in surprise and shock. She took on a stalwart look.

"Let this wound be a solemn vow that I will always be ready to share the burden you carry. Know that you mean more to me than anyone else in the world, and I will forever honor this pledge up to the last breath that passes from my body. I swear upon my life as a ninja of the Village Hidden in the Leaves that you will never be alone again."

The young man could feel something welling up deep inside him. His jaw slackened as she continued on. Hinata pulled the blade free of its fleshy prison, holding the pulsing wound before her heart like a badge of honor.

"Uzumaki Naruto, my name is Hyuuga Hinata, and I offer you a sacred oath sworn in blood that from this day forward, my love will never again be hidden beneath fear and self-doubt. I will always be strong, no matter the cost, until the day you no longer wish me at your side."

She took a cleansing breath. Her features softened into remorse.

"I love you so very much, Naruto. Someday, I hope you'll understand that. Until then…"

Hinata replaced the kunai blade and took out a small vial of ointment from a hip pouch. She began to wrap her hand with spare gauze and bandages. Naruto looked on in a stupor.

"There's only one thing I can do…to prove how much I love you…"

As the last dressing was set in place and the flow of blood stemmed, the Hyuuga maiden raised her hands to each of his cheeks, holding him lovingly with bruised and bloodied fingertips.

"I know I'm not as pretty as Sakura, or have a lot of confidence like Tenten. I-I might never be as good as Neji, or as strong as you, Naruto, but…I just want to say that no matter who I become…"

She brightened his entire universe with a gorgeous, illuminating smile.

"I'll never forget who encouraged me every step of the way…"

He could not even begin to think how to respond. Instead, an unreadable expression was all that answered the young woman, set behind a mute roar of unfathomable emotion and heartfelt desire.

"And…that's what gives me the strength to do what's best, Naruto. I can finally prove how much I love you, once and for all…"

Her jaw began to quiver. She swallowed hard.

"I will always be there when you need me. But for now, all I'm doing is hurting you more…"

He couldn't hear the words. She looked so sad. Why? Had he done something? No…he hadn't done anything…he had never done anything …it had always been up to her…

"That's how I know what I have to do so you can be happy again…"

Hinata gingerly caressed his cheeks once more. Naruto looked down to see black and blue welts amidst the crimson tide of life's ebb and flow. A brief glance behind carried with it the sight of a small cupcake made especially for him; a note crumpled and discarded in the far corner of the room.

All these things she had done…had labored over, suffered for, and lived through day after day. All these things that lay upon his soul, denied entry time and time again because he had been too stupid, foolish, and arrogant to think of someone else for once in his miserable life. All these things that were a shining beacon out of the darkness had been discarded just so he wouldn't have to deal with it, wouldn't have to put himself in danger of being hurt, wouldn't have to care…

All these things …just for him…always for him…always with love…

The girl in question had begun to cry once more, gazing into his eyes with a somber recollection of her first and last beautiful kiss.

"I'm going to set you free, just like you wanted…" She smiled, despite the pain.

"I'm going to let you go."

All the warmth and tenderness from her hands slipped away, falling back to her sides and out of his life …just like he had wanted…

"Goodbye, Naruto…and good luck." She turned quickly, and began to walk away. His eyes followed her to the doorstep.

Goodbye…

Goodbye…?

No…not goodbye…not again…not ever again…please…

As Hinata reached for the handle, a great rush of air swirled between her hand and the object in question. Before she could even think to respond, a young boy with spiky blonde hair and an orange jumpsuit engulfed her in a tremendous hug adorned with an outpouring of newly discovered tears, grief and…

"N-Naruto? What-"

"Don't you ever worry about how you compare to others! Looks don't mean anything! It's what's on the inside that counts, Hinata! You're the nicest person I've ever met! You're so kind, and gentle, and just great all over! As far as I'm concerned, that makes you the most beautiful girl in the whole wide world! So don't ever, ever, ever worry about what anyone else thinks! You're more special to me than everyone else in the whole village combined! Believe it!"

Before she could blush a previously unknown shade of red, he buried himself once more in her shoulder and continued.

"I'm sorry for never noticing how you felt! I'm sorry for not listening when you tried to let me know! I'm sorry for throwing you to the ground! I'm sorry for crumpling your note! I'm sorry for yelling! I'm sorry for hitting your hands! I'm sorry for the blood on your jacket! I'm sorry for everything! I'm sorry, Hinata! I'm sorry! I'm so, so sorry!"

Naruto sunk to the floor, pressing his face into the young woman's belly as he unleashed years of agony upon her delicate frame.

After a few moments, two gentle hands began to cradle him against the ache. Hot beads of absolution dropped down upon his head.

"Thank you, Naruto…and…I forgive you…"

He shook his head against her stomach.

"No! You can't! I don't deserve it! I don't deserve you! I don't deserve anything! I don't deserve to have you care!"

Hinata would have none of it.

"Don't say things like that! I want to be here for you. That's all that matters. You mean the world to me, Naruto…"

His eyes rose ever so slowly from their hiding place, peering up at the girl with a singular question coursing throughout his entire being.

"Why?"

She looked down upon him with an untold beauty. A beam of sunlight made her features blaze amidst a kindness that would never be shared with another living soul. He might as well have asked why the sky was blue…it just is

"Because…I love you."

The utter truth of that statement still needed time to sink in. Naruto lowered his eyes once more and placed an ear to her belly, content only to hear her breathe, feel her warmth, and bask in the knowledge that someone actually…loved him.

With stark clarity, a vision began to obscure his senses, dragging him not unpleasantly through a myriad of emotions and images. Much of what he saw felt like an old memory, as if he were observing from a distance…yet it felt so familiar…

In his trance, not much had changed. Both he and Hinata were still in the same positions; he was kneeling on the floor before her, and she was smiling, holding his head close to her belly. It was different, though. He looked so much taller, and broader, like he had grown into a man overnight. She was still beautiful, sleek and toned; a woman's body rested beneath the folds of her clothing. But even that seemed a bit off…

Her stomach had gotten much bigger; though he supposed it might just have been the oversized jacket she now wore. The man in his vision was crying, though it seemed to be tears of joy, not pain. Hinata was aglow with a fierce pride, though he just couldn't seem to understand what-

Suddenly, he was there. In place of unanswered questions and hopeless curiosity stood a testament to everything he might ever wish for in life. His ear was pressed right against her stomach; it had not been the clothing. Just as things were beginning to spiral out of his realm of perception, something happened that would never quite leave his memory for nearly a decade; not until the vision repeated itself in reality, and so many bad things in life would be forever washed away in a single moment of new beginnings.

He felt a soft kick.

Instantly, Naruto was back in the present. All time had ceased to flow.

As he rose once more, a strong sense of purpose filled his heart. Back again on his feet, the young man regarded the girl with eyes that held so many wonderful things.

Compassion. Virtue. Kindness. Faith. Devotion. Belief. Loyalty. Enthusiasm. Trust. Affection. Happiness. Warmth. Serenity. Joy. Understanding.

Love.

Hinata was so enamored with the sight that it took the warmth of his breath upon her lips to realize she was being kissed. Naruto held her as delicately as a porcelain doll, fearful that she might break if not for his utmost care. He unexpectedly filled his lungs, in effect literally taking her breath away. She could taste the saltiness of his tears.

The young woman melted away in a dream come true.

When they finally pulled back, the youth could do nothing but gaze into the perpetual beauty of a person so full of everything he had ever longed for. His words were stumbled over and tripped upon.

"Hinata…I…I just…I want to say that…you…you're so special…and, I…I…"

"It's ok, Naruto…you don't have to say anything…not until you're ready…"

He regarded her meekly, and then nodded. Both girl and boy remained silent for a time.

"Hey, Hina?"

She regarded him with a luminescent radiance.

"Yes…Naruto?"

What about the last twelve years? Had they been a waste? It didn't feel that way, not with all the ninja training. Maybe everything had just been practice; kinda like a big test to see if he was strong enough to move on. Yeah, that was it. He wouldn't worry about the past any longer. Besides, this wasn't just any regular morning…

This was the first day of the rest of his life.

"I…I just wanted to let you know…"

A great big smile spread across the boy's face, and he nuzzled the young woman affectionately. His eyes began to shine with the brilliance of a newborn child. Hinata let out a contented sigh against the confines of his love-filled embrace.

"You're the best birthday present I ever got."


That, my friend, is how you tell a romantic love story. :)

Gloating aside, I do admit that I am very proud of this particular piece as a whole, and would be honored if you might leave a review letting me know what you thought. This whole fanfic was specifically designed to be a tear-jerker, so ya just have to let me know if I succeeded in my mission. (Heck, it even made me tear up when I was proofreading. LoL)

Anyway, thanks a whole lot for taking the time to look over my work. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.

Thank you all so much for the support. It makes an author feel warm inside when he knows people truly enjoy what he writes.