A/N: Last installment!

Disclaimer: Don't own! :P


Three years later

They stand together at the Konoha gates, breathing the smell of rain and ash that is ubiquitous in the Village Hidden in the Leaves. His robes flap in the breeze, as do the sleeves of her kimono. The jounin who escorts them is polite but capable, and he waits silently in front of them. They aren't ready to move forward. Not yet.

He is about to face the Hokage. She, her father. Both prospects are quite daunting, but Gaara knows that underneath that brash, buxom exterior, Tsunade-sama really can be a softie, while Hyuuga Hiashi is ice through and through. He will be asking for her citizenship, which Tsunade will likely give— but she's asking for so much more. She's asking to break thousands of years of tradition to be by his side. She's relinquishing her birthright, and, in the process, her clan. She's giving up—giving away— a piece of her identity. For him. Hinata is always doing so much for him.

She's pale as death at the thought of what is to come, but she holds her head high and puts all of her stress into her grip on his hand. She's squeezing the life out of his fingers, but he endures the discomfort.

"You'll be alright," he says. His expression is blank, but his eyes say it all— he loves her, he'd be there by her side if he could, but he trusts she'll be able to pull through. She always does, never smoothly, but in the end the job is always done.

Hinata exhales. "I know."

"Are you ready, Kazekage-sama?" The jounin asks. Gaara turns to him and nods, and then back to her. "Hinata."

She gives him a smile that half breaks his heart. "I'll be fine. Don't worry about me."

They regard each other coolly for a moment, but Gaara's escort looks away bashfully, because there's so much in their gazes that he doesn't feel he should be privy to. Gaara looks away first, nods to the jounin again, and they disappear in a flurry of sand and leaves and upset dust. Hinata waits until it has settled, inhales deeply, and then moves.

The elders' eyes are like fire and ice, cold, burning embers. She keeps her eyes unwaveringly forward, focusing on the most intense flame of them all, her father. In her ornamental kimono, made by Suna's hands and embellished with Suna's symbols and colors, she stands out in this sea of black and white. Amongst them is her cousin. His fists are curled at his sides, and although he's perfected his mask, she can see the emotion bubbling beneath it. She wants to spare him a loving glance, a smile of sorts to reassure him, but she can't, not here, not where it could be interpreted as weakness.

"The Kazekage has asked for my hand," she says, disciplining her voice so that it carries, locking all of her tremors deep into her chest. "And I intend to accept."

(It isn't a romantic proposal. He is sitting behind his desk and she in front, and in between debating sending more men to a known criminal hotspot and reviewing a revised treaty with Konoha, he asks her to marry him.)

It isn't news to them; rumors are quick to spread even across villages, but the elders still stiffen in discomfort, as though hearing such words from the mouth of the heiress herself make them more real. Hiashi and Neji are the only ones who do not visibly react, though Hinata can detect a furious spike in her cousin's chakra.

"You are a shinobi of Konoha," Hiashi says slowly. "You cannot abandon your duties to the village that has borne you and bred you on a whim."

Her eyes narrow. A whim? Marrying Gaara is not something she will do on a whim. He's wanted this for three years, from the moment they stepped out of the asylum grounds. She is the one who has resisted, who has told him to wait, out of her own indecision. But she has made up her mind now.

("If I were anyone else, this wouldn't be a hard decision. I love you, but there others I must think about.")

"Gaara is meeting with the Hokage right now," she says stolidly, because irritation is considered weak as well. "He is attempting to have my citizenship revoked." And then, because no matter how strong she is now, old wounds still ache every time she steps within Hyuuga walls, "Regardless, your point is quite unfounded. Seven years ago, was I not betrothed to a nobleman in Amekagure? If it is power you seek, the Kazekage holds far more influence than Satayo-sama ever did." Her eyes flash. "Or am I suddenly worth more to you?"

She knows instantly that she might have blown it all with such a blatantly accusatory statement, but caution be damned, she has to say it. She wants to see shame cripple their prides for just a moment. She wants to see them
wince. She'll catch it- her eyes don't miss much.

(She is twelve. Her new sensei is speaking to her father, letting him know the risks of allowing his eldest daughter into the field, risks, the woman acknowledges, he already knows about. Paper doors are thin; she hears every word.

"Do what you want with her. I don't care if she dies out there; I'll still have Hanabi, and she's stronger than her anyway."

Her fists clench, and she understands. Her own father wants her dead. How convenient would it be for her to be fatally injured on a mission, so that he can easily place her title on her sister?

She vows then. She won't die, no matter what. She will come home after every mission just to be able to look into his eyes and know that she's proven him wrong.)

Hiashi doesn't blink. "Over those seven years, your Byakugan has finally began to show the extent of it's potential. As a fighter, you are still lacking in many fronts. However," he pauses to clear his throat, "As a medic and a tracker you are highly skilled. Your eyes see more than even your cousin's." 'Even yours,' Hinata thinks. "To answer your question directly, yes. You are more useful to us now."

"I am not a tool." She says it softly, but they all hear.

"You are the heiress," Hiashi responds, "It is your responsibility to be whatever the clan wants you to be."

Her throat tightens. She doesn't want to hear this, although she knew she would. "I will handle that responsibility from afar, then," she says. "There are many who are worthier than I am. Neji-san," she turns to him, watching smugly as his lips tighten, "Is stronger, wiser, and more experienced than I am. And Hanabi— you have been training her yourself since she could walk." Her eyes flash. "There is no reason to force a role onto me that I am not the best candidate for."

"It is your birthright," one of the councilmen says gravely.

"I relinquish that birthright," she says automatically, and for once she manages to bring an audible reaction out of them, a gasp, a sharp intake of breath that signals that they have been thrown off their guard.

"Neji-nii," she says quickly, taking advantage of the disorientation all around them to address her bewildered cousin. "I want you to have it. It's yours."

"I—" he starts, eyes still wide in disbelief.

"He cannot," an elder snaps, "He is branded."

And then Hinata stands, and in her geta she seems to tower over them. "I am a chakra specialist," she tells them all, though she is looking directly at Neji, "I know how to remove it."

Another gasp, and she knows she's done it; she's broken the elders at last. The thought brings life into her voice and a smile on her face. "I can break the seal completely. The marks will take a few weeks to fade, but they'll be gone."

( "Are you sure about this?" Sakura asks, her eyes wide with concern. "Isn't this going too far?"

Hinata smiles, pushing back her hair as Sakura goes through the scroll's instructions one more time. "I-I'm the only Hyuuga I can test this on," she says simply. She ties her hair in a sloppy bun atop her head, and on any other day Sakura might have laughed at the way it bobbed up and down on her head.

"Gaara's going to be furious," Sakura murmurs, forming the hand signs.

"Gaara won't have to know," she says, and then the pain hits, a searing, torturous pain that makes her entire body throb. She can't even hold back her screams, can't control her body as it twists and writhes. Distantly, she can hear Sakura's recurring apology, "sorry" said over and over and over again.

When she wakes up again an hour later, the Branch seal glows an angry green on her forehead. )

"You can't!" A councilman stands, glaring her down defiantly. He is one of the younger ones, and therefore a bit more lively. "It is impossible. Our founders made that seal to be impenetrable."

"All seals are like codes," she replies, smiling. "Meant to be broken." She looks back to Hiashi, but her father hasn't moved, his eyes seem more expectant than surprised, as though he's telling her it's about time, what took so long?

"Do you want a demonstration?" she asks. Neji is the only branch member in the room, as she knew would be. He's too strong to be ignored. Too valuable. His eyes are still disbelieving, trying to swallow down the hope that's surging through him. She recognizes those eyes- how long did Gaara look at her with them?

"Neji-niisan, I can do it," she says, and her tone briefly softens. I can free you, he hears. Unlock your cage forever. Throw away the key.

The room is still buzzing uncertainly when Hiashi slowly ascends to his feet. He holds up a hand and they fall silent. No matter how much power the council has, they are still subordinate to the head.

"Do it," he orders. "Do it, and I will consider your request."

(She stands in front of the mirror, practicing the incantations and the handsigns, mentally tracing her chakra pathways. The seal still throbs, and she wonders if this is the same for all of the branch members. Do theirs still hurt this way, years and years after they were given?

She has one shot at this. She can kill herself if she does this wrong, and what use would she be to niisan dead?

She inhales deeply, and then begins. )

Hinata holds back a sigh; she's halfway there. Neji-niisan obediently steps forward, but his eyes are unreadable now. He swallows.

"You know what you're doing?" he whispers.

"Neji-niisan," she responds, "I...didn't learn all that I know just for Naruto. I did it for everyone I love. And that includes you." When his eyes soften, she says, a bit louder, "Please undo your headband and bandages."

He obeys without question, a faithful branch servant to his main branch mistress. The unraveled cloth falls in a bundle at his side, and when he looks up at her again it is to make sure she's still looking, that she can see the mark of shame that her family has bestowed upon him.

Her fingers outline it gently. "This will hurt a bit."

Her hands move rapidly, her lips even faster. Only Neji can hear the quiet incantations as she chants them, sequences so long and complex that they could take years to memorize and perfect. The first touch is painful, right against the center of his forehead, the second worse. She touches only the seal, no skin, managing to brush past thin lines and details without coming to contact with anything outside of the green. He can feel her chakra burning into the old paths, or reburying, he thinks, because it hurt more to get them and maybe the flesh there is less sensitive, maybe the initial branding has killed his nerve endings there. But there's something else. It's as though his head has housed unimaginable pressure before, and she's releasing it. It's uncomfortable, but he doesn't complain, instead he watches the sweat gather on her brow and remembers his former teammate's mantra, that hard work can get you impossibly far. Just as Hinata's hands press
against him for the last time, he wonders how hard she's worked.

She steps back, forms a hand sign. "Kai."

And it is done.

The council members clamor to see his forehead. The marks are still there, though he cannot see them he's always been able to feel them, but they're weaker now. The council can, however, and they see that their mark has already begun to fade. Deep, bright green has turned to a sallow yellow color, and the finer details have already started to disappear altogether.

Hiashi steps forward. His eyes are clouded with disbelief, but he moves with assurance. Before she can stop him he's formed the signs to activate the seal, and at this Neji actually flinches to brace himself for the pain.

(She's seen the seal activated before. A lower ranking branch servant spilled tea on a councilman's robe. Her punishment was imminent and immediate. Hinata can still remember the way she convulsed on the ground like an epileptic, the way her fingers curled and her gray eyes rolled to the back of her head.)

It doesn't come. Of course it doesn't. His eyes drift up to his uncle's, and for a moment Hiashi looks ancient, tired lines pronounced against a face that, once, was probably much like his. He steps back, looks at his eldest daughter with pained eyes.

Hinata steps back. She has prepared herself for a myriad of reactions, but not this one. Because this look Hiashi is giving her isn't reprimanding her or praising her. It's as though he's seeing her for the first time, and she can feel his sorrow and underneath that his love.

'It took me repaying your debt to your brother to get you to love me,' she thinks, but the thought isn't bitter, far from it. Mostly she's sorry for him, sorry for everyone in this room but her cousin, that they are so hard that she must release an age-old curse just to receive their acknowledgment.

"You...may go. May Kami bless your endeavors," Hiashi says, so softly and so gravely. She doesn't reply, just bows lowly and turns. Her cloths sweep all around her as she excuses herself past paper doors. And not for the first time that day, she wonders whether she's been too selfish, too brash.

Or maybe this is good, she thinks, as she steps past reverent servants and guards to leave the compound. Maybe it's about time I did something for myself.

Tsunade is loathe to let one of her top medics go, but she sees the look in Gaara's eyes and remembers the way Dan had once looked at her and cannot refuse. The Hyuuga girl has suffered enough already. Why not let her live the rest of her life in happiness? Which, she tells Gaara plainly, better be assured, because if he dares hurt Hinata, she won't hesitate in rending off his limbs and feeding them to Tonton.

The threat is unnecessary, he assures her. There is no need to worry.

They meet in the center of the city. Hinata is looking a bit bedraggled, which, frankly, is on the good end of what he was expecting.

"I did it," she says breathlessly.

"I know," he replies, and soon she's gathered tightly in his arms. "I know."

"It was hard," she murmured.

"Helping me was hard," he mentions. She pulls away a bit to give him a playful glare, and then dives back in again, feeling bereft without his warmth and sand embracing her. He's constantly bringing that up.

"If I didn't know any better." she murmurs into his rough burgundy jacket, "I'd say that it were, say, a forty year old retired shinobi who showed up to do everything that I did, you'd fall for him, too."

He chuckles. It's funny how, under different circumstances and moods, this very topic is a devastating argument, not part of a playful banter.

(He can't help it. He needs to remind her everyday what she's done for him. Given him his life back, and then some. Sometimes, she doesn't understand this. "I didn't do it expecting anything in return. I-If that's the only reason you're here, I-I'd rather you...you just left me alone.")

"I would have found you regardless," he breathes into her hair, and she chuckles and eases out of his grasp as easily as water and tells him that he's embarrassing her.

"P-people a-are looking, Gaara," she stammers, suddenly aware that owner of Ichiraku's is leaning against his counter and smirking at them, that his daughter is blushing pink as she ladles out a young kunoichi's dinner, that Genma, passing by, has just winked at her, and...


Oh no. Oh no. Is that...?

Gaara takes the opportunity to pull her close and give her the kind of kiss she'd dreamed about as a precocious teen. Before she can stop herself she's melting into it, ignoring the fact that her senses are picking up a terribly familiar chakra signature.

Kiba stops flat in his tracks to gaps at them, obviously attempting to piece together the possibilities of his shy teammate/medic snogging the Kazekage in the middle of the day, in the middle of the square...

"Hinata?" he asks, unsure himself.

Hinata freezes, pulls away from Gaara slowly. His expression is stolid as ever, but his eyes are laughing. She turns, sees Kiba and Akamaru (who is giving Hinata a congratulatory doggie smile) standing not five feet away, looks back to Gaara, flails a little, and instantly faints.

Old habits die hard, and she is so easy to tease.

A/N: YAY! Finally over. As you could see, this epilogue isn't so much a continuation as it is glimpse into their little trials and tribulations. :P Also, it's Hinata-centric, because Gaara's been a bit of an attention-hog in this fic. Hope you liked, and thanks for sticking with me! 3