They are meditating together where they usually do, at dawn on the Sandaime’s mountainous head. The morning is quiet and cool, and the wind moves gently over and around them.
It has been some months since her return. Since that absolute blunder of a kiss, since she took his hand for the first time. Things have settled between them since then. He feels a little more sure of himself, though still wildly out of his depth. Tenten had been the first girl he ever liked, had ever been interested in, but for however long he had liked her, she had liked girls.
Naruto had been next. Had given him an uppercut that obliterated everything he knew about life and his sexuality.
Sakura, he hadn’t seen coming. She had started training with them before they all went to the Chuunin Exams together. She had changed under the Godaime’s firm hand, but she was the same girl she had always been. She had a huge heart and a spine of steel; that had always been there, even if she hadn’t recognized it at first. The Godaime had reminded her of who she was.
Tsunade took the Sakura that faced down three Oto nin by herself, the Sakura who threw off a Yamanaka from inside of her mind, and had put up a mirror to the Sakura who let the Uchiha leave the village. The two had stared each other in the face. The stronger girl won.
Neji preferred the Sakura who substituted clones with shuriken that burst and cut his fingers when he tried to dispel them. He liked the Sakura who could weave genjutsu fine enough to fool someone with his eyes. He liked the Sakura that fought to win. He liked the Sakura who took his hand in hers and rubbed ointment into his cuts. He liked the Sakura that let him watch as she healed her blocked pathways after a spar.
Her hair was longer now. She left it loose in the mornings when they meditated, and it tumbled over her back in a wave of soft pink.
He had looked for her. He had felt a little stupid at the time. But when he felt his dumbest he convinced himself he was extending his Byakugan’s reach. He was right. He had.
But when she returned, she slid back into their routine easy as breathing. She meditated with him in the morning, she sparred with their graduating class, and she worked at the hospital. Everything felt right again.
Even though he knew she would be leaving again soon.
She held his hand sometimes. Her callouses were harder than his, thicker. Her hands could do things that he couldn’t imagine his doing. Her palms were strong, fingers tapered. She had favored using her left hand to hold his. Had been shy about the scarring on the right. She would let anyone worry over the thick ropes of scars, but she was hesitant to let him hold it if he wasn’t examining it.
He rubbed his thumb over a thick burn scar on her thumb. Her grip on his hand relaxed. He felt like the whole world was between his fingers, sometimes. When he held her hand in hers. Her strange, otherworldly hand.
He hears her breath shift. He cracks open his eyes; she’s standing. She’s moving through a kata, one for those with fire affinities. He had been teaching her a few of the katon he knew. But this was different. She was doing something, something important. His senses told him she was using chakra, but not in a way that he had done, not in a way that he had seen.
He discovers later that Sakura was storing raw nature energy in one of her Byakugō seals when he activated his Byakugan. He nearly goes blind.
Every part of her is bright. From her bone marrow where a glittering purple chakra is stored, to her chakra reserves filled with pale blue light, to the slowly forming pockets of gargantuan strength on her forehead.
Every Hyūga child activates their Byakugan when they’re too young to know how to use it. It’s a way to teach them how to ignore the intensity of the nature energy all around them. It trains them to see the energy of the natural world as a background hum so that they can focus on their targets.
It’s like that, only Sakura is the target and somehow, she is the natural world.
She’s the sun, blazing bright and vicious, burning endlessly in front of his eyes.
He blacks out. Naturally.
He wakes up with his head on her lap, her hands on either side of his head glowing with green chakra.
He opens his eyes slowly to see her above him, a little ‘v’ between her brow as she concentrates. He reaches up, and presses his thumb at the center of her forehead. He can’t see them now, but just there. That’s where her seals are forming, where they’ll be, all four of them when they’re complete. There’s the barest outline of one of them, chakra from her master summons. It was the quickest to complete because there was a limited amount of it, smaller than Sakura’s natural reserves but several times as strong.
She smiles at him, and puts her hand on his wrist. She likes his wrists, prefers holding onto them rather than his hand.
“Alright there?” she asks.
“You’re bright,” he says, feeling still out of his element, through no fault of her own. She’s just herself and he feels - peculiar. He’s still getting used to it. Liking her. Really liking her.
“Bright as the morning.”
He thinks of the flame of the Hyūga crest. He wonders if his clan will ever burn as bright as this one girl in front of him does. He doubts it.
Sakura smiles at him, gives his forearm a little squeeze.
“Dojutsu are difficult,” she says lightly. “Sensory overload knocked you out.”
Neji huffs a little. That was no surprise.
“You’re lucky I know how to fix that,” Sakura says. “I even took care of that headache you’ve had since last night.”
They go by in silence for some time after that. She’s holding his forearm, and his fingertip just barely brushed against the soon to be site of four magnificent seals.
Yes, he’s lucky. Very lucky indeed.
Misaki looks at him like he knows something, which is disconcerting all things considered.
He’s a branch cousin, evidenced by the fact that his name does not start with an ‘H’. His hair is a pale shade of brown, kept in a low ponytail. His eyes are slightly darker than the main branch purple; it had almost been enough to keep him from activating the Byakugan. He was older than Neji by three years, had helped him with most of his Gentle Fist training after his father died in Hiashi’s place. Misaki was the closest thing Neji had in the branch family to a best friend.
Despite being a branch member himself, his father was still Hiashi’s twin. Genetically speaking, Neji had as much a right to the clan head position as Hinata and Hanabi did. He was Hiashi’s nephew, and his son.
It put him in a tenuous position. He was both a branch member of the family, and also a rightful heir to its leadership. If Hanabi failed (which she wouldn’t) in all likelihood, Hiashi’s eye would fall on Neji.
Misaki had always treated him like a particularly troublesome cat, who wanted scratches but would never seek them out. When Hizashi was still alive and would take missions, Misaki would look after him. They played hide and seek with Neji’s young but already skilled Byakugan. Misaki let him sneak desserts before dinner.
He’s his brother in every way that matters. Which is why the look on his face makes the hair on the back of Neji’s neck stand up.
“You,” Misaki says, pale eyes narrowing, “have a girlfriend.”
Neji startles back away from his cousin. Misaki has his hands on his hips and he’s peering into Neji’s soul. Misaki tilts his head.
Misaki rubs his chin, but shakes his head at himself.
“No, girlfriend. Definitely.”
Neji has very few secrets. He guards them carefully. He is rarely allowed to have things that only belong to him. He tells Hiashi and the elders all they explicitly need to know about his team, about Gai, about the missions he heads now that he’s made jounin.
This thing with Sakura, whatever it is, it’s still new and strange and soft at the edges. He doesn’t want to call it by a name for fear it might float away. And besides, he hasn’t asked her what it is yet, if it’s anything at all.
But it’s still something that belongs to Neji. His secret to keep or to tell. So he denies it.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Misaki gives him a look. He’d been one of the people who taught Neji how to lie; he can see right through him.
“Be careful, cousin,” Misaki says.
He doesn’t need to say any more.
Neji is strong. One of the strongest the Hyūga have born in recent memory. He’s genetically Hiashi’s firstborn because he’s Hizashi’s firstborn, and while his living situation does not befit that status, any marriage contract brokered for him absolutely will.
It’s another reason he doesn’t want to name the something, maybe nothing between he and Sakura. He’s seventeen. He’s a jounin. Only a week ago, there was a small black scroll sitting in his locker at Jounin HQ with instructions to burn upon reading and await further instructions if he was prepared to join ANBU.
He’s of marrying age. And regardless of what he wants for himself (or who he wants for himself) he’s still subject to the will of his clan head.
He’ll be found a nice cousin. A strong woman, distant enough of a relation to not cause genetic defects. She’ll be beautiful because all the Hyūga are beautiful, she’ll be polite because all Hyūga are polite. He may even learn to love her. His father had loved his mother. They had been a love match, a small concession for a man born minutes too late to claim his birthright.
Neji will have no such option. He will do what is right for his family because that is what he is expected to do. Hiashi may have softened after the Chuunin Exams, may have bowed his head and told him the truth, asked for forgiveness. But he was still the clan head.
“I will,” Neji says.
Misaki claps him on the shoulder and drags him out of the compound for soba.
The elders find out anyway.
A cousin had been passing by, or an auntie had been, had seen them on the training ground while Tenten took on Lee and Gai. Had seen the way Sakura’s hand wound around his wrist, had seen the way his fingers curled up to lightly scratch the skin on the back of her hand. Had seen him smile. Had seen her blush.
It had been enough.
“Who is she?” a great uncle asks.
They know who she is. Every elder in the room assembled knows exactly who she is. Hanabi looks hard on him, but she is confused. She has never had to discipline him before, and she is too young to be allowed into meetings that discuss marriage contracts.
“Her name,” Neji says, and he feels the secret being dragged out from behind his teeth, “is Haruno Sakura. Her rank is chuunin. She is the Godaime’s apprentice.”
“Her parents,” a great aunt says and something wild beats in Neji’s chest. They couldn’t be actually considering -
“Haruno Kizashi and Mebuki. Also chuunin. They fought in the Third War.”
There is silence. Surviving the Third War was both simple and also no easy feat; children were sent to the battlefield. But the war also produced shinobi like Sharingan no Kakashi.
“Your first duty,” an old cousin says, “is to the match we make for you, with the young woman we find suitable.”
Neji feels his stomach drop. He knew he wouldn’t be able to keep this, but still he had hoped. Foolishly, feverishly he had hoped.
“Have the two of you consummated your relationship?” she asks.
His mind blanks. He’s a seventeen year old boy. He’s thought about sex in the abstract. He’s been curious, flipped through one of Kakashi’s books with Tenten over his shoulder while the jounin got into a foot race with Gai. He masturbates when he’s positive nobody else is awake because how mortifying would it be for a cousin to hear him groan and look through the damn walls to see if he was alright.
But he and Sakura haven’t managed to find the time to kiss again between their busy schedules. It’s lots of hand holding. Wrist holding. Tugging gently on each other’s hair. It’s nice. It’s very nice.
“Good,” the cousin says. “When we find a match for you, this flirtation of yours will be long over, understood?”
“It is a distraction to your training. But alliances with those close to the Godaime are necessary for the good of the clan. Continue with your own discretion, understood?”
“Do not disgrace our family.”
She kisses him at the winter festival. He doesn't see it coming. She’s wearing a pale blue kimono and she’s got oshinori smeared across her forehead and on her cheeks.
She steps into his space, tugs him in by the wrist, and kisses him on the mouth. She tastes like snow and spiced wine and Neji is going to remember this for the rest of his life. He gets the white paste all over his palms when he uses both to cup her face, to keep his mouth on hers for just a couple moments longer.
Her mouth is soft. And her nose is pink from the cold.
If it wasn’t already out of control, it was now.
Things go from bad to worse when he’s looking for her. It’s not like her to be late, but she's an hour behind schedule. She was supposed to meet them all for lunch. A once a week deal that none of them missed except for missions or illness, in which case, lunch was brought to the sick.
He's got his Byakugan activated as a precautionary measure. He can only hope she isn't caught up in something that involves her four seals or the three different kinds of chakra that pulse in her body like they belong there. Two of them are new; the stuff in her bones, and one fourth of whatever she's already stored in one of her Byakugō.
"Get back up," barks a harsh voice. Neji's head swivels to hear it. "You're off balance. What on earth do they teach you here?"
He veers off the course he had set himself on, and moves towards the voice. There is one chakra signature that burns like a small star. It is perched on Sakura's shoulder.
"If I get any lower, I'll pop something," Sakura complains.
"It'll serve you right. Don't humans stretch anymore?"
"We have spines, Shigeo. Spines."
"Don't get flip with me, brat, I don't care if you're Nao's favorite or not. You're a runt and you need to get lower."
Neji stops a couple of meters away to watch. It's impolite to barge in on a training session without flaring your chakra first to announce yourself, and while he's sure Sakura has sensed him by now, he's still got his manners.
He doesn't get a chance to flare his chakra. He's too stunned.
Sakura has assumed the first position in any Jūken combination.
She's seen him do it enough times to know how to do it herself, but the way she slides into it speaks of practice. Of training. A perilous thought runs through his mind; has she been stealing the technique? There's no way for her to; she's not a sensor and she doesn't have the Byakugan eyes. She could use the style, theoretically, but she'd have to have the chakra pathway system of the human body completely memorized to make up for the dojutsu she doesn't have.
He wants to slap himself in the face; of course she has the chakra pathway system of the human body memorized. She's not just a medic, she's the Godaime's apprentice.
Neji's stomach lurches; this is something he absolutely has to tell his clan about. The Gentle Fist is a distinctly Hyūga style. No one else is supposed to know how to do it, to be able to mimic it, not with the precision that Sakura would probably be able to provide.
He's ready to turn and run and rot with the knowledge that he has to turn over this information to his clan head, to Hiashi, when Sakura moves.
"Slower," the slug, Shigeo, says. "Pivot out, move your foot out. Further. Further. Now strike."
The movements are different. Just slightly so. She's striking not with her fingertips, but with open flat palms. She uses them to block unseen blows, to turn an opponent's energy and weight against them.
It's the Gentle Fist, but it isn't. This technique is older. Just as refined, but - lost somehow. Neji knows these moves, he knows them because they're part of the Jūken he learned as a child. But the combinations are different, they rely on different movements of the feet, different curves of the body. The stance is just the barest bit lower, too.
"You gonna gawk all day, or do I have to come over there and stir your brains around your thick skull, huh?"
Neji flares his chakra once, and enters the clearing where Sakura is training.
"You're fine with some random guy watching you from the treeline?" the slug asks.
Sakura narrows her eyes at the creature on her shoulder and gives its fat back a pinch.
"I knew he was there," she says. "He's harmless."
That's never been the word people have used to describe Neji.
Sakura gets up out of her stance and walks over to meet him. Neji deactivates his Byakugan, but he can see the moment the slug on Sakura's shoulder stiffens.
"A Hyūga, huh?" the slug asks.
Neji inclines his head once, and looks to Sakura. She gives a little shrug.
"It's a long story," she says.
"S'not so long," Shigeo quips. He jerks his eye tentacles up to Neji's forehead protector and asks, "You wear that because your forehead's too big, or because you've got something to hide?"
Neji doesn't rise to the bait. Sakura looks down at the slug on her shoulder with alarm written clear across her face.
"He's one of mine, Sakura," the slug says, "and I'll say to him what I like."
"One of yours?" Neji asks.
The slug on Sakura's shoulder scoffs.
"You must be one of Kagome's," he says derisively. "Seichi's line knows where their power comes from."
Neji narrows his eyes.
"The Byakugan and the style of fighting derived from it are traits of the Hyūga clan, and have been for as long as history has been written."
It's been drilled into him since day one. They are a storied and noble family. They are older than the Uchiha, older than the Senju still. They are one of the oldest, if that is to be believed. Slightly older than the Yamanaka, but who could really say, when the Yamanaka had been forest dwelling people and the Hyūga had lived in the great valleys.
Shigeo snorts like Neji's said something unforgivingly stupid.
"And I existed before history was written," he says. "I taught your ancestor Hyūga Kagome and her twin Hyūga Seichi how to fight."
Neji's mouth goes dry. That wasn't true. Then again, what reason did one of Sakura's summons have to lie? Neji had never known anything about a slug teaching his ancestors the Jūken. That hadn't been a story he was told, hadn't been something passed down from mother to child as the years went by.
"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about."
"Of course not," says Shigeo snidely. "Just what I'd expect of one of Kagome's whelps."
He doesn't know about the slugs, but he does know about the first two of their clan to be born with the Byakugan. Hyūga Kagome and Seichi had been born blind, but as they had grown up had discovered a strange and magnificent gift that allowed them to see into the bodies of others.
"I'm not of Hyūga Kagome's line," Neji says. He's seen his family tree. He knows that his father and his twin were descended of that woman's brother. "I am of Hyūga Seichi's line."
That stops Shigeo.
"One of Seichi's?" he asks. He thinks that over for a moment. "Then why don't you know who I am?"
Neji shakes his head slowly.
"I'm afraid no living Hyūga would know who you are, if you were to ask them."
A change happens in the slug then. After that, there is a resounding pop, and a pale pink slug appears on Sakura's other shoulder.
"Shigeooo," it whines. "What do you want?"
"Sango," Shigeo says brusquely. "One of Seichi's descendants doesn't know who we are."
The pink slug called Sango rolls their eye tentacles.
"That's impossible. Seichi kept his bond with us; of course his descendants know who we are. You're going crazy."
Shigeo juts his head in Neji's direction. Sakura lays out her arms and the slugs inch down them until each is laying on one of Sakura's palms, facing each other.
"Grab some of his skin and find out for sure," Shigeo says.
"You called me all the way to the human world to rifle through some poor boy's thoughts? I was having brunch."
"Just do it, Sango."
The pale pink slug sighs and looks back at Sakura. She nods and takes a couple of steps forward until she's right in front of Neji. She gives him an awkward smile, as if to say 'what can you do?'.
"Your hand, please," Sango says.
Neji looks from the slug to Sakura's face. She doesn't look like she's trying to kill him. Neji offers Sango his palm.
A couple of moments go by, and he doesn't feel anything. He wonders if he should be feeling something. But the slug in Sakura's hand is steadily looking angrier and angrier. After one full minute, it slides further up Neji's palm until it's getting slime on his forearm.
"Show me your forehead."
Neji jolts back. Nobody sees his forehead except for the Hyūga seal masters to make sure his seal is still functioning as it should. Even when he must go to the hospital, doctors will leave his bandages on his forehead for privacy's sake.
"I will not ask you again," Sango says.
He looks back at Sakura; something in her face has shuttered. She looks solemn, but not sad. Like this is something she expected to happen today.
Neji uses his free hand to take his hitai-ate off his forehead. The pink slug on his forearm looks up at him as he looks down at it.
"Take me to Hyūga Hiashi," it says in a deceptively soft voice. "Now."
Neji is in the room because he brought the slugs back to the compound, and Sakura is in the room because the slugs are her summons. The elders have been assembled, along with Hiashi and Hanabi. Hinata is there, funnily enough.
Sango is at least six times the size she was when Neji met her less than an hour ago. Shigeo is the same, but is perched beside her. They excrete an amount of slime that will take a very long time to clean up. It's probably going to ruin the flooring.
"You do not know who we are, Hyūga Hiashi," Sango says, "but we know you."
She tells a story that Neji almost does not want to believe.
Hyūga Seichi and Kagome did not find their power by divine accident. It was given to them in return for a solemn oath to Shikkotsu Forest, to help protect the weak as they had been protected. Seichi held up his end of the bargain, Kagome had not.
The Caged Bird Seal was not meant to destroy the Byakugan of fallen branch Hyūgas. It was a seal designed to lock away the abilities of those that had forgotten who their power came from.
Kagome broke her oath with the forest. Sango taught Seichi how to seal her eyes, and the eyes of her children. If they were true to their mother's broken promise, their eyes would be unsealed.
The Caged Bird Seal was a punishment for oath breaking, not for being born into the wrong family. It was a curse that could be lifted by being true where another had been false.
It had gotten lost, somewhere along the way, the first time someone had tried to steal a pair of Byakugan eyes. This does not matter to the slugs in front of them. They are furious.
"That seal," Shigeo says, bristling with rage, "was supposed to be removed from those of Kagome's line who were true to the oath that she broke."
The Hyūga are proud; they do not take such scolding lightly.
“This system has protected the Hyūga for generations," one elder says. “Who are you to question our methods?”
It's the wrong question to ask.
"Who am I?" Shigeo returns. "Who am I? I created the Jūken to protect a pair of grass fed blind children from bandits. From being sold or murdered or raped because their parents had abandoned them. They were helpless."
Hiashi is silent. The whole room is silent.
"We taught them to see as we do," Sango says. "We gave them sight the likes of which humankind had never seen before."
Neji's palms are hot.
"We gave you this sight," Shigeo says, "and you dishonor not only us, but Seichi's spirit by abusing your clansmen in such a way."
"Who among you do you think is free from Kagome's sin?" Sango asks suddenly.
The room is silent with the weight of her question. Who among them was of Seichi's blood, but had his heart, and had been true to the oath he swore to Shikkotsu? To their oath, because it was their oath, too. It had been inherited, but forgotten.
"If you are of Seichi's blood and you kept true to your vow, you'll keep your sight," she says, voice going low and dangerous. "And if you have not, you will not."
The elders are given no time to deliberate. Sango shrinks down and approaches them. She presses her body against their knees or their palms if they are offered, moving from one to the next.
"Seichi's blood, Kagome's heart. Seichi's blood, Kagome's heart. Seichi's blood, Kagome's heart."
It becomes a refrain. Neji will later discover that Sango can read every single thought a person has had in their lives when she makes physical contact with them. Hiashi is not spared.
Of all of the main branch family members in the room, only Hinata would be allowed to keep her Byakugan. Hanabi looks like this realization is causing her physical pain; Hiashi is too old, too weathered as a shinobi to show much of a response.
"Bring me your branch family," Sango says.
It is not a request.
All branch family members that are currently in the village are drawn back home with a subtle pulse of their seals. They are confused as to why they've been pulled back home. They are concerned; the thought of a mass cull of the branch family has been circulating in everyone's minds since the Uchiha Massacre.
Sakura's presence there calms them; there cannot be a mass fratricide with an outsider behind the Hyūga walls. They let Sango touch their palms.
Nearly without exception, every branch member passes Sango's test.
The balance of power is sudden and heady. Neji can feel it. The slugs have decided who is worthy and who is not. And even though there are seals still on their foreheads, they have a divine right to an immediate revolution.
"Fix this," Shigeo says. "By whatever means necessary."
Sango leaves a temporary summoning seal attuned to both her and Shigeo before the two of them leave on Sakura's shoulders.
Misaki rubs the slime off of his hand and elbows Neji in the side.
"That's some girlfriend, you got there," he says.
Neji is inclined to agree.
The eldest members of the branch family are invited to the elder meetings of the main family.
Everyone notices the change.
Neji is not allowed in the room when it happens. He notices that Hinata isn't either.
"This changes everything," she whispers to him, crouching down over the koi pond behind her father's sprawling home.
Neji is standing just beside her, arms folded across his chest and hands tucked against his elbows. It's warmer this way.
"You're right," he says.
Hinata smiles, dropping food into the pond. The fish gobble it up, and spit little streams of water at Hinata.
"I'm glad," she replies. "It's been time for a long time. This should have ended after Hizashi-oji-san's death."
Neji looks down at her, where her gentle fingers drop food into the pool. Not for the first time, he wishes Hinata had hit her stride a little sooner. Hanabi was young still, but she was very much like Hiashi. She had few dredges of her childhood left in her. But Hinata was kind. Kinder than she had any right to be after what she had been through, after what Neji himself had put her through.
She would have been an excellent clan head. He would have been happy to lay down his life for hers.
"It's ending now," Neji replies. "That should calm his spirit."
Hinata looks up at him. Her gaze is appraising but soft. They've grown closer, much closer. They're friends now. They trust each other more than they ever had when the line between main and branch was as distinct as the full moon at midnight.
"And what will it do to your spirit, Neji-kun?"
Neji looks up at the bright sky above their heads. It's day time, and unseasonably warm for the middle of December.
"I think," he says, "it just might fly away."
Their eyes are on him, always.
Neji was used to that much. But this is somehow different. Hanabi watches him more than she used to, pale eyes tracking his movements through the compound. Her grandmother Haruhi, she watches him, too.
Outside of the compound, his branch cousins clasp his forearm. They bring him small tokens for luck, or to show their thanks. Misaki's mother Setsuna presses her forehead to his, and tells him how proud of him she is.
He doesn't know how to tell them that this isn't his doing. It's Sakura's.
Hinata spars with him still, and that is normal. Something Neji can hold onto.
She beats him back with a palm to the sternum that nearly makes him lose his footing. Hinata stands, dropping out of her stance. She narrows her eyes at him, examining.
"You're distracted," she says. "That's not like you."
He stands up straight and rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. Hinata waits. She doesn't press.
"It's different than it was when you were younger," she says, "because you're not using the system against itself."
Neji had pushed him self, pushed, pushed, and pushed himself when he was genin. Just to prove he was just as good as Hinata. Just as worthy of the room in the main house that should have been his, had his father not been born a few minutes behind.
Hinata looks at him for a long moment, and her eyes go warm and proud.
Even when he was cruel to her, she had admired him. He had softened around her after the exams, opening his heart just enough to let his sister-cousin in. He hadn't deserved the forgiveness she had given him. He still doesn't think he does. But Hinata's strength had always been her kindness. And as they had gotten older, a spine of steel lined every sweet word, every good deed.
She could look Hiashi in the face now, and not even flinch.
"You're abolishing the system."
"It's not me," he replies. "It's her. And the slugs."
Hinata nods, because she understands. Outside of Misaki, she's really one of the only people who understands. Tenten does absolutely, and Lee does in his way. Gai can see through Neji with an astonishing clarity. But Hinata gets it without even trying to.
"This change wouldn't have come from the main house," Hinata says in that soft way of hers. "Those in power rarely give it up for the sake of those they oppress."
Neji wants to grind his teeth, but he knows what she's saying and gets why she's saying it. If Hinata had been stronger sooner, it might have been her. Neji has no doubt that if she had remained Hiashi's heir, she would have destroyed the branch system altogether. She had whispered as much to him when they finished spars far away from the compound, staring up at the sky, measuring their words in case someone heard them.
"It was always going to be you, Neji," she says. "You're the only one that ever could have done it."
A son split between the main and the branch family. The last living tie to Hyūga Hizashi's legacy. Genetically the Clan Head's son as well as his nephew. Firstborn. Older than the children he already had.
He was always an outlier. Never overlooked because he stuck out so sorely. Naruto had told him once that fate, that destiny was something to be made with your own two hands. That railing against it was all that people could do until they died.
Neji had thought his fate was to suffer. But maybe it had always been to lead.
Maybe fate wasn't something to be fought against or painstakingly followed. Perhaps it was something that just happened to you. Unravelled like a ball of yarn in your hands. It tugged you in the right direction but not insistently; it waited for you to arrive there in your own time.
He grasps Hinata by the forearm, and her fingers dig into the meat of his. They press their foreheads together; an ancient greeting, too close too attack, and too close to defend. It was trust. Only trust.
"You can do this, cousin," Hinata says, pale eyes burrowing into his. "I know you can."
He greets his branch cousins more warmly. He's a little less stiff. Surprised by how quickly they flock to him not only for guidance or advice, but to ask him questions about the slugs. They pick his brain for all he knows, the young and the old.
The branch elders bring him into their council meetings and puzzle over what this strange new future holds. They want his opinion. They care about what he has to say.
"Be careful," Setsuna says to him, arms folded across her chest. "If the impossible happens, Hanabi may no longer be Hiashi's favorite."
Neji kisses his cousin's forehead and wonders what it would take for a branch son to lead the Hyūga. It would have to be impossible. Talking about it was tantamount to treason.
Then again, several things had seemed impossible only until recently. Maybe that was a word reserved for knuckle-headed ninja, and pink haired girls with enough chakra to outshine a small sun.
Maybe it was a word for Neji, too.
He's standing in some of his finest clothes in the courtyard of the compound, where the entirety of the clan has been assembled. Hiashi stands at the center, with main family elders on his left and branch family elders on his right. Hinata and Hanabi are standing to the end of the line on their father's left; Neji is standing beside Setsuna on Hiashi's right.
It is snowing, very lightly. The frost dampens his hair, and his ears feel hard with cold.
"Our power comes from two great ancestors," Hiashi says, voice booming out over the compound. "They swore a solemn oath. One broke that oath, and the other did not. But when time passes, it is easy to keep forgetting promises. To cheat and reap their rewards."
Sango and Shigeo are not present. They are part of the clan and also not. It is important that this happen without their supervision. The Hyūga have to change of their own volition.
"The main branch of the Hyūga family has been cheating its cousins for generations. My brother was cheated out of his life because one of our ancestors decided that the Hyūga were superior, and were under no obligation to serve the downtrodden. You, my cousins, my aunts, and uncles, have been cheated in much the same way."
There are a sea of pale eyes and dark hair in front of him. There are some cousins who have pupils, and pale brown hair. They have only been allowed to stay in the compound because of their service to the clan; they are past the days of discarding Hyūga who cannot use the Byakugan.They are sometimes useful in this day and age; their eyes cannot be stolen after death. And they are usually trained as family doctors when the hospital cannot (or will not) be trusted.
There are small children among them. Those younger than Hanabi. The youngest among them is little Minako. She is four and bundled heavily in her mother Tsuru's arms. There's a small green beanie covering her little head. She's snoring. Sleeping soundly through a speech that is changing the course of history. The conversation that will make sure she will never be branded with a green seal, driven into subjugation.
Minako sleeps. Neji keeps his hands behind his back and he hopes for the future.
"It will take time to right this wrong," Hiashi says, "but we are of a noble, and storied clan. We began with two abandoned children, and now we are known throughout the elemental nations. We are feared. We are respected. We are revered. There have been Hyūga shinobi whose Byakugan could see over ten thousand kilometers. Repairing our family, being true to our inherited oath, is work for a child in the academy compared to that."
There are academy Hyūga in the crowd. ANBU Hyūga. The retired, and those rapidly approaching it. The old, and the young. There are no tears in Setsuna's eyes, but Neji knows that every branch family member is reacting. Misaki is there in the crowd, arms folded tightly behind his back. His cheeks are red and his chest is puffed out in pride.
"But it will be difficult. There will be resistance. Change is hard. It may take generations to restore ourselves to what we once were. But we are Hyūga. We are worth nothing if we are not worth our word. And we will be true to the oath that our ancestors swore to the slugs of Shikkotsu Forest."
There are main family members that are still uncomfortable with the idea of change. Of surviving, living through these growing pains and then moving forward afterward. It was difficult to stare into the face of a being older than time itself and to tell them they are wrong. Especially when they are capable of ruining your prized eyes.
The elders of the main branch would never say that fear had driven them into line with Shikkotsu's demands. But they would not sacrifice the future of the clan. They would not sacrifice the Byakugan.
"Even if only my grandchildren succeed, even if only their grandchildren see the day when we have regained our honor in the eyes of spirits as old and powerful as the slugs of Shikkotsu, it will have been worth it. We will no longer be a family that destroys its own. We will no longer be a family that is not true to its promises."
There would be resentment. There may even be physical attacks on branch members, on Neji's person. There would be wild character assassinations of Sakura. No one would speak against Shikkotsu.
Neji could defend himself. He bristled at the thought of abuse being spoken about Sakura, but knew she could hold her own. Still, maybe she needed a brief lesson on clan politics before she took another step back onto the Hyūga estate.
"We are the Hyūga. Our symbol is an eternal flame. It is chakra; for many of us, it is the first thing we ever see with absolute clarity. We will see into the future. We will create a future that protects people like my brother, and his son. We will bury the memory of what we have been for the last several generations in our hearts, and we will remember it so that we know never to make such mistakes again."
Never again. The thought of never again rings through Neji's mind. Minako would never know the childhood Neji had. Neji's children, when he had them, would never be forced through the agony of the green ink and blood and chakra sealing their eyes. The thought alone chokes him up.
The future is in front of him, in this courtyard. Snow is falling on the fine clothing of every Hyūga in attendance. It is cold, but their eyes are blazing. They can all feel it. Main family members mixed in with branch family members, standing shoulder to shoulder. Allies. Not just allies, but family.
They are one family.
"We will move forward. We will burn ever brighter. We will meet the coming dawn, and preserve the legacy that Hyūga Seichi left us. It is ours to protect. We will not fail him. Not again. Never again."
They clean out a house at the edge of the compound, branch members and main family members alike. They scrub down the porch, air out the windows, wipe down the floors. The house hasn't been lived in for some time. Neji can't remember anyone ever having inhabited it.
Hiashi tells them it's going to be a school for the downtrodden. He really does use the word downtrodden.
He means the disabled. Shinobi missing certain limbs, or who have chronic pain despite having healed their physical injuries. Those missing one eye or both, one leg or both, and so on. The school is for children, too, civilian children. That had been the biggest surprise; that instead of keeping the original Jūken style, only recently rediscovered a secret, the Hyūga would be teaching it to those who didn't know how to defend themselves.
Neji has been roped into teaching. He worries that he isn't very good at it.
Hinata is more patient, and her voice is softer. She carefully adjusts people's arms and nudges out their feet. She watches them move with a stern look on her face, then corrects them when she catches their mistakes.
He's not the only one who thinks she'd make an excellent jounin sensei.
All the main family members teach at the school at least once a week, whether it be cleaning or teaching a class or bringing snacks. Everyone on the compound contributes.
Gai weeps his manly tears over Neji's springtime of youth in winter, and how he's sharing his multitudes of talent with those who would otherwise not be privileged enough to have access to such techniques.
Tenten punches him on the shoulder and asks him when he's gonna have a group of genin dodging his every step. Lee starts crying at that, and vows to be a good example for the team that Neji doesn't even have yet.
Sakura looks at him fondly and tells him she's proud of him.
His students are sometimes shinobi, sometimes have never held a kunai in their lives. Some are rattled, failed by the medical system before Tsunade took charge and started looking after mental as well as physical health. They are difficult because they do not know how not to be; they have never been helped, have never been healed.
Neji is patient with them. He is finding he has endless patience these days.
He and Misaki teach meditation, teach people who can't feel their chakra how to visualize a spiral of flame burning at the center of their stomach. They explain that this fire is within every living thing. The Hyūga called it the Well of Fire, and so had the Uchiha once they had been born. It is where the Will of Fire drew its inspiration.
The Hyūga were never as isolated as the Uchiha, but when a boy of nine stumbles up to Neji after a Saisho Jūken lesson, it catches him off guard. The little boy does a flurry of symbols with his hands. Another young boy, maybe two years older then him stumbles afterwards.
"He's saying thank you, Hyūga-san," the older boy says. "He gets picked on because he can't hear. He says he can stop the bullies now. He says thank you."
The older boy steers the younger one away from him.
Suddenly Neji understands. Kagome might have broken her oath for fear of her family's power being diluted by those outside of it. But Seichi understood that strength did not come from hoarding power, but from sharing it.
The Hyūga become approachable. Become friendly. They make contacts with the parents of the civilian children who come to their self defense school. Merchants and shopkeepers offer them discounts, or tell them when fresh wares are coming into the village. The civilian population trusts the Hyūga.
Several generations worth of superiority complexes too intimidating to by cracked by those outside of three man cells are destroyed when a little girl puts a carnation in Hyūga Hiashi's hand when he is headed to a Clan Council meeting at the Hokage Tower, a thank you for teaching her how to fight despite only having one arm.
It gives them extraordinary pull with the Clan Council. Kiba comes up to him, Ino, and Shikamaru, Shino, and Chouji, too, they approach him and ask him what the Hyūga have done to drive their parents to drinking together, and what have they done to make them laugh so much at Shimura Danzo's expense.
When Neji hears about how Inuzuka Tsume threw her arm around Hiashi's shoulders and asked him who pulled the stick out of his ass, he laughs for a minute straight.
He's the first one to have his seal removed.
It has to be him, they said. He was the pride of the branch and the shame of the main family. He was the bridge between them. He had to go first.
He lays on his back with his eyes open. There is a small pillow beneath his head. There is a small audience. The branch and main family elders. Sango has taught Hiashi and Haruhi-obaa-sama how to remove the seal. They need the blood of every living Clan Head who has applied the seal. Hisoka-ojii-sama is very old; he is Haruhi's father, and he is frail. He contributes a few drops of blood where his daughter and his grandson give much more.
The blood is mixed with Sango's slime and left beneath the winter moons. It goes out under a full moon first, then a waning gibbous, then a waning crescent. It symbolizes a change. The end of an era. And the beginning of a new one.
Hiashi dips a fingertip into the concoction, and leans in close to Neji's face. His sleeve is pulled back from his arm, as to not inhibit his strokes.
"Are you ready?" Hiashi asks.
The mixture is wet on Neji's forehead, but he can feel how charged it is with chakra. He can smell green things, can feel the chakra of his father-uncle, his grandmother, and his great-grandfather, all pulling together. Hiashi traces the Caged Bird Seal backwards, presses his fingertips to the hooks at every curved edge of the seal. It is a reversal and a cancellation.
When Neji opens his eyes, he feels as though the whole world is twelve times as bright as it ever was.
The Caged Bird Seal did not only seal the Byakugan at death. It had the capability to destroy the brain cells of a branch member if they stepped out of line.
It also halved the power of the Byakugan of whoever wore the seal.
"Careful," Hiashi says as Neji moves to rise.
There is still blood and slime on his forehead, but he can feel the tenketsu around his eyes like he never has before. They're stronger, deeper than they ever have been in his life. They've always been that strong; he's the firstborn and rightful first choice to lead the Hyūga. He's Hizashi's only child, Hiashi's nephew and son.
Hiashi dips a cloth in a bowl of warm water, and uses the cloth to wipe a clean line across Neji's forehead. The blood and slime pulls up the ink of Neji's first seal like it's nothing more than a fresh stain.
Neji feels alive. His hands are shaking with the new chakra flooding into his tenketsu that have spent a lifetime disused. There's a little headache forming, but Neji can think past it, can feel past it. This is how Hinata and Hanabi feel all the time. This is how Hiashi feels all the time. He can't even find it in him to feel enraged at this newfound power, this discovery of his birthright being denied him. He groans under the weight of this strength, and Hiashi places a hand on his shoulder.
"Slowly," he says.
Hiashi helps him stand in a rare show of tenderness. They step out into the courtyard where all the branch members are waiting to have their seals removed. They look up at them. Neji looks up at the moon above him. He activates his Byakugan.
It's three times as big as it usually is.
She presses her fingertips to the unblemished skin like it's made of glass or sugar. Like he's something delicate. To be handled with care.
He holds his hitai-ate too firm in his hand, the metal cutting into his palm, making a divot that will stay there for some minutes afterward.
Her breath is shallow with wonder. His heart is thundering in his chest. She swipes her thumb from one end of his forehead to the other, marveling at the smooth skin.
He wants to say thank you. He wants to tell her that this never would have happened if she hadn't gone to the forest and then returned. That all of this, this is her doing. That she's changed his life in a way only rivaled by Naruto. He had told Neji that fate could be changed. Sakura had proven it.
What he says instead is, "It makes my forehead look bigger."
She blinks in surprise, and looks in his eyes. Then she laughs, and Neji's heart is soaring because now she's slapping his arm, and rolling her eyes.
"You've got a long way to go before you've got a billboard brow," she says with good humor.
Neji wants to kiss her. So he does.
"Haruno Sakura," Hanabi says, pointing right at the Godaime's apprentice, loudly enough for the whole compound to hear, "I challenge you."
Neji wants the ground to swallow him whole. Hanabi has no idea. Absolutely no idea what she's about to put her eyes through. He almost feels bad for her.
Sakura is on the compound to run check ups on the Hyūga now that the Caged Bird Seal is a thing of the past. There are many who have blown out their disused tenketsu, who have amounts of internal damage around their optic nerves. Because she was the one who brought the slugs into the compound in the first place, she's been called back to teach the Hyūga family doctors how to manage the sudden influx of these injuries.
Sakura had just been advising Tokuma (who had the best Byakugan out of all of them, who now, without his seal, could see flower petals from nine hundred and fifty kilometers, and wasn't that a tragedy that he was twenty-one, and now was the first time he could reach his full potential) about how to gently push his reach towards its limits when the challenge comes.
Sakura stops, fully aware of the fact that several Hyūga have just witnessed the clan heir throw down her gauntlet. A public challenge is not one refused. The air goes tense; this means something. Though they are not sure of what exactly yet. But it does mean something.
Sakura is not of a large clan. The Haruno were descended of samurai in Flower Country. She knows the old ways, or at least she should. A private challenge was one thing, but one made in full view of many witnesses was another entirely. Even one witness had the ability to act as an intermediary, to cool off the initial rush of adrenaline that came with the first challenge.
Hanabi was the heir to the Hyūga. Her challenge was a demand for anyone below her in the family. But Sakura was not in the family. Hanabi's request meant nothing to her.
Neji feels tense. He knows exactly how this fight is going to go. He doesn't want to watch it happen, and he hopes, he hopes that Sakura will take the shame that came with declining the challenge.
Sakura isn't his secret anymore, she belongs to all the Hyūga for her role in releasing the branch family back into the whole of the Hyūga. But none of them need to see Sakura fight the way that she does. They were already using her medical expertise; they didn't deserve to see the way she moved in combat.
"Hanabi-san," Sakura says. "I accept your challenge."
The fight is public because that is what Hanabi wants. Those who are at the compound gather into the outdoor training area behind the main house.
"This," Neji says, peering down at Sakura as she stretches, "is a very bad idea."
Sakura cracks her back with a horrifying loudness, and gets to her feet. She pats Neji on the cheek like he's the one being ridiculous.
"I'll be fine."
"I'm not worried about you," he replies. "I'm worried you're going to blind my little cousin."
Sakura smiles at him with all of her teeth. It is simultaneously her loveliest and her most frightening expression.
He stands on the raised wooden platform along with the rest of his family.
"My money's on Hanabi," Misaki says, folding his arms across his chest.
"Sucker's bet," Tokuma returns. "You've never seen Sakura-san break a tree by breathing on it."
"Don't do that," Neji says as Misaki activates his Byakugan. Sakura and Hanabi have formed the Seal of Confrontation. "Trust me. You aren't going to want to do that."
It would be easy for Sakura to go into sage mode or to activate one of her Byakugō. To end the fight by immediately blinding Hanabi, keeping her from fighting. Sakura is polite. She uses that style of hers, that wild conglomeration of brutal fighting styles against Hanabi's perfected Gentle Fist.
"Does no one," Hiashi says from behind him, "have anything better to do, than to gawk at a spar like a flock of ganders?"
Hanabi is slamming Sakura's tenketsu shut and Sakura is letting her. That's slightly more terrifying; Sakura's been training with Gai and Lee with her taijutsu, as well as with the Godaime. Her chakra supplements her strength, but it isn't her strength entirely. Hanabi would have to start targeting Sakura's pressure points to make her body parts useless if she wanted to win this spar.
Sakura kicks Hanabi in the chest and the girl goes skidding back.
"Can I put my money on Sakura-san?" Misaki says.
"Absolutely not," Tokuma snickers.
Hiashi watches in silence. Hanabi is a genius born of hard work and a fierce desire to be better than her sister. Sakura is a genius of a similar caliber. But she has a couple years, several heads, and a good couple of kilos on Hanabi.
"She's humoring her," Hiashi says after a moment.
Neji nods. It isn't that Sakura isn't taking Hanabi seriously. But she isn't here to prove a point to the Hyūga. She's there to help them.
Sakura's larger body gives her a winder range than Hanabi. Now that the girl is further away, Sakura keeps her away with wide arced kicks. Hanabi is getting frustrated. She knows that Sakura isn't taking her seriously.
"What on earth -," Misaki begins.
He's got his Byakugan on. Idiot.
"What is it?" Tokuma asks.
"She's re-opening her tenketsu. Without any jutsu. She's just - she's just doing it."
Neji isn't even remotely surprised. Sakura knows how to stop her heart and keep it pumping with chakra. Of course she can re-open her own tenketsu. While moving. Without hand signs.
"Is she healing herself?" Hiashi asks. He's noticed that Neji does not have his Byakugan activated. "Internally?"
"No," Misaki says. "She's moving too fast to focus. She's gonna have some minor chakra burns on her arms. She's cycling her chakra through her system to wear down the blocks Hanabi's Jūken put on them."
It's something the Hyūga can do, a defense in case the Byakugan's field of vision fails them. It required an extraordinary amount of chakra control, finer than even the average Hyūga possessed. Hinata had mastered it before Neji had. Hizashi was apparently better at it than his twin. They all know that there's no way Sakura learned it from one of them.
Hanabi notices, watches it as it happens, and the surprise makes her falter for less than half a second. Sakura sees it, and in the same moment she activates the senjutsu chakra she stores all over her body.
Because Neji has made this exact mistake before, he only sees slim lines of purple chakra appear beneath Sakura's skin. Every single Hyūga with an active Byakugan immediately winces and shuts their eyes. Hanabi is no exception.
Sakura presses in hard, gets in her space, and knocks Hanabi on her back in the space it takes Hanabi to regain her bearings and deactivate her Byakugan.
"Shit," Misaki says, furiously blinking the spots out of his vision.
The assembled Hyūga slowly leave the training grounds after Sakura helps Hanabi up, and they form the Seal of Reconciliation. She's talking to his younger cousin, and Neji is ready to make his way over to them when Hiashi's speaks from beside him.
"Usually," he says, "an older sibling is supposed to challenge a suitor to see if they're appropriate."
Neji balks at that. Hanabi challenged Sakura to see if she was suitable for marriage? The thought alone is enough to stun him into silence.
"But Hanabi is my heir. And she thought it would be appropriate if she did it instead. Hinata was of a different mindset."
Well, Neji could clearly see who won that argument. The thought that Hinata knew Hanabi wanted to test Sakura and didn't tell him sits strange in his stomach. He knew the main family - well, Hiashi's children, were privy to the decisions made about Neji's marriage contract.
But he hadn't imaged that Sakura would actually be considered for it.
It occurs to him to tell Hiashi that Sakura belongs to Shikkotsu more than she belongs to Konoha. That any marriage contract she goes into would probably be void because of it. She wouldn't be in the village for much longer. Spring had come again since she returned, and Neji could see it in the line of her shoulders that there were things she needed to do outside of Konoha.
Neji doesn't think he'll ever be chosen as Hiashi's heir. But he does have a duty to be on Hanabi's council when she takes the position, just as Hinata does. He has to marry someone inside the village. He has to stay.
Neji knows this. He knows all of it. He doesn't say a single word to his uncle.
"Despite her family background, she is the Godaime's second apprentice, and she is a master of slug senjutsu," Hiashi says. "We owe a great deal of our current standing to her. And our name would do well to advance her in any situation. I have no doubt that any children born of your union with be exceptional."
Neji wants to crawl into a hole. He and Sakura have barely even talked about having sex yet. They have progressed to heavy petting and they like it there, thank you very much. And now his uncle thinks it's a good idea for them to get married. For some reason. Politics.
Sakura is the first girl that Neji has ever dated. Which is why the idea of her being his wife is both exciting and excruciating. There could always be someone else, who would walk in and sweep her off her feet. Or Naruto could return three years past over his crush on Sasuke and tell Neji he had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen.
Marriage seemed too concrete. Too final. Their minds could change. And Neji was happy where they were. Moving slowly, moment by moment. With her hand on his wrist and his thumb on her forehead. That was plenty for him.
"We will see if her parents are currently seeking suitors," Hiashi says. "You'll be updated when there is something to report."
Neji can't marry Sakura because Sakura is leaving. He can't make her stay in the village if she doesn't want to. And what's more, he wouldn't. And he couldn't leave.
Or at least, he hadn't thought about leaving.
Neji was a beacon to the newly mended Hyūga clan. If he did anything rash, a new divide would be made and it would likely be on his head. He couldn't risk it. Not after everything his father lost. Not after generations of suffering. He owed it to his cousins to stay. He owed it to his own future children to stay.
And yet, the road called Sakura. And Sakura called him.
"Of course, oji-sama," Neji says instead of any of the words he ought to say. How Sakura would be gone come autumn, how he wanted to follow her for a little while if he could, how he had just gotten her back safe and he didn't want to watch her back retreat into the world outside of Fire Country.
How he had already asked Tsunade if he could go, and that she had said yes.
Hiashi leaves him then, congratulates Sakura on her victory, and leads Hanabi away to teach her how to react more quickly to large flares of chakra without dropping her defenses.
Sakura looks at Neji, and the two of them start walking towards each other. Neji steps down off the raised platform, and Sakura sticks her hands in her pockets.
"Did I put up a good fight?" she asks.
Neji nods solemnly.
"You've proven that you're worthy of the Hyūga name."
Sakura laughs, taking it as a joke. Neji's never been more grateful that his sense of humor is by and large made up of deadpan delivery.
Sakura reaches out and grabs his wrist, but Neji twirls it just so, until his smooth fingers are laced with her scarred ones. She's not the center of his universe. She's got responsibilities, and so does he. Maybe one day, when she's achieved her goal and she returns home, it could work for years at a time instead of only days. Maybe when Hinata and Hanabi had children, or when Misaki and Tokuma did. When the generation this one begot grew up in a Hyūga without divisions and fear and coercive control.
Maybe she could be Hyūga Sakura. Maybe he could be Haruno Neji. Maybe. Maybe not.
Fate was something made not by one person, but by many. It was worked for, moved towards, freely given and quickly taken away. It wasn't an end point as much as it was several destinations, one after the other, reached in one's own time.
Sakura's journey outside of Konoha was her fate. And helping restore the Hyūga into one family was Neji's. Their paths had already crossed before all of this happened. There was no reason they couldn't cross again. Even if it took time. Perhaps only because it would take time.
"Come on," he says, "before one of my cousins proposes."
Sakura snorts, and lets him lead her away.
"As if I'd say yes to anyone but you."
He squeezes her hand, and she squeezes back.