A/N- This idea blindsided me and wouldn't let me focus on anything else until I pounded it out. I am a fan of canon pairings, but I think Hinata and Sasuke compliment each other well too. Characters are about 19-20 years of age and of course Sasuke is back with the village. Get a cup of hot cocoa, cause this puppy is long.

Disclaimer: I lay no claim to the characters of Naruto nor the poem by Sara Teasdale, but the plot of this story is my own.

Enjoy!

The Chill of Winter

My window-pane is starred with frost, the world is bitter cold tonight,

The moon is cruel, and the wind is like a two-edged sword to smite.

God pity all the homeless ones, the beggars pacing to and fro,

God pity all the poor tonight who walk the lamp-lit streets of snow.

My room is like a bit of June, warm and close-curtained fold on fold,

But somewhere, like a homeless child, my heart is crying in the cold.

--A Winter Night by Sara Teasdale--

Hinata tied the white laces tightly and double knotted them for good measure. It wouldn't do for them to come undone. Satisfied that the skates were firmly bound to her feet, she sat back and eyed them warily.

They were brand new, bought just this morning from a local shop. The shoes were pristine white, the blades sharp and centered. A fine piece of craftsmanship she had been told, not that she knew anything about ice skates or ice skating in general.

It had been an unexpectedly frigid winter this year and the pond had been frozen solid since December. Konoha's elite shinobi revealed their true colors and the icy surface became the site of several interesting hockey games.

Often on her way home from the hospital she would take a side trip to watch the guys play. It was amazing to see them fly back and forth on the ice, proving to be even more agile on the thin blades of their skates as they were on solid ground.

After someone blew a hole in the ice and they had to wait three days for it to solidly seal over, all ninjutsu was prohibited except for Naruto's Shadow Clones when they were short a player or two. There were mishaps outside of the use of ninjutsu as well, though.

Lee had to learn to temper his strength, having plunged himself through the eight inch thick ice at least twice. Once Akamaru mistook the hockey puck for a ball and the game had to be suspended while eight grown men tried to retrieve it from the monstrous dog with surprising difficulty. Sometimes the reflection off Shino's glasses would blind someone, usually Naruto, which often resulted in a collision. And heaven forbid anyone should make Choji trip and crush his chips. That was not pretty.

They often switched up the teams, but Neji and Sasuke were never permitted on the same team because their bloodlimits would activate without thought when the competition got especially fierce. Ever try to get a puck past a guy who had eyes in the back of his head?

Hinata found it thoroughly amusing to see such grown, capable jonin sliding back and forth on the ice slapping at a puck with sticks. Watching them helped her to forget the constant demands of work, the clan, and her father for a short while.

Of course, her new pastime did not go unnoticed. Someone followed her out of curiosity and the secret of the secluded pond was discovered. Soon a whole flock of girls would turn out every day to watch their Sasuke-kun or Neji-kun or any other crush in action.

Hinata couldn't understand such obsession. Well, any fool with eyes could see how handsome they all were, but beauty was just wrapping paper.

By now, Naruto had as many admirers as the prodigies, having grown tall and strong in build, his eyes still the brightest blue and his long golden hair always wildly mussed about his handsome face. It sickened her to see girls swoon over his dimpled smile when precious few of them knew the man behind it as she did.

Naruto had always been a kind, loyal, generous friend, but he had never seen her as anything more than that, a friend. She could trust him in all things, but his heart would never be hers no matter how she longed for it. Naruto would only ever have eyes for Sakura. It was a fact she had come to accept with great pain and not a few tears.

She felt terrible for inadvertently revealing the guys' new hangout. They were annoyed with the intrusion and she was no longer able to watch them in peace. If anyone saw her there, they would assume she was a gawking fan girl just like the rest of them.

Shortly after the pond became common knowledge, the Hokage was forced to set up and enforce a schedule for usage to prevent random fan girl attacks on innocent hockey players. The afternoons were reserved for ice hockey and the mornings and evenings for free skating.

That was how Hinata found herself in this uncomfortable predicament. Well, perhaps she could lay the blame on Sakura and Kiba for this one. Kiba with his big mouth had to loudly demand before all of the girls why she hadn't come skating yet.

Next thing she knew she was buying a pair of skates under Sakura's watchful and somewhat scary eyes. Having done this, it was impossible to escape the invitation to join them that night.

There were so many familiar faces. Just about all of her comrades, the Rookie Nine and Team Gai, were crowding the ice with a number of veterans like Genma and Jiraiya (who was presently trying to woo some poor woman with his surprising flexibility and skating prowess).

Gai had challenged Kakashi to a race, of which the silver haired copy-nin seemed to be winning as he read his book while he zipped in and out of everyone else…backwards.

Couples were out in force, including Kurenai-sensei and Asuma who had recently claimed a bench to give their feet a rest and talk quietly. Ino was latched to a disgruntled Shikamaru who somehow managed to slouch even while gliding with absolute grace.

They all made it look so easy. She supposed it shouldn't be any different than walking on water. It was frozen water after all. But every time she tried to stand on the thin blades, her ankles would twist out from under her. It was terribly embarrassing and she knew if she dared to set one foot on the ice, providing she could even get there, she would be flat on her back within seconds. She couldn't bear to make such a fool of herself in front of Naruto, let alone everyone else.

So Hinata wrapped her scarf a bit tighter around her neck and curled her hands into the sleeves of her winter coat. She had forgotten her gloves, being too nervous to consider how cold it truly was. Still, it was nice to watch even if she couldn't join them. Of course, she should have known she wouldn't remain unnoticed for long.

"Hinata, what are you doing hiding over here?"

"Ano, I, eep!" she squeaked as Kiba bodily picked her up and carried her effortlessly onto the ice.

"Kiba-kun!"

Kiba laughed as she clutched frantically at his coat.

"You gotta put your feet down, Hina," he grinned.

"Oh, Kiba-kun. I can't!" she stared up at him with wide, desperate eyes.

"Nonsense. You're a shinobi!"

Her cheeks flushed in shame. It should be that simple, only it wasn't.

"Come on, now. Put your feet down."

Hinata reluctantly lowered her bladed feet and immediately felt them slip out from under her as soon as they touched the ice.

Kiba laughed at her petrified squeak as her small fists tightened in his coat. "I got ya," he said and squeezed her gently in reassurance.

"Oh, Kiba-kun, I don't think I—."

"Trust me," he winked at her. "It's all about balance, like walking a small branch. Keep your legs firm and your ankles straight."

Hinata frowned in concentration and after a few wobbly moments, her lower limbs complied and she was finally able to stand.

"Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" Kiba grinned and she hesitantly smiled.

"I guess not."

"Good, now," he gently tugged her clinging fingers free. "Here comes the fun part!"

Her eyes swallowed her face as he slid back away from her and she grasped frantically at his hands.

"Whoa, easy there," he laughed and caught her hands. "Steady now."

"You were going to leave me," she said reproachfully.

"Nah, we got to get you moving first."

"Oh." She glanced longingly towards the safety of her abandoned bench.

"Come on," Kiba pulled her gently and she felt her feet glide on their own accord over the ice. It was the strangest feeling, but she was too busy holding onto Kiba to enjoy it. He continued to push himself backwards while pulling her with him and she slowly started to feel more sure of her balance.

"See, nothing to it!" he grinned at her and she smiled brightly.

"Now, to move on your own you just have to push from side to side. Like this," he suddenly let go and spun away from her to demonstrate. Hinata watched the way he moved his feet closely, entirely unaware of standing in the midst of the other skaters.

Kiba made it look so simple, as everyone did, but he had given her a measure of confidence to at least try. He spun around and was gliding back towards her when she tentatively pushed herself forward.

She wobbled and spread her arms a bit to keep her balance. Kiba stayed beside her while she took her first few shaky steps, offering a steady hand when she over-compensated and a wide grin as her movements became more sure and smooth.

"See! You're a natural!" He laughed and she smiled gratefully at him, eyes sparkling.

"Hey, Hinata-chan!"

She nearly stumbled when her long-time crush spun up beside her with a shower of ice shavings from his skates. They were different from hers, made for the quick change of direction required in hockey. All the guys seemed to favor them and she wondered if they were better than her own. Despite Kiba's instruction, she hardly felt capable.

"H-hello, Naruto-kun."

"Is dog-breath slowing you down?" the whiskered blonde grinned cheekily.

"Slow!?" Kiba bristled. "Who you calling slow? Put your money where your mouth is, fox-boy!"

"You're on!" And in a flash, Hinata found herself alone in the middle of the flowing crowd of skaters. People moved in and around her with startling speed and grace, as if she weren't even there.

Just stay calm. Keep your ankles straight. She tentatively, shakily started to skate.

It was like flying! With such gentle pressure, her body would glide forward faster and further than she ever could on solid ground. The cool night air kissed her flushed cheeks and if she dared to close her eyes, she could almost believe she was soaring through the clouds.

Her first wide turn was awkward, but she learned quickly how to push herself around the curve without running into anyone. She wasn't going particularly fast and many passed her on both sides, some even tossing a greeting as they zipped by.

But just when she thought she finally had a grasp on it, someone cut her off and she jerked back startled, pin wheeling her arms with a tiny shriek. Her skates slipped out from under her and she squeezed her eyes shut and braced for impact.

Her breath left her when she slammed into something at once both hard and soft. Snapping her eyes open, she found herself staring into a dark abyss…and it was staring right back at her.


He should have been paying better attention because he didn't have a clue how an angel fell into his arms. Her short, midnight shaded hair was speckled with snowflakes, porcelain cheeks flushed bright rosy pink. For certain she had fallen straight from heaven.

Wide, iridescent eyes blinked in shock before the flush of her cheeks brightened. "Ano, gomen," she squeaked like a little mouse.

Hinata's heart was beating a frantic staccato against her ribs at finding herself in the arms of the enigmatic Uchiha Sasuke. Even after his return to Konoha and having served a few missions alongside him since then, he still frightened her.

Darkness clung to him, his eyes, his clothes, his words. Even with her Byakugan it was nearly impossible to read him. Sometimes he allowed things to slip through, anger, irritation, disgust, but seldom more than that. He was everything Naruto was not so she avoided him, not knowing how to deal with him.

She was hardly repulsed by the Avenger. If anything, she was keenly aware of the loneliness he must bear being the last of his clan. She too was intimately acquainted with loneliness, though hers was felt within her clan.

They both struggled for strength, he to avenge his clan, she to protect hers. Truly she could find no real fault with him but for the nameless fear of the unknown, unpredictable factor he was. The haunting beauty of his sable eyes only compounded the mystery surrounding him.

When he lifted her back onto her feet, she found her balance for a mere moment before her skates slipped out again. Sasuke's arms were around her quick as lightening, strong, warm, and steady.

"First time?" he asked with obvious amusement.

Hinata blushed as she clutched helpless at his arms. "Y-yes. I'm sorry."

A small smile curved his lips unseen by her. Having suffered the unwanted attention of Konoha's entire female population throughout his entire life, Sasuke had always found Hyuuga Hinata to be a refreshing change. Any other woman would be swooning in his arms right now, but the timid heiress could barely even meet his gaze out of sheer embarrassment.

Despite her shy, sweet nature, she had become a capable kunoichi and he enjoyed the few times he had been teamed with her. For as long as he remembered, she only ever had eyes for Naruto, so he never had to worry about her becoming a distraction on missions.

She was such a small thing, fitting perfectly in his arms. Even through the layers of clothing he could feel the curves she tried so hard to hide. Her technique was taijutsu based, so he had no doubt she was all lean muscle despite her diminutive size.

Feeling her finally regain her balance, he slowly pulled away and felt oddly bereft without having her tucked so close to him.

"Ano, thank you," she murmured, letting her short hair fall about her face in an effort to hide from his unnerving gaze.

"Hinata!"

Both of them looked up as Kiba skidded to a stop in front of them. "You alright?"

Before she could answer, he pulled her into his arms and fixed a glare on the silent Uchiha.

"What did you do to Hinata-chan, Sasuke," Naruto demanded as he took up position on Sasuke's other side.

"What?" Sasuke asked in bewilderment. All I did was catch her when she fell!

"Go harass someone else," Kiba growled, "and leave Hinata alone."

Anger flashed briefly through Sasuke's eyes before he shrugged. "Whatever," he snapped and pushed his way past them. Serves me right for bothering to help anyone.

Hinata looked from Kiba to Naruto in confusion and shock.

"Eh, sorry about that, Hinata-chan." Naruto sheepishly scratched his head.

"Yeah. You won't have to worry about him bothering you now," Kiba said.

Both men looked at her in confusion as she suddenly pushed herself out of Kiba's arms, her eyes wide and bewildered. "W-what?"

"You don't have to cover for that jerk, Hinata-chan," Naruto said.

"Yeah," Kiba scowled. "If he pushed you—."

"What!?" She squeaked. "But, he, I," she shook her head in frustration and denial. They had it all wrong! She had seen the hurt and anger in Sasuke's eyes at their accusations, but she was too startled and confused to speak up. Even now the words tangled uselessly on her tongue.

Finally she just pushed past the two startled men and ignored her name on their lips. She didn't think about the ice beneath her or the people around her, nor Kiba and Naruto behind her. Her eyes were focused only on the Uchiha fan emblazoned on the back of Sasuke's sweater as he skated away from her.

She forced her feet to move faster until she was fairly flying across the ice and closing the distance at a startling pace.

"Sasuke-san," she called, but her soft voice was lost in the chatter of the other skaters. Willing strength to her voice, she tried again.

"Sasuke-san!"

Only when he glanced back did she realize too late she didn't know how to stop.


What should it matter to him what those two idiots believed? Still, it irked him to no end that she had done nothing but cling to the safety of Inuzuka's arms like he was some monster to cower from. Well, she was better off there anyway. It's not like she wanted anything to do with him in the first place. So why was he still thinking of her?

Sasuke scowled and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets, wondering why he bothered to come skating at all. He usually avoided the free skating hours. There were too many fan girls on the prowl seeking a "romantic" encounter and even he knew skating at night in a soft snowfall was high on a girl's list of dream dates.

But Sakura had been insistent. All right, she threatened to give him a concussion if he didn't show up and "be social for a change". Her words, not his, but he had to admit it was a rarity that they all should be home from missions at the same time and it was kind of nice to see everyone just having fun for a change. Now he was beginning to think enough was enough when he heard someone call his name.

Glancing over his shoulder, he was surprised to see Hinata barreling towards him, eyes wide and panicked. His Sharingan activated instantly in response to a possible threat, but no one else seemed alarmed. Confused by what could have frightened her so, he turned fully in time for her to slam into his chest.

The force of impact knocked him clear off his feet and he slammed hard onto his back, his head smacking sharply on the ice. Stars danced before his eyes and he grimaced at the lancing pain, barely aware of the soft weight sprawled on top of him.

Hinata blinked her eyes open to find her face buried in Sasuke's chest, his body having broken her fall once more.

"Oh, no!" She gasped as she struggled to push herself up. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry," she kept repeating frantically. Grabbing his arm, she carefully helped him to sit up. "I didn't mean…I-I couldn't stop and…oh, dear," she flushed scarlet in mortification as he stared blankly at her through his long bangs, his hand holding the back of his head.

"You sure are clumsy," he muttered.

Hinata thought she was going to spontaneously combust from embarrassment. She didn't know what possessed her to chase after him so, driven by some nameless emotion beyond gratitude for having helped her. Naruto and Kiba were so quick to misjudge him and she couldn't let him believe she did too…but did she have to injure the poor man?

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "Ano, are…are you all right?"

She dared to look up at him through her lashes, not knowing the demure picture she presented kneeling before him, eyes wide and glistening with unshed tears of worry and humiliation.

Sasuke felt his world tunnel down to the vision before him. How could the dobe never see how beautiful this woman is?

When he remained silent, unmoving, Hinata suffered a sick feeling that he might have struck his head harder than she thought.

"Sasuke-san?" Her small hands clenched in his sleeve.

He blinked. "I'm fine," he said finally. She didn't look convinced and before his very eyes, the timid Hyuuga heiress shifted into a stern-faced medic.

Without preamble, she pulled his hand away from his head and dove her own into his thick hair in search of the bruise. He winced when she found it and she muttered an absent apology so unlike her fervent pleading before.

Sakura always had a stark seriousness about her when in professional mode, but the transformation wasn't nearly as startling as it was in Hinata. She had never treated him before, but he found her touch gentle and soothing as she fed chakra into the bruise. The pain had been slight compared to injuries he had born in the past, but she eased it away into a pleasant tingle that left him feeling oddly relaxed.

"Follow my finger with your eyes, please," she said and much to his surprise, he found himself obediently following the slender digit back and forth, up and down until she sat back with a relieved smile. It always annoyed him when Sakura performed that little test to check him for a concussion. To see the same concern in Hinata's eyes was surprisingly endearing.

"Am I going to live?" he deadpanned and she blinked in surprise then blushed faintly.

"H-hai."

Sasuke smirked, for she was once more the timid heiress. Her eyes widened when he stood and stared down at her with unveiled amusement. Slowly he held out his hand. "Come on."

Hinata hesitantly grasped his hand and he swiftly pulled her to her feet. She clutched at his arm to steady herself and he chuckled softly.

"Try using your chakra," he suggested. "Like when you run through the trees."

Hinata blinked up at him in surprise at both the logical suggestion and that he should even offer it. Narrowing her eyes slightly, she concentrated a small amount of chakra to the thin blades as she would do to her feet when climbing a tree. Feeling the balance instantly, she smiled brightly up at Sasuke.

"Oh!"

Sasuke nearly laughed at her startled excitement at the discovery. "If you want to stop, just drag a skate behind you," he decided to offer. He didn't like the thought of her colliding with someone else.

Hinata glanced down at his feet as he demonstrated how to stop herself. It wasn't the same means she had seen him use when playing hockey, but he was considerably more experienced than her.

"I can do that," she nodded, feeling more confident than she had since she first stepped onto the ice.

His lips twitched with amusement. "Prove it." He skated back a few paces and she blinked at him in surprise until she realized he was serious.

With her chakra to balance her, it was easier to manage her skates with a grace common to her nature and she giggled with delight at her newfound ability.

Sasuke was instantly lost in her bright eyes and unguarded laughter. It was mesmerizing and left him hungering for another glance, another smile offered to him alone. He kept pace with her, telling himself it was only to ensure his offered advice wasn't wasted, but he wasn't as good at lying to himself as he used to be. He had always liked Hinata's company. It was peaceful.

Hinata soon realized he was still beside her and she looked up to see a rare, contented smile on his lips.

"Thank you," she said.

His dark eyes softened before he shrugged in his usual indifferent manner. She giggled again out of sheer joy.

What was it like to be so carefree, to release all of ones concerns as she did then? Sasuke would never know, but it was comforting to see someone like her retain innocent wonder. Such things should be treasured, protected. That would explain why Naruto and Kiba were always so quick to jump to her defense…like right about now.

"You all right, Hinata?" Kiba spun around to skate backwards in front of them, alternately smiling at Hinata and glaring at Sasuke.

"Oh, yes," she smiled brightly. "Sasuke-san has been very helpful."

"Getting soft, Sasuke-kun," Naruto grinned.

"Bug off, dobe," Sasuke scowled. He was finally enjoying this social thing and Naruto just had to keep popping up and stealing Hinata's attention.

Hinata giggled at Sasuke's irritated scowl. He looked more like a petulant child than a threatening shinobi. Oddly enough, he no longer frightened her and when he turned that scowl on her, she only giggled harder. When she brought her hands up to cover her mouth and stifle her laughter, Sasuke sighed. It was impossible to be irritated with her when her eyes danced like that, even if her amusement was at his expense. But he wasn't about to let Naruto have the final say.

Hinata was too startled to resist when Sasuke suddenly grabbed her hand and pulled her along as he skated past Kiba and Naruto, both wearing shocked expressions. Risking a glance over her shoulder only impaired her balance, so she focused instead on the strong hand engulfing her own.

How did this happen? Uchiha Sasuke was…holding her hand. When she tugged gently to free it, his grip only tightened.

"You're cold," he said as he glanced down at her with a frown knitting his dark brows.

So intent had she been on skating that she had blocked out the penetrating chill. Now that he mentioned it, the hand he held was the only one she could feel. Her nose was pretty numb too.

"Where did you leave your boots?" he asked.

There was a small shack provided for such things, but in her hopes to avoid notice and possibly avoid skating, Hinata had sought out one of the benches instead. Following her glance off to the side, Sasuke guided her safely through the flow of skaters to the edge of the pond near the bench shadowed by pine trees. When he released her hand, she awkwardly wobbled through the snow and dropped onto the bench. She didn't know how long she had been skating, but she was surprisingly tired. It had been a bit more adventurous than she anticipated.

Glancing up, she was surprised to find herself alone. Sasuke was nowhere in sight and an unexpected feeling of dejection washed over her. She probably should have expected him to ditch her, but he could have at least waved or said "later" or something.

Sighing softly, she pulled her boots out from under the bench and started plucking at the laces of her skate. It had been nice skating with him. They didn't really talk or anything, but she didn't feel she had to with him. He was comfortable with silence and probably welcomed it from her since both of his teammates (as well as his entire fan club) were very vocal people.

To be honest, she hadn't expected him to be so nice to her. It was usually his habit to push people away, but he had kindly helped her with her skating. He had been so forgiving of her clumsiness too, something her father was forever scolding her for since she was a child. Perhaps he was just having a tolerable day.

Hinata frowned at her obstinate fingers fumbling futilely with the double-knotted laces. The numb digits refused to obey her and she sighed with resignation when the bench suddenly creaked with additional weight. Before she could look up to see who had sat beside her, a large hand grabbed her ankle and pulled her leg straight to rest her foot on a jean-clad knee.

Lavender shaded eyes stared bemused at the strong fingers tugging her laces loose with ease. Following up the length of the arm, her gaze settled on Sasuke's handsome features set in calm concentration.

He…didn't ditch me after all.

His skates were tied together by the laces and sitting on the ground beside him while he worked on hers. She realized now he had gone to retrieve his own boots before returning to help her. Hinata decided then to throw out all of her preconceptions about the dark-eyed Avenger. He had proven half of them wrong already.

Having freed her foot, he scooped up her boot, frowning at how cold it was. Her feet were going to be freezing, but he laced it up anyway and quickly started on the other. Hinata remained silently submissive under his ministrations. She didn't complain about how cold she was despite the shivering she couldn't hide, and she didn't try to tell him how to properly untie her laces like a certain bossy blonde kunoichi he knew, nor pester him with stupid questions or demands.

She just passively watched his fingers at work with an adorable expression of bewilderment. Well, it was a bit out of character for him to care one iota about another's comfort, but Hinata made it easy to care for her with her quiet, accepting nature.

Tying the laces of her skates together, he slung them over his shoulder with his own and grasped her elbow to help her off the bench.

"Come on," he said to the question in her eyes and led her away from the pond. Any other woman would have demanded to know where he was taking her, but she just let him guide her along, silently trusting him in a way others seldom did. It filled him with the oddest sense of confidence and worth.

Hinata, for her part, was simply too cold to offer any sort of complaint or question. Sasuke was the only warm thing near her and she walked as close as possible in an effort to absorb some of that warmth. The thought that he could lead her clear to the Hidden Village of Sound and she would follow unresisting just to be near his warmth flittered through her mind and made her smile.

Sasuke glanced at her from the corner of his eye and raised a brow at the funny little smile and faint blush dusting her cheeks.

"What are you thinking about," he asked, startling them both.

Hinata's blush deepened and she glanced away, even more aware of his hand on her arm. "N-nothing."

Now he really wanted to know what she was thinking, but doubted she was willing to give judging by that particular shade of red. He just hoped it had nothing to do with Naruto.

Not far from the pond, a few fire pits had been dug out and were blazing with tempting heat for those in need of a warm place to rest. Sasuke led her over to one of the large logs placed in the snow around the fires and she gratefully sat down before the blaze.

"Stay here," Sasuke said as he dropped their skates in the snow beside her.

Hinata glanced after him, wondering where he could possibly think she would go. It seemed like everything he said was an order, but the cutting superiority usually directed at others was absent. His arrogant way of speaking was as could be expected from one used to being obeyed without question, but his tone was soft and gentle. Neji was much the same way, too used to being obeyed to change his manner of speaking, but his affection for her always gentled his words. It was puzzling to see Sasuke do the same thing.

The heat from the fire was heavenly, but the chills had settled firmly into her bones. A few others were crowding in on the fires now, but she remained alone on her log, wondering where everyone was. Probably still skating. How long before they notice I'm gone? Will they even notice at all?

A steaming paper coffee cup appeared before her and she looked up in surprise.

"Hot chocolate," Sasuke said. "It'll help."

Hinata accepted the cup in wonder and watched him sit down beside her. Nothing he did made sense anymore. Kiba and Naruto were nowhere in sight and it was anti-social Sasuke who helped her with her laces and gave her hot chocolate without her ever asking. No one had ever perceived her needs so accurately before, or even bothered to.

Sensing her gaze, Sasuke glanced at her with a raised brow and she smiled shyly. "Thank you."

The corners of his lips curled into a faint smile that reminded her of Neji when Tenten did something silly. Her cousin was head over heals for the Weapon's Mistress, but wasn't always adept at showing it. Lee and Naruto were the only ones she knew who were so obvious about their devotion, both incidentally for the same woman.

She often wondered what it would be like to have someone feel so intensely for her. Loud declarations and flowery words weren't necessary, of course. Just knowing by a touch or a glance that she was wanted, cared for, was all she ever dreamed of.

Sasuke would be good at such subtleties, she imagined. He was the sort of person who felt things deeply, savagely. His hatred and anger were intense. His love could only be equally so.

Puzzled by the direction of her thoughts, Hinata focused her attention on the steaming cup in her hands. It was delicious and warmed her from the inside out. She had no idea where he could have gotten it as there were no shops in the immediate area that she was aware of and he had not been gone very long.

He sat still and silent beside her, one knee propped up with an arm casually draped over it as he stared into the fire. Sasuke was such an emotionally remote person, but his small, unexpected kindnesses only proved him to be so much more than the detached mask he offered the world.

"Did you not want any," she asked softly.

Sasuke tilted his head slightly to glance at her, loose black tendrils sliding across his eyes. "I don't like sweets."

"Oh." Her cheeks pinkened. She took a few sips and then, "W-what do you like?"


Sasuke was not a conversationalist by any means. Most of the time he was either bombarded with questions by fan girls or lists of wants, desires and declarations of love by said fan girls. So talking to Hinata about the best way to make onigiri was a novel experience.

She didn't stand on opinion, being more interested in what he had to say than making her own preferences known. The conversation actually flowed and the topics changed rapidly and without awkwardness.

When he related a rather humorous anecdote at Naruto's expense, she laughed freely, the firelight reflecting in her iridescent eyes like fractured crystal. Her timidity was forgotten and she met his gaze evenly when he spoke. Nothing ever held his attention as she did then. The words were as comfortable as the silence and Sasuke found himself making a life-altering decision.

Hinata tossed her empty cup into the fire and wrapped her arms around herself. The heat of the fire and the hot chocolate had done wonders to ease the chill, but the cold at her back sent shivers down her spine and it was difficult to suppress them. She always did get too cold too easily.

Sasuke had been surprisingly amiable in talking with her. She had been careful to avoid anything too personal. There was so much she wanted to know, but she didn't want to pry so she didn't ask him anything she wasn't willing to answer herself. Between the interchange of questions and stories there were a few blocks of silence, all of them comfortable like the one they had fallen into now.

It was strange. She had never been able to speak with Naruto this easily and the whiskered blonde was seldom silent. He was her friend, true, but they never really talked. Hinata was surprised and pleased to find she liked spending time with Sasuke. There was so much depth to his personality hidden beneath the veneer of cold indifference.

He wasn't cruel or cold or even lacking humor at all, and when his eyes softened just so, she felt an intense urge to run her fingers through his wild mane. She still remembered how soft it was. It was even stranger to be having such thoughts about the Avenger when she had only ever had them for Naruto. Come to think of it, she hadn't really thought much about the golden shinobi all evening.

Sasuke watched the slight smile fade from Hinata's face to be replaced with a pensive frown. She was very expressive for a Hyuuga, so very opposite of himself. Hinata was sweet, warm, compassionate, and kind, all the things a shinobi couldn't be and yet she was.

He frowned when a particularly violent shiver racked her body despite the warmth of the fire and the hot chocolate he had given her. Maybe she didn't wear all those layers just to hide her figure after all. She was quite small and he doubted she could retain much body heat to start with. Even still, she didn't complain, not even with her expression.

There were consequences to what he was about to do, but he was willing to bear them now that he knew exactly what he wanted. But the matter of getting it was going to be something of a challenge.

Uchiha Sasuke never balked at a challenge.

Lifting one leg over the log to straddle the wide perch, he wrapped his arms around Hinata's waist and pulled her back against his chest. Ignoring her startled gasp, he enfolded her quickly and snuggly in his embrace.

Wide-eyes turned up at him with confusion and a faint glimmer of fear in their lavender shaded depths.

"S-Sasuke-san?"

Kami, she's beautiful. "You're still shivering," he said as if it were every day that he held a woman in his arms. Color dusted her cheeks and she adverted her face, not knowing what to do.

There was something stirring in his fathomless eyes that frightened her. She had forgotten about his mercurial nature, become too relaxed in his company. She was struck with the sudden impression that he wanted something from her, but she couldn't imagine what it could be.

As so often when she found herself uncertain and frightened, she sought to put distance between herself and the cause. Only, Sasuke's arms refused to let go when she tried to tug herself free.

"Stop that," he said, his silken voice vibrating deep in his chest and against her back.

"S-Sasuke-san…"

Sasuke caught her wrists and crossed her arms across her chest beneath his own as he hugged her, effectively eliminating all means of struggle while keeping her enfolded in his warmth.

Her heart was fluttering in a panic she had only ever known when Naruto stood too near to her. Sasuke was holding her so close she could smell the soap he used, something intensely masculine and uniquely his own, raw power and mystery.

She couldn't move an inch and it scared her. She could jolt him with her chakra, but though his hold was restrictive and strong as steel, he wasn't hurting her. He hadn't given her any real reason to fear him. Quite the opposite really. He had been unexpectedly attentive to her needs and she couldn't understand why he should even bother. She was nothing to him but an acquaintance and occasional comrade yet he had shown more care for her in a few hours than she had ever seen him do for his friends in, well, ever.

She didn't understand and that's why it frightened her.

But she had been so very cold and his body heat was now enveloping her from all sides. She was practically reclining in his arms now, her head pillowed against his shoulder. He had propped up one foot on the outside of the log between her and the darkness, partially shielding her from the chilled breeze.

Hinata had never felt so protected before.

Sasuke smirked as she slowly relaxed against him. For a moment he had been worried she would continue to struggle and he didn't want to frighten her anymore than she already was. It would only defeat his intent.

He liked how she obeyed him without stupid questions or protest when he only wanted to take care of her. If she honestly disagreed or didn't trust him, he was sure she would make it known. She was a capable kunoichi after all, and a Hyuuga. But she didn't fight him for control over the situation as another woman would. Not that he would mind seeing some fire in her moon-bright eyes, but constant disagreement and conflict was both aggravating and exhausting. Besides, he liked being in control.

He hated the selfish, manipulative minxes that stalked him, thinking he could be won with a sultry smile and seductive promises. He was beginning to think there wasn't a woman left in Konoha worthy of being his bride and the next matriarch of the Uchiha clan, let alone one that he could tolerate living with for the rest of his life.

It seemed he had been mistaken, though. Hinata was hardly a minx. She didn't even wear makeup or douse herself in perfumes and she didn't need to. There was a faint, flowery scent clinging to her and when he discreetly sniffed her hair he identified it as rosewater. It was delicately fragrant and faint enough that one had to be very, very close to even notice, like he was now.

Sasuke smirked, knowing very few had ever held her so close, maybe not even Naruto. Oh, he definitely liked that thought.

Her pulse was still racing beneath his gentle grasp on her wrists despite her relaxed posture. She was staring into the fire, her cheek against his shoulder, and from the angle he could see color still dusting her porcelain skin. An odd sense of male pride swelled up inside knowing he was the reason for it.

The poor girl probably didn't know what to make of his attention, or anyone's for that matter. As far as he knew, Naruto had been her only crush and her teammates fell into a brotherly role. In fact, he was willing to bet she had never been kissed before and that was a very pleasing notion. Hinata was as fresh and pure as the snow dusting her raven hair.

He would have to handle her carefully to ease the fear from her. As a comrade she might trust him with her life but her heart was another matter entirely, especially when it still might belong to Naruto.

Sasuke gentled his hold on her so that it was no longer restrictive, but he kept a loose grasp on one wrist to monitor her pulse. It was the best way to judge her reaction to him and he intended to take every advantage he could get.

She shifted slightly to get more comfortable but didn't try to break free as he half-expected. Her pulse calmed considerably since he had given her some room to move and he made a mental note of the reaction for future reference. It was possible she had a strong aversion to being restrained.

Feeling content with her slight body pressed against his, he propped his chin on top of her head and followed her gaze into the fire. Her pulse jumped, but she gave no further indication of alarm.

Hinata supposed she should feel ashamed for letting this man she barely knew hold her as no one else ever had, but she didn't. Sasuke was hard and soft, strong and gentle, and so very warm. When he loosened his embrace, she was able to relax fully against him, no longer feeling trapped. In his arms, she felt comfortable and safe and that was a rare experience for her.

But when he tucked her head under his chin, she thought her face was going to overheat, knowing the tender picture they must present. Sasuke was holding her as a lover would.

"S-Sasuke-san," she whispered tremulously.

"Hn."

Oh, she was so warm and comfortable, but if anyone saw them… "P-people will talk…"

"Let them talk," he murmured.

"B-but…"

Sasuke sighed, his breath ruffling her hair. "Hinata, don't worry so much."

She meeped quietly at the soft reprimand, much to his amusement. He knew she was uncomfortable with the idea of others seeing him holding her like this, but she was just going to have to accept it. In fact, the more who saw them the better, starting with Kiba and Naruto whose eyes looked like they were about to pop out of their heads. They really did have the best of timing, didn't they?

"Hinata?"

"Hinata-chan?"

Sasuke thought the petite woman was about to have a panic attack.

"Naruto-kun! Kiba-kun!" Heat blossomed in her cheeks and she shifted to free herself from her compromising position. Sasuke's arms tightened instantly and she froze.

Oh, why must he do this now? Does he find some perverse pleasure in humiliating me?

"Don't," he whispered softly, warningly.

The velvety darkness of his voice sent pleasurable shivers rippling down her spine and she didn't resist when he pulled her back against him, her head coming to rest in the curve of his shoulder.

When he glanced down at her, he could see her eyes were wide and glistening with brewing tears of embarrassment and anxiety. The unfamiliar sensation of concern and anger swelled up inside him and he hugged her tighter, almost painfully, as he fixed a glare on Kiba and Naruto. Perhaps they didn't mean too, but they were hurting her, scaring her in some nameless way just by being there.

"You're upsetting her," he snapped and they both blinked in surprise before taking real notice of the woman who wouldn't even meet their eyes.

Kiba glared and the over-sized pup beside him bared its fangs. "What do you think you're doing, Uchiha?" He growled.

Sasuke never deigned to explain himself to anyone, but he decided for the sake of Hinata's nerves, he would make an exception.

"She was cold," he said simply. No one said it had to be a lengthy explanation.

Kiba scowled and stepped forward to take her from his arms but froze when Hinata shrunk back.

"Hinata?"

She blushed at Kiba's shock. What sort of woman was she to prefer the embrace of an almost stranger to that of a friend? When Kiba had moved towards her, she had only thought of how she didn't want to leave Sasuke's arms, especially with Naruto being so near. It was shameful. Her father would be appalled.

Sasuke scowled in irritation though he was infinitely pleased with Hinata's reaction. "Sit down, Inuzuka, and leave her be."

Kiba opened his mouth to argue but stopped when Naruto grasped his shoulder in warning. Only then did he notice Sasuke's Sharingan was active. Reluctantly he slumped down on the log, glancing once more at Hinata with a mixed expression of worry, hurt, and confusion.

Thankful that a conflict had been adverted, Hinata smiled shyly at her friend. "W-where are the others?"

Kiba relaxed slightly when she finally spoke. He didn't know what to think when he saw her curled up in the Avenger's arms. Hinata never let anyone get that close to her and his protective instincts kicked in instantly. Sasuke was a trusted comrade, but all bets were off where Hinata was concerned. The Uchiha had never shown any interest in a woman before, so to see him acting possessive with Hinata was shocking to say the least, and concerning. Why her? Why now?

She wasn't afraid. Timid and shy, yes, but not afraid. In fact, she looked surprisingly comfortable now that he and Naruto weren't staring at her in shocked disbelief.

"The girls wanted some hot chocolate," he finally said. "Shikamaru and Neji got dragged along."

Hinata giggled as the image of Tenten and Ino dragging their respective paramours by the hair like cavewomen danced through her mind.

"I'll go get you some if you want, Hinata-chan," Naruto offered cheerfully as he warmed his hands over the fire.

Sasuke scowled when he felt Hinata's pulse flutter. Naruto didn't even have to try to affect her. Jealousy surged through him with startling intensity…and fizzled when Hinata spoke.

"Sasuke-kun already got me some, but thank you."

She called me Sasuke-kun­.

Naruto and Kiba blinked at her in surprise and then looked at Sasuke.

"You are getting soft," Naruto said with wide eyes.

Sasuke glowered at him, a sharp retort dying on his lips when Hinata giggled softly. Did she have to do that every time he started to get annoyed with the dobe?

Naruto grinned as he watched Sasuke deflate. There really was something to this after all. He knew better than anyone that Sasuke avoided women like the plague, having been stampeded a few times by Sasuke's fan club when he didn't get out of their way fast enough. But he also knew Sasuke didn't do anything without reason nor by half measures.

It was obvious this, whatever it was, was new and tentative. Sasuke had clearly made up his mind, judging from the possessive way he held the Hyuuga heiress, but it was impossible to be certain of Hinata's feelings. She seemed to be at ease with Sasuke, at least until they arrived, but then Hinata never had been comfortable being the center of attention.

Hinata was one of his precious people and he wanted to see her happy just as much as Sasuke, but a relationship between the two could pose some problems. Sasuke had a lot of very brazen, very possessive admirers who would make mincemeat out of a sweet girl like Hinata. There was also her own family to consider and they were bound to disapprove of the once traitorous Uchiha.

If Sasuke wanted to pursue Hinata, he was going to have a battle on his hands and Hinata could very well become a casualty. Naruto sure hoped he knew what he was doing.

As if hearing his thoughts, Sasuke's eyes met his own, narrowing slightly in challenge.

"What are you going to tell Neji," Naruto suddenly blurted.

Hinata stiffened in Sasuke's arms and he mentally swore at Naruto. Of course he knew Hinata's cousin was an obstacle he was going to have to deal with sooner or later, but he was hoping to make clear his intentions to Hinata first. Apparently he wasn't going to get that chance considering the voices that were coming closer.

Knowing what was to come, he lifted one hand and gently stroked Hinata's arm to calm her. She was tense as a bowstring in face of the looming confrontation.

Neji had become very protective of her over the years and she knew he was going to blow a fuse when he saw the Uchiha holding her so intimately. If Sasuke valued his life, he would surrender her to Kiba. Surely she was not worth such trouble. Why was he being so stubborn? She couldn't imagine why he refused to let her go. He had been acting so strangely all evening, as if he…as if he…

Hinata blanched as realization dawned on her. He couldn't possibly…we hardly know each other…but the way he's holding me, like…like I belong to him…

Sasuke's brows furrowed when Hinata's wide eyes suddenly turned up towards him, brimming with emotion. Comprehension had finally struck her and he quickly sifted through the emotions in her eyes to ascertain her state of mind and level of acceptance.

Confusion and disbelief were the most prominent. Why her? Well, he could give her a long list of reasons and would when she finally asked him. Shock, fear, wonder, uncertainty, doubt, hesitation…hurt… Her eyes dimmed as she settled on the last emotion and he felt a sharp pain in his chest. Does she still love Naruto?

She opened her mouth to speak, to push him away with her words if not her hands, but he couldn't allow her. He would not be persuaded from this.

Squeezing her gently, he leaned down until their foreheads were nearly touching, his long hair shielding them both from view. She blushed faintly at having him so close, his eyes staring into her own with no means to look away.

His sable eyes softened and a tiny little smile curved his lips. "You worry too much."

Hinata swallowed. "I—."

"Trust me," he whispered.

Hinata didn't know what to do, what his true intentions were, or why he bore intention towards her at all. He could have any woman in all of Konoha groveling at his feet and she wasn't half as pretty as most of them. For a Hyuuga she was pathetically weak and a poor choice for any man, as her father so often told her. So why should the sole survivor of one of the most powerful clans in Konoha want her?

She could see he was waiting for an answer and his eyes, for once, were unguarded. He…he is afraid too, afraid that I'll push him away…

Hinata felt a familiar twist of pain at the loneliness and fear staring back at her, so much like her own. It couldn't have been easy for him to share it and she knew he wouldn't have if he intended for her to be but a moment in his life.

She was still scared because the unknown always scared her and she had always thought she would face it with Naruto. Oddly enough, she felt no loss over this. Naruto would always hold a special place in her heart, but those dreams had faded with each passing year that his love for Sakura grew.

What would come of this now, she did not know. She only knew that Sasuke made her feel safe. She very much wanted to feel safe.

When her eyes softened, Sasuke nearly sighed in relief. He didn't know what he would have done if she had withdrawn from him before he ever had a chance to prove himself to her.

Someone cleared their throat then and they both glanced up to see the rest of their comrades had arrived. Hinata instantly shrunk under the mixed surprised and hostile attention and Sasuke glared.

Tenten was the first to speak, all too aware of the murderous intent rolling off the silver-eyed man beside her.

"Well, this is new."

Hinata swallowed hard, not knowing if she should be more petrified of Sakura and Ino, or Neji. Sasuke seemed unperturbed by her cousin's glower, his hand leisurely stroking her arm as he held Neji's gaze. The air sizzled with tension until Shikamaru suddenly snorted.

"Thank Kami," he muttered and Ino shot him an incredulous stare.

"What?" she snapped.

Shikamaru smirked. "With Sasuke out of the running, us lesser guys finally stand a chance."

"Yeah," Naruto grinned. "Sasuke's been hogging the attention long enough."

Ino sputtered. "But, but, Hinata!?"

Sasuke stilled and Neji turned his glower full force on the blonde kunoichi.

"What's wrong with Hinata-sama," he growled.

Ino's mouth snapped shut and she shifted closer to Shikamaru who watched with open amusement.

"Nothing," she squeaked.

Neji sniffed indignantly and turned back to glaring at Sasuke and Hinata. "Hinata-sama, a word."

Sasuke was seriously tempted to tell the Hyuuga genius just where he could stick his word when Hinata shrunk further against him under the force of her cousin's glare. It was obvious Neji intimidated her the most and the last thing he wanted was to give him the chance to influence Hinata away from him before he could lay any claim on her heart.

Hinata took that decision out of his hands when she turned her wide eyes up to him in a silent plea. If he tried to hold onto her now, not only could he damage the fragile trust between them but he would also make several enemies out of their friends.

But he was not without his means of persuasion either. Squeezing her gently, he dropped a soft kiss on her forehead and let her go.

Hinata couldn't move for several breaths, even once his arms had fallen away from her. If she had any doubt about his intentions before, she was pretty certain of them now. The hows and whys still remained unanswered, but he had summed it all up in two words just a little while ago.

"Trust me."

"Hinata-sama," Neji spoke again when she remained unmoving even after the Uchiha pulled away. As if waking from a daze, she slowly stood and walked over to him, all anxiety suddenly absent from her expression.

Taking her hand, he pulled her away from the fire and the curious stares of their friends. As was her nature, Hinata followed meekly and quietly until he stopped far enough away to keep their conversation private.

Neji pinched the bridge of his nose as he forced himself to calm. Sometimes the ferocity of his protective instincts towards his little cousin surprised even him and if Tenten had not had such a firm grip on his arm it was likely he would have pummeled the Uchiha into the ground at first glance. Seeing Hinata in the arms of a man was the most unsettling thing he had ever seen.

"Did he hurt you?" he growled, his emotions still running hot despite his efforts to control them.

Hinata's eyes softened at his obvious concern. "Of course not."

Neji scowled at the matter-of-fact words and opened his eyes so he could read her eyes for deception. There wasn't any.

It was bound to be a story he wouldn't really want to know, but he had to ask. "How…when did this happen?"

Hinata blushed, much to his chagrin. "I sort of fell into his arms."

Neji's eyes widened comically. "You…what?"

"I…I was skating, or trying to. Someone cut in front of me and I fell and he caught me."

Thin brows drew together. "How exactly did that lead to," he waved towards the fire, not knowing exactly how to word it without embarrassing them both.

Hinata curled her arms against her chest, covering her mouth with one hand, failing to hide her pink cheeks. "I-I'm not sure."

"You're not sure?" Neji repeated incredulously. Hinata glanced away and he forced himself to take a deep, calming breath. "Did he force you?"

"No!" Her voice rang sharply in the stillness of the night, startling them both and drawing the curious glances of everyone around the fire.

Neji blinked in surprise at her vehement denial. She instantly looked contrite and quickly apologized.

"I'm sorry, niisan."

"Hinata-sama…"

"He helped me with my skates," she peered up at him with wide eyes, pleading for him to understand. "I was so cold and he led me to the fire and got me hot chocolate without me ever asking."

Neji's brows furrowed again. If she were anyone else telling him this, he would never have believed her. Sasuke didn't pay any woman anymore mind than necessary and it sounded like he had actually gone out of his way to take care of her. The nearest hot chocolate was a two block walk.

But the way he had been holding her had been intimate and possessive. Surely Hinata could not be so naïve as to not notice…but then she had been in love with Naruto for a good many years.

"Hinata-sama…" Oh, he seriously wished this conversation could be avoided. Why couldn't she have stayed three years old? "Has he declared his intentions?"

Hinata blushed furiously. "H-he…w-we haven't had a ch-chance to talk a-about," she ducked her head to avoid his piercing gaze.

At least she's aware that he has intentions. Somehow, that didn't really make him feel any better. "Is," he sighed in frustration at his sudden difficulty with words. "Is this something you want to pursue?"

Her head snapped up, eyes startled and confused. "I…"

He felt his heart twist a little. "You still care for Naruto."

To his surprise, Hinata tilted her head and fixed him with a calm gaze. "He will always love Sakura-san."

Neji's eyes softened and he gently grasped her shoulders. "Do not settle for less than you deserve, Hinata. If you feel that Sasuke can give you what Naruto cannot, then I will not stand in your way."

Hinata's eyes glistened as she stared up at him. "He makes me feel safe," she said softly.

A slight smile tugged at Neji's lips at her little confession. "Good. Because if he hurts you I will kill him."

Hinata laughed softly and threw herself into his arms, snuggling deep into his chest. "Thank you, niisan."

Neji tucked her head under his chin and held her tightly. There was an up side to this, he was sure. Sasuke was one of the most powerful shinobi in Konoha and from a wealthy, though dead, clan. He was more than capable of protecting Hinata and any children she might bear. But could he give her the love and affection she needed to thrive, the same love and affection that had been absent for most of her life?

The image of his cousin sheltered in the Uchiha's arms filtered back through his mind and he couldn't discount the possibility that the usually detached Avenger might have genuine affection for her. He certainly hoped so because Sasuke was going to have one heck of a fight on his hands when her father found out about this.

"Your father will not approve," he warned.

Hinata's arms tightened around him. "It is not his approval that matters most," she murmured.

Silver eyes softened tenderly. Hinata-sama.


Sasuke stared into the fire in an effort to ignore the gaping stares of his comrades. He felt unbelievably helpless now that Hinata was gone. In the few hours they had spent together, he had come upon a decision and worked out most of the details, but he had failed to take into account the possibility that she could be turned from him before he even had a chance to talk to her about it.

She knew now, or at least had some idea, of what he wanted. The fact that she hadn't bolted from him at the first opportunity gave him hope but the longer she was apart from him, the quicker it began to fade.

His past was a dishonorable one in the eyes of many and the Hyuuga clan was very proud of their heritage as Konoha's oldest and most honorable clan. They would not welcome him with open arms. He knew that, but he believed Hinata was worth fighting for.

It was easy to imagine a life with her and it was past time to restore his clan. She would give him strong children and would be a good mother to them because of her kind and compassionate nature. She would be patient and forgiving when he is over-stressed, gentle when he is injured, and she would listen attentively when he needed to vent.

He didn't know if he could love her, didn't know if he was capable of love anymore, but if there was any woman that could draw such feelings from the depths of his tattered heart, it would be her. Already he wanted, needed, to protect her and keep her sheltered and warm. Her comfort mattered to him and she made it pleasurable to care for her with her meek, accepting nature.

Yes, he would fight for her…but would she be willing to fight for him?

"No!"

His head snapped up at the sound of her voice, sharp with emotion. Neji and Hinata were standing just outside the reach of the firelight and it was impossible to know what they were speaking of, but he could make a good guess.

"Dude, I do not envy you," Kiba muttered.

Sasuke scowled and continued to ignore them until he sensed Sakura move to sit beside him.

"How long?" she asked quietly.

"Does it matter?" He mentally winced at his curt words, but it couldn't be helped. He was seriously on edge.

"No," Sakura said softly. "I was just wondering how I never noticed it."

Sasuke glanced sideways at her. "You've been preoccupied," he said and smirked when she blushed.

"Oh, shut up."

Feeling some of the tension ease from him, he chuckled. "When are you going to tell him?"

"Oh, I dunno," Sakura shrugged and winked. "He's really cute when he's clueless."

Sasuke snorted. "If you say so."

Sakura grinned and glanced fondly at Naruto who was futilely begging Choji for some chips. "I hope it works out for you, Sasuke. I think she will be good for you."

Sasuke smiled faintly, but didn't reply. There was no need.

The chatter of their small group suddenly silenced when Neji and Hinata stepped back into the circle of light. Hinata blinked uncertainly at having so many inquisitive eyes on her at once and would have turned and bolted if not for the gentle encouragement of Neji's hand on her back.

Setting her jaw and lifting her chin, she forced herself to walk calmly through the circle. If she could not stand up to the curiosity of her own friends, how would she face the displeasure of her clan? She had Neji's approval and support and that was enough.

Sasuke didn't know what to make of the determination in her iridescent eyes as she walked steadily towards him and Neji's expression was disturbingly blank. It couldn't have been easy for her having all those eyes following her steps, waiting on her next move.

When she reached the log he was perched on, she calmly sat beside him and glanced up into his dark eyes with a blush forming on her cheeks. "Now I'm cold again," she said sheepishly.

Sasuke smirked and obligingly wrapped his arm around her shoulders. She snuggled against him and sighed contentedly, no longer caring who was watching. Having left his arms, she felt bitterly cold before she had even stepped clear of the fire. She never wanted to feel that cold again.

Conversation slowly started back up and Sasuke glanced around to find all attention had finally diverted away from them, except for one pair of silver eyes.

Sasuke couldn't fault Neji for his protective instinct, having experienced personally how easily Hinata inspired it in those around her. There was threat and warning in Neji's eyes, but also acceptance. He might never know what had been spoken between the two cousins, but it was clear that Neji was not going to stand in their way as long as it was what Hinata wanted. Sasuke had no doubt that should Hinata ever go running to her cousin in tears on his account, he was most assuredly a dead man.

Sasuke leaned his head against Hinata's and dropped his gaze into the fire once more. I will never let that happen.


Hinata didn't know how long they all sat around the fire, but it was quite late by the time they parted ways. Though Neji was ever a gentleman, she had a niggling suspicion he opted to walk Tenten home to give her and Sasuke some time alone.

They walked silently through the dark, snow-covered streets of the village and without his arms around her, she had begun to shiver again. While moments before they had been comfortably leaning against each other amidst the company of their friends, now things seemed awkward because of what remained unspoken.

A part of her wanted to ask him what he wanted from her, but she instinctively knew he would let her know in his own way, in his own time. This was new to him too.

Sighing softly, she curled her hands further into her sleeves as they reached the door to her family home. Pausing at the step, she glanced up at Sasuke to find him watching her intently with those impenetrable eyes.

"Ano, thank you, for today," she whispered as she dropped her gaze and started poking her fingers together in a nervous habit he had not seen her use in a long time. She started when he enfolded her hands in his and he frowned at how icy her skin was to the touch.

"Make sure you wear gloves tomorrow," he said as he gently chaffed some warmth into her hands.

Hinata nodded obediently as she watched his hands work over hers. His skin was rough and calloused from battle and even when he was being gentle she could feel the latent power simmering beneath the surface of his touch. She had often thought Neji to be a contradiction, being able to kill with a single soft touch, or Naruto, harboring the fierce chakra of the Kyuubi within one so kind.

Sasuke too was a contradiction, bearing the potential of sinister darkness, yet he handled her with such tender care. He could break her without a thought, but she knew he never would.

Blinking wearily, she realized his hands had stopped moving and she glanced up to find him staring intensely at her. That nameless something was stirring in his eyes again, but this time she did not look away.

There were so many things he wanted to say to her, but he didn't know where to start and realized he didn't need to when he saw the trust he had asked for shining in her eyes. She was still timid and frightened, but there was determination too, and a willingness to see what they could be together.

Securing her hands against his chest with one hand, he reached up and tugged on one of the longer locks of hair framing her face. "Wear a hat too," he said absently.

Hinata could not contain an amused smile. "You seem intent on keeping me warm."

A devious smirked curled his lips. "There's plenty of ways to do that."

When she blinked at him in innocent confusion, Sasuke found her simply impossible to resist. Slipping his hand into the thick of her hair, he dipped his head and gently brushed her lips. She stilled instantly but did not try to pull away, so he tentatively kissed her again, lingering longer.

Hinata did not know what to do, so she did as she had done since the first moment she had fallen into his arms. She trusted him. When he pressured her lips gently, she parted them in silent surrender and gasped when he took the invitation with unexpected fierceness.

She was warm and sweet and everything pure and fresh and Sasuke could not hold himself back when she willingly opened herself to him. But instead of recoiling from his intensity, she mewled like a kitten and melted into his kiss. His arms swept around her, holding her close as he drank his fill of all she offered until they were both breathless and impervious to the chill of winter.

"Oh," she breathed as she leaned against him and Sasuke chuckled deeply.

"Oh," he mimicked.

Hinata blushed and buried her face in his chest as he shook with laughter and euphoria.

"Was that your first?" he asked, hoping it was.

Hinata nodded against his chest and he smiled in relief. He had been her first and he would be her last. Gently stroking her back, he considered where he would take her tomorrow for dinner. There was a little café tucked away from the village center that was quaint and cozy and he was sure she would like it. He would have to get her flowers too. Girls liked stuff like that and because Hinata didn't expect such things, he wanted all the more to give them to her.

When she finally raised her face towards him, pink still dusted her cheeks and he brushed his fingers across it in wonder at how such a natural human reaction could spear him straight through the heart.

"I--," she hesitated and he waited patiently for her to meet his gaze. When she did, her eyes danced with hope and desperate longing that mirrored his own.

"I don't want to be cold anymore," she whispered, her breath fogging lightly in the night air.

Sasuke closed his eyes and touched his forehead to hers. Breathing deeply of her rosewater scent, he released all of his cares and fears into the chill of winter.

"Neither do I."

-Fin-


If you enjoyed this, check out my other Naruto story Ryukaze: Dragon Wind. It is a Neji/OC with hints of canon and I've been told I have a talent for writing a good non-Mary Sue OC. I also always post my stories to completion so no one is left hanging.

Thank you for reading my story! Hope you liked it!

-Lanse