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Old Wine

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It was over, everything except for collecting the bodies of the attackers. Intellectually, Neji knew that was exactly why Hiroki said it; the wired exhilaration of having survived again did often unhinge people’s tongues.

It didn’t make the silence that spread through the courtyard any less infuriating, when Hiroki joked with another of the younger cousins, “Hey, almost too bad Neji’s so good, huh? He could have moved a little slower and been clan head for real instead of just behind the scenes.”

The weight of the silence spoke of years when that hadn’t been a joke, however tasteless and disrespectful, and the watchful memory of those years among the adults of the clan. Hinata’s mouth was a little tight, but she ordered a courier to be sent to Intelligence, notifying them of the attack and the bodies to be examined, with perfectly level grace. She was going to ignore it.

Neji… couldn’t do that. He very much doubted she’d let him give Hiroki the trouncing he deserved for that, but Neji couldn’t ignore it.

And that was why he spun on his heel and strode across the courtyard to stand eye to eye with her, his clan head, his wife, the cousin he had once tried to kill.

“Neji,” she said softly, reaching out a comforting hand to him.

He sank down to his knees before her and slowly bowed until he could spread both hands out flat against the earth. Far enough that his hair, ends still stiff with the blood of their enemies, brushed the ground at her feet. Little hisses of shock snaked around the courtyard. It was not the bow of a modern shinobi, even one of a noble clan. This was the way one claimant for the clan had surrendered to another, in the days before the seal, when cousin had fought cousin and sister had fought brother to lead the Hyuuga. It was a gesture not used for generations, and then only for the loser of a succession fight to publicly acknowledge his defeat and submission to the victor.

“Neji,” Hinata protested. “Stand up. There’s no need for something like that!”

“It seems necessary for some,” he answered quietly.

“You’re my consort, not my opponent,” she said more sharply. “You have not defied me. I won’t have you bowing to me like that.”

Neji kept his hands spread out and still under her eyes, kept his own eyes on the ground. “There was a time when I did,” he pointed out.

He could hear her inhale and imagined the flash of will in her eyes that most likely accompanied it. “Very well, then,” she said, soft but clear in the absolute silence of the courtyard. “You were given a command by your clan head. Do you intend to disobey it? Stand up.”

Neji bowed his head lower for a moment and murmured, “Yes, Hinata-sama,” before he rose to stand before her. As he’d rather expected, there was a glint in her eyes that promised trouble for whoever got in the way of her sense of right. It was one of the things he loved her for, even if he did sometimes think it made her too stubborn about realizing what the clan would and would not accept or understand. He gave her a tiny, hidden smile, a reminder; he would protect her, always and from anything, and that included disrespect within their clan. Of course. The glint eased into exasperation. “Honestly,” she breathed, just between the two of them, and touched his hand softly.

Neji regretted her irritation, but when he cast a glance around the courtyard there was no doubt to be seen, no careful neutrality. A little shock in places, especially among Hiroki and his friends who were, perhaps, young and foolish enough to be surprised that Hinata truly ruled him. But there was no doubt. He turned to take his place at Hinata’s shoulder, calm and blank-faced. The point had been made. The submission that, by all rights, she should have demanded of him years ago had been given, and witnessed by the clan.

Neji watched as the Hyuuga put their compound back to rights and smiled faintly with satisfaction.