Neji remained frozen as his Byakugan marred eyes pierced into the body limp in his arms. Her chakra is gone.
He dropped to his knees, the young girl's body still held firmly in his grip. He couldn't move: not to check for a pulse, not to try and stop the blood still flowing from her battered chest, not even to look into her eyes, still open and watching him. Byakugan would see it if he looked into her face; that subtle but undeniable look of death glazed over her normally gentle eyes.
How? How did this happened?
"Neji-niisan, there are three rain nin guarding the item inside of the building They appear to be chuunin, but I cannot be certain," Hinata whispered.
"I believe you are correct. Taking in the seven regular guards that means we have ten opponents." He turned to Shino. Though both he and Shino were Chuunin, it was Shino who had been appointed leader of the team for this mission. "Our best chance would be to try and lure one or more of the rain nins out of the building and send only one or two in to retrieve the document."
Shino's shaded gaze passed from Neji, to Hinata, to Tenetn, and back to Neji. Neji could tell he was considering all the options open to them. If only there had been more chuunin available to go on this. Not that he believed Tenten or Hinata were incapable of doing their fair share, but if the mission were to go badly he was still a branch Hyuuga and was expected to protect Hinata. That could jeopardize the mission even further.
Neji's eyes flickered momentarily to Hinata. She would not be pleased if he put the mission at risk to protect her, duty or not.
Shino's voice brought Neji out of his thoughts. "We will split into two groups. I will go with Tenten and provide a diversion while Neji, you take Hinata and retrieve the target item. Tenten and I will lead as many of the guards away as we can and then meet back up with you both here." Shino drew a small layout of the area they were in and made an X near large stream.
He had failed in his duty to her. He failed as a chuunin in charge of a genin. He failed as Hyuuga meant to protect the head family. He failed her in every possible way, yet the guilt he felt was not just to his duty. There was something far more subtle and painful searing through him like an unquenchable blaze wanting to consume everything until all was destroyed.
Neji forced his inescapable eyes to finally gaze onto Hinata's face. Her normally pale skin displayed no hint of color save for the crimson stains dripping in slow streaks from her mouth. Her hair swayed in the mild wind blowing north, beckoning their return to Konoha. But it was her eyes that drug his attention. Her gentle lavender eyes still looked up at him, a serene gaze that gave no hint of the lifelessness her body had. It was as if death skipped her eyes because it could not bring itself to mar such a tranquil expression.
"Neji-niisan," Hinata called with a quiet smile gracing her features. "Thank you for training with me again."
"Neji-niisan, I shall practice to do better next time."
"Have I improved any, Neji-niisan?"
"Neji-niisan . . ."
Hinata's body was carefully lowered to the ground as the gravity of Neji's guilt pulled at every inch of his body. He had failed in a way he hadn't even realized he could: as her brother. The person she had seen him as. The person he had ignored being. He had always passed her name for him off as a luxury of the head family, too obsessed with his forced subservience with the use of –sama towards the them. But now, as he let Byakugan recede and truly looked into her gentle, unreachable . . . irreplaceable eyes he knew she had considered him as far more than just a member of the Hyuuga clan.
"Hinata-sama, stay close. All we must do is retrieve the document and leave. Do not do anything unnecessary," Neji said as they raced through the hallways towards the room their goal was in.
The two Hyuugas nearly looked as one, the second merely a living shadow of the other. Hinata matched his movements perfectly, not even letting a foot fall out of step and increase the noise they made. She had improved greatly since the first chuunin exam and while she did not make chuunin again this time he was sure she would succeed in the next one.
Neji broke down the fragile door with surpassing ease and encountered the two rain chuunin that remained to protect their target. He worked to hold them at bay as Hinata jumped past them all and went for the document they had already located with Byakugan. With that item the neighboring village could prove their lands were being falsely taken from them. Normally genin would never go on such a mission, but with the shortage of shinobi still affecting Konoha it was unavoidable.
The retrieval went smoothly, and though they were pursued by the rain nin Neji was now following Hinata and could protect both her and the document she carried. The two behind him were gaining though, and Neji did not want to risk them getting too near Hinata and the completion of their mission.
"Hinata-sama! Run on ahead. I will catch up in a moment."
"Do not forget the mission!" he yelled to stop all her protests. She would go, and she did. Neji turned and blocked the two shinobi. They would not touch her.
She had been safe. He had made sure both she and the document were safe and away, yet now . . . now. . . For the second time in his life Neji felt the price was too high. His father died to protect Hiashi, to protect the clan, yet Neji could never believe it was worth losing him. . . . now he knew regardless of what he had told himself he had accepted Hinata, for nothing seemed to be meaningful enough to give her life in exchange.
Neji slowly removed the document from the bag at her waist. Blood had seeped into the bag splattering over the back of the rolled paper, but as Neji opened it he could see no real damage had been done. He stared at the writing oblivious to the meaning of the words. Carefully Neji re-rolled the page and put it in his chuunin vest. It was all he could do to remember his mission and not rip the document in half.
She had died for a piece of paper.
The level of the two shinobi surprised Neji. They must have underestimated them, one of them was surely a jounin, if not both. Neji had fought worse, and the Kaiten worked well to defend against multiple enemies, but that was the problem, he was constantly on the defensive. Each time he attempted to get a strong attack on one, the other forced him back. The village had not spared expense on their guards. He finally managed to force one of them to the ground but nearly forgot himself when he saw why.
"Hinata!" he cried angered by her return. "I told you to get away with the document!" With her there things could get very complicated.
"Forgive me," she called back, never changing focus from the opponent she was keeping occupied. She gave no reason for her return, and while it was obvious she thought he needed help she would not voice anything to that effect. He didn't need to hear it though. It was all in her eyes. She would not leave him.
As the other shinobi was down, Neji quickly ran to help Hinata. Her movements were strong and sure, and the look in her eyes unwavering. Together the two of them were quickly overpowering their enemy. In just another moment they both would have been able to leave and meet up with Shino and Tenten, but then . . . her eyes changed.
Fear, pure consuming terror swept over her eyes and before Neji could fully comprehend the meaning of the change Hinata had jumped behind him. The next thing he felt was a warm liquid being splashed over the back of his neck. His head snapped around, the Byakugan blind spot moving to reveal her fragile body between his own and the shinobi he had been fighting earlier, a translucent water sword protruding from her chest and back.
She had died for a piece of paper . . . no. She had died for him. A head family Hyuuga had sacrificed herself for a branch family Hyuuga. The clan successor gave her life for one meant to protect her. Hinata died protecting him!
Neji's hands dug into the grass beneath him as the realization come over him. He had failed to protect her, but it was because she had not allowed him to. If she had allowed him to be hit by that attack it may have been her in his place. She forced this upon him. Hinata wouldn't let herself feel this guilt so she passed it off to him. She had selfishly taken the easy way out, just like she always had.
The two rain nin lay dead as Neji rushed to Hinata's side. Aside from the extensive bleeding from the sword wounds she was also coughing up blood with each jagged breath. He ripped off his jacket and tied it tightly around her torso before lifting her carefully into his arms.
"Do not worry Hinata-sama. I will get you help," he said more to himself than her.
Despite the pain she was in Hinata smiled up at him. "Ne . . . Ne . . ."
"Do not speak, Hinata-sama. Save your strength."
"Nii . . . san," she choked out with the blood draining down her chin. One of her hands stretched out to rest over the few of his fingers showing from beneath her legs.
The action more than the name caught his attention and caused him to look down into her eyes. There was no regret, no insecurity, no pain. All that showed in her lovely Hyuuga eyes was understanding, love, and welcome inevitability.
Neji stopped and looked over her body as her hand slipped from its place on his fingers. Her charkra is gone.
Neji once again looked into her eyes, searching for the truth of what he never thought possible. There had been love from her side, compassion and gentleness that didn't belong in a shinobi . . . that didn't belong in a head family Hyuuga.
She didn't die for a piece of paper. She didn't die to escape the guilt he was feeling. Those were lies Neji couldn't convince himself of. She died to protect him, because she cared for him. She saw him as her brother, regardless of what he saw her as. She saw them as equals, neither life more important than the other.
Hinata was able to look at him the way no other Hyuuga could, as someone who understood what it meant to be a victim of fate and birth. As someone trapped in a life they wanted to change. And she had changed, in the only way she could. She freed them both, if only for a moment, by choosing her death over Neji's.
"Hinata-san!" Tenten's voice cried from somewhere behind him. Neji's gaze did not leave the lifeless body of his cousin, though he showed none of the turmoil he felt.
He saw Shino lean over Hinata, staring down at her open eyes. He didn't speak, only sent a hand forward to move her eyelids close. Neji's hand grabbed Shino's before he could touch Hinata. The younger boy relented and backed away.
Neji didn't want anyone to touch her yet. He wanted to see the quiet forlorn beauty her eyes held once last time. Allowing himself darkness Neji let his hand pass over her face and when the light returned to his sight there was nothing left but a cold corpse laying on the ground.