A/N: And done! Thank you everyone for being so patient with me. This last chapter was a bear! Thank you to everyone who supported this little project. I'm quite proud of it. Please review and let me know which chapter and/or character you liked (or disliked). I like to keep inspired. Since school is demanding more of my time, my updates will be slower but I am working on some other Hyuga inspired stories. I just can't tell you when I'll submit them. Thanks again! Read and enjoy.

This chapter is part III of the multi-part story featuring Hinata (see chapter 5 for part I and chapter 15 for part II).

Warning: Stories have not been beta-read so mistakes and inconsistencies are mine. Hopefully, not too many! :)

TWENTY-ONE: When you realize you've made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.

The week started off as disastrously as Hinata predicted and from an objective standpoint no one was at particular fault; they were simply unfortunate victims of bad luck, though Hinata strongly suspected Fate.

It started with the swamp. The locals had called it a grassland but really—Hinata knew a swamp when she saw one. Apparently, the recent monsoons had pounded the terrain into something unrecognizable and what was once a beautiful landscape was now a murky, putrid mud pit.

And it was the only way to get to their destination.

Channeling the chakra to their feet made the task of walking on the unpredictable terrain possible but not without mishap. When walking on water, one had to modulate their chakra flow to come in sync with the water's current; seasoned shinobi no longer gave the task much thought, so instinctual the skill had become. But when one did not know if they were going to step onto a hard surface or through a watery muck until they've committed their weight into the step, modulating chakra flow suddenly required more concentration.

Of course, Neji was the best out of all of them, sinking down to his ankles before he managed to make the needed adjustments. This naturally triggered Naruto's competitive side and it wasn't long before they were pulling him out of the mud, which he managed to sink into down to his waist at one point.

It was a miserable trek. The drying mud on their skin itched and the mosquitoes were unforgiving. Hinata couldn't have been more relieved when she finally caught sight of the forest edge.

"Almost there!" she said aloud as she pressed forward, swatting mosquitoes by the handful.

She took one more step and before she could react, she sank swiftly into the mud well past her head. It was quite a surprise for everyone, but especially for Hinata, to go from trudging through the muck to suffocating within a span of seconds. And the more she struggled, the deeper she sank.

She tried to use a chakra burst from her feet to propel her out of the mud but she could not find a hard surface to gain purchase. Desperately, she raised her arms above her head, flailing about hoping she would come across something that would pull her out of the mud.

She continued to use her chakra burst and suddenly she felt a firm grip on both her wrists. With a powerful yank that sent excruciating pain through one of her shoulders, Hinata suddenly found herself soaring through the air—sweet, precious air!—before colliding with a very hard body.

She was too busy breathing to fully appreciate the awkward position she was currently in, for she had to have been lying on top of either Naruto or Neji, but for those few seconds while she recovered her breath she couldn't care less.

"Ugh…Hinata, are you alright?"

It was Naruto then and he sounded pained.

She lifted her muddied head towards Naruto's face. She was lying flush on top of him and he was gazing not at her but at the sky straight above them with a pained grimace of his face.

Hinata became alarmed at the unusual expression. "Naruto, are you alright!"

"He's fine," Neji said abruptly behind the pair as he quickly hauled Hinata up and off Naruto and on to her feet. "Our concern lies with you."

Naruto rolled off to his side, holding his groin. "Y-Yeah." The young man turned pale and looked like he wanted to throw up.

Hinata's concern persisted. "Naruto, you're hurt!"

"He's fine," Neji said again with annoyance as he attempted to wipe some of the mud off her face but quickly realized it was pointless. She was quite a sight. "You kneed him in the groin when he pulled you out of the mud."

That made sense. She recalled her knee connecting soundly with something during her flight and her own chakra burst added to the momentum of the pull. "Oh, my! Naruto, I am so s-sorry!"

"Don't worry about it," Naruto whimpered. He had managed to get to his knees but he was still bowed over holding his groin miserably.

"What's wrong with your shoulder?" Neji demanded, showing absolutely no concern for his teammate writhing in the mud behind him. "You're favoring it."

Hinata winced and brought a tentative hand to the throbbing shoulder. "I might have dislocated it when I was pulled out of the mud."

"Idiot!" Neji turned sharply to Naruto. "Were you trying to tear her limbs off! I told you to stay calm!"

"I'm sorry," Naruto said lowly, hanging his head.

But Neji wasn't hearing it. "Sorry is not going to cut it! If you'd listened to me instead of rushing in like you always do, we could have avoided injury to Lady Hinata!"

Most likely deciding that he had taken enough abuse for the day, Naruto's eyes flashed angrily as he shot back, "If I'd listened to you, Hinata would still be drowning in the mud!"

Hinata was making a futile effort to remove some of the muck off her face while she gathered her thoughts. So it took her a moment to realize that Neji and Naruto were on the verge of killing each other. "Let's just make our way into the forest and set up camp!" she tried to say over the raised voices but they didn't hear her.

"You are an imbecile! We go through this every time we go on a mission together and you never learn! Never! I will not have you put Lady Hinata's life in jeopardy!"

"I was the one who saved Hinata, you arrogant, stuck up…"

"Naruto! Neji, please!" Wanting to step between them before there was bloodshed, Hinata took a step but promptly sank back into the mud with a shriek. This time she didn't go completely under. She managed to channel her chakra to her arms and braced herself, sinking only to her chest. Her injured shoulder throbbed in protest but she didn't cry out.

Neji and Naruto turned around and looked appropriately stunned to find Hinata back in the mud. They could tell that the young woman was quietly fuming and knew better than to comment on her current predicament. Both boys shared a shamed-faced look before Neji cleared his throat, "Perhaps we should head into the forest and set up camp."

Hinata tried to puff her hair out of her face but it was so sodden with mud that it hardly moved. "Good idea."

0

Camp was a paradise compared to the hell they trudged through and it was all thanks in part to the clean, flowing water source nearby. Hinata did her best to remove most of the mud from her hair and body but the process was slow due to the injured shoulder and the resilient nature of mud.

When she had found the stream, she had simply walked right in, clothes and all, and attempted to soak most of the mud away before washing with the small bar of soap Neji loaned her. Her own supplies did not fare well with the mud bath and her spare clothes suffered the most. In the end, Neji gave her his extra pair of pants and Naruto—because he needed his spares as well—gave her one of his shirts. She was grateful she didn't lose any of her shoes during the whole debacle or she really would have been in a bind.

After a thorough washing that left her feeling almost normal again, she returned to the camp to find that Neji had already started the fire and had set up both of their tents. Naruto was nowhere in sight, presumably having gone further upstream to wash up.

She smiled her thanks to Neji as she returned his supplies and sat beside him as he tended the fire.

"How is your shoulder?" he asked as he rearranged the burning logs with a stick, his eyes never left his task.

"It is stiff," she admitted but left it at that. While at the stream, she examined the shoulder with her Byakugan and detected torn ligaments. The shoulder will most likely require surgery but she dare not share that with Neji or Naruto. Their vehemence earlier that day surprised her. "Has Naruto been gone long?"

"Not too long," Neji answered, casting his eyes off into the forest. "He said he would try to catch fish for our meal. He obviously feels he needs to atone for mangling you earlier today."

Hinata looked at Neji wearily. "Why are you so hard on him? It was an accident."

"Someone has to," he answered unapologetically as he stabbed his stick into the fire. "The idiot is starting to notice."

"Notice what?"

Neji looked at her with a slightly exasperated expression. "You."

Hinata blushed furiously and looked away. "W-What are you talking about?"

"He's been watching you more lately," Neji said, narrowing his eyes with suspicion. "Since the Pain Invasion." He shook his head as though not understanding. "Did anything happen out there while you were fighting?"

"No," she lied plainly and she felt guilty for this. Over the years, they had become each other's most trusted confidants—war and their respective responsibilities to their family foraging the bond-but she couldn't tell Neji about her declaration. He would call her a fool and she didn't need anyone to tell her what she already knew. "Unless you mean being run through with a chakra-laced spike?"

"No, not that."

"Ok, then no, nothing important."

Neji frowned thoughtfully, oblivious to his cousin's rare sarcasm. "Then it must be something else. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that you've…grown recently." He said this under his breath as though he was loathe to acknowledge it.

Hinata blushed even more as she unconsciously folded her arms over her ample bosom. It didn't help matters that she was currently going commando to allow her underwear to dry so she felt particularly-abundant. "I dare you to clarify that."

"I rather not," Neji said quickly, sensing her pique. "I can honestly say that my workload as your protector has doubled since you hit puberty, Lady Hinata, and Naruto's attentions are especially troublesome given that you favor him, for reasons I still cannot comprehend," he added because he wanted to make sure his view was clear on this point.

"I don't—"

Before Hinata could probe further into Neji's so called 'workload', Naruto returned proudly from the stream holding aloft three large, freshly cleaned fish. He wasn't wearing a shirt and water dripped sensuously—at least from Hinata's point of view-from his body.

'My word!' Suddenly, Hinata felt as though her dream had just come to life. She stood up abruptly at the sight of him. "N-N-Naruto!"

"See, Hinata, I brought back dinner! What do you think?" He gave a big grin as he held the fish out to her.

"W-Wonderful!"

The blond ninja sobered a little as he looked at her but then quickly looked away, "Uh, how's your shoulder?"

"It's fine," she said reassuringly.

Naruto nodded. "Good! I…I was afraid that I hurt you."

Hinata gave him a sympathetic smile. "You saved me, remember?"

He gave a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes but then seemed to remember he was still holding the fish. "I better get started on these," he said as he went off to finish the preparations.

"Alright," Hinata said quietly as she watched him walk away, slightly worried.

Neji rose silently behind her with a jaundiced look. "I saw that."

Hinata turned around. "What—"

"Don't even bother," Neji interrupted, crossing his arms as he leaned in close to scrutinize her expression. "I know infatuation when I see it."

Hinata sighed. Perhaps Hanabi was right about Neji needing to get laid. "Are you going to be like this the entire mission?"

"Very funny," he said suddenly appearing very tired. "Just wait here while I make sure he doesn't ruin dinner."

She couldn't help but smile slightly at her cousin's behavior, because oddly enough she knew that it came from a loving place. But she did give Naruto one last look before heading towards her tent to rest before dinner.

0

The following day showed promise in that it was rather uneventful. Again, Hinata led the way, using her Byakugan to find the hidden trail, followed by Naruto and Neji bringing up the rear.

It was just as the village elder had explained in the mission scroll, which was thankfully not too damaged by her mud incident. The forest grew extremely dense and the terrain gradually became steeper as they drew closer. It made the tracking the trail difficult and Hinata could appreciate why the village was left relatively untouched during the war.

She will never know if it was luck or her natural intuitiveness that drew her attention to it but as they picked their way through the overgrown trail Hinata became increasingly aware of a growing tension in the air. It was akin to a bow string being progressively pulled taunt and with each step the tension grew.

She scanned the surrounding area but nothing stood out. The tension was still there though and it was becoming so palpable she dared not take another step for fear of releasing it.

"Oi, Hinata. What's wrong?"

She turned to face her team very carefully. The look on Neji's face told her he was sensing the same ill feeling. "I think we set off a trap."

"Huh!" Naruto looked around in bewilderment. "I don't sense anything."

He took a step towards her and the tension increased with such intensity that Hinata shot up her hand anxiously.

"Stop!" both her and Neji called out in unison.

Naruto froze to the spot, staring at Hinata with wide eyes. "What is it?"

"Whatever it is," Neji said behind him, "it is drawn to our chakra levels so don't move."

"I couldn't detect it with my Byakugan," Hinata said, looking around.

"It helps to have a focal point," Neji replied as the chakra veins gathered around his eyes. He focused on Naruto who was obediently staying put and frowned. "I see chakra strings attached to him."

And Hinata could see them too. With Naruto as her focus, she could see the chakra strings coming from seemingly infinite directions and she sucked in her breath with trepidation. "They're attached to all of us."

Neji nodded with a grim expression. It was a very sophisticated trap for both Hyugas to miss it. "I suspect breaking the strings will release the trap."

"Well, what do we do?" Naruto asked with some frustration. "We can't just stay here."

"We'll have to run," Hinata said with realization. "The cave entrance to the village is another 50 yards away. We'll have to hope the trap does not extend beyond it."

"I agree," Neji said succinctly, though the look on his face expressed what they were all thinking. It was a huge risk but they had no other options.

Hinata took a deep breath and turned around carefully to find the cave entrance. She could see more of the chakra strings waiting along the trail and swallowed nervously. For an insecure moment, she wished Neji or Naruto was leading.

"I'm going to have a few choice words for the village elder if we survive this," Neji practically growled.

"You and me both," Naruto concurred with equal vehemence as he carefully pulled out a kunai.

Hinata's lips tightened with concentration before she sprinted forward. "Let's go!"

0

Hinata found herself lying face down on a dance floor of all places. She could feel the cold, wooden surface under her cheek and the faint sound of music floating around her. It was vaguely familiar but wrong. Why was she dreaming now of all times.

"Oh, how I missed this place!" her mother called out from somewhere in the room. She sounded quite elated. "I'm so happy you remember the dance hall. Hinata, are you awake yet?"

Bewildered, Hinata looked up to see her young mother doing pirouettes around the room. She was wearing a black leotard with ballet shoes and her long hair was pulled back into a neat bun. She was stunning.

"Mother?"

"I brought you here a long time ago when you were a baby," her mother said breathlessly, beaming happily as she finally came to a stop. "It's amazing what the mind can recall."

"Mother, what am I doing here?" Hinata stood up in alarm, looking around the dreamscape. "I'm in the middle of a mission!"

"Oh," her mother said sympathetically and she rubbed her daughter's arm soothingly, "you got knocked out, dear." "Quite brutally, I might add. I am not sure if I approve of this Naruto character. He is awfully rough with you."

"Naruto knocked me out?" She could only imagine the hell Neji was raising. "I'm sure it was an accident."

Her mother frowned unimpressed and crossed her arms. "You should not fall into the habit of excusing his atrocious behavior. Men will only rise to the standards you set for them so you shouldn't lower them, for heaven's sakes! Besides, it's distracting you from what's really important."

"What?"

Her mother looked at her sternly. "You are the captain of this mission, are you not?"

Hinata nodded tentatively.

"Then do not allow these boys to treat you like a helpless damsel in distress, especially if they only going to cause more harm!"

"Mother, I—"

"First your shoulder and then your senses! I'm not sure how much more 'saving' you can take. And yes, Neji is quite talented but you are the future leader of the Hyuga Clan and more than capable of leading this team! Those boys will not respect you as their captain if you see yourself as beneath them!"

Hinata lowered her eyes consciously. "I'm not the clan leader, remember."

Her mother smiled confidently. "Well, as they say in the performing arts," she reached out and lifted her daughter's chin so Hinata would look at her. "Fake it until you make it."

Hinata sighed. "It's not that simple, Mother."

"You think so, hmm," The woman tapped a finger to her lips in thought. "Perhaps I can help then."

Hinata's eyes widen, not liking the sound of that. "What does that mean?"

Her mother looked around the dreamscape and a calculating smile came to her face. "I think you're about to regain consciousness. I'll have a small window but I think I can pull it off."

"Pull what off! Mother, don't do anything! I'm on a missi—"

But her mother was gone and she was left alone in the dreamscape.

And because the situation called for it, Hinata expressed her dismay the best way she knew how, "Shit!"

0

"What the hell is wrong with you! Are you trying to kill her!"

"It was an accident," Naruto pleaded as he looked over his shoulder at the very angry Hyuga leaning heavily on the wall. Neji was wounded but had absolutely refused treatment until they had addressed Hinata's injuries, which was a prominent bump on the head and unconsciousness courtesy of one hyper-active ninja.

The moment the chakra strings broke, senbons came from all directions at various yet frightening velocities. Dodging the projectiles proved near impossible and Hinata had resorted to using her own chakra to push the weapons away from their path of escape. She was amazing but it wasn't enough. Fatigued, she couldn't gather chakra quickly enough to push the last attack away and a panicked Naruto used his momentum to throw his body at her, pushing both of them into the cave entrance before the last barrage rained down.

Unfortunately, the force of his push smashed them both into a wall and Hinata took the brunt of it. She was out cold and the bump on her head appeared to be growing larger.

Neji had already outlined in graphic detail what he was going to do to Naruto should Hinata suffer brain damage or die from this misfortune, and while he was not looking forward to the testicle removal procedure, his concern was mainly for the Hyuga woman lying on the floor in front of him.

"W-Wait, I think she's coming around."

An openly relieved Naruto watched as Hinata's eyes fluttered open. He smiled and leaned in closer when she focused on him and tumbled back in surprise when the heel of her palm suddenly connected painfully with his chin.

"Ow!"

"You, sir," Hinata began as she sat up, "have taken enough liberties with my well-being." She brought a hand to her forehead and paused in shock at the feel of the goose egg-sized bump. "What the…" Her eyes narrowed irritably as she rose to her feet with more grace than one who was obviously concussed should have.

She glared down at Naruto coldly. "I am going to need you to refrain from future heroics if you cannot control yourself and work with the team. Otherwise, you'll put the mission in jeopardy. Do you understand?"

Naruto's eyes widen in surprise before his face became crestfallen. "Yes…captain."

He watched as she strode past him with authority to Neji who was staring at her strangely.

"Neji?"

The Hyuga furrowed his brow questioningly. "Lady…Hinata?"

"Are you injured?"

"I was struck by a senbon moments before entering the cave."

Hinata frowned, taking in Neji's slumped appearance. "Have you treated it?"

Neji shifted uncomfortably. "No. I need…assistance…with removing it."

Hinata arched an eyebrow in question and her cousin blushed.

"It's…in the back of my leg."

"You mean your ass," Naruto corrected as he stood up, cracking his jaw.

"Shut up, Uzumaki!"

Hinata brought a hand to her head and closed her eyes.

"Hinata, are you—"

"We'll have to remove the senbon first before we can move forward," Hinata said, brushing off Naruto's concern. She walked over to her bag and started rooting through her supplies. "Had it occurred to you that it may be poisoned? We cannot afford delays." She pulled out some of her food pills, a pain pill and a generalized antidote for precaution.

"Take these," she ordered as she walked back over to Neji, holding out the pills. "It'll help with the pain."

Neji scowled as though his pride just took another blow. "I don't need—"

Before he could finish, Hinata atypically forced the pills into his mouth and clamped her hand hard over his nose and mouth until he swallowed. Neji's eyes were huge with shock.

"There, that wasn't so bad, was it?" and she smiled gently to take the sting out of her harsh treatment.

Instead of answering, Neji's eyes rolled into the back of his head as he fell back into a dead faint.

"What happened?" Hinata demanded, flabbergasted as she stared down at the prone Hyuga. Her hand was still hovering in the air from where it covered Neji's face.

Naruto picked up the food pills from Hinata's bag. "Curry-flavored." He sighed uneasily. "Well, Sakura did say she was experimenting with different flavors since people complain so much about how bad food pills taste."

Hinata turned around to face Naruto. "What?"

Naruto shrugged. "Neji doesn't like spicy foods."

"You can't be serious! They were hardly spicy!"

Naruto held his hands up in a helpless gesture. "He's a sensitive guy, I don't know! It's not the first time he did this!"

Hinata looked from Neji to Naruto in disbelief before deciding to make the most of the situation. "Well, since he's currently being so cooperative, let's roll him over and get this senbon business started. Naruto, if you would bring over the rest of my supplies. I could use your assistance."

"Erh, right," Naruto said reluctantly, most likely not looking forward to seeing that part of the Hyuga's anatomy.

0

They were quite a sight when they finally arrived in the village.

Again, Hinata lead the way while Naruto followed with Neji slumped over his back. They suspected the curry-flavored food pill somehow magnified the potency of the pain pill, which was a mild sedative, because the Hyuga genius had been utterly useless the moment he woke up.

"He's drooling on me again," Naruto reported with a shudder.

"No, I'm not," Neji slurred, wiping his face groggily on the back of Naruto's shirt. "I'm…shut up."

Hinata looked back at her team with sympathy. "Just bear with it a little longer," she said quietly. "They are sending for the elder now." She had a headache and Hinata was not sure if it was the result of the nightmare of a mission, the bump on her head or her mother's show of assertiveness in the cave. She had watched the events transpire like a spectator watching a movie and while she was on one hand horrified, on the other she quite enjoyed the feeling of confidence her mother conveyed in her actions.

She recognized that people were typically sent off to the asylum for less than what she experienced so she didn't even bother to explain what happened to her. If pressed, she would have blamed the head injury but Naruto didn't even question it given that tending to Neji's injury demanded both their attentions. She could still feel the residuals of that confidence as the elder approached and by the look on his face he knew he had some explaining to do.

"Oh, dear. Please forgive us! It was not our intent to put you in danger."

"I'm finding that hard to believe," Naruto said irritably as he shifted Neji's dead weight to a more comfortable position. Neji mumbled something in comply but no one could understand him with his face in Naruto's back.

"You said in your letter that the traps were deactivated," Hinata said with more authority than she ever thought her voice could carry.

The village elder looked from her to Naruto before a realization came over his face. "Yes, but our farmers have been seeing more bandits in the area and we reactivated some of the traps to discourage raids."

"You reactivated the traps!" Naruto's eyes flashed angrily. "We could have been killed!"

"Forgive us," the elder bowed nervously. "We did not know if our message would reach you in time and we had to act." The elder looked over the team of ninjas with worried eyes. "We will set you up with our best accommodations while you are here and send our best medic to tend to your injuries. We are eternally grateful for the Hidden Leaf's assistance in this matter."

Hinata sighed. He wasn't lying, that much she could detect with her Byakugan. She turned and looked over her team. They were a little worse for wear but they survived and Hinata figured she should be grateful for that. Now the actual mission can begin but first she needed to take care of her team.

"Accommodations would be most appreciated," she said politely taking on a more diplomatic role. "And the Hidden Leaf is as equally invested in helping its neighbors. Once we are settled, Naruto and I will deliver the message from our Hokage."

The village elder was visibly relieved and bowed in gratitude. "If you would follow me, I will take you to your rooms."

As they followed the elder to their promised accommodations, Naruto gently nudges Hinata with his shoulder and smiles encouragingly.

She smiles in return and manages to relax some of the tension in her body. It could have been worse for her first mission as captain.

"My…leg itches," Neji slurred against Naruto's shoulder, sounding half awake.

"You mean your ass," Naruto corrected, surrendering to the bizarreness of the moment. He will never see Hyugas the same way ever again.

"Whatever."

0

"You were wonderful."

Hinata turned around to see her mother looking at her with a warm smile. The strange dreams no longer distressed her, so frequent they had become. "It was Naruto who made the mission a success. The village elder trusts him."

"And I believe you have earned his trust as well. Don't sell yourself short, dear. You have quite a charm about you."

Her mother was wearing a beautiful princess gown that Hinata remembered from the fairy tales she used to read as a child. She looked down to see that she was wearing a similar gown but she didn't feel like a princess. Instead, she frowned at its lack of mobility. Its very nature confined her and made her helpless. She looked around and realized she was in the most quintessential tower; the kind that only existed in dreams.

"I believe in this dream you are waiting for your knight in shining armor to rescue you," her mother said helpfully when she saw her daughter's look of confusion. She brought her hands primly in front of her, falling easily into the role of a monarch. "However," she shifted her eyes over to the door towards the back of the room. "Why wait?"

Hinata smiled. "That was so cliché, it was painful."

"It's your dream, sweet pea. I can only work with what I have at the moment."

Hinata looked at the door and her smile grew wider. Decisively, she began to pull the ridiculous dress off, stripping down to the white chemise underneath before running out the door.

As she ran down the spiraling stairs, she enjoyed the feel of running, the freedom, the confidence. She could do this, she realized with wonder.

She didn't stop running even as she made it outside. She ran past Dream Naruto who had just arrived on his white steed, giving her a perplexed look. She turned to give him a quick wave but didn't bother to stop.

Dream Naruto watched her head towards the horizon, wondering what in the world was going on before a call from above drew his attention away. He looked up to the tower to see an older woman waving her handkerchief out the window in jest. His eyes widen in surprise.

"Well, young man," she said lightly, "I'm waiting!"

- The End –