Please see first chapter for disclaimer, rating, warnings, pairings, etc.

Special Thanks: goes out to McKazekage, AnnaUmilie97, rao hyuga 18, QueenP19, shyprincess82, ssspooky, lidianm, xforeverherex, and ImCutePoison for all your great reviews! I enjoy reading every single one of them over and over again. Also thanks to everyone who have added this story to their favorite and follow lists, I get so excited every time I see a new alert in my e-box!

Author's Note: I am so excited about this chapter! I'm afraid to say too much for fear of spoiling it, so I'll cut this author's note short and just say I hope you enjoy this chapter, and thanks for reading!

*~Chapter XXI~*


After a tense and stressful meeting wherein Sasori's underhanded trick (which, when questioned by officials after the race, he claimed happened "accidentally" when he meant to urge his own mount on but instead struck Kaen) was discussed, everyone went to bed unsatisfied. Without a confession from Sasori himself, there was no solid evidence to be used against the man.

Upon waking the next morning, Hinata found herself in a mood quite less than celebratory. While she was happy Temari had managed to secure her desired win, she hated the fact it had been soured by Sasori's scheming tactics. Added to the fact she was furious at Sasori for ruining her husband's chances of winning the race - not to mention the fact a lot of people could have been injured if Kaen had gone wild after being struck - Hinata spent the majority of the day in an uncharacteristically sour mood.

It wasn't until the group left for the stage set up for the puppet show that excitement once again began to stir inside Hinata. She still felt slightly uneasy, hoping nothing would happen to disrupt the show as had happened with the race, but her anxiety level wasn't nearly as high as it had been the night before. Sasori would have nothing to do with the puppets, since he didn't spend enough time in the village to practice with the rest of the group.

The fact he'd been involved several years before, when he still lived in Suna full-time, was a slight area of concern for Hinata. But she determined it wouldn't ruin her enjoyment of the festival in general, and the puppet show in particular.

As the leader of Suna, his family, and his personal guests, Gaara and the others were allowed a front-row seat for the performance in a special boxed-off area in the stands. Hinata sat between her husband and Hanabi, forcing herself not to let her excitement show on her face or movements. As the wife of the leader of the village, she was expected to be the epitome of calm and decorum, which had not been a problem until now.

She felt especially pressured to act as expected since the members of the Council were also in attendance and watching her very closely.

The closer to time for the show to start, the more people began to arrive. Before long the benches lining the stadium just slightly south of the heart of Suna began to fill, though the stage built just for the puppet show was still empty.

"The martial arts demonstration tomorrow will also be held here," Gaara told her while they waited for the show to start. "Once the crowd leaves tonight, the crew will take down the stage and make sure everything's ready to go for that tomorrow night."

"So this is the same location for these things every year?" Hinata asked, interested. On her other side, she felt Hanabi lean in slightly as well.

"Hn," Gaara replied. "The rest of the year, this place is used for military training and drills." He spoke in a tone which implied it was also used for ninja training, as well.

Hanabi leaned forward slightly. "Excuse me for interrupting," she apologized. "But I wanted to ask: is the puppet show the same, or do they do something different each time?"

"The theme varies by year," Gaara answered easily. "Sometimes the troupe performs a skit based on an important event in the village, and others they do something a little more fantastical." He leaned forward slightly, resting his elbows on his knees as he focused on the stage. "Kankuro has been rather secretive about the theme this year, though, so I'm afraid I can't give you any hints ahead of time."

"Surprises can be good," Hanabi said cautiously.

In the sandy arena below, the wine-colored curtains which had been veiling the stage from all four directions suddenly dropped away from the walled balcony above the stage. As they settled to the ground, their absence revealed a number of puppets scattered across the stage, each resting limply and lifelessly on the floor.

"Here we go," Gaara murmured.

Hinata turned her full attention to the show, allowing her gaze to drift from puppet to puppet as she wondered which one was Kankuro's. Though he'd been quite verbose on several occasions about being a puppeteer, he'd not given any specifics as to the type of puppets he built and manipulated.

As each puppet twitched and then rose, Hinata was startled to see they were life-size. She'd been expecting them to be quite a bit smaller - not sock puppets, by any means, but still nothing close to the size of the ones with which she was currently faced.

"Wow," she breathed.

Gaara glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "What?" he asked softly.

"They're so b-big!" She nodded to the puppets, which were now moving about the stage in a very lively manner. "I expected them to b-be much smaller."

"Each puppeteer in the box above the stage has been practicing their art since they were children," Gaara whispered back. "Controlling an average-sized puppet is difficult enough, but one that size requires not just a great amount of practice, but a skill which only a few people in Suna possess. To be a master puppeteer, one just about has to be born with the ability to control one, or it is impossible to join their ranks."

A laugh rippled through the crowd, and Hinata paused for a moment to see if she could figure out the joke which she had just missed. When the performance continued on with no clues as to what was so funny, Hinata gave up and returned to her conversation with her husband. "Have you ever tried to c-control one of those puppets?" she asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.

Gaara hesitated a moment before replying. "Not one of the big ones, no," he finally answered. "But I did try to work with one of the smaller ones once. Within a handful of seconds I had the wires so badly tangled I'm not sure they were ever able to use it again."

Hinata was surprised by her husband's honest words. Every move he made was always so graceful and coordinated, she'd expected him to be a master puppeteer like his brother. She had thought he was merely too busy with his duties as the head of the village to be able to participate with the others. The fact he had tried and failed - and so abysmally, from the sound of it - shocked her. "Oh," she said softly.

He chuckled. "I know what you're thinking, Hinata, and you give me too much credit," he said. "I'm nowhere near proficient at everything I try."

She blushed, wondering if she really was that easy to read. "What about Temari?" she asked, anxious to change the subject. "D-Did she try, too?"

"My sister is something of an anomaly in Suna." Gaara leaned forward slightly so he could throw a thoughtful glance down the row to where Temari sat, absorbed in the conversation she was having with her husband. Every so often, she would throw a quick glance at the stage, though her focus never remained there for long. "From a very early age she has claimed to find puppets 'unnaturally creepy and disturbing' and has refused to touch one. So she could have the natural ability to be a puppetmaster, but I think we shall never know for sure."

"And yet she still comes to the show every year?" It was an assumption on Hinata's part, but she had the distinct feeling it was an accurate one.

Gaara nodded. "Yes. Even despite her hatred of puppets, she comes. She claims it's because it would be unseemly for someone from Suna's leading family to be absent at such a popular event, but I know she's here to support Kankuro." His features softened, and he returned his gaze to the stage. "She's done many things with which she's been uncomfortable to support both Kankuro and me for all our lives. I, for one, am very grateful."

Over her time in Suna, Hinata had caught occasional glimpses of just how tightly knit the Sabaku siblings really were. As they grew more comfortable with her presence in their lives, they showed more and more of their true selves at various times. As she grew closer to each of them, she wondered if she would ever be able to find a place to fit in as well as those who had been born Sabaku.

But as much as she wished she could grow closer to the Sabaku and fit in with them, she feared drifting away from the Hyuuga, the clan to whom she'd belonged since birth. The thought of growing distant from Hanabi, from Neji, even from Tenten, made her incredibly sad. She knew visits between Suna and Konoha - and vice versa - would be rare, simply because the Sabaku and Hyuuga respectively were each quite busy with their duties, both to their clans and their villages.

Hinata found herself appreciating Neji, Tenten, and Hanabi's presence in Suna even more than she had even a few minutes before. That they'd left Konoha when relations within the Hyuuga clan were still so strained from the suddenness of their former leader's death, and several within the Council's disapproval of Neji's having been named their new head, she knew it had taken a great deal of sacrifice and finangling to be able to come. It made her wonder what Neji and Tenten had promised to do in return for the "favor."

It also made her see how similarly the Hyuuga Council of Elders and Suna's Council thought. She could better appreciate the difficulties Gaara faced on a daily basis with Suna's Council by her own dealings with the Hyuuga's same; by extension, Neji's own struggles were also easier to understand by seeing the ramifications of Gaara and Temari's experiences with Suna's elders.

Perhaps the differences she thought she'd seen so clearly between her life in Konoha and that in Suna weren't so glaring, after all - at least in the political realm.

Once again she was drawn out of her musings by the sound of applause. Snapping back to attention, she began to clap as she refocused on the stage. The puppets had all been moved so they stood at the very center of the stage, and all bowed to the approving crowd.

"Which one is K-Kankuro's?" Hinata asked, leaning close to Gaara so he would hear her over the applause and whistles of approval still filling the air.

Gaara opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, one puppet, which resembled a demented scarecrow (at least in Hinata's opinion), moved away from the others, turning so it faced the reserved box directly. The puppet's arm lifted, waving until the crowd finally quieted. "Before you all leave," a familiar voice called out, "there is one more thing we want to do for you all. Well, really, for one person in particular."

Hinata heard Gaara draw in a sharp breath next to her as the scarecrow returned to the others. She glanced at her husband worriedly, but quickly turned back to the stage when he didn't even glance at her.

Several puppets rapidly retreated, banging their wooden hands together in a sound which, to Hinata, sounded like chattering teeth. The four puppets left at the forefront leaped up one by one, each vanishing briefly into the box atop the stage before reappearing, holding a sign. As one, they all held their cards up, pointing them directly toward where Hinata sat so she could clearly read the kanji message painted in black on the white backgrounds.

Happy Birthday, Lady Hinata!

Freezing, Hinata felt her face turn bright red as her eyes widened. What? She rapidly flipped through the pages of her mental calender, checking and rechecking the dates and coming up with the same answer each time.

Today is December 27. It is my birthday! With everything that had happened recently, she hadn't even remembered.

But, obviously, someone had.

Slowly she turned her head to look at Gaara, who was smiling warmly at her, then to Hanabi and the others, who were grinning openly as they added their own applause to that swelling through the crowd behind and around them.

Hanabi poked Hinata in the side and hissed in her ear, "Stand up and take a bow, big sister! They're applauding for you."

Though her knees were shaking so hard she wasn't entirely sure her legs would support her weight, Hinata rose to her feet. She slowly turned in a full circle to take in the crowd around her, all of whom were smiling and clapping and staring at her. The individual faces blurred as she turned, but she did notice one group of people who were applauding, but most definitely not smiling at her - the Council.

She felt her courage waver slightly, but after she quickly turned her eyes away, it returned. Finishing her twirl, Hinata faced the stage and bowed to the puppets and, above them, the puppeteers controlling them.

"Thank you!" she called, though she knew she couldn't be heard over the crowd. "Thank you so v-very much."

After she regained her seat and the applause finally died down, Kankuro's scarecrow puppet (who had been holding the Lady sign) clattered back to the front of the stage and waved its hand. "Now you all are free to go enjoy the festival! Have fun, everyone!"

The crowd didn't hesitate to take him up on his words. They stood and poured toward the exits, though Hinata and those sitting with her all remained in their seats.

"D-Did you know K-Kankuro was g-going to d-do that?" Hinata asked Gaara over the hum of the rapidly leaving crowd.

"No," Gaara admitted. "Oh, I knew he had a little something extra planned for after the show, but I had no idea he'd done something for your birthday." His eyes drifted away from her, back toward the now-empty stage. "And, of course, he had to be the first one to wish you happy birthday. Showoff."

Hinata blushed again and studied the rail in front of her, suddenly finding it of great interest. "I'd actually forgotten it was my b-birthday," she admitted. "I've had so many other things on my mind, I d-didn't even think about what d-day it was, though I d-did glance at the c-calender this morning."

"We've actually been doing things to throw you off," Neji admitted from down the row. "We made a big deal about going out and exploring the booths together as a group to distract you from at least part of the plan for the evening."

"We are planning to go see the booths," Tenten added. "We just have something else to do first."

As soon as the last of the spectators had left the arena and Kankuro rejoined them, the group returned to the mansion, where a special dinner made up of Hinata's favorite dishes had been prepared. Conversation flowed more freely than it ever had, with everyone talking and laughing together instead of making polite conversation or breaking up into small, exclusive clusters.

Hinata didn't add much, too happy just sitting and enjoying the goings-on around her. She could say without any doubt or reservations whatsoever that this was the best birthday she'd ever had in her eighteen years. Had she thought to ask for any presents, she couldn't have come up with anything more perfect than her two families - her two villages - getting along as perfectly as they were right then.

Despite this, however, after the meal (complete with cinnamon rolls for dessert) had been consumed and the dishes cleared away, she was faced with a pile of presents. Everyone watched her expectantly with huge grins on their faces as she opened one after the other, exclaiming equally over each.

From Neji and Tenten she received a beautiful pair of earrings from which dangled cleverly-intertwined charms with the Hyuuga and Sabaku crests, actually hand-crafted by Tenten. Naruto and Sakura presented her with a painting of Konoha, crafted from the view at the top of the mountain overlooking the village. Kankuro gifted her with a small wooden jewelry box which he had made by hand, embellished with a beautifully intricate carving of Suna which stretched around all four sides, and one of a sunflower on top. Hanabi gave her a small, delicate figurine of a dark-haired woman in a kimono holding two fans, caught mid-move in a graceful dance. Itachi's narrow, rectangular box held a cream-colored headscarf of the same design as others Hinata had seen around the village, meant to protect a person's head, face, and neck from the sun's powerful rays during the hottest part of Suna's daytime.

Temari leaned over as Hinata was refolding the scarf and whispered, "I got you something different, but you'll have to wait until later to get it."

A thousand images - each more embarrassing than the last - flashed through Hinata's head. She stared down at the half-folded scarf in her hands, wondering if she should put it on right then if for no other reason than to hide her suddenly flaming cheeks. "A-All right." She wondered if she should say something about looking forward to it, but she just couldn't bring herself to say it.

All attention turned to Gaara, the only person who had yet to give Hinata a gift. Looking awkward at the attention, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a box about the size of his palm, which he held out toward her. "I thought long and hard about what to get you," he admitted. "But I finally saw this and immediately thought of you, so I knew it was the right thing."

If Hinata allowed herself to think about it, she had to admit she had been most looking forward to Gaara's gift. Hoping he didn't notice the trembling of her hand, she took the box from him and undid the pretty violet ribbon tied around it, carefully folding it and laying it aside before she pulled the lid off the white box it had secured.

Inside she found a black velvet jewelry case. Lifting it from the box, she cradled it in her left hand and opened the lid with her right, realizing only then she was holding her breath with anticipation.

All the oxygen whooshed out of her lungs at the sight of the beautiful necklace nestled in the box. Delicate chains formed a spiderweb pattern which would wrap around her neck and drape over her collarbones; at the juncture of each chain rested small opals which glowed with veins of soft lavender. The necklace tapered down into a graceful vee, and at the bottom hung another opal, larger than the others but still somehow delicate, flashing with rivers of deep violet fire.

It was the most beautiful thing Hinata had ever seen. "Oh," she breathed unsteadily, unable to find words to describe the feelings welling up inside her.

Gaara was suddenly there, his breath warm in her hair as he wrapped his arms around her and lifted the necklace from its nest. "Here," he said softly. "I'll help you put it on."

The piece of jewelry looked even more delicate in his large, work-roughened hands, but he handled it with gentle, graceful care. Hinata closed her eyes as the cool chains settled against her warm skin, as light as a feathery breath. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled with intense awareness at the feel of Gaara's fingers on her nape as he secured the clasp and then lingered a few seconds longer than necessary before finally, reluctantly, withdrawing.

"Thank you, G-Gaara," Hinata said, turning in her seat to smile up at him. She gently touched the very tips of her fingers against the necklace, marveling at the feel of its flawless beauty. "It's b-beautiful." The word seemed somehow inadequate as a description, but it was the only thing her awed mind could come up with.

Reclaiming his seat, Gaara avoided her gaze as the barest hint of pink crawled up from beneath the high neck of his rusty-red tunic. "I'm glad you like it," he replied, at last lifting his gaze to hers.

Once again, Hinata's breath caught in her throat. In his eyes she saw a promise, one which echoed strongly from somewhere deep inside herself. She felt the last of her anxiety and reserve ease away on the wave of certainty which rolled through her as one word burst into sparkling, colorful life in her mind.


Though the booths packing the streets of Suna were even more numerous than those in attendance for the festival celebrating Gaara and Hinata's wedding, and their wares just as exotic and amazing, Hinata found it difficult to concentrate on much of anything as the group made their way through the crowd.

With all the colors and variety, she wanted to look everywhere at once. But at the same time she kept getting distracted by the little things: the way Gaara's hand brushed hers every time he wanted to draw her attention to something; how his eyes kept drifting to her profile when he thought she wasn't looking at him; the feel of the muscles of his arm beneath her hand as they walked.

They were making their way through streets packed so tightly with booths and people there was barely room to move, yet Hinata somehow felt she and Gaara were the only two in the entire village - perhaps even the entire world.

The rest of the group happily chattered around them, laughing and pointing out items and haggling with vendors. Everything was just faintly irritating background noise for Hinata, like a fly buzzing on the outside of a screen, present yet distant. Unlike the rest of the people comprising their group, however, she was hyper aware of every move Gaara made, every word he spoke, every time he smiled or laughed or sighed. Every single nerve ending in Hinata's hand and arm felt like it was on fire, and she was beginning to think if something didn't happen soon, she was going to explode.

As the penultimate hour of the night drew near, Neji and Tenten made their excuses to the group and headed back to the mansion. Hinata seized the opportunity, glad when Gaara's mind seemed to follow her line of thought and he excused both of them, as well.

It took a while for Temari's presence alongside them to register. When it did, Hinata blinked at her sister-in-law in surprise, confused as to why Temari would return to the mansion so early - and without her husband.

"I still have to give you your birthday gift, remember?" Temari said, her eyes gleaming secretively.

Gaara's hand tightened around Hinata's as he stared at his sister. "Can't it wait?" he half-growled.

Lithely slipping past her younger brother, Temari secured Hinata's other arm with hers and deftly pulled her away. "This is just as much for you as Hinata, younger brother," she said sweetly. "Now run along, and I'll let you know when she's ready."

Trying not to let her embarrassment get the best of her, Hinata meekly followed Temari up the stairs and through the halls to her suite. As soon as they entered the bedroom, the blonde marched over to the door joining Hinata's abode to Gaara's and locked it firmly. "There," she said. When she spotted the look on her sister-in-law's face, Temari rolled her eyes. "It's fine," she said. "You can unlock it when I'm done. But for now, I don't want him to see you until you're ready."

Crossing the room, Temari got down on her hands and knees and reached under Hinata's bed. "Sorry about this," she said, voice muffled. Pulling out a long, relatively flat box, she stood again and discreetly dusted off her full dark pants. "But I took the liberty of hiding this in your room earlier, with the help of Matsuri." Coming over to stand directly in front of Hinata, she held out the box. "Here you go. Happy birthday, from me to you."

Unsure if she really wanted to know what was in the box or not, Hinata hesitantly accepted the gift. It was lighter than she'd expected, and she was easily able to shift it to one arm so she could tear off the ribbon and paper with the opposite hand. Temari watched intently, her expression blank but eyes gleaming with a suspicious kind of excitement.

Hinata sat down on the chair by her dressing table and set the box in her lap so she could dispose of the torn wrappings in the waste basket tucked discreetly in the corner. Taking the lid of the white box in both hands, she lifted it away, both relieved and let down when she saw tissue paper hiding the contents.

Setting the lid aside, Hinata dug through the packing until her fingers finally brushed fabric. Securing it, she pulled out a piece of fabric that slithered out of the box like a silken waterfall.

Holding the thing up before her by its shoulder straps, Hinata opened her mouth, but was unable to let out anything other than a rather undignified squeak. She had seen similar garments before in boutiques, but had never actually touched one, let alone considered wearing it.

The nightie dipped in a lace-edged vee at the front, and the sheer fabric tapered a little at the shoulders so it would frame her collarbones and bare most of her shoulders and all of her arms. A band of dark, opaque violet silk formed the bust of the gown, but other than that it was made of a sheer fabric that looked almost as light as air. From the tight bust, the fabric fell in an elegant line which Hinata knew just by looking would end far above her knees.

"Hang on," Temari said. Leaning forward, she rummaged around in the box, at last uttering a soft, triumphant "aha!" and withdrawing another thin, opaque violet scrap of fabric Hinata realized was meant to be underwear. "This goes with it, too."

Grey began to turn the edges of Hinata's vision fuzzy. "I-I have to wear this?" she squeaked, mortified.

Temari's eyebrows quirked upwards, making her look oddly bemused. "Typically I would've gotten this for you as a wedding present," she said. "From the look on your face, I'm kind of glad I didn't now." Dropping the unmentionable item back into the box, Temari knelt in front of Hinata and grasped her wrists, making the dark-haired woman lower her hands so they could see each other's faces. "C'mon, Hinata," she said. "Remember the conversation we had back in Konoha?" She smiled slightly. "And don't think I didn't see the look you and Gaara exchanged earlier. It's time. As for this..." She shrugged. "Well, let's just say I've used something similar to rather satisfactory effect in the past."

Hinata bit back the almost overwhelming urge to moan. How had she ever gotten into this situation? "B-But I d-don't think I c-could ever wear something like this," she whispered. "It's too, too-" no, wait, that was definitely not the right word "-not enough."

A quickly muffled snort of laughter escaped Temari. "Oh, Hinata." Grasping her sister-in-law's hands, the blonde squeezed them gently and smiled up at her. "Trust me. This is one of - if not the - most special times in your life. I've been watching the two of you, and I can see you're both more than ready for this. You just need a nudge in the right direction."

"B-But this isn't a nudge," Hinata moaned. "This is a shove."

This time Temari didn't even try to hide her throaty laughter. "Sometimes that's what's needed." She suddenly sobered, her turquoise eyes darting uncertainly away from Hinata's. "This is also my apology," she said softly. "I've said and done things to you - and to Gaara - over the past few weeks I wish I hadn't. This is my way of trying to make it up to the two of you and repair some of the damage I've done, so..." She shrugged again, obviously uncomfortable.

Reaching back into the box, Hinata pulled out the nightie and stared at it. The thing was pretty much the complete opposite of what she imagined herself wearing, but Temari was right. This was, somehow, right.

"All right," she said. "I'll g-go p-put it on."

Temari jumped back to her feet and grinned widely. "That's the spirit!" she said brightly.

When Hinata emerged from behind the changing screen in the corner a couple of minutes later, she felt like the color in her cheeks could brighten the room if Temari hit the light switch. The air felt suprisingly chilly against all the bare skin she was showing, and she had to resist the urge to cross her arms over the gauzy fabric not really covering her stomach.

To her relief, Temari held out a beautiful lavender yukata embroidered with peacocks. "I thought you might be a little more comfortable at first if you had this on, so I got it, too," she admitted.

Hinata felt torn between running over to hug her sister-in-law with relief, or screaming at her for pulling a trick and making her think the nightie was it. Instead of doing either, she settled on a half relieved, half thankful smile as she took the robe and pulled it on. After cinching the belt around her waist, she let out her breath in relief. "There," she said. "I'm ready n-now."

"Almost," Temari said. Picking something up from the top of Hinata's dressing table, she swiftly moved to twist the other woman's dark hair up into a simple but elegant bun before securing it with the hair pin Gaara had gotten her at the festival celebrating their wedding. "There. Now you're ready."

Letting out her breath, Hinata drew confidence from the blonde and nodded a determined reply. "Yes."

Temari smiled, then turned and headed for the door of the bedroom. "I'll make sure you're not disturbed," she said.

Taking a quick step forward, Hinata held out a hand. "Wait, Temari?"

Pausing in the doorway, Temari glanced over her shoulder and arched a curious eyebrow. "Yes?"

Hinata smiled. "Thank you."

Grinning, Temari winked and nodded. "You're welcome. Have fun." Wiggling her fingers in a quick wave, she closed the door behind herself. Soft footsteps moved across the next room, and a moment later the door between Hinata's suite and the hall clicked shut.

Drawing in a deep breath, Hinata held it for a few moments before blowing it out again. Smoothing her hands down the front of her yukata, she breathed a quick, "I hope you're right, Temari," before going to unlock the door connecting her room to her husband's.

As soon as she heard the distinct click! of it disengaging, Hinata took two hurried steps back. She oddly felt like all this was familiar, and it took her only a moment to realize why.

This is just like my wedding night! Glancing down at herself, she grimaced slightly and reconsidered. Well, not exactly like my wedding night. But here I stand with the door unlocked, waiting to see if it will open...

It did.

Hinata startled slightly, but quickly recovered. Did he read my mind? Or was he standing on the other side of the door, listening for the lock to disengage? She couldn't be sure. All she could do was stand there, frozen in place, both anticipating and dreading Gaara's reaction to her.

His green eyes scanned over her, from the jeweled pin in her hair to her bare feet and back up. Gaara's appraisal was slow and, if the warmth in his eyes was any indication, quite approving. She felt one of the many knots in her stomach ease.

As he approached, she offered him a long, appreciative look of her own. He was dressed similarly to how he had been on their wedding night: barefoot, with comfortable dark pants and a roomy rust-red shirt untied at the neck, showing quite a bit of his chest. Hinata once again felt her breath hitch in her throat, this time in anticipation instead of anxiety.

He paused at the very edge of her personal space, so close all she had to do was twitch her hand to touch him. He stared down into her face, lifted to his so he could freely regard her, reading every secret she laid bare before him.

She was a different woman than the one who had faced him the last time they were in this situation. And, she sensed, he was a different man. Their changes were subtle but complimentary, morphing them into the two halves of a whole they were intended to be as husband and wife.

Gaara lifted his hand from his side, the movement unhurried and careful, to touch her face. He hesitated when his hand drew alongside her cheek, studying her expression before he finally allowed his skin to touch hers.

This time, Hinata closed her eyes and tilted her face into his hand, the urge to flinch as far away as it could possibly be. She had nothing to fear from this man.

The pads of his fingers trailed down and across her cheek, pausing when they reached her lips. Without consciously thinking about what she was doing, Hinata parted them, allowing her breath to wash across his hand.

She felt his tremor and her own body trembled slightly in response. Keeping her eyes closed, she lifted her hand, operating on instinct as she reached out to him, pleased when she felt her fingertips brush skin even as her palm pressed against fabric. Slowly, she splayed her fingers, pressing her hand flush against his chest. "Gaara," she whispered against his own fingers.

Beneath her palm, his heart stuttered. Her own jerked in response, then picked up its rhythm so it raced exactly in time with his. She left her hand where it was for a moment, then daringly allowed it to slip lower, investigating the strong planes of his well-sculpted chest, separated from her by the fabric of his shirt.

Hinata was quickly distracted by Gaara's other arm wrapping firmly around her waist and yanking, pulling her forward so she was fully pressed against him. Her eyes flew open and she opened her mouth to release a startled squeak, but he swiftly silenced her by dipping his head and pressing his lips to hers firmly.

Every muscle in her body turned to jelly. Hinata quickly brought her hands up between them to grasp fistfuls of his shirt, desperate to keep upright and somewhat grounded as his other arm encircled her, fingers splaying across the hollow between her shoulderblades. Her eyes fell closed again as bright sparks exploded across her line of vision and her head began to spin. Gaara...

Perhaps she managed to say his name aloud instead of just thinking it, because he suddenly released her mouth and breathed her own name. His hand lifted to cradle the back of her head, and she instinctively tilted her chin up to meet him halfway, allowing his mouth to drop so he could explore her throat, her collarbone, her neck...

Her fingers tightened around Gaara's shirt. Why, exactly, had she been avoiding this for so long? Her senses reeled, filled to overflowing with her husband, and yet it still wasn't enough. "Gaara..."

"Hinata." His fingers burrowed into her hair, loosening it from the elegant knot Temari had created for her. She didn't mourn its loss as he pulled out the pin, allowing her tresses to tumble freely over his hand. "So beautiful," he breathed against her throat. She felt his hand pull away from her hair, then heard the click of her hair pin landing on the dressertop.

When his hand returned, it went straight to the belt holding the front of her yukata closed. Hinata felt the butterflies in her stomach jerk and tumble in response to his touch, but she didn't allow herself to react outwardly. Instead, she hesitantly let go of Gaara's shirt so she could trail her hand up his chest and across his shoulder and bury her fingers in his soft, thick red hair.

Keeping one arm firmly around her, Gaara guided her backwards even as he released the knot and her belt fell away. He tossed it aside, then grasped her free hand and very gently guided it to the hem of his shirt. "'S all right," he murmured.

As his hand withdrew to slip beneath her now-unsecured yukata, Hinata allowed her own to reach out and, for the first time, rest against Gaara's bare back. She felt the way his muscles moved beneath his skin as he slid his hand up her own back, separated only by the thin fabric of her nightie. For a moment she remained completely still, marveling at how strong and perfect he felt beneath her touch.

She was quickly pulled back to reality when she felt her robe slip off her shoulders. Her old, instinctive reaction to jerk away and try to pull it back on briefly flared up unexpectedly. But instead of yielding to it, she firmly shoved it away, instead relaxing as she chose to see it as a release from all her old fears and the other things holding her back.

Feeling suddenly bold, Hinata grasped the hem of Gaara's shirt in both hands and firmly pushed it upwards.

Gaara made a startled sound against her neck, then laughed and stepped back long enough for her to stand on tiptoes and pull it over his head. Before she could even drop it he was back, reclaiming her lips as he assisted gravity in relieving her of her robe. Allowing both articles of clothing to drop where they would, Hinata lifted her hands to explore her husband's bare back, still having enough of her rational mind about her to realize this was her chance to have her earlier question answered.

Beneath her sensitive fingertips she felt the powerful cords of his muscles; the perfectly sculpted curve of his ribs and shoulderblades; and, most wonderfully, the unblemished smoothness of his warm skin. Closing her eyes again, Hinata let out a breath of relief Gaara eagerly accepted.

He pulled back slightly, and Hinata opened her eyes, confused. Once again his green eyes, filled with a simmering warmth she remembered seeing once before, a lifetime ago when even the thought of this filled her with fear. This time it excited her, and she did not feel the least bit embarrassed as his lips curled upwards in approval as he took in her outfit.

"I see what Temari meant," he murmured before lowering his head to the juncture of her shoulder and neck. "And I agree."

Hinata let out a soft, slightly nervous giggle as his lips ghosted across her collarbone, then abruptly halted when they reached her shoulder. Her eyes widened as she remembered the scar she bore there, from where she had fallen out of a tree when she was young. "G-Gaa-" she began.

Once again Gaara kissed her, swallowing her protest as he gently pushed the strap off her shoulder, completely baring the scar. When she relaxed again, he moved to press his lips against it, breathing, "I love you, Hinata." Tightening his arms around her, he said it again, then added, "All of you."

It was the first time he had said those words to her, and her heart took wing and flew to heights of happiness she had no previous idea could ever exist. Taking his face in her hands so she could pull him back enough to look at his face, into his eyes, Hinata smiled and replied, "I love you, too. All of you."

Gaara's hands slipped down to rest on her hips, fingers spreading so his pinkies rested just above the hem of her gown. "I will never hurt you," he vowed.

Hinata met his eyes squarely, allowing all her confidence and hope and overflowing love to show there. "I know," she replied.

In the final few minutes before Hinata's eighteenth birthday drifted into the past, she received the greatest present of all she had yet acquired:

The complete and unconditional love of the man she loved in return, with no further barriers left to separate them.

*~To Be Continued~*

Author's Ending Notes: One reviewer mentioned being unsure if the Sasori who made an appearance this past chapter is the same one from the Akatsuki in canon. I'll answer the question here, just in case there's anyone else who might also feel unsure: yes, it is the same person. We'll be seeing more of him within the next few chapters, as well as getting more answers to questions which have been growing more important in recent updates. The events of this chapter have been a long time coming, and I was so happy to be able to write them and share them with you at long last. I really hope you enjoyed this chapter, thanks for reading, and I hope to see you again for the next update!