A Water Lily

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chapter seven

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a lion's den

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the moon looked upon her in her den of beasts

once a girl of white

now a huntress among them

eyes glowing red

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Moonlight shone in through the tall stained glass windows, guiding her as she lit scented candles in her bedroom. It still smelled strange to her here. Or, more likely, it just didn't smell like home. It didn't feel like home either, no matter how much Fujiwara Akio promised she would love the capital city. She didn't. She wouldn't. The week she had spent here had been one of the most uneventful of her life.

Never mind the countless times the prince treated her to dinners and outings. Never mind the itineraries the daimyo made up for her and her father. Never mind the elaborate tour she had been forced on, the long hours of walking around an over-sized, over-populated, sprawling metropolis that simply wasn't…

Hinata stepped over to the mirror, looking critically at her reflection. Sighing, she pulled the decorative clip from the bun of her hair, combing through with her fingers and removing the pins from the side. She didn't like this either. She didn't like the "gifts" Akio had presented to her, or his insistence she wear them when they went out. The clips, hairpins, shoes, perfumes, and the ridiculously expensive kimono—they were unnecessary and a complete waste of money and his time. How she could get him to see that… she still didn't know.

A knock sounded at the door. Hinata frowned, looking at the door cautiously.

"Yes?"

"Hinata-sama," It was the prince. "Are you decent?"

She looked down at her pajamas—her favorite lavender set. "Y-Yes… ?" She answered hesitantly. The door opened, the prince sliding in and quickly closing it behind himself. Hinata watched him apprehensively, noting he was still in his afternoon clothes. Where had he been? "Akio-sama, what are you doing here? It's late, you should be in bed."

"Yes, I imagine it would be very disgraceful if we were discovered." Akio looked at her for a long moment. "Tomorrow, I'm going to ask my father to take you somewhere he still hasn't approved yet."

Another tour? "Where?"

Akio ran a hand through his hair, sighing. "I can't tell you that yet. Hinata-sama… before I ask him, I need to know… " Slowly, he walked over to her, standing directly in front of her. "I need to know you're with me. I need to know I can trust you."

Hinata looked into his intense amber eyes, unsure what to say. He was acting strange again, and she didn't know how to respond. A large part of her truly didn't want to know. If it meant what she knew he was expecting from her, then she would rather pack her bags and go home tonight. The other part of her wanted answers. "Akio-sama…" Hinata muttered quietly.

He sat on her bed, looking up at her thoughtfully. "You told me once that you wanted a fresh start for your clan. Is that still true?" Hinata was taken aback. Yes, she had said this, when she had submitted the report detailing the Caged Bird seal. Hesitantly, she nodded. "Your family means everything to you." He prompted, knowing this was also the truth. "You would do anything for them." Again, she nodded. "Even if it meant leaving everything behind?"

Hinata stared at him, utterly bewildered. "Yes." She would. There wasn't a question about it. When it came to her family, to her father, to Hanabi… there was nothing in the world she wouldn't do for them. "What about your father? Can he say the same?"

This man clearly did not know Hyūga Hiashi. Hinata gave him a stiff nod. "My father would lay down his life for his clan and his country." His creased brow softened, and he looked down, releasing a breath. Relief? "Akio-sama, what—"

He immediately cut in again. "I want to keep all of my citizens safe. I want what's best for the country. That includes your family. And that includes you most of all." He was staring at her again. "In the end, we want the same things, Hinata-sama. Do you understand that?"

She understood what he was saying. It was his intentions she couldn't figure out. "I… understand."

Akio stood from the bed, towering over her as he came closer. "I want to change the world, Hinata-sama. I want to save the world." Hinata looked up at him, stricken by the intensity of his amber eyes set into a determined, intrusive stare. "I know you want the same things. I know you want a better world for your family. We can do it together." He held out a hand. "Are you with me?"

Hinata looked from him to the sturdy hand he extended to her. Standing before the heir of the country she had sworn her life to, in his palace, under his hopeful stare, Hinata knew her answer. It didn't matter how she felt about the man in front of her. It didn't matter that being in his confidence would change their relationship, and change her future. It didn't matter that she knew this was not going to end well, because the alternative was worse.

What mattered was Konoha, and the people she loved. If there was any chance that she could keep the peace they had fought so hard for…

She gave him her hand, firmly, meeting his challenging eyes.

Amber eyes brightening, he returned the steel grip, and they shook.

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The capital city was a metropolis.

Sasuke had never seen anything like it, and he was glad for it. It was monstrous. Huge, and filthy, spewing smoke, overpopulated in citizens and grime. Though he had to admit: it was a haven for civilian culture. Business was booming, and it would only get better with the expansion.

"This is the banking district, Hiashi." Fujiwara Akio led the way as the trio walked across the city. "I'll schedule a meeting with the chairman of our military budget soon, I suppose you should meet him, though I doubt the municipal bank will have need for him much longer." The prince carried on casually, as Hiashi's brow lifted. The prince and the daimyo had been making comments like this for the past week, so casually yet so ominously with the underlying threat. Hinata watched the back of the prince, studying him with scrutinizing eyes. Since last night, he could tell she was on edge, just waiting for the moment of truth the prince had promised.

Sasuke looked over the heiress, noting the darkness under her eyes, and wondered at the stress she must have been feeling. Hiashi himself looked unfazed. With his long hair and formal robes, stern disposition, and calculated expressions, Sasuke was reminded of his own honor-bound father. Occasionally, the father and daughter would exchange a glance, either when the prince would test their patience, or when they noticed something off. Like the lack of civilians as they neared their destination.

The prince paused, looking back at them. "This is the research and development district." Hinata and Hiashi looked around at the array of buildings, the prince pointing out places of interest as they passed through. "This district is a newer addition to the capital. It was some time after the war ended, I believe, that we recruited a number of scientists, doctors, engineers, and scholars to build a research program."

"Impressive," Hiashi said dryly. "What are your scientists researching exactly?"

The prince glanced back at Hiashi and the corners of his lips lifted. "Oh, I'm no scholar, I'm afraid. Can't really say what goes on behind those doors. Your guess is as good as mine, Hiashi. Ah, there it is up ahead." The massive building ahead was fenced in and had security posted at the gate. Of course, they were waved through.

As the prince led them inside through a hallway, bright lights swinging on the lamps overhead, passing by numerous closed doors, Sasuke thought vaguely to himself if the Hyūgas felt their survival instincts shrilling in their ears as he did—the instinct that warned them when they were walking into the lion's den.

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"Here, have another drink, Hiashi. Heavens knows you'll need one." The daimyo, at the head of a table, ordered around a servant girl as she made her rounds around the room refilling drinks. "My son, see to it that Hinata-chan has a drink in her hand at all times. The rest of you," He looked critically at his team of aides. "Set it up." They nodded and excused themselves from the conference room. Sighing, the daimyo stood from his chair. "How have you enjoyed your stay so far? My son has been accommodating, I hope."

Hiashi sipped from his glass with a nod. "Pleasant, so far. There is certainly much to see in the capital city, as your son has shown us."

The daimyo nodded. "And you, Hinata-chan?"

Hinata lowered her glass of wine, and Sasuke watched the mask shift in place. He had seen too many masks now to question her capabilities. He realized now she shuffled them around at will, choosing whichever best suited her needs. Right now, she needed to convince them she was on their side. Hinata's iridescent eyes lowered bashfully, and Sasuke knew she would fool them as easily as those eyes had fooled him. "Akio-sama is quite the gentleman," She said quietly. "I've had a wonderful time."

Pleased, the prince bit down a grin, drumming his fingers against his arm, looking up at his father. The daimyo didn't bother hiding his smirk. "As expected from my son. Good to hear, good to hear, though, I suppose by now you must have realized we didn't bring you here just for a vacation." He paused, rolling his neck tiredly. "When my father was the daimyo, and I was just a child, the Sandaime Sarutobi Hiruzen came to the capital for a visit. Oh, we had a marvelous time hosting him and his party. Lots of feasts, lots of socializing. On the final day of their stay, he made a speech to our citizens, promising how he and his elite army of shinobi would protect us and our country with their lives. At the time, as you know, the five great nations were not exactly on the best of terms. The Sandaime promised that, so long as shinobi had breath in them, the Land of Fire would never fall, for they had in each and every one of them the Will of Fire." The daimyo chuckled, shaking his head. "Oh, we ate that up. We were proud to be citizens of this country, proud to be the home of the greatest shinobi in the world." Here, he sighed. "I've lived through three 'great shinobi world wars'. Each time, I thought it was the end of the world. Each time, when it was over, and we were allowed to come out of hiding, I thought, 'surely, this could never happen again.' I was wrong every single time.

"I didn't bring you here across the country to give you a history lecture. You all know damn well what's been going on, what the Hokage's government has done. And I'm not going to stand here and be made a fool of—my authority has no weight in Konoha. And Konoha cannot be left unchecked, for a multitude of reasons. I can see your vein about to pop, Hiashi. Out with it, then, get it over with." The daimyo reached for his glass and downed it.

"All due respect, my lord," Hiashi began, "we have already covered this with your son. Our resolution has been presented and is still awaiting your review."

"Ah, yes. My son, remind me again—where did I leave that damned report?"

The prince lifted his glass and sipped thoughtfully. "With last night's garbage, if I remember correctly." The two shared a hideous smirk, the daimyo chortling into his sleeve as the two Hyūgas looked on solemnly. Hinata stared emptily at the table, deep in thought, and Sasuke thought of every grueling hour they had spent working on the report, every pointless meeting, the abuse they had all endured from the prince, and it had all been a sick joke. Sasuke watched the daimyo and his son drink and laugh to themselves and realized his revolution hadn't been such a bad idea after all.

The daimyo looked over at the stone-faced clan head, and pouted mockingly. "Oh, come now, Hiashi! It would have been in bad taste not to at least try and make amends." He shrugged carelessly. "I don't trust Hatake. In fact, I don't trust the lot of you in that damned hidden village. But I sent my son over to take a look around, see what could be salvaged. Imagine my surprise when I found out he's smitten with an old friend's daughter." He paused here, taking a drink, as Hiashi glanced at his daughter, the prince also watching her cautiously. "You've taught Hinata-chan well. The girl will be a fine clan head. My son usually scares the weak ones off, but Hinata-chan, well— "

"Hinata-sama, I realize how this must sound to you." The prince immediately cut in, Hinata looking up from the table to meet his eyes. "Please don't take offense. The time I spent with you was by far the highlight of my stay in Konoha. And Hiashi," He turned to the stern clan head. "Your leadership and diligence did not go to waste. The report was just… not what the country needs." He picked up his glass and took a drink, thoughtful. "Hinata-sama, you remember our visits to the cemetery. I'd like to never again set foot in a memorial for a needless war. Mourn over needless deaths. As long as there is shinobi, as long as such devastating power rests in the hands of a few, the world will never be safe."

"I'd like to remind you," Hiashi interrupted, evenly, coldly. "That it was during the era of the warring states, battles between feudal countries, that shinobi were first contracted and used in warfare."

"And that it was the shinobi who brokered peace and brought the warring states era to an end." Hinata finished stoically.

The daimyo snorted. "Do you mean your hero Uchiha Madara? Yes, he did a splendid job keeping the peace, didn't he?"

The prince looked critically at his father and then back to his guests. "Please, don't take offense. I understand your concerns, I realize the position you are in. However, I would like to remind you that while it is true that shinobi were indeed hired by past daimyos, the balance of power has completely reversed. The Hokage is supposed to be in service to the daimyo, not the other way around."

"The Hokage is in service of the daimyo, and has done nothing to suggest otherwise." Hiashi said.

"A formality," the daimyo brushed it off. "Do you take me for a fool, Hiashi? The Hokage only wants money, funding for his village and their wars, stealing the taxes of hard-working countrymen. Well, no more, I say! We'll retire the hidden village, and invest in a safer, more reliable option."

Hiashi was not convinced. "The Hokage—"

"The Hokage killed your brother." The daimyo spat. A deadly silence stilled the room. The daimyo stared at Hiashi, unfazed by the coldness in the clan head's glare. Hinata frowned, and looked disapprovingly at the prince. "Do you remember that night, Hiashi? When Kumogakure demanded your head for killing one of their own? Someone who tried to kill your baby daughter? Why didn't the Hokage stand up for you, Hiashi?"

Hiashi narrowed his eyes. "To prevent a war."

"The Hokage has started wars for less." The daimyo said darkly. "They fight for control, they fight for power, they wipe out entire clans to serve their interests, but they can't stand up for you? Hizashi died needlessly, to protect you from your own Hokage." He finished with a sip of his drink. Hinata looked to her father, ensuring he kept his cool. Hiashi remained stone-faced, though his eyes had fallen. "Such a terrible tragedy. The Hokage gives away the life of a loyal shinobi so easily, and then does his damndest to save traitors. All this pardoning… " The daimyo shook his head. "Think about it, Hiashi. What next? You know by now that nothing is off limits."

Sasuke watched Hiashi, the proud leader of the Hyūga clan, rendered silent. If he only knew what Sasuke knew. If he only knew just who had given the order to massacre the Uchiha clan. Nothing was off limits. Nothing was sacred. Sasuke knew first-hand that anybody and everybody would be sacrificed for the greater good.

Hinata saw her father's resolve die and immediately stepped up. "That world has changed. The Rokudaime is a great leader, and works hard to protect all of his citizens."

The daimyo now looked pointedly at Hinata. "They said the same thing about the Sandaime." Clucking, he shook his head. "If only you knew, Hinata-chan."

The prince sighed. "Hinata-sama, we are not your enemy. No matter what you say, or how you rationalize it, we can longer be part of this. We do not trust the Hokage, or his loyal shinobi that mindlessly follow his bidding. But that doesn't have to include you."

The daimyo nodded. "Hiashi, you have always had my respect. Your seat on the small council has been saved for you since we first met as children. When you swore your loyalty to me, and the Land of Fire. Do you remember?"

Hiashi looked the daimyo straight on. "I remember."

"I hold you and your clan in the highest regard. You and Hinata-chan needn't return to a village that doesn't protect you or your loved ones. What for? No matter what you answer, the capital city will end the alliance with Konohagakure, and evict them from our country."

Hinata lowered her eyes. Sasuke could see the turmoil in them, the emotional toll. The prince reached over and laid his hand over hers. "You have a home here. You and your clan."

Hiashi closed his eyes, sighing deeply through his nose. Sasuke wondered what he would do. Who would he choose, between his clan and his country? Once, they had meant the same things. Uchiha Fugaku had chosen his clan, and had been sentenced to death for it.

The daimyo poured Hiashi another well-needed drink. "Our grandfathers must be turning in their graves, Hiashi." He said grimly. The clan-head turned and looked at his daughter. Hinata tucked a long strand of hair behind her ear, thoughtful. Sasuke would like to say he could read Hinata's next move. He'd like to say he had broken down her psyche, and could read her as easily as he could read the thoughts and intentions of others. He'd like to, but he can't. In every word she said, every move she made, it was clear to Sasuke she was following a simple but effective formula. Avoid conflict, by any means necessary, and strike when they least expect it. Hinata was demure, and gracious, and attractive with her unassuming soft beauty and quiet nature. An easy target. An easier predator.

As their fathers refilled their drinks, Hinata looked up at Akio, their eyes meeting and holding. It didn't take long before the prince buckled. "Perhaps we are being a bit… rash." The prince turned to his father, who looked at him critically. "After all, this is certainly not a light decision."

The daimyo lifted a brow, but conceded. "Talk is cheap, anyways. So how about we show you instead?"

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Five hundred and sixty-seven and still growing.

Average citizens of the Land of Fire who wanted to make a difference. That was what the daimyo said. From the distance, on a balcony overlooking a vast gated field, Hinata watched as an instructor led a training exercise to dozens lined up below her, white uniforms moving in synch together.

"Shinobi do all their work in the dark, in the shadows. Our soldiers are different. They embrace the light. They ARE the light. And they will change the world. You'll see, Hinata-sama."

A handful of instructors had been imported from different nations, all specializing in combat and weaponry, training the daimyo's army. Hinata was familiar with many of their tactics, employing many of them in her own style.

But so much of it was strange to her too. This army operated under different codes, different values. They existed solely to defend the country from external threats. From what the daimyo revealed, sets of these soldiers would be stationed at various border villages, where they would stand on guard. The main faction of the daimyo's army, what he called the Corps, would be centralized in the capital to follow his command. Not only were there combat troops, there were also different departments dedicated to intelligence, weapons, and a medic ward.

"My soldiers cannot manipulate their chakra. That is not what they have been trained for."

"Then what chance would they have against enemy shinobi?" Her father asked incredulously. "No training in the world will prepare a powerless man against a full-fledged shinobi."

"Ah, now we both know that's not true, Hiashi. Lesser men have become greater heroes. If he weren't such a damned loyalist, I would have enlisted Maito Gai as an instructor for my army. As it is, we certainly have other methods of levelling the playing field."

"Such as?"

The daimyo turned to Hiashi, smirking, before walking away. Hiashi stared after him coldly. He had never been fond of secrets.

Hinata watched the movement of the recruits, noting their form. Basic hand-to-hand combat. On the other side of the field, another set of soldiers practiced swordplay. Hinata herself was limited with weapons; her hands were deadly enough on their own. Curiously, she looked down at her palms, studying the nicks and scars. Someday, these recruits…

Could they? Really? For her entire life, Hinata knew and trusted the distinction between shinobi and civilian. She had always associated civilians with peace and tranquility and, ultimately, weakness. What she saw now changed everything.

Beside her, Hiashi stood quietly observing the recruits. Their eyes met and held.

The revelation that the world was changing was hard enough on Hinata. She couldn't imagine how her father must have felt. He was a man built on honor and tradition. His loyalty was unquestionable and unconditional, a trait she had emulated.

Now their loyalty had damned them both.

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At dusk, the daimyo returned to his palace, leaving his guests in the care of his son. The prince had introduced them to an instructor of their army and they talked to a few soldiers. Sasuke didn't care to hear the conversation. Instead, he turned and looked to the other side of the district, where the laboratories were. Off-limits to the Hyūga and beyond his reach.

"How about dinner?" Fujiwara Akio suggested easily as the three headed back into the city.

Hiashi glanced at the young prince and nodded. "It has been quite a long day."

"I'll send it to your room, Hiashi." He said dismissively. "Hinata-sama, where would you like to go? Somewhere quiet?"

Hinata stared at the ground as they walked, starting to fidget with her sleeve, before clenching her hands. "Thank you, but I'm a little tired."

"I see." Akio said lowly.

They continued on in silence until they reached the palace, the prince excusing himself to his wing of the enormous estate. They were supposed to go to their rooms. Instead, they headed to the courtyards, far from watchful eyes, and settled on a bench below a willow tree. Night fell and bathed them in darkness. Alone, the two Hyūga looked at each other, their pale eyes mirroring the turmoil hidden inside.

"Father…" Hinata said quietly. "What will we do?"

Hyūga Hiashi was a man well-known for his strict discipline and indisputable ethics. He was a man who embodied strength, a man that placed honor and traditions above all else. When he looked at Hinata, that man was no longer there. "I don't know." Hinata's eyes lowered, defeated, and a thick silence settled between them.

Slowly, she looked up, and Sasuke did too. A full moon. He looked back at Hinata, watching heavily, seeing her large lustrous eyes and finding the moon in them as well.

Hyūga Hinata was a girl well-known for her soft-spoken character and her lack of determination, a girl that struggled to find her place in her clan and in their world. She was a girl whose failures had spoken for themselves, and had shaped who she became. She was a girl who wanted to forget, and wanted to be forgotten. When she looked at her father, that girl was no longer there. "No matter what, we protect our family."

Hiashi sighed. "Protect from whom? Our loyalties are being pulled in two directions."

"And no matter which direction we choose, we must protect our family." Hinata's voice shook and she quickly composed herself. "We can't do that if we don't know what we're up against. We will never defeat the enemy if we never see it coming." An old shinobi saying, something they learned in the academy, and Hiashi recognized it too.

"What are you saying?"

"They're hiding something. Their army could never stand a chance against a war with Konoha, and they know it. Why would—"

"Hinata, Konoha would never go to war against their own country." Hiashi immediately cut in. Hinata looked incredulously at him.

"Father, you heard what they said. The daimyo is prepared to evict us from the country."

"Even if he does so, Konoha will never stand against him. There is a balance of power, Hinata, that must never be forgotten. We answer to the Hokage and the Hokage answers to the daimyo. That is the way of the world."

Hinata stared at her father, brow furrowing. "So we do nothing?"

Hiashi lifted a brow. "We stay neutral. If we interfere, the consequences could be dire. We must do as he says and accept his demands, as we have always done before. This is our best option for now." Hinata tore her gaze from her father and settled on her lap. "Do you understand?" Slowly, she nodded. "You must not succumb to your emotions, Hinata. Remember your training."

Hinata did not respond for a long moment. She looked emptily across the courtyards, hands tensed at her lap, as Hiashi stared expectantly at her. Eyes lowering, she bowed her head. "Yes, father."

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"My son, look after Hinata-chan. Hiashi and I are going to get some tea."

Akio looked up at him, watching as his father stood from his chair. "Hm. Perhaps we should accompany you."

"No need to bother yourself." Hiashi cut in, and Hinata's uninterested gaze slid over to him. "Your father and I still have much catching up to do." He grinned—a fake, grimy, grin of plastic if Hinata ever saw one—and didn't even react when the daimyo slapped a hand over his back, barking his agreements. The two strolled out of the conference room in laughter.

Hinata had to hand it to her father. He hadn't lied when he said he would do whatever it took to change the daimyo's mind. Sighing, she leaned back in her chair and turned to look out the window. It was still early.

"Beautiful day, isn't it?"

She couldn't help the stiffening of her body. She could never ignore his presence for long. "Yes, it is."

Akio stood from his chair and crossed over to the window, staring outside. With his hands crossed behind his back, broad back firm and straight, Hinata could attest to his popularity with the girls of the capital city. Strangely, he reminded her vaguely of someone. Someone… she used to know. "You will never see such beautiful weather anywhere else." He said quietly. "The capital city is truly like no other."

Hinata had to agree. "Indeed."

"You would be happy here, Hinata-sama."

She couldn't stop her uncomfortable grimace, instantly wanting to refute it, but thought better. She thought of her and her father, under the willow tree in the daimyo's courtyard. She had to try her best. "I think so too." She agreed easily. "Though… I would miss home terribly."

At this, the prince turned to look at her. "This would be your new home. Hinata-sama, I will clear a whole district for you and your clan. My father will appoint Hiashi to his council and as an advisor to the army. And when I become the daimyo… " He sighed quietly, turning back to the window. "Have you and your father considered our proposal?"

Hinata studied him from behind. "We have."

"And?"

"And… " A loud series of knocks sounded at the door. Pausing, she looked curiously at the prince.

Rolling his eyes, he marched angrily to the door, muttering under his breath, wrenching it open. "Yasui. What is it?"

Hearing the name, Hinata stood and walked over. She hadn't seen the advisor since his visit to Konoha.

"My apologies, my lord, but… it is time." His smile was small and proud and vanished at seeing her. "Hinata-sama," Yasui bowed deeply. "It is truly a pleasure to see you again. Have you enjoyed your stay?"

"I have, thank you."

"That is wonderful news. Well, word spreads fast in the capital city, and I've heard a certain beautiful heiress and our prince have been—"

"I am not a prince, Yasui." Akio snapped and Yasui flinched but laughed nervously.

"O-Of course, my lord. I'll wait for you in the hall. Excuse me, Hinata-sama." The advisor bowed and took his leave.

Akio sighed impatiently and grasped for Hinata's hand, looking at her apologetically. "I must be going now."

She was ready this time. "Do you?" Not giving him time to answer, she stepped closer to him. "Can I go with you?"

The prince's copper eyes brightened, surprised, but lowered. "Not this time." Hinata pressed her lips together, truly disappointed. "But… " Akio's eyes set in a hard, determined stare. "Come to my room tonight. I want to show you something." His bedroom? Hinata was instantly on guard, suspicious of his intentions, but agreed with a slow nod. "I'll see you then." Dropping her hand, he left, and Hinata silently stared out of the window.

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It was well past midnight when Hinata decided to see him. Her father would be asleep, and the servants would be dismissed for the night. The long hallways were quiet, her footsteps soundless with the extent of her training. In a simple silky robe, tied loosely around her waist, her hair unclipped and framing her face, Hinata strived to look as casual as possible, as open as can be. When she arrived at his door, she knocked once, waiting with bated breath as she adjusted her bangs. The door opened quickly, allowing her just enough time to slip in, before closing quietly behind her.

The private quarters of the daimyo's son. Hinata looked around for a moment, memorizing her surroundings. A fireplace. A long, wide bookshelf. A large study stacked with tomes. Long open drapes swaying in the breeze, a stone balcony behind it. The moon high in the cloudy dark sky, watching her. Hinata let out a breath, steadying her shaking hand.

"Hinata-sama, it's good to see you. I wasn't sure you would come." Akio confessed quietly. Turning around, Hinata appraised him with wide eyes. He must have been preparing for bed. His sweatpants hung loosely around him, his soft white t-shirt fitted and comfortable. She had never seen him so casual. "Did you tell your father…?"

She shook her head. "He's asleep." Akio nodded approvingly. He was quiet for a moment, looking at her with smoldering copper eyes. Hinata felt the intrusiveness of his open staring and tried not to feel so uncomfortable with his attention. No one… no one had ever looked at her the way he did. Taking a breath, she steeled herself. "What did you want to show me, Akio-sama?"

He lowered his eyes. "You still haven't answered our proposal." Hinata grasped her wrist, keeping her expression neutral. "Are you planning to leave?"

"I don't know. It's my father's decision."

"I don't believe that."

She frowned softly. "He is the leader of the Hyūga clan."

"So are you." Akio said pointedly. "Hinata-sama, you are just as capable as your father. Even more so, in my opinion. Do you know why?" When she didn't answer, he continued. "Because you're different from your clan. You're different from your village. You're different from… just about everybody I know. You're a true leader. Even if you don't see it in yourself, I do. That's how I know we can change the world."

There was a tense pause after this, and Akio glanced out at the balcony. Wordlessly, he led her outside, and they leaned against the stone railing. The capital city was still bustling beneath them. "'Changing the world…'" Hinata watched the blinking lights, thoughtful. "What do you mean by that?"

The prince considered his next words, stroking the leaves of the branches dangling around the balcony. "The world is already changing. I'm just making sure we're on the right side of history. You can't stop it, Hinata-sama." Hinata thought back to the research and development district, the tense meeting with Akio and his father, the five-hundred and sixty-seven recruits, and the helplessness she felt was growing unbearable. She was tired of trying to reason with people who couldn't be reasoned with. She was tired of hearing their lectures and history lessons, when she of all people knew the blood it was stained with. What would she have to do to change their minds? Was it even possible? She feared the answer more with every passing moment.

Hinata stared into the lights of the capital city, thinking of Konoha and her people. "Why do you hate us so much?" Akio's head snapped to her, hearing the misery in her tone. It tasted bitter on her lips, rancid with age and infectiously honest. " We dedicated our lives to being shinobi. It's who we are. And we are good people. We are strong and brave and will fight until our last breaths to protect the innocent."

"I believe you." Akio said simply, watching her. Hinata looked at him and wanted to pull her own hair out. "Hinata-sama, I never doubted you. It's just… it's already far too late. The capital city is moving forward, without Konoha. We are more than capable of getting by without shinobi forces."

"Your army would never last a moment against full-fledged shinobi ranks. They wouldn't last against the enemy."

"Are you saying the Konoha shinobi would wage war against us? Are they the enemy after all?"

"No." Hinata snapped, insulted. "We have world peace now. We sacrificed everything for peace. Konoha would never wage war against their country."

"We won't be their country for much longer. As long as they leave our land, they are free to settle down where they please and stay out of Fire affairs." Hinata sighed through her nose. Sometimes, she truly hated him. "Why does that bother you so much? Look at it this way. Now your Hokage won't have to answer to my father anymore. The capital won't have to look after Konoha, and Konoha won't have to answer to the capital." Hinata stared at him from the corner of her eye, silent. "Is it the money then? It's just a matter of taxes, Hinata-sama, Konoha will manage."

"You're planning something." She sounded nothing like herself. The venom in her voice surprised even her. "It isn't just a secession. It isn't just a civilian army. There's more, isn't there?"

Akio looked at her evenly. "Nothing you would need to worry about."

She immediately straightened at his confirmation, glaring at him head-on. "Tell me what you're planning."

Akio stared back at her, unwavering. "To marry you."

Hinata didn't flinch. "Stop lying."

"I'm not." Akio straightened too, stepping over to her. "You already know my intentions. You know how I feel about you."

Scoffing, she turned away, brushing him aside. "That has nothing to do with this."

"Hinata-sama," He said quietly. "The Hyūga clan has been a trusted ally of the capital since its conception. Giving you the opportunity to join us in our new era is only natural. It also doesn't hurt that the Hyūga are the strongest clan in the country. Together, you and I can achieve so much more than you would in Konoha. With you at my side, I could lead this country to greatness. We will be the greatest dynasty in history. No one will ever forget who I am and what I did to save my country." His disturbingly beautiful eyes lowered, and Hinata saw the pennies in them and his greatest fear. Being forgotten, like his mother.

Hinata made her decision. She turned to leave. He called her name in confusion, hurrying to catch up as she crossed his bedroom to the door, pointedly ignoring him.

"Stop. I said to stop. Hinata-sama, where do you think you're going?!"

"Home."

"We're not done here." He huffed angrily as he saw her reach for the door. "You are disrespecting me, disrespecting my country—you are disobeying my direct orders."

"You said Konoha would never have to answer to you again." Hinata said coldly, pausing and turning to look at him from the corner of her eyes.

"Don't do this." He warned lowly. "I trusted in you. Don't make me regret it." Hinata listened to the anguish in his voice, and thought of his haughty smirks, his veiled threats, and the upper hand he had held so smugly since she knew him. Was she really the key to it all as he had claimed?

Slowly, she drew her hand back to herself, knowing he was watching and waiting. "You lied to me." She said quietly. "I trusted you, and you… y-you were lying to me the entire time."

"What are you talking about? Come away from the door."

Hinata stepped away, closer to him, folding her arms underneath her chest. "You lied to me. You said… you said you wanted to win me over, you said you wanted to get to know me, and you wanted to be with me, but you were lying. Y-you just wanted me for your plans, you only wanted me because of my clan and because of our status. You never cared about me." She lowered her eyes, watching his feet as they carried him closer to her, slowly, on edge but drawn in.

"Hinata-sama," He said in disbelief. "Is that what this was all about?" On cue, she reached up and hurriedly wiped her eyes. Immediately, he reached for her, grabbing her wrists and lowering them so he could stare pointedly at her. "That is not true at all. I… I'm truly sorry if I made you feel that way."

"It's just… it feels like you're keeping secrets from me. You're not being honest with me. I don't know if I can trust you anymore."

The prince's soft gaze lowered, sighing. "Hinata-sama… there… there are some things… " He shook his head. "I would never hurt you. As long as you stay here, as long as you swear yourself to me, you never need to worry ever again. You can always count on me, you know that."

She looked up at him, blinking slowly. "I… I don't know, Akio-sama… I thought I did, but… " Akio looked at her for a long tense moment. She could feel his concern, his worry, his toppling sense of judgement between his need to keep his secrets and his desire to keep her. "I want to trust you but I'm scared I'll just regret it if I stay here. I don't like it when you keep things from me. Even if it's small. Even if you think it's not important… it's important to me."

"Fine." He muttered. "Just… don't leave."

She nodded. Quickly, his hand closed over hers and he led her to his bed. Instantly she was on guard again until he sat down on the edge, pulling her to sit beside him. "What do you want to know?"

"Are you seeing somebody else?"

His tired gaze snapped to hers. "What?"

"You just have so many admirers, and there are so many beautiful girls here, and I-I don't ever want to find out this whole time—"

"Hinata-sama, don't be ridiculous. Of course not."

"Then… you really do want to be with me?"

"I don't know how many times I have to say it until you believe it." The corners of his mouth lifted.

Nodding, she softly stroked the sheets. "And… that's the only reason you asked me to come to the capital?"

The prince was silent for a moment, his amber eyes flickering around the room, deep in thought. Finally, he let out a long sigh. "When I planned my visit to Konohagakure, my father had told me to seek out Hiashi. He thinks very highly of him, as you already know, and wanted to make sure we had a good relationship. He told me, 'You can't miss him. He's got a ten-foot pole up his ass and the strangest emptiest eyes you've ever seen on a man.' When I arrived, I saw those eyes, as strange as he had said, but on the loveliest girl, and they were far from empty. I never expected that same girl would be Hiashi's daughter, the heiress of the clan my father had spoken so highly of. I had become… quite enamored, I suppose. Of you," Akio looked at her for a moment, his troubled gaze locked with hers. "And of your eyes."

"My eyes?"

"Your eyes are exquisite, Hinata-sama. Beautiful, of course, but… " The prince faltered, looking down at the floor. "Before I met you and saw it for myself, I had only ever read about the Byakugan. An ocular kekkei genkai exclusive to the Hyūga clan caused by a mutation in the DNA. The science behind it can be explained easily enough. Kept within the same blood line, the mutation can be contained and controlled. However, if that mutation were introduced to a different blood line, with different genetic patterns and affinities…" He trailed off. "I went to Konoha to find Uchiha Sasuke."

"Sasuke-san?" Hinata thought back to the meeting in which he had demanded the lone Uchiha's head. This couldn't be good.

"The Sharingan evolved from the Byakugan, right?"

"That's… " Hinata shook her head, still in disbelief of where the conversation had led. "That's just a legend."

"Legend or not, science supports it. After the war, we realized how much power those eyes held. The Byakugan, the Sharingan, the Rinnegan… they all come from one source, from one bloodline." As Hinata watched him, seeing the way his eyes stared blankly into the walls, she realized she had been right to suspect them. They knew too much. "And the Uchiha was going to be our trump card. Once we had the Sharingan, we could cut ties with Konoha and build our army."

"How would you do that? Sasuke-san won't be so easily persuaded."

He shrugged carelessly. "Loyalty can be bought. It wouldn't have taken much to get him to defect again." He scoffed. "I should have known your Hokage's incompetence would get in the way." Hinata thought of the Uchiha and wondered where he could possibly be. Luckily for him, he was far away and out of the capital's reach.

But she was here. "Are you still looking for him?"

He smiled, looking at her smugly. "I had planned to. I was going to send word to my father to get a search going. I had started writing to him in our hotel room when you came knocking." Hinata lowered her eyes, remembering that day. The dango, the park, the cemetery, the deal she had struck with him. Her eyes widened in understanding.

The clarity in which everything came rushing back to her was astounding.

"Perhaps you're right, Hinata-sama. No cell in the world is as strong as the ones we put ourselves in, after all. I'll delay the warrant for his arrest. And in exchange…"

And in exchange…

Hinata looked up at the prince, her gut twisting. This was why he wanted her to come to the capital. This was why he tried so hard to keep her in his grasp. This was why he had panicked when she threatened to leave. She had unknowingly traded herself for Sasuke. She became his trump card.

Swallowing uneasily, she quietly asked, "What about Sasuke-san?"

"What of him? He might have the Sharingan and the Rinnegan, but you have something even better."

Frowning, Hinata gently prodded around her eyes. "That's…" Not true at all. "… arguable."

Chuckling, he shook his head. "I would expect a wielder of the Byakugan to have more faith. The Uchiha is just one person. The Hyūga clan is capable of so much more. We can help you realize your full potential."

She stared at him, her breath becoming uneasy, genuine fear coursing through her. They knew too much. They knew far too much. "How?"

He turned to her, his amber eyes darkening. "Marry me, and I'll show you." Hinata looked up at him, studying him, mapping out his face, wondering if she would one day have to. She hoped she wouldn't. She hoped she could do it in time. She was counting on it. Slowly, she nodded. "Really?" His face brightened, relief and joy simultaneously splitting his face in a smug attractive smile. Everything still felt unreal, like a terrible, terrible dream, but she had to keep going. She had to match his energy. So she nodded again, this time with a small grin. His hands enclosed over hers, pulling her closer to him. "Then we'll announce it tomorrow."

"Th-that soon?"

"Of course. My sisters can help you prepare for the wedding, you needn't worry about that. We also have to think of your family, I'll have to make arrangements to bring them all over. We can get started immediately."

"What about Konoha?"

He paused, eyes narrowing in thought, before shrugging it off. "I'll deal with them later. After the wedding." Hinata nearly let out a relieved sigh. She had bought them time. At least a few months' worth. That was more than enough. "Will you be ready in two week's then?"

Hinata staggered back, still in his arms. "What?! Two weeks? Why—why so soon?!"

"We need to get started as soon as possible, Hinata-sama."

"Started on what?" Akio looked at her for a long quiet moment. She stared back, searching his expression, deciding he was unhinged. "You want… " She couldn't help the confused frown. "A… a child?" He held her stare, watching her reaction, and she realized his answer. Hinata released his hands, standing up and backing away, almost panting for breath. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't breathe. She needed to get away.

Immediately he too stood up, his eyes darkening. "Hinata-sama?"

"You must not succumb to your emotions, Hinata. Remember your training."

Shakily, she straightened, taking a breath, and then turned to face him. He was on edge again. Slowly, she approached him. "I'm sorry, I… you surprised me." He continued staring at her, waiting. "I thought we would… wait. Until I was ready." She paused here, for effect. "I've never even had a boyfriend before. I've never… I've never even kissed anyone before and… I'm still… "

The prince encased her in his arms, and she let herself lean into him, hiding her embarrassed blush. Hinata had no doubt he was experienced and eager. Feeling his body against hers, she thought briefly back to Konoha. She had always accepted the fact she was probably not suited for romance and boyfriends and kissing and marriage. But like a fool, like the eternal fool she was, she had hoped against hope. Hope had come in the form of someone probably as ill-suited as she was. Someone she would always think of and hope for and wonder about. The only one, really. The only one for her.

And he had never thought of her. He had never hoped for her. He had never wondered about her. She wasn't the one. She wasn't the one for him.

The thought stung. It hurt. It hurt as much as it did at the counter at Ichiraku's. It hurt as much as it did going home and packing her suitcase and promising herself she would put her feelings aside and continue her mission. It hurt as much as her first night in the capital, and the crickets were so loud, and the walls were so white, and the color was gone from her life forever. All she had was the mission. And she was going to try her damndest to do it.

Hinata didn't realize the prince had pulled away from her until they were staring each other in the eye again. His copper gaze dropped to her lips.

Her stomach twisted. Her breath shortened. She had never felt so low and all she had was the mission.

When he leaned down, she met him halfway.

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.

The candlelight flickered with the evening breeze. The drapes swayed through the open balcony. Moonlight poured in through the wide windows, casting shadows, as Hyūga Hinata kissed the son of the daimyo.

She clutched her robes, knuckles tensed, fingers twitching with every pull of their lips. Throughout it all, she never touched him. Not when the prince pulled her body to press against his. Not when his hands roamed her waist and shoulders. Not when his fingers raked through her long dark hair, and held her in place as he deepened his kiss.

Fujiwara Akio's hunger was palpable.

Sasuke's growing discomfort was even more so.

He thought to look away and found that he couldn't. He thought to himself he should skip ahead and decided he didn't want to. The scene in front of him was anything but enthralling, and yet he was captivated.

That Hinata was capable of such intimacy astounded him, even more so than her attempt on his life. He was not unaware of the strong feelings she held for his friend. He was not unaware of her fierce loyalty. He was not unaware that this was a betrayal for her as much as it was for Naruto.

He could see it when they finally broke apart, and she backed away as far as Fujiwara would let her. He could see it when she closed her eyes and struggled to breathe. He could see it left her hollow inside.

The night ended quickly after that. Hinata pressed for more information and he was quick to promise it all to her. Tomorrow, he had promised. Tomorrow, he would show her everything. Everything she could ever want, everything she could ever ask for, he promised she would have it.

With a shy smile, she bade him good night, and excused herself.

Sasuke watched as she slowly walked back to her room.

Slower and slower and slower until she stopped in the middle of the long empty marble hallway. Knees buckling, she quickly reached out to the wall, catching herself as her shoulders began to shake. Sasuke watched as Hinata fought back tears, repressed sobs wracking her body.

It was silent. It was painful. It was the quiet anguish of a person whose passion outweighed her spirit, and cried her shame in the darkness, where no one could see.

And it was his fault.

Had it been him instead, this wouldn't have happened. Hinata would be safe in Konoha, happy and blissfully ignorant of the storm brewing in the capital city. And there wasn't a chance in hell that Sauke would have accepted any offer to broker peace with the capital. They were dangerous. He realized that now. Dangerous, because he couldn't stop them. This was the monster he could not kill. The corruption, the secrets, the greed for power and the means to attain it. The same monster that had ruined so many lives, so many people. People like Sasuke. People like Naruto. People like Hinata.

Slice a head off, and two more grow in its place.

It would never end.

With a deep breath, Hinata lifted herself up, wiped her eyes, and continued.

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.

Autumn mornings had always been a favorite for her.

The golden leaves of the willow tree swayed with the light breeze, ghosting through her hair, reminding her of early morning runs in Konoha. Kiba and Akamaru sprinting ahead, shouting at them to keep up. Shino lagging behind with her, and they would both look at each other knowingly, wondering what on earth possessed them to agree to go running.

She always knew, though. It made Kiba happy. He and Akamaru were bred for sped, born for the chase. Being able to share that with him made her happy, even if she wasn't as gifted as he was.

It felt good too. The pounding heart, the pants for air, the feeling of fresh autumn air lifting her higher and higher. Dropping to the grass, and rolling around in it, laughing with her teammates, high off the exhilaration. It felt so far away now. So far that she would never find her way stared ahead at the serene pond in the daimyo's courtyard, watching a mother and her ducklings.

"We should leave."

Hiashi was a stone besides her. "No."

His sharp response didn't faze her. "We should leave and tell Hokage-sama to relocate the village."

"And where would they go?"

"Anywhere. Maybe… maybe Suna. The Kazekage is such good friends with Naruto-kun. I'm sure they could work something out."

"Hinata," Hiashi sighed.

"And we needn't worry about the villagers either. The capital will take them in and the rest of us can just go."

"Enough. Leaving now would be an insult. We are not finished here."

"When will we be finished? I am to marry him in a matter of weeks."

Hiashi scoffed, turning to face the other direction. He had not taken the news well when Akio had announced it at breakfast. "Foolish. All your years of training, wasted. I've never known you to be so foolish."

The bite in his voice was enough to silence her. Her lips thinned, hand fisting on her lap. "I'm trying to do something." Her voice shook. "I'm trying to help our village."

"At what price?!" Hiashi said angrily. "You marry yourself off to someone you said yourself cannot be trusted. Do you think you can just walk away from that?! No, Hinata! There are consequences! What on earth possessed you?!"

"It doesn't matter." She turned away from him, arms strapped across her chest. "It doesn't matter what happens to me. They want power, enough power to secede from their hidden village. Enough power to… to… " She paused, breathing heavily. "They're dangerous."

Hiashi shook his head, eyes closing in irritation. "An army of civilians isn't enough to stop shinobi."

"It's not just the army." Hinata said exasperatedly, tired of explaining herself over and over, tired of being the only one who could see these connections. "They want more than an army. They want a-a trump card. And it's us… " Trailing off, Hinata stared lifelessly across the pond. No. It had been her. She had been the one who gave herself away, gave her clan away, for… for… "Sasuke-san… we… we have to warn him…"

"Hinata," Hiashi closed his eyes, his patience wearing noticeably thin.

"Akio-sama went to the village to find him—he wanted Sasuke-san from the beginning, for the army, but he wasn't there. I… I need to speak with Naruto-kun, I need to tell him what's happened."

"Ah, are you inviting him to the wedding?"

Hinata stilled, side-eyeing him. Luckily for her, she was used to her father, and too familiar with his crueler side. This was nothing. She was no longer the crying six-year-old that begged for his love, and he was no longer her greatest fear. Staring ahead, she didn't spare him a glance. "Mocking me won't change what's happening. The daimyo asked you to choose between him and the Hokage, and you chose wrong." She stood and walked away immediately, not giving him a chance to scold her again.

She had doubted herself her entire life. Not this time. If it meant she had to take matters into her own hands, so be it. If it meant she would have to make the choices her father refused to, so be it. If it meant she would have to manipulate and lie her way to the top to uncover the truth, then she had already begun.

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.

.

"You'll be meeting the ambassadors tomorrow. It'll be a formal occasion, so you'll need a new kimono." The prince held her hand as they walked back to the palace from the restaurant. She mulled over his words as he explained what colors he thought best suited her features.

"What will the meeting be about?" She asked him quietly.

Before, his answers had always been lacking and cryptic, careful to never give away too much information. Those reservations had gone out the window. "I'll be presenting you as my fiance, of course, and going over our plans for the new era. They'll be ecstatic to meet you. The ambassador to the Land of Lightning especially. He has always been curious of the Byakugan."

Hinata was alarmed, but kept neutral. "So… the other countries are part of the new era as well?" He nodded. "Will they also be retiring their hidden villages?"

"Of course. Their armies are almost as large as ours now. Ah, Hinata-sama, here is that tea shop I was telling you about… "

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.

"Of course the Earth daimyo will do his best to attend the wedding. I wouldn't miss it for the world!" The ambassador to the Land of Earth was a stout woman with bright red lipstick, loud and obnoxious and a bureaucrat to her bones. "Hinata-san will make such a lovely bride. Life in the capital city is just splendid. I have a house here not too far from the daimyo's palace. Well, I have one in every country of course, but I quite enjoy summering here. Tell us, Hinata-san," she took a sip of her wine, "is the Hyūga clan as fearsome as they say?"

Hinata smiled modestly. "I'm afraid so." The table erupted in exaggerated laughter, and Hinata quickly glanced at her father. Hiashi was with the daimyo, the two of them speaking casually over their desserts.

"Such strange eyes… " The ambassador to the Land of Lightning murmured, just loud enough for her to hear. Hinata looked over at him, appraising the gawky nobleman with wide eyes as he leaned in for a closer look.

Fujiwara, dutiful at Hinata's side, cut in. "Disrespect my fiance again, Sasaki, and I'll have you sacked."

The ambassador shrank back. "I meant no harm, my lord. My sincerest apologies, Hinata-san."

"Ah, there's no need to apologize." She lowered her drink, feeling truly sorry for him. It was such a minor offense, but the entire table was glaring at him.

"Never mind Sasaki, Hinata-san." Another ambassador cut in. "You see, the shinobi allies in Lightning don't have a particular kekkei genkai. We were all thrilled to learn that the Fire daimyo was securing a partnership with a clan of dōjutsu wielders."

Hinata's eyebrows knit together. "… shinobi allies?"

The ambassador glanced at the daimyo's son, hesitant to continue, so she turned to Fujiwara instead, a brow raised in question. Fujiwara finished his drink and set the glass aside, raising a hand for a server to fetch him another drink. "My father and the other daimyos agreed to it. We each formed an alliance with a trusted shinobi that would aid our cause. In return for their services and loyalty, they are rewarded with prestigious titles and such."

The Earth ambassador chuckled into her gloved hand. "Well, not everyone marries the shinobi ally, but we all have different methods." Fujiwara sighed, his irritation more visible by the minute. He had more to drink today than usual, Hinata noted. "All the same, Hinata-san, we are all overjoyed to have you and your clan with us to enjoy the new era. Cheers!"

Glasses of wine clinked together, accompanied by choruses of good wishes and congratulations, and Hinata sat with a saccharine smile pasted on.

.

.

.

Bright concentrated light strobed into each eye.

Yasui ducked his head, leveling his gaze with hers. "The pupils dilate accordingly." He muttered quietly. "Please look up. Down. To the left. Straight ahead, please." After a moment, he pocketed his penlight. "I imagine such lightly pigmented eyes are sensitive to sunlight."

Obviously, Hinata thought. "Mm."

Yasui jotted notes in his pad of paper. "Hinata-sama, would you be so kind as to perhaps provide a demonstration? Forgive me, but I've yet to see your Byakugan in action." The excitement in his tone was discernible.

Hinata, seated on a steel examining table in Yasui's private office in one of the laboratories, waited a long moment before shaking her head. When the daimyo approached her earlier, flanked by Yasui, requesting an examination, she saw no other choice but to agree. Even worse, she had told them not to bother her father when they had suggested inviting him along. Strangely, Akio had decided not to accompany her. Hinata sat alone in the office with Yasui, the daimyo long gone, wrapped up in his own busy schedule.

Yasui frowned at the floor, obviously stung by her refusal.

"Forgive me, Yasui-san. It's really a matter of etiquette. I am a guest in your country, and off-duty. You must understand that it is an extremely invasive technique. If I were to activate the Byakugan now, I would be looking into the public and private lives of every single person in a fifteen-mile radius." She paused a moment to let that sink in, watching his expressions. "The Hyūga take privacy and security very seriously."

Yasui was silent for a long moment, his eyes shifting pensively. Finally, he relented. "Of course." Moving on, he referred back to his notepad. "Does every member of the Hyūga clan inherit the Byakugan? You all possess those famous white eyes."

Hinata shook her head. "Not everyone."

Yasui lowered his notepad. "You're saying the Byagakun won't necessarily manifest in everyone with Hyūga lineage?"

She noted the underlying urgency in Yasui's voice. Hinata stayed calm, maintaining her neutral disposition. "Yes. And those that do have the ability need rigorous training and exercise to awaken it."

Yasui frowned. Adjusting his thickly rimmed glasses, he went over his notes. "So the Byakugan is a recessive trait? Can only full-blooded Hyūga with their Byakugan awakened pass it onto their offspring?"

"It's more of a matter of chance than that, Yasui-san." Hinata looked around for her sweater, starting to stand from the table. Her discomfort had been near tangible the entire examination.

"Can you tell me more about your parentage? Hiashi-sama is a skilled wielder of the Byakugan. Was your mother skilled as well?"

Hinata tucked on her shoes. "Not particularly."

Yasui jotted more notes quickly, muttering quietly to himself. Hinata pulled on her sweater, watching the researcher with piercing eyes. Yasui checked the time and sighed, rubbing at his temples. "I'm afraid we'll need to schedule another session, Hinata-sama. There are far more variables than I had anticipated." Hearing this, Hinata's lips scrunched in distaste. "I'd like to have Hiashi-sama accompany us as well."

She headed to the door. "Perhaps another time, Yasui-san."

Yasui looked up hastily from his notepad, brow creasing. "Perhaps the daimyo will decide that." Hinata paused, glancing behind herself. Yasui adjusted his glasses, closing his notepad and setting it on the table. "Hinata-sama, we've been working together for some time now, as you know. I'd hate to see all our progress go to waste. Young Fujiwara-sama, especially. He's grown so fond of you. In fact, if it weren't for you, I'm not sure Hiashi-sama alone could have won the capital's favor. Since his arrival, his cooperation has been… minimal. It doesn't speak well for him." Hinata's icy lavender eyes cut to him, reminding herself not to react. "My colleagues and I question his commitment to the program. We question whether or not his loyalties truly lie with the daimyo… or with the Hokage."

"My father's loyalties lies with his country." Hinata answered sharply.

"Of course." Yasui crossed his arms behind his back, watching Hinata intently. "I understand you are returning to Konoha in a few days. The daimyo is permitting you time to handle your affairs before you relocate to the capital city. Then, of course, there's the wedding and all the preparations…" Yasui trailed off. "Please be sure to make some time for more evaluations. We are allies after all."

"Of course." Hinata mirrored him with a small smile. "You should know, Yasui-san, getting married is every girl's dream. I'm sorry if I haven't been attentive. My father is also burdened with the responsibility of relocating his entire clan and finalizing everything with the daimyo. Surely we can finish this up after the wedding?"

Yasui's pleasant grin soured. "I'm afraid not, Hinata-sama."

Hinata cocked her head. "Oh? I'll speak with my beloved. He was so insistent we spend as much time together as possible before I have to head back to my village. I hate to think of how disappointed he will be, but I'll let him know you command it." The ensuing silence afterwards spoke volumes. It thickened uncomfortably, as they stared at one another.

"Please give the young lord my regards." Weaving around her, Yasui quickly stormed out of the lab, leaving Hinata staring after him until she was sure he was gone. Releasing a shaky breath, she stepped closer to the window, seeking out the buildings in the distance, the restricted research and development district. She hesitated, remembering her place. To use her abilities here would be an insult. She was off-duty and a guest in this country.

The decision to disregard all of that was easier than it should have been. Chakra pulsed to her eyes as they narrowed in concentration. The world around her magnified and expanded all at once, her attention being pulled in different directions, as she kept focus on the targeted buildings.

A gasp startled out of her.

Immediately, the veins around her eyes strengthened with an extra surge of chakra as she leaned forward in complete disbelief. Her breath shortened, panic tightening her throat. It couldn't be. It just wasn't possible. The walls of the laboratories in the research and development district were somehow…

Hinata refused to believe it. Never in her life had she ever encountered anything impervious to the Byakugan. Never. No, she just had to try harder. More chakra. More control. Quickly, she employed a hand seal. Her vision blurred with each passing moment, nearly swirling with deliriousness as it attempted to penetrate past the protective barrier surrounding the laboratories.

Shutting her eyes, her knees buckled and she quickly caught herself, wincing as the chakra dissolved from her eyes. She stood there for some time, catching her breath, dumbfounded at her discovery. She had to tell her father. And then… and then…

She couldn't imagine what would happen if she chose now to confront them. How easily it could be spun back on her for having the audacity to spy on them in the first place. How shamelessly they would defend themselves and the inexplicably advanced technology they must possess to create such a thing.

No. Confronting them would ruin months of hard work. As badly as she would like to think so, they had not committed a crime. She had no evidence. Whatever proof she needed was in those laboratories, she was sure of it now. But what could she do? As far as she had come gaining their trust, she simply was not there yet. The final test, she knew, was the wedding. Until then…

Until then, she would have to wait.

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It was their final day in the capital city, and Sasuke could feel the anticipation radiating off Hinata. Even as she faked a smile, and accepted well wishes from the nameless, faceless people around her, he knew she had reached her limit. She had reached it some time ago, that afternoon in the advisor's office. Yasui, it turned out, was not only an important member of the daimyo's small council. He was also a physician and the top researcher in the team of scientists he led. Yet another peg in the daimyo's schemes.

Hiashi directed a team of servants as they wheeled out the stacks of bags. Hinata had come with minimal luggage; the typical light packing of a shinobi for easy travel. She hadn't accounted for the numerous gifts forced on her in her few weeks in the capital city. "Send it all in a carriage if you must. Hinata and I will go on foot." Hiash insisted. The daimyo clucked in disapproval but nodded.

"Have it your way, Hiashi. But go easy on my future daughter-in-law! We'll need her back, you know!" The daimyo roared in laughter, clapping Hiashi on the back, before setting his sights on Hinata. "Take care, Hinata-chan. I expect you back in two weeks time. We have the wedding of the century to plan after all!"

Hinata looked away, relaxing her fingers from the death grip she had on her sleeves. "O-Of course. Um, where is Akio-sama? I haven't seen him since morning."

The daimyo grinned. "Well…"

"Hinata-sama," The younger Fujiwara's unmistakable smooth voice carried over the clamor of the crowd around them. Hinata quickly turned around, her eyes widening at the sight. Her intended strolled over to them, noticeably chipper. Suitcases at his side. Hinata paled.

"A-Akio-sama," She stammered. "What is all this?"

Standing before her, he took her hands, lifting them to his chest. "I've decided to accompany you. I want to be there when you make the announcement."

Hinata frowned. "About the secession?! Already?!"

Akio chuckled, amused if a little cross. "When you announce the engagement, Hinata-sama."

"Oh." Hinata swallowed uncomfortably.

"My son is quite the romantic." The daimyo rolled his eyes good-naturedly, patting Akio on the back. "It seems he can't bear to part with you, Hinata-chan. Indulge my son, if you will. Hiashi, I leave him in your care."

Hiashi's eyes begged to be put out of his misery. "Of course."

"Well then," the daimyo turned to his band of servants. "Get another carriage ready. My son will be riding with our Hyūga allies back to Konoha."

Sasuke watched with the crowd as Hiashi ducked into the carriage. The prince, attentive and nauseatingly gallant, helped Hinata into the carriage. He waved to the crowd, nodding to his father, and went in after them.

It was mid-noon as the carriage rolled away.

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The rickety wheels creaked as it rattled along the paved roads.

From the carriage window, Hinata looked up at the moon as it hid behind stormy gray clouds. The night was quiet and peaceful. Her father, too restless to remain cooped up inside the carriage, announced he would scout on ahead and make sure the roads were safe for traveling.

Her head lay on the broad chest of the young prince, his arm draped comfortingly around her. The initial reluctance she had felt when he pulled her into this position steadily gave way. She was too tired to feel guilty.

"You smell nice."

Hinata almost startled at his quiet, drowsy comment. "It's the shampoo."

"Mm." He hummed in approval, his hold on her tightening. "What do you think your friends will say?"

Hinata stared at her lap. The wedding. He always wanted to talk about the wedding. She already knew what Kiba would say. She already knew how Shino would stare at her. She knew Kurenai-sensei would try to talk her out of it. How she could explain herself without giving away the intel she had recovered, she didn't know. All she knew was that she couldn't yet blow her cover. She couldn't let Konoha know the depths of the capital's plans. As much as she honored the Hokage, as much as she loved Naruto, she couldn't trust them not to take matters into their own hands and ruin the progress she had made. There was still hope. A peaceful resolution was possible. And it started with the doting prince besides her, and his drive to please her and keep her as his shiny trophy.

Hinata leaned into him. "I think they will be happy for me."

"They should be." He answered immediately. They remained like that for a long while, silent and in their own thoughts. Hinata wondered what she would do once they arrived. "Hinata-sama," Akio called to her quietly. "I know I've not always been fair to you. When I met you all those months ago, I had only been thinking of my plans and my father's vision. I never realized how important you would become to me. And I wish I had treated you better. I wish I had done things differently."

Hinata turned to look at him. She had never heard him sound so low. "Akio-sama… "

Reaching down, he took her hand and held it gently. "We'll be happy together, Hinata-sama. I swear it."

Hinata didn't know what to say. She didn't know how this would fit into her plans. She didn't know if this would change anything. How long would this last before the truth came out? How long until he realized just how unworthy she really was, the way everyone else knew? She could only hope that someday this would all be worth it.

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It was well past midnight when Hinata and Hiashi finally made it home. At the entrance to the village, Hiashi directed the prince and his bodyguards to an inn in the central district and they parted ways. In silence, they continued on to the Hyūga compound.

Even from the distance, Sasuke could feel the tension. Since the confrontation in the daimyo's courtyard, they had hardly spoken to each other. Largely ignoring each other, they cut through the courtyard of the Hyūga compound, heading inside and setting down their luggage. For a moment, they looked warily at one another, waiting.

In the next moment, the light clicked on. "Nee-sama!"

He had never seen Hinata smile like that. It looked unnatural on her. Turning around, she met the full impact of Hanabi's monstrous hug, the two girls swaying in laughter before pulling away. "Hanabi," Hinata said affectionately, looking down at her little sister. "You should be asleep."

"I wanted to be here when you arrived" Suddenly remembering herself, Hanabi straightened and bowed to Hiashi. "Welcome home, father."

For the first time in weeks, Hiashi genuinely smiled. "I'm glad to see the house still intact. Any troubles while I was away, Hanabi?"

"None. Well… " She trailed off, looking down at the floor.

"What is it?" Hinata prompted.

Hanabi blinked for a few moments, sweeping her long brunette hair out of her face. "Tokuma-san," She muttered. "I've sent out two teams." Her voice cracked slightly before quickly composing herself. "No leads."

Heavy silence weighed between them. Hinata's blank eyes fastened to a corner in the room, staring without seeing. Hiashi grit his teeth, breathing in deeply, noticeably restraining himself. "When did the Hokage send out his squad for the search?"

Hearing this, Hanabi frowned. "Hokage-sama?" Her eyes searched her father's profile. "He… didn't send a squad." Hiashi stilled.

Hinata watched him from the corner of her eye. "Father, we can lead a squad on our own." Ignoring her, Hiashi crossed over to the patio and slid his sandals back on. "Father," Hinata called for him. "Father, please don't."

Hanabi looked wide-eyed between them. "What's going on? Father, what's wrong?"

Hiashi paused at the door, his breathing heavy, his eyes empty of emotion. "Tokuma has been missing for months." He hissed. "And the Hokage has sat here doing nothing. The ANBU are out monitoring that damned Orochimaru, keeping tabs on the Uchiha and every traitor alive, and Tokuma still hasn't been found. Kakashi will hear me yet. Are you coming, Hinata?"

The sharp question startled her. Her gaze fell to the floor. "Father, it's… it's midnight. W-We shouldn't bother the Hokage."

Hinata and Hanabi, at the other end of the room, watched him carefully. Hiashi was silent for a long tense moment, staring out into the courtyard, his back turned to them. "You are still weak."

It was like watching a candle snuff out. Hinata stared at him in disbelief, her eyes glossing over, and lowered her head. Ashamed. Hanabi stared at her sister, her eyes wide with shock. "Nee-sama…" Turning back to her father, Hanabi stood protectively between them. Hiashi didn't spare her a glance, turning around only to glare at his oldest daughter.

"Tell your sister the good news, Hinata." Hiashi spat. Looking up at him, Hinata's lips pressed tightly together, avoiding the confused stare of her younger sister.

"What's going on? Nee-sama? What aren't you telling me?" Hanabi pleaded.

"I… I… "

"Speak up, Hinata." Hiashi demanded, coming closer, as she backed up, her breathing hard and erratic. Seeing her now, cowering in shame, unable to look either of them in the eye, Sasuke recognized the same small girl from long ago. The same girl he had thought long dead. He could see now she had never truly left.

"Hanabi," Hinata muttered lowly, hands clasped on her skirt. Swallowing her discomfort down, Hinata continued. "Father and I were invited to the capital so that they could—"

"Your sister is engaged to the daimyo's son." Hiashi cut in coldly. "They will be wed within the month." Hinata turned from her father to Hanabi, crossing her arms and looking away.

"What?!" Hanabi gasped aloud. "N-Nee-sama! You—I don't—how could you do something like that?!" The long sleeves of her nightclothes billowed around as she waved her arms around in protest.

Sasuke could see from the way Hinata's shoulders tensed that her patience was wearing thin, and the guilt was giving way to acceptance. "You wouldn't understand."

"I understand just fine!" Hanabi bit angrily. Whirling around, she rushed to her father, staring up at him angrily. "Father, how could you let this happen?!"

He ignored Hanabi, his scowl a permanent fixture on Hinata. "Your sister made her choice."

"No! She's not thinking straight, you have to stop this." Hanabi sounded like she was on the verge of tears. "Nee-sama doesn't love him! Nee-sama loves—"

"Stop it, Hanabi." Hinata snapped, turning to glare at her sister. "That's not why I'm marrying him!"

"Then why—"

"Because there are more important things! And what was I supposed to say?!" Hinata was now frantic herself, frustrated tears clogging her throat as she tried to defend herself. "I can't refuse the daimyo! What was I supposed to do?!"

"You didn't think to ask me! I am your father and you superseded me!" Hiashi came roaring to his defense, Hanabi jumping at the monstrous volume. Hinata didn't let herself flinch, standing her ground as she fought back tears. "I am the head of the clan and you disobeyed my direct orders to stay neutral. Now look at what's happening. The daimyo's brat is planning to make a mockery of our clan tomorrow."

"He's here?!" Hanabi cried out.

Hiashi wasn't through yet. "You took the choice out of my hands. How dare you question my judgement…" Clearly referring to their encounter in the courtyard, when Hinata stormed away from him, the morning that they announced the engagement. Hiashi was pent up with the tension and anger he had repressed in their entire trip. Sasuke didn't doubt this break in his temperament was a rarity.

"If I hadn't, you would have done nothing! " Hinata shouted back at him, eyes widening once she realized what she had said. Backtracking, she lowered her voice. "We are in the daimyo's confidence now. He trusts us. There'll be no more secrets, no more lies—I can find out the truth."

"What truth, nee-sama?" Hanabi shook her head, her voice strained with the emotion in the room. "Why are you taking the daimyo's side? Father said they can't be trusted!"

"I'm not taking their side! I'm not taking anyone's side! Not until I find out what they're planning."

"What is the matter with you?!" Hiashi growled. "They're planning to become an independent country and outlaw all shinobi but the traitors that ally with them! What more can you possibly be after?"

"What?!" Hanabi gasped, promptly ignored.

"There's more to it than that. Akio-sama targeted Sasuke-san for his Sharingan and when he couldn't have him, he went after the Byakugan instead. He wants our eyes. The scientists, they've been studying us, they're—"

"Enough, Hinata. I am speaking to the Hokage tomorrow."

"Wh…why?! What are you going to tell him?!"

"It's none of your concern." He replied coldly. "If the Hokage expects the loyalty of the Hyūga clan, he should have invested his time in finding Tokuma—instead of gifting you to the daimyo's brat like a common… " Hiashi paused, restraining himself. "The Hokage caused this. He will hear me yet." With that, he swept out of the room to his quarters, leaving his daughters behind.

The two stared awkwardly at one another. Hanabi wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "It's okay, nee-sama. Father will fix this. He knows what to do."

Hinata sighed and looked out into the courtyard. "No. He doesn't."

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She didn't know where she was going.

She had thought, as she slid open the window of her bedroom, that she would go see Akio. Extract more information from him. It occurred to her as she leapt off the roof that he was asleep. The entire village was asleep. Still, she continued, walking aimlessly through the village, relishing in the quiet, unobtrusive darkness. She was alone, at last. And after the confrontation earlier… Hinata sighed, eyes shut tight. She couldn't believe what she had done. She couldn't believe the things she had said.

Maybe she really was in way over her head and her father had been right all along. So she was wrong once again in a lifetime of mistakes and failures. That wasn't surprising. What was surprising was how strongly her father reacted. She had not seen him so angry in a long, long time. To react so strongly… to succumb to his emotions like that… her father must have been more affected than she could have ever thought. Of course he would. He was caught in the middle between his loyalty towards his home village and his duty to protect the world peace they had fought so hard for. And Tokuma was still missing.

Hinata paused, taking a moment to wipe her eyes. From the distance, she could see the Hokage's tower. Through the wide window of the Hokage's office, a light was on. Was Hokage-sama still awake? Maybe… maybe she could speak to him… ask him to send her on a long, difficult mission on the other side of the planet.

Just then, a figure rose in front of the window, staring out into the village.

Naruto-kun?

Hinata wondered what he was doing so late at night in his sensei's office, before coming to the stunning realization that this was Naruto. He could help her. If anyone would know what to do, it was Naruto. Quickly, she broke into a jog, intent on running up a building and sprinting across power-lines to reach him as quickly as possible.

As she got closer, she slowed.

His face…

She had never seen him look so… defeated. Not since… not since Sasuke-san…

Was this the effect the daimyo had on him? She knew when she left that he was working on another proposal to get the capital city back on board with them. If only he knew what had happened with the first one, they one they had all worked so hard on. It had all been a waste of time. And it was worse than they could have imagined. If Naruto knew what she knew…

A secession, a secret army, a partnership between all five countries that planned to outlaw not only Konoha shinobi but now all their friends and allies, and that was just the beginning. It would destroy him. Naruto had worked so hard to get them here and now it was being taken away. What about his dream? How could he be the Hokage of a village that doesn't exist?

Her resolve steeled itself. She would complete her mission. Once she married Akio, once she had him in her grasp, she would do whatever it took to restore their lives back to normal. She didn't care what it would cost her. As long as she could convince Akio to ally himself with Konoha again, it didn't matter what happened to her. Because the alternative was worse.

Slumping down to a bench, she closed her eyes, running her hand through her hair. Tomorrow, Akio would announce their engagement. And then they would marry. She had expected the wedding of a noble son to take months of planning and preparation. Instead, it was being treated like a one-stop shop to secure the partnership between the capital city and the Hyūga clan. Even more alarming was Akio's reasoning for it.

A child…?

Hinata still felt like a child herself. It seemed despite his temperament, Akio was eager for fatherhood. She wondered, for a brief awful moment, if their child would look like her. If their child would have her… her eyes…

Hinata slowly straightened, the speed in which everything came rushing back terrifyingly clear. Her eyes. The child. He wanted the Byakugan not just for his army, but for his lineage. It explained everything. It was why they had requested those clan records and the family tree. It was why Akio knew so much about doujutsus, and why Yasui had panicked when she revealed to him not every Hyūga could awaken the Byakugan.

Hinata felt sick to her stomach. He was truly a monster, and she would never bear him a child so long as she lived. Worse, she felt incredibly stupid. It was so obvious. If it hadn't been for her eyes, he would never have courted her. He would never have proposed to her, or kissed her, or promised a happy life with her. It had all been for these damn eyes.

The Caged Bird seal. The Hyūga affair. Uncle Hizashi, and Neji-niisan, and her mother quietly crying in the corner. It was always about her eyes.

Lifting her head, vision blurry with angry tears, Hinata looked towards the cemetery, remembering what she had done. Neji-niisan's grave was sacred, a shrine to her most precious memories and her most important promise, and she had dirtied it by bringing him there. Quickly, she stood up, wiping her eyes.

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Opening her eyes, she unclasped her hands, looking down at the marble plaque. With the sleeve of her sweater, she wiped it clean, and adjusted the vase of the fresh lilies she had just picked. The dirt around here was so uneven. Frowning, she packed it down, smoothing it over. The grass had been so well-maintained before she left. It was now in patches, dried and unsightly. Hinata couldn't believe the maintenance workers had let this happen. It almost seemed intentional.

Pausing, Hinata stared at the plot beneath her, her years as a tracking expert pointing out every obvious sign. The unevenness, the patches, the hasty attempt to cover up a breakage in the solid foundation of dirt. Hinata didn't want to believe it.

Someone had disturbed Neji's grave. Anger surged through her, cold and unforgiving, and before she could even ask why, she already knew. Before she could wonder who, the answer was so clear, she sunk to her knees. Through hot tears, she channeled chakra to her eyes, to confirm what she already knew. Through six feet of dirt and roots and insects, there lay the coffin of mahogany she had helped to lower in. Empty.

A scream caught in her throat. Blinding anger had her clawing at her own hair, unwilling to believe this was real. This had to be a nightmare. A hallucination. "N-Neji-niisaaan… " Hinata cried into her sweater. In a moment, the grief gave way to murderous fury. She would kill them for this. She swore it. As soon as she got her hands on Akio, she would shut off every organ in his body, and she'd get the daimyo too.

Turning her head, she looked to a plot in the distance. The plot she avoided, the plot with no flowers, no visitors, no shrine of memories to return to. The grave of her mother, empty.

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Hinata walked home in a daze, numb. She had stopped crying some time ago, when she had calmed down enough to think. In her head, everything made so much sense. All the pieces finally fit together. The marriage. The child. The eyes. Tokuma. The empty graves.

"Together, you and I can achieve so much more than you would in Konoha. With you at my side, I could lead this country to greatness. We will be the greatest dynasty in history. No one will ever forget who I am and what I did to save my country."

"The Byakugan, the Sharingan, the Rinnegan… they all come from one source, from one bloodline."

His words echoed back to her so clearly, as if he had been telling her his plans all along. How he wanted that bloodline. Akio had looked so captivated that night, lecturing her on her own doujutsu and the endless possibilities of having one. Controlling one.

He was going after the Byakugan. As far as she knew, he had gotten his hands on two pairs. Both Neji-niisan and her mother had been Branch members, their Byakugan had self-destructed at death. It was probably why their whole bodies has been stolen, rather than just their eyes. But why two? Why not stop at one?

"We were all thrilled to learn that the Fire daimyo was securing a partnership with a clan of dōjutsu wielders."

Of course. One for each country, to strengthen the alliance. It would all seem so far-fetched if it hadn't already been done before. A powerful weapon for each capital city, to ensure peace among them.

Bijuu.

Naruto-kun.

How was she going to tell him? How could she explain to him there were some evils that could never be stopped? Would he even believe her? Would anyone believe her?

And even if they did, what would Konoha do? Proclaim war? And when the other hidden villages learned the truth, would they declare war too? Just like that, would the world be once again thrown into chaos and death and endless war? No. The hidden villages would win. They would wipe out the daimyos' army. Imprison the leaders. Worse. And the balance between shinobi and civilian would never be the same again.

If they managed to capture Tokuma, how far had they already come?

She doesn't know what the future holds for them.

What she does know is that she won't stand by any longer. She'll stop them. She'll recover Neji-niisan's body. She'll find Tokuma. She'll take back everything they had stolen from her and make it right.

Even if she had to do it alone.

All her life, she had been called a failure, disappointing her clan and her father at every turn. She had almost taken the wrong path so many times. Here she was again, standing at two roads diverged. One would have her begging her father and the Hokage to listen and to take action, and let them handle the choices she didn't trust herself to make. The other one would have her give it all up, so that for once in her life, she could protect everyone else. She would hurt so many people. And maybe they would never understand.

She knew which path to take. She could only hope she knew the way.

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A candle burned lowly in the office of Hyūga Hiashi.

The clan head sat drowsily behind his desk, a saucer in hand. The bottle of sake in front of him had not been touched in eight years. For hours, he stared at a picture on his desk. Slowly, he drew it to himself.

The door opened with a creak.

Hiashi didn't look up from the photo.

For a long while, the two were silent.

Hiashi lowered the frame, looking at his daughter with heavy eyes. Slowly, Hinata approached him, closing the door behind her. Nothing was said between them, yet he understood. Hinata's watery eyes were fixed on him. What she had seen with those lifeless eyes he would never know.

Moonlight glinted off the kunai in Hinata's hand. Hiashi stared at it for a moment before lowering his eyes. With a small strange smile, he looked up at his daughter. She was still, and poised, emotionless and ready to do what she must. Even if she didn't want to. It was what he had always wanted from her.

"I leave it to you."

Twirling the kunai in nimble fingers, she pierced his lung in one moment, and immobilized him in the next. The frame shattered beneath him.

In the next moment, she was gone.

By the time Hiashi was found, unresponsive, in a puddle of blood, she was far, far away.

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When he opened his eyes, cold winter air bit viciously around him. They were back in the rented cabin in Shimogakure, near frozen to death. Sasuke had spent weeks in her mindscape, but only an hour had passed in the physical world. Groggily, he cradled his head, just as Hinata came to. They stared at one another, both disoriented and exhausted but fully aware of the shit they were in.

Sasuke closed his eyes. "Fuck."

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i really wish i had realized my italics hadn't gone through without going to bed. i hope the story still made sense without them. anyways, i re-uploaded the chapter. thanks for all the support guys.

-gen.