As always, Naruto belongs to Kishimoto.


It felt strange to be back in the village. It had only been a couple weeks but somehow everything had changed within Hinata. She finally understood her grandfather. She didn't agree with him or like his methods and she would never be the kind of clan head he thought was appropriate, but she understood his reasons and the kind of pain he refused to let himself feel in order to continue on. And that's what scared her. She never thought she'd understand him, never wanted to. And yet now she understood why he always tried to separate her from the branch family, and what hurt the most was part of her agreed with him. She didn't know how to look at her family now, knowing what she did, remembering that little girl's screams. She didn't want them to look at her like they looked at Hyobe.

At the door a friendly smile appeared as Hana popped her head around the corner. "Hinata, Kiba, Shino, dinner's ready," she said, deftly avoiding a litter of puppies running around her feet. "Go tell Mom."

"Mom! Dinner!" Kiba screamed, making Hana's eyes roll before she disappeared back into the kitchen.

The Inuzukas were loud, obnoxious, and sometimes made Hinata feel like she wanted to run and hide in a closet just to be alone, but right now she absorbed the awkward love they showed to each other in content silence. They'd only returned from training that morning. She didn't do much, her lungs and heart were still weak, but Kiba and Shino worked very hard and Hinata observed and analyzed each sparring match. Besides helping Shino see his openings, it also gave her something to think about other than the clan.

When she did finally open up to them about what happened there was no cringing, no flinching, no judgment, and she would never be able to thank them enough for that. She sat there, Akamaru curled up in her lap as she cried, and Kiba and Shino each holding a hand to offer their presence, nothing more. Even now, a day before the tournament when Shino should surely go home and relax, he remained in a house that on the best of days got on his nerves and on the worst made him physically tense, all because Hinata wasn't ready to return to the compound. Her family knew she'd be at the tournament, so despite returning a day early, she wanted this one last night somewhere she felt normal. If there was one thing Tsume was good at doing, it was treating them the same as her own children.

"What, did the Aburame break your legs while you were training?" Tsume growled from the stairs. "Maybe that's why he made it to the finals and you didn't."

"My loss was a fluke," Kiba snapped, getting in his mother's face. "I'd like to you see get a wiff of that fart and keep on your feet."

"Defeated by flatulence!" Hana called from the kitchen, a chuckle in her voice and a chorus of high-pitched barks heckling him on.

Tsume smacked her son out of the way and headed for the kitchen, ruffling Hinata's hair on the way. "At least you had a decent excuse, Runt." Kiba's mother always called Hinata that, and strangely she found it rather endearing.

Hinata smiled and followed them to the table. The sharp smell of spice on the fish was buried beneath a dozen different animal musks, and a layer of shed fur stuck to most of the furniture as she sat down. She might have thought twice about it if she'd been wearing her kimono, but she still wore the old clothes Hana had lent her before they left the village. A bit too big, but they covered everything that needed to be covered and she didn't have to fuss over keeping it clean. Beside her Shino wiped off his seat, only to stare at his now furry hand with serious contemplation.

"Come on now, be more Aoi than stalker," Tsume complained and plopped into her chair in a huff.

"I'd rather not consume your dogs," Shino replied in an even tone, which earned him a series of growls from the litter now content beneath the table.

"Then you should've sat on them," Tsume howled with laughter. For all she complained, Hinata could see Tsume had the same kind of affection for Shino as she offered Hinata herself. Maybe not a nice affection, but it was always there in her face.

Hana ignored the fuss going on behind her and set out the last of the meal for the pups on the floor before taking a seat herself. The brindle colored hounds-to-be scrambled over each other to reach their bowls of chopped fish. Inuzuka dogs didn't eat dog food. The sound of slopping jaws and snapping teeth filled the little dining area with the kind of happy excitement only children (or puppies) could produce.

Sometimes Hinata wondered what it would be like to be born to another family, to not be a Hyuuga. More so these last few weeks. What she imagined was usually like the Inuzukas, loud and playful and full of people — not servants, but family. If her fantasy was quieter, then the mother was more like Aoi, flighty and overly loving. There wasn't a white eye anywhere, staring at her, knowing that she'd hurt them. No one in the family hurt anyone else in her fictional world.

Tsume was halfway through a liquor-fueled tirade about how Shino needed to dress less like an Aburame, which having seen him fight without his jacket before Kiba and Hinata vigorously defended their friend, when a knock sounded from the front door.

"Kiba, go tell them to screw off, we're eating," Tsume growled and downed the rest of her sake.

"Yeah, yeah." Kiba shoveled in a large glob of rice into his mouth before heading to the door. A moment later he returned, but his expression had lost the playful annoyance of the dinner conversation. "Hinata, Neji's here. I'll tell him to leave if you want."

Hinata watched her happy fantasy crack and shatter back to reality in that one sentence. She wasn't ready to face them yet; she'd deluded herself into believing she was safe from the inevitable awkwardness of meeting her family until the following day. How would they react to her now? She didn't think they wouldn't love her anymore, but things would be different. She didn't want it to be different.

"Hinata," Kiba said, his voice softer since the others had gone silent waiting for her reaction. "Do you want me to take care of him?"

She felt all their eyes on her, wondering what she'd do. Of all of them, Tsume's was the most intense, that feral glare like a predator across the table. As odd a feeling as it was, Hinata didn't want to disappoint Tsume after all the masked kindness she'd shown. Tsume saw her as the runt of the litter, and the runt needed to bite harder.

"No," Hinata finally said, sliding her chair out. "I'll be right back."

The one-room walk to the door felt excruciatingly short. She wasn't ready, but she was going to do it. She'd run away for long enough and it wasn't like when she left; Hinata was calm and had dealt with her own guilt over the sealing. What happened now wasn't her fault. It was all up to Neji.

And how good it was to see him. He smiled as she closed the door behind her, and his eyes discreetly observed her for any signs of weakness. Neji didn't wear his usual outfit, opting instead for black training scrubs. Though judging by the slight dampness of his hair, he'd probably come straight from training with Hyobe. Hinata hadn't realized how much she'd missed her brother, all her family really.

"Hi, Neji-niisan," she said, not sure how to begin.

Now that they were away from any prying eyes, Neji stepped in and wrapped his arms around her. There was no hesitation or awkwardness, all she felt was his strong arms holding her close as if she might run away again if he let her go. "It's good to see you, Hinata. How are you doing?"

"I—I'm okay." Hinata fidgeted in his hold, confused but not wanting to break free. "I've been taking care of my condition. Kiba-kun and Shino-kun kept an eye on me."

Neji didn't let go. "I don't know what you went through with the sealing, but you're my sister and the seal will never change that. I need you to believe that."

Hinata remained silent. If she spoke she was sure to break down into tears, and the last thing she wanted was to return to her team crying. Kiba and Shino would probably have gone hunting a Hyuuga if she did that. But all she'd wanted to hear was that her family wouldn't look at her like she was main family and, though Hizashi and Naomi might feel differently, to know that Neji wouldn't gave her such relief her body physically relaxed in his embrace.

"I love you, little sister," he said with more honesty than his ego had allowed the last few years.

Hinata took a deep breath and pushed out of his hold. A smile she didn't expect when she walked out burned bright on her face. "Thank you."

"Come home, Hinata. Mom's been worried sick, especially when we got word you were in the village but didn't show up."

"How'd you know we were back?"

"You kidding me? Mom and Dad had every guard at the village gate ordered to tell them the minute your team returned. We wanted to go after you, but Grandpa thought you needed some time away from us."

"Grandpa did?"

Neji's mouth thinned as it tended to every time their grandfather came up. "Yeah, after everything he put you through then he decides to show some concern. As if that made it better."

But it did. Not that Hinata would ever say it aloud, especially to Neji. Hinata had feared Hyobe would think her too weak again for running away after the sealing. She still didn't like that the seal was what connected them but it was all she had, and to know that her escape didn't ruin that achievement in his eyes meant a lot.

When she didn't say anything, Neji urged her again. "So you'll come home, right?"

Hinata shook her head and took a step back to distance herself from him and show that she meant what she was about to say. "No, Neji-niisan. I'm staying here tonight. Shino-kun and I both are. Tsume-san's already agreed to it. We're going to stay together before the tournament tomorrow."

"Hinata," Neji drew out her name, "Mom and Dad really want you to come home."

Hinata didn't want to admit to Neji that her fantasy was still preferable to going home. No matter what he'd said, it was. She needed that one night to finish collecting herself before seeing Naomi and Hizashi. She'd planned on it and somehow having set a date made her believe she'd be capable of facing them tomorrow. "We're just staying together to support Shino-kun."

She had no doubt Neji saw the lie in her eyes. It wasn't for Shino's support but her own. "Hinata, please. Come home."

She smiled but held her ground. "Tell them I love them and I'll see them at the finals tomorrow."

Neji's eyes lowered in unhidden guilt. She didn't want him to blame himself; this was something she needed to accept and deal with herself, and his sympathy — as much as she didn't want to think it — wasn't something she wanted or allowed herself to deal with. If there was one thing Hyobe taught her about the seal, it was that she needed to find her own way to handle it without worrying about anyone else. No one else was going to understand it or feel it the way she did, and she had to be strong for the clan. Her way was with her team.

"Don't worry, Neji-niisan," she joked, trying to change the subject, "I'll still cheer for you tomorrow, even if you get paired with Shino-kun."

She'd wanted to change his demeanor, but she wasn't prepared to see reservation in his eyes. The only sound between them was the click of running claws on the floor inside the house. What had happened while she was gone?

Finally, Neji looked at her again. Reservation had turned to resolve. "Hinata, I withdrew from the chuunin exam."

"What? Why? You earned it. It's your chance to be chuunin."

"I don't want to be chuunin. I've taken an honest assessment of myself and come to the realization that I'm not ready to be chuunin."

"No, Neji-niisan, if this is because of me—"

Neji held up a hand to stop her. "This is something I need to learn in my own time. I'm not giving up anything. Next chuunin exam I will succeed, because I'm going to work until then to fix my deficiencies."

"But you've worked so hard for it." It simply made no sense no matter how she thought about it. Neji wanted to be chuunin so much, it had to be his guilt. "Please, go ask Hokage-sama to re-enter."

"You're right," Neji said, turning to look at the house behind her. Silhouettes of the others moved against the curtained windows except for one, short with spiky hair standing sentinel, waiting for her return. As her brother's gaze found Shino's image, a wry smile crossed his lips. "Shino's a better choice. You and Kiba would've been, too. A chuunin needs to think about how to take care of their team. I might've worked hard, but it was all for me. I never once thought about anyone else. It's time I take things slow and focused on my teammates before myself. Someone has to help Lee get back on his feet."

"Are you sure?" Hinata pressed.

"Are you sure you won't come back home?" He leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "I'll respect your decision if you respect mine. We both have our reasons."

She took a deep breath and nodded. "All right."

"Okay then, I'll sort everything out with Mom and Dad. You'll go find them before the fights start, right?" Hinata nodded in reply, and he gave her one last quick hug before heading out. "See you tomorrow."

She didn't go inside until he was down the street. The others were still in the kitchen, all except the pups running around the living room. Though considering the Inuzukas can talk to their dogs, they may have been the spies in place of someone more obvious. Everyone's eyes focused on Hinata as she entered the dining room, scrutinizing every line on her face and twitch of a muscle.

Shino stepped away from his place at the window and calmly approached her. He didn't ask her anything. He just stood there, watching, and after a moment he nodded. He understood — she didn't need comfort.

"Thank you, Shino-kun."

"Hey, what'd he do?" Kiba snapped, now completely distracted from the possible Hyuuga drama.

Hinata grinned and threw her arms around Kiba in an uncharacteristic but well-deserved hug that froze Kiba in place. "Thank you too, Kiba-kun." She never would have handled the sealing without them.

A sharp catcall echoed through the small dining room as Tsume and Hana fell into laughter. "That's my boy! Catch yourself a Hyuuga."

Hinata didn't know she could go that red.