Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto nor any part of it. Pity.

Warnings: Language

"Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend."

-Martin Luther King Jr.

Chapter 25: Cooking is not a Hereditary Trait

It was just past six in the morning when the sound of steady, impatient knocking woke Neji from his fitful sleep. Startling from his slumber with a jerk and just narrowly avoiding kicking Fluffy in the face, he blinked blearily at the clock hanging on the wall, wondering who the hell lacked the social propriety, not to mention had the balls, to call at this hour.

Climbing unsteadily to his feet, trying to push away the tangled mess his hair had become as he'd tossed and turned through the night, he stormed over to the front door, ready to verbally eviscerate whoever was on the other side... only to have the words stop dead in his throat with an odd squeaking noise. "Hanabi-sama?"

"Morning." The girl pushed past him without being invited, lazily looking around the small house for only the second time. Glaring daggers at his cat when the animal gave her a low, warning growl, she turned back to him and demanded with that ingrained whine he hated so much, "Were you still sleeping? At this hour? We have things to do today, y'know."

Glancing once more at the clock which still read 6:11, he couldn't possibly imagine what she was in such a huff about. Being a shinobi got one used to waking early, yes, but they weren't on a mission where the pumping adrenaline allowed them to push their bodies at inhuman paces with little to no rest, nor were they currently residing under what could be called 'usual' circumstances. Yesterday had been physically and, most of all, emotionally trying; and they'd gotten home well after midnight. Was it so much to ask that after a day like yesterday he be allowed a solid eight hours of sleep?

About to voice this aloud (though admittedly in slightly different, less personal words), he found himself again unable to speak when the girl turned to look at him. Her face was just as pale, pinched, and unpleasant as always, but there was one blatant, noticeable difference. Namely the dark circles that stood out nearly black and swollen, a stark contrast to the white eyes they sat beneath. Hanabi was up so damn early after last night because she hadn't slept a wink to begin with.

Feeling a bit more of a bastard than usual, Neji said in a casual voice, "My apologies, Hanabi-sama. Luckily I had you to wake me."

He shouldn't have been surprised when this made the brat positively preen. Watching with wary eyes as she made her way towards his kitchen, he was a bit startled to hear the call of, "You hungry? You haven't eaten yet, right? I'll make something."

Neji blinked. He hadn't, and he was; but he'd had no idea the pampered little princess had any idea how to cook. Then again, Hinata was from the Main House, and she was an excellent cook, put nearly everyone else to shame... "Very well."

The sound of pots and pans clattering about immediately followed, and sending one last concerned look that direction, Neji made his way to the bathroom to get himself ready to face the day. Hanabi may have no etiquette whatsoever, but she was right about one thing. They had a lot to do today.

~To protect what's precious~

One would think that sleeping so often, hunched over in awkward positions, would give Tsunade a nearly permanent crick in her neck. Surprisingly enough, that one would be wrong. Over the years the blond woman had developed a sort of technique to falling asleep comfortably in places that weren't meant to be slept in. Places like her desk.

However, even she had to admit it was never a pleasant experience to be awoken abruptly by the sound of someone banging in through your office door. Especially when you were the Hokage, and the least people could do to show you some respect was fucking knock.

Trying to catch some of the paperwork that flung in all directions when she sat up, peeling a particularly stubborn piece from her cheek, she glared death at the two that had just entered so uncouthly, not really surprised by their presence. She especially ignored the way Koharu eyed the clearly visible bottle of sake which she had neglected to hide.

"A bit early for drinking, isn't it, Tsunade?"

The blond refrained from answering, though it was extremely difficult right then. Not only had she been drinking the previous night, not right then, but she wanted to snap that after the events surrounding Hyuuga Hinata, drinking herself into a stupor was actually one of the calmer ways to release all of her frustrations. Kami, what a nightmare last night had been...

"We need to discuss the situation surrounding the Hyuuga clan heiress."

And what a nightmare it would continue to be. Raising one long, thin brow, Tsunade decided to play ignorant for the time being. "The situation?"

Before Koharu could issue a scathing retort, Homura said in a calm, stern voice, "You know exactly what we're speaking of, Tsunade. This presents a great opportunity to the village, one that hasn't been seen since the Jinchuriki was created."

Eyes tightening in suspicion, Tsunade was surprised to realize that no, she really didn't understand what situation they were talking about; and she was quite sure she'd regret it when she did. "Explain."

~To protect what's precious~

There was something decidedly off-putting, Neji decided, about brown eggs and yellow toast. It was a sight only made worse by the acrid smell of burnt food permeating throughout the small kitchen and the keening cry of a clearly upset feline nearby. He blinked slowly down at the plate that had been set in front of him. "Thank you Hanabi-sama. You... shouldn't have." She really, really shouldn't have.

"No problem." Shrugging lazily she took a seat across from him, pale eyes boring into his own. Waiting.

He wondered how long he could delay, noticing her own breakfast was conspicuously absent. "You're not eating?"

Another shrug. "Not hungry."

"Ah." The little brat knew she'd fed him poison on a plate. If he was going down, he wasn't going down alone. "Surely skipping meals can't be good for a growing young shinobi."

The face she made in return was priceless. "I'm not young."

"Of course not."

"Y'know what, you arrogant—"

The knock on the front door cut off what was likely a highly amusing insult, ruining the bubble of familiarity the pair had managed to unwittingly construct around themselves. The harsh reality of the situation splashed down on them like an icy wave, forcing a shiver from both. When Hanabi rose first to answer the door despite Neji's hissed protests, she wasn't sure anymore whether or not she was surprised to see a messenger from the council. Maybe she'd just fooled herself into thinking they might be decent enough to wait a few more hours.

"Ha-hanabi-sama." The young boy in front of her, only a year or two her junior stuttered and flushed, clearly taken off-guard by her appearance there in the the midst of branch house territory. "I-I was looking for Neji-san..."

"I'm right here," the jounin intoned stepping up behind his cousin on silent feet; staring the poor child into submission. He knew better than to shoot the messenger but...

"H-hai, of course. Neji-san, the Council of Elders requests your presence at precisely 07:00 to attend a formal meeting."

Neji's blank face didn't change, his pale eyes never blinked, and his stare never wavered.

"That... that's all."

Well yes, of course that was all. "Leave."

"Ah, r-right."

Neji knew he should probably feel more guilty as he watched the boy whose name escaped him entirely scurry off, but again, it just wasn't that type of day. Glancing at the clock and noting it was only fifteen to seven, he supposed he should at least be thankful he'd successfully found a way to get out of eating Hanabi's cooking. "If you'll excuse me, Hanabi-sama, I must take my leave. Feel free to stay as long as you like. Be sure to shut the door firmly behind you, and don't let the cat out."

The look the girl gave him in return made him feel about as big as an ant. "You're kidding, right? You really think I'm not going with you?" With a disgusted snort, she snagged her jacket from its spot hanging by the door, shoving her arms through the sleeves and shaking her head in frustration. "And they say you're the family genius."

~To protect what's precious~

Katsuo smiled and nodded politely to the pair of passing nurses, eyes following as they went by and straying down below what would conventionally be considered polite. He was tired, very tired really, not to mention bored out of his mind, but both were feelings he was well-accustomed to given that whether it was for the village or the clan, he always seemed to be put on guard duty. Always, always with the guard duty.

It wasn't that he didn't think guard duty was important, he knew it was, especially in an instance like this; but did it have to be all he ever did? He wasn't an amazing shinobi, but he was more than decent, probably above average. And yet... How was he supposed to pick up some hot kunoichi at the bar, talking with friends about her latest mission to the fire country, with the opening line, "Yeah, I just got off a ten hour shift. Those documents weren't going to watch themselves."

Approaching footsteps, louder than those of the doctors and nurses, drew his attention, hope flaring briefly that it was his replacement so he could finally go home and sleep. It was as the footsteps continued growing louder that a frown tugged the corners of his lips, body shifting instinctively into a defensive stance. That wasn't a shinobi not bothering to be quiet, that was a shinobi who had long ago stopped caring. And when said person rounded the corner of the hospital, flanked on either side by... Oh.

Katsuo stared stupidly, honestly not sure what to do as he was bared down on. He knew he wasn't supposed to let anyone but the doctors near the baby... "Er..."


The Hyuuga moved. He knew his duty, but this was hardly a normal circumstance. What he needed to do now was get back to the compound; he needed to find Neji.

~To protect what's precious~

The walk across the compound to face off against the elders felt rather anticlimactic to Neji. Actually, given the circumstances and what all was at stake, it felt really anticlimactic. He knew how big a deal this was, knew that it was up to him to fight for Hinata when she couldn't herself, keep her safe, keep her perfect forehead exactly the way it was... He should feel nervous or anxious or scared or even just keyed up for the battle ahead; but as he walked in pace with the smaller girl at his side, all Neji really felt was numb. He'd just had a baby, the woman he loved was in a freaking coma she may never wake from, and everything, every secret that had been carefully guarded up to this point had come spilling out in a torrent of confusion, pain, and total, utter fuckery. This meeting was a big deal, yes, but compared with everything that had happened yesterday, it was absolutely meaningless.

Frowning a bit as the desired destination came into sight, Neji shot a quick look down at the dark head near his shoulder. How to put this... "Hanabi-sama, I'm truly grateful for the support you've shown for your sister, both previously and by accompanying me today. I wish to reiterate, however, that this is an extremely delicate matter and-"

"Seriously, Neji? You really think you need to tell me to let you handle things when we get in there?" Keen, pale eyes studied him with a mixture of exasperation and annoyance before the girl shook her head, eyes turning steadfastly forward once more. "I've gone in front of the Council before, you know. I know when to keep my mouth shut. Especially since I still don't know exactly what's going on."

The boy blinked at her in surprise before inclining his head in acceptance of this. Both that she knew what she needed to do (or not do, really) in front of the elders and that she was still in the dark on some of the details pertaining to all of... this. Then again, who wasn't?

"And look, I'm... I'm sorry about yesterday, okay? I shouldn't've yelled in the street, and I definitely shouldn't've said anything to them." She glared at the rapidly approaching building, mentally willing about half the people inside to set fire. "I thought I understood, and I didn't realize it was such a big deal. I messed up and... and I know this is partly my fault so..."

Neji had stopped dead about halfway through her first sentence, and could now only stare down at his little cousin in incredulity while his brain tried to catch up. It wasn't just the fact that Hanabi of all people was attempting to apologize, though that alone was pretty surreal. It was how sincere the younger girl was, the way she refused to even glance in his direction, the way she was clearly, very genuinely ashamed of whatever small part she had played in all of this. He swallowed hard against the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. "Hanabi-sama, while I appreciate the gesture, I assure you, it's not necessary. This would have happened now regardless of any actions on your part yesterday-"

"I know that," the genin cut him off waspishly, still refusing to lift her head from its bowed position. "After what happened with the baby last night, what I said probably doesn't matter at all. I'm not stupid. It's just..."

Neji watched as she awkwardly dug her toe into the dirt around it, still trying to believe this was really Hanabi in front of him. He'd had to admit to himself recently that the girl he'd thought he knew wasn't quite what she seemed (in some ways. He'd been completely right in thinking she was a self-centered brat around ninety percent of the time.) but this was beyond anything he'd ever expected. Even after everything that had gone down yesterday, this was still... "Hanab-"

"I was just trying to help Hinata." She finally lifted her gaze, small face twisted in open, abject misery. "I swear I was. I know what people think- that I don't like her and all, and she's in the way of me taking over the clan and-" She took a deep breath, cutting off a long string of rambling before it could really get going. "I know that, but they're wrong. I don't really care about that stuff, not enough to... I was just trying to help." She let her head drop once more, not wanting to look the boy in front of her in the face. Maybe not brave enough to. "I guess I just wanted you to know that." It surprised even her, but it was really, really important that Neji know that.

Neji felt his lips part slightly as the girl finally finished, his stomach twisting slightly as everything became more clear. She's only twelve, he reminded himself. She was young, worried for her sister, and had indeed made mistakes yesterday, regardless of how inconsequential they were in the end. She needed someone to tell her it was going to be all right. She needed Neji to grow up, put any still lingering hostilities, any resentment, any doubts behind him, and tell her what she really needed to hear right then.

"Hanabi-sama." He ducked his head swiftly, tilting it in an attempt to catch her eyes; something he would do naturally with any younger child, but had never even dreamed about doing with her before that moment. Though before that moment, he supposed he'd never really, fully thought of her as just another, normal child. "Let me assure you, that were Hinata with us right now, even if what you said yesterday were somehow the cause of every problem she would have for the rest of her life... she would not be upset. Rather, she would be extremely pleased that your intentions were to help her. And I'm sure she'd be quite proud as well. I am."

Eye contact was finally made, and Neji had to forcefully bite back his amusement at the look of pure, open shock that graced the normally sour face. With that expression, Hanabi actually somewhat resembled her sister.

Of course, the jounin was no fool, he was still expecting to get some kind of scathing or at least sarcastic remark for his heartfelt words, even if it wasn't sincere. That was just Hanabi's nature, after all, not so different from his own.

"Y'know, I could never figure out why she likes you so much; but I guess I kinda see it now."

Oh. That was...

"C'mon, we don't want to be late."

The tightening warmth in his chest working to dispel the numbness that had tried to take over, Neji looked at the waiting meeting hall with new resolve. This was it. He would finish with this crap, tomorrow he would bring his baby girl home, and then he would wait for Hinata to wake up and come back to him. This was the last obstacle in his path, and if any of the damned Hyuuga elders really thought they could stop him... "Of course, Hanabi-sama. Lead the way."

This chapter is short, which I don't like. It also feels rushed, which I don't like even more; and I don't mean I rushed when writing it, it just feels that way, and I'm not sure how to fix it. That being said, I'm not going to agonize over it and never update the story, because this monster is finally reaching its end and all of you lovely readers deserve an ending for how awesome and patient you've been. So please enjoy, and leave me a review if you've got a minute because they make my day.