Chapter 9: Finale

Sakura sighed as she saw Hinata walking down the street, escorted by Neji and Sasuke. Each had taken up position on either side of the heiress, and as a result took up quite a bit of space. It didn't really matter though, as most people who saw them coming scurried quickly out of the way. Sakura once more felt a pang of pity for Hinata, and tugged on her boyfriend's hand.

"Come on, Naruto," she said, pulling him towards the three. "Let's go say hi to Hinata-chan."

"Yeah, hey, d'you think her guard dogs will let her have lunch with us?" Naruto asked, following her. Sakura shrugged her shoulders.

"I don't know. Unlikely, probably. I wish they would though, it's been ages since I've talked with Hinata. She hasn't made it to the weekly kunoichi meetings, she must be missing us."

"Well, she can't be that lonely, can she? I mean, she has Sasuke and Neji around her all the time." Naruto pointed out. Sakura rolled her eyes.

"They aren't girls," she said exasperated, "and a girl needs the company of other females once in a while."

Naruto didn't quite understandthis, but he didn't say anything. Dating Sakura the last year had taught him many things, not the least of which that it was often best to let the pink haired medic nin have the last say.

They walked up to the trio and greeted Hinata warmly. Sakura frowned at the heiress's appearance. Hinata's face was paler than usual and she had dark circles under her eyes. She didn't comment though, and instead watched the heiress closely as Naruto extended an invitation to the three of them for lunch. Hinata brightened momentarily, but her face fell when Sasuke said no.

"What do you mean, no!?" Naruto asked. "Come on, Sasuke, don't be a bastard. It's just lunch at Ichiraku's with Sakura and me, nothing will happen to Hinata," he tried to persuade the stubborn Uchiha that it wasn't a big deal. Sasuke remained adamant though, and Sakura watched in surprise as Hinata rolled her eyes in exasperation. The action was something Sakura had never seen the heiress perform before.

"Hinata, do you want to have lunch with us?" Sakura asked. Hinata sighed.

"Yes, but my faithful bodyguards wouldn't know how to handle it," the heiress said testily. Both Sakura and Naruto stared at the heiress upon hearing her clipped tone. Was Hinata actually...annoyed? Sakura glanced and Neji, who looked a little ashamed and avoided her gaze. She turned to look at Sasuke, who was directing a glare at Hinata, who, surprisingly, was glaring back. Sakura blinked and shared a bewildered look with Naruto.

"It's for your protection," Sasuke muttered, and Sakura was shocked at how angry he sounded. Sasuke, in all the time she had known him, had never shown any signs of anger towards Hinata, not like this. And Hinata had never shown any signs of anger towards anyone, let alone her fiancée. She coughed discreetly and tugged on Naruto's hand, sensing that it was best to leave the suddenly tense atmosphere.

"Well, if you change you mind, you know where to find us," she said with forced cheerfulness. Neji shot the couple a despairing look as they left, knowing that he was about to unwillingly become an audience to another quarrel between the two next to him.

Sure enough, Hinata and Sasuke started up a furious whispered argument. Their voices were never raised, but the pace they were walking at suddenly increased. Neji held back a little and let the couple move on ahead of him, his face grim. The arguments were increasing in frequency lately, which was causing him great concern. Hinata-sama was starting to chaff under the pressure of being shadowed every hour of every day, and Sasuke wasn't getting the sleep he needed. That was all his fault though, as the Avenger still insisted on staying outside Hinata's bedroom window. Hinata had suggested on Friday night that Sasuke stay in the house, but Sasuke declared that he would only do that if he could stay in her room, at which point Hiashi had choked on his food and glared so hard at the Uchiha that Sasuke had actually looked away and swallowed nervously. The Head of the Hyuuga then declared that there was no way in hell that his daughter's fiancée was sharing her room before they were lawfully wedded, and the rest of the dinner was spent in tense silence, except for Hanabi, who looked amused by the whole thing.

Neji sighed as he saw Hinata fold her arms across her chest and clench her mouth shut. The couple walked the rest of the way to the compound in terse silence, and Neji resolved to speak to Hiashi as soon as possible. If this kept up, he was fairly certain that any feelings Hinata was developing for Sasuke would soon be squashed under her frustration at her current situation.

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Sasuke tucked his hands under his head and watched as the stars slowly came out, one by one. He shifted his eyes to Hinata's window and watched until the light went out. Satisfied that she was going to sleep, he turned his gaze back up to the night sky without really seeing it. Instead, his thoughts turned inward as he replayed their argument over in his head. He felt a little guilty, which made him angry. It took a lot for him to feel remorse, and he hated that Hinata managed it quite easily. All she had to do was give him the cold shoulder for an afternoon to make him feel like a jerk.

He sighed and turned over. He didn't like arguing with her, he just wished she would understand. He was desperate to protect her, he had to be with her at all times. Even now, lying under her window wasn't enough. He wanted to be in her room, staring at her, making sure she was safe and warm and alive. He hadn't been sleeping well, being constantly plagued by nightmares of his families' death. Only instead of his parents, Sasuke had to watch as Itachi ran his sword though Hinata again and again and again. He clenched his teeth in frustration, forcing himself to drive the images out of his head.

Sasuke knew she was frustrated and tired of his over-protectiveness. He didn't blame her really. His constant vigilance added to the protection her father gave her by way of Neji would be enough to drive anyone mad. He was actually surprised that she had managed so well. Even now, though he knew she was annoyed, he also knew that she would forgive him. Until tomorrow, when his presence prevented her from another activity she wanted to do, in which case the argument from today would repeat itself, only this time her anger would last a little longer. She was approaching the end of her patience, something that Sasuke didn't even think possible. He had thought Hinata to have endless amounts of patience, but this situation was proving him wrong. It didn't help that she wasn't sleeping well. Often he would startle awake, kunai pulled before he realised it was the light in her room that had woken him up. She would open the window and lean out, staring at him on the ground beneath. He always stared back until she sighed and pulled back, closing the window once more. The light would remain on, however, signalling to him that she wasn't getting any more sleep than he was.

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Hiashi stared at the scroll in front of him as he contemplated the decision it represented. He firmly believed that he had been right in asking Sasuke to give up his quest for vengeance to win Hinata's hand. Now, however, circumstances had altered. He frowned, and suddenly a picture of Hinata when she was little came to his mind, and he remembered how she would cling to his robes and hide her face in his leg. She knew then that he would protect her, he was her otousan. She was a woman now, engaged and about to leave his protection and start a new life. She hadn't been that little girl for awhile now.

Hiashi picked up the scroll and deliberately moved it over the flame of the candle. The fire licked at the parchment before seizing hold to consume it completely. Hiashi let the parchment fall into the rubbish bin and watched until it remained nothing but ashes. She may not be his little girl anymore, but she was still his daughter, and he would protect her in whatever way he could.

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All of Konoha was quiet. It was so early that the sun hadn't even made an appearance. Instead, it was the soft grey light of predawn that illuminated the still streets. Of course, Konoha was a Hidden Village, its shinobi some of the best in the land. Maito Gai could be seen with his mini-me, Rock Lee, both of them doing laps around the village, keeping their normal exuberance to a minimum so as not to wake the sleeping inhabitants. Umino Iruka was busy in his small apartment, drinking coffee while running through today's lesson plan in his head. And in the Hyuuga compound, Neji went outside to train only to find that Sasuke's typical sleeping spot underneath Hinata's window was empty. He paused, and quickly activated his Byukagen. The last thing he needed was for Sasuke to be in his cousin's room, Hiashi would have a fit. However, the only person in Hinata's room was Hinata herself, sleeping, and Neji wondered what on earth could have pulled Sasuke away.

It had been early when Sasuke woke from his light sleep to see Hiashi Hyuuga standing not too far away from him. He had risen and stared at the Head of the Hyuuga, who had simply stared back. Sasuke blinked when Hiashi looked away first, his face impassive.

"The Hokage and I wish to speak with you," was all he said, and then he was gone. Sasuke glanced briefly up to Hinata's window before following her father the Hokage's tower.

The building had been quiet as he walked through, and Shizune wasted no time in ushering him into Tsunade's office. She was seated at her desk, with Hiashi on her left. Sasuke stood quietly in front of her, watching her closely.

"Uchiha Sasuke, you have been assigned to an S-class mission," she stated, folding her hands in front of her and leaning forward, "you are to find and kill Uchiha Itachi."

Sasuke blinked once and then looked down, a frown marring his features. For a few moments he was silent, then he looked up, directing his gaze towards Hiashi.

"I must decline," he said calmly. Tsunade raised an eyebrow at this. Sasuke looked very...steady. She thought she'd at least see an angry tick, clenched jaw or fist, anything to show the internal struggle that he must be going through, but there was nothing. Tsunade knew then that over the past year and a half, Uchiha Sasuke had changed in some way. She frowned briefly, wondering how that would affect his performance as a shinobi.

"You may not decline," she said, eyes narrowing angrily.

"Hokage-sama, I have made a promise-"

"-that has been revoked," she finished. Sasuke looked at Hiashi in surprise.

"I have destroyed the document, Sasuke," he said by way of explanation.

"Why?" Sasuke asked, angry. His decision had not been easy, and for months he had wondered if he had done the right thing. Now, after he had finally let go of his brother, Hiashi stood there and told him he destroyed it, and the Hokage was telling him to go and fulfill the quest he had given up on. He wanted to howl in frustration at these people and their mixed signals.

"Because Hinata's safety and future are only secure if your brother is dead, and you are the only one who could kill him." Hiashi said quietly, "This is no longer about vengeance, Sasuke. It is about protecting someone precious to us both."

Sasuke stared at him, and even Tsunade looked mildly surprise at the sentiment that Hiashi had revealed with that sentence. Sasuke looked down once more at the floor, his mind chewing on the words Hiashi had just spoken.

Kill my brother to protect someone precious, he thought. The rage and hatred that usually accompanied thoughts of his brother was strangely absent as he thought of the mission, his mind already planning on how to execute it. He would need a partner, perhaps two... He felt strangely detached as he thought it over, as though Itachi was just another threat to Konoha that needed to be eliminate, and not the one who had destroyed his childhood and screwed up his life. He wondered at this sudden zen-like calmness, but ignored it and looked up.

"I accept on the condition that I go in a three man team," he said. Tsunade raised an eyebrow at this. Really, this morning was just full of surprises. Hiashi revealing that he actually cared about his daughter, Sasuke not going into angst ridden genius mode at the mention of his brother, and instead acting sensibly by asking for a team to help with the mission. What was next, she wondered idly, Kakashi giving up his porn?

"You can take one other shinobi of your choosing, I can't spare anymore than that," she said. Sasuke nodded and Tsunade dismissed him curtly. Hiashi stayed only to offer his gratitude at her assistance and understanding before he took his own leave, and Tsunade was left alone in her office. She reached down into her desk drawer for her sake bottle, only to find it empty. She pouted and glared as Shizune walked in, piles of paper work in her arms.

"It's too early for sake, Tsunade-sama," she declared, her voice leaving no room for argument, "but it is an excellent time to get caught up on all your paperwork."

Tsunade glared and valiantly resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at her assistant.

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Naruto was dreaming. It was a weird dream, but a nice one, as it consisted of two of the things he loved most in the world – Ramen and Sakura. He was rudely pulled from it when something heavy shoved him off of his bed.

"OW, what the HELL?" he shouted, glaring up at his bed. Sasuke sat on it, his face calm.

"Wake up dobe," he said, idly picking at some non-existent lint on his shirt.

"Damn it Sasuke-bastard, what the hell is wrong with you!?" Naruto shouted, pulling himself off of the floor. He almost fell down again when his feet got tangled in the sheets he had pulled down with him. Sasuke resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"I have a mission," he said, and the thought of what the mission was sobered him.

"So?" Naruto grumbled, still trying to detangle himself.

"I have to find and kill Itachi," that got Naruto's attention, and the blonde stilled as he looked at his friend.

"Tsunade said I could take one other shinobi with me," Sasuke continued, watching his friend. Naruto stared at him seriously for a moment before grinning.

"When do we leave?" he asked. Sasuke looked at him, taking in the pajama pants, ratty t-shirt, and stupid frog nightcap. He wondered if it was the right decision to take Naruto with him, but upon further reflection, realized he didn't really want anyone else.

"As soon as possible," he said, moving off the bed and standing.

"K, but let me say good-bye to Sakura, all right? And you should see Hinata first as well," Naruto said.

"Hn," was all Sasuke said as he exited through the window, leaving Naruto mumbling about 'closed mouthed, emotionally constipated bastards' to an empty room.

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Sasuke didn't waste any time returning to the Hyuuga compound. He entered with little difficulty, the guards knowing him quite well by now. He pause at the gates so they could scan him with their all seeing eyes, answered the required questions, and then proceeded to his typical spot underneath Hinata's window. He didn't feel like traipsing through the house, not when he knew where his fiancée's room was. It was much easier just climbing through the window, and he did just that.

Hinata had woken up from a less than restful sleep not too long ago, and had decided against lounging in bed. Instead, she had risen and showered, and was now currently standing in her room trying to decide what to wear, which of course, meant she was wearing practically nothing. Sasuke froze when he entered to see her standing in front of her dresser, hair still dripping water down her back. He knew he should move, look away, clear his throat, but it was suddenly difficult to do anything with Hinata standing quietly in front of him, clothed only in her underthings. His mind kept replaying a certain fantasy over and over in his head, like a broken record. Him, coming to say goodbye to her before he left on a dangerous and deadly mission (check), she clad in very little (check)...she sensed his presence and stiffened (check) and it seemed now as if she turned in slow motion – she would see him, know something was wrong, and when he told her, her eyes would fill with tears and she'd throw herself in his arms, whispering that she loved him, and then kiss him...

Of course, it didn't happen like that. Hinata stiffened and turned when she felt his presence behind her. When she saw it was Sasuke, she didn't immediately guess that something was wrong and throw herself at him. Instead, she gave a muffled shriek, her face blossoming red in mortification. She grabbed her hairbrush and threw it him hard enough to leave a mark. That was enough to wake the Avenger from his Hinata-induced daze, and he frowned, looking away and rubbing his forehead, a faint blush covering his own cheeks. So much for fantasies...he thought morosely as Hinata quickly changed into her clothes while whispering apologies.

"S-sorry, Sasuke, I didn't mean to throw it so hard, but you s-startled me, and – what are you doing here anyway?" she asked, voice muffled as she pull a sweater over her head. Sasuke glanced back briefly, and seeing her fully clothed turned to face her fully, face composed. She seemed remorseful but also very annoyed, and Sasuke wondered how on earth he managed to be the only one able to annoy the otherwise passive and gentle heiress.

"I have a mission. S-class, location and assassination," he explained briefly, staring at her shoulder rather than her face. He couldn't tell her more than that. He had been wrong to tell her even this much – you just didn't mention S-class missions at all when you were assigned one. However, Sasuke thought it wouldn't really matter. It involved Hinata in a round-about way, and besides, it was his brother.

Hinata's anger left as quickly as it had come. She forgot her previous embarrassment when she saw Sasuke's face. She studied him for a few moments, an awful suspicion forming in her mind. She knew she shouldn't ask, it wasn't allowed, but she had to know.

"Is it your brother?" she asked softly, moving to stand in front of him. Sasuke nodded mutely, and Hinata looked down, suddenly feeling very cold inside.

"How long?" she asked softly.

"As long as it takes," he replied. She looked up at him, her eyes sad and scared. Sasuke reached out and brushed a few wet strands of hair away from her cheek, his eyes softening.

"We're getting married in eight months," she whispered, her eyes asking the question that she wasn't able to voice.

"I'll be back for the wedding," he said calmly and dropped his hand, glancing towards the window and the sky outside. "I should get going, Naruto will be waiting-" he was cut off abruptly when Hinata suddenly threw her arms around him, just like in his fantasy. Only she was crying, silently shaking, and Sasuke wrapped his own arms around her, not wanting to leave but knowing he must. He felt awful, something which hadn't been a part of the fantasy at all, and he supposed that was what made this real, the ache inside him. Hinata clung to him tightly, shaking from tears, and knew she should tell him how important he was to her, one of her precious people now, but she wasn't sure how. Sasuke spoke before she could figure it out.

"I promise you I'll be back for the wedding," he pulled back, framing her face with his hands and forcing her to look at him, "I will marry you, Hinata Hyuuga."

Hinata nodded, and he kissed her then left, and Hinata was alone, hugging herself as she watched the sun rising slowly in the sky.

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Weeks passed. Hinata was no longer shadowed twenty-four seven as her most diligent bodyguard was no longer in the village. She returned to her medical studies and duties once more, throwing herself into her work to try and keep the loneliness at bay.

She missed Sasuke.

She missed seeing him every day after she finished work, she missed training with him, she missed his scowling face at Friday night dinners, his strange compliments that were usually disguised in the form of insults. She missed being held by him, missed the way he would look at her, the way his voice and face softened when she had unknowingly done something to please him. She missed his weird, practically non-existent sense of humour, missed the way he stared at her sometimes, almost as though he could devour her with his dark eyes, she missed his mouth and the way his kisses tasted faintly of mint. She missed him.

In the first few weeks that he was gone, Hinata cried herself to sleep almost every night. The ache inside her seemed so deep. She didn't know how long she would have gone on, wallowing in her depression, if it hadn't been for Sakura.

Sakura missed Naruto as much as Hinata missed Sasuke, the heiress was sure of this. However, Sakura, true to form, put on a brave and smiling face and threw herself into her work. She and Hinata often had to work together, and Hinata started coming to Sakura for help with her own medical training, as Sakura was much further along then herself. Pretty soon, the two kunoichi could almost always be seen in the presence of each other. They had been friends before, but as the absence of Naruto and Sasuke extended from weeks into a month, and then another, they became something like sisters. Sakura found relief being in Hinata's company, as she could drop her mask and let her worry and sadness for Naruto shine through. Hinata, under the influence of Sakura, seemed to gain new strength and a little confidence, something that she would need very soon.

The elders were smart. They waited until Neji was out of the village before announcing that there was to be a family meeting with the Heads and Hinata to discuss her engagement. Apparently, they saw the Uchiha's absence as a poor reflection on his suitability for Hinata. Hiashi could do nothing for his daughter, not this time. Neji was gone and could not argue for her, and Hanabi was still too young for her opinion to carry any weight with the council. Hinata was entirely on her own.

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Hinata stood with her head bowed before the council, listening to their voices wash over her. She was exhausted. She had just come from a double shift at the hospital, and all she wanted to was shower, eat, and then sleep for a day. However, upon entering her home, she discovered the elders had other ideas. She had just slipped off her sandals when a servant had shown up and announced that she was wanted in the council chambers. Hanabi had been waiting outside the chamber doors, but Hinata barely had time to send her sister a questioning glance before she was ushered inside.

She had struggled to follow the discussion going on before her, but it seemed to consist of a great deal of nothing. There was much said on the honour of the family, their genealogy, their importance to the village, the purity of their bloodline, and Hinata was wondering what on earth any of this had to do with her. She struggled to focus on the rather verbose discussion going on around her.

"…protection, reliability, honour, dedication must be the mark of the Hyuuga and all who would seek to make themselves a part of this noble clan…"

Wait a minute, Hinata thought, her stomach sinking in dread.

"…despite his reasons, still untrustworthy, power-hungry. His brother destroyed his clan, what is to stop him from doing the same to us?"

What!?

"…certainly clear that the engagement between Hinata and the Uchiha must come at an end. He is not here to uphold his claim, that in itself is telling-"

"No!" Hinata said suddenly, raising her head. The eyes of the council turned to her, but she resisted the urge to look back down. She ignored the old feelings of inferiority and fear that threatened to take a hold of her, and instead focussed on her anger at what they had said concerning her fiancée.

"You have something to say, Hinata-sama?" Yuske asked, sneering at her slightly. Hinata almost dropped her head at his cold gaze, but didn't. She felt her cheeks flush red from embarrassment, but forced herself to speak.

"Yes. Sasuke is my fiancée. He and I have agreed to be married, and have entered into a contract together. I will not betray him, nor will I fail in fulfilling that contract."

"If it is the contract that is worrying you, you need not fear. Hiashi-sama has torn up the agreement between you and the Uchiha. You will not be bringing dishonour to the clan by breaking the engagement. In fact, breaking the engagement may be the first action you have ever done that will bring us honour."

Hinata couldn't stop the flinch that crossed her face, and Yuske smiled wickedly, knowing he had hit his mark and continued.

"You have disgraced us so often in the past Hinata-sama, take this opportunity to fix your mistakes. It may be the first step in repairing the damage you have done,"

"That's enough, Yuske," Hiroko said, her eyes angry, but fell silent when Hinata raised her hand. Everyone's eyes watched in fascination as Hinata stared at Yuske, her expression calm. She was shaking inside from anger and nervousness, but she forced her face to remain impassive. She remembered something Sakura had told her once – if you don't feel confident, just fake it. Hinata repeated this words in her head as she stared down the Hyuuga elders.

"I will not bring dishonour to the family by marrying Sasuke," she said softly, her eyes steely with her resolve. Hiroko raised an eyebrow at the determination written all over the girl's face, and struggled to keep the smile off of her own face.

"Indeed," the female elder said. Yuske narrowed his eyes at the heiress standing before him.

"And if we insist?"

"If you insist, you will loose the support of the Branch Family and the future head of the Hyuuga, not to mention fall into ill favour with the Hokage, both present and future. Neither Neji, Hanabi, my father, or Tsunade-sama wish to see my engagement with Sasuke broken off. Uzumaki Naruto, who is almost certain to be the next Hokage, is also the best friend of Sasuke. Do you think he will look kindly on the Hyuuga when he learns of their interference in his best friend's personnel affairs?"

Hinata stopped there, afraid that she was starting to ramble. Her cheeks were still flaming, and she nervously waited for some reaction to what she had said. The council sat in shocked silence at her speech. They had never heard her speak so much at once, without a stutter and with such conviction.

"Well said, Hinata," Hiroko said, smiling softly. Hinata blinked at the unexpected praise. "You shall marry your Uchiha, since you seem to be so fond of him," and the old lady rose up, and the rest of the council took their cue from her. Hinata watched as the session was formally brought to a close, Yuske scowling the entire time, and then the elders filed one-by-one out of the chambers. She was shaken from her daze by an excited squeal and then Hanabi threw herself at Hinata, causing her older sister to stumble a little.

"Sister, you were so awesome!" the fourteen year old said, "The way you told off old man Yuske was brilliant, he looked so mad!"

"Hanabi, you should show some more respect for the elders," Hinata said softly, her eyes a little dazed. Had she really just stood up to the elders? The same group of people who had terrified her ever since she was a little girl? Her chin lifted up and she took a deep, rather shaky breath. She glanced down at her sister, whose eyes were watching her brightly. Hinata didn't think she'd ever seen her sister look so proud, and the heiress smiled and hugged Hanabi impulsively.

"What will Neji say, I wonder?" she said. Hanabi giggled, then her face became slightly serious.

"Sasuke will be very proud of you, sister. When he gets back, I'm going to tell him about how you stood up to the council to uphold your love." Hanabi laughed outright when she saw her sister's face flush red, pleased to see the normal reaction. She had been worried about Hinata when Sasuke had first left. Her older sister had always been prone to be melancholy, and his departure had thrown her into a depression. Ever the good daughter, sister, and shinobi, Hinata had tucked it all away inside and worked hard at her training and studies, but Hanabi had seen how the light seemed to have left her sister's eyes. She couldn't wait for Sasuke to return so that Hinata could go back to being happy. She looped her arm through her sister's now and smiled at her.

"Come on, let's go get some dango," she said, and dragged her protesting sister to the kitchen.

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Months passed. Hinata and Sakura were both growing more worried about their respective partners, their smiles becoming harder to keep on their faces. Their friends had taken to sending them pitying looks, thinking that the two were doomed to heartbreak, but the two kunoichi refused to give up. Sakura refused to believe that Naruto and Sasuke would die on this mission. They were two damn stubborn, she said, and both would be back soon, Naruto crowing about he had to save Sasuke-teme's ass again and Sasuke merely grunting in response. Hinata smiled whenever she said this, and resolved to believe the same. The two had taken to watching the gates whenever they had time to spare, waiting for the two ninja to return.

Hinata had even begun her wedding preparations. Ino and Tenten thought she was nuts, and even Hanabi was a little hesitant about this step. However, Hinata was not to be deterred. Sasuke had said he would be back in time for the wedding, and he would be. Sakura was the only one who whole-heartedly supported her in her decision to plan the wedding for the original date. It actually turned out to be a good thing for the two of them, to have this extra distraction as time wore on and nothing was heard from the two shinobi.

As her wedding day drew near, Hinata volunteered to take more shifts at the hospital to help keep herself busy. The wedding was three weeks away, and nothing had been heard from Sasuke and Naruto. Hinata needed the extra work to keep her mind off of her growing fears, so when one of the doctor's requested a leave of absence, Hinata offered to take his place. She was surprised to find that it was a bit difficult to step in, as the doctor she was filling in for had terrible handwriting. Trying to decipher the doctor's script was a challenge worthy of the chunnin exam, Hinata thought as she stood at the nurse's station, staring down at an illegible chart in concentration, reading through the test findings. She bit her lip, and then jotted something down before handing it back to the nurse. The nurse, however, didn't take it. Hinata looked up to see the woman's face in a mask of shock, her mouth hanging open slightly. Before Hinata could turn to see what had her so fixated, she heard a deep voice from behind her.

"Hey, Hinata-chan," and Hinata spun around only to watch as Naruto fell to the ground with a decided thud, Sasuke Uchiha tumbling from his back like a sack of flour. Hinata's reaction was immediate.

"Get Tsunade-sama here now!" she ordered as she rushed forward to start checking them over. She couldn't seem to get her knees to stop shaking, but her hands were steady as she started work on the more serious injuries. Naruto, with his amazing healing ability, was not in the danger that Sasuke was, and Hinata turned her attention to her fiancée, only to feel someone's hands on her shoulders. She struggled, trying to get to him, only to hear Shizune speaking softly.

"Find Sakura, Hinata-sama. Tsunade and I will work on these two," and the older women handed the now shaking heiress to a waiting nurse. Hinata nodded, watching as Tsunade barked out orders and everyone rushed to fill them. She wanted to help, but it was policy that no medical personal work on family members if it could be avoided. Sasuke, when he became engaged, had become one of those she wasn't allowed to treat at the hospital, and this had been on of the reasons why the Avenger had avoided going to the hospital. Watching his lifeless form while Tsunade worked on him filled Hinata with a new understanding and appreciation for the policy. She didn't think she'd be able to work on him with a clear head, and her eyes were already filling with tears. She turned and hurried to find Sakura.

The pink haired medic nin was just about to go home for the night when Hinata burst into the locker room. Sakura stared at Hinata's death white face and her own paled.

"What happened?" she asked.

"They're back." Hinata said softly. Sakura stared at her with wide eyes.

"Alive?" she asked, her mouth dry.

"Yes, but critical," she replied. They stared at each other before Sakura stepped forward, throwing her arms around Hinata and the two girls promptly burst into tears.

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The two kunoichi didn't leave the hospital at all. They waited outside the operating theatres where their respective loved ones were and didn't move. Naruto was stabalised relatively quickly and moved into the intensive care wing of the hospital. Sakura, after making sure Naruto was all right and comfortable, pressed a kiss to his forehead before joining Hinata outside Sasuke's theatre. The two sat in silence, their earlier storm of emotions much more subdued. In a couple of hours, the door opened and Tsunade stepped out, exhausted but smiling.

"He'll be all right," she said, and Hinata sank against Sakura. They followed Sasuke's gurney as he was placed in the same room as Naruto, and the two girls curled up in the chairs beside their beds and waited for them to wake up.

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Sasuke ached. He pulled himself forcefully to consciousness only to regret it as his whole body seemed to protest. He sighed and peeled open his eyes, his vision at first hazy. He tried to move his arm, only to find something preventing his left arm from raising. He turned his head to see Hinata's head resting on his arm. She was sleeping, and Sasuke took a moment to stare at her, relishing in the sight of her. It had been a very long time, he thought. Hinata, sensing his gaze on her, woke up. She blinked at him sleepily, then smiled widely.

"Sasuke," she breathed, and Sasuke felt a blush creep up into his cheeks at the light in her eyes and face. His breath quickened as she took his hand.

"I'm so happy you're awake, I was worried," she whispered, raising his hand and holding it against her cheek. Sasuke licked his dry lips and Hinata, seeing it, moved to get him some water. When he had drank enough to moisten his parched throat, he finally spoke.

"You shouldn't have been, I told you I'd be back in time for the wedding," he rasped. Hinata beamed at him.

"Yes. And it is in three days. You need to hurry and get well, we still have to fit you for you komono." She told him. Her name was paged and she stood, giving Sasuke a brief kiss on his cheek before leaving the room. Sasuke stared at her bewildered.

Three days?

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Sasuke was discharged from the hospital a day later. He wasted no time in giving his report to Tsunade-sama (mission successful) and the next two days were spent in a whirlwind of activity. It was tiring, as he still had some serious injuries to contend with. He still wasn't walking entirely on his own power the day the wedding took place, but he'd be damned if he'd let that stop him. He and Naruto arrived at the Hyuuga compound in plenty of good time, despite the fact that Sasuke was still moving on crutches. His kimono was traditional, as the wedding ceremony would be as well. It was to take place in the Hyuuga shrine, although the entire Hyuuga clan would not be there. It was only Hiashi, Hanabi and Neji for Hinata's side of the family. Sasuke, as he had no family left, had asked Naruto and Sakura if they would stand in their place. He had had to put up with teary eyes on Sakura's part and a bone crushing hug on Naruto's, to which he responded by scowling and muttering 'che'.

A servant met them at the door and led them to a room where they could wait. Sasuke stood silently, his eyebrow twitching as Naruto's fidgeting increased with every passing minute.

"Come on, come on, what's taking so long?" the blonde finally spoke. Sasuke rolled his eyes. You'd think it was Naruto's wedding, instead of his with the way the blonde was acting.

"Che, I'm going to see if I can hurry them up or something," and Naruto disappeared out the door before Sasuke could stop him. Sasuke rolled his eyes, a sense of dread erupting in his stomach. He didn't trust Naruto not to mess something up, and was about to hobble out of the room after him when the door opened again.

It was Hinata, dressed in her wedding kimono. Thoughts of Naruto flew right out of his head as he stared at her. She seemed very calm and determined as she walked towards him.

"Hinata?" he asked softly. Hinata stopped in front of him and gazed into his eyes. Sasuke swallowed thickly.

"I wanted to tell you this before we got married," she said softly, then finding herself not quite able to hold his gaze, she dropped her eyes and reached for his hands. She took them in her smaller ones and took a deep breath.

"I love you, Sasuke," she said softly and looked up at him. Seeing his expression, she continued, this time looking at him as she said it.

"I love you. I have for awhile now," she stopped, unable to go on as Sasuke had bent his head to kiss her. She smiled against his mouth and wrapped her arms around him, kissing him back. They were so involved with each other they didn't hear the commotion outside the room, a crash followed by Sakura's shriek. They pulled apart, however, when the door opened admitting a furious Sakura and cowering Naruto.

"It was an accident, Sakura-chan! I swear!"

"You idiot! How could you destroy the altar," the medic-nin screeched. Sasuke sighed, his arms still around his fiancée. He rested his head on top of hers and watched the drama play out.

"I didn't mean to," Naruto whined.

"It took all morning to set that up, and now the sake cups are destroyed," and Sakura smacked the blonde upside the head. The room suddenly became much smaller as Hanabi and Neji entered, the former grinning, the latter looking annoyed.

"Hinata-sama," Neji said calmly, "it would appear that the wedding ceremony is to be delayed." Hanabi snickered.

"You've should've seen it, Hinata, the blonde idiot was entirely graceless-"

"I'M NOT AN IDIOT!"

Sasuke sighed and wondered if, after everything he went through to get back in time for the wedding, it would be delayed anyways on account of the future Hokage's extreme klutziness.

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The wedding ceremony did take place, and was followed by a 'kick-ass party' to quote a few of the more boisterous guests. Hinata and Sasuke bore up under all the attention and fuss quite well. Hinata was happy to have everyone she cared about in one place, and Sasuke was amused to witness the sombre Hyuuga's reaction to Naruto, Kiba and Tsunade after having imbibed copious amounts of alcohol. Hanabi got a kick out of bugging Shino and teasing Hana till she resembled a cherry before Hinata managed to pull her sister away. Hanabi agreed to let Shino and his girlfriend alone, but Hinata wondered if maybe it wouldn't have been better to let her annoy Shino, as Hanabi decided that Gaara of the Sand was a good replacement for her antics. Neji was kept busy helping Tenten keep Lee away from anything alcoholic. It was touch and go for minute when Naruto challenged the taijutsu specialist to a drinking contest, and the only thing that prevented Lee from accepting was some drastic interference from Tenten. All the guests began consuming more alcohol after witnessing said drastic measures in an effort to erase the sight from their minds. As a result, everyone ended up having a good time, even the stoic Hyuuga clan members.

Overall, however, the wedding party was a success, and there is nothing left to say for the couple except that they lived happily ever after.

Oh, and to everyone's surprise, Tsunade won the bet with Jiraiya – Sasuke and Hinata had a baby girl before their first year of marriage was complete.

FIN

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Author's Note: I would like to thank everyone for the lovely and encouraging reviews, and apologize for the rather long delays of late. I'm happy this fic is finished, I enjoyed writing it and am glad so many of you have enjoyed reading it. Thanks again!

emilyjm