Young Hinata stumbled through the woods, tripping over rocks and fallen branches, panting and gasping for breath. It was raining and she was cold. Escaping the Hyuga manor hadn't been very difficult, what with all the focus being on missing Neji, so she'd found her way away from the compound to look for her cousin.
"C-Cousin?" she called as she searched. Hinata's own voice sounded raspy and foreign to her since she had not used it in days, and it wasn't particularly loud enough for anyone to hear. At such a young age she was unable to use her kekkei genkai, so things were much harder than they would have been for anyone else in the family.
It would have been smarter to let it alone, wait for someone to come up a solution, but Hinata didn't like that. She couldn't bear waiting anymore. She could no longer do nothing.
Someone important to her was missing, and after her mother's death, how much sense would it have made to feel nothing? Hinata, as young as she was, knew she would rather face death than the death of the last living person who cared about her.
There was a steep bank Hinata had not seen, and when stumbling behind a large tree, fell right into it. She slid helplessly in a shallow pond stretching through the small section of wood, and when her leg landed on a narrow rock sticking out of the water, she cried in pain.
"H-Hinata-sama?" a small voice cried from behind her. A tiny hand grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her under the small curve of the bank, sheltering her from the cold rain.
"Hinata-sama, what are you doing here?"
The heiress looked and saw a little male likeness of herself, staring at her wide-eyed with sharp panic in his expression.
"N-Niisan…" Hinata breathed with tears in her eyes.
Hinata had hoped to say goodbye to Naruto before she left, but ducked out at the last minute. She had seen him walking with Sakura, chattering expressively on their way to the academy. Sakura, though looking quite annoyed, retained a patient disposition, listening to everything the infatuated blond had to say. She even smiled from time to time, and with every one of her smiles Hinata frowned.
Sakura was beautiful. The elegance in her step went nearly unmatched, rivaled only by the feminism of Ino Yamanaka, and the unique color of her hair caught the attention of every person in town, drawing them to the tempting shape of her face. Young indeed, but much too pretty to be considered a child.
Hinata was none of the things Sakura was, and so consequently, none of things Naruto wanted. When he looked at her he smiled, but his eyes always swept right over her. She was the kind of girl that was impossible to find unless you were looking for her, and as it would seem, no one ever looked for her. Or even at her.
"Keep your head up when you walk," Neji told Hinata. "Always pay attention to where you're going."
Hinata's head snapped up before Neji even finished what he was saying. "Oh. S-Sorry Niisan…"
"Neji," he corrected flatly.
If not for Neji's previous advisory Hinata would have bowed her head in sadness. She didn't utter the correction he gave, but she didn't protest to it either.
In her mind he was still Neji-niisan…and she never wanted that to change. Ever.
Hinata and Neji decided to stop for the day when the first cluster of stars appeared in the night sky. They'd tracked a pretty good distance in the time since they departed, but eleven hours of walking with only one pit stop was…exhausting. In that time Neji hardly spoke to Hinata at all, only told her to keep up when it seemed she was lagging behind, and carried on.
"Th-There's still time for dinner," Hinata said as Neji cleared their sleeping area of branches and weeds. They'd picked a quiet spot by the river for the night, making for easy access to water and of course, food. "Th-There are plenty of fish in the river…"
Neji pulled out his compass, seemingly ignoring her at first, and said, "Do you need help?"
"H-Help?" Hinata replied.
"Catching the fish," Neji clarified, snapping the compass shut. He eased it inside his short's pocket and looked at her.
"N-No, I can catch them myself, Ne…Ne…Niisan…" Hinata inwardly scolded herself for her stupidity. Physically she really couldn't call Neji by just his first name. She just couldn't. Hinata thought he was going to snap at her for it, but he didn't.
In fact, he didn't even care.
"I'll get a fire going while you catch dinner," Neji said, and turned his back to her. "I'll be in the woods collecting firewood, but I won't go to far. If you happen to go too far upstream, just remember there are plenty of wild animals out here that can pose a threat. Do you understand, Hinata-sama?"
"Y-Yes, Niisan, but what about you?"
"I'll be fine. Don't waste your time worrying about me; it's really gotten annoying."
Hinata's heart sank as she watched her cousin leap into the woods without a backward glance.
"B-But…" Hinata mumbled to herself, folding her hands together. "F-Family is supposed to worry about each other…"
Hinata didn't go too far up stream. She kept Neji's advise clear in mind with every movement she made, scanning the woods every now and then for any signs of danger.
There were plenty of fish racing up stream, which was a little curious since it wasn't yet mating season, but that made things easier for Hinata. The moon was bright in the sky by this point, adding glow to the shiny scales worn by the fish, so Hinata did not need to use her Byakugan to see them.
Her first few attempts were failures, but in the end she'd caught four. Two for her, and two for her niisan.
After lacing them together with some fishing string she'd brought specifically for the occasion, Hinata approached the river bank and slid back into her shoes.
As Hinata was making her way back to camp, the sharp snap of a twig caused her to stop in her tracks. It was very dark out, but the moon was glowing beautifully, making it impossible to miss the rustling in the bushes behind her. Hinata was about to activate her Byakugan when a thick, hefty silhouette emerged from behind a thicket of trees.
A giant…bear. Hinata gulped.
The bear crept forward, sniffing the ground curiously, then turned it's attention toward Hinata. It eyed her curiously, then roared, baring it's beast-like teeth.
Hinata shrank back, heel splashing in the river behind her, and turned her eyes upon the beast with worry. Wh-What do I do? Hinata thought desperately.
The bear continued making advances, raising it's large snout in the air and catching Hinata's scent as well as that of the fish she had strung in her hand. The giant bear rose on both of it's thick legs and roared at her once more.
Hinata gasped at the fierceness of the sound, backing further into the river.
"Get back, Hinata-sama!" Neji's voice cut through the night.
Hinata saw him bound from beyond the woods, Byakugan activated, and slid to a stop in front of her.
"N-Niisan!" Hinata cried, taking a step forward on reflex.
"I was waiting for you," he said coolly, then produced a quick hand sign, preparing to unleash his jutsu on the large beast, but Hinata stopped him.
"Wait, Niisan!" she cried, grabbing his shoulder.
Neji spun around angrily and shouted, "What?!"
Hinata snatched her hands away, face quite pale, and pointed in the bushes behind the bear. "L-Look…"
Two little furry creatures stumbled out of the woods behind the bear, sniffing the ground and pawing at their its hind legs.
"It's a mother bear," Hinata noted.
Neji stared at the cubs who knocking against one another clumsily like the children they were, and let out a quiet 'humph!' while lowering his hands to his side.
Hinata came from around him, but only slightly since Neji would not let her get far, and tossed the fish at the mother's feet. The bear knelt down, sniffing them curiously, then picked them up in her mouth, turning towards the woods again. The furry cubs, who'd begun play fighting with one another, broke their distraction and immediately went to follow their mother through the trees.
"I-It just wanted food for it's babies…" Hinata said with some sort of affection.
Neji sighed, glaring into the woods with his Byakugan to confirm the distance the bear was putting between them, and turned to Hinata.
"I guess this means I'll have to help you after all," he said casually.
"W-With what?" Hinata asked in puzzlement.
"Catching dinner. I'm still hungry."
After roasting several fish for dinner, Neji and Hinata ate in silence. The two of them soon would have to go to bed, as they still had a long way to go before making it to Suna, and they--Neji especially--did not want to waste any time in the morning by oversleeping.
"I'll take the first watch," Neji said when they were done eating." The lingering smell of cooked fish may attract some wild animals or even robbers and someone needs to be awake in case that happens."
Of course there was no lighter sleeper than Neji, but this was how he decided to do things. Hinata swallowed her last bite and set the skew aside. "Wh-When will you wake me up for my shift?" she asked.
"In a few hours," was his response. "Now go to bed, Hinata-sama."
Hinata did as she was told and crawled tiredly into her sleeping bad. The ground underneath wasn't particularly comfy, but at least she was warm. Hinata glanced at her cousin from behind the fire to see he was staring at her, and she mumbled an affectionate, "Good night, Brother," before fading into darkness.
Now I know Suna is SO not that far away from Konoha, but for the sake of the story I extended the time needed to get there.
If you overlook that minor flaw, the story ought to be much more enjoyable.
And thank you for your reviews. They mean so much to me. Any comment is well appreciated.
(Neji, I--I mean 'we'--love you!)