Summary: Hyuuga Hinata has never understood her sister.
Pairing: Hyuuga Neji/Hyuuga Hinata
Disclaimer: Dear Kishimoto, they are yours as always. Lots of love.
Original story: Prison Keys by edenfalling
It is not the content of father's announcement that surprises Hinata so much as the fact that it comes over dinner one evening, more or less out of the blue. In truth, she has been mentally prepared for this since she was twelve years old and while life with father has become more bearable in the years between then and now, time has not changed the fact that Hinata is an embarrassment to the Hyuuga family and entirely unfit to be its heir.
Hiashi-sama, of course, does not say this. What he says is: "I have conferred with the others, and I will make it official at the next clan council. Hanabi will be my heir."
It is simple, straight-forward, factual, and something like being punched repeatedly in chest. Hinata feels breathless and a little like crying, but she keeps her head up and returns father's blank gaze as best she can.
He has placed his chopsticks on the rim of his bowl and folded his hands in front of his chest. He is waiting, like always, to see how she will react.
"Ah," she says and when she realizes her voice is not wavering as she feared it would, she adds, "Of course. Whatever you wish, otou-san."
Hinata runs into Hanabi the next day, coming out of the dojo. It's a little odd as Hanabi spends so little time at home these days. Her mission schedule always seems back-to-back, and it is a well-known fact among both clan and Konoha in general that she is aiming to be an ANBU by the time she turns fifteen.
Hinata always feels a stab of guilt and regret when she considers the fact that she and her sister have exchanged only a handful of sentences, hardly enough to fill a page, in the years since Hanabi's shocking – and still, Hinata privately feels, deeply worrying – chunnin pass.
They nearly knock heads today, which is sort of laughable considering that doors and walls and corners are hardly serious obstacles to either of them. Hinata is very glad that father is not around to see.
Hanabi takes an instantaneous step back, re-establishing her personal space, and frowns.
"Father has told you?" she asks with her eyebrows knitted together, direct and serious. She and father have always been alike in that regard.
Hinata wavers and wishes she could disappear in that intense, paralyzing way she hasn't felt since she was thirteen.
"Y- yes," she says and then she smiles softly – although the smile itself is directed at her sister's feet rather than her face. "Congratulations, Hanabi." She looks up, letting her smile drop for a moment. "I hope you will be happy," she says.
Hanabi presses her lips together in a tight line and doesn't blink. She reaches up to absent-mindedly brush hair out her eyes and when she does, Hinata gets a flash of the long thin scar that runs down the back of Hanabi's hand.
"I expect I will," Hanabi says after a moment. She bobs her head in a quick bow, mutters an off-hand "nee-san," and turns away, heading in the direction of her rooms.
Hinata spends the rest of the afternoon replaying this conversation in her head as she moves through her patterns. She doesn't notice when evening settles in because no one comes to fetch her for dinner with father. Instead, she treks out to the bath houses on her own and sits in hot water for almost a full hour. She returns to her rooms, dresses in her nightclothes, and pours over her anatomy texts until midnight when she falls asleep, face-first between the page detailing how to treat anaphylaxis and the section on diagnosing anyeurisms.
Shino is the one who points out, five days later, that she could probably move out now if she wanted.
Team Eight has gathered for their weekly lunch/team meeting which, despite their chaotic and highly incompatible schedules these days, have gone largely uninterrupted for the last seven years.
Today, Hinata would really have preferred to reschedule; she'd woken up that morning to find herself still exhausted from the twin pressures of studying for the hospital training exams and weathering the well-intentioned storm of pity that has been directed her way during the past week. Every servant in the Hyuuga house seems set on consoling her, and every branch family member shoots concerned gazes her way when their paths crossed; the not-so thinly veiled message behind these glances says, "You are one of ours now. Despite appearances, things will be okay."
Today, her eyes feel like two puffy slabs of meat taped onto her face
Kiba almost looks worse, slumped over his plate with his nose nearly dipping into his soba. As Hinata and Shino have been reminded many, many times during the last month, Akamaru's first litter is due any day, and it has left both Kiba and Akamaru on edge twenty-four/seven.
The result of all this is that Shino has been left to carry the conversation on his own – which led to a number of seemingly unconnected sentence, punctuated by long silences, and eventually the conclusion that Hinata should get her own place.
At which Kiba finally raises his head and makes the facial expression equivalent of having an epiphany.
"Oh my god," he says, staring at Hinata in a way that makes her blush from her toes all the way up to her hairline. "You can move out."
"I-" she says, dropping her gaze to her lap. "I'm not sure that's a good idea. It wouldn't be appropriate?"
"Appropriate?" says Kiba in the voice of someone who has never had reason to say or even think that word before. "Hinata, you can move out. Into your own place. Where your father cannot be such a dick to you all the time."
Hinata flushes in something between anger and extreme mortification. "Otou-san is not a- a... He's not."
Kiba leans forward on the table, making his mock serious face. "Hinata. I think your dad probably eats babies."
Shino makes a faintly disapproving noise in the back of his throat at this. Kiba ignores him.
"Look, Hinata. This is my dream and since my mom isn't going to let me go anywhere until I am over thirty and happily married or some shit, you have to live my dream for me! You have to!"
Hinata purses her lips uncertainly and looks to Shino for help. Shino just raises his eyebrows in his version of a shrug.
"You have to," Kiba insists again, punctuating each syllable by rapping his knuckles on the table. He nearly topples over his bowl but seems not to notice or care.
"I will think about it," Hinata says.
Two months later, Hinata is looking at the door of her new apartment in terror. Her keys are hanging loosely over her knuckles, and her mind is flipping back and forth between worrying that father and Hanabi won't be able to manage without her and the certainty that she won't be able to manage without them.
She jumps, swallowing a scream, when Tenten suddenly appears behind her and gives her a sharp poke in the back.
"Hey," Tenten says, grinning indulgently like Hinata is her backwards little sister or something. Hinata feels a brief stab of regret that Hanabi will never feel for Hinata the same warm rush of gratitude and safety that Hinata feels for Tenten in that moment.
Tenten nods pointedly at the door. "You gonna open that or what?" she asks. "Lee and Neji are going to need somewhere to put the boxes down."
If she concentrates, Hinata can hear Lee's voice carrying from down the stairwell: "This is truly a glorious day!" he is shouting. "For Hinata-san to be so energetically embracing the freedom and shining opportunity of youth! My heart swells with joyful celebration!"
Hinata, of course, cannot see Neji's reaction to this, but she can picture it – the quick eye-roll and the heave of his shoulders in a resigned "why me?" – and it makes her smile.
She takes a firmer grip on her keys and squares her shoulders toward the door.
"O- okay," she says.
The door clicks open with a sound that is not too ominous. Tenten squeezes past, seizing Hinata by the hand as she goes, and marches them both into the empty apartment before Hinata has a chance to chicken out.
The main room is huge with high white walls, a scuffed wood floor, and a large single-frame window at the end farthest from the door. Off to the left, there's a tiny, cramped kitchen with low-hanging cupboards, and Hinata's panic attack starts up again when she realizes that she only knows how to cook three things and now she'll be cooking all the time.
She's still gaping, with her keys clenched tightly to her chest, just under her chin, when Lee and Neji wander in, heralded by Lee's cries of "Let's go up a few more flights! Strong legs are essential to youthful and vigorous shinobi!"
Neji ignores him, of course, and instead crosses the room to stand next to Hinata.
"It's- It's too big!" she tells him in a tiny, breathless voice. She's so overwhelmed right now that she doesn't even think to be embarrassed about it.
Neji cuffs her lightly on the back of the head and says, in a low voice so that Lee and Tenten can't hear, "Don't worry. You get used to it."
Hinata doesn't see Hanabi or father again for a long time after she first moves out. To be entirely honest, there are a few days in the beginning when Hinata doesn't see much of anyone as she is abruptly and wholly consumed by the need to grow accustomed to the new shape of her life.
It's like she's been feeling her way along in the dark, only to find that walls she always figured were there – the ones her outstretched hands had brushed now and then as she shuffled forward – simply aren't. And the day this thought dawns on her, she draws the covers up over her head and refuses to leave her bedroom until noon.
She offers excuses and apologies to father and her friends, blaming the upcoming exams for her hibernation. It's true in a way, and it becomes steadily more true as the days pass. The apartment stops being quite so odd, although she still finds, waking up most mornings, that her eyes automatically focus in on the place where her ceiling should be – which happens to be a good metre into the apartment above her.
Somehow, weeks pass like this: just her and her textbooks and the big, still mostly unfurnished, set of rooms that is supposed to be home now. She keeps all her personal belongings in her bedroom because she still can't quite wrap her mind around the idea that all of this space is hers.
Still, some afternoons she stretches out on her stomach in front of the large living room window with a textbook under her chin and her head supported on her hands – and that's pretty nice.
She emerges from a haze of words and antidotes and hospial procedures one evening to the sound of someone knocking methodically on the apartment's door. She shifts her byakugan-gaze back, past her shoulder and through the door. And sees Neji standing there with his left hand still raised for knocking and a vague look of irritation (or, maybe, concentration) furrowing his eyebrows.
When she finally gets the door open – and it takes a little while because there are locks on this door, and she still isn't used to that – she doesn't even have a chance to open her mouth before a large, white plastic bag is shoved into her arms.
"You have to go grocery shopping for yourself now," Neji informs her. His look of irritation has sunk into a full-fledged scowl, and yet it somehow manages to be more unreadable now than it was before.
"I- I knew that!" Hinata manages to fire back, squeezing the bag in her arms a little tighter out of defensive reflex.
Neji simply raises his eyebrows in dry disbelief, as if he somehow knows that Hinata has been living on instant ramen alone for weeks now.
Hinata's shoulders feel knotted and tense, and her palms are growing clammy. For some reason, Neji has always made her feels this way, for as long as she can remember, reaching far back beyond the time he almost killed her.
She forces herself to relax and steps out of the doorway.
"Thank you, Neji-niisan," she says. "Would you like to come in?"
He shrugs, like he doesn't care, like he didn't walk halfway across Konoha just to make sure she had groceries. And then he follows her inside.
When Hinata finally manages to coax Hanabi into visiting, it is a disaster.
She starts planning a week ahead, almost immediately after the branch family member hands her Hanabi's terse note accepting her offer. She cleans for almost two days straight with her pants rolled up above the knee and her feet bare. By the the time she's done, her toes are bright lobster-red, and everything she owns smells like lemon, but the apartment itself is shining.
Then she begins her hunt for recipes.
The other kunoichi all give her looks indicating that she is very likely crazy when she asks for suggestions. The only exception is Ino who actually wonders out loud if she's crazy.
"Why are you wasting your time with that stuff?" she asks, eyebrows rising in something between surprise and derision. Hinata tries to explain that this is for Hanabi who, though many years younger, has always been hard and remote and judging. She tries to find a way to say "I want to impress her" that doesn't make Ino smile in that condescending way that Neji used to have, that Kiba and Tenten still do.
Instead, she gives up, thanks Ino anyway, and moves on.
Surprisingly, it's Kiba who eventually comes to her rescue, slipping her a deeply creased paper with a recipe for "Grilled skirt steaks and oregano sauce" on it after their weekly meeting. Hinata turns it over in her hands a few times, noticing little hand-written notes in the margins which suggest adjustments to a timing here or a measurement there.
When she looks back up at Kiba, he's turned almost mauve and is staring anywhere but at her face.
"Don't make a big deal about it, okay?" he grumbles. "Akamaru's a picky eater."
She tucks the recipe into her back pocket and smiles.
Hanabi arrives promptly at eight o'clock on Saturday night, announced by three quick raps on the apartment door. When Hinata opens the door, she has to almost physically restrain herself from rushing to her sister's side. Hanabi is as stony-faced and inward-turned as ever, but she also looks tired and on edge. Her eyes seem a little too bright.
"H- hanabi," Hinata says uncertainly. She tries to keep the concern out of her voice, but a little leaks through anyway, and Hanabi frowns as she always does when Hinata displays weakness.
"Thank you for inviting me, nee-san," says Hanabi. "Your new home looks... appropriate."
Hinata ducks her head and allows eighteen years of training to be a matriarch take over as she ushers Hanabi inside, offers her something to drink, a place to sit, and eases her into conversation about the only thing that ever seems to interest Hanabi anymore: her work.
"Our last mission was an improvement. Although there was still little challenge to it," she says, accepting a beer from Hinata (purchased at Naruto's behest).
Hinata settles across the table. She's poured her own beer out into a glass. Hanabi seems content to drink from the bottle. From the little improptu dining room – which had, up until three days ago, been Hinata's central studying desk – she can hear the steaks sizzling on her stove and smell freshly crushed oregano.
Hinata allows herself to feel proud and asks, "Will you be taking the ANBU examination soon, then?"
For an instant, Hanabi's face pinches together and then it smooths out, turning blank and indecipherable. Her eyes are still bright, though, and sharp in her face. "It would be unacceptable for the Hyuuga heir to do something so reckless, don't you think, Hinata? Hiashi-sama certainly thinks so." Her voice becomes low and bitter as she adds, "I have been forbidden from taking the examination."
Hinata swallows and shifts uncomfortably. Distantly, she feels a number of familiar emotions. Sad and sorry, first of all, for Hanabi's obvious unhappiness. Guilt that her incompetence (and freedom) is its cause. But mostly, she suddenly feels overwhelmingly weary. She knows any expressions of pity or regret will simply make Hanabi angrier, as always. She also knows she will make them anyway.
"I am truly sorry that that is the case, Hanabi. Perhaps if you spoke wi--"
"With father?" Hanabi snaps. Her beer bottle bangs down on the table sharply, making Hinata jump. She's gone white all over, hands shaking, lips thinned and drawn back in a mocking smile. "Perhaps you have been living here," and she pauses and gestures at the apartment around her, "too long, Hinata. You have forgotten that father is not exactly the negotiating kind."
"I- I haven't forgotten. I just-"
She wants to say 'I just hoped it would be different for you' but instead sinks into silence and stares at her hands. She can feel Hanabi staring at her head for a long time; finally, Hanabi snorts and gets to her feet.
"This was a mistake," she says. "I'm leaving now."
Hinata's head jerks up. "No, don't!" She reaches out, as if she hopes to catch the hem of Hanabi's pant-leg and hold on. "Please," she adds, "at least stay for dinner."
Hanabi stares down at her, then quickly she shakes her head. "I'm afraid I am not capable of being civil with you tonight, Hinata."
And without another word or look, she turns and walks out, leaving Hinata in an empty room that smells like lemon and oregano.
Getting everyone together in one room has become difficult over the years. Schedules never quite match up. Shikamaru, for example, seems to spend half of every year in Sand and true to form, he is missing on the night that Hinata passes the hospital exam. But somehow – through a combination of intimidation and bribery, Hinata suspects – Shino and Kiba manage to herd the others to the apartment that night to celebrate.
It's a tight fit: ten people around a table built for half as many. Ino ends up sitting half in Choji's lap, with a pointed glare at Sakura that dares her to comment. Sakura looks ready to take her up on that dare – until Lee overturns the bowl of chips onto her lap, and she's forced to turn her attention to comforting him as he bursts into tears and profuse apologies.
Hinata tries to feel pleased and honoured and happy, and she does – but only faintly.
She hasn't talked about her dinner with Hanabi to anyone. The others prodded her a bit for details at first, but she put together a version of events – which she tries not to think of as lying – that seemed reasonable, and they all nodded and put it behind them.
Which doesn't mean she has put it behind her. Not at all. Whenever she is awake, she finds herself replaying the conversation over and over in her head. When she's going to bed, she tosses and turns for hours, trying to find the option, the opening, the phrase, that would have saved the night. Sometimes these imagined conversations work out so well, the way she'd always wanted things to be between her and Hanabi, that Hinata will find herself smiling into the dark, at her ceiling. And when she catches herself doing this, she feels even worse than she had before.
As the weeks past, she started to feel angry. Of course Hanabi found a reason to get angry, some dark, awful part of her would think. She always finds a reason. She looks for reasons because hating Hinata has always been easier for Hanabi than taking responsibility for herself.
But the more Hinata thinks this way, the sadder she feels as well. She thinks about Hanabi's tired face and about an eleven year-old Hinata who had still not discovered the full extent of the limitations that come from being the Hyuuga heir, who was ready to break under the weight of Hiashi-sama's disapproval regardless.
She thinks about this weight on Hanabi's shoulders and wants to cry.
So on the night of the party, she feels a little like a tea kettle, taken off the stove and stoppered before she cools. She feels like she is filling up with steam – with anger and guilt and so many regrets – and it's pushing on her stopper and on her walls, which were never very strong to begin with. She feels like she could burst at any moment.
She keeps quiet and still mostly, in the hopes that staying detached from the events around her will allow her to keep control over her feelings. But as the conversations continue and the hour gets later, Hinata feels a weird, creeping sort of claustrophobia fill her.
Naruto and Sakura have clearly both had too much to drink. They make bizarre, inverted complements of each other when they're drunk. He is leaning on the table with his head cradled in one of his arms, drawing circles in spilt beer with his free hand and looking morose. She is flushed and talking rapidly and loudly at anyone within hearing range about whatever crosses her mind. By this stage in the night, that is inevitably one topic in particular: Sasuke.
"He's such a total dick," Naruto mutters, presumably to the party in general but mostly to the little unhappy face he has traced onto the tabletop.
"Damn straight!" shouts Sakura, banging a fist on the table.
Ino snorts, softly but not at all subtly. And as Sakura flushes red and turns on Ino with a bellow of "Got something to say, Ino-pig?", Hinata draws away from the table and sneaks off to her room.
Immediately, she shuts the door, opens the window all the way, and throws herself face-down onto her bed, burying her face in her pillow. The air coming in from outside is unseasonably cold, and it makes the skin on her bare arms prickle. Her pillow smells like her shampoo; she's not certain when that happened.
She lies motionless for a while, listening to the murmur of conversation from the other room. What was overwhelming then is somewhat comforting now in that it at least gives her something to focus her attention on besides her own thoughts.
After some time, the door opens; the conversation grows momentarily louder and then muffles again. Without looking up or using byakugan, Hinata knows that Neji is there. She's gotten used to the sound of his gait, the pattern of creaks the floorboards make under his weight. She isn't certain when that happened either.
"If you're trying to hide, it isn't working," he tells her.
Her head shoots up, practically of its own accord, and she can feel her cheeks burning. "I- I wasn't hiding," she says. "I just needed some more... space. For a moment."
He smiles in a way that isn't precisely stiff but still looks pointed and uncomfortable. Neji will never be the sort to have laugh-lines, Hinata thinks.
"Things didn't go well with Hanabi, did they?"
A thousand different stories come to mind immediately. She's been telling them all week, after all. It gets easier each time. But as her mind tries to decide which Neji would be most likely to believe, she can feel her face already crumpling. Her eyes fall to her hands, still propping her up on the bed. Her fingers tighten around the covers.
"I don't understand her," Hinata says. "I- I try, but I never have."
"That's not surprising. Hanabi was part of the branch family. You're from the main family."
Hinata looks up. "I'm not any more."
And when he smiles this time, it is more natural because it is sad and mocking all at once. He takes a step forward so that his knees are almost touching the edge of her bed.
"Of course you are," he says.
To that, Hinata has no idea what to say. She is just working up the courage to protest when the door bursts open and Tenten and Kiba pour into the room.
"You guys better not be talking about crazy Hyuuga stuff in here!" Kiba declares. He has one arm slung lazily over Tenten's shoulders. Tenten is grinning from ear-to-ear.
"Kiba says that Hyuuga Hiashi eats babies," she says, wiggling her eyebrows at Neji.
And then they're both enveloped by giggling fits when Neji and Hinata snap, in tandem, "He does not!"
Her feet are blistering worse than they ever did on missions by the time her first rounds at the hospital are finished. When the first month is done, she has calluses the size and shape of her palm. The work is hard, and the days are long, but she feels satisfied in the end. I'm being helpful, she finds herself thinking now and then, when she stumbles into bed at night. And I'm good at it.
In the third month, her first patient dies on her, and she locks herself in a bathroom stall for nearly half an hour, until she is certain she won't start crying. She doesn't want her new co-workers to think she's weak too.
She tells Neji this later, during their weekly meeting at the grocery store, and he just rolls his eyes.
"Idiot," he says, carefully rearranging the contents of their basket so that there is room for a carton of eggs. "That can't be the first time you've seen someone die."
"It wasn't, but that isn't the point," she says. "This time it was my job to keep him from dying, and I couldn't do that."
"People die. You can't always stop it."
She glances sideways at him and says, almost slyly, "Because sometimes it's destiny, and you can't change destiny, right?"
And then she laughs until her sides hurt at the disbelieving and vaguely affronted face he makes in return.
The one sore point in her life, really, is that she still hasn't fixed things with Hanabi. It upsets Hinata to think that she and her sister have spent more time in the same city during this last year than they have in the last decade, and yet they haven't seen each other at all.
She sends Hanabi letters from time to time, half of which go unanswered while the other half are returned unopened. She gets some second-hand information from the various Hyuuga servants, and it is enough for her to figure out that Hanabi's life as heir is going about as well as Hinata's did.
"She's tired," they say. "She fights with Hiashi-sama. She is unhappy."
Truth be told, Hinata can't remember the last time Hanabi was happy. As children, they got along well, and there were whole days when they would disappear into the woods around the compound and pretend they were off on A-rank missions. At night, they'd wander back to the main house, bare feet brown with dirt and sore from pounding up and down the trails.
Things changed, and Hinata has paid close enough attention that she can enumerate all of them. But she still loves her sister and longs to protect her; that hasn't changed for Hinata, and she wonders why it changed for Hanabi.
Work in the hospital gets busier as she gets accepted by the other medic-nins; before long, she doesn't have time for melancholy. She works two shifts everyday, from very early in the morning to very late at night. Her clothes all smell like antiseptic now, and the stack of empty instant ramen cups on her counter is at least a weak old, but she is happy. It's so odd. She's happy.
Sometimes Neji will meet her in front of the hospital at the end of her late shift, and he'll walk her home. The moon will be up, and the sun will be just a long sliver on the horizon, and Hinata will focus on any of these things in order to ignore the weird fluttering in the pit of her stomach.
One night, Neji is in an unexpectedly sullen mood. Usually he manages to at least respond to what she's saying, but he barely looks at her as they walk along and she details the events of her day. It had been a good day, and she is in the middle of explaining how she had treated a patient who had somehow managed to fracture his arm in twelve places and broken most of his fingers – the most popular theory among the hospital staff was that he had been trying to figure out the rasengan and been caught in the blow-back; Hinata had had to admit that he sort of looked like an idiotic Naruto fan.
And then Neji stops, suddenly enough that Hinata continues walking for five more steps before realizing that he isn't keeping pace. She stops as well and turns to look back at him. He's wearing the same distracted, thoughtful expression he has been all night.
"I want to ask you something," he says.
He doesn't say anything immediately, occupied as he is with frowning intently at her shoes. He pulls his fingers through his hair a few times until it stays behind his ears. Finally, he makes a frustrated half-growl noise, looks up at her and says, "Would you marry me?"
She is horrified to find that the first word out of her mouth is "Why?" He also looks confused by this, so she hurries to continue: "I- I don't mean it like that. I mean, why would you want to marry me?"
His eyebrows dip toward each other and though it's too dark to tell for certain, Hinata swears that he is blushing.
"I know this isn't the first time the idea has been presented to you. When we were children --"
"When we were children," she interrupts, "otou-san suggested it because it would unite the main and branch families. It was... political then, but I'm branch family now! Our marriage would mean nothing."
"It would mean nothing to the family, you mean," he says carefully. "That's not the same as meaning nothing."
"Neji," she says because if she's being honest with herself, it has become easier, almost necessary, to think of him that way. Just Neji. Not nii-san.
"Hinata," he replies, matching her tone exactly. "Answer the question."
They get married in the late fall. The ceremony is large and elaborate, as Hyuuga weddings tend to be, but very quiet. Hinata feels like a giant, lumbering avalanche in her bridal kimono but with Neji keeping a firm, secret grip on her elbow throughout the ceremony, she manages to not topple over or trip on anything.
At the reception, they divide their time equally between dutifully greeting and thanking every single relative for attending and ignoring Naruto and the others who seem to have decided that the best way to survive to the end is by loudly pretending to sob and expounding on how beautiful everything is. (At least, Hinata assumes that they are pretending until, somewhere in the second hour, Shino surreptitiously shoves a handkerchief into Kiba's hands.)
The celebration lasts until sun-down when Hinata and Neji give a final, farewell toast to their guests. Father and Hanabi stand off to the right, purposefully distanced but as the party disperses, Hinata notices Hiashi-sama watching them with a strange, foreign look on his face.
"Approval?" Neji asks when they have finally been allowed to retreat to a room in the main house. It is not really their room, except that for tonight, it is.
"Difficult to judge," she replies. She's taken out her hair ornament and pins, laid them on the table. Her hands are shaking, but this helps to steady them. So does concentrating on breathing: in through the nose, out through the mouth, a constant circulation of air. This thrum of nerves makes her feel exactly like she always does before a fight.
But this is not fighting. She doesn't quite know what this is because, like so many things in her life, she never imagined this night in a way that wasn't tangled in ideas of duty and being a good daughter. Now she's here, and it has nothing to do with either of those things, and she's taken aback. When Neji puts a hand on her shoulder and turns her around to face him, she can see similar thoughts reflected on his face.
His hands fall to her obi and with a bravery that doesn't quite seem her own, she steps forward.
When she wakes the next morning, his hair is tickling the back of her neck and his toes are cold against her heel. Her clothes are folded on the chair near the window, and his are draped over its back. She squints into the sunlight. trying to preserve these details in her mind. I chose this, she thinks, and it takes a moment for the full weight of that thought to sink in. When it does, she smiles, presses back until she brushes Neji's chest, and drifts back to sleep.
Father invites her over for lunch shortly after her sixth month of pregnancy. By this time, her stomach has sunk so low and swollen so much that her hip bones ache when she walks or stands for long periods. Forget team missions, the hospital sent her home months ago with strict instruction to not even think about coming back to work until after the birth. It's for the best, Hinata tells herself. Her chakra flow, after all, has been unpredictable lately, ebbing and surging without warning.
But being at home with little to do has been driving them both crazy. Neji tries not to hover or worry but as the due date grows closer, he becomes more and more sarcastic until she has to start hiding smiles behind her hands lest he figure out that she has him figured out.
For this reason, although not this reason alone, Hinata is overjoyed when father's invitation comes.
She has gone back to the Hyuuga compound since moving out, of course, but there is an important difference between going to visit and being invited, though she doubts that Hiashi-sama simply misses her company; he must have something particular to discuss.
It's only as she is being led down the hall toward the dining room that she's gripped with a momentary panic that something might be wrong: with father, with Hanabi, with the family.
She kneels down at the table as gracefully as she can manage, cheating her feet out slightly to one side to rest her already-aching toes.
After the initial greeting, father regards her silently for a moment before saying, "I think it is finally time that you and I discussed Hanabi."
Hinata feels her heart lurch. "Is something wrong?"
Hiashi-sama's lips press together thoughtfully. Then he sighs, a weary sound that Hinata has never heard her father make before. He says, "There is nothing newly wrong. I suspect you know what I refer to?"
"Hanabi i-is not happy," she says.
"She is not," Hiashi-sama accepts this with the slight inclination of his head, "but that is not precisely what I mean. Hanabi is a better ninja than you, Hinata. She understands the full uses of the byakugan, she is dedicated, and she is brave."
Father pauses here to lift his tea cup to his mouth. Hinata waits tensely, well aware of the blush on her cheeks and her fingers digging into her thigh. Finally, Hiashi-sama swallows and returns his gaze to her face – except now it is more piercing, more directed, more focused; she is, for once, the object of his full attention.
"And yet, Hanabi is also ill-tempered, aggressive, and sullen. You are right to say that she is 'unhappy' now but in my estimation, she has not been happy for a very long time."
"I would... agree, otou-san," Hinata says.
Hiashi-sama nods slowly. "I believe I owe you an apology, Hinata. I have been preoccupied with your flaws as a ninja. I did not consider that your more... diplomatic temperament was an advantage."
Hinata sits in frozen disbelief as father pauses to frown at his hands.
"Admitting errors is not an easy thing for me to do," he says, "but I believe I have made one."
"Otou-san," Hinata interrupts suddenly, impulsively, "are you asking me to be heir again?"
Hiashi-sama nods. "I am."
And although she suspects that she might one day regret this, she does not pause or stutter before nodding in return.
"I accept," she says.
Hanabi's ANBU mask lies on the garden bench beside her. It is smooth, thin and white all over, like an eggshell. She has told Hinata that she will not receive her red marks until she survives the first month, certainly not until after her first kill.
Hinata cradles Haruo against her chest. He falls asleep so easily, whenever he is given a moment of peace: a trait that will come in handy when he grows up. At the moment, his face is turned in, away from the sunlight and toward her left shoulder.
"You will be careful, won't you?"
Hanabi makes a face of poorly-concealed exasperation. "That is not part of my job description, Hinata-sama," she says. Her hands, resting lightly on the top of her knees, twitch at every sudden sound – a door closing from the house behind them, footsteps passing beyond the wall, tree branches creaking in the wind.
Hinata shakes her head. "Regardless," she says, "I would like you to promise that you will stay safe."
Hanabi frowns. "I do not intend to make a promise like that. I am a ninja. Death is a reality."
Haruo stirs in Hinata's arms, and Hinata uses that tiny movement as an excuse to look away from her sister's tired, pale face. She tries to ignore the concern and fear she feels whenever Hanabi says things like that, whenever Hanabi gets that particular look in her eyes.
Hanabi does have a point, after all, Hinata understands. The problem is that Hanabi is also her little sister, so she finds she doesn't care at all.
"H- hanabi," she says, looking up through her eyelashes. "You know that if- if a wound isn't lanced, it will eventually poison the whole body."
Hanabi's eyes shut tightly for a moment. She raises one hand to her left temple and sighs. "I am aware of that," she says, rising smoothly to her feet. She picks up her ANBU mask and tucks it under her arm. "Your concern is noted, nee-san, but unnecessary. I will manage this on my own."
She bows, mechanically, at the waist. And then Hinata sits silently as Hanabi walks away. She's gotten good at that. But then again, she wasn't given much of a choice.