Holding herself back has always been Hinata's biggest problem. It's an irony too giant for her to appreciate that right now, holding herself back is the hardest thing she's ever done.

It's the story of her life, standing on the sidelines, useless, unable to do anything but watch.

And for most of their lives, since they were children, she's been standing back watching him struggle. Watching him fall down, fail again and again... only to rise every time.

He always got up. He didn't sit there and cry like she did, didn't flagellate himself- only pushed himself to be better. To practice until he got it right. He used his frustration, rage and self- loathing to drive him on.

She doesn't think about what would have happened to her if he hadn't been there. It never occurs to her to wonder what she would've done if one day he hadn't gotten up, either, if he'd let it all get the better of him- because never giving up and never going back on his word is who he is. It's what he is, no matter what's inside him, where all that terrifying chakra came from in his match against the prodigy of her clan.

Naruto changes people because he knows their darkness, and he's emerged from it. He's a guiding light.

He's her guiding light, her sunshine since the first time she'd seen him- running through the street like the urchin he was, yelling at the top of his lungs, leaving chaos in his wake. She'd never seen someone act so indecently in all her life, and it fascinated her.

So she watched him. She saw his struggles, took heart in his triumphs, drew strength from him.

He always gets up. Always.

But he's not getting up now. He's pinned, and Pain's talking, and while Hinata can't hear them she can read lips. Not as well as Neji, of course, because she does nothing as well as Neji- but well enough. Well enough to know she disagrees.

Naruto will never be the smartest person in someone's acquaintance, particularly if that person knows Nara Shikamaru. Not even Hinata could make that argument. But if there's anyone who can make people understand one another- through his fists, at times- it's Uzumaki Naruto.

Uzumaki Naruto, who's known the darkness, who's lived in and fought and beaten it, from the day of his birth. Uzumaki Naruto, who can turn enemies to friends, and never gives up a friend after he's made one. Uzumaki Naruto, who loves, cherishes, and protects the village that made his childhood hell; Uzumaki Naruto, who will always defend his hard- won friends, his precious people, no matter what the cost.

Uzumaki Naruto has the heart of a Hokage, and Hinata has never doubted him. The most important job of the Hokage is not paperwork, or even being the strongest ninja of the village that he is sworn to protect.

The most important job, the sacred duty of the Hokage, is to be a leader worth following.

Hinata knows there is no one more suited than Uzumaki Naruto.

But in order to always get up, he has to fall. He's pinned. Pain is the Leader of the Akatsuki, and while she's not cleared to know everything that that means, she knows as much as she needs to. She knows he's after Naruto, watched his strength decimate her home and bring the one she admires most to his face in the dirt.

It feels like her entire life has distilled to this moment. Her eyes have never been clearer, her mind has never been sharper, and Hinata has never been simultaneously more and less afraid.

It's not even really a question of what she's going to do. It's a question of how long she can wait, of whether he'll manage to drag himself to his feet in time the way he always has before.

Her heightened vision picks up Naruto's wince, Pain's movement.

The last frog standing is blasted back- the last possible protector for him is struck down.

"It's time for us to go."

Pain's hand moves.

In the end, this is what it comes down to. All those years of watching, striving, hoping... there is a split- second in which to act, no time for thought. No time and no one to hold her back, except herself.

It was never a question of what she was going to do: never a question, because of him. This is who Hinata is.

Her body throws itself between Naruto and danger.

Everyone is taken aback, even some distant corner of Hinata's own mind. But the rest is clear.

"I won't let you lay another finger on Naruto!"

Her entire life, everything she is, everything she's gone through, all her doubts and fears- it all comes down to this. No matter what happens, this is Hinata's victory- being here now, able to stand on her own two feet and use her own voice and be the person she's always wanted to be... the person she's sweated, bled, and struggled for most of her life to be.

She's going to die. She knows it, knew it even as she felt the air moving across her face.

This- if ever anything was worth dying for, this is it. She would die for Naruto, a thousand times over. And the moment she stepped onto the floor at their first Chuunin Exam, the moment she decided to face Neji and Naruto gave her the courage to follow through- that was the moment she confirmed, to herself and everyone else, that being the person she wanted to be was a goal worth dying for.

She's been prepared for this moment: by her clan, the Academy, her field experience. Ninja deal in death. Hinata is smart enough to know that death is the least of what a kunoichi has to fear. And while she values her life, she is more than willing to sacrifice it, especially for this.

She's always been more lady than kunoichi, and for once it serves her well. The specter of death grants Hinata grace, and dignity she's never felt. She will die well.

Naruto, of course, doesn't quite feel the same. He tries to warn her away.

"I know."

He doesn't understand. How could he? Naruto is like life itself.

"I'm just being selfish," she tells him.

He still doesn't get it.

Pain is gracious- or maybe just curious enough- to grant her this. Hinata doesn't look a gift horse in the mouth. "I'm here of my own free will."

At least he's listening. It's all she ever could have asked, and more than she expected. "I used to always cry and give up... I nearly went the wrong way. But you... you showed me the right way."

She can feel his dread behind her, and regrets doing this to him, but it's the one thing she's ever wanted for herself. This once, at the end of her life, Hinata is going to take it.

"I was always chasing you, wanting to catch up to you... I just wanted to walk with you..."

That same distant corner of her head is surprised at how calm she is, that she has the courage for this. "I wanted to be with you..."

This is who Hinata is.

"You changed me! Your smile saved me! So I'm not afraid to die protecting you!"

Death looks at her.

"Because I.... love you."

She can't note his utter shock behind her. She's leaving him behind, for once.

Hinata meets her death head- on. One, two...

"Juho Soshiken!"

She barely hears the answering, "Shinra Tensei!"

It hurts.

She's gifted with the sound of his voice, one last time.

It hurts.

She lingers. If she were capable of it, she might have wondered about that. She'd expected to be instantly and unequivocally cut down, insofar as she'd expected anything at all... but it hurts, in an oddly detached sort of way, and she can't form real thought. She's drifting, not quite gone but not there either, and there are impressions of something great and terrible.

And as always, he is on her mind, even when it's all but faded out. Na... Naruto...

The fight's getting more and more removed, and she can't tell if it's because she's going somewhere else, or he is.

Doesn't really matter, either way.

Hinata protects what she loves. This is who she wanted to be, who she became, what she is. This is Hinata's victory- even if nobody else will be able to tell, or understand.

It resonates down to her bones, past the pain.