Please see first chapter for disclaimer, rating, warnings, pairings, etc.

Special Thanks: goes out to McKazekage, rao hyuga 18, Jigokun, Guest, AnnaUmulie97, BubbleWarrior32, shyprincess82, and xforeverherex for all your wonderful reviews! Also thanks to everyone who continues to add this story to their favorites and follows lists - the numbers I see every time I visit my stats page always blow me away!

Author's Note: ...And once again my impatience gets the better of me, and I post early. But I've been wandering around all week since the last update giggling maniacally to myself, and I think the people around me are starting to think I'm just a little bit crazy... Anyway, lots of important information revealed in this chapter, so I hope you enjoy it! Thanks for reading!

*~Chapter XXIV~*


In a moment of complete and total clarity, several things slipped into place like missing puzzle pieces within Hinata's mind. How Hiashi had spoken like he didn't have much time left while he was writing the letter he left for her; why he was in such a hurry to see her settled in Suna; why even Konoha's best had been unable to find a single lead to the man who had murdered the Hyuuga clan's former head.

There was no murderer...

...Because there had been no murder.

Hinata and Neji sat across from each other, sharing a mutual moment of silent shock.

Knowing this answered a few questions, but it also raised a whole new set. If Hiashi had, indeed, committed hara-kiri, how had his method of death been mistaken as murder? Added to that, what reason could Hiashi possibly have had to go through the ancient rite of ritual suicide? Did he do it of his own will, or had someone coerced him into it?

The questions spun through her mind in rapid succession, and Hinata spared a moment to wonder why she was thinking so rationally. Something she thought she knew for sure had just been disproved in a huge way, and all she could do was sit there and try to think up reasons why?

Dropping the scroll into his lap, Neji ran a shaking hand down his face. "I-I don't know what to do," he admitted. He looked and sounded more rattled than Hinata had ever seen him. "I don't understand. We've been thinking all this time Uncle was murdered, and now this? Is Hanzou telling the truth, or...?" He trailed off, looking puzzled. A few traces of shock still lingered in his eyes.

"I d-don't know." Hinata clenched her hands into fists in her lap, fighting the uncharacteristic urge to stand up and pace. "B-But the same questions were just g-going through my mind."

Neji picked up the scroll again to read more. "Lady Tsunade went on to say she's sending a couple of people here with more details. They left right after this scroll, so they should be here sometime tomorrow." He looked up. "She thought we should know as soon as possible, though, so she went ahead and sent the scroll, knowing it would get here a little faster."

Tenten apparently suffered from the same urge as Hinata, for she was even now pacing back and forth nearby. "So many strange things," she murmured. "First the break-in at Lord Gaara's office, now this?"

Hinata spun to stare at her cousin-in-law. "You d-don't think the two things are c-connected, d-do you?"

The brunette shrugged. "I doubt it," she replied. "But the timing seems strange. Hanzou could have been forced to write that note, then been forced into hara-kiri to make it look like suicide."

Very slowly, Neji nodded. "It seems like a stretch, but it is possible," he agreed. "There have been so many strange things going on lately I really don't think I'll be surprised if I find out that is the case."

Thoughtfully rubbing her flat stomach as she paced, Tenten nodded in time with the beat set by her pattering feet. "We can't take anything at face value right now," she said. "Nothing is as it seems." She paused, head tilting to the side slightly.

"We are to operate in the shadows," Neji said, as if he were picking up Tenten's train of thought exactly where she left off. "But we are not the only ones who do so. The shadows are definitely dark enough to hide a lot of things..."

Hinata felt a shiver slink down her spine, like something with a thousand crawling legs. "What are you talking about?" she asked uneasily.

Neji turned back to her, looking unsettled. "Well," he started, "there are a few more things you don't know about ninja in general and the Hyuuga in particular-"

An ill-timed knock on the door interrupted him. Neji, Tenten, and Matsuri immediately tensed, their guard going up as naturally as if they'd merely reached for a glass of water sitting on the table instead of weapons. Matsuri repeated her usual ritual at the door, then opened it to reveal Gaara on the other side.

He must have known something was wrong by the looks on their faces, because he hurried across the room to hover protectively at Hinata's side. "What happened?" he demanded.

"I just got an urgent scroll from Konoha," Neji reported grimly, holding the red communiqué up as evidence. "Lady Tsunade dispatched two ninja to follow with more - and undoubtedly just as critical - information. They should arrive some time tomorrow." He glanced at the clock on the table across the room, then corrected, "Make that sometime later today."

Gaara's expression tightened further. "An attack on your village?" he asked.

Both Neji and Tenten shook their head. "No," the latter denied. The former added, "It was instead a prviate Hyuuga matter. Hanzou, my uncle's closest and most trusted assistant, committed hara-kiri two days ago. He left a note which calls into question everything we thought we knew about Lord Hiashi's death."

"The murderer?" Gaara questioned.

Hinata shook her head and touched her husband's arm to draw his attention to her. "According to Hanzou's note, my father also c-committed hara-kiri," she said softly.

Surprise flitted across Gaara's face. His gaze slid from Hinata's face, to Neji's, to the scroll, and back to his wife. "How could the two things be so confused?"

"That's what we would like to know," Tenten said grimly. She was once again spinning a kunai around her finger, the sharp weapon blurring with the speed of the motion. "Last time I checked, the results of murder and hara-kiri look very different from each other."

Shuddering slightly, Hinata decided not to ask if Tenten had seen a lot of instances of both to be so certain about the differences. She was certain she really didn't want to know the answer.

"What about your office?" Neji asked, abruptly changing the subject. "Any further details about the break in?"

Gaara seemed unsurprised to find out Neji and Tenten knew the details about the trouble. "I'm afraid I have more bad news to add," he reported. Allowing his gaze to drift from Hinata, to Neji, to Tenten, he said, "Everything in my office was only subtly disturbed. It took a while for me to even figure out if anything was missing, the intruder was so thorough and careful."

"B-But something was missing," Hinata guessed.

Her husband nodded. "I'm afraid so." Gaara turned to Neji, their intense gazes locking with an understanding Hinata sensed could only pass between two ninja. "The only things missing were papers left from my father's time visiting Konoha. He had done extensive research about your village, and had even drawn up potential battle plans. I've been studying them over the years, trying to better understand my father's plans just in case he shared them with anyone else. I didn't want people under my command to decide to take it upon themselves to finish my father's work, but as far as I could tell, only my father knew about those plans. In fact, I had intended to hand them over to you before you left this time, since I was sure in my final assessment in this matter."

Neji and Tenten shared a shuttered look. "Exactly how detailed were those battle plans?" the latter questioned uneasily.

"I would like to say they were very vague, but I can't," Gaara admitted. "Even though we were not in Konoha very long, apparently my father was there long enough to get a very good grasp of your village's schematics. Using that information, he drew up several different plans detailing different tactics intended to severely cripple, or even destroy, Konoha."

Eyes glinting with a steely, suspicious light, Neji turned to Tenten. "We need to send Lady Tsunade a reply immediately," he said. "She needs to know about this."

Gaara nodded. "I am reasonably certain I know who stole those plans," he said. "If I am right - and I do pray I'm not - they are even now being studied by members of the Akatsuki." Suddenly, Hinata's husband bowed at the waist, and he held the position as he said, "I apologize for my grave error. I should have destroyed those documents the moment I laid eyes on them. I should never have allowed them to fall into an enemy's hand."

Looking surprsied at Gaara's apology, both Neji and Tenten hurried to return the bow. "We don't blame you," Tenten said softly.

"Were we in your position, we would probably have done the same thing you did," Neji added as Gaara slowly straightened. "From what I've seen during our visits here, security around your home and office is extremely tight. There is no way you could have anticipated an enemy's slipping in."

Hinata was glad Neji had gotten over his earlier anger. She'd been worried after his initial outburst when she'd told him and Tenten about the break-in. "Is it p-possible the thief is still in the village?" she asked.

"It is possible," Gaara said reluctantly. "I have dispatched several ninja and alerted the military to be on the lookout for Sasori."

"But it's been so long since the break-in occurred, you don't think he's in the village any more, do you?" Neji asked. There was a certain note of hopelessness in his voice.

Gaara nodded in silent agreement.

Neji and Tenten excused themselves to return to their quarters and pen a response to Lady Tsunade's message, saying they would also include a warning about the stolen papers' contents and disappearance. Matsuri also left the room, positioning herself in the hall outside between the doors into Hinata's and Gaara's suites so she could stand guard all night.

Undoubtedly there would be little sleep to be had by anyone. At least Hanabi doesn't know about any of this, Hinata thought gratefully. She will be able to get a good night's sleep, anyway. She would need to be told eventually, but the elder sister thought it best to let the younger have an uninterrupted night's sleep.

As soon as the door closed behind Matsuri, Gaara turned his sharp, discerning eyes on Hinata. "Are you all right?" he asked. He placed his hands on her shoulders, then rubbed them up and down her arms.

Not having realized her chill before - not from the air temperature, but from the effects of the news she'd just received - Hinata closed her eyes and leaned into her husband's comforting touch. "Yes," she said. When Gaara made a soft sound of doubt, she opened her eyes and looked up at him. "I know it seems unlikely, but I really am all right," she insisted.

Gaara studied her face and eyes, then eventually nodded. "Good," he said. "I know everything you've learned about tonight can't have been easy for you. And if you need someone to talk to..." He trailed off, the warmth and reassurance in his eyes easily finishing the sentence for him.

Resting her head against his strong chest, Hinata closed her eyes and finally allowed herself to relax. "Thank you," she murmured.

No matter how bad things got, at least she could always be reassured Gaara would be there with - and for - her. As long as she had him, she was certain they could always overcome any trouble which dared turn its attention in their direction.

Immediately after breakfast the next morning, Gaara closeted himself in his office to copy as much as he could remember of his father's plans. Hinata, Neji, and Tenten told Hanabi about the events of the night before. They did not, however, tell her about Hiashi's hara-kiri, having decided they would wait until they had more information before finally giving her the details.

Inuzuka Kiba and Aburame Shino rode into the village only a few hours after sunrise, looking so exhausted Hinata knew they must have ridden nearly nonstop day and night to arrive as quickly as they had.

After handing off three red scrolls to Neji, Kiba and Shino came over to greet Hinata. She laughed as Kiba grabbed her in a huge hug which lifted her off her feet.

"Long time no see!" the more cheerful of her two closest male friends cried. Even though he was covered in dust, looked like he was dead on his feet, and didn't exactly smell the freshest, Hinata couldn't help but wrap her arms around him and hug him tightly in return. "I've missed you, 'Nata," he said wistfully, carefully setting her down.

"I've missed you, too," Hinata said, feeling flustered at her friend's enthusiastic greeting. Though she'd been friends with him for years, she still wasn't used to his rather personal way of greeting her whenever he saw her, whether they were in public or private. "Where's Akamaru? Is he all right?" She missed seeing the horse-sized dog, since he and Kiba were nearly inseparable.

Kiba visibly pouted. "I had to leave him in Konoha. He would have easily kept up with me and Shino, but I knew this desert would've been rough on him."

Hinata nodded. With Akamaru's thick fur, she could see how the dry heat would quite easily have an ill effect on the oversized, friendly canine. "I see." Pivoting slightly, she smiled at Shino, who was long-used to Kiba's antics and had been patiently awaiting his turn to greet her. "Hello, Shino."

Because of the high neck of his coat and the sunglasses covering his eyes, Hinata couldn't be sure the man was smiling, but she felt reasonably sure he was giving her his best effort. "You are staying well-hydrated, I trust?" he asked, tone amiable.

Where Kiba was loud and outgoing, Shino had always been quiet and (to use Naruto's words) a little strange. Feeling not the least offended by Shino's lack of a formal hello, she nodded and smiled. "I'm so used to the heat here n-now, I hardly feel it any more. I've also learned it is b-best to stay indoors from midday to sunset, so I've not suffered any ill effects from Suna's c-climate."

Seeming satisfied by her answer, Shino nodded once and said no more.

From his position a few steps away, Neji cleared his throat, drawing her attention in his direction. "You'll need to be present as well when I read these," he said, holding up the scrolls.

Apologetically, Hinata turned back to Kiba and Shino. "We'll talk more later," she said. "In the meantime, a servant will show you to your rooms. I have no d-doubt you'll want to c-clean up and g-get some sleep."

"It would be nice," Kiba admitted. He offered her a toothy grin before he and Shino waved and followed a servant Hinata recognized as Soichiro up the stairs and out of sight.

Gaara pivoted on his heel and motioned for Hinata, Neji, and Tenten to follow him. "You can use my private sitting room to conduct your business," he said.

Hinata blinked in surprise. "You're n-not staying?" she asked, feeling slightly injured.

"If you wish me to stay, I will. I do not, however, want to intrude on your private clan business." Gaara very carefully did not look at her or Neji as he spoke.

"You're Hinata's husband," Neji said from behind Hinata and Gaara. "That means you're a member of this family, too. You should stay, Lord Gaara."

A quick nod was Gaara's only sign of having heard his cousin-in-law. He said nothing more until the two couples were safely seated around the low table in the sitting room, every door leading into the suite locked firmly behind them. There would be no invaders or eavesdroppers learning about the conversation to come.

As soon as everyone was settled in, Neji unrolled the first scroll. His pale eyes flickered over the script quickly as he read silently to himself, taking a moment to comprehend the scroll's contents before he shared them with the others.

"According to Lady Tsunade's investigation into the matter, Hanzou's note appears to be completely authentic," the clan head stated. "Most of the information within it has already been confirmed."

"What sort of information?" Hinata asked, though she wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer.

"He spoke a great deal about private dealings with my father, and meetings with Lady Tsunade only he, Uncle, and the leader of Konoha herself would have known about. He was careful not to give out too many specifics, should his letter 'fall into the wrong hands,' but he was specific enough to prove there was no duplicity in the note."

"There goes that theory," Tenten sighed. She looked to be torn between relief and disappointment.

"Hn," Neji agreed. Glancing down at the first scroll again, he continued, "According to the note, Hanzou said Uncle had known about his illness for a long time, and had been making arrangements for after he was gone for almost as long. It was why he sent you here, Hinata, and why he had been subtly grooming me for leadership of the clan, though I didn't realize it at the time."

Clenching her hands in her lap, Hinata leaned forward slightly. "D-Did the note g-give a reason for father's d-death?" she asked.

Neji closed his eyes and let out a long sigh. "Yes," he finally said. Opening his eyes again, he met hers squarely and continued with obvious reluctance. "According to Hanzou, the Council was beginning to suspect Uncle was not in as good health as he let on. That, in addition to some things Uncle had done which he 'held great regret' about, prompted his decision." Neji looked down at the scroll again, his expression full of sadness. "Hanzou also said Uncle Hiashi committed hara-kiri so leadership of the Hyuuga would fall to me sooner." His Adam's apple bobbed visibly as he swallowed hard.

"But what about the supposed murder?" Gaara asked. He sounded as confused as Hinata felt.

"That, apparently, was Hanzou's idea after the fact. He knew a dangerous situation would help cement my leadership faster, so he pretended to find Uncle's body and fabricated a supposed attack in the middle of the night. Once the idea had been planted, since he was the only witness to Uncle's true act, it wasn't hard for him to keep it going. Who would question Uncle's most trusted advisor?" Neji glanced down at the scroll again. "Once he was assured of my skills as the next leader of the clan, Hanzou-" his voice broke, and he quickly closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath.

Tenten, face set in a mask of concern, said nothing. She merely leaned her head against Neji's shoulder, her hand finding his. Hinata looked away, feeling the need to give the two privacy, and Neji a chance to recompose himself.

It didn't take long for her cousin to do so. "Once he was assured of my skills as the next leader of the Hyuuga, Hanzou knew his duties were complete. Unable to live with the burden of his secrets, he wrote this letter and then followed his master into the afterlife." Shaking his head, Neji set the first scroll aside and reached for the next. Once again he read quickly and quietly, his lips moving occasionally as he read a certain passage.

When he was finished, he rolled the second scroll and set it aside with the first. "That scroll was filled with further evidence to support Hanzou's claims," Neji said. "Due to the somewhat delicate nature of the contents, I shall leave those contents unshared, at least until Sakura can look them over as a medical professional." He picked up the final scroll, holding it in his left hand as he reached for the seal with his right. Right before he touched it, however, he hesitated, a strange expression crossing his face.

Hinata felt another shiver crawl down her spine. Wrapping her arms tightly around her middle, she let out her breath on a long, shaky sigh, suddenly wishing she could snatch the scroll out of Neji's hands and toss it away. It was a completely irrational urge, and Hinata was unsure from where it came. She only knew with horrible certainty she did not want to know the contents of the scroll.

Shaking his head sharply, Neji visibly clenched his jaw and broke the seal. His hands trembled slightly as he unrolled the scroll, gaze flying immediately to the opening kanji even before he'd finished unfurling the bottom portion of it.

Needing support, Hinata reached out and clenched Gaara's hand tightly, ignoring the look of surprise he shot her. She kept her gaze riveted on her cousin's face, biting her tongue to keep from screaming at him to hurry up.

Or to keep from begging him to stop, to roll up the scroll again, to hoard all the secrets of the scroll to himself, because she didn't want to know them.

She had no idea how she knew, but she did. The contents of that final scroll held something so life-changing, so horrible, it would destroy her to hear them.

But, just as certainly, she knew she needed to hear them. Her mind would not be completely at rest about this matter until she did.

Neji reached the end of the scroll. Very, very slowly, he lowered it to his lap, revealing the shell-shocked expression on his face. He looked first to his wife, then to Gaara, before finally settling on Hinata, staring at her as if he had never seen her before.

"N-Neji?" Her voice squeaked on the end, and she gripped Gaara's hand so tightly she feared she was cutting off the circulation in his fingers.

"You-" He stopped, shook his head, then cleared his throat and started again. "You are not the daughter of my uncle."

The world careened to a halt around Hinata. What? She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Then who...? Her ears began to ring, and grey spots crept into the corners of her vision. She clenched her teeth and held on to consciousness by sheer force of her will, wanting to hear Neji's reasoning behind such a shatteringly hurtful statement.

Leaning forward, Neji seized her wrist and shook her slightly until she refocused her somewhat hazy attention on him. "You're not Hiashi's daughter," he said again, his voice full of shock and wonder, "because you are instead Hizashi's - you are my younger sister."

Hinata could not fight the overwhelming shock any more and gave in to the blessed escape unconsciousness offered her.

*~To Be Continued~*

Author's Ending Notes: Yet another plot twist I've been waiting to reveal for quite a while now! I've been bouncing around giggling maniacally to myself the past few days, so I once again gave in to my own impatience and updated early. Also, Kiba and Shino played really small parts in this chapter, but you'll see them again before the end of the fic. In the meantime, thanks for reading, I hope you enojoyed this chapter, and I also hope to see you again for the next update!