Disclaimer: If I owned Naruto there would be Byakuugan babies everywhere! So I guess it's not mine.

Hinata-18, 35 weeks pregnant

Neji-19

Warnings: Language, non-con references


"Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

-Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night


Chapter 23: Papercuts

Neji's entire world was falling apart around him. The dull pounding in his ears had become a steady drumbeat, loud and deafening, blocking out all other noise entirely. Thick pieces of cotton began stuffing themselves insistently into his head, squeezing tightly around his brain as his vision blurred, the image of the woman in front of him turning into an indecipherable mass of color. Hinata... Hinata...

From somewhere far away, the jounin felt a hard hand fall onto his shoulder and jerk him back, felt another hand come to the back of his neck, forcing his head down between his knees. There were unintelligible shouts until someone else ordered for silence, and there was a voice much closer and softer, telling him to relax, telling him to breathe. How could he breathe when she was gone?

Awareness came slowly and painfully back to him, and he blinked blearily down at his sandal-clad feet. He was in the chair again, he noticed blandly, the calloused hand on the back of his neck firm but the thumb rubbing soothing circles. The voice was still talking in a low, calm voice, repeating the same things over and over in a steady mantra. Relax, breathe, calm down, deep breaths, relax, breathe—

Hating himself for looking so weak and foolish in front of others— and then hating himself even more for caring about his reputation at a time like this, Neji irritably sat up, ignoring the way his head spun as well as Shikamaru's protests to move slowly. He shook the Nara's hands off, his stubborn pride refusing to thank the other boy for his help. Instead he set his jaw firmly and stood, looking the Hokage directly in the eye, refusing to so much as glance at the others watching him with concerned faces, definitely not looking to where he could hear Inuzuka whimpering like a kicked puppy. "My apologies, Tsunade-sama. Please continue." He would be strong. He was a Hyuuga.

Tsunade, used to the stoic act from the white-eyed clan, didn't bother to argue with him, merely inclined her head in acknowledgement of the apology. "It's partially my fault, Neji. I should have chosen my words more carefully."

The boy said nothing, just stared, waiting for the ax to fall.

"We managed to salvage enough of Hinata's vital organs to keep her alive. Unfortunately, during the process she slipped into a coma. As it stands now, we're unable to determine whether or not she'll ever wake up. The chances... aren't looking very good."

Neji's teeth were chattering behind closed lips. At least she wasn't dead. If she wasn't dead, there was a chance she could get better. She could still get better.

"If she does wake up, will she be all right?" Kiba demanded hoarsely, sounding seconds away from tears. Neji kept his gaze resolutely away.

"She'll never be able to have any more children," Tsunade said softly, her voice professional and sympathetic at the same time. "Her reproductive organs were damaged too badly. Also... she'd no longer be able to go on missions out of the village. There would be too great a risk to her health after the amount of internal injury, and it's likely she'll always be physically weaker now."

Silence reigned once more, the storm cloud having burst to let misery and sadness pour down on the assembled shinobi. Hinata wasn't dead, but at the moment, she might as well be. If she did ever recover, her life would go through some drastic changes. Nothing would ever be quite the same again...

Neji barely blinked when he found himself with an armful of teary blond.

"I'm so sorry, Neji!" Ino sobbed, burying her face against his neck and clawing desperately at his back to grab a handful of his shirt, desperately looking for an anchor. "This is all my fault. I was her doctor, and I didn't see any of this, and—"

"Don't be ridiculous," Tsunade snapped, eyes flashing in suppressed anger. She wasn't about to lose one of her most promising young medics to guilt and self-criminations, it had happened too many times in the past already. "First of all, you wouldn't have been able to catch Hinata's condition more than forty-eight hours in advance, and since you can hardly be expected to give her examinations every day, you did nothing wrong. Secondly, even if you had seen the early stages, it's likely you would have had no idea there was a problem anyway. A fetus with two kekkei-genkais is extremely rare, thus the condition of those kekkei-genkais clashing is even rarer. You can't find something you were never taught to look for. If anyone's to blame for this, it would be me for not checking on Hinata's condition more myself and not keeping you well enough informed. What's done is done, and throwing about blame won't help Hinata get any better."

Ino nodded without lifting her head, though her crying didn't subside. Lifting a numb arm, Neji patted her awkwardly on the back, feeling her wet tears and hot breath against his bare skin, and able to think only about how much taller Ino was than Hinata. Hinata could never reach to his neck like this, she fit snugly in his arms, always pressing her face into his chest when he held her. Would he ever be able to hold her again?

"Neji!"

Hanabi's voice barely cut through the haze of fog around the boy's head, and though he heard his name quite clearly, it didn't truly register that someone was calling him. He did, however, start a bit when Tenten's hand fell on his shoulder and Ino pulled back a little in order to see. "Neji," the blond said with a sniffle. "Neji, your family's here."

Neji blinked. Family? Silvery eyes turned to see Hanabi running up to him, his uncle following at a much slower, more dignified pace. Ah, right. His 'family'. Letting go of Ino completely and stepping away from his teammate, he gave both Main House members a small, curt bow as propriety dictated. "Hiashi-sama. Hanabi-sama."

"Neji," Hiashi greeted back in, what for him, was a downright polite tone of voice. "What news do you have of Hinata?"

Neji studied his father's twin carefully, taking in the slightly paler color of the skin, the deeper lines around the white eyes, the tightness in the thin lips. To others he may look the same as always, but Neji had learned how to read the subtle signs in his clan head. Hiashi was worried. "She has fallen into a coma, Hiashi-sama." It was strange how thick those simple words tasted on his tongue.

Hiashi blandly inclined his head in acknowledgement, as though he felt absolutely nothing from hearing this. Neji, though, saw his jaw clench and fingers twitch. "Indeed. How exactly did this come to pass?"

The Hyuuga prodigy opened his mouth to commence a monotone explanation of exactly what he had learned, only to have his voice catch roughly, no words actually coming out. He shut his mouth and cleared his throat before trying again, only to have the same thing happen once more, making him look like a gaping fish. He couldn't do it. His perfect control was failing him in front of one of the few people it should absolutely never fail him in front of.

"I think I can give you a better explanation than Neji can, Hiashi," Tsunade interrupted briskly, coming up behind the jounin and gently shouldering him out of the way.

Neji knew she had just come to his rescue, and for once he accepted the assistance with gratitude. This was just something he was unable to do, so he listened silently as Tsunade once more ran through the slew of events and medical intricacies. When Hiashi spoke next, the surprise in his voice was actually tangible, letting on to just how unnerved he had become. "The baby had two kekkei genkais."

"That's correct."

The head of Hyuuga studied the Hokage for only a moment longer before turning eyes sharply back towards his nephew, clearly awaiting further explanation on that one. Neji took a slow, deep breath. "The baby isn't mine."

While Hanabi stared up at him with wide eyes, Hiashi bit out tersely, "Yes, Neji, I do believe I already surmised as much." His patience was clearly wearing thin. "Would you mind telling me exactly whose the baby was?"

Neji knew this time before even attempting that he wouldn't be able to do any such thing. A weight lifted when someone again came to his rescue, Shikamaru drawling dispassionately, "Actually, I can help you out there."

~To protect what's precious~

Damn the backlog of paperwork, damn the multitudes of shinobi who were completely incapable of understanding a filing system, damn all of his coworkers who seemed to get away with slacking off at their jobs when he never did.

Shikamaru shoved through some more mission reports, death reports, promotion announcements, position transfers... Why were these all even put together like this in the first place? Couldn't someone have at least had the common decency to put different forms in different piles? Did that really make sense to no one but him? This is why Iruka always went so crazy when he manned the missions desk.

Cursing when yet another sheet of vengeful paper attacked him, slicing a deep cut right along the pad of his thumb, Shikamaru was about a second away from truly giving up and demanding someone else sort through this mess when a particular file caught his eye.

Like everyone else in the village, he knew of the man's demise at the hands of the Hyuuga heiress just under a week ago. It was kind of hard not to, what with the Hyuuga ecstatic Hinata had finally done something they considered worthwhile, not to mention any chuunin taking out an S-class missing-nin would have stirred up some talk. The man in question had been in the bingo book for approximately fifteen years and the last living member of his once prestigious clan— a clan with a unique and highly sought after kekkei genkai. He was known to be extremely dangerous, a genjutsu master that would put Kurenai to shame, and few who had ever met with the man had lived to tell the tale. Hinata's victory had been a huge shock to everyone.

Curious in spite of himself (and also wondering why the man's file was even in this office to begin with), Shikamaru picked the folder up and sat back in a chair, feet propped up in true relaxation as he began to lazily flip through the pages, brown eyes scanning everything in a bored fashion. Until one particular little footnote caught his eye and he hastily leaned forward to read more closely, nearly falling from his seat.

The man had a 'pink' warning. Not only was he marked down as 'extremely hostile', but apparently he was known for raping his female victims before he killed them, likely using his kekkei genkai to subdue them completely.

Swallowing shakily, Shikamaru set the folder back down, mind abuzz with images of what could have easily happened to Hinata if she'd been less lucky. Images that, while they disturbed him for a short time, he eventually pushed to the back of his mind and forgot about entirely.

Until a few weeks later he noticed the little Hyuuga's odd behavior.

~To protect what's precious~

Neji had to admit he was impressed by the direct yet respectful way Shikamaru managed to relay the situation. By the time the lazy-nin was done, Hanabi's eyes were absolutely huge and Hiashi, face still a blank mask, had gone paper white. Forcing a curt nod the chuunin's way he said tightly, "Thank you, Nara-san," before his gaze swiveled back once again to the younger Hyuuga. "Were you aware of this?"

Neji licked his lips, pondering his answer very carefully. "I was aware the baby wasn't mine. That's all." And up until that day it really had been.

Hiashi gave him a nod as well, not asking anything further. Hanabi, however, was not so easily placated. "I don't get it! Why didn't she just tell the truth in the first place?" the genin demanded, all too clearly turning her worry for her sister's well-being into slightly irrational anger. "It's not like she did anything wrong!"

"Of course she didn't, Hanabi," Hiashi murmured in a semi-soothing undertone to his youngest. He wasn't foolish enough to believe this kind of information would leave his second daughter unaffected.

"So she wouldn't have gotten in trouble with the clan," Hanabi went on, nodding to herself as if to concrete her point. "In fact, it would have made all this crap with the elders even easier."

Hiashi said nothing about his daughter's language nor her speaking of clan affairs in public with outsiders listening; a testament to how shaken he really was.

"So why all the secrecy?" Hanabi finally concluded her rant. "What was she trying to hide?"

"I think maybe you'd have to ask her that," Shikamaru added his own input softly. "You can when she wakes up."

Amused at how the usually more pessimistic Nara was being so positive when talking to the younger girl, Neji's own head was replaying Hanabi's questions again, wondering at the answer himself. Why had Hinata lied about all of this? What had she gained by keeping it all hushed up, by out and out lying to family and friends time and again (though he supposed he had been the one to actually start the lies). There was nothing disgraceful about being assaulted on a mission, surely she knew that?

No, Neji realized with a frown, Hinata, with her already low self-esteem, may very well not know that, especially if she never bothered to receive the mandatory counseling necessary after such events; but even so, since when had honor and reputation mattered to the Hyuuga heiress? The clan had been calling her a disgrace since she was about a year old, what was different this time?

"Who is the father of the child?"

"I c-c-can't t-tell you."

"Hinata-sama, I'm not going to get angry, I don't really care who it is."

"I can't, niisan."

"I'm just trying to help you."

"I really can't. It's n-not about me."

He shut his eyes with a self-depreciating smirk. Of course, how could he have been so stupid? He didn't need Hinata's confirmation, to him, her actions were suddenly clear as day. The secrets, the lies, none of it had been about her. Not from the very beginning; and he suddenly knew exactly where it was he needed to be.

"Neji?" Tenten inquired softly as he began to step away, Hiashi too preoccupied with Hanabi to pay him any mind.

Looking over his shoulder, Neji gave her a look that said his intentions should be all too obvious. "I'm going to see the baby."

~To protect what's precious~

The nursery ward, or whatever it was officially called, was actually quite easy to find. All Neji needed to do was follow the sound of crying infants, and before he knew it, he found himself standing outside a large glass window, allowing him to look in on all of Konoha's newborns. Asking a passing nurse if he was allowed to enter, intrigued by the lack of security present, he did just that, regardless of her answer to the negative. If someone had wanted to murder one of the babies, they'd have no trouble at all, just slip in and snap the poor little thing's neck...

Shaking his head, the jounin navigated stealthily and silently as a cat through the rows of baby beds, eyes scanning the nametags as he went. Reaching the end of the third row back, he stopped, peering down at the sleeping, dark-haired baby inside. Hyuuga the tag read. There was no first name given, so Neji imagined Hinata had never gotten the chance to give it before she... fell asleep.

Staring down at the tiny body the nurses had dressed in pink and wrapped in a yellow blanket, Neji felt a lump rise up in his throat. This baby...

~To protect what's precious~

Naruto watched all the interactions around him, silent as the grave for perhaps the first time in his life. This... this was crazy. Everything that had happened that evening was absolutely fucking insane. Hinata-chan was in a coma? The baby wasn't Neji's? She had been raped?

Trying to avoid eye contact with everyone else present, he subtly observed them from his spot against the wall. Sakura was comforting a still teary Ino, Kiba was sitting dejectedly by himself, looking like he was about to cry too, Hinata's father was busy talking in low tones to her sister, Shikamaru looked like he was trying to help the man out for lack of anything better to do, and Lee and Tenten both stood off to the side like him, feeling awkward and in the way. Yeah, this was definitely weird, and he didn't like it.

Thinking maybe it would be better if he just left (what good was him taking up space in the hallway doing anyway?), he looked around for Neji to offer him some overly-cheery condolences and false optimism before he made his exit... only to realize the other boy was nowhere to be seen.

"Hey," he hissed in a stage whisper to the Hyuuga's two teammates. "Hey, where'd Neji go?"

Tenten glanced his way before becoming more interested in watching Neji's relatives again. "He went to see the baby."

Naruto paused, turning the words over in his head. Neji... had gone to see the baby? Hinata's baby? "Uh... are you sure that's a good idea?"

Somehow, this last statement caught the attention of everyone around him. Blushing red under the stares he was suddenly receiving (is this how Hinata felt all the time?), he cleared his throat harshly and elaborated, "I just mean, the baby's the reason Hinata-chan got hurt, right? And... it's also, y'know... that guy's, right? Sooo... d'you really think it's a good idea to leave Neji alone with the baby of the guy that hurt Hinata-chan and then hurt her itself?"

Naruto wasn't entirely sure, but by the way both Ino and Shikamaru took off like they were being chased by death itself, he had a feeling he'd said something smart for once.


Okay, so... I don't hate this chapter, but I don't like it either. To be honest, I've barely thought about this story at all in quite some time, and then I randomly check my account while I'm sitting here, hungover and miserable, and I realize that as of tomorrow it will be one full year since I've updated. Totally unacceptable. I apologize to all of my loyal readers for the ridiculous wait and hope I'll be forgiven once more. I'll try to get the next one up somewhat promptly, but I'm not about to make promises I don't know I'll keep.

I wanted to again thank everyone who's left reviews during my long absence. An especial thanks to Ducky for the massive, rambling review they left me. Reading it put a smile on my face and got my ass in gear to get this up.