"It's just a week. I'll be back before you know it."

Liar, you'll be gone months.

"Simple recon, I honestly don't know what they don't send a few chuunin to do it."

It's an S-rank mission.

"Chouji and Shikamaru are on the team."

You're taking Ino's place as the bait aren't you?

"Maybe… when I get back, I'll tell you about it over dinner."

You just broke the rule. You didn't wait for me to ask you first. That means…

"Sayonara, Neji."

That means you're not coming back.

There are no alarms, no noises, no signal that anything is wrong. There's just a feeling in his gut that brings Neji out of the restless sleep he was in. The sheets end up in a pile on the ground as he stands up quickly. He pauses just long enough to grab the kunai pouch by his bed.

His bare feet make no sound on the wood floor as he moves down the hall to wake up the rest of the Branch house. They don't bother to ask what is going on when they open the door. He is the head of Branch and he knows something is wrong. That's the only thing that matters.

The Hyuuga compound is guarded against attacks in many different ways. Watching the dozen Branch members make their across the grounds, a common passerby might think they were wobbling drunkenly. In reality, they are avoiding the dozens of nightingale pegs in the floor, designed to chirp when stepped on.

It is an old technique but a valid one still, proven again when there is chirping to the right of them. Neji signals, splitting the group into three parts. One to secure the Head of Main, one to secure the heir and one to raise the alarm.

He stays behind and watches them all, the three hundred and fifty nine degrees of vision concentrated on the expanse of the compound. There is no one but them visible and it worries him even more. He knows someone is here, he just can't see them.

The alarm rings and there is a shimmer in the sky. Three dozen forms suddenly manifest themselves from the shadows. Their appearance is startling and he can hear the rest of the compound react in surprise. They are fighting back now but it is clearly too late to prevent what they were planning.

His first thought is Hinata. As heir, she has been attacked before and is the more likely target. He doesn't make it to her room without a fight. No longer hiding, the invaders see no need to mask their movements. They charge him without fear, only to be pushed back by the force of his Kaiten.

A few more fall to Gentle Fist and he arrives at Hinata's room just in time to see two enemies flying through the shouji door. He thinks it is from the Branch members he sent ahead but they're not even there yet. Instead it is Hanabi that steps out of the door and looks at him.

Inside, one more lays at the feet of her sister and the Hyuuga heir hardly seems winded at all. Something is wrong. It is a formidable force but it was easily overcome. The feeling is in his gut again as he looks at the two girls in front of him. Behind, in the corner of his sight, he can see a mass of chakra systems that must be the brunt of the attack.

Hinata and Hanabi see it as well and before he can react, they're running towards their father's room. Neji barely made it in time to pull them away from the door as it explodes in flames.

Hinata is the one that screams first while Hanabi tries to run inside. He has to tackle her to the ground and let the others try to put out the flames. Hanabi yells at him, screams curses as she is pinned but he doesn't have the heart to tell her what he sees.

There is no point in trying to put out the flames. The head of Main, his uncle, his father's twin, is dead.

"We sustained massive damage on the east wall, where our guard was stretched. It was obvious they knew exactly where to hit us and the most direct route to the Hyuuga compound."

"What are causalities?"

"Five dead, twelve wounded."

"Any other sign of targets."

"No, it was a directed and well planned out strike at Hyuuga."

"Not Hyuuga, the head of Main."

The assembled group falls silent as Hinata enters the room. She is flanked by her cousin and a number of Hyuuga elders, one of which has decided to make clear what has happened.

The Hokage, seated at the front of the table, is the only one who can mask her surprise. As Hokage though, she knows she must retain order and at all times appear to be in control. She looks down at Hinata and her worst fears are realized. Seeing the teenage girl, standing there in shock, she knows the exact meaning of the Elder Hyuuga's words.

"The body," she asks, ignoring the shudder from Hinata. It is cruel but bloodlines are important to the village and she has to know.

"Most of it is there."

"Most?" she asks softly.

"They took the head." Hinata sobs but they don't let her leave. This is trial by fire for her now. Whether she is ready or not, she is about to become the new head of Hyuuga. She is too bewildered to realize that now.

Neji watches the people around the Hokage, reading their reaction to his words when he realizes that their concern is muted. It almost as if…

"You knew," Hinata whispers, having come to the same conclusion. "You knew what was going to happen."

"It was a theory," Tsunade says quickly. "We had no way of knowing if it would happen and in truth, we thought we had taken care of the problem."

"What problem?" the elder demands.

Tsunade waits a moment and then nods to Shizune. "Two months ago, we received word that a weapon was under development in Kuroyama, an industrial town just across our border. We sent a team in to investigate without knowing that the weapon was actually there. They sent us word that a Konoha bloodline would be targeted with it. They managed to destroy it before…"

Tsunade pauses. The word has not been sent to the families yet. She can't tell them or show them what happened.

Hinata starts to ask what the weapon was but Neji speaks first. He has forgotten his place as the silent bodyguard from Branch. There is only one thing on his mind as he reads the unspoken words off her expression.

"Who was on the team?"

She's beautiful, but then she always have been. Even when the rest of her peers were in that awkward phase of adolescence she moved like a ballerina, full of grace and elegance in everything she did.

Even now as she is screaming, yelling orders to Chouji as he tries to pull Shikamaru out of the way. Even as her shortened brown hair falls into her face and obscures it. Even with the open wound in her arm turning the ground red.

Her words come too late. A second later, he falls on top of his friend.

He sees her pause, knowing what's going on in her mind. Does she save her comrades or complete her mission?

He knows her better then anyone so it is no surprise that she runs from her friends and into the fray. Nor is it any surprise when she pulls out her scrolls. No surprise when the twin dragons of flame are summoned.

It burns everything around them, including the surveillance video that captured the trio's last attack. And all they are left with is snow.

"It was supposed to be a three month mission," Tsunade says. "S-rank because they were in enemy territory. Shikamaru and Chouji decided she was a good replacement for Ino while she's out on maternity leave and because of anyone in this village, she would be able to identify what the weapon was supposed to do.

"We lost contact with them two weeks ago. Then a single message that they were going to destroy the weapon before it left the town and a Konoha bloodline was attacked. An operative retrieved the tape for us but was unable to get to the safe house the team was using."

"You can ask them," Hinata starts, "for the details when they come back."

Tsunade looks at her and feels a pang of regret for burdening the young girl more this night. "Hinata… they are not coming back."