Yuuiko's mark burns across her forehead, skin rising, welt-like, underneath fingertips. Close as she is, Hinata can smell the smoldering skin. The room swims in heavy incense meant to cover this, but Yuuiko's face looks green under her father's hand and Hinata winces in sympathy. Inuzuka are bred for heightened senses of smell; the stench must be making her gag.
"Hinata," her father says in harsh undertones, a reminder to pay attention. He lifts his hands and hers rush in underneath his, pressing a cloth to the woman's forehead.
"So all will know who you are and what you have vowed," her father intones the ceremonial words. "Wear this seal proudly as a reminder of who you are, showing the might of the Hyuuga Clan."
And where Inuzuka Yuuiko had sunk down to her knees, Hyuuga Yuuiko rises, grasping Hinata's wrists for support, before sliding her fingers down and taking the cloth into her own hands. Yuuiko says nothing to her, and Hinata is pushed aside as her uncle comes to wrap his new wife's bandages, an intimacy unique to her clan. Hinata turns her head aside, only to find the Inuzuka are staring openly at this private act. She stares back, that horrible feeling, as if people's chopsticks had just touched, invades the whole room, but before anything can happen, a hand comes down on her shoulder, and she is steered towards the door.
It is not, as she first suspected, her father, but the more narrow, pointed features of Neji searching her over once they are out of the temple.
"Did you draw guard duty again, Neji-niisan?" she asks, referring to her father's mandate that a Branch House member guard her when she's not on a mission or on Hyuuga grounds. In her heart, it is another sign that she is again able to take her place in the clan; that her father is no longer so willing to write her off or look her over. But that doesn't change that its annoying for her and degrading to the person saddled with the job of shadowing. Neji is polite enough to not answer and instead says, "You are showing your surprise too easily still."
She feels her cheeks burning.
"N-no, it is just, they are-"
"Not of this clan."
"Yes," she agrees, seeing the double meaning in those words, both an excuse and warning. They could not have anticipated the sealing; they are not of this clan. They are not of this clan; do not show weakness where it can be used against you. She breathes for a moment, works to put on the mask of Heir, a woman with no emotions and perfect poise.
"Did you enjoy yourself, Niisan?" she starts the conversation over, practicing that poise on Neji before they dive back into the crush of people at the temple. He shrugs in reply, but makes no move to guide them back to the others.
"Did you?" he asks, and she shrugs back. Hinata likes weddings; she is shown at her best at them, or at least, if not at her best, precisely, then at least Hanabi is shown in no better light than she. Hanabi is oblivious and distant with people, even rude, where Hinata is only shy and awkward with them. One, it turns out, is an easier problem to cure than the other. But today is not really about a wedding for her, and or any other Hyuuga. Today, a new Branch member will sleep under their roof tonight, and Hinata helped make it so.
"Do you see Hanabi-chan?"
There are a million people here to talk to; it is not every day a shinobi leaves one clan to go to another. Politics will be abuzz behind the cups of guests and in the words they don't say, but at that moment all she wants is to find her family and go home. She should play the Heir, but wants no more of those stares.
Neji jerks his head to one side in response to her question, and there she is in the distance. A girl being spun around is, on closer inspection, not some little child, but ten year-old Hanabi, goofing off with Ko. She is missing a geta and her obi's been knocked askew. The two's laughter is loud and Hanabi does not even take care to hide her teeth behind her hand. Their cousin Ko, despite his age, is not much better. Had he even been in the temple for the ceremony? It was his own father whose new bride they had welcomed!
Still, they looked to be having fun, which was more than anyone else could say. Hinata sighs.
"I suppose we'd better-"
"Better have a nice long chat with my teammate, Kiba," a voice cuts in, and a hand lands on her shoulder, fingers pressing into the area just below her collarbone. The claw-like nails, pressed carefully flat against her instead of digging in, tell her just as well as the voice who's there.
"Kiba-san," Neji says.
"H-hello, Kiba-kun," she says. She can't turn and greet him properly with his grip still so tight. She wiggles her shoulder, a cue for him to let her go, and, after a minute, he does.
"We need to talk."
His tone is friendly enough, but when she turns, she catches a sense of- something- in his stance. A tightness in the shoulders perhaps, or an awkwardness about the arms, like he's uncomfortable letting them just hang. But perhaps it is just the dress cloths giving a sense off-ness about her teammate, or seeing him without Akamaru. She smiles and says, "Niisan, its alright. I'll catch up to you. Go make Hanabi-chan behave. I don't want Father to see. I'll meet up with you both after I'm done with Kiba-kun."
Neji stares at them for a moment, opens his mouth, but then shrugs and leaves. Kiba lets him walk maybe thirty feet before grabbing her by her shoulder again and pulling her away.
"What the hell was that?" he growls, and this time his nails dig in. She winces.
"K-kiba-kun, that hurts!"
He pushes her out of his grip, and she almost trips over her feet.
"Explain to me, why my aunt, my kin, has one of those cage seal-things you people inflict on your own! Explain to me what you were doing up there, parading around in front of everybody, hurting her, making her some slave like you have any right to-"
Her face burns, not like a blush, but as if he had physically reached out and slapped her it stings. She has hurt people. She knows how to hurt people. Hyuuga Yuuiko, though, didn't even bleed.
She says so, and Kiba sneers, lips curling up to reveal teeth.
"Is that what you think?"
They were yelling just a second ago. Feeling drains from her face when she thinks whether anybody heard them, whether the entire wedding party did. A slight pressure around her eyes and then she's seeing as she was meant to, with the byakugan reaching back and around, ensuring her that people were too far away.
And then something wet hits her face, stinging her eyes. Her hand reaches up. Kiba has spit right in her face.
"I'm right here. You should be paying attention to me, answering me. What. Did. You. Do?"
"I-I sealed her."
The voice that speaks is small, and lying. She only pressed a cloth to a wound. She reaches up, wipes at her face. "It is o-only a ceremony; i-it doesn't mean anything except s-she's now part of our clan."
"That's shit! You don't think I know what it means? You think we all didn't hear Neji-san when he told all of fucking Konoha what it means? You gave her that, so she has to do what you want or you'll kill her with a fucking mark on her head!"
"No, no, no!"
The lack of air in her lungs is suffocating.
"You stood right there and enslaved her, you-"
"That's not what the seal does!"
He sneers again, fangs bared, and for the first time, it strikes Hinata how disgusting they are, like an animal smiling back from the face of a human.
"The seal is to protect people. People know! They know what our eyes can do, but they know what the seal does too and don't bother trying to steal them. It protects us!"
A memory flashes, nightmare-like across her brain: arms grabbing her, gagging on cloth stuffed down her throat, that terrible instant when it looked like her father's reach wouldn't come close enough to help her, and, later, understanding men would always want to gouge out her eyes, make her a human science experiment because she saw the world differently than they did. Why doesn't Kiba see that?
"Us? Then what about you, Hin-at-a-sa-ma?" he mimics the name Branch House calls her.
"Main House doesn't get the seal, y-you know that."
"Sounds pretty hypocritical to me. Auntie's not even real Hyuuga. No creepy bloodline to protect. You all just want power over other people. You make me sick."
Fury seethes and builds, pushing against her chakra coils, making her eyes itch. Her tongue's a knife in her mouth, speaking before she realizes what words are coming out.
"You know what makes me, sick, Kiba-kun? The fact that you are looking down your nose at us, when your clan... fucks with your ninjistsu and genes, mixing them with some mutt's! That you pretend your mother and sister don't breed your kinsmen the same way they breed their dogs."
They stare at one another. The sounds of the party break in, laughs punctuating silence and rattling against her bones, so suddenly brittle she thinks they will break. This is her friend, she thinks, and Kiba says, "That's pretty rich coming from you, Hinata-chan, considering the only reason that uncle of yours got to marry my aunt is your dad thinks they're too old to breed any weak genes. And he'll marry you off for your genes too. That make you a bitch?"
Her face is wet, she realizes, just at the edges of her eyes. She isn't crying. She refuses to.
"We welcomed your kin in as our own. We gave her a symbol to wear proudly."
The voice that speaks belongs to a woman with no emotion; this time her poise is not something she must practice first. The Heir's words come easily to her lips.
"Then why cover it up?" This is his voice as she has never heard it: defeated. The Heir speaks on.
"She is ours now. That is the sign she is ours. We aren't perfect; the seal isn't perfect. The pain is makes must be terrible, but I've only seen it used three times my whole life."
"Three too many."
"T-three too many," she agrees, that steady voice wavering just a bit. "B-but she has joined our clan. We did not found this city, but we were on this land before the clans Senjuu or Uchiha even were. She wears our pride. She wears our seal so no idiot makes a mistake and tries to gouge out her eyes just because she lives with us! Now, e-excuse, me."
She bows formally, if clumsily, and turns to leave. Kiba says nothing to hold her back, but still she doesn't get very far. In the trees Neji is waiting, just as her byakugan told her he would be.
"You think about it sometimes, don't you?" he asks.
How would it feel to walk always safe, protected by the seal, and knowing at the same time such thing would mean her father had cast her aside?
Yes. She thinks about it.
"W-where is Hanabi-chan?" she says. Neji's hand reaches up, thumb running hard down the side of her nose, and comes away sticky with spit.
"I sent her home ahead."
The seal stands between them and Hinata doesn't quite dare to brush her hand against his head bindings. But she knows underneath what his forehead looks like without seeing. She understands.
"She married. She chose."
She understands what it is to be both proud and ashamed.
The rest of the evening drags on. A headache starts to pull at her temples and her stutter keeps slipping back. She can't remember anyone's name even though she keeps getting introduced to people and she knows she must look a mess. Her father keeps shooting her irritated glances that get even worse as her stutter does. His mood isn't improved when he discovers Hanabi's escaped the festivities either, but still, even when they finally get home, Hinata procrastinates doing the last nightly chore of getting out bedding. As awful as this night has been she doesn't want it to end; tomorrow is Team Eight training and Kiba still hates her for sure.
When she gets to their training grounds for the day, the sun is just a line over the Hokage's mountain, the light still so uncertain she that feels Shino's bugs on her before she sees where he's pressed up against the indent of a tree trunk. Unsurprisingly, Kiba and Akamaru are late, and when they do arrive Kiba announces without consulting anyone that an all-out, three-way fight is what they're going to do. It drags on for hours, as much a battle of wits as of skill, with harried pauses and unspoken truces to catch their breath, rethink, and then attack again. They are all breathing heavy by the end, hours later, and starved for food. Instead, they share a canteen of water, long-heated from sitting in the sun. They hand it to her last, even after the dog, a rebuke from yesterday, she supposes. It does exactly nothing for her thirst but she drinks it anyway, only pulling it from her mouth when Kiba stretches and asks Shino what it is his family does when other nin marry into the clan.
Suddenly, screwing on the cap to the canteen needs much more attention. Hinata stares down at her hands and pretends not to hear. Shino says, "They don't."
"Other shinobi don't marry Aburame."
Shino never elaborates, which is strange because he always wants to tell more. He sees intimacy in the smallest gestures and insults there was well. Kiba has chosen how to renew their confrontation with surprising precision. It is both easy and impossible to avoid. She chews at her lip for a moment before giving in, and asking why.
"Do you know the history of my clan?"
Hinata shakes her head and smiles grimly at Shino's usual way of answering questions with other questions. It will make the battleground of this argument much more difficult to manage. They leave too many loopholes to drag their third teammate into the middle of things, and she doesn't want two people hating her right now.
Kiba waves Shino on, collapsing to the ground. Shino snorts at his antics and sits too. Biting her lip again, Hinata sinks down, though more slowly and gracefully. A Hyuuga never forgets manners; Father may have been less successful in teaching her taijutsu, but that lesson she has never forgot. It is actions like this that will keep Kiba from forgetting what he's fighting against. Not her, little Hinata-chan, but the Hyuuga Heir and over a thousand years of continued clan survival. No other clan, she comforts herself, can claim their success. It makes her sit a little straighter.
"Every person's body is slightly different. You know this," Shino reminds them. "Different arrangements of chakra coils, different scents. Some combinations of chemicals are more attractive to insects than others."
Kiba makes a noise as if to ask something, but suppresses himself. Hinata sits tensed for the word that will reignite his anger.
"Many generations ago, the Aburame were simple bee-keepers, until a daughter of the clan noticed that insects -- mosquitoes, flies, kikkai, beetles -- were particularly attracted to her. In a group of people, she would be the only one to suffer bites and swarms." Shino's tone changes, becomes rhythmic and flowing. It's a children's bedtime tale. Hinata wonders how many other clan's origins sound like this. Her own history was taught to her as mythic, stories to drown out fever dreams, calm nightmares, and teach strength to a girl whose bogeymen were real. Some of her favorite memories occurred the nights following her abduction, when her uncle Hizaishi would tell his dark but true stories of the Hyuuga clan to her and Neji.
Kiba's voice brings her back to the present as he kicks up his legs, swinging dust in the air. Akamaru nips at his feet in play, as bored as his master. Clearly, the Inuzuka have no such stories to teach them pride.
Shino shrugs, the only indication he heard his teammate at all, and continues, "And one day rogue ninja attacked her village. She had rolled in mud that morning, trying to keep her scent from the flies, and so the trackers missed her. She was the only survivor."
Hinata cringes and thinks of her own family, how they would look slaughtered, faces mangled and wounds gaping. The story has finally captured Kiba's attention too, for the same look is mirrored on his face.
"She traveled to a temple and asked the monks to train her in chakra control, under the guise of learning meditation to release her grief. Then she wrote a summoning contract, but because she had no master to guide her; she did it wrong. Instead of summoning a spirit beast from the otherworld, she summoned 'that to which she held affinity.' In other words, insects. She was very lucky the kikkai answered first. Some other insects would have eaten her alive."
"That's nice and all, but I don't get what that has to do with marriage rules," Kiba says, obviously trying to circle the conversation back around to his original purpose.
"I'd think ninja would be better, really -we know all about disgusting," he shoots her a look as if to say what is really disgusting him, and the next words are for her. "So... we're less likely to freak over the-bug- thing."
"Perhaps," Shino concedes, and, if he's aware of what Kiba isn't saying, he's polite enough to pretend ignorance. "But the kikkai live in our blood now, and have learned to eat chakra; we changed them as they changed us. It is symbiosis, not control."
Or perhaps not so ignorant as all that. Is he trying to give her an opening to point out all clans sacrifice for what their descendants gain? She opens her mouth, but then Shino twitches suddenly, kikkai crawling across his wrist and taking wing. And she realizes, no, he is doing no such thing. He is speaking to them plainly while they hide their intentions behind his words. She grips her pant leg, palms sweaty.
"Also..." he starts, and guilt crawls over her like kikkai across skin.
"If it is a clan secret, Shino-kun, please don't worry! We would never ask you to betray your family's trust."
This last part she means for Kiba, who has the grace to at least look a little guilty. He is more loyal to his own clan, after all, than anything else except for the village and, perhaps, them. So why can't he understand that feeling in anyone else? Shino-kun though, must think she means the comment was aimed at him- and why not when he's the one she's addressing? - because he unzips his collar and says, "It's not a secret, precisely. But it's easier to show you first."
What is underneath writhes out of sync with Shino's rising and falling chest, as if alive, but separate. Light reflects first one way then another, and not till they scatter does Hinata realize they are staring at more kikkai than she's ever seen outside a fight and that they are not just crawling across him, but though him, into a festering wound, under the skin and on into the organs beneath. Kiba must figure it out at the same time she does, because he yanks her backward against his chest, earlier fight forgotten. Shino's shoulders fall inward, hunching a little, and Hinata tries to school her face.
They are wrecking something when Shino is showing them his most private face.
"May I... touch?" she asks, slowly scooting forward, reminding herself over and over not to think about the bugs living in his chest, or worse inside his face, in his eyes.
She is so busy telling herself not to think that, in fact, she misses the moment three kikkai land on the very tip of her finger where nail and skin meet. Chakra pushes through her coils and, with her byakugan activated, she watches them pull sips of more chakra through her fingers and out into the air to eat. Except for the lightest brush of little legs, she doesn't feel a thing.
"They are telling me about you," Shino says. "They say 'food' and 'salt.' What they don't say is 'safe.'"
She listens with only half an ear to his further explanations, attention on the inscets' dance-like movements atop Shino's palm, and on trying to stay small enough to escape Kiba's notice now that he's been distracted. Her own anger is still simmering, but she wants this confrontation ended.
Kiba's voice breaks her concentration when he says, "Wait a minute. If you're saying what I think you're saying... you mean, when you get married, your bugs crawl into your wife's skin and set up house?"
She thinks she's failed at ending things, that this jab is somehow meant for her, when Kiba shoots out his hand and pulls them both back several feet. They stumble right over Akamaru, who plants himself at Kiba's feet with ears flattened and hackles raised. Kiba's nails dig into her skin again as he presses her closer, as if closer contact with him can keep her from contamination.
"That's sick! How can you-- what about-- oh, that is just wrong."
Hinata winces at the way the words echo their fight yesterday, and she twists her wrist free of his grip.
"Kiba-kun, thank you for your concern, but please don't jump to conclusions or think badly of Shino-kun. He told us that ninja are immune to that type of colonization."
With her still-active byakugan, she can see the way Kiba's fingers rub against his now-empty palm and the aborted motion of his arm jerking to reach back out. But she keeps her face turned towards Shino when she says what she hopes will end or at least stall her and Kiba's fight. After all, it was her Kiba wanted to hurt; using Shino as canon fodder wasn't fair.
"And in any case, I cannot think Shino-kun or his family would allow their kikkai to-- to join anyone who had not agreed to the partnership."
Like Hyuuga Yuuiko had agreed to the seal. Like she had agreed after no less than five meetings with the Hyuuga Head and with Hinata, as heir, looking on.
"Exactly. Because the kikkai spread, we can only marry those they find chemically compatible. But the kikkai only test blood, not personality, appearance, or talents. We judge that," Shino says, and then adds in a way that makes her think he knew what was happening all along, "And we make the situation very clear to anyone who considers marrying into the clan."
Kiba shifts back and forth on the balls of his feet, lifting open-handed arms in a gesture meant as an apology.
"Yeah, well, I still say it's creepy. And... Oh, yuck, you have bugs in your blood. What does that do to your kids?"
Then again, apologies were never Kiba's style. Did he realize how that sounded? But Shino's voice when he answers Kiba's subsequent jokes and questions betrays no hurt emotion, and Hinata knows well, her teammate can sense offense in even the slightest remark. Kiba and she, are forgiven, or did nothing wrong to Shino's mind.
She lets the conversation drift on around her, only breaking in when Kiba threatens to take a joke too far. Shino relaxes his stance, and Kiba's facial markings crinkle when he grins at a joke he thinks particularly good. She tries to enjoy both these things, but twists her knuckles at the thought of the fighting resuming when Kiba announces he will walk her home. Shino, to her relief, follows. Too far behind, true, to hear any conversation, but before she can say more than five words about the wedding, a voice interrupts.
"Hinata-sama, ready to go home?"
Neji is waiting for her once again. He must have drawn bodyguard duty again, she thinks, and feels guilty for making him waste his time on her two days in a row. But he doesn't look bothered, merely thoughtful, and there is no way to tell how long he'd stood there watching, or what his perceptive eyes saw.
"Looks like we won't be needed for escort duty after all, Shino," Kiba says in a clipped voice. The annoyance could be for her, or for Neji, who Kiba's disliked since before their first Chuunin Exam. The uncertainty would have bothered her for the rest of the night, except Kiba answers her unspoken question with his next words.
"Hey, Hinata-chan, good workout today. And, uh, thanks, I guess, for... helping, or whatever, at the wedding. Yuuikio-obasan looked pretty good for a broad her age, and she really loves that guy she's married to, you know."
His hand goes up to the back of his neck in a gesture Shino's told him a million times gives him away as nervous. But like Hinata and her fingers, Kiba's never been able to break the habit. She can't help but smile at this. Perhaps somewhere, her words had gotten through, or maybe they hadn't but he was choosing to let go anyway. Beside them, Neji and Shino watch on.
They say their good byes and Hinata thinks she's left their unpleasant argument behind when she and Neji turn to leave, but, instead, she finds it walks with them down the street, sits beside her at the dinner table, and, like her, leaves its plate mostly untouched. Together they rise and leave the table as soon as is polite.
She flees to room to escape her thoughts but find they are already waiting for her there. Only an idle body has an idle mind,her uncle told her once. I love to work in my gardens to think, her mother had said. She risings, destination firm in her mind.
Neji is still standing in the hall by her door when she steps out of. Guards are not needed inside the Hyuuga compound, where everyone would jump to her or Hanabi's defense supposedly, if attacked. But he's standing there anyway. Just as if on guard duty, he doesn't say much, but follows her out into the gardens. Stray streamers are still tangled in the branches, left over from wedding decorations that had been so enchanting the day before.
"Neji-niisan," she says. "You don't need to be here. You don't have to."
He kneels down and his fingers find a weed to pull. How he even knows that it's a weed instead of a normal plant she's not sure, unless it was something he'd observed her do before.
"No," he agrees. "I don't. But you hardly ate anything and you've been chewing your lip. You're worried about something and I- I am bound to help you, you know."
It makes her uncomfortable to be reminded of how everything he does, he does because of who his father was and because of who her father is. Especially when it's the seal she's been worrying about anyway. Kiba is right just as much as he is wrong. For some, seals served no purpose but to bind, to take choices from their hands. She doesn't like it, even if she doesn't think that's all there is to say about sealing either.
"You're chewing your lips. Again."
Hinata stops, runs a tongue over the worried skin.
Neji pulls out another weed and then another, but then his fingers wrap around something that is not a weed and she kneels down to stop him. Like Kiba and Shino, Neji has grown tremendously in the last year. He has always been bigger, thanks to that extra year, but now his hands dwarf hers. And not only bigger, they can do more too. Seal or no seal, here is not a man who would be felled or caught by enemies, no matter how much they might want his eyes.
"What do you think about the curse seal?" she says.
He pulls his hands away from hers.
"I believe you know what I think. Since... that."
She realizes dimly he means the finals of their first chuunin exam, over three years ago now. Actually, she'd collapsed due to injuries he'd inflicted during her own exam defeat, and had never heard exactly what'd been said. But it seemed inappropriate to remind him of that part of their past just now, and it isn't like she doesn't know, really, what he thinks.
"You must hate me still, then."
"You're only talking about this because of Kiba-san. You're wrong. I don't."
Neji stands, brushes off dirt. "I was... proud, that you were up there, with your father yesterday. Proud of what it meant, I guess."
And despite herself, Hinata smiles at that. "Yes, my father seems to have decided I'll probably survive as a shinobi; I'm worth training again. As heir again, maybe."
It was her proudest moment too, to realize her father thought she might be worthy of her birthright. It means even more to have someone she trusts say it too. She stands up, letting that sense of pride, so unfamiliar, slide across her skin for just another moment before continuing, "But Inuzuka Yuuiko, she doesn't have the Byakugan. She isn't really Hyuuga. I didn't need to..."
She leaves the rest unsaid because in fact, she hadn't done anything yesterday, but press a bandage to a woman's head. She'd stood there and watched. She'd seen exactly how to make a seal, so that next time she could make one herself, as her father would one day expect her to do, but she did nothing this time. In a way, perhaps that is worse.
A hand comes up to her head and holds it steady as a thumb brushes under bangs and across her forehead slowly, first once, then twice. It is a strangely intimate gesture, even with no seal for him to feel there, and what is even more intimate is the way he forces her not to turn away from what he says.
"There are many things I can't have, can't do because of this seal. Choices that I might have made, had I gotten to make choices on my own. But," his hand moves down over her cheekbone, then jaw, shoulder, and then completely away to hang at his side. "There are still choices I can make. Your father told me; my father made his own choices in the end, because he loved his brother, me, his family. I hate that I don't have him, that he's not here. Everyday, I hate again the choice he made. But I can understand it. There are people I love too. Yuuiko-san made a choice to be with a person she loved even if it cost her to do so."
She turned away. "Yes."
"You told Kiba-san there are other things the seal does too," he says to her back. "Do you believe that?"
She turns around, stricken. "I- Y-yes, I-I still dream, some times, w-what they m-might have done to me, when th-they kidnapped me. B-b-ut they won't try that on you, or-"
She falters, unsure how to continue, ashamed, when there are so many ways to die, that she thinks to protect her family from only one.
"I hate the seal," Neji says simply. "I hate it, but I am glad, as you say, for that."
There seems to be nothing to say to that, so she merely bows to him and says, "Thank you for the company, Niisan. I should go. It is late."
It is not till she is at the steps of the egawa that he answers her, only a voice behind her now.
"You are not yet free of the seal either, Hinata-sama. Your father might still choose your sister over you. But if you are, think of this night. Use it to make the choices you will be asked to choose."
She inhales, catches a scent that is not there, of burning skin mixed with incense, and presses her fingertips close.