Hello and welcome to my very first Naruto fanfiction! This is my first time writing fanfiction for an anime, so I'm very excited! I hope I do justice to the original story of both Naruto and Mulan, and that all of you, my dear readers, will love it!

To those of you reading this who are fans of my Liberty Belle series, I am so, so sorry I haven't updated in so long! There have been many major events that have happened in my life since I last updated last June, but I can assure you that the series is not abandoned! Perhaps when I finally see the new Captain America: Civil War movie when it's released in May, it will inspire my creative juices to start flowing again for it. I can't give you an estimate as to when it will be updated, as I will now be working on this as well as another Naruto fanfic I want to get posted on here very soon, but I assure you all that it will eventually be continued.

NaruHina is my absolutely favorite pairing on Naruto, and I'm so happy that they've become actual canon in the Narutoverse! This story is dedicated to all those out there who knew all along that Naruto and Hinata would eventually end up together! NaruHina forever!

I'd especially like to give a shout out to my good friend and beta reader for this story, Silken Danser! Thank you for all your support! I hope you love this story as much as I love your GaaraxOC fic Crash Into Me and Burn With Me!

Please note: I do not own Naruto or the movie Mulan. Naruto belongs exclusively to Masashi Kishimoto and Viz Media, and Mulan belongs to both history itself and Walt Disney Studios. This is a fanfic made for fun, not profit!

Please, read and review when you're done!

Happy Reading!

Chapter One: The Hyuuga Clan

Asuma Sarutobi deeply inhaled the toxic fumes of his cigarette as he walked along the walls of the Great Wall of Japan. It was late at night, and he had volunteered to step in and take tonight's overnight watch since the usual guard had taken the night off due to illness.

His eyes scanned the dark horizon line for any sign of trouble, and then he sighed before taking another puff of his cigarette. This might be a tiring job and he'd rather be in bed with his pregnant wife Kurenai right now, but he was proud to be doing this. Not just for honor, but for his father, Hiruzen Sarutobi, the Hokage and leader of the Land of Fire. Ever since the five major elemental nations of Fire, Wind, Water, Earth, and Lightning had decided to join together to form one powerful, militarily advantageous country, the minor country of Sound had been jealous. When the Kage's of the major lands fused together to create the new country of Japan, they had initially invited a few other minor countries to join them, such as the Land of Tea and the Land of Waves. The more forces that were added into making Japan, the better, but the one country that did not receive an invitation was the Land of Sound.

The Five Kage's hadn't wanted the people of Otogakure in their new nation. For one, the ninjas from Oto were said to be quite merciless in their techniques. Not that the Kage's wanted to have less ninjas in their ranks for the new country, but the ninjas from the Sound were said to sometimes… butcher their enemies, and those that they spared were sometimes sent back to the capital of Otogakure to either become all but bed slaves for disgusting nobles or, worse, sent directly to the leader of Otogakure as new subjects for his latest experiments. That particular man was the other reason why the Kage's didn't want the Sound involved in their new Japan. A rumor whispering throughout the five major nations was that the new leader in Oto was none other than the evil Orochimaru, one of the most vile, twisted men alive today, and a missing-nin from the capitol city of Konohagakure in the Land of Fire. He was as slick as a snake when slipping his way out of dangerous situations, and he was one of the most powerful ninja in the world, not to mention one of the most evil and dangerous. None of the Kage's wanted anything to do with a country that had him as their leader.

So far though, things had been quiet tonight. Not a single alarming thing to be seen on the dark, moonless horizon. It was a rather uneventful shift. That was good for Asuma, especially since he was half-sure that his comrade's 'illness' was really just a clever way of saying he simply wanted a night off from guard duty. He'd have to remember tomorrow to tell him off if that was really the case. He may have volunteered to take the late shift tonight, but doing so caused him to lose time with his wonderful wife, and talking to her ever-growing belly before bed.

Asuma smiled lightly as he thought about his unborn child. Somehow, due to the love he had for his beloved Kurenai and the love she had for him in return, a new life had been created, one that his whole life now circled around despite having never met him or her yet. It didn't matter to him whether the child would be a boy or a girl, he loved him or her already, but secretly, he was hoping it would be a boy. A boy he could teach the ways of the life of shinobi to. He could just imagine it now: a little boy with the perfect mixture of his and Kurenai's traits, following after him and begging him to teach him how to throw a kunai or to teach him his first jutsu. But if it was a girl… if it was a girl, he would love his daughter and spoil her rotten every chance he got, but he'd still be a bit disappointed; because as she grew up, she'd have to spend more time with Kurenai instead of him, training to become a proper lady worthy enough to strike a good match with a matchmaker. Proper ladies did not become ninjas. That was men's work. Proper ladies tended to the housework, managed the children, and did whatever they could to please their husbands. He'd lose the chance to teach his child his ninja style if the child was a girl, so he was hoping beyond hope that their child would be a boy.

He was interrupted from his thoughts by a small noise from somewhere behind him, and he turned. At first, he saw nothing but dark shadows dancing in the firelight of the nearby torches from the small signal post a few feet away from him, but on careful inspection, he realized that there was something looming in the darkness. A pair of small yellow eyes, hovering near the stone ground. Then the eyes moved closer, and Asuma saw that the eyes belonged to that of a small snake. It flicked its slimy pink tongue as it stared directly at Asuma, hissing lightly.

Asuma scratched his head around the metallic forehead protector tied securely to his forehead. As all ninjas originating from the Land of Fire, upon his forehead protector was the emblem of the Land of Fire's capitol city of Konohagakure, a leaf with a swirl design etched directly into the center. He stared back at the snake, thoroughly puzzled. What was a snake doing on the Great Wall? How did it get up here in the first place?

There was a sudden flash of movement out of the corner of his eye, and Asuma turned just in time to see and dodge an attack from a darkly clothed Sound Ninja wielding a kunai. He could tell just from a quick glance that the ninja hailed from the Land of Sound due to his own forehead protector with his own country's capitol emblem: the traditional symbol of a single musical note imprinted in the exact center of the metal. Asuma pulled a kunai of his own out of the weapons pouch on his leg, and exchanged parrying blows with the enemy ninja for a few short moments before successfully embedding his knife straight through the attacker's heart, killing him instantly. But he had no time to celebrate, as he suddenly caught wind of other Sound Ninjas suddenly running up the wall with nothing but their feet, channeling their chakra in order to climb the stone structure without the need for ropes or other tools.

As quick as a flash, Asuma dropped his cigarette and dashed toward the ladder leading up to the nearest watch tower a few feet away. "We're under attack! Light the signal!" he shouted loudly, hoping one of his fellow allied shinobi would hear him and light their large oil pot fires to signal to the country that they were being invaded.

He managed to reach the wooden ladder and was just beginning to climb up, when the door beside it flew open with a loud bang, and more Sound Ninjas zipped out. Upon seeing Asuma climbing up to prepare the distress signal, they immediately leapt into action. A number of them pulled out gleaming katanas and began attacking the wooden rungs of the ladder in an effort to make it break apart, while others threw a number of kunai knives right at Asuma to force him to fall.

The brave Konoha shinobi successfully managed to dodge all but a few kunai, which were now firmly lodged into his back and caused him to grunt in pain with every shift of his body, and was able to climb all the way to the top of the watch tower before the ladder broke away underneath him. He seized hold of the nearest flaming torch, and bolted toward the large oil pot in the center of the airy space. As he moved to throw it into the giant fire starter, however, a dark form suddenly leaped over the wall, and landed on the opposite side of the pot before him.

It was a rather tall man with almost translucent-looking pale flesh and straight black hair that nearly reached his waist. He had a long, narrow face with rather pronounced cheekbones, and his eyes were pure gold with two black slits in the exact center of them, with purple markings painted around his eyelids. He was grinning wickedly at Asuma, and Asuma could tell that his teeth were sharpened to the point that they nearly resembled fangs, and from what he could tell of his pink tongue that was smacking the sides of his lips in what could be considered almost giddy pleasure, it was forked in the middle and very, very long, almost like a snake. On his left wrist, there was a very intricate tattoo that resembled that of a snake as well, but it was almost hidden by the plain gray garb he wore with a black polo shirt underneath. He was also sporting black ninja pants that were tied off with bandages around the ankles to keep from catching on anything as he moved, a thick purple rope belt that tied off in a large knot behind his back, a threatening katana in a sheath at his waist, black ninja sandals, and blue tomoe-shaped earrings.

The small snake that Asuma had seen before on the lower level of the pathway on the Great Wall slithered up the side of the watch tower until it was at the same level as Asuma and the villain, and then slithered right up the intruder's body until it was able to drape its entire scaly body comfortably around the man's shoulders. The man chuckled when the snake came to rest on his shoulders, and he looked away from Asuma for a moment to stroke the creature's head.

While he had personally never met this man before, Asuma knew right away who this was. There was no doubt whatsoever in his mind.

Orochimaru the Snake Summoner. The greatest traitor to ever hail from Konoha, the leader of the Sound Nation, and his father's former student.

Asuma was positive that the only reason the Sound Ninjas were attacking this particular section in the Great Wall on this particular night was because Orochimaru had somehow found out he, the only son of his former sensei, would be taking up the lookout at this watch point tonight. Orochimaru was an absolutely evil and psychotic man that loved to make people suffer as he tortured them, and although it was a well known fact that he had plans to conquer all of Japan, he especially wanted to make his father suffer. And he would start with Asuma's death.

He would never see his father, his beloved wife, his elder sister, and niece and nephew again. He would never get the opportunity to even meet his unborn child, or even find out whether or not it was a boy or a girl as he had only moments ago been contemplating. This spot on the Great Wall would be where he drew his dying breath, but not before he did his duty to protect not only his wonderful family, but every other person in this country as well.

With a determined yell, he threw the torch in his hand into the large oil pot, and the entire thing lit up in a split second into a large, crackling fire.

Upon seeing the distress signal, every other watch tower along the Great Wall being manned by other allied shinobi one by one began to also light up their oil pot fires, silently passing the word along that the country had been invaded by Orochimaru and his army of ninjas from the Hidden Sound. The news would reach his father, family, and every other Kage and their families in the Imperial City by dawn.

Orochimaru watched as this happened silently, his smile never once leaving his face.

"Now all of Japan knows you're here," Asuma growled threateningly.

Orochimaru turned back to him, and his maniacal smirk only seemed to grow. Wordlessly, he reached over to the flag pole that was proudly waving the new national flag for the country of Japan: a simple white backdrop with a red circle in the middle. The pole had been constructed from very sturdy wood, but the snake traitor easily broke it with a simple twist of his wrist. He let the flag hover over the flames, taking great pleasure in watching the fabric burn before tossing the pole into the fire. Then he drew his infamous sword Kusanagi.

"Perfect," he hissed.

The silver blade slashed through the air, and pierced straight through Asuma's chest.

The following morning, deep in the heart of the Imperial Palace of the Imperial City, the doors to the Five Kage Throne Room flew open, and the General of the Allied Shinobi Forces as well as the possible Fourth Hokage in the not too far away future, Minato Namikaze, made his way into the regal room, walking at a swift, but still respectable pace. He had a thick mop of spiky yellow hair that stuck out in every direction, and bright blue eyes which were currently narrowed at the thought of the grim news he had to give to the five leaders of the country as well as their respective families. Having hailed from the Land of Fire and being born in the Konoha capitol, his Leaf forehead protector was tied with blue cloth around his forehead, and he also wore the traditional green flak jacket with chainmail armor that almost every ninja in Konoha wore and a pair of blue pants tied off with bandages at the ankles. He also sported a short-sleeved, long, white overcoat with red flame designs at the bottom. All in all, he looked very powerful.

He was accompanied by his two most trusted ninja warriors after his only son and heir to the Namikaze clan.

The first was his own student, Kakashi Hatake, the spiky silver-haired Copy-Cat Ninja with the implanted Sharingan eye, an eye of the rare bloodline of the prestigious ninja clan known as the Uchiha. It had been given to him as a gift from his dying comrade Obito Uchiha in the previous Third Great Shinobi War, so his left eye had a vertical scar slashed across it from where the original eye had been damaged but was where the implanted eye now resided. Whenever he was not using his gift, he kept it covered by tying his forehead protector directly across it on his head, leaving only his right eye visible. This, combined with the blue cloth facemask he wore to conceal his nose and mouth, left everyone wondering what his face really looked like when fully exposed. Not even his closest friends had ever seen his full face before. Like Minato, he too wore the standard Konoha flak jacket with chainmail armor, dark blue pants with bandages tied around the ankles, and black fingerless gloves with metal plates on the back for extra protection.

The last man in the trio was Minato's own sensei, the Legendary Toad Sage Jiraiya and the head of the spy network. Not to mention the world's greatest self-proclaimed super pervert and novelist of the most famous adult book series in all of Japan known as Icha Icha Paradise. He had waist-length spiky white hair that was tied up at the back in a low ponytail, and dark eyes with red lines underneath that extended all the way down both of his cheeks to the bottom of his face. Unlike Minato and Kakashi, who both wore the traditional flak jackets, Jiraiya wore a short green haori with matching green pants, a red vest on top with two yellow circles on either side, and rather sturdy mesh armor underneath that was only visible at his wrists and ankles. He also wore a set of hand guards, a black belt, traditional wooden sandals instead of ninja sandals, and upon his back he carried a very large scroll. His forehead protector was very unique, as instead of having an ordinary forehead protector with a symbol claiming his first alliance to either the Land of Fire, Wind, Water, Earth, Lighting, or some other minor nation included in the new Japan, his forehead protector had two spikes at the top, and had the kanji symbol for the word 'oil' scribbled across it. While he had been born in the Land of Fire, and had even been a student to the Third Hokage when he was first drafted in the ninja army many years ago, and would remain a loyal shinobi to both Konoha and the newly formed Japan until the day he died, his forehead protector indicated that he was affiliated with Mount Myoboku, the land of the toad summoning creatures, as that was where he learned his sage techniques and even how to summon toads to aid him in battles. This knowledge he had passed on to Minato, and together, they had passed it on to Minato's son, who was also consequently Jiraiya's godson.

On a normal day, both Kakashi and Jiraiya would be rather laidback and casual in how they spoke to the Kage's, but not today. Today, they mirrored Minato's furrowed brows and look of concern. The news they had just received had been very, very troubling.

All three of them approached the regal thrones at the far end of the room, and gave respectable bows to the five leaders of Japan and their honorable families.

"You may rise," said the rough voice of the Kage of their home nation in the Land of Fire, the Hokage.

All three stood back up, and took in the appearance of their country's leaders.

The first person that caught their attention was that who was sitting in the throne on the far left, the throne of the Mizukage. Instead of being an aged, respectable man with a history of having served at least one in their life on the battlefield, the person sitting in the throne was that of a tall, slender woman in her early thirties, Mei Terumi. She had soft auburn hair that was so long, it reached her ankles and was styled in a herringbone pattern at the back, with a small bun at the very top of her head tied up in a tightly knotted dark blue band. Her sea green eyes were almost hidden behind her long, windswept bangs, and she had applied a tactful amount of make-up. She wore a long, elegant dark blue kimono with a white obi around her waist, a pair of graceful black slippers, and around her neck was a lovely necklace glittering with large aquamarines. The blue hat for the Mizukage with the kanji symbol representing the word 'water' was not sitting upon her head, though. Instead, it was resting on her lap, signifying her rank as being the regent to the Mizukage Throne rather than being the actual ruler to the Land of Water.

Mei's elder brother Yagura had actually been the one to hold the Mizukage position, the fourth one to do so, actually, and she had been the honorable sister. Yagura had not been a good ruler to the people in the Land of Water, and had ignored the general population's angry complaints and cries for better housing, more food, and more general supplies. Two months ago, he had gone to the capitol city in the Land of Water, Kirigakure, on official Kage business while Mei stayed behind in the Imperial City. That had been the last time she ever saw her brother, because when the common folk learned of the Mizukage's return to his homeland, an impromptu coup-de-tat had been arranged, and Yagura had been killed. For Mei's own protection, the other four Kage's had allowed her to remain in the Imperial Palace until the Civilian and Shinobi Council's in Kiri could convince another powerful male ninja in their region of the country to take the Kage position.

While that happened though, someone had to clean up the mess Yagura had left behind, and although no one asked her, a woman, to do so, Mei had taken it upon herself to be the one to do it. Thanks to Mei's hard work, the problems in Kiri were now declining at a reasonable pace, and the general population was becoming happier every day. It was really a shame that such a smart person with a great mind for politics had been born as a woman, because had she been a man, the Kiri councils would not hesitate in officially passing her the Mizukage hat, but as she was a woman, all she would ever be was regent to the throne. She would clean up her brother's mess in her homeland as best as she could, but as soon as a suitable replacement was found, she would be sent back home with a respectable number of ninja guards to protect her should any people with lingering feelings of hatred for Yagura try to hurt her too, despite all the good work she'd been doing for the region.

As she and Yagura had been the last of their family line, there were no honorable family members sitting around her in the Land of Water's minor thrones, one of which was where she had at one point sat, when Yagura was still alive. Instead, the only other people around her were her personal body guards Chojuro and Ao, a nineteen-year-old boy with short tufts of blue hair and dark eyes with square, black-rimmed glasses with a large sword wrapped in thick bandages strapped to his back, and a man in his mid-forties with darker blue hair and only one visible blue eye, as the other was covered in an eye-patch. He also wore a set of talisman earrings with the kanji symbol for the phrase 'to hear' on each ear. They were always on guard whenever Mei was needed in public these days. Although Kiri was slowly coming out of its political turmoil, things were still dire, and there had been more than one assassination attempt on their unofficial leader's life since she became the regent.

The next throne was occupied by the Fourth Raikage, the leader of the Land of Lightning, whose name was known to the general population only as 'Ay.' He was a very tall man in his late forties, with darkly colored skin and a muscular build thanks to his many years serving on the front lines of battle as a ninja from the capitol city of Kumogakure during the Third Great Ninja War. He had neatly combed white-blonde hair, and a small moustache and beard. He was wearing the traditional yellow Raikage hat with the kanji symbol for 'lightning' stamped across it on his head, as well as the traditional white Kage haori, but he chose to leave it flapping open so that everyone could see his strongly built abdominal muscles. On both his wrists were enormous solid gold bracelets that looked as though they probably weighed a ton, and around his waist was a matching belt with a boar's face engraved into the exact center. Judging by the scowl on his face and the way his dark eyes were narrowed to match his annoyance, he was definitely not the type of person one would want to fight one-on-one.

There was only one seat occupied in the Land of Lightning's minor thrones designated for the honorable family members of the Raikage. It was the Raikage's adoptive younger brother, Killer Bee. Despite not being blood relatives to one another and there being a ten year age gap between Bee and Ay, the two were almost identical to one another. Like the Raikage, Bee also had dark skin, a muscular build, and white-blonde hair with a neatly trimmed goatee. His ninja forehead protector with the Kumo region symbol of a set of clouds was tied around his forehead to keep his hair out of his eyes, which were hidden behind a set of black oval-shaped sunglasses. Two tattoos were visible on his body. The first was of a large bull's horn on his left cheek, and the second was on his right shoulder, and was of the kanji symbol for the word 'iron.' His clothes were very typical to the standard Kumo ninja attire: a one-strap-over-one-shoulder white flak jacket trimmed in yellow with chainmail armor, a long red rope belt tied around his waist, the standard white and red Kumo hand and shin guards, shinobi sandals, and a long white scarf around his neck. Strapped to his back was a set of swords with easy accessibility should he need to draw them at a moment's notice.

Behind them stood the two personal bodyguards of the Raikage. Both of them were in their mid-twenties, and naturally loyal Kumo ninjas. The first one, Darui, was a fairly tall, dark-skinned man just like Raikage and Killer Bee, with dark eyes, and shaggy white hair that completely covered his left eye. Like many others in the room, he carried a broad, cleaver-like sword upon his back. The other guard's name was similar to the Raikage's, and was simply called 'Cee'. He stood out like a sore thumb when placed beside the other three Kumo men. Unlike them, Cee had peachy pale skin and short blonde hair with bangs that nearly completely draped over his Kumo forehead protector tied neatly around his head with black cloth. Both men stood at attention, keeping ready in case something should happen to either their Kage or his adoptive brother.

The man sitting on the throne on the far right was a very old, very short man of nearly eighty with a red squashy nose, silvery-white balding hair tied up in topknot with a yellow ribbon, thick eyebrows, a triangular beard, and an angular cornered mustache. He was Onoki, the Third Tsuchikage of the capitol city of Iwagakure, the Hidden Stone City in the Land of Earth. The brown Tsuchikage hat was upon his head, with the kanji symbol for 'earth' printed atop it. Despite his elderly appearance, there was a fierce fire in his eyes that said he was not to be taken lightly despite his age. He was old, but not yet past his prime as both a ninja and leader.

Like with the Raikage, there was only one throne beside him for honorable family members that was occupied. It was a young girl of about eighteen, with short black hair pulled back in an elegant style with a set of chopsticks and two dark pools for eyes. She was Kurotsuchi, Onoki's only grandchild. The honorable granddaughter was dressed up for the meeting in a formal red kimono with a single slit on the right side going all the way up to her waist, entirely revealing her right leg. A fancy black obi was around her waist, and in addition to a tasteful amount of makeup applied to her face, she wore a matching set of ruby earrings and a gorgeous ruby necklace. She was truly a vision of loveliness.

Unlike the Mizukage regent and the Raikage, Onoki had only bodyguard. A rather large and imposing man of twenty years stood behind him and the honorable granddaughter. Akatsuchi had jet black hair that spiked out from underneath the red-clothed Iwa forehead protector with the regional symbol of two stone mountains etched in the center of the metal, worn as a bandana over his hair instead of as the usual style of being tied directly onto the forehead around the wearer's head. His eyes were narrowed as he gazed down at the ninjas bowing down before them all, not trusting ninjas that hailed from Konoha.

In the next main Kage Throne sat the leader of the Land of Wind from the capitol city of Sunagakure, the City Hidden in the Sand. The Fourth Kazekage, Rasa. Rasa was a man in his early forties, with rich auburn hair, dark eyes, and was most often seen with a stern expression when in public. In addition to the special loosing fitting white Kage haori and green hat with the kanji for 'wind' atop his head, he wore a simple black jacket with chainmail armor underneath and matching black pants. He was known to be quite harsh and cruel at times, as best known by each of his three children, all of whom were sitting in the honorary family thrones beside him.

The eldest of the Sand Siblings was a young woman of twenty years, with two teal-colored eyes and sandy blonde hair that was arranged into four neat ponytails at the back of her head. Her short-sleeved kimono was elegantly designed and pure black, with small slits along the sides and with a slightly revealing neckline. A red obi was tied around her waist, and black silk gloves covered her hands, one of which was currently fanning her face with her favorite small white hand fan painted with three purple circles across the thin paper. She was Temari, the Suna princess, but she was not known for being princess-like in her personality. She was known to be quite vocal when she disagreed about something, and did not play the part of being a respectable young woman who was still preparing to officially meet with a matchmaker, something that her father never failed to remind her of, and rumors stated that he had even boxed her ears several times when she was younger to make sure she understood it, too. There was no way to prove this though, as Temari never spoke much about her past life in the capitol city of Suna before she, her father, and her two brothers moved into the Imperial Palace when Japan was officially formed, and neither did either of her brothers, both of whom had been subjected to their father's abuse as well.

Next to her sat Kankuro, a young man of nineteen and the Kazekage's middle child. On a normal day, he would be wearing his usual ninja gear of a long black shirt over chainmail armor, with matching trousers, a red sash around his waist, and black headgear that completely hid his hair, with cat-like ears on top. The Land of Wind's symbol of an hourglass with a thin rectangle directly above it was etched in the metal of the headband which had been attached to the hat, and intricately designed purple face paint would be generously applied to his face, too. As this was an official meeting with the lead General of the Allied Shinobi Forces, however, his father had ordered him to wear something different and to not apply his usual face paint. He was now sporting a black formal yukata, and his hair, a great mop of thick brown that was generally unmanageable, had been forcibly combed and parted neatly on the right, making him look decently presentable. Resting on the floor beside his minor throne was a series of scrolls, as that was where he kept enormous puppets, his ninja tool of choice, inside for easier mobility when walking around.

The last of the trio was another boy of about seventeen, with very fair skin, bright green eyes with distinctive black rings surrounding them, and naturally spiky red hair. On the left-hand side of his forehead there was a red tattoo of the kanji symbol for 'love' inked into his skin, which made no sense at all considering the seemingly emotionless, but somehow still serious-looking expression upon his face. He was Gaara, the youngest of the Sand Siblings, but the most promising of them all. He wore a long-sleeved crimson coat on top of his mesh armor, two buckled belts, a large gray vest held in place by a single strap over his left shoulder, and a set of darkly-colored trousers. On the floor beside him was an enormous hollowed gourd that carried a great deal of sand from his homeland region of the Land of Winds. The youngest son of the Kazekage was known to fight with special sand jutsu's during battles, and the sand at times defended him from attacks even without his conscious command. He never went anywhere without carrying his sand gourd with him. Rumor had it that back when he was younger he used to be the terror of Suna, and had on many different occasions killed innocent civilians that had done no wrong. Nothing like that had been seen since he and the rest of his family moved to the Imperial City, however, and it had been years ago that the last killing had been reported. If the rumors were true, then he had definitely become much more mentally stable now than he had been when he was child. It was said that when Rasa finally died or officially stepped down from his position as Kazekage, he wanted to take up the hat and protect the people in the Land of Winds as best he could. Temari and Kankuro were proud of his dream, and encouraged him to follow it. He may have made mistakes when he was younger, but he had a dream to protect their homeland from invaders. It was a noble aspiration, and they encouraged him to never give up on it.

Rasa's only bodyguard, Baki, stood behind all four of them. He was a tall man in his early thirties who, like Kakashi Hatake, chose to allow only a small part of the right side of his face to remain visible, as the rest of his head was covered up by turban-like head gear with a sheet hanging from it to conceal the left side of his face, and was all tied together by the Suna forehead protector tied around his head. He stood at attention directly behind all three of the honorable children's minor thrones. Although Baki's duty was to protect the Kazekage from any type of threat, he was more loyal to Temari, Kankuro, and Gaara than he was to Rasa, as he had been their personal bodyguard when they were all children before being promoted to the Kazekage's personal bodyguard. He had even been Gaara and Kankuro's sensei when they were first learning the basics of being ninja, so he would protect all three of them with his very life should the need arise.

The centermost Kage Throne was occupied by the Hokage of the Land of Fire, from the capitol city of Kohagakure, the city Hidden in the Leaves. Hiruzen Sarutobi was his name, a man of seventy, and he was the one who had made the alliance, uniting the various different regions into the unified country of Japan. In his youth, his hair had been spiky brown and he had a small goatee, but near the end of his life, his hair and goatee had turned gray, and old age was apparent from the deep wrinkles and various liver spots dotting his gaunt face. Like the other Kage's, he wore the traditional red Kage hat with the kanji symbol for 'fire' on his head, and the customary full length red and white haori robes tied off with a white sash.

The Hokage had more honorable family members sitting in the honorary thrones beside him than any of the other leaders did. In the first throne sat his eldest daughter, Tsunade, a beautiful woman despite being in the peak of her mid-forties, and the elder sister of his son Asuma. Some in Japan would even argue that she was the most beautiful woman in all of the five elemental regions, as she looked much younger than her actual age, not to mention she had the largest set of breasts of any woman in the new country as well. She had light brown eyes and straight shoulder-length blonde hair that was pulled back into two loose pigtails that were swept neatly behind her back. A violet diamond was drawn upon her forehead as a form of a unique beauty-mark, too. She wore a gorgeous light green and gray kimono with an even darker gray obi around her waist. Despite being a woman, Tsunade had decided back in her early twenties to do more with her life than simply being a decorative wife to her husband Dan, who had unfortunately passed away many years ago while serving on the front lines of the Third Great Ninja War. She had decided to learn the skills of ninja medical jutsu's and had opened up and improved the conditions of many hospitals throughout the Land of Fire originally, and was now expanding her knowledge to various different regions throughout the new Japan. She was truly a modern woman, but many men throughout the new country looked down on her because of this, especially since she had taught her eldest daughter to behave the same way.

The eldest grandchild of the Third Hokage was a seventeen-year-old girl with shoulder-length pink hair currently pinned back in an elegant bun with a bright red ribbon and set of chopsticks, a slightly large forehead with a violet diamond matching her mother's drawn on, and beautiful green eyes. Her name was Sakura, and her beauty was second only to her mother's looks. She was dressed for the meeting in a bright red kimono trimmed with white, the red color matching her hair ribbon, and stitched in the center of her back was a white outline of a circle. She also wore a black obi around her waist, black slippers, and matching black silk gloves. As her mother's apprentice, Sakura was also known to study medical jutsus, and had on more than one occasion even assisted Lady Tsunade in saving the lives of many civilians on the operating table when other medics and doctors had declared those patients as good as dead. Despite their hard work and efforts, they were still women, and that meant that no matter what they did, they would always be frowned upon for studying the minor ninja art of medical ninjutsu. With the exception of their respective immediate family, the Mizukage regent, Kurotsuchi, and Temari, even the other Kage's and their families frowned down upon Tsunade and Sakura for their work as doctors. Tsunade would never remarry because of her profession, and Sakura would most likely find it difficult for a matchmaker to set her up with a respectable boy from a noble ninja clan as well, but that was fine with both women. For one, Tsunade still loved her late husband more than anything and was quite content with being a widow, and Sakura had no desire to meet with a matchmaker, as she was already in love with someone, even though she was sure the boy she secretly loved would never look at her with the same longing that she held for him. She was content with loving him from afar.

The next person sitting in the minor thrones was Sakura's little brother, Konohamaru, a boy of twelve and named after the ancient name of the capitol city in the Land of Fire. Konohamaru actually looked a lot like how Hiruzen did back in his youth, what with his spiky brown hair and coal black eyes. Although he was male, he was not yet of age to be a proper ninja yet, so he did not have a forehead protector. Instead, he wore a set of goggles on his forehead that had once belonged to his longtime friend and rival: Minato's son, who, just like Konohamaru, had dreams of one day surpassing his grandfather and becoming Hokage. Most likely, the Fifth Hokage, since it seemed as though General Minato would soon be wearing the Hokage hat, as Hiruzen was actually beginning to consider retirement in the very near future.

There was also another woman in her early thirties sitting amongst the Hokage's honorable family members, even though she was not of direct blood family, but made family through marriage. She was Kurenai, Asuma's bride. She had long black hair that reached her mid-back, unique red eyes accentuated by purple eye shadow, and bright red lips. She wore a long, very pretty white kimono with red sleeves, a matching red obi, and a pair of black slippers. Normally, Kurenai was a slender woman with a nice figure, but her stomach at the moment was swollen and large, as she was currently in her seventh month of her pregnancy. She had her hands folded neatly together on her lap, but every once in a while, she would gently rub her baby bump with a loving sigh as a wistful look crossed her face while thinking about her husband and unborn child. She was hopeful that he would return from his ninja duties serving at the Great Wall before it was time for her to give birth to their son or daughter. They were starting a family together, and she wanted her husband beside her when they officially became a real family. Asuma's throne was the only one empty, and she couldn't wait to see him sitting in it again very soon, sending her meaningful glances out of the corner of his eye as they sat with the rest of their family and the other Kage's while listening to other nobles or officials that had been granted an audience with them all.

Unlike the other region leaders, Hiruzen did not have a bodyguard with him. He'd trust his life to any of the three men who had just bowed to him and the others. Instead, he had his personal advisor, Ebisu, standing behind him and the rest of his family. Although functioning as the Hokage's advisor, he was also an excellent shinobi, so much so that he was actually Konohamaru's private elite ninja trainer. Ebisu was a man in his early thirties; with dark brown hair almost completely covered by the way he wore his Konoha forehead protector like a bandana, and dark brown eyes that were hidden behind his trademark black sunglasses. Under his right arm, he carried a brown clipboard with his Hokage's and the Honorable Hokage Family's schedule. He was very loyal to his Hokage, and did everything in his power to make sure his student, the honorable grandson, strived under his private tutelage, which was why he didn't approve of Konohamaru befriending and hanging around Minato's son. It was nothing personal against Minato, as he actually respected the man very much for his rank as General and knew from personal experience that the man was far above him in terms of ninja skills, but in addition to all the legal nonsense involved with the boy's mother, Minato's son was a young trouble maker, who, after spending so many years being taught exclusively by Jiraiya, the world's greatest pervert, he had adopted some of his sensei's perverted habits. He had even developed an original jutsu that he called the Sexy Jutsu, a jutsu wherein the user transformed himself into a naked girl with only a few wispy clouds covering her most intimate areas, and even later on created an offshoot one called the Harem Jutsu. It was basically the same thing as the original, but it involved the user cloning himself first before allowing himself and all the clones to transform themselves into the naked girls all at once so that there were many. The first time Ebisu ever saw it, it had been when Konohamaru had learned the Sexy Jutsu technique, and then Minato's son, to ensure that Ebisu wouldn't bother them any further, used the Harem Jutsu to overwhelm him. Ebisu had been so flustered by the sight of all the naked blonde girls in front of him, he had gotten a major bloody nose and even passed out in shock. That made him a laughing stock to both Konohamaru and Minato's son, and almost every time the idiot teenage boy saw him now, he was always referred to as 'The Closet Pervert.'

During this meeting, the honorable family members, bodyguards, and Hiruzen's personal advisor would not be allowed to speak. They were there to respectfully listen and observe as the four official Kage's and the Mizukage regent listened and responded to whatever news that General Minato and his two fellow Commander's had to report.

"Lord Kage's, Lady Regent, and Honorable Families," Minato began in a respectful, but still grave tone, "we've just received word that the Sound has crossed our Northern Border."

The four Kage's and the Kage Regent's eyes all narrowed at the news, but most members of the honorable families gasped at what they heard, and began exchanging uneasy glances. Even the Kage bodyguards were taken aback, and almost all of them began discreetly fingering the handles of their respective weapons readily, as though afraid that a Sound ninja would appear at any moment and try to harm either their Kage or one of the honorable family members.

There was one man though that did not stay quiet at the news.

"That's impossible!" Ebisu protested. "No one can get through the Great Wall!"

A few of the other Kage's shot irritable looks at the interrupter, and even Hiruzen himself sent him a quick look to stay quiet as he raised his hand to silence him. Ebisu immediately quieted down and meekly took a few steps back with a bowed head, silently apologizing for speaking out of turn.

"It's true, though," said Jiraiya. "My spies have reported that Orochimaru is leading them."

Hiruzen's eyes shut as he absorbed the news about his former student, and even the other Kage's and the Mizukage regent turned to see his reaction. The women in the honorable families, however, whispered nervously amongst themselves while the men's brows furrowed at the troubling news. The most famous traitor from the Land of Fire had finally decided to strike back against the ninja world. This undoubtedly meant that Japan would have to prepare themselves immediately for war. The Fourth Great Ninja War, to be exact.

"Lord Hokage," Kakashi spoke up, bringing Hiruzen's attention to him. "We… we also received saddening news as well. During the invasion over the Great Wall, our sources have told us that… that your son, Asuma, was the one who bravely lit the signal telling us about the invasion, but by doing so… he was personally killed by Orochimaru…"

Hiruzen's jaw went rigid at the news of the death of his only son.

Tsunade gripped the hand rests of her minor throne tightly as her lips formed into a tight line.

Konohamaru's eyes filled with tears as he thought about his kind uncle.

Sakura's eyes went wide as her hand slowly covered her mouth to hide her horror.

Kurenai simply screamed.

"No!" she wailed, all but leaping to her feet as every head in the room immediately snapped in her direction. "No! That's… That's a lie! Asuma… Asuma couldn't have…! He can't be gone!"

"Lady Kurenai," said Minato, his voice filled with sorrow and remorse. "I'm afraid that it is the truth… We are all very sorry for your loss…"

For a long moment, Kurenai simply stared at the three men standing in front of her with tears in her eyes, but then her eyes rolled back up in her head, and she began to fall to the ground.

"Aunt Kurenai!"


Upon seeing their aunt faint from the news, Sakura and Konohamaru blinked away their own shock and tears and rushed to catch her before she fully hit the ground.

Tsunade also got to her feet, and ignored the looks of worry and alarm from everyone else throughout the room as she rushed to assess the condition of her dear sister-in-law.

"Sakura, Konohamaru," she said in a no-nonsense tone, and both of her children looked up at their mother immediately. "Take your aunt upstairs at once and get her into bed. Sakura? As soon as she's lying down, I want you to do a quick check-up on her condition and on the baby. Konohamaru? Call for a servant and have them boil some water and bring a washcloth. We need to keep her condition stable. I will be up to help as soon as this meeting is over."

"Yes, mother," both of the honorable Sarutobi children chorused. With a quick wave of Tsunade's hand, a few servants hurried over from where they'd been standing and watching everything from off to the side, and quickly carried the pregnant woman out of the Kage Throne Room. Sakura and Konohamaru quietly followed them, but as the doors leading to the inner halls of the Imperial Palace slid shut behind both the pre-teen boy and the pink-haired girl in her late teens, everyone could hear the whimpering tears escape their lips as they began fully crying for their deceased uncle.

As soon as they and the grief-stricken new widow were gone, the leaders of the five separate lands of Japan began arguing amongst themselves.

"My condolences for your family loss, Lord Hokage, but it is clear that defenses must be placed around the Imperial Palace immediately."

"Doing so would be ill-advised, Lady Regent. If we were to focus on simply defense of ourselves and not on the protection of the common people, Orochimaru and his army would kill everyone in his way to get here."

"You would have us gather our individual shinobi forces just to protect the useless women, Lord Hokage? No disrespect intended towards you, of course, Lady Regent. Hundreds of our shinobi would perish in unnecessary battles."

The Suna princess's hand fan shut with a quick snap of her wrist, and her eyes became sharp at her father's words.

"How dare you, father! What is the use of even being the Kazekage if you do not protect the people in our lands?!"

"Silence, Temari!"

"Lord Kazekage, you should teach your daughter to learn when it is appropriate to be seen, but not heard while in the company of men."

"Believe me Lord Raikage, that is a lesson that shall definitely be taught when this meeting is over."

Temari scowled, and opened her mouth to argue some more with both her father and the Raikage, but Gaara and Kankuro both sent her pleading looks to remain silent. They, too, were furious at what their father had suggested, allowing the civilians in Japan to suffer in order to simply focus all of their defense exclusively on the Imperial Palace, but they knew that Temari was most definitely going to be punished with at least a few smacks to the face from their father by the end of the night, and their father would order their servants the next day to conceal the bruises left behind with make-up. They didn't want her to cause herself any further injuries.

Temari glared at her brother's upon seeing their expressions, but nonetheless gave them a discreet nod, and said nothing else as more arguing commenced. Only this time, it was the Tsuchikage who spoke.

"I agree with Lord Hokage. Lady Regent and Lord Kazekage, we should send our ninjas to defend the common population against the Sound."

"And send out conscription notices to enlist for more men throughout all the regions," suggested the Hokage.

His statement was definitely unexpected, and the other leaders turned to him in surprise.

"What? Are you insinuating that our individual troops are not powerful enough even when joined together?! This Allied Shinobi Country was your idea, Lord Hokage!" roared the Raikage.

"Lord Hokage, I must agree with Lord Raikage on this," General Minato joined in. "I believe our troops can stop him."

"I do not believe we should take risks, Lord Raikage, General," Hiruzen calmly explained. "I personally know how Orochimaru is, and we should not take chances against him. A single grain of rice can tip a scale, after all. One man, one ninja, can be the difference between a glorious victory and utter defeat."

Unknown to everyone in the Imperial City, at that very moment, in a far away village deep in the heart of the Land of Fire, a young girl of eighteen was sitting upon her bed in her regal bedroom inside her household, gently painting kanji symbols upon her wrist with a small brush and a pot of jet black ink. A small bowl of rice was beside her, and she would daintily pick up her set of chopsticks every now and then and pop a small serving into her mouth before continuing to pour over the various scrolls in front of her, all detailing how a young woman of her age was supposed to act in order to attract a husband.

She was quite the beautiful girl, with long, straight indigo-colored hair that reached her waist and framed her heart-shaped face nicely. Her eyes, as clear as white pearls but with small hints of lavender in them, were pupil-less but still possessed a warmth to them that gave her a certain kindness to her features that was impossible to replicate, even though by birthright, the kekkei genkai in her eyes was supposed to symbolize the fact that she was to be of a strict, serious demeanor. Her pupil-less pearly eyes meant that the girl was a member of the prestigious Hyuuga clan in the Land of Fire, known throughout the centuries to produce males that went on to be supreme ninja warriors with their all-seeing eyes of the Byakugan and special taijutsu fighting style of the Gentle Fist. She was of noble birth, this girl, and although she was a woman and would never use her bloodline trait to fight on the frontlines of battle, she was still a member of the main branch in the clan, the first-born daughter to the head of the family, Hiashi Hyuuga.

She was Hinata Hyuuga, the clan heiress to the Hyuuga main branch.

The Hyuuga clan was broken up into two sides. The branch family and the main family. The main family was the head of the clan, and they raised their sons to become prominent ninja warriors and their daughters to become respectable young ladies worthy enough to bear more Hyuuga male heirs or to be married off to respectable noble families or high ranking ninja leaders and heroes in order to increase clan influence, while on the branch side, everyone was branded at the age of three with a special seal upon their foreheads for two reasons. The first was to protect their bloodline of the Byakugan after death so that outsiders couldn't steal their precious kekkei genkai, but the other was to force submission and servitude. They were to serve and protect the main branch family with their very lives, and if they didn't, they would be punished by a main branch member activating the seal which would cause the sealed Hyuuga extreme pain to their brains.

In the entire main branch, with the exception of Hinata's younger sister who was not yet of age to learn how to perform the horrible technique, Hinata was the only known member to have never used the seal on anyone. She was far too kind to ever consider using it.

The young Hyuuga princess was a very sweet girl, always known for addressing everyone in her clan with the proper respect, and even treated those who served in the branch family as people higher than herself. She was compassionate, and always thought about other people's well-being first before her own. She was also very shy and meek, and when she spoke, her words were almost always a soft-spoken murmur as she blushed with embarrassment for speaking at all. It was an extremely rare event if she were to ever yell, as she tended to hate confrontation and was often afraid of ever offending somebody.

That was not to say, however, that she was truly the perfect heiress.

While she was truly a kind-hearted, sweet girl, Hinata's soft-spoken words often came across as nervous stammering half of the time, which was something that both the Hyuuga clan elders and her own father tended to frown down on her for. She was also clumsy, often dropping trays of tea whenever she offered to bring it to her father's study when he requested it or to her mother when she spent her afternoons in the clan gardens. Instead of behaving like other girls her age and applying make-up on a daily basis to accentuate her beauty and wearing lovely kimono's when going out in public, Hinata rarely ever applied make-up to her face except on special occasions, and she preferred to wear bulky coats over her clothes to hide her figure rather than wear kimono's or pretty dresses to show it off. It wasn't that Hinata wanted to look unfeminine to the rest of the world, it was simply that doing things like that meant showing off her body and bringing attention to her face, which was something that the shy girl had never been very comfortable doing.

These faults made many people in the main family of the clan to look down on her, particularly the clan elders. They believed that Hinata should be removed from her position as heiress, and instead begin grooming her younger sister as the next leader of their clan. Hiashi had done everything in his power to convince those on the Hyuuga council to give Hinata more time. She would fulfill her role and bring honor to the clan by striking a good match with the village matchmaker one day. She would not be the embarrassment and bring dishonor to their noble house.

And that day had finally come. Today was the day that Hinata was supposed to meet with Lady Anko, one of the finest matchmaker's in the village, well known for finding love or satisfaction in couples and their families. If Hinata succeeded in impressing her today, she could be betrothed to the son of a noble lord or at least a high ranking ninja who had brought great honor to his own clan. But if she failed in her duty with Lady Anko, Anko could easily cause great dishonor to both herself and the entire clan by declaring her unfit for marriage. A matchmaker's word was like an unwritten law. If the fates declared someone a loner, they would do everything in their power to make sure that person remained so until their dying day.

That was why Hinata had woken up early this morning in order to prepare. She knew that she tended to forget important things when she became flustered or extremely nervous, so she had decided to jot down important details from her scrolls on what to say upon her left wrist for her session this afternoon. So long as she made sure that her mother allowed her to wear a long-sleeved kimono to conceal the black inked kanji symbols, it was unlikely she would be caught. And although Lady Anko could demote her and declare her unfit for marriage should she discover the writings on her wrist, it was a risk Hinata had to take. As the heiress, her family honor as well as her respect in the clan was at stake today. She had to make sure to do everything in her power to ensure that she struck a good match.

"Q-Quiet and demure… graceful… p-polite… Well, at l-least I can d-do that easily…" she told herself with a nervous smile as she popped some more of her steamed rice in her mouth. "Delicate…" she continued through her mouthful. "M-my goodness, they're asking a l-lot!" she dipped her small brush into the ink pot, and began carefully copying the next few hidden traits in her scrolls onto her slender left wrist. "R-Refined and poised… P-Punctual!" she cheered lightly as she finished her calligraphy, smiling upon seeing her finished success.

A sudden knock on her bedroom door interrupted her happy moment.

"Lady Hinata?" called out a feminine voice.

Hinata's head whipped up upon hearing her interruption, and she scrambled to put away her scrolls, ink pot, and notes as she hastily blew tufts of air onto her wrist to make the ink quickly dry.

"O-One moment, please!" she called back rather nervously.

Not wanting the branch member standing outside to see her in her thin nightgown, she blew a few more times on her left wrist for good measure before throwing a bathrobe on to cover herself. She took a moment to collect her finished bowl of rice and chopsticks on her bed, and then moved to open the door.

Outside her door stood a young girl from the minor cadet family, only one or two years younger than her, and carrying a tray with a large pot of tea and two empty cups.

"I brought the tea you requested for, Lady Hinata," said the girl.

Hinata smiled as she accepted the tray. "Thank y-you very much. I-If you would be k-kind enough to t-take this—" she handed the girl her empty bowl of rice and her chopsticks "—back t-to the kitchens f-for me, I would b-be very grateful."

"Of course, Lady Hinata! It would be my pleasure," said the girl with a cheerful smile.

It was always a pleasure for those in the branch family to carry out the Hyuuga heiress's requests, few though they might be. For one, Hinata didn't like to burden those in the branch family with trivial things such as to prepare meals or to tidy her room, and preferred to do those things herself, today being the exception as she had to hurry into the village to get ready for her matchmaking session. The other reason why those in the branch loved to serve her was because she treated them with respect, and if it turned out, in the rare event that she did take the time to ask one to help with something, but they were unable to do so for any reason, she never used the curse seal on that person and never bore him or her any ill will. She would actually bow to the branch member, thank him or her for taking the time to hear her out, and then apologize for taking them away from their current duties.

As was her custom for whenever a branch member completed a task for her, Hinata gave the girl before her a polite bow.

"T-Thank you again for y-your assistance," she said kindly, doing her best to not stutter.

"You're very welcome, Lady Hinata. And I hope you do well today with Lady Anko."

"O-Oh! Before you g-go, I was wondering… D-Do you happen to k-know if my father and c-cousin are in the d-dojo yet for my cousin's morning l-lessons?"

"As far as I know, no, Lady Hinata. The last I heard they were out in the gardens at the family shrine, praying for your success today."

"I s-see. Thank you a-again."

The branch girl took her leave, and Hinata gently shut the door with her foot, set the tray with the tea down on top of her dresser, and moved to change into something that would suit her well for her journey to the village.

As she opened a drawer to pull out a simple kimono, however, she came across something else instead. A long, tattered red scarf that she'd had since childhood. The sight of this scarf made her pause. It involved a rather bittersweet memory of the boy she had only ever met once, on a cold winter morning back when she was just a small child, right after the end of the Third Great Ninja War at her Uncle Hizashi's funeral. At the time, she'd been upset over the death of her only uncle and had run away from the funeral procession, only to run right into a group of bullies who had teased her for how strange her pearlescent eyes were. That's when the boy appeared, with the unruliest blonde hair and the bluest set of eyes she'd ever seen and wearing the scarf she now held in her hands. He had defended her against their verbal abuse, even though that meant taking the brunt of a three on one attack from all three boys at once. Afterwards, they took his scarf, and tore it to shreds right in front of both the boy and her, and then ran off. Hinata had meekly apologized to the mysterious blonde boy for causing his scarf to be ruined and for the fact he'd gotten hurt, but the boy had brushed off his injuries and said not to worry about the scarf, and that she could keep it if she wanted. She thanked him again for his help, and then he ran off.

She never saw that kind-hearted boy again or found out his name, but she knew as she watched him run off through the snow that he had become her first love.

It had saddened her over the years as she grew older and learned from her mother and other distant female relatives in her clan that she would one day be matched up to a random boy simply for financial security or clan power and not to the boy who had stolen her heart back when she was a child, but she couldn't let herself think that way today. As heiress, her honor as well as the honor of the entire Hyuuga clan was resting upon her shoulders. As much as she still secretly didn't want to, it was time for her to put that boy in her past and think about the future.

With a sigh, Hinata gently folded the scarf back up, and put it away back in her drawer before finding the kimono she'd originally been searching for, and quietly got dressed. She didn't have time to reminiscence about the past. Thanks to how long she had spent making notes for herself for today on her wrist, she was already running late for her appointment in the village with the stylist her mother had hired for today to get her ready for this afternoon. She really had to hurry, but not before she brought some tea to her father and beloved cousin. It was a daily ritual for her to bring at least one of his needed cups of tea in the morning to her aged father to help his injured leg, and one to her cousin for an energy boost before he began his morning training in the clan dojo.

As soon as she was dressed in a plain white kimono that would suit her well on her ride into town, she collected the tray with the tea the branch girl had brought her, exited her bedroom, and hurried as best as she could to the clan gardens to find her father and cousin.

Deep in the gardens of the Hyuuga clan compound, two men were busily lighting incense sticks inside the Hyuuga family shrine. They placed both of their sticks inside the incense holder of a golden fox with nine tails, and knelt down in front of the various plaques and large memorial stones in front of them, each of them inscribed with the names of their ancestors in the Hyuuga clan. The older one of the two, a man in his late forties, had to be helped to get down onto his knees by his younger, much more agile nephew of nineteen, as his right leg had been severely crippled in the previous ninja war. The best medics in all of the Land of Fire had tried to correct it, but by the time he had been brought to them after being found on the battlefield, it was too late to fix it. The man couldn't complain, though. He was still alive, after all. He had been able to spend many more years with his wonderful wife and watch both of his daughters grow up into fine young ladies and watch his nephew become a formidable ninja as well. His only regret was that he hadn't been able to save his twin brother, his nephew's father, during the war. He had been left with only a permanently damaged leg after he and his twin brother Hizashi had been caught up in an explosion caused by an explosive tag attached to a kunai. His brother, on the other hand, had unfortunately lost his life.

Once his nephew helped him down, Hiashi Hyuuga gently set down his cane, slowly closed his featureless white eyes momentarily as he bowed down low to the stone floor of the shrine in respect for the dearly departed, despite how his long, dark brown hair got into his face as he did so and that his usually tidy traditional long-sleeved haori was becoming rumpled and dirty. The pendant around his neck of the Hyuuga crest of a single red flame against a circular yellow backdrop which showed his status as the head of the clan touched the ground too, but then landed back on his chest as he straightened up again and clapped his hands together in a prayer position. His eldest daughter would be meeting the matchmaker this afternoon. He might be a stern man, especially when it came to the many of Hinata's failures in her duties as the clan heiress that were pointed out on a daily basis by the Hyuuga clan elders, but he did truly wish for her to do well today, and he knew that praying for her success from the family guardians, spirit companions, and many ancestors would give her some much needed luck.

As soon as his uncle was settled, Neji also got down on his knees next to him, also not caring how his white haori shirt, matching pants, and navy-gray apron around his waist were becoming somewhat wrinkled and dirty, and bowed respectfully toward the family plaques before bringing his hands into a prayer position as well. Despite not being Hiashi's son, Neji actually looked very similar to his uncle, what with the same long dark brown hair that he always tied back in a loose ponytail tied a few inches above the end of his hair length, and equally stern-looking byakugan eyes. It wasn't all that surprising, considering his deceased father had been Hiashi's twin. The only real difference between the two of them was that Hiashi was the head of the main branch family, and Neji, being the son of Hiashi's younger twin brother, belonged to the branch family, so if one were to remove the Land of Fire forehead protector from where he had tied it around his forehead, they would see the Hyuuga seal of servitude imprinted upon his skin. It was really a shame that Neji belonged to the branch family and would always be overlooked, because he was truly one of the finest ninjas the Hyuuga's had ever produced in generations. He had even figured out by himself back when he was twelve how to perform secret ninja skills with the byakugan that were supposed to be taught exclusively to members of the main branch. It just proved how much of a genius he was to have learned these with no guidance whatsoever.

Back when he was younger after his father died in the war, Neji used to despise his uncle, aunt, and cousins for belonging to the main branch while he, the only male heir, would never amount to anything despite being a promising ninja since he'd been born into the servitude branch family. Meanwhile his two cousins, especially Hinata, were given every advantage possible even though she and her younger sister would never learn the secret ninja skills of the Gentle Fist with the Byakugan as they had both been born women. That all changed a few years ago, though, when Hiashi had given Neji a scroll written to him by Hizashi shortly before he and Hiashi had been forced to enlist in the war. In the scroll, Hizashi had explained that if Neji were reading it, it meant that he had unfortunately died during the war, but that Neji should not blame the main house for this. If he died while Hiashi still lived, it meant that Hizashi had died protecting him. Not because it was the sworn duty of the branch family to do so, but because he had wanted to protect his brother, and that he hoped that Neji would not hold the main family in contempt because of this. It had been his choice to die for his brother, not be forced to die for the Hyuuga clan.

Ever since then, Neji had been more open toward his uncle, aunt, and female cousins and he had been able to mend the bridge that he himself had created between them all. So much so, that his aunt and uncle had even been able to strike him a match with the matchmaker late last year, and he had actually gotten married a little less than two months ago. He knew firsthand how nerve-wracking it had been for him when he first met with Lady Anko, but despite being born into the branch family, his good manners and fame in his clan at being a Gentle Fist master had been enough for the woman to partner him up with one of the kindest, most interesting women he'd ever known, and they were quite happy together, too.

Now that it was Hinata's turn, he was more than delighted to join his uncle this morning in praying to their ancestors, in particular his father, to help his cousin today when she met with Lady Anko before Hiashi oversaw his morning training session. While it would have been an honor to spar with his uncle with their clan's Gentle Fist taijutsu, it wasn't at all possible with his uncle's leg the way it was. Instead, Hiashi would watch him train and spar with other members of their clan and instruct him on what he was doing wrong and how he could improve his technique.

"Honorable ancestors, brave Hyuuga family guardians, good spirit companions, and all others who dwell inside this shrine," Hiashi began, his head bowed as he prayed. "I humbly ask that you look after my eldest daughter today."

"Lady Hinata is wonderful and kind. She needs your help, father, good ancestors," Neji added. "Don't leave her alone to just rely on luck. Please help her to impress the matchmaker today. Help her to become a worthy bride to a good and noble man. Uncle and I beg of you to guide her."

The two were silent for a time as they listened to the wind lightly whistle through the shrine, making the golden nine-tailed fox incense holder sway a bit on its gold chain where it hung from the temple ceiling. Despite the wind, the incense still burned strongly. That was surely a good omen. It meant that their faith in the young heiress wasn't misplaced. The ancestors of the clan would do everything in their power to make sure Hinata fulfilled her destiny today.

Neji stood up first and then helped his injured uncle to collect his cane and get back to his feet as well. As they made their way out of the temple, they suddenly saw, much to their surprise, just who was hurrying through the clan gardens, still carrying the tray with the pot of tea and the two cups.


"Lady Hinata!"

"F-Father, cousin, I b-brought you both s-some – oh!" she cut herself off as she nearly slipped on the top step leading up to the shrine. The teapot and the cups wobbled as she struggled to regain her balance, but luckily, nothing spilled or crashed to the ground.

"Lady Hinata! Are you all right?" Neji asked worriedly, even holding out an arm to help steady her.

Hinata smiled warmly at him as she adjusted her grip on the tray so as to hold it with one hand, and then handed both him and Hiashi both of the empty cups before setting the tray gently down on the ground momentarily to pour them both the tea.

"I am a-all right, Neji, do not w-worry… I brought y-you and father some t-tea!"

Hiashi's eyes furrowed. He appreciated his eldest child's concern for his health, but she should have left for town all ready.


"R-Remember what the d-doctor said, father? Three c-cups of tea in the morning, and t-three at night…"


"And N-Neji? It's not g-good to train at all without d-drinking some tea f-first…"

"Hinata!" said Hiashi in a slightly stern tone, and Hinata instantly quieted down and looked to her father. "What are you still doing here? You're supposed to be in town already with your mother and sister to help you get ready to meet with Lady Anko."

"Tenten went along, too. She wishes to help you as well, Lady Hinata. We all know you will find your other half today."

Hinata gave them a bittersweet smile. She was hardly sure that even if she did succeed in impressing the matchmaker, she would really be matched to her true soul mate. Just the best match biologically, financially, prestigiously, and ninja skill-wise. Not a match made of love. Sure, she might eventually come to love her betrothed as Neji had come to learn to love his bride, but despite knowing that this was what she had to do to bring her family honor, she still wasn't sure how she felt being betrothed to a complete stranger. She knew it had been years ago, but there was still a small part of her that was still longing for the boy who had protected her back when she was a child.

"Yes, f-father, cousin N-Neji. I was j-just about to l-leave."

Hiashi nodded in satisfaction and, in a rare moment of fatherly warmth, he gently patted her shoulder and smiled.

"Remember, my daughter, your future as heiress of the clan is at stake today. The entire clan is counting on you to—"

"—to u-uphold the honor of the Hyuuga c-clan!" she finished nervously. The reminder was nerve-wracking to the young woman, and she subconsciously tugged the sleeve of her kimono covering the kanji notes on her wrist further down. "Do n-not worry, father. I… I p-promise to not d-disappoint you!"

"Very good."

"W-Wish me luck!" she said in a nervous rush before turning on her heel, and swiftly descending back down the steps of the shrine and running in the direction of the Hyuuga family private stables.

"Good luck, Lady Hinata!"


As soon as she was fully out of earshot, Neji turned to face his uncle with a rather guilty expression.

"I think we should still pray for her, Uncle Hiashi…"

"That is probably very wise, nephew. Very, very wise…"

Hinata was completely ignorant to the reluctant faith her father and cousin were currently holding for her. She was instead smiling to herself from the kind words of encouragement they had both given her as she entered the stables, and strolled up to her own personal mare, Rin. Rin was a stallion with a coat as white as snow, a pure white mane and tail, a black snout, and black hooves. He had been given to her as a present for her fifteenth birthday three years ago from her father, and since then, not a day had gone by that she had not been thankful to her father for giving her one of the greatest friends she'd ever have. Although it was custom for branch members of the clan to care for the clan horses, Hinata was insistent on taking care of Rin herself. He was her horse, and although the care and keeping of a horse was dirty and messy, Hinata did not mind in the slightest. She loved Rin, and Rin for sure loved her back.

Rin seemed to smell Hinata as soon as she entered, and whinnied in greeting as he saw his loving owner approach.

"G-Good morning, Rin. Are y-you well today?" Hinata politely asked her horse as she gently patted his neck.

Rin nickered as he nuzzled his long snout against Hinata's face in a horse's way of saying yes.

Hinata lightly laughed as she scratched his ears.

"That's g-good! I h-have to hurry and s-saddle you up, now. I have t-to get to town q-quickly today! I'm already r-running late!"

Rin seemed to understand the pleading in Hinata's voice, and was very calm and obedient as his mistress gave him a quick brush down of his coat and then saddled him up. As Hinata moved to mount him, however, a cold voice suddenly called out to her from the entrance to the stables.

"Lady Hinata. You have not left yet."

Between the coldness in the words and the fact that the sentence was spoken as a statement rather than as a question left little doubt in the Hyuuga princess' mind as to who had come to see her off. Hinata gulped, and silently prayed that she would not stutter through this next conversation as she turned to face the people who had gathered right outside Rin's stall.

Two of the Hyuuga elders, an old man and an old woman, were blocking the exit of the horse stall, studying her intently with cold appraisal as they waited for an explanation as to why their heiress was not yet in town and preparing to meet the village matchmaker.

It took all of Hinata's willpower to find the strength to politely bow and speak clearly.

"Honorable elders," she said quietly. "What an unexpected p-pleasure! I… I was just leaving right n-now…"

She inwardly cursed herself for managing to stutter not once, but twice! And in front of the people who had the power to sway the rest of the Hyuuga council in demoting her status as the clan heiress no less!

The elderly Hyuuga man's brows furrowed in contempt.

"We on the council would have thought that the heiress would have considered today important enough to leave early, not wait until the last minute…"

"Yes," agreed the woman, her wrinkled face twisted in an obvious sneer. "We all believed that the heiress would not wish to cause embarrassment to the clan by turning up late…"

In the back of Hinata's mind, she barely registered the fact that Rin was snorting at the two elders in clear anger for the diminishing words they were belittling her, his mistress, with, but Hinata didn't even look at her loyal horse. She was too concerned about the present situation and appeasing the concerns of the man and woman in front of her.

"My h-humblest apologies! I was concerned about my father's health, so I w-waited to ensure that he received and fully drank his morning tea."

Hinata fought the urge to wince upon realizing that she had stuttered once again.

There was a brief silence as the two elders studied her. It lasted only a few short seconds, but to Hinata, the silence seemed to stretch on for many long hours.

"Do not be a disappointment today, Lady Hinata," the man ordered. "We on the Hyuuga council do not accept failures as worthy of being the next head of this clan."

"Yes," agreed the woman, her eyes sharp as she seemed to stare directly into Hinata's timid and meek soul. "Embarrassment is unacceptable. Make sure to strike a worthy match."

"Y-Yes sir, ma'am," Hinata said softly, forcing herself to look them in the eyes as she nodded.

The two elders nodded back in satisfaction, and then turned and marched out of the stables without another word.

Hinata didn't dare to breathe until they fully exited the barn, and as soon as they were gone, she let out a deep breath of relief she hadn't realized she'd been holding in. Conversations with those on the Hyuuga council always made Hinata very anxious and nervous.

Rin nudged his face against Hinata's long, silky blue hair in an effort to cheer her up.

Hinata smiled, and gently patted his nose appreciatively.

"I-I'm okay, Rin. I p-promise…"

Rin nickered, not truly believing his mistress's words, but couldn't do anything about it, because right then, Hinata gently climbed up onto her saddle in a ladylike sidesaddle position. It would be easier for her to ride like a man, with one leg on each side, especially since she was in a hurry, but women were not supposed to ride in such an undignified way. She would have to do her best to ride as swift as possible in the awkward sidesaddle position she'd been instructed in.

"C-C'mon! W-We're going to b-be later than ever thanks t-to that surprise conversation!"

And without another word, Hinata picked up the reins, and lightly galloped out of the stables and off the Hyuuga clan property.

In the middle of the village, just outside the entrance to the most popular, and most expensive beauty salon in all of town, Hitomi Hyuuga, the matriarch of the main branch of the Hyuuga clan, was pacing nervously back and forth as she cursed the god's for her eldest daughter's tardiness. Hitomi was a very beautiful woman, and she bore a striking resemblance to that of Hinata. The same long, dark blue hair which was currently pulled back into an elegant bun and a set of chopsticks, pearlescent eyes with small hints of lavender in them, and a gentleness to her face that was only ever replicated in that of Hinata. She was wearing a long-sleeved, dark purple kimono with a navy blue obi around her waist, and due to how much she was walking around because of her stress, one of her hands was daintily picking up the hem of it so as to not trip or get it dirty.

She was not alone, either. There were two others with her.

The first was that of a girl the same age as that of her nephew, Neji. Her name was Tenten, and she had only a few months ago joined their clan by marrying her nephew. As the daughter of a wealthy merchant who specialized in ninja weapons, her family had initially been skeptical of having her marry a man from the Hyuuga branch family, but upon meeting Neji and being impressed with his skills as a ninja and his good manners, they had eventually consented to the marriage. She was truly a very pretty girl, with dark brown eyes and hair that was pulled back into two cutesy panda-bear style buns on her head. She was wearing a rather simple, long-sleeved kimono with a high collar and white top with maroon edges, and its skirt was long and maroon-colored, too, and a white obi was tied securely around her waist. Unlike Lady Hitomi, Tenten was standing still next to the entrance of the beauty salon, but she kept subconsciously wringing her black-gloved hands to try and alleviate her nerves. Ever since she had become a member of the family, she had become good friends with Hinata, and she wanted to see her succeed with Lady Anko today as much as anyone else did. So the fact that her new cousin-in-law was running very late was not sitting well with her.

The other was a thirteen-year-old girl with long, dark brown hair that fell well past her hips and was tied back in three low ponytails. The longest one was the one tied at the nape of her neck with an expensive white ribbon, and the other two were shorter strands that framed her face and were tied back into loose ponytails with pink ribbons instead. As was the custom for being a Hyuuga, she had the trademark pearlescent eyes of her clan with hints of lilac in them, the only physical trait she had inherited from her mother, as her dark brown hair was something she had instead inherited from her father. She was Hanabi Hyuuga, the second-born daughter to Hiashi and Hitomi Hyuuga, Hinata's little sister, and the one many clan elders would prefer to see be officially announced as clan heiress instead of Hinata, as not only was Hanabi much more confident than Hinata was, she was also not afraid to act and dress like a girl, either, as was obvious by the short, knee-length yellow kimono she was wearing with long sleeves and a red flame design on the skirt, the symbol of the Hyuuga clan, and the pretty white obi around her waist.

The only thing that made the clan elders rather iffy about convincing Hiashi to officially announce Hanabi as the new heiress was Hanabi's personality. Unlike Hinata, who was calm and respectful around her peers, Hanabi was much more playful, tending to run around and get dirty more often than not, and loved to daydream. That was true with her right now. Although she was just as worried as her mother and Tenten as to what could be causing her dear older sister to be so late, she was not fidgeting or pacing back and forth in front of the salon worriedly. Instead, she was sitting down on a small bench right beside the entrance, and gazing fondly at the small, circular bamboo cage in her hands with a tiny little rabbit spirit inside that she herself had summoned with all of her heart from their family shrine before dawn this morning. Rabbits were supposed to be lucky after all, and she couldn't wait to see the look on her beloved older sister's face when she saw what she'd done to help her today.

Beloved was the correct word, too; she adored her big sister so much. With the obvious exceptions of Hinata's natural shyness and clumsiness, Hanabi wanted to be just like her sister when she grew up.

Upon noticing the lack of worry from her younger daughter, Hitomi stopped pacing and looked at Hanabi. "Hanabi, how can you be so calm? Your sister's still not here!" she exclaimed, her voice sounding slightly stern due to how worried she was.

Hanabi looked away from her little rabbit spirit to smile up at her mother. "I know, mother, but I know luck is on our side thanks to little Usagi here! So long as she's with us, I know my big sister will turn up any minute now!"

"Having a little bit of extra luck on our side definitely couldn't hurt, but we should also be practical about this," Tenten said. "I was hoping to give Hinata some pointers on what to say to Lady Anko if we had enough time before her session. With the way things look now, even if she shows up in the next five minutes, she'll be cutting it close for her appointment…"

At that moment, the woman who ran the beauty salon, Shizune, poked her head out the doors, looked around for any sight of Hinata, and then sighed exasperatedly. "Lady Hyuuga? You're daughter's not here yet? The matchmaker is not a patient woman," she warned, and then disappeared back inside to prepare.

Hitomi groaned, and gently massaged her temples to try and alleviate her stress. She loved Hinata dearly, but her daughter was driving her patience awfully thin right now. "Of all days to be late! I should have prayed to the ancestors for luck!"

Hanabi visibly pouted. "What good would that do? They're all dead!"

Hitomi's eyes grew sharp as they zeroed in on her youngest. "Hanabi! Show respect for the deceased!"

"It's true though, mother! And besides, I already told you that we have all the luck we need with my little rabbit! Isn't that right, Usagi?" she asked the little bunny in the cage, holding it up so that it would be level with her face.

The tiny white creature twitched its pink nose cutely in reply.

Tenten held up a hand to stifle her giggles at her younger cousin-in-law's antics, but then spotted a certain blue-haired girl riding a particular white horse hurriedly through the crowd. "Aunt Hitomi! Hanabi!" she said eagerly, indicating for both of them to look in the direction she was looking in.

Hinata was galloping down the street on Rin, her face completely scarlet as she mumbled hasty apologies to people she nearly knocked down and to merchants whose stalls she nearly toppled over in her rush to make it on time to her beauty appointment. Despite the long ride between the beauty salon and the Hyuuga compound, Rin was not the slightest bit fatigued. He was a stallion at heart, and stallions were meant to have high stamina. Rin pulled up beside the three Hyuuga women, and Hinata hastily climbed down.

"I'm h-here!" she gasped, wringing her hands a bit in nervousness for the scolding she knew she was about to receive from her mother.

Hanabi giggled at her sister's late but nonetheless dramatic entrance.

Tenten smiled in relief that her cousin had finally arrived.

Hitomi, although usually known to be more kind and patient than her husband, was scowling a bit at her daughter with her hands on her hips.

Hinata gulped. If she'd managed to make her kind-hearted mother mad, she was really, really late.

"I-I'm terribly sorry, m-mother, but I had t-to—"

"None of your excuses, Hinata. There's no time," her mother lightly chastised as she put a hand on her back, and began gently steering her inside the beauty parlor. "We must get you cleaned up at once! By the mercy of the gods and spirits you arrived just in time! Tenten? Be a dear and tie up Rin, please."

"Of course, Aunt Hitomi," said Tenten obediently. She took hold of Rin's reins, and steered him off in the direction of a hitch post a short distance away as Hinata, Hitomi, and young Hanabi entered the salon.

Shizune looked up from her space behind the cash register when she saw them enter.

"Finally arrived, have you?" the beautician asked, moving around the desk so as to closely examine Hinata.

Hinata blushed subconsciously as Shizune took in her appearance from head to toe. When she initially left this morning, she at least looked somewhat presentable for when going to her appointment. Now though, after spending so much time brushing Rin's coat and riding him into town, there were pieces of straw stuck in her hair, bits of dirt were stuck under her fingernails, and she overall smelled like a barn. It really had been a good decision on her mother's part to have her go to a professional beautician in town rather than get her ready at home and then have her ride.

"Hmm…" said Shizune, "Not the best customer I've had right off the bat, but I've definitely seen worse walk in. We can definitely make a diamond out of the rough out of you."

Before Hinata could so much as blink, Shizune was suddenly shoving her in the direction of a large screen a short distance away and standing beside a large wooden bathtub that was on the verge of overflowing with bubbles. As soon as she was hidden from sight from her mother, sister, and Tenten, who had just come inside after tying up Rin, she found herself being stripped out of her clothes.

"N-No!" Hinata stuttered, her face literally on fire as her obi was yanked off and Shizune was wrenching her arms out of the sleeves of her simple kimono. "Don't t-take that—"

"We need to get you washed, Lady Hinata. You can't expect to take a bath with your clothes on, do you?" asked Shizune with a light laugh. She didn't wait for her customer to give her any sort of a reply, because as soon as the young Hyuuga heiress was essentially stripped of every garment clothing her body, she gave her a slight nudge in the direction of the tub.

Due to how overwhelmed Hinata had become in the face of this sudden embarrassing event, the little push had been more than enough to make her trip, and she went teetering backwards right into the middle of the tub, splashing water and soapy bubbles in every direction.

Hinata squealed the second she hit the water. It wasn't hot or even lukewarm as she had expected. It was icy cold!

"It's f-freezing!" she whimpered, her teeth chattering together as she shivered in the bath.

Hitomi, Hanabi, Tenten, and Shizune all giggled at the sight as they circled around the tub. Hanabi especially seemed to be enjoying her elder sister's current predicament, even more-so than the others.

"That's what you get for showing up late!" she teased.

"Yes, it would have been warm if you were here on time," Hitomi said gently, her eyes flashing with slight traces of amusement. Despite her eldest child's many faults as both a young lady and the heiress to their clan, she was still her first-born daughter and she loved her dearly.

Hinata blushed even harder at their very true words, but before she could say anything, Shizune was pouring a basin filled with much warmer water over her head. The sudden weight on her head made Hinata gasp, and she slipped and dunked fully into the tub. When she resurfaced, her beautiful indigo hair was dripping wet and clinging to soap bubbles.

"C-Cold!" she stuttered again, this time running her hands up and down her upper arms to emphasize.

"Don't worry, Hinata! We'll have you washed and dried in a jiffy! And besides, we women must suffer to be beautiful!" Tenten exclaimed.

"Yes, you'll be glowing with pride by the time I'm done," Shizune agreed, dumping an assortment of scented soaps and lavish oils into her hair and raking her fingers through it to make sure that everything was fully absorbed. "Trust me, Lady Hinata. You will look more than worthy to be a bride to that irritable matchmaker when I'm through with you."

Hinata bit her lip before giving the attendant a rather nervous nod. As she did so, Hitomi had picked up a sponge and her left arm to try and assist Shizune in the process. She was about to start scrubbing away at the dirt coating the arm, but that was when she saw the kanji notes Hinata had written for herself.

"Hinata, what is this?" she asked, sounding more than a little unimpressed.

Hinata didn't think it was possible, but she blushed even harder at the knowledge that her small cheat sheet had been discovered.

"Um… n-notes, mother… J-just in case, you k-know…?" she whispered nervously, gently tugging her wrist out of her mother's grasp. "You know h-how I get when I'm n-nervous…"

Hitomi sighed, but otherwise didn't comment on her notes as Shizune continued her ministrations.

Thankfully for Hinata, the humiliating bath ended ten minutes later, and after allowing her a few moments of privacy to slip on a set of clean undergarments and a fluffy white robe to wear for the next stage, Shizune all but dragged her over to a chair further back in the store, beside a table with a blow-dryer on top of it along with several other hair care products.

Her mother shoved her — albeit gently — into the chair, and then Shizune turned on the blow dryer. Hinata winced and squeezed her eyes shut as she felt blasting hot air rushing onto her face. She'd been freezing cold in that bath a few moments ago, but now, she'd gladly retake it just to avoid the burning winds being directed at her face. As a girl, she knew she was supposed to brush off this discomfort and simply think about the finished product when she was done with her beauty treatment, but it was very hard for the young heiress. How did other women force themselves to suffer through this on a daily basis?

Hanabi noticed her slight wince as Shizune began running a comb through a particularly painful knot, and, for a brief moment, decided to actually comfort her sister instead of tease her.

"Just wait and see, big sister! When Lady Shizune is done, you're going to be the prettiest girl in the entire town!"

"Yes, I'll bet Ino Yamanaka will have nothing on you by the time we're done," Hitomi agreed. "Pretty girl, no question, but far too conceited! Seeing someone show up at Lady Anko's looking ten times better than her will for sure put her in her place!"

"M-Mother! Don't t-talk about Ino i-in that — o-oh!" Hinata gasped as Shizune accidentally pulled too hard on her hair as she began fixing it into an elegant bun with a white ribbon. "—in that w-way. It's n-not polite to g-gossip…"

"Hinata's right, Aunt Hitomi. But even so, I've heard that Ino's just going to Anko's as a simple formality. Word on the street is that her father's actually bribed Lady Anko to betroth her to the son of that wealthy artisan merchant in town."

"Are you referring to Sai?"

"Yes! That's his name!"


"Oops! Guess I started gossiping myself, huh?"

"Who cares about those people, anyway?" Hanabi quipped. "Today's all about Hinata! We should be talking about how all the men will be lining up outside the compound to make her their wife by the end of today, not stupid Ino!"

Hinata actually had to giggle a bit at her sister's choice of words, but doing so caused her to accidentally tug against Shizune's hands that were nearly finished stylizing her hair, and she gasped in slight pain.

"Careful, Lady Hinata!"

"M-My apologies!"

"In any event, Hanabi's right, Hinata," Hitomi said kindly. "Just wait and see! By this time tomorrow, you'll not only have every eligible bachelor in the village lining up at the compound, but every eligible man in all the Land of Fire!"

"R-Really…?" Hinata meekly asked, feeling a bit dazed at the prospect.

"Of course, Hinata! You're the Hyuuga clan heiress after all! Between your kekkei genkai and your unmatchable beauty, you're sure to start a riot at the compound gates!" Tenten exclaimed proudly.

For a moment, Hinata's smile fell from her face. Even if she did do well today with her interview, none of the men she would be paired with would actually want to marry her because they honestly loved her or simply thought she was a kind, compassionate person. They would want her because of her bloodline abilities, her birthright of being the clan heiress, and simply because she had a pretty face. The things her mother, her sister, and her cousin-in-law were telling her was well intended, but they were actually making her feel very sad.

"Finished!" Shizune suddenly exclaimed.

Hinata snapped out of her thoughts as a small hand mirror was suddenly shoved in front of her face. She was only allowed a few precious seconds to admire her new hairstyle before she was once again being ushered away to another area of the store. This time to where there was an assortment of beautiful formal kimonos, hand fans, and paper parasols on display for purchase.

"Hinata, I think it's only fair to tell you what to expect when you meet with Lady Anko," said Tenten, sounding rather serious as Shizune ordered Hinata to remove her robe so that she could appropriately measure her for a kimono. "Don't get me wrong, dear cousin! I love you dearly and I have full faith that you will do well today, but I was in your shoes this time last year, so I know exactly how nerve-wracking all of this is! Would you like me to give you some pointers on what to say?"

"Y-Yes, please!" Hinata gasped as the measuring tape wound around her neck momentarily, but afterwards Shizune turned to face Hitomi as she gestured to a series of kimonos on one particular rack.

"I have your daughters' measurements, Lady Hitomi. It's a little hard with her chest, but she'll fit well into one of these one's over here."

"We'll take the lilac one with the white flowers on the skirt with the white obi. Oh! And that parasol over there that matches it! They'll both go well with her eyes."

"As you wish."

"What about hand fans? Do you have one in lilac to match? One with white flowers painted on it as well would be preferable, but I won't be picky with that particular detail."

"As a matter of fact, yes! One moment, please!"

Shizune brought over the expensive lilac kimono with the matching white obi along with the parasol Hitomi had requested, and then vanished for a few moments before returning with a hand fan that matched the kimono and parasol. She began dressing her as Tenten, as well as Hitomi and Hanabi, began reeling off traits for Hinata to remember while in her marriage interview.

"Remember, cousin! Men want girls with good taste!"

"You must stay calm, big sister!"

"Be obedient to whatever Lady Anko asks of you to do, my daughter."

"Tell her you do your duties swiftly, but you never rush them!"

"Remind her of your noble breeding!"

"Bring up at the beginning about your tiny waist!"

Hitomi and Tenten immediately stared at Hanabi at her last comment, to which Hanabi returned with a cheeky grin.

Hinata's face was flaming hot in complete embarrassment over her sister's advice, but before she could begin spluttering out words about how she would definitely not say anything like that, Shizune was tightening the obi around her mid-section. She tied it tighter than was generally comfortable for Hinata, though, and it made her oversized chest pop out a bit more than usual. She flushed even harder as she watched this happen in the floor-to-ceiling mirror a few feet away.

"C-Could you loosen the o-obi please?" she stuttered, crossing her arms over her chest a bit to hide her puffed out breasts. "It's… It's m-making my chest s-stick out…"

"But that's a good thing, Lady Hinata!"

"Yeah, big sis! If you ask me, if you've got it, flaunt it! I wish I had a chest like yours!"

"B-But… it's e-embarrassing…"

"Sweetheart, you should be proud of your body! I know I didn't have a body like yours when I met with my matchmaker when I was your age!"

"Many girls in this village would kill to have a chest like yours, Hinata! Me included!"

"Oh… O-Okay, then…"

"Ha!" said Tenten suddenly, bringing everyone's attention to her. "Men may think they have the harder job by being the ones who become ninjas and go off to war to bring honor to their clans, but we all know the truth! We are the ones who birth them their sons and heirs, after all!"

Her statement earned an honest laugh from Shizune, Hitomi, and Hanabi, but Hinata just blushed harder than ever, once again. She'd forgotten that particular detail. Once she was married, she would be expected to become pregnant with her husband's son as quickly as possible. Her mother was well respected in the clan for being the wife of the head of the family, but it wasn't exactly a well kept secret that people also tended to look down on her slightly, too. She had failed her father in producing a male heir. Hinata knew that although her father definitely loved her and Hanabi, she knew that he was still disappointed that he'd only been given daughters and no sons, and a nephew who should have been born into the main branch since he was a genius in their clan's ninja fighting style.

As soon as she was married and officially made head of the clan, she would be expected to rectify her mother's one failure as a wife. The thought was daunting to the generally shy girl.

"One last stop, Lady Hinata! We must beautify that pretty face of yours!"

For a final time, Hinata was dragged by Shizune, Hitomi, Hanabi, and Tenten to the last corner of the beauty salon, the make-up chambers. There was another chair here, and the table beside it was covered in all types of make-up products. She sat down on the chair, and Shizune immediately got to work on applying powder to her face. The stuff made Hinata want to cough or at least sneeze, but she forced herself to not move and stay silent as Shizune applied blush to both her cheeks to give them extra color, black eyeliner and light purple eye-shadow along with a dab of mascara to make her eyes pop out, and brushed a subtle pink gloss over her lips to make them more appealing. Although Hinata couldn't see what was happening, she had a feeling that it was really too much make-up, or at least more than what was really necessary.

When Shizune was finally finished, Hitomi, Hanabi, and Tenten all began gushing over her appearance as Shizune held up a mirror so Hinata could see her appearance.

"Darling, I have never seen you look more beautiful!"

"You look really amazing, sis! You can't fail today!"

"There has never been a prettier girl going to see her matchmaker! I know you definitely outshine how I looked last year!"

Hinata flushed as she examined her reflection in the mirror. It might be more than what she was generally used to and she might still feel a bit embarrassed, but overall, she had to admit that she did look very nice. She actually couldn't believe that the person staring back at her in the mirror was really her!

"I… I s-suppose I do look very l-lovely…" she admitted hesitantly, a nervous smile on her face.

Hitomi smiled at her daughter's approval over her appearance, and reached into the inner pocket of her kimono to pull out a small object wrapped up carefully in a dainty white handkerchief. She carefully unfolded it to reveal a beautifully crafted silver kanzashi hairpiece with soft purple lotus blossoms at the top.

"I wore this the day that I married your father," Hitomi told her as she fixed the kanzashi into her hair bun with careful, gentle fingers. "I've dreamt of the day when I could pass it on to my eldest daughter."

"M-Mother…" Hinata whispered, fighting the urge to let tears come to her eyes from this precious gift.

"It looks beautiful on you, Hinata. Hanabi? When it is your turn to meet with the matchmaker and eventually get married, you will wear it, too. It's a tradition on my side of the family that when a woman meets with a matchmaker and gets married, she wears something that her mother wore when she first became a bride."

For once, Hanabi did not tease Hinata or make a clever retort of some kind at her mother's words. She simply listened, awestruck, at the family tradition her mother had just revealed to them, and softly smiled as Hitomi, her eyes filled with proud and happy tears, gently set her index finger under her big sister's chin and tilted it upwards.

"There, you're ready," her mother breathed.

"Oh, not yet!" exclaimed Tenten. "She doesn't have any jewelry!"

Hinata watched as Tenten reached into her own robes, and pulled out a gorgeous necklace with pearls the size of marbles. Hinata gasped when she saw it. Even though she was noble-born, she had never seen pearls of that size with such a shine to them. It had to have cost a fortune!

"My father traded one of his finest katana swords for this a few weeks ago," Tenten exclaimed as she fastened the clasp around Hinata's neck. "He was going to give it to me, but I convinced him it would better suit you today instead. Pearls come from oysters, after all. They might not seem like much on the outside, but on the inside, there's true beauty! You must proudly show it today, dear cousin! You go to Lady Anko's today and show her that you are Hinata Hyuuga, the heiress of the Hyuuga clan, and beautiful both inside and out!"

"T-Tenten… I don't k-know what to s-say…"

"Well, don't say thank you yet, sis! You still haven't received my gifts! And unlike mother and Tenten, I got you two gifts!"

"Two, H-Hanabi…?"

"Yep! Look at these!"

The first thing she brought out also came from the inner pocket of her kimono. It was a bracelet stranded with a series of pearls. They weren't nearly as big as the pearls now around her neck, but they were nonetheless quite lovely, and Hinata could only feel humbled by her little sister's kindness and she slid the bracelet onto her right wrist.

"I bought this a little while ago while me, mother, and Tenten were waiting for you arrive! It's not expensive, I know, but I still thought it looked nice! But that's not my real present to you! This is!"

She rushed back over to the entrance of the store, but returned a moment later carrying the rabbit spirit in the tiny cage she had summoned for her elder sister earlier this morning.

"I woke up early this morning to summon this for you, Hinata! Her name is Usagi, and she's from our family shrine! Rabbit's are supposed to be lucky after all! It took me forever to get her to come out and even longer to get her into this cage, but I think it was worth it! What do you think?"

But Hinata didn't answer her. She just stared at little Usagi, who was currently staring up at her with big, bright eyes.

"What wrong, big sister? Do you not like her? If you don't, I understand… I guess it was kind of a silly—"

She was cut off by Hinata suddenly rushing forward and embracing her tightly, her eyes no longer able to hold back the tears that were gathering in them.

"Hanabi… T-This… This w-was so thoughtful of y-you… Thank you, my sweet l-little sister…"

Hanabi's eyes filled with tears of her own as she felt her sister's gratitude wash over her, but she couldn't help but try and squirm out of her grasp.

"Hey! Let go, sis! You're crushing me!"

"Dry your eyes, Hinata! We can't let the make-up run!" Hitomi gasped, quickly passing her eldest daughter a handkerchief.

As Hinata lightly dabbed at her eyes to stop the tears, Hanabi quickly clipped Usagi's cage to her obi. The little spirit had snow white fur, two round black eyes, two floppy ears, a bright pink nose, and was only about an inch and a half tall.

"There!" she said once the fluffy creature was fastened securely on. "With this bit of extra luck, even you can't blow it!"

Immediately, a hurt look spread across Hinata's face that she was unable to suppress. Did she really have such little faith from her family after all?

Hitomi and Tenten noticed her instant deflation at once.

"Hanabi, don't say such things! Hinata will for sure strike a good match today!"

"Yes, little cousin. You should think before you speak. You don't want to hurt your sister's feelings, do you?"

"No, you're right. Sorry, Hinata!"

"I-It's okay, Hanabi. Y-You weren't trying t-to be cruel…"

Hanabi smiled in relief for being forgiven for her tactless comment as Hitomi turned to face Shizune.

"I cannot begin to thank you for all you've done. You've made my eldest daughter look so, so beautiful!"

"It was no trouble at all, Lady Hitomi. If you will all please follow me to the front of the store, I'll ring up the cost of everything."

As the four Hyuuga women followed the beautician back to the cash register, Hinata brought her hands together and began reciting a quick prayer to herself under breath.

"Wise ancestors," she whispered. "Please hear my prayer. Don't let me embarrass the Hyuuga clan today. Help me to gain honor for my family…"

She had hoped that there would have been some sort of sign around her to let her know that her dearly departed family members had heard her prayer, like a soft breeze through her hair or something, but all was silent other than the bell ringing on the cash register as her mother paid for her beauty treatment. Hinata could only hope that her ancestors had heard her small prayer.

They all started to leave the shop, but then, quite suddenly, a loud gong rang out across the village.

Hitomi gasped. "That's the matchmaker's summons! Oh, Hinata! Hurry! We'll be right behind you! And don't forget your fan and the parasol!"

"Good luck, big sis!"

"We all believe in you, Hinata! Oh! And if Lady Anko offers you some dango, tell her no! It's a test, see. She wants to see if you're refined enough to turn down sweets!"

"O-Okay, then! I'm g-going now!"

"Do not worry, my dear daughter! We all know you will bring honor to us all!"

With quick hugs and kisses to all three of them and tucking the hand fan into the inner sleeve of her kimono and taking hold of the light purple parasol from her mother, Hinata dashed as best as she could in her fancy kimono ahead to where she could see other girls her age hurrying to Lady Anko's house.

She could spy Ino Yamanaka in line, and nodded to her briefly in greeting as she got in line behind her. She started to carry her closed parasol over her shoulder, but stopped upon realizing that she would have been the only one to carry it like that. She peered carefully around Ino to see how she and the other girls were carrying their paper parasols as they walked, and upon seeing that they were all carrying them in front of them with their chins held up high, she quickly mimicked them as best as she could.

She hoped she didn't seem too nervous to the rest of the village as they watched the small parade of dainty porcelain dolls continue on their way to the matchmaker's house. She might not truly feel completely confident in herself, but she knew that for at least the next hour while in her session, she would have to act like she was. It was the only way she would be able to bring honor to her father and the entire Hyuuga clan.

When they finally reached Lady Anko's house, the other girls formed a straight horizontal line directly in front of it, and gently unfolded their paper parasols. With slightly shaking hands, Hinata stumbled her way directly in the center of the line and also unfolded her lilac parasol, before kneeling down close to the ground like the other girls were doing with their parasols out in front of them as they waited for Lady Anko to begin summoning them each inside one-by-one.

They didn't have to wait long. The doors soon flung open sharply to reveal a young woman in her mid-twenties. She had bright purple hair that was fixed up into a spiky ponytail, and light brown eyes that were critical and sharp, matching the slight scowl that seemed to be plastered to her face. In addition to the brown clipboard and black pen she was carrying under one of her arms, she was wearing a long-sleeved kimono with a beige top and an orange skirt, and around her waist was a matching beige obi.

She eyed the girls waiting in line in front of her for a few seconds, and then looked down at the first name written down on her clipboard.

"Hinata Hyuuga!" she called out.

Hinata fought the urge to squeak nervously as she hurriedly stood up.

"Present!" she spoke out, mentally cheering that she had successfully managed to answer her summoning without stuttering.

Lady Anko's brows narrowed at her cheerful reply. "Speaking without permission," she tutted scoldingly as she scribbled something down on her notes.

"W-Whoops…" Hinata winced, quickly face palming herself as Ino and even a few other girls waiting in line shot her a few sympathetic smiles.

As she hesitantly walked forward into the matchmaker's house, Hitomi, Hanabi, and Tenten all whispered nervously amongst themselves from where they were watching on the sidelines.

"Jeez! Who do you think ate her secret stash of dango?" Tenten muttered.

Hanabi giggled. "Who knows? But I'll bet Hinata will give whoever it was a run for their money by the time she leaves."

As Lady Anko slammed the doors to her house sharply behind her and Hinata, Hitomi visibly cringed.

"Darling, that's what I fear most of all…"