Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto

Chapter 1

A small boomff blew in his ear as Katsuyu dispelled, leaving Naruto flat on his back and staring up at surprisingly calm blue sky. Staring further than he could comprehend into the fathomless forever. Thinking thoughts beyond his understanding. Trying to decipher feelings he could hardly even name.

Chaotic emotions and exhaustion clouded his already strained sanity. Despite having just seen it with his own eyes, despite the paper bouquet of roses lying beside him, despite the pitifully comforting weight of Ero-sennin's novel on his chest, Naruto's mind struggled to grasp this new reality.

Anyone else would have been elated over defeating Pein, his Master's killers. But the victory left a bittersweet aftertaste in Naruto's mouth. After talking with the man behind the reanimated emotionless corpse, and hearing the easily relatable story of Yahiko, the monsters were so much more than faceless enemies now. They had names. Hopes. Goals. Ideals. The fact that Nagato would never get to enjoy the clarity of his new outlook on Shinobi life, or just the meaning of life itself, left Naruto feeling torn between regret and resignation. And heartbroken for Konan.

The sad expression of acceptance that had been on her face reminded Naruto again of Hinata's bloody smile as she had challenged Pein. The unforgettable image once more summoned the panic that had burned in his gut at the resolute tone of her voice, the calm strength in her words, the solidity of her stance. His eyes had widened in horror as she ignored his pleas, accepting each vicious blow like it was her fate. Every grunt of pain that had escaped her shaking body twisted his soul with a desperate fury that had finally exploded into a demonic rampage.

Despite Katsuyu's assurances before she had dispelled, Naruto squeezed his watering eyes closed, struggling to calm his twitching body and fall into Sage Mode so he could touch on her reassuring chakra. Relief washed over him anew as he sensed it, and he hoped that she was not just going to survive, but that she would be back to normal in no time. He needed to see her, he had so many questions.

Like, why did she do that? Why did she say that? Why didn't she listen to him? Why did it have to be her? And, and…his intuition clung to her faint sensation like a moth following the dim glow of a candle flame…why did her chakra feel so different than anyone else's? It was like diving into his bed after an exhausting day of training. Like the first bite of ramen after being away from home for years. Like the first deep breath of air after diving to the bottom of the river. He craved more of it. He wanted to turn it over and examine its alluring facets like a pretty stone in the palm of his hand.

Struggling to his feet Naruto stumbled his way back towards Konoha, but didn't make it very far before the burn of his muscles and the ache of his bones forced him to sit heavily upon a large rock. The paper bouquet and Ero-sennin's book tumbled from his arms as he slid down its stony face letting his head fall backwards. Dappled shadows from the trees overhead danced across his sprawled legs as the sun sank lower on the horizon. Naruto smiled lopsidedly, remembering how he used to fall asleep in the shade after Ero-sennin whipped his ass in a brutal chakra training session then let him lean against his sturdy back just like the stone behind him now.

It was a peaceful spot. A beautiful bit of nature hidden in the forest. A remembering place. Letting the reprieve slowly build up his chakra from its rock bottom post-battle level, Naruto slipped a kunai from his pouch and carefully chipped away at the rock. Just as the sunlight began to shift into the orange hues that signaled the oncoming sunset, he stood and brushed his hands together in satisfaction at the carefully carved kanji. Setting the book and the bouquet down upon the little shrine, Naruto turned to plod the rest of the way to Konoha, heavy of step but lighter of heart.

Sleepiness was winning over physical exhaustion, and just as Naruto tripped for the umpteenth time, Kakashi appeared in front of him.

"Sensei," he whispered hoarsely, tears immediately springing to Naruto's weary eyes. He had been clinging to the reassurance that Nagato's jutsu had worked even though the Akatsuki Leader had been fading fast. While the brief post battle moment in Sage Mode spent counting the chakra signatures of his precious people had helped stabilize his sanity, the living-breathing presence of the man standing before him was a much needed reassurance that had Naruto sputtering happily through tears that he quickly tried to wipe away.

They walked back in silence, Naruto clung to his Sensei's back as he once more fell deep into thought. Fatigue had stolen his words, so instead of the normally ceaseless fountain of questions, the student merely laid his heavy head upon the strong shoulder offered. Kakashi was fuzzy on many details himself, so there was nothing to be gained by talking in circles, and Naruto could only wait in bleary anxiousness to see what actually remained of Konoha.

Did everyone see his transformation? Did they all realize that he had essentially failed to save Konoha? If he had not been saved by his father at the last second the world would be a much different place. Would they accept that it was the very enemy who destroyed the village that had then resurrected them all at the cost of his own life? Would they even believe him if he told them the truth?

Shouts roused him from his deep reverie, and Naruto blinked his sleepy eyes as he realized they had reached what was left of the village gates. As he gaped at the massive crater, haggard shinobi and civilians began crawling over piles of debris to get a better look at the disheveled head of blond hair. The further Kakashi walked into the ruined village the more people began to gather and call out his name in recognition. Naruto's heart seized in trepidation at the sight of the growing mob, flashbacks of shouting and chasing through dusty alleys overlapping with the sounds of thudding footsteps.

The crowd raced to greet them as he slid from Kakashi's back down onto the dirt of the road, making him shuffle backwards in instinctual defense at their charging progress. But Naruto blinked in confusion as he made out the words of excitement and found their faces were filled with triumph and joy, not hatred and disgust.

Jumbled congratulations and groping hands blurred into an overwhelming mass of disheveled humanity that rang in his head. Naruto had always craved attention, but now his nerves were so frayed he couldn't rationally process yet another shock. He just wanted some peace, calm, a repose after the apocalypse they all had barely survived.

The feeling of her soothing chakra flitted through his memory. Yes, that was what he needed right now.

Scanning the crowd Naruto searched for her face, the fear that she was alive but still seriously hurt was nearly choking him. Vaguely familiar faces swam before him, screaming his name in a way that grated his ears yet excited him. The whole thing was so confusing, he had so many questions, so much he needed to say, to process. He needed her.

Just as Naruto was about to leap away to enter Sage Mode a pink blur glomped him in a brutal embrace.

"Sa-Sakura-ch—" Naruto couldn't even gasp out her name when a split second later pain shot from his head down his spine. He clutched his head, grinding his teeth in pain as she immediately switched from one emotional extreme to the next. Her rarely bestowed physical affection rapidly returned to the usual physical affliction as Sakura reamed him for his recklessness.

A snarl of frustration escaped his clenched jaw. Seriously? After everything that had just happened, that they had barely endured, she was gonna scold him? He wasn't exactly asking for accolades, or strutting back into the half destroyed village like some kind of conquering hero. He just needed a little comfort. To see his precious people whole. Alive.

After Konan had left, Katsuyu had answered his insistent questions about Hinata, telling him how Sakura had healed her. The thanks that he had been preparing to give Sakura for her help dried on Naruto's tongue when he couldn't get a single word out between her sniffled upbraiding.

Her yelling caused the group of people to fall silent in shock at the sight of their savior being abused so zealously by the Hokage's respected apprentice. Naruto felt them pause but didn't care about the ebbing adulations, he just wanted to get away. As he was about to grab Sakura by the shoulders, she suddenly wrapped her arms around him once more, and her angry shouts turned into wracking sobs.

It was too much, Naruto couldn't keep up with her. His own feelings were a roller coaster ride that he could barely endure and now Sakura's swinging fist and crushing hug were grating painfully on his already raw nerves. His own soul needed healing before he could begin to hear her out.

The crowd around them completely missed his discomfort and growing panic. They 'awwwed' at what appeared to be a powerful reunion of teammates, and Naruto stiffened under the unwanted outsiders' leering intrusion.

It all felt so wrong, but Naruto patted her awkwardly, trying to paste a smile on his face while looking around desperately for someone to help him peel her off his body. As he glanced around the now cheering crowd again, noting that—of course—his sensei had disappeared already, he finally saw her.

She was leaning heavily on Neji's shoulder, her face nearly white but a soft smile tilting the corners of her mouth. Her eyes glistened with tears that he could easily decipher without effort. She was sad, but happy at the same time.

Naruto called her name, shoving away from Sakura and ignoring her yelp of indignation as she was immediately eaten by the rising crowd. Desperation tinged his voice as he yelled again, the fact that he had finally found her but couldn't get to her feeding his frantic pushing through the throng of humanity. Hinata must have heard him call her name because her pearly eyes widened just a fraction before he lost her once more in the press of hands that were roughly hoisting him into the air.

He grimaced as they tossed him in jubilee, his brain rationalizing that this was supposed to be a good thing, even while his heart ached for an answer to the questions boiling in his soul. At least he had finally seen her. She was able to stand and smile, and Neji was by her side. Taking comfort in the short glimpse he had gotten of her face, Naruto tried to appreciate the current moment, the epic realization that the villagers apparently had finally come to respect him as a shinobi, as a human, and as a member of The Leaf.

But between his forced grins and their jarring congratulations, Naruto couldn't help but wonder at the sincerity of it all. He had been the pariah for so long, it was hard for him to fully accept their adoration. After spending what felt like a lifetime talking with Nagato about what it meant to have a change of heart, this sudden flip of the switch from the mostly faceless civilians just did not register in his head.

He needed more time. Time to process all of this. Someone to listen to his side of this insane story and comb through the surreal until all that was left was the solid truth. But the someone he wanted had disappeared, and all that remained were strangers' smiles and the throbbing of Sakura's latest blow on his head.

Catching glimpses of a few familiar faces in the morass of bodies, Naruto tried to signal to them for a little help. But they all just watched with glee as he was assaulted by well-wishers in the assumption that he must be loving all of this. For surely the deviant of the academy would revel in this attention. He always was happy, always bounced back. The most predictable thing about him was that he would be fine. One way or another.

So they never paused to ask what had actually happened. What he had really been through. If he was honestly ok. Finally Naruto was able to free his hands from the grasping handshakes long enough to create a shadow clone and escape. Far away from the smothering people he was able to breathe freely once more.

Wandering the demolished streets of the barely recognizable village, Naruto felt none of the pride or joy that he usually did after a battle. This didn't feel like a victory. Their adoration didn't feel fulfilling in the way he had thought it would. The respect felt forced, none of them understood exactly what had happened after he tore out of the village after Pein. They had no idea exactly what the last few hours had changed in him. That he never could have done it without Hinata's words, without his father's help.

He still needed help…

Something in his heart pulled him towards her. Call it curiosity, longing, or just plain need. As the sun finally fell below the horizon on this endless day, Naruto crept through the sea of tents that were popping up across the destroyed village, Sage Mode activated, seeking her presence.

He found her in the most obvious place, the group of tents that now occupied the partially destroyed Hyuga Compound. He wondered why she wasn't one of the Hyuga allowed to sleep inside the standing portion of the remaining dwellings. Wasn't she the daughter of the Clan Head? But it suited his purpose better that she was near the edge of the clump of tents, with no one save Neji nearby to watch over her rest and healing.

Naruto stood tall as he walked up to Neji, not masking his steps, knowing that he was probably spotted a while ago. Neji didn't ask why he was there, if anything he seemed relieved that he had actually come. Giving Naruto a look that seemed to say "be careful" and "I will kill you" in the same glance, Neji allowed him to pass. But his lips twitched in what Naruto wanted to think was amusement as he walked out of ear shot.

Entering the tent on tip toe he hoped Hinata was not asleep yet, but was not willing to wake her if she was resting. The swish of the tent flap behind him elicited a soft sigh from the cot where she laid facing the canvas wall. Her voice was soft and tired as she turned her head back toward his direction.

"Neji-niisan I promise you I'm fine—oh! N-Naruto-kun?"

He swallowed thickly at the sight of her dark hair splayed out on the thin white sheet which was stamped with the hospital insignia. It must be one of the crappy blankets from the emergency supplies. Did they not even give her something warmer? It was chilly tonight, and surely the Hyuga had some resources. Why would she not deserve some extra comfort?

The thought made him frown as he shuffled closer to her, wanting to see her face better in the darkness, needing to grasp her thoughts through her honest eyes. Needing her to see his own if words failed him.

"Hinata, are you okay?" The stupid question was out before he could stop it, and Naruto nearly smacked his own face. Of course she wasn't okay. She took a beating from a demi-god and was stabbed through the chest! No matter how amazing of a healer Sakura was there was no way Hinata was okay.

"I-I'm fine," she whispered, shifting slightly in an attempt to rise, but Naruto immediately reached out and gently pushed her shoulder back down upon the creaking cot.

"Don't get up! I just came to talk, to see if you were ok. And, well, to thank you."

Somehow despite the blood loss pink still tinged her cheeks at his touch, and he yanked his hands away before the warmth of her could completely register in his mind and wipe away the few coherent thoughts he had scraped together in his brain.

Hinata tugged the pathetic blanket up to her chin, mumbling into its hem. "It was nothing…"

"Bullshit."

She startled at his harsh language and firm tone, blinking up at him with wide eyes. But this time Naruto didn't regret his words. Incredulity bubbled up inside him at the surprised way her mouth fell open. How could she not see it? How could she not know how amazing she was? Without having to think his feelings tumbled out of his mouth.

"You nearly died for me Hinata! When everyone else gave up, when I gave up, you still fought. I told you to save yourself. I told you to run. I told you to forget about me. But you just kept attacking. Why? Why did you do that?"

The urgent question hung in the air with the fog of his breath as Naruto knelt beside her, mesmerized by the vivid expressions flitting across her eyes as she gawked up at him. Her genuine emotions were laid bare for his easy understanding, containing none of the contradictions presented by those he had seen so far. There was no preening, no expectation, no anger in her gaze. No false front put on for the benefit of any who may see, nothing but her and him.

His chest ached with…relief? Joy? Anxiety? All those things and none were right. Naruto stared into her face, his sanity urgently needing her to answer him out loud, to validate the feelings that he thought…hoped, he was reading in her silver eyes.

The earnestness of his gaze finally overwhelmed her and Hinata began fidgeting under the blanket. Her eyes shifted around the tent, looking anywhere but directly at him. After what felt like an eternity she whispered something into the crumpled fold of the scratchy sheet fisted in her hands. Naruto leaned in closer, his ears nearly twitching in the attempt to catch her soft voice.

"Say it again," he breathed, his shameless disregard for her personal space making her swallow hard as her knuckles turned white where they fisted the blanket.

"I-I said, b-because we never give up. It's our N-Nindo."

Her trembling eyes finally lifted to his own and Naruto blinked down at her in sudden recollection. A hazy memory of a short conversation on the training grounds before the chunin exams flashed through his mind. A tiny and timid kunoichi giving him the reassurance and courage to fight for his goals. A greater encouragement than Jiji or Kakashi-sensei, or anyone had given him at the time. It had been a gift of true belief. A feeling of faith he had greatly cherished in the moment, and it proved to be pivotal in his success. A small warmth that was not forgotten, even though it had been buried under mountains of much more painful emotions.

"Yeah, it is, isn't it," he murmured thoughtfully as he mulled over the fact that Hinata was making a habit out of showing up just when he needed it most. Something he was selfishly grateful for, although he hated how much she had suffered for it.

Studying her face intensely he was pleased with the reassuring flush of her cheeks and the healthy shine of her moonlight eyes. Naruto wished he could erase the sight of her body rag-dolling through the air from his mind. The words she had spoken as blood ran down her face pounded in his chest faster than his racing heart. He would forever be in debt to this woman for what she had risked in order to save him.

But, Kami forgive him, he needed more from her. Just a few more minutes before he let her rest, a little bit more clarity so he could sleep in peace as well. He needed to know once and for all.

Looking down at her Naruto steeled himself to ask the question that had been burning in his mind from the instant he had been restored to his senses by his father. A simple question, but loaded with so much emotional weight that it was going to crush him if he did not unload the burden.

"Hinata," he asked in a husky and hesitant voice, "d-did you mean it? All those things you said to me?"

A brief look of confusion passed over her face at his vague question, but he waited, sternly staring down at her and allowing her to read his own thoughts in his vibrant blue eyes.

Suddenly the blush on her cheeks traveled all the way up to Hinata's ears and her fingers began ruthlessly picking away at some poor thread in the sheet. Something like panic flitted over her expression and Naruto nearly groaned in agony as anticipation twisted his stomach.

He waited for her to deny it. To play it down. To take it back. To claim it was all a part of the rush of battle. To faint or turn away from him like she always did.

He waited for her to explain it away, though he desperately wanted her to say it again. He wanted her to say it to his face, so he could see the truth in her eyes.

He waited. The keen ache in his chest was churning with more and more intensity with every passing second, eating him alive.

He needed this.

Needed the purity of her honesty more than he had ever needed anything in his entire life.

His hands grasped the edges of the cot, nearly cracking the flimsy poles as he waited to hear the words that no one had spoken to him before…just one more time.

At last Hinata raised her eyes to meet his own and the lip she had been chewing on released as she inhaled sharply at the look on his face. Something seemed to settle within her reticent expression and in an instant a small trembling smile curved her mouth. The sheet rustled softly as her hand swiftly slid out from under the blanket and pressed against his whiskered cheek.

"I meant all of it Naruto-kun," she fervently whispered, but her voice rang inside his head like bells of celebration. His rough hand reached up and pressed her palm into his face, the affection in her touch an intoxicating shift from a lifetime of harsh blows.

In a final, incredibly irrevocable reassurance that nearly shattered his heart, she said those blessed words again.

"You have done so much for me. I am not scared to die protecting you, because I love you."

The flap of the tent snapped open before Naruto could respond and both of their heads whipped around at the heavy atmosphere which pervaded the small space as Hyuga Hiashi stepped inside.

Hinata's hand yanked away from his face so quickly her nails scraped across his cheek. The loss of her touch instantly annoyed Naruto, and the aura of negativity that burst the warmth of their little bubble put his frayed nerves on edge.

Hiashi stared down at them with inscrutable silver eyes that seemed to read all the words which the two had spoken as though they were still dancing in the air between their huddled bodies. Naruto swallowed hard, turning to stand and face the intimidating Clan Head. The stiff sheet rustled behind him as Hinata shrank from her father, unable to even utter a proper greeting.

Sweat prickled between Naruto's shoulder blades as the thickening silence started suffocating him under its mounting anxiety. Before he could begin to formulate a way to possibly explain his presence with the Hyuga heiress…alone, at night, in her tent, Hiashi's clipped voice split the cooling air.

"You may leave. Now."

Naruto didn't budge, every fiber in his body rebelled against the very idea of leaving her side. His mind had not stopped reeling from all that had happened, all that he still wanted to say. He wanted to stay by her side all night, and tomorrow, and…forever? The thought of the loneliness that would be awaiting his return to his most likely destroyed apartment was much less appealing than even the dirt floor by Hinata's side.

The hard lines of Hiashi's face deepened with every second of Naruto's hesitance to obey. "That wasn't a request. Leave or I will have you removed. There are things I need to discuss with my daughter."

Glancing down over his shoulder at the thin sheet that was nearly vibrating where Hinata clutched it in her white knuckled grip, Naruto's hand fisted as well. The severe reputation of the Hyuga was no secret in Konoha, and the absolute last thing he could endure after a day like today was the idea of anyone so much as breathing harshly near her. His filter was dangerously thin, his patience nearly gone, and his usually overflowing forgiveness was damn near dry.

"Hinata saved my life today," he blurted out, meeting Hiashi's narrowed eyes with a sharp lift of his chin. The man's brows raised infinitesimally at his abrupt statement and loud voice. "She was the only one who came to help me fight Pein. And even when she was injured she did not stop attacking." Naruto proudly squared his shoulders with his declaration, assuming that no father would overlook such bold praise of their daughter. He was wrong.

"Did she defeat him?"

Naruto blinked, the simple question and flatly unimpressed expression on Hiashi's face completely throwing him off balance. The truth stuck to the roof of his mouth as Naruto licked his lips, choosing his words carefully.

"She nearly died to give me the chance to fight—"

"So the enemy prevailed until you stepped in? Then she failed," Hiashi's nostrils flared. Had he been a less dignified man he would have snorted. "I am not surprised."

Heat tinged Naruto's ears as his temper flared. "It was the Akatsuki! And Pein was their Leader, the most powerful one of them all. Even I could not defeat him until…until…"

"All the more reason that she is a fool for having ever challenged him in the first place," Hiashi snapped, his own patience expiring by the second. "A fight for a jinchuriki, not a kunoichi who is unable to defeat even her younger sister."

"Hiashi-sama," Neji cut in, having slipped into the tent when he heard Naruto's raised voice. He planted himself between the two, discreetly trying to nudge Naruto towards the tent opening as he calmly addressed his uncle. "It is because of Naruto that The Leaf is still standing. He just came by to thank Hinata-sama for her support before he left."

Naruto clicked his teeth at the roundabout dismissal. Something in him sickened at the idea of taking credit for something that he felt he did not do, that he could never have come close to achieving without Hinata's help, without the Kyūbi's chakra, without his father's help, without Nagato's help. The sense of being an imposter soured his mood further, and he was just about to dart out of the tent in self disgust when Hiashi's next statement froze him in his tracks.

"There is no Leaf," the Clan Head's voice ground out between his clenched teeth. All three teenagers stared, pinned by the undercurrent of steel in his measured syllables.

"The village is destroyed," Hiashi continued darkly. "The market is gone. The Hokage Tower is gone. The Police Headquarters are gone. The Academy is gone. The Hyuga Compound is practically obliterated. Our scrolls are ashes. Our antiques, our weapons, the very traditions of our clan are gone. And you, the greatest weapon in Konoha, who should be protecting our home, dares to come and celebrate your 'victory' with this foolish girl?"

Naruto balked at the vocalization of his inner guilt, taking a step back and feeling his calves bump into Hinata's cot. As his heart shrank under the insinuated accusation of his failure, doubt burrowed under the fragile hope that had started to grow from the sudden downpour of praise he had endured earlier. Deep down, he had worried the sudden admiration of the villagers was too good to be true. Their acceptance. Their respect. It was only a matter of time until they all forgot about today. Until he messed up again…

His spiraling thoughts stuttered as her warm hand enveloped his shaking fist, and Naruto reminded himself of why he was still standing here. This moment wasn't about him defending his actions, it was about defending her. After everything she had done today, the least he could do is save her from something.

"Hinata is anything but a fool," Naruto hissed, opening his hand and clasping her fingers tightly. "I would know, I have been called a fool my whole life. I've been called a failure. A demon. A weapon." He looked down, studying the warring fear and admiration in her eyes as she processed his words, and what little self preservation he had left flew away into the night.

Lifting his face to steadily meet Hiashi's deep frown, Naruto gallantly delivered his own heartfelt truth. "Hinata is more of a hero than I ever was, and I am proud to call her one of my precious people. You're the one who should be ashamed of ever doubting your daughter!"

Hinata's gasp and Neji's grunt of disbelief echoed in the deathly silence of the empty tent. Naruto's heart pounded in his ears. He knew he had crossed a line. Knew he would be paying dearly for blurting out a fact that was a long time coming. But he had run out of fucks today. If he went down for defending Hinata's honor, even if it had to be to her own father, then he would at least greet defeat with a greater sense of pride than he had felt when the villagers were chanting his name.

Hiashi was staring at their clasped hands, his mouth working as though even his stoic Hyuga demeanor could barely contain his wrath.

"Precious person?" His eyes darkened as the Clan Head stepped closer, looming intimidatingly over the blond teenager as he struggled to maintain a brave expression on his whiskered face.

"She is a Hyuga. A disappointment as an heiress, but a part of the Clan until the day she dies. Do you have any idea what that means, Demon?" Naruto opened his mouth but Hiashi had no intention of letting him speak.

"It means obedience," he leaned into the word as he leaned closer, the veins on his temples pulsing with emphasis. "It means she is nothing to you. A Hyuga is a Hyuga. A Demon is a Demon. Her purpose is to serve the Clan in whatever way I deem fit. Yours is to defend Konohagakure. You both are failures. And I would sooner brand her as a servant in her own Clan before I ever let her anywhere near you again."

"You can't do that!" Naruto exploded, panic causing him to completely forget the potential cost of his instant retaliation. For the first time in his life he was close to experiencing something he had always longed for but never felt. If nothing else good ever happened to him again he would be satisfied with just this inexplicable warmth which blossomed within his chest when Hinata was near.

She said she believed in him. She said she had faith in him. She said she loved him. Even if it was only ever just her, she was more than enough. He could never give her up.

"I can and I will," Hiashi growled. "Because first and foremost I serve my Clan. I am the one who must protect them. Who must ensure that they all obey our laws and remain loyal generation after generation. And I will not cower like a child when tasked to do what is necessary, no matter the cost."

Naruto's voice grew in volume even as the Hyuga's lowered threateningly. "Forced obedience under threat of punishment is not loyalty!" he shouted.

"Do not belittle our traditions!" Hiashi roared, finally reaching his own breaking point. "How dare you stand there and pass judgment on something you could never understand? How dare you look down on the sacrifice of our people? If not for Hyuga like Neji's father, who have obediently given their lives to protect our dōjutsu, Konoha would never have survived as long as it has. We are a long chain of proud shinobi, who have stepped up over and over again to do our part, to obey our fate. I will not allow one weak link to break the Hyuga's legacy of strength. Go near each other again, and I will not hesitate to mark her with the Caged Bird Seal and ensure her obedience for the rest of her life!"

"No."

The word had been on the tip of Naruto's tongue but somehow Hinata had beaten him to it. His surprise was such that he nearly fell over as Hinata used his arm to gingerly pull herself up to standing. His eyebrows shot up as Naruto gaped down at her ashen face. It was scrunched up with the effort of her posture, her teeth biting into her lip to hold in her grunt of pain and hide any signs of weakness from her father.

"L-love is not a c-cage. Obedience is n-not a f-fate."

Neji's sharp inhalation and the crack of Hiashi's knuckles as his hand tightened into a fist made Naruto's gut twist with a fear far greater than his own sense of self preservation. The seething chakra that had been building and simmering within Hiashi began to throb heavily around his deep set eyes.

"M-my worth as a k-kunoichi, as an heiress, is not j-just b-based on who I can defeat," Hinata timidly whispered, then she took a deep breath and painfully straightened to her full height.

"I am m-more than a Hyuga. N-Naruto-kun is more than a j-jinchuriki."

Naruto reached out and grasped her shoulder, steadying her, supporting her. He didn't think he'd ever heard of Hinata standing up to her father before. Hinata is really strong, he thought with awe, staring at her in open admiration. Perhaps after taking on a god, now Hiashi doesn't seem so scary.

"H-he is a hero. M-my precious person. A-and I will not abandon him," Hinata stuttered softly, but with an edge of steel in her voice that even had Neji's eyes widening in shock.

"Hinata, let him go," Hiashi bit off each word as it slowly passed his tight lips. The bulging veins of the Clan Head's Byakugan focused on his daughter, and for the second time that day, Naruto was truly terrified.

His head snapped up, every instinct flaring to high alert at the hatred which laced the Hyuga's voice. He knew that tone. Knew that icy look. He had seen it a million times before on a hundred other faces over the years. His hand trembled on Hinata's shoulder, his tired nerves betraying his unease as he braced for anything.

"This is your last warning, daughter. Do not shame me any further. Forget about that boy."

Naruto could feel his breaths becoming ragged, his teeth sharpening. A maelstrom of apprehension and anger was swirling inside him. He was afraid she would leave, afraid of what would happen if she didn't, afraid that he wouldn't be able to hold back much longer.

Hinata's second hand came up to firmly press into his arm as she gulped, but quickly rearranged her expression into a look of determination that Naruto was rapidly becoming enamored with as she lifted her chin to meet her father's glare.

"Never."

"Then you've made your choice," Hiashi murmured with a burst of chakra from his dōjutsu. His hands began flashing through signs, and Neji was instantly moving, his keen eyes recognizing each damning hand seal as Hiashi's fingers danced through the air.

But out of all the jutsu Hiashi could have used to punish Hinata, this one Neji couldn't stop. This one he was powerless to counter. The chakra that tipped his fingers spluttered as his knees buckled. The Caged Bird Seal on his own brow resonated with a splitting pain that raised traumatizing memories of the day he was branded, and his heart sank as he saw Hiashi slam his hands together in the final seal.

Hinata had frozen, her body shaking as she saw fate swinging the doors of her cursed cage shut. Tears rolled down her cheeks but her face was a mask of solemn acceptance. For once, she commanded her heart, I will not shrink from him, I will not cower, I will not recant.

A part of her had always known this day would eventually come. That she would finally fail hard enough for him to brand her, casting her into the same cage that contained the rest of the demoted Branch Family. Apparently showing another human being true love was the worst thing she could have done. The thing that had finally tipped the scales.

So be it, she thought with calm resolution as she braced for her final moments in Naruto's presence. He was worth it.

Naruto's fury was instantaneous, unleashing the chakra he had been holding in check and letting it flow through his network in a rush that spiked his hair. The red, bubbling, demonic aura seeped out of his pores, flowing across his skin like a wildfire out of control.

The Kyūbi's chakra had always been a slave to instinct. Intervening when the stakes were highest. Stoking his anger, spiking his adrenaline, healing him on the brink of death. And in this moment, it was protecting what was his. With her bold words now engraved upon Naruto's heart, Hinata was forever a precious person, a treasure to be guarded jealously.

For The Entity who had had everything taken away, from his family to his freedom, this opportunity to tell Fate to go fuck itself was enough to rouse the ire of a demon.

Naruto barely registered the surge of chakra that flowed across his body and enveloped Hinata as well, just as she reached up to press her hand to her head. Her stifled scream was drowned by his feral snarling as he pushed her behind him and faced the real monster channeling the brutal jutsu. In the back of his blurry mind Naruto vaguely heard an internal growl echo in unison with his own gritty voice as he and the bijū aimed their combined threat at Hiashi's straining face.

"I will never let you cage her!"

The electrifying power of the Kyūbi no Yoko flashed across Hinata's network, burning away the faint traces of the ugly seal that had just started to appear on her forehead.

A sharp gasp made Naruto turn his red slitted eyes back to her round face just as he was starting to be pulled under by the Nine Tail's hatred, and he gaped at what he didn't see. Long strands of dark hair danced with the intensity of the red chakra cloak, revealing Hinata's unmarked forehead and shocked expression.

"DEMON!" The rage-filled shout yanked Naruto's attention away from her flushed face, baring his sharpened incisors at Hiashi's pulsing Byakugan. The Hyuga Leader recoiled slightly, never having experienced the full brunt of a bijū's feral hatred before. The pure demonic energy was enough to make his soul shudder. But the Clan Head was determined to wield his righteous judgment upon the wild jinchuriki and the unfaithful spawn who cowered behind him.

The penetrating glare of his Byakugan focused upon the tenketsu of Naruto's abdomen, which throbbed like a beacon beneath the seal. Naruto saw the flicker of Hiashi's gaze and all the muscles in his body coiled as he spun around and grabbed Hinata.

The tent was blown away by their skyward leap, the jabbing tips of Hiashi's chakra charged fingertips just brushing the loose folds of Naruto's orange jacket as he barely escaped the deadly Gentle Fist.

Landing atop a leaning portion of the compound wall, Naruto practically roared into the night. Hiashi's ferocious attack only served to stoke the building rage which was rapidly eroding Naruto's sanity once more. The fragile firewall his father erected earlier was crumbling quickly under this mounting fury while he was still in an exhausted state. But before the horrifying blackness could fully engulf Naruto's mind, her chakra was pouring through his network like cooling water over boiling magma.

"Naruto-kun, stay with me!" Hinata pleaded, clinging to his boiling body with the same desperation with which he struggled to hold the remnants of his mind. Her own meager stores of chakra glimmered just enough in his dimming awareness to snap him out of the damning downward spiral which blotted out his humanity.

Naruto fought frantically to try and organize his mind. To separate it into two halves of not-self and self. One floundering in pure hatred and one soaring with something…unexplainable, but so alluring that he redoubled his efforts to follow its call. To follow the sound of her voice. Follow his heart.

Before Naruto's eyes could calm back to blue, the listing wall beneath his feet exploded with an echoing crack as Hiashi's open palm strike splintered the wood to smithereens.

Suddenly they were free falling. First Hinata's moonlight eyes, midnight hair, and then the stars above blurred into a confusing sight that Naruto's jumbled mind struggled to form into a plan before they were within the Hyuga's lethal range. His body wasn't going to hold up much longer, the corners of his vision were narrowing with the effort to hold her close as they spun weightlessly.

They were going to crash. She was going to get hurt. He cannot let her get hurt! He cannot let her go.

Just like years ago, when panic had overwhelmed his scrawny little body after Ero-sennin had pushed him over the cliff and sent him hurtling into a black abyss, Naruto's hands flew through the muscle memory of his greatest jutsu. His thumb was easily nicked on the sharp edge of his fang, and his voice reverberated with the same volume of his first true summoning.

"Kuchiyose no jutsu!"

They landed upon Gamakichi's back with a loud "oof", and immediately the amphibian was leaping into the air, neatly dodging Hiashi's next attack. The couple were tossed skyward, neither of them being coherent enough to bind themselves to the toad's back with chakra.

"'Kichi! Get us out of here!" Naruto screamed, as his arms tightened around a screaming Hinata. Pulling her securely against his body, he squeezed his eyes shut as a warm, wet tongue enveloped them both.

With a loud gulp and a massive poof of smoke, the two shinobi and the toad vanished.


A/N: I'm...trying something, so bear with me! This random scene popped into my head while listening to a song, and I'm trying to use it as a way to get better at writing. I've been editing this one chapter on and off for about six months and I'm almost sick of it, so I figured it was time to post, LOL! I have a few more ideas that have been added as I've been working, so there is a rough outline of a short story growing on my laptop. Posting will be...sporadic at best, but i've always finished everything i've started so far, and I don't intend to stop now. If you have made it this far, thank you so much for reading!