Disclaimer: Naruto doesn't belong to me. If it did it would have ended at some point.

A/N 1: Thank you writer's block. You are what makes a writer's life interesting.

A/N 2: Well, well well... final chapter at last, and what a chapter! I can truthfully inform you that it has undergone about six different revisions, all six with different body content, three with different beginnings, but only one with a different ending. This large mouthful is what survived the executioner's merciless block.

A/N 3: I end this with some regret, but not a little relief, and a lot of gratitude towards all the lovely people who kept telling me to get off my lazy behind and finish this (my crude words, not theirs). Without you, I wouldn't have done it. Thank you to those great reviewers whom I haven't messaged back - believe me, all your comments were appreciated-; Thank you to all those who have read and put this on your favourites list. I 3 you all.

Oh, and look forward to some other little monsters which I have let out from my dusty box of ideas... I've unearthed some old fics I wrote when I first started reading Naruto, which I somehow never uploaded. A little bit of polishing and they'll be up on .

I hope you enjoy this xxxxx.


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Part X

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Hinata had only been to the Sand twice in her life before. She remembered it as dry, droughty and dusty; unsurprisingly, nothing had changed except for the amount of people waiting at the gates to present their papers to go in.

Things had not gone exceedingly well on the way to Suna. Actually, things had gone abysmally, and it was with a collective sigh of relief that the whole group stepped into Suna and finally, finally gone their separate ways.

Kiba and Tenten had chosen to stick like two very determined limpets to Hinata's side from the second they had left Konoha. Tenten's sudden fondness for her company had Neji's fingerprints all over it and Hinata wondered exactly how much her cousin knew, or rather how much he thought he knew. Kiba had immediately scented something was not as usual with Hinata, and thankfully had put it down to extreme nerves for the exam and thought to be the supportive and encouraging teammate, present all the time, just in case she needed to confide in him. Lee had been drawn towards their group by the presence of his teammate and by the idea that he could imbue a youthful flower (namely Hinata) with the passion for life, which he did enthusiastically and constantly.

There was also the little matter of Sasuke looking like a thundercloud and glaring daggers at her entourage, which obviously got a response from the irascible Kiba. This nearly lead to a fight between the two of them but luckily (or unluckily, depending on your viewpoint) Naruto, Ino and Sakura were there to intervene, not very diplomatically, which then causedSakura and Ino to argue, which then obviously involved both Naruto and the poor Chouji who looked as unhappy as Hinata felt.

She had never wanted to block people's vocal cords so badly with her Juunken.

In Hinata's opinion, silence was definitely underrated.

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On arriving to Suna and registering, they had separated; Naruto and Sakura had been whisked away by the Sand Siblings, Sasuke had simply disappeared, and the others had decided to go to the inn and then go out to eat. Hinata had politely but very determinedly refused to go out to eat and had pleaded a headache and locked herself in her room, determining to go scrounge up some food when the rest were safely in bed or far away. With a sigh of pure bliss, she had taken a long luxurious bath, in glorious peace, and then collapsed on the bed.

She almost asleep when she was jerked back to alertness by a soft tap on her window. She activated her Byakugan quickly, reassuring herself that this was no enemy, and she padded towards the window and opened it. Sasuke slipped in silently.

He shoved a paper bag emanating tantalising smells towards her.

"Oh," Hinata said, and her stomach growled. She blushed, and Sasuke smirked.

"Let's eat," he said, and slid down on the floor, sitting cross-legged. Hinata did likewise, and opened the bag bringing out the various containers and setting them between them.

"No plates?" she asked, and smiled as he raised his eyebrows.

"Don't fuss on details, woman," Sasuke said as he handed her a pair of chopsticks. "If you're slow, there won't be anything left," he remarked, and popped a rice-ball into his mouth. Hinata laughed and leaned back, feeling at ease for the first time since they started out.

They ate, passing the food back and forth between them, keeping the conversation brief. Hinata finally put her chopsticks down with a contented sigh. "I'm sorry about what happened with Kiba," she said.

"I don't want to talk about Kiba," Sasuke said grimacing. "I don't even want to think about Kiba. Or Naruto, or Lee. Or anyone with a loud high-pitched voice for a long, long time, possibly never." Hinata laughed. She had missed this, missed it more than she cared to admit.

"They meant well," she said mildly, though privately she agreed with him, especially about the high pitched voices.

"Huh." Sasuke didn't look convinced. He shifted slightly, and Hinata became aware of the closeness of their bodies; another inch and she could place her hand on his, feel the warmth of his skin seeping into hers. She lifted her eyes and met his; there was a flash in them which both excited and terrified her and when he leaned forward and brushed her lips with his, she felt someone approaching and her first instinct was to draw back. Sasuke's eyes were glittering dangerously and she shivered. She stood up, blushing violently almost toppling over in her urgency as someone came up the stairs.

"I think you should go," she croaked out, her voice almost betraying her. " I-I can hear K-Kiba and the others and... " The expression on this face was blank.

"Of course," he said coolly. "We wouldn't want to ruin your reputation now, would we?"

"S-Sasuke!" Hinata was distressed. "That's not what I meant!" It was all wrong, and it was her first kiss, and what on earth was she doing?

Somebody knocked at the door, and called out to Hinata. She could have screamed in frustration at the horrible timing, her heart beating wildly as Sasuke glanced briefly at the door.

He shrugged. "It doesn't mat.." Hinata pressed her lips to his and she felt him respond. Reluctantly, she broke away and Sasuke looked at her thoughtfully. "Apology accepted," he murmured, and she could hear the smile in his voice.

He touched her face and was gone.

Hinata took a moment to compose herself before she went to answer the door.

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Funny how a single kiss (or two if you wanted to be precise) could change your world. True, she wasn't sure what it meant, did a kiss qualify as the start of a relationship? Or was it simply a friendly gesture? There were so many ifs and buts and only Sasuke could clear them up. Which he would, once all this was over and done with.

Hinata sternly forced herself to concentrate on the more important matter at hand, namely the jounin at hand, but a small part of herself was dancing with joy. She felt like a thirteen year old with a crush, and to put it in playground jargon... Sasuke liked her.

It was hard to stop smiling.

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She barely had time to speak to her companions on the next day and no time to do anything but smile quickly at Sasuke. The throng of people waiting to watch, shinobi and civilians alike, and from what she heard, it was evident that the main attraction were Naruto and Sasuke, as their fame had spread throughout the shinobi nations.

The exam was divided into four parts; a written part, full of problems and scenarios that Hinata worked through with dogged determination and a good bit of cheating, a survival quest, where they had three days to find seven hidden keys while trapped in an underground maze, where the Konoha nin studiously avoided running into each other so they wouldn't have to fight, and of course, finally, two battles, the first of which involved being paired with a shinobi from one's own village and fighting against another pair and the second with a final battle between the remaining groups.

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It could have been simply luck, but from the small quirk of the lips as he fished through the names, Hinata suspected some form of elaborate cheating when the Uchiha picked her name out of the bag to be his partner. Not that she minded. Not that she minded at all.

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When her eyes met Sasuke's as their names were called, she held his gaze for sometime before looking away. She told herself that her heart was beating wildly in anticipation of the match, that the blush on her cheeks had nothing to do with the slight smile the Uchiha gives her as they walked together into the arena.

The cloud-nin they faced stood no chance. Hinata and Sasuke's movements were like that of a practiced dance, synchronised and flawless. Sharingan and Byakuugan fought together side by side as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

And when they were declared the winners, she didn't even try to tell herself that her elation was only because they had won and made it into the finals, and that his "Well done, Hinata," was no different that if it had been said to her by Shino or Kiba, that when their arms brushed accidentally together it hadn't made her catch her breath and shiver.

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Irony then that in the final battle Sasuke and she were pitted against each other. But although Hinata knew that she was going to lose, she gave it her all. When she forfeited, it was with the knowledge that she hadn't let Sasuke down, that she had no regrets about the way she had fought.

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Hinata stole back to the inn where they were staying to see whether Sasuke was fine. They were all out to celebrate their success as new jounin in one of the taverns, all of them bar the Uchiha, who had said that he'd join them later on, but had never made it. Sasuke and Hinata hadn't even had time to talk; someone was always around. Perhaps this would be the ideal time to talk. Or perhaps not, she thought, frowning as she made her way upstairs.

She told herself that it was ridiculous to be so worried, and that the fiercely independent Uchiha wouldn't thank her for concerning herself with his business, but she couldn't bat down the unease she was feeling. She could have sworn that she had seen Kakashi-sensei in the crowd, although he hadn't been scheduled to be there, and that, coupled with Sasuke's absence only served to increase her certainty that something was off.

She tensed as she approached Sasuke's room and activated her Byakugan.

Kakashi-sensei was with Sasuke, and neither of them looked like the reason Kakashi was there was to congratulate his recalcitrant ex-student. Hinata paused. It wasn't really her business to butt in, and if Sasuke had wanted her to know about this he would tell her but... she threw all her doubts to the wind, and crept closer, finding herself the best position to listen.

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"... a few months or so, maybe more. But you have to go now." Kakashi was looking carefully at the Uchiha, who stared back impassively. The older man sighed. "I know you've just settled but really, this mission is an opportunity. Let's face it, you're not the most popular guy with the old geezers, but if you pull this off, you'll have a better chance of wiping your slate clean." He paused. "Well, at least of smudging it into something illegible." Kakashi rubbed the back of his head. "Not to mention that Tsunade will take off the rest of your seals of course."

"A couple of months," Sasuke repeated thoughtfully.

Kakashi raised his eyebrows. "Worried about the time, Sasuke? Any ties back home? Is there a hot little number or perhaps.." Kakashi paused slyly to give more emphasis, ".. there's that special someone waiting for you beside the fireside in Konoha?" The white haired jounin winked lecherously at the Uchiha who stood silent for a moment before lifting his dark, cold eyes up to meet Kakashi.

"Don't be ridiculous."

Hinata fled.

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When Kakashi appeared instead of Sasuke in the morning, and cheerfully informed the group that to celebrate his becoming jounin, Tsunade had had Sasuke deployed on a mission, Hinata was pale but composed and remained silent amongst the barrage of questions the others threw at the elder jounin. Perhaps if she had been concentrating less on appearing uncaring, she would have noticed the covert glance Kakashi had thrown her way.

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It was a dark, cold morning, with rain falling half-heartedly and she thought bitterly that it matched her mood these days. It was a day like any other since she got back from her jounin exam, when she wasn't on missions, with her waking up at an unearthly hour before any normal shinobi would be up (she automatically excluded Gai-sensei and Lee-san) and going to train at their.. her designated training area before her official training schedule. She used to like the place – it was secluded and quiet, and the surrounding overgrowth of trees and shrubs ensured that she would be away from prying and judgmental eyes.

Now, she surveyed the area and wondered why she had bothered to come to this place chock full of memories, again.

Pride, she thought. Her stupid, childish pride which made her pretend to the world that she didn't mind being used and then tossed away. And the desperate, irrational hope that when she'd come here she'd find Sasuke waiting for her as she always had. She swallowed. It had been five months since he had been sent on that mission, five months of intense, almost unbearable loneliness for her. He had been her constant companion, her friend and mentor and there had been the promise of something more, and then he had disappeared without a word, without even a note. And she had thought that perhaps... perhaps...

What a foolish girl. What high expectations.

Everyone had warned her what type of person he was. They'd all warned her that he was not trustworthy, that he was not friend material. She shivered, and pulled her jacket tightly about her. Well, Hinata thought dully, at least no one knew what limit she'd crossed this time. It was of no consequence. She'd come through it before and she'd survive this time as well.

She'd have thought that the heartache would be gone after all this time.

Hinata bit her lip, and turned away.

And then she saw him.

He was standing at the edge of the training ground, looking at her, his dark wet hair plastered against his forehead. Hinata watched as he started walking towards her, willing it not to be a dream, trying to keep hold on her dignity, torn between anger and relief.

He stood in front of her, looking as he always did, and her heart clenched at the familiarity of it all.

"I hoped you would still come here," he said quietly, "I didn't know if you would." She stared at him silently, struggling to keep control of her emotions. He didn't play fair, she thought hazily. It wasn't right to walk up to her like this and talk to her with easy familiarity, as though he hadn't left without a thought. Hinata needed time to clear her mind, to believe that he was there, that he had really come back. She wanted to make sure he was ok, beg him never to leave again. She wanted to scream at him, shake him, ask him why he considered her as a nothing, but she couldn't, because she was nothing to him.

"Hinata?" Sasuke was searching her gaze, looking for some sort of response.

"I am g-glad to see that you have returned safely, Sasuke," she said formally. There was no time. She just needed to get away before breaking and humiliating herself further. She bowed slightly as she was want to do, and turned to leave, wiping away the hot droplets of water coursing down her cheeks and wishing the rain would stop.

She felt his hand on her arm, and startled, she looked up into his black eyes as he spoke. "You're crying."

Hinata didn't know if it was contempt or pity in his voice, and she didn't care. She just wanted to leave. "It's the rain," Hinata told him, while trying to smile and wishing that she could just disappear.

"It stopped raining a while ago," he said, keeping a firm hold of her arm. Hinata looked away, feeling a familiar flush creep up her cheeks. Would she ever stop making a fool of herself? She breathed in deeply and tried to compose herself, trying to stop herself from breaking down in public, trying to gather the vestiges of her pride and be strong.

His voice cut through her thoughts. "I never saw you cry before," Sasuke leant towards her and she shrunk back. "Hinata, what's wrong?"

She slapped him.

She was trembling, treacherous tears still coursing down her cheeks, glaring at him. He made no move to touch his cheek which was reddening were she had hit him. "You left," she said. "You left and you told Kakashi s-sensei t-that you had no one here waiting for you." He remained silent and Hinata clenched her fists. "I thought I w-was someone," she said bitterly. "I was wrong." She swallowed. "I have to go now," she said as she tried unsuccessfully to shrug off his hand, "and you should go too". He shook his head, and this enraged her further. She pulled backwards angrily, "P-please let me go!" She hadn't been prepared for the sudden flash of anger as he grabbed her by the shoulders.

"Not until you listen to me," Sasuke growled, pulling her towards him. "You little fool, why won't you listen to me?" He was angry and it showed "Do you know that I spent the little time I had left in Suna looking for you? With Kakashi breathing down my neck?" His eyes flashed. "I told Kakashi that I had no one in Konoha because I wanted to speak to you first! I needed to ask you if you would wait for me! You-you acted almost ashamed to be around me, what would you have said if I had told someone that you were the one I wanted to be with?" His fingers dug into her shoulders and she winced. "Tell me Hinata!"

"I-I didn't... I wasn't ashamed!" Hinata was crying in earnest now. "I just thought that you didn't care... I didn't know, I'm so sorry, so very sorry!" She had been a fool. After hearing that conversation between Kakashi and Sasuke, she had chosen to hide herself away from prying eyes. So much heartache could have been saved if she hadn't... She sobbed, regretting all the time she had wasted, but a sense of relief was washing over her as the full meaning of what he was saying dawned on her.

"Oh kami... I'm so sorry, Hinata." Sasuke looked contrite. "I didn't mean..." He suddenly put his hand into his breast pocket, and drew out a small shrivelled plant. "Look," he told her. Hinata wiped her eyes and stared. It was a small sprig of thyme, pressed between two small pieces of paper, as though the owner had wanted to preserve it.

Her eyes traveled from it to Sasuke, who flushed slightly. "I do care," he mumbled. "I'm just... not good at these things." Hinata took the poor little plant from his hands, a small token she'd given him on a whim which he had kept like a precious gift and pressed it to her lips. "I was so angry with you," she whispered. "I thought you had no use anymore for me and I... but you... you're a much better person than I am." She bowed her head, almost ashamed to meet his gaze. "I missed you so much, Sasuke, so much that it hurt every day," she whispered.

Sasuke gently cupped her face in his hand and lifted it towards him. He kissed her on the forehead, before kissing her fully on the lips, his mouth a perfect fit with hers.

It felt so very, very right.

When he drew back, she gazed at him, realising how well she knew every feature of his face, at how time had only increased her longing for him, how much she was afraid of losing him.

"Be with me Hinata."

She touched his face, tracing a line down his cheek and marvelled at the thought that this man wanted to be with her, wanted to be with someone who was so... so...

"I need you." Sasuke hesitated. "Sometimes I will hurt you. I'm not a good person. But even if I go away sometimes, I'll be back. I'll never leave you behind, Hinata."

She nodded, happy tears falling unashamedly as she wrapped her arms around him and leaned her head on his chest. "I know. I won't make the same mistake again" she said. "I love you Sasuke. I love you."

I love you.

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One year later...

The dark-haired shinobi immediately sensed another presence as he reached the outskirts of Konoha. He paused, black eyes scanning the perimeter. He smiled.

He would always return.

She would always be there to greet him.

"Tadaima, Hinata."

The kunoichi with the white, all-seeing eyes, wrapped her arms round him, resting her head against his chest, listening to his heart beat in tandem with hers and smiled.

"Okaeri, Sasuke. Welcome home."

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finis

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