Synopsis: The Akatsuki wanted Naruto. Hinata knew that, eventually, they would succeed. They weren't against tearing Konoha to the ground in order to find him. And suddenly, in the most unlikely of circumstances, she found herself in a position to help. The physical pain was something she could deal with. But when her heart became tangled in the mess of lies and deceit necessary to keep everyone safe, she started to doubt how long she could continue protecting him. It only got worse. Naruto wasn't the only one in danger anymore, and it wasn't just her life and her heart at stake. And at the center of everything, she begins to know someone she never thought twice about. The only person who can help her save Naruto. She needs Sasuke more than she's ever needed anyone, but she doesn't realize the depth of his feelings for her, afraid of being hurt, she doesn't realize just how much she loves him. But by then, is it too late?

Rating: Will stay at 'M'. Language, gore, and a lemon at some point. It will be done differently though, in a separate story as a oneshot as long as I can make it run smoothly. That way you can read it if you want to, and if you don't, you won't miss out on the story. I may not do this, though. There will be smut and other mature content through the whole story, so I'm not sure how much good it will do to take out the lemon.

Disclaimer: I disclaim.

Hinata twisted to one side, Neji's palm flew past her hip, barely missing her. She brought her left hand down in a sharp arc, blue chakra whistling from her skin and soaring towards her cousin's wrist. He flipped his hand upward, and the two hands collided with a sharp crack. At the same time, Hinata lifted her right hand and shoved it forward towards Neji's shoulder. He leaned backwards, free hand catching himself to avoid the blow. He flipped back, and Hinata sank into a defensive stance. For a moment, both Hyuuga's paused, their chests heaving. Then Neji straightened. "You've improved, Hinata. I think we should stop for today."

Hinata blinked, then smiled a little. "Thank you, Neji-sama." She said softly. The pair went their separate ways, Neji to the branch house, and Hinata to the head. She showered and got dressed for the day, wringing out her long hair. She really should cut it, but hadn't had the time. And training with two boys, there wasn't much sympathy when it came to that sort of maintenance. She hadn't really meant to grow it out. It just kind of happened. She had been back in the village for almost a year. Her sixteenth birthday was in two weeks. And although her father was planning some sort of big party, there was only one person she wanted to care about her. And he barely knew she existed.

Clasping her hands behind her back, she made her way outside the mansion, heading down towards the village gates. She didn't have anything to do today, which was rare. Kiba had a nasty cold, and Shino's entire family had gotten called out on some mission. She hadn't asked for specifics. She considered stopping by Naruto's house, but just the thought of him brought a blush to her face. And she didn't have a reason for actually going to see him, so she banished the thought.

She missed him though. A tiny smile touched her face. When they met again, she would be even stronger than she had been before. That was what she had promised herself the last time they saw each other. And she was stronger. She had really gotten the hang of the Byakugan. More than that. She was finally impressing her father. And earning Neji's respect. The smile on Hinata's face grew. Things were finally turning around for her. She was just...happy. But it was as if Naruto had eyes only for Sakura. Hinata didn't have anything against the pink haired kunoichi. She had always been nice to her. But she still wished that somehow Naruto would notice her.

Neji knew how she felt. He was probably the only one who did. He had seen the way she looked at Naruto. Maybe it was because he was so good at reading people, he knew what her body signals meant, the way she fidgeted. But he rarely commented on it. Hinata was thankful for that. She and Neji were almost friends now. Sort of. And they were training together. That was new. Neji had even taught her how to activate her Byakugan with only one hand sign. Hinata lifted one hand to the gate guards in greeting, and they nodded curtly as she passed through the village gates.

She liked it outside of the village. It felt more open, free. And here, she could be alone with her thoughts. The young Hyuuga continued walking until she found a place more secluded than anywhere else. She had been here once before, to this very waterfall. The memory brought a blush to her cheeks. Naruto had seen her naked...But he hadn't known it was her. And she had gotten out of there before he could figure it out. Still...It was a moment she went over in her head quite often.

Selecting a place where the grass was soft, Hinata sat down, folding her legs underneath her and leaning back against a tree. She draped her arms over her stomach and closed her eyes. "Naruto-kun." She murmured, before drifting off into a light sleep.

A loud bang tore through the trees, and Hinata's eyes flew open. She sat up straight, looking around wildly. There were several sets of chakra nearby. Two of which felt extremely powerful, and one of which felt extremely familiar. She scrambled to her feet, forcing herself to focus as a shout of exertion rent the air. "Byakugan!" She lifted her hands to her face as she felt her bloodline limit surge. Then she opened her eyes, and her gaze flew through the trees towards the source of the chakra.

Five figures...Two of whom she didn't recognize at all. One held an oblong object that seemed to be a sword, it's broad blade held against the stomach of a male figure. The new member of Naruto's squad, Sai. But the seemed to be directly draining his chakra. Eating it away. Behind him, seemingly unconscious, was a female Hinata guessed was Sakura. And a little to the left of Sai, facing off against the other enemy, was Naruto himself. Hinata's heart jumped a little. But something was wrong...Naruto wasn't moving at all. He and the other figure just stood there, motionless. It was probably some sort of genjutsu.

Hinata pushed chakra into her feet and sprang into a tree, launching herself towards the fight. The entire time, she kept her gaze on Naruto. After a few seconds, he sank to his knees, and a gutwrenching roar of agony escaped his mouth. Hinata's eyes widened in panic."Naruto-kun!" She breathed. Her gaze shifted to Sai and the sword weilding shinobi. Sai had conjured some kind of creature made up entirely of his own chakra, and the creature was diving towards the sword-user.

But the moment the sword ripped across the creature's back, it vanished. As if it had been absorbed directly into the weapon. Sai was losing the battle, and quickly, while Naruto fell forward, motionless. Hinata did something she never thought she would have done. She drew a kunai from the pouch on her leg and forced one final burst of chakra into her feet, leaping from the trees down into the fight, placing herself between Naruto's unconscious form and Itachi Uchiha. She wouldn't have recognized him if it hadn't been for his Sharingan eyes. Naruto had told her once that the reason Sasuke had left was to become strong enough to kill his older brother.

But then what was Itachi doing here? Hinata's gaze flicked momentarily to the other shinobi, a large man with bluish skin and gills, his sword covered with bandages half unraveled. Sai had fallen to one knee, but his eyes met hers for a brief moment. "Don't come any closer!" Hinata tried to make her voice sound imposing, unafraid, as she stared fiercely up at the older Uchiha. Not knowing about his Mangekyou, she met his gaze squarely, which clearly surprised him.

He took a tentative step forward, although she had the feeling he was being more mocking than cautious. "I'm s-serious!" She hated the stutter in her voice, but couldn't help herself. She reactivated her Byakugan, since it had deactivated when she leapt from the trees.

"Byakugan?" The other shinobi spoke, and Hinata had to force herself to keep her gaze on Itachi, since he was within striking range now. "So you're a Hyuuga?" Kisame moved away from Sai. The only conscious member of team seven was so drained of chakra he could hardly remain upright. He was hardly a threat. Which left Hinata, alone against two S-ranked missing ninja. Suddenly, she recognized the pattern of their cloaks. Akatsuki. She fought hard to keep her face calm, emotionless, but wasn't sure if it had worked.

"Only question is," This time it was Itachi who spoke. His voice brought a shiver to the back of Hinata's neck, and she tightened her grip on the kunai, frantically trying to remember what she had been told about the Akatsuki. But all she could come up with was that the organization was made up entirely of missing ninja, and that they were treated as S-class criminals. If one was ever located, it was clearly said to report their presence, but never try to fight or capture one. Which left Hinata in a rather difficult position. She could hardly just walk away from these two, and she'd never be able to carry Naruto, Sai, and Sakura. Her thoughts were brought to a screeching halt at Itachi's next words, "Are you the genius Hyuuga? Or the dropout?"

Hinata knew the question wasn't meant to be answered. It was supposed to unnerve her, to show some of her weaknesses and to tell Itachi what sort of person, what sort of fighter she was. She barely managed to keep her face straight as she spoke. "I'm the dropout." Her response, once again, seemed to catch Itachi off guard, and although Kisame stood a little ways away, chuckling, she sprang forward, bringing the kunai close to her body to block any counter attack as she channeled chakra into her left hand, thrusting it towards the tenketsus around Itachi's heart. The move wasn't perfect. Neji had managed to manipulate the chakra to the precise point where this attack would both throw the enemy back and collapse their tenketsus. Hinata could only do that forty percent of the time.

Next thing she knew, Itachi's hand was fastened around her wrist, twisting it to the point where her bones screamed in protest, although her wrist didn't break. Hinata's eyes widened. She hadn't even seen him move. "I could kill you right now, Hyuuga." Itachi hissed, applying a little more pressure to her wrist. Hinata squeezed her eyes shut. 'Don't cry out,' she told herself. 'don't scream.' She swept forward the kunai in her other hand sharply, the blade nearly opening a gash on Itachi's chest. It caught the fabric of his shirt and tore it, and before she had completed the cut, Itachi had taken a hold of her other wrist. Twisting her arm around her body so her arms were crossed, he pulled her back against his chest, rendering her unable to move.

"I've got three ANBU squads behind me," Hinata said suddenly, falling completely still as Itachi's grip tightened. Any more and both her wrists would snap like twigs. She could sense the Uchiha's hesitation. Kisame, however, merely laughed again.

"Then why are you the one at the front of the squad?"

Hinata could almost hear Itachi smirk behind her. Oops. "Naruto-kun went missing and I wanted to come after him...because I...I..." She stopped talking suddenly. Sai had ingested a food pill subtly while she faced Itachi. And he was sweeping his paintbrush through the air, ink flying from it's bristles. Hinata saw the creature exploding from the end just in time, and drove her head back hard against Itachi's jaw. It was enough to get him to loosen his grip, and Hinata threw herself to the ground as the lion dog launched over her head, knocking Itachi back.

"Hinata-sama!" Sai wrapped one arm around Naruto's waist, lifting him and motioning with his free arm to Sakura. "Hurry!" He secured his grip on Naruto and took off through the trees. Hinata scrambled to her feet, looking once over her shoulder to see Itachi struggling with the lion dog. Kisame was moving towards him, his sword held aloft and ready to cut the creature away. Urgently, she raced towards her fellow kunoichi and lifted her. It was a bit awkward, since Sakura was taller than Hinata. But she was lean as opposed to curvy, and Hinata was able to carry her without being too hindered. She heard a slight splatter of ink and knew Kisame must have destroyed the lion dog.

Leaping after Sai, she risked another glance over her shoulder to see both Itachi and Kisame on their feet. Although they weren't making any indication that they were going to follow. This puzzled her, and she wondered if maybe they had taken her bluff about the ANBU squads seriously. But the look on Itachi's face sent a chill down her spine and caused her to look forward again. Increasing her speed until she caught up with Sai, she avoided meeting his gaze, even when he looked at her quizzically as if to ask what was wrong. For whatever reason, she couldn't bring herself to face him. Couldn't face anyone. All she could do was focus on making sure she didn't fall behind, and making sure she didn't drop Sakura.

She felt ashamed, as if something unclean had happened and it had been her fault. As if somehow she had betrayed Naruto, the entire leaf village. Maybe she was going crazy, or was imagining it...But it seemed like when she had looked back at Itachi, it had, for the moment she had watched him, it seemed like he had been grinning. Hinata focused on Sakura's heartbeat, and glanced sideways at Sai, who wasn't trying to catch her eye any longer. Then her gaze shifted to Naruto, and she felt the power of Itachi's smirk again. Biting her lip, she turned her eyes back to her path ahead.

When Sai and Hinata reached the gates, the two guards, Izumo and Kotetsu, didn't notice at first that anything was wrong. They remained bent over paperwork until Izumo did a double take. "Naruto-kun! Sakura-chan!" Izumo nudged Kotetsu, whose eyes widened. Kotetsu radioed the medic ANBU, and Izumo rushed towards Sai and Hinata. "What happened?"

Sai began explaining, voice horribly calm. Hinata just listened, with the occasional nod of agreement. But she didn't say anything, and no one asked her how she had gotten involved in the fight. She was glad, since she wasn't much up for speaking at the moment. She tuned out of Sai's monotone voice, and wasn't aware of anything until the medics arrived to take Sakura and Naruto. It seemed it had taken the medics hours to get there, while in reality it couldn't have been more than a few minutes. The medic squad started towards the hospital, and while Sai leapt after them to make sure his teammates were okay, Hinata found that she couldn't follow.

For once she was glad of her ability to go unnoticed, and slid away back towards the Hyuuga mansion. A butterfly stitched the air above her shoulder as she walked, but she barely noticed it. She wasn't entirely sure why she felt so strange...but her thoughts kept straying back to those two Akatsuki. What had they been doing here? What exactly were they after? She pushed the gate of the mansion open, feet crunching on the gravel of the walkway as she made her way up towards her room. She could have gone in through the front door, but then she would have been noticed, and she didn't want to discuss where she had been.

Her window was unlocked, as she knew it would be, and she lifted herself inside. But her foot caught on the sill as she pulled it inside, and she stumbled, managing to catch herself at the last moment by grasping the edge of her bedside table. The lamp on it's surface crashed to the ground, and Hinata winced at the noise. She waited...but her door remained closed and no footsteps intruded from the hallway. Breathing a sigh of relief, the Hyuuga pulled off her overcoat and sank onto her bed, wrapping her arms around her legs and resting her chin on her knees. She closed her eyes, and must have fallen asleep, because she dreamt things that had already happened...and things that could never happen.

"What are you doing? Get up." Neji stood over her, eyes narrowed. Hinata felt pain sear through her chest and down her legs, then travel back up to her fingertips as she stirred.

"I...I c-can't!" She whispered, a tremble coursing through her body.

"You can't?" Neji's echoing words stung her. "You're just as much of a failure as I thought you were, then." Hinata winced, digging her fingers into the dirt beneath her, and felt tears welling up in her eyes. She wasn't a failure...But when she opened her mouth to protest, no sound came out. "And for a moment there, I really thought you had changed." Neji turned away from her, and Hinata gripped the dirt tighter. "I thought that maybe, you'd started to get strong."

Next thing Hinata knew, she was on her feet, a cry escaping her lips as she flung a wild punch at Neji's face. It was a stupid move, and not a very strong punch at all, so it was no surprise when Neji whirled around and caught her fist easily in one hand. Pain shot through her body again, and, panting, she stared into his face, tears welling in her eyes but refusing to fall. " not weak!" She whispered.

Suddenly it was not Neji that clutched her fist, but Itachi. And there, on his face, was the wicked grin that paralyzed her with fear. And she stood, watching immobile, as he knelt beside Naruto's inert form. Itachi's gaze never left her face, until he drew a kunai and held it to Naruto's throat. Hinata felt nothing but panic, terror, at the sight. And yet she still didn't move. Her feet were frozen to the spot.

Itachi began to drag the kunai across Naruto's skin, blood blossomed from his throat and stained his blond hair red, and Itachi looked back up at her, Sharingan eyes the same shade as Naruto's blood. Hinata's eyes widened and she tried to scream, but her mouth wouldn't open. "Move!" She shouted in her head. Naruto's blue eyes were opened now, staring at her with betrayal and hurt. 'Don't leave me, Hinata!' But she was backing away now, her heart pounding in her chest.

And he was following her. Itachi was standing, moving towards her, and Naruto's eyes never left her face, even as his lips parted in a soundless cry of pain, the last of the blood gurgling from his throat. And now her own hands were stained with his blood, and Itachi's eyes had grown to fill her entire mind, and she couldn't tear her gaze away. "MOVE!"

"Hinata-sama?" Hinata sat up suddenly, eyes wide. Somehow, she hadn't moved the entire time she had slept. She lifted her head to look at the speaker, standing in the doorway to her room. Neji's face was, shockingly, devoid of emotion. He stared at her, and the force of his gaze was so unusual that Hinata felt something must be wrong. She stood, moving to the mirror on the other side of the room, and her eyebrows lifted in surprise. Her hair was caked with dirt, and there was some blood in the back where she had head butted Itachi. There was a small scrape on her forehead and, when she looked down at her wrists, she saw violent purple and black bruises where Itachi had held onto her.

Neji moved into the room, standing behind her and looking at her face via the mirror. Hinata didn't look at him, only saw her own reflection. "Sasuke-kun's brother...And another Akatsuki..." Hinata whispered, reaching up to touch the scrape on her forehead. She could only guess she received it when diving out of the lion dog's way. "They attacked Naruto-kun's team." Neji didn't reply, but he moved his hand to take a hold of Hinata's arm, pulling her bruised wrist around to examine it. Satisfied that neither of her wrists were broken, he released her, and Hinata dipped her head, eyes falling to the ground. "And I stood in Itachi's way..." Hinata continued speaking in a quiet voice. "But against Itachi...Against just one of them, I was powerless to protect someone I care about. I really am...weak."

She turned away from Neji, lifting her hand to the mirror and placing her palm against it. "I couldn'" She hissed, clenching her eyes shut as a few tears pressed at her eyes. She curled her fingers into a fist, hand trembling. "I refuse to be weak any longer!" She shouted, drawing her hand away from the mirror, then flinging her fist into the reflection. The pieces fell to the ground, sparkling around hers and Neji's feet. Neji watched Hinata's reflection shatter, and somehow, he could sense it. That girl was gone. She wouldn't run any more. She wouldn't ever turn her back again. It seemed that, with the breaking of that mirror, she had broken away from her old self. Or she was starting to.

He spoke for the first time since entering her room. "You should go to the hospital."

"I'm fine, Neji-sama!"

"No. You should visit Naruto. He just got out of Tsunade's care."

Hinata lifted one hand to her eyes, wiping them clean of any tears. Neji felt more like she was wiping away the remnants of her childhood. "Is that...what you came to tell me?" She asked quietly. Neji hesitated for a moment, then lifted one shoulder a little, turning for the door. He spoke just before leaving, his words drifting back to Hinata so quietly that she almost thought she had imagined them.

"You were crying in your sleep." Hinata knew she would regret the question she was about to ask, but couldn't stop the words from tumbling out.

"What was I saying?"

Neji turned his head halfway, so she could see part of his face outlined against the light of the hallway. "You were saying, 'I'm sorry.'" Then he vanished down the hall, leaving Hinata standing alone in her room, gaze focused on the floor.

She went to the hospital, as Neji had suggested. But when she reached the entrance, she hesitated, biting her lower lip. She'd have to ask for his room. And if he was awake...She'd have to talk to him. Hinata drew a deep breath, then lifted her chin and stepped inside. No one was at the front desk. Figuring that the nurses were just on a break or something, Hinata clasped her hands behind her back, glancing around somewhat awkwardly. Five minutes passed. Then ten. Hinata sat in one of the chairs in the front lobby, tucking one foot behind the other and glancing down the hall whenever she heard footsteps. But no one ever came close enough for her to ask for help.

A half hour passed. Then an hour. Hinata stood finally, deciding that this had been a stupid idea after all. Turning towards the exit, she had placed one hand on the door when someone said her name.

"Hinata-sama?" The Hyuuga turned to see Sai coming out of one of the doors down the hall. She lifted one hand in greeting, and, looking slightly surprised, Sai returned the gesture. "What are you doing here?" The boy drew even with her, and Hinata sputtered for an answer, staring sideways at the place the wall met the floor. Sai waited patiently for her to speak, seemingly not going to help her get there any faster. Finally, Hinata drew herself together.

"I wanted to make sure Naruto-kun was all right." She forced herself to look up at Sai, who tilted his head curiously to one side.

"Oh, of course. I'm glad you came, anyway. I wanted to thank you for saving us." Sai turned his back on Hinata, beckoning down the hall. "Sakura's in 103, that's where I was a moment ago. She's in a coma, but they think she'll be all right in a few weeks." Hinata listened carefully, breaking into a trot to catch up to the other ninja before returning to a normal pace when she reached him. "And Naruto's in 159. He just woke up."

Hinata muttered something along the lines of, 'It was nothing.' when Sai mentioned her saving them, and now fell completely silent, her throat dry. She swallowed, trying to come up with something to say, but Sai wasn't expecting anything. He paused abruptly outside a door, and placed one hand on the handle. "Do you mind if I come in with you? I haven't seen him since he got out of surgery." Hinata shook her head quickly, then Sai pushed open the door. She slid inside after the boy, remaining slightly hidden behind him.

"Sai! And...Hinata? Hey guys!" The blond was sitting up, bandages on his torso being changed. Naruto looked extremely tired, but his eyes were bright, and the grin on his face as strong as ever. Hinata forced herself not to look at his chest and stomach, their tanned skin horribly exposed. Naruto seemed slightly puzzled to see Hinata there, but accepted it.

"How are you feeling, Naruto?" Sai asked, pulling a chair up to his teammate's bed and sitting himself in it. There was another chair, on the other side of Naruto's bed, but Hinata remained standing awkwardly by the door, hands clasped behind her back.

"I'm all right! Really sore, but you know how it is." The nurse finished with Naruto's bandages then left the room. Hinata stepped to one side so she wasn't in the way, watching the door swing shut behind the nurse. When she turned back to Naruto and Sai, the conversation had turned to uncomfortable territory. "...did you get us out of there? When I passed out you and Sakura looked like you were screwed."

Sai flicked his gaze to Hinata, who wanted to say something to stop him but felt the words die in her mouth. "Hinata showed up just in time. She bluffed Itachi long enough that I could conjure a lion dog. She's really the one who got us out of there."

Naruto turned enthusiastic eyes to Hinata. "Really?! Hinata, that's amazing!"

"N-no, not really..." Hinata felt heat rise in her face and threw her gaze to the ground.

"It is!" Naruto swung his legs to the other side of the bed, pushing himself gingerly to his feet. Then he was walking towards Hinata. She felt her frame shaking. Don't come closer! She pleaded silently. "You took on two of the Akatsuki, and survived! You saved our lives!" He placed one hand on either of her shoulders, grinning.

"I..." Hinata tried to shrink away from Naruto, but her back was against the wall and his hands held her fast. Oblivious to her discomfort, Naruto pulled her into a hug. Her eyes widened, and she wished she could let go and faint, but for the first time, she didn't. She just stood there feeling like she had a temperature of 300 degrees. After an eternity, Naruto released her. Hinata blinked, seeing that Sai had pulled Naruto away.

"Are you all right, Hinata-sama? You look a little faint." Naruto stared at Sai in blank confusion.

Faint? I wish. Hinata nodded, clenching her fingers. "I-I'm fine. But I should probably be getting home. I just wanted to make sure you were okay, Naruto-kun." She chirped, edging towards the door and grasping the handle tightly. "I'll see you later." She forced herself to open the door calmly, then slid out into the hall. The moment she heard the door close, she took off at a dead sprint, not stopping until she reached the Hyuuga mansion.

Neji saw his cousin running up the path and sighed. Apparently, she hadn't completely conquered her old self yet. But she had crossed a line today, that much he knew. And it would only be a matter of time before she could completely abandon her fears and finally embrace her destiny.

Hinata flung herself onto her bed, and the moment she hit the pillows she was asleep, thankfully, dreaming nothing.

She overslept the next morning, which was a Sunday, generally her day off. Hinata woke to a sharp rapping on her door. "Up, Hinata!" She groaned silently, recognizing her father's voice. Sitting up, she rubbed the side of her head. "I'm up, Tousan." She called back. That seemed to satisfy him, for she saw the shadow beneath her door frame move away. Sighing, she glanced down at her wrists. The bruises had turned a sickly sort of yellow blue, and the scrape on her forehead was scabbing. Thankfully, her head wasn't sore anymore, although, as she got dressed, she could tell strain on her wrists was still painful.

She brushed out her hair, making another mental note to cut it soon. She started to pull it from her face, but another knock on her door stopped her. Apparently, there wasn't time for that. "Hinata-sama." The voice was a little more gentle, and she stood, straightening the folds in her clothes.

"Come in," Hinata said lightly, clasping her hands behind her back. Neji slid open the door to her room, but didn't enter. He leaned coolly against the doorframe, hands in his pockets. "What is it, Neji-sama?" She felt uncomfortable under his scrutiny.

"Tsunade wants to know what happened. Naruto and Sakura are still in the hospital, so she asked you and Sai to make the report."

Hinata frowned, sliding her gaze down to her cousin's shoes. "All right..." She stepped past Neji, avoiding his gaze as she started down the hall. She hadn't realized he was following until she reached the front gate. A small squeak of surprise escaped her lips as she turned to look behind her, only to find Neji right beside her.

"Hiashi asked that I accompany you. But you didn't give me time to say so before running from your room."

Hinata felt a stab of foolishness in her stomach, and tried to cover her discomfort with a shrug, as if it didn't matter, but Neji wasn't watching her any more. He was walking beside her, his hands still in his pockets. Hinata bit her lower lip, focusing on not tripping or doing anything else embarrassing. By the time the cousins had reached the Hokage's mansion, Sai was already there, standing just outside the entrance.

"Hinata-sama. Neji-sama." He said, voice always calm. The three fell into step beside each other, and silence sank over them until they reached Tsunade's office.

Neji turned to his cousin, saying, "I'll wait outside, Hinata."

Hinata nodded as Sai knocked on the door to Tsunade's office. Immediately, it was opened by Shizune, and Sai and Hinata stepped inside. "It was a reconnaissance mission, Sai." Tsunade muttered, her hands cradling her forehead. She looked up, eyes tired and irritated. "And Sakura is lying in a coma, and Naruto won't be dismissed from the hospital for days. What happened? Tell me everything."

Once again, Hinata was left standing awkwardly by the door as Sai began speaking, the precise way they had been taught to deliver a report in the academy. No 'like's or 'um's. Just the facts. She found herself listening, wanting to know how they had gotten themselves into such a situation.

"We reached the border of the fire country just fine. We patrolled it carefully, Naruto sustained a minor twisted ankle when he jumped from a waterfall too earnestly, but Sakura healed it and we were on our way again shortly after."

Hinata smiled a little at that part. It sounded like something Naruto would do.

"We were on our way back when Sakura and myself sensed two powerful chakras nearby. Naruto continued forward, just as we stopped. Then two cloaked shinobi jumped into the path in front of us. One had blue skin, gills, and sharpened teeth. I wasn't close enough to see if they were filed or natural. He had a large sword with scales for the blade. It was wrapped in bandages, and I did not see the scales until later. The other was Uchiha Itachi."

Tsunade lifted her head suddenly, eyes wide and her hands falling onto the desk with a dull 'thump'. She didn't interrupt, however, just listened avidly. And Sai, sensing her intense curiosity, continued.

"We recognized the shinobi by their cloaks as Akatsuki, and immediately tried to flee. But we didn't get far before they caught up to us. Sakura was immediately knocked unconscious by Itachi, and while I turned to face the other, Naruto was attacking Itachi.

"Naruto was caught in Itachi's genjutsu, and I tried to attack Itachi, but the other shinobi blocked my path. His sword has the ability to eat chakra, and rendered my ink useless. I would have been dead, but that's when Hinata showed up, just after Naruto too was incapacitated."

Recognizing that it was her turn to speak, Hinata stepped forward. Tsunade, however, wasn't as patient as others had been. When Hinata tried to clear her throat, Tsunade stood. "Just tell us, Hinata. If those were indeed Akatsuki we have serious problems."

"I was the forest...and I heard a loud crash. I used my Byakugan and saw the sword eating Sai's chakra. I also saw that Naruto-kun and Sakura were unconscious. So I started to rush towards them and-"

Tsunade cut into her words. fury etched into her face. "You must have sensed the enemy's chakra and known they were beyond your power, why didn't you follow procedure and immediately report it?"

Hinata flushed a little, fiddling with her hands. "I..I...wasn't on an official mission and didn't have my radio, and I knew by the time I got to the village and back Sai and Naruto-kun and Sakura would probably be dead."

Tsunade glanced over Hinata's shoulder at Shizune, but since Hinata couldn't see Shizune's face, she wasn't sure what transpired. Feeling suddenly defensive, she spoke again. "And I couldn't just leave them to die!"

Sai glanced at her sideways, frowning a little as Tsunada returned her gaze to Hinata. "Understandable. Please continue, Hinata."

Hinata shifted, curling her fingers into fists to stop herself from making any more nervous gestures. "I jumped down from my hiding place in the trees and blocked Itachi's path to Naruto-kun. I stared him in the eyes and he seemed surprised, which is why he stopped walking. I tried to make it seem like there were many ANBU just behind me. And they didn't really believe me, but they hesitated enough to stop attacking."

She left out the part where Itachi had taken hold of her wrists, and when he had recognized her as a Hyuuga. She saw Sai glance at her curiously, then decided it wasn't important enough to bring up, and she spoke again, words rushed to get it over with. "Sai took a food pill, I think, and managed to conjure one of his lion dogs. Then I carried Sakura and Sai carried Naruto back to the village. The Akatsuki must have taken my bluff seriously, because they didn't follow. Then Kotetsu radioed medic ANBU who took Sakura and Naruto to the hospital." She fell silent, and the room remained that way for several moments, broken when Tsunade sank back into her chair.

"Thank you for the report, I will have another assignment for you next week. Since Sakura will be in a coma at that time, I will have Hinata join your squad. You may leave." Sai turned to do just that, leaving Hinata alone in the room with Shizune and Tsunade. Tsunade quirked one eyebrow at the Hyuuga heiress. "Yes, Hinata?"

"I...I would...appreciate it if I could stay with my own team." Hinata squeaked. "Or maybe you could send Ino-chan with them instead. She has medical experience and-" The glare on the Hokage's face stopped her cold. "N-nevermind." She whispered, the hurried from the Hokage's mansion, barely noticing Neji walking alongside her.