*Disclaimer* I own no part of Naruto whatsoever

Traces of Blood

1

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The last kind memory Hinata could remember of her Neji-niisan was when they were but six years old. Hinata's mother had died suddenly, rendering Hinata broken and lifeless. The trademark white in her eyes were not only blank, but listless and dull. There was no life anywhere in her, and being the heir to the Huuga clan didn't even give her right to cry. An heir must be strong. Must be a leader. Gender does not matter. Death does not matter. Fear does not matter. That is the way of a shinobi.

Young Neji, having been influenced by Huuga tradition, was compelled to feel responsible for Hinata's morose condition. He was very upset with himself.

Hinata, as heir, had been required to attend a formal dinner with the Hokage one night. The Hokage had kindly asked her a question which Hinata had not responded to. She just sat and looked at him, still and unemotional. Her father, who had considered this a profound act of disrespect and humiliation, locked her in her room for a number of days until she found the strength to get over her grief.

Hinata merely nodded and agreed. She didn't even seem upset.

Neji, who had snuck out of tutoring early, was waiting for her in her room. "Hinata-sama!" he called happily when she rounded the entrance to her door. "Hinata-sama, I-I know what happened at dinner. I'm sorry, but…" Little Neji had a small dumpling in his hand; one from his own small dinner very similar to the others of the lower branch of the Huuga family. He thrust it toward her.

"Please eat this, Hinata-sama! I-I don't want you passing out from hunger!"

Hinata stared at the dumpling blankly, as if not understanding what it was, and walked right past him to her bed. She pressed her little form into the soft sheets of her futon and curled up. There was a pretty purple Kimono with intricate designs of nejibana flowers laying beside her which she drew in close like a life-support, and inhaled the scent from it. It was her mothers.

Neji, drawing his eyebrows together, stared at the untouched dumpling in his hand and glanced at Hinata's motionless form. "Hinata-sama?" he called gently, as if fearing he might wake her if she was asleep. Of course she wasn't, but still Neji heard no sound from her. He sighed miserably and slumped his shoulders. He took a reflexive step forward but stopped himself. Neji was young, but he was anything but dull. He knew there was little he could do for Hinata at this point--no matter how much he wanted to be able to help her, and this helplessness wounded him greatly.

Neji walked over to Hinata's night stand and placed the dumpling on it. He made his way toward the exit and looked over his shoulder remorsefully.

"Good night, Hinata-sama," he whispered, and walked out of the room, shutting the door as quietly as possible.

"Thank you, Neji-niisan," Hinata whispered just before falling into a peaceful slumber.

It wasn't fair that sleep plagued her with such fond recollections of the past. All her life Hinata remembered being alone, ever since her beloved mother died, and the only person she had left in the entire world had abandoned her shortly afterward. Her Neji-niisan hated her.

And though Hinata understood exactly why and how much he hated her, she still could not help but love him. Neji was the only person who was ever really nice to her, and even though Hinata knew it to be naïve to linger on past relationships, it was the warm feeling of comfort and love she could not allow herself to forget. That Neji--the little kind Neji--she loved with all her heart, and no matter how poorly he treated her that was the only Neji she ever saw when she looked at him.

Usually anger and hatred are easy to remember--far too easy--but for Hinata kindness held a firmer place than that of dejection and loathing. A kind and soft soul. A rare and bejeweled mind.

But still, Neji did not see any of that.

Whenever he looked at her all he could see was his father's death. For a growing boy, a father means everything. Is everything. And Neji lost his at such a young age. Oh how it must have felt to witness the bonding of other boys with their fathers while he--lonely and mistreated by the upper branch of the Huuga family--could only stand by and watch silently.

Hinata understood clearly how much hatred had been escalading inside of Neji-niisan, especially for so long, and the overpowering urge he felt to lash that anger out towards something was an emotion he'd struggled with for years. He had to have somebody to blame. He had to hate something that would not hate him back.

Hinata was perfect.

But for her, this was okay. Neji--kind wonderful Neji--had grown into a fine ninja of thirteen and was as strong and powerful as any student she knew. He was taught to be strong, to be the brightest and the most revered. Yes, he was strong, but inside he still suffered, and that small Neji--little pleasant thoughtful Neji--crying and weeping over his loss called out to Hinata as clearly as a church bell.

If there was anything she could do to ease that inner pain of cute and kind Neji, she would not hesitate. Hinata owed her happiness to Neji. All of it.

No one mattered more than her Neji--niisan.

Well, at first.

It wasn't until her first year at the academy when Hinata caught sight of Naruto, the absurdly energetic blond boy with the adorable whisker markings on his face that she began to change; to see things differently.

Naruto was amazing. He was hated, shunned, teased, and kicked around all his life. When he wasn't being scolded by a teacher or being bullied by a student he was completely and utterly alone. No one looked at him. No one talked to him. No one cared that he was alive.

This touched Hinata so deeply that she wept quietly in her room one night, submerged in her own wretchedness of character. Always Hinata had been ashamed of herself, pitying herself, berating herself, hating herself, and then along came this boy. He had it unimaginably worse than her. Hinata couldn't even fathom how she thought her life had been horrible.

But it wasn't as if she was looking down on Naruto. Definitely not that. She absolutely and wholly adored Naruto. He was absolutely everything she wished she could be; strong, brave, determined, and unique. Naruto was all these things and more. He was everything. Never had Hinata seen someone push themselves the way Naruto did. He wasn't smart and he wasn't all that talented as a warrior, but he never stopped to mull over his shortcomings. Naruto never ever let anything stall his determination or resolution to become stronger. To become better. To become somebody. Somebody that deserved respect. Someone that deserved to be loved.

It was only when she found out of his existence did Hinata start to question her own. Perhaps her whole life didn't have to be shrouded in misery? Perhaps she wasn't hopeless? Perhaps she too could become stronger than even her Neji-niisan. It was a very very long shot, of course, but that didn't mean it was impossible.

And that was all she needed. As long as it wasn't impossible she would try. Just like Naruto.

After following through with her normal morning routine, Hinata left the Huuga manor early. She always did this, making sure no one but the guards saw her so that if anyone--in the unlikely case--would ask where she was, at least someone would know.

The sun was bright and the air was fresh. Hinata gazed at the radiant colors of the earth and the sky--just like brothers--and gave a tiny smile. The only thing that made her happy at all besides Naruto was the comfort of nature.

Hinata knew Naruto was up. He always got up at 5:00pm to train alone in the woods. She knew this because one day when she had risen quite early herself and decided to go exploring in the woods for some usable herbs that could be made into medicine. Hinata made her own healing creams and ointments. It was the only other hobby she had besides cooking. Her mother had taught her to do both.

Naruto had been there throwing shurikans and kunais into a particularly worn and scathed tree. It was apparent that he'd been doing this for a while. Hinata hid behind a thick evergreen trunk and observed him for what seemed like too short a time, and when finally she'd come to her senses, noticed that it was the middle of the day.

Hinata was looking toward the sky in fondness as she made her way there. Hinata knew Naruto didn't train on rainy days. On rainy days he slept in, on cloudy days he went right to the ramen shop, and on foggy days he trained or slept in--it all depended on his mood that morning.

But Naruto would be at the tree today, Hinata was almost certain of it. She smiled lightly to herself. She knew it was wrong and weird and puzzling to feel proud this of this, but she couldn't help herself.

Love.

It was love.

When Hinata was near enough she used her Byakugan to scan beyond the trees. She saw a silhouette tossing a kunai in the air, catching it with absentminded ease. Hinata receded her Byakugan and ran directly in the woods. Her heart thumped and pounded with exhilaration and anticipation. Such are the feelings of someone in love.

Hinata slowed to a stealthy walk when the tree had become visible, but when she peeked around a trunk of an evergreen, turned her mouth down into a frown. Her heart dropped like a chunk of lead. There wasn't anyone there. It was utterly impossible that her Byakugan had been wrong, but…where was the explanation for this?

Quietly Hinata stepped forward, making sure not to even rustle the thinnest blade of grass under her feet. She approached the tree and looked around. Again Hinata used her Byakugan and saw nothing. Sighing she placed her hand on the crevices in the tree, tracing her thin fingers across the deep grooves. Naruto had really been serious about training, and it showed in the trunk's unsightly markings.

Hinata removed her hand and made a move to turn away, but someone caught her from behind, faster than she was able to process, and held a kunai to her throat. The attacker pressed the sharpened edges to her exposed neck. Any movement at all of his hand would result in a trail of blood.

Hinata gasped, taken by surprise, but did not struggle to get away. A firm hand gripped her wrist viciously, twisting it around her back, making it impossible to break free.

"You are slow, Hinata-sama," a low voice whispered in her ear.

Hinata's eyes widened. "N-N-Ne--"

"What are you doing here, Hinata-sama?"

Hinata was at a loss for words. She would rather he slit her throat right there and then than tell him the truth. If he knew…

"Um…I…wh-what are you doing here, Neji-niisan?" Hinata managed to choke out. It was the best response she could think of. Neji released his threatening hold on his cousin and stepped back, narrowing his eyes with distaste. Hinata turned around, unconsciously backing up toward the tree. She didn't know it until her back pressed against the hard wood.

"I am here because of you, Hinata-sama," Neji said unexpectedly. "I know you've been sneaking off early every morning and coming here. As your guardian I demand that you tell me what it is you've been doing. May I remind you that everything you do has impact on the Huuga clan, whether you know it or not, and if you've been doing something…inappropriate behind your father's back, you will not be excused or treated lightly. As heir you must act accordingly and always keep your position in mind. You take it for granted."

Hinata flushed deeply. There was undeniable truth in everything he said, but there was only one word that stuck out in her mind.

Inappropriate…

He-He can't really think that, can he?! Hinata thought feverishly.

"My duty is to watch over you, Hinata-sama, and protect you. I counsel that you to stop whatever it is you've been doing and think more level-headedly from on."

"Y-Yes, Neji-niisan. B-But I wasn't—"

"Hinata-chan?" a voice interrupted.

Hinata spun around, horrified, while Neji merely glanced to the side. Naruto was there, staring at them with a puzzled look. There was a small bundle of kunais attached to his side which he had his hand on, ready to unlatch. "What are you two doin' here?" he asked incredulously. "I didn't think anyone came here but me."

Sheepishly Naruto reached up to rub his nose with his index finger, a happy grin stretching across his face. "D-Did you come here to train too? Hey, maybe we can do it together?"

Hinata blushed a very unhealthy shade of red. Neji's eyes narrowed dangerously and distastefully at Naruto. "This is who you've been meeting?" He asked dangerously; condescendingly.

Hinata didn't know what to say. She hid her face in her sleeve while trying unsuccessfully to get a hold on her out of control imagination. "N-No! I swear…"

"Think about what I've said, Hinata-sama," Neji said once more, seriously and unarguably. He walked off without another word, taking the kunai he'd pressed to Hinata's neck and wiped something off with his thumb and index finger.

"H-Hinata-chan! You're bleeding!" Naruto exclaimed.

Hinata looked down and saw a trace of blood seeping into her collar. She grazed her neck with a single finger and examined it.

Yes. She was bleeding.