When Hyuuga Hinata was three years old, her playmate Neji-niisan went away for two weeks. When he came back his eyes were darker than they had been. He still smiled at her, though, and tugged gently on her hair, and told her he would protect her, and she loved him more than anyone.
When Hinata was five, she was stolen out of her room in the middle of the night, and woke to darkness and confusion and falling--falling bodies all around her. But her father was there, and took her home again, and everything was all right. It was that year, though, that Neji-niisan stopped smiling at her.
When Hinata was seven, she fainted from exhaustion during training. Her father was frowning when she came back to awareness, groggy and limp-muscled.
When Hinata was eight she entered the Academy and, for the first time, trained with other children who were not Hyuuga. They were loud and cheerful and rude, and never waited long enough to hear her answers when they asked questions. She tried to find Neji-niisan during lunch, to sit with him, but he always vanished as soon as he saw her.
When Hinata was ten, she lost every match in a week to Hanabi, and her father told her she was no longer Hyuuga's heir, and turned away.
When Hinata was eleven, she fell in love a second time, with one of the loud, rude, cheerful boys, because she saw how every back was turned toward him and how, still, he never gave up.
When Hinata turned fourteen, she gathered all her courage in her hands and walked into the training hall while Neji-niisan was working, and asked to train with him. Quietly, face shadowed by the wooden slats of the window, he agreed.
That was the year she began to wonder whether she could change fate, too.
"Chichi-ue?" Hinata hovered in the door to his rooms, nervous. "May I ask for a key to the clan archives?"
Her father looked up, brows rising. "The archives? Why?"
Hinata looked down and murmured, "So that I may learn more of my ancestors. And I thought, perhaps... perhaps there are techniques I might be able to use..."
He sighed, laying down his ink brush. "I doubt there is anything that will help you. But if you wish to search, very well." He rose and went to one of the small boxes along the wall, sliding it open and selecting a small key. "Don't take it out of the house."
"Of course not," Hinata murmured, still cringing from the remark about nothing helping her. "Thank you, Chichi-ue."
"Mm." He had already returned to his writing, and she slipped out silently, clutching the key. This was her chance--her hope.
She stole down the halls, away from the noise of conversations, of training, of food being prepared, toward the still quiet of waiting words.
At first, the sheer volume of the records intimidated her. She'd never be able to get through all of them, at least not quickly; it would take months, years even to read all of these. But she remembered Naruto and his determination. She took a breath full of paper dust, and stood on her toes to take down the scrolls from the clan's founding from their shelf. She would start at the beginning. And she would keep going until she found what she was looking for.
She unrolled the crackling scroll with a delicate hand, only opening a few lines at a time.
...these eyes see to the heart of the world. They may see, also, to the heart of our enemies. My sister is willing, for the sake of our family, to try if we can fix these eyes in our line. We will give the hearts of our enemies into the hands of our children.
And what, Hinata had to wonder, were the children of Hyuuga supposed to do with those hearts once they held them?
She read on, frowning a little, in the steady light of her lamp.
"Hinata? Oi, Hinata! You awake?" Kiba waved a hand in front of her face and Hinata stifled a yawn.
"Of course I'm awake, Kiba-kun." She smiled at him, reassuring.
He hmphed and sprawled next to her in the grass of the hill where they waited for their teacher. "Training is good, but don't do so much of it you're asleep at mission briefings, yeah?" He glanced at her sidelong as Akamaru flopped down between them. "That bastard Neji isn't being too hard on you, is he?"
"No, no, it's nothing like that," Hinata said hastily. Kiba still growled at Neji-niisan whenever they met; even a year later, he hadn't forgiven what happened at their first chuunin exam.
"Well okay, then." Kiba leaned back on his elbows, head tossed back in the sunlight. He looked so much like Akamaru, now flopped over on his back with his paws in the air, that Hinata had to smile. She rubbed Akamaru's tummy gently and he wriggled with pleasure, panting up at her with a dog-grin.
"Kiba-kun?" she said slowly, thinking. "Do you... does your clan breed your nin-dogs? Breed them for the things they are?" She could feel Shino's eyes on her, from where he leaned against the tree at the top of the hill.
"Well we keep track of their breeding, yeah." Kiba reached over and tugged on one of Akamaru's ears, smiling the way he only did for his dog. "But the intensive breeding... that was a long time ago."
"Has your clan mentioned a marriage to you?" Shino asked quietly. Hinata's mouth quirked, a little sad. Of course, another noble would think of that immediately.
"No. No, it's just... I've been reading some of our old records these last couple months. Some of the things that were done to fix the Byakugan in our bloodline were... more than I was expecting." Brother and sister hadn't surprised her, but breeding children to their parents... she was glad she lived in a more civilized time.
Shino just nodded, understanding, but Kiba's eyes darkened. "Hinata..." He subsided with a growl when she shook her head at him. Really, she'd already known that ruthlessness ran in the Hyuuga blood, along with their eyes.
"All right, everyone!" Kurenai-sensei waved at them from the bottom of the hill. "I have the briefing, let's get going! Hinata," she added, as they scrambled up and trotted down to join her, "is everything all right?"
Hinata set aside her reading and the thoughts it brought with a soft toss of her head and smiled up at her teacher, shyly reassuring. "Yes, Kurenai-sensei."
This was a clan matter. She was a daughter of Hyuuga. She would find her own way.
Neji-niisan stopped with his palm against her diaphragm and Hinata straightened with a sigh. "I was too slow blocking," she murmured.
"It isn't speed you need there, Hinata-sama," he said, frowning a little. "You could have avoided that simply by shifting your stance forward and turning your body."
She blinked and ran through the sequence in her head, and blushed hotly. "Oh."
Neji-niisan studied her, head tipped to the side. "You've been missing that more often, lately, and trying to block when you don't need to. I think perhaps you're focusing too tightly."
Hinata clasped her hands together, looking down; even her determination seemed to go wrong when it came to her own clan's techniques. She'd hoped, once, that reading the old records might help her with that also, but after most of a year she understood no better. She started when Neji-niisan touched her wrist. "You're not flinching any more," he said gently. "That's the important part. If you only have the courage to close in, that's when you can use the greatest strength of our art." With a faint smile, he added, "Ignore the hand..."
"Control the space," she recited automatically. Though how a person was supposed to counter a strike by ignoring it she had never understood and no one had ever explained. She sighed softly.
After a quiet moment, Neji-niisan said, slowly, "I think perhaps you were never taught quite what that rule means, Hinata-sama." He beckoned her back in and took up a stance opposite her, nearly knee to knee. She obediently matched him. "Watch my eyes, Hinata-sama," he said quietly. Very, very slowly his hand moved toward her in an open palm strike, and she tensed, arm twitching, ready to strike it aside. "Not my hand, my eyes," Neji-niisan reminded her, and she fixed her eyes back on his hastily.
She could see his whole body. With her eyes fixed on his, she could see the movement of his whole body--almost as if she had the Byakugan activated!
Neji smiled that faint smile of his again. "There. Now you can see, right?"
Breathless, eyes very wide, Hinata slowly shifted forward. His hand brushed right past her ribs and hers drifted forward through the open space his strike made until it came to rest against his chest. They stood that way for a long moment until she gathered enough of her wits to step back. She was breathing fast.
"That's the nature of our entire art," Neji-niisan told her calmly. "To see the whole space, and to move based on that whole pattern." He held up his hand. "Not just this one part of it."
"Oh." Hinata pressed her clasped hands to her mouth, shaking a little. She understood. She understood! She'd seen! "A..." Her voice broke and she had to clear her throat. "Again?" she asked, husky.
This time, Neji's smile was a full one.
The door to the Hyuuga archives opened and Hinata looked up, blinking in the sudden flood of light. Her father stood in the doorway.
"What have you found today, daughter?"
It was the question he asked every time he came here. She thought he meant it kindly, meant to say to her that what she did interested him as it had not for so many years. But it felt more like a challenge--a cross-examination, to determine whether her work had any worth. She tried to answer anyway.
Hinata looked down and touched the book spread out before her with delicate fingers. "I'm reading the records of the eighth head of the clan. He..." She nibbled her lip. "He took the leadership of the clan from his older brother."
"Ah. Yes, that used to happen, I'm afraid." He came and rested a hand on her shoulder. "Some of this must be very disturbing to you to read."
"It's very different," she said diplomatically. To herself, she thought it had probably worked better. In that day, Neji would have been the clan heir. And wouldn't that have been better for everyone? She certainly wouldn't have fought him for it! And he was just as much Hyuuga blood as she, so shouldn't the strongest lead, if that was what mattered?
And if that wasn't what mattered, why had Hanabi been made heir in her place? Reading the archives made her think of these things.
"Well, it's time to eat soon," her father said, hearing none of her thoughts. "Come."
Hinata nodded obediently and marked her place and followed him out.
The archives made her think. The curse seal dictated much about how their clan lived. But she had found no mention of the seal at all, yet. It made her nervous, and it made her hope. They had lived for so long without the seal. Surely, then, they could find a way to live without it now.
Surely, if she just searched far enough, she could find a way. If she could just see enough of the larger pattern--not the single hand of the seal, but the whole space of their history--surely she would see the space where the Hyuuga could move next.
She thought of Neji-niisan's instruction, and smiled down at the floor of the corridor.
Kiba cursed under his breath. "Lost them again!"
They'd been tracking a group of strange shinobi through Leaf's territory for hours, and the intruders were proving themselves skilled. Kurenai-sensei's mouth tightened with clear annoyance and she paused on a branch. "Hinata."
Hinata nodded silently and put her back to a tree trunk, folding her hands together and activating her Byakugan. "Nothing close," she whispered, and widened her field. Wider. Wider. She was unfocusing, which used to be where she stopped, thinking that was the end of her range. Now she knew to keep going. Wider. There. "Three point two kilometers," she reported, "Northwest, fifteen degrees."
"Can you tell how many of them?" Kurenai-sensei asked.
Hinata took a breath and narrowed her field of vision, pressing back harder against the tree. This always made her dizzy. "Five," she gasped.
Kurenai's elegant brows drew down in a frustrated scowl. "Too many of them for us to take on ourselves without observing more closely. We'll close up slowly, then. Kiba! Send Akamaru back to the village to bring back another team to support us." While Kiba was talking softly to Akamaru, she laid a hand on Hinata's shoulder. "We'll rely on you to track them until we're close enough for Shino's bugs to go on ahead."
Hinata straightened, determined. "Right."
She kept her focus tight on the intruders as they moved, slowly closing the distance between them. She was getting better at this, at holding the Byakugan and even altering her field of view a little bit while moving.
Suddenly, though, the distance was closing a lot faster.
"They've turned around to meet us," she reported, and Kurenai spat a chopped off curse as she landed.
"Kiba, stay up here," Kurenai ordered. "Hinata, Shino, down on the ground. We'll hold them if we can, but if we can't then we'll retreat back toward the village and draw them down our backtrail to meet our support team." Her hands came together in the Monkey and she vanished from sight.
From all sight but Hinata's, that was.
Hinata set herself at the foot of a tree, reminding herself to breathe deep and slow. She could do this. She could. She spread her focus out again, encompassing all of her team, reaching outward. The intruders were coming fast; she let the edge of her range shrink again on their heels, back to a more comfortable two hundred meters. She saw Kurenai's chakra flare and two of the intruders suddenly stumble, wrapped in her illusion. "One on one," she called to Shino and Kiba, and then one of the intruders was on her, dropping from the trees to crouch, poised, in front of her.
She wanted to freeze. She wanted to hide. But she wouldn't do that; this was a mission and she was a shinobi, and she could do this. Watch his eyes, she reminded herself, not his hands!
And she could see. She could see the path of the kunai coming toward her in the shape of her opponent's arm, and swayed aside from it easily. Easily! A breath of excitement joined her determination and she ran forward to close with him.
It doesn't matter how much power the enemy strikes with, Neji-niisan's voice said in her memory, calm and quiet, because you won't be there. That is our defense, Hinata-sama. She kept her eyes on the intruder's, watching the shape of his movements, and slid aside from blow after blow, stepping through the openings his attacks left again and again. Her return blows didn't have great power, but, she reminded herself, they didn't need to. Her enemy was stumbling, now, organs laboring under the jarring shocks of her open palm, chakra sliding out of his control. He was starting to leave himself more and more open.
Before the thought even finished forming in her mind, her hand had closed into a fist and she'd taken one perfect step forward, shifting with all the momentum of her entire body, and driven that fist into his solar plexus. And he fell.
Hinata stood over him for a breath, almost stunned. She'd done it.
Abruptly, she noticed that there were far more chakra signatures in her field of vision than there should have been, and she spun around, looking frantically for her teammates...
Sakura dropped out of the trees beside her, breathless and smiling. "Good job, Hinata! We're just finishing up with the rest of them. Two got away, but we've still got three of them for Interrogation to deal with." More Leaf ninja gathered around them, including Hinata's team. Kurenai had another of the intruders slung over her shoulder and was talking quietly with one of the new team. Hinata only recognized them vaguely; perhaps they were from Intelligence, if Sakura-san was here too.
She squeaked as Naruto came dashing through the trees and landed in a huff. "Lost them. They must have someone who's good with illusion with them." He glanced down at Hinata's opponent and then up at her with a grin. "You got one?"
Hinata just nodded wordlessly, blushing at that smile.
"She did." Sakura put a toe under the man's shoulder to flip him over. Her mouth tightened as she looked down at him. "Hidden Sound. Again." She beckoned to another of the newcomers. "Tie them securely, and we'll take them back right now."
"Is this... is this your team?" Hinata managed, softly, glancing between Sakura-san and Naruto-kun. They were both chuunin, now, after all, and they'd passed last season, only two years after graduation. She wouldn't be at all surprised if one of them were put in command of a new team. Sakura snorted.
"Well, most of them are my team for the moment. That one," she waved at Naruto, "invited himself along."
"Hey, I was bored!" Naruto-kun protested.
"Is that what you're going to tell Tsunade-sama, when she asks why you slacked off your exercises?"
Naruto sputtered for a moment before turning back brightly to Hinata while Sakura gave him a mock glare. "So, hey, you guys are going to take the next chuunin exam, aren't you?" He nudged her with a friendly elbow, making her squeak again. "It'll be a cakewalk this time, you'll see!"
"Course it'll be a cakewalk," Kiba declared, coming up behind Hinata to loom protectively.
"Oh, I know it will be for Hinata," Naruto said innocently. "Dunno about you, though."
Hinata just stood and blushed while Naruto and Kiba's teasing degenerated into wrestling. Eventually, Sakura waded in and pulled Naruto out, rolling her eyes. She was so at ease with him, Hinata thought wistfully, the way Hinata herself never had been. If Naruto-kun took up with anyone, it would probably be Sakura-san or Sasuke-kun. She'd known that for a year and more. But it still felt good to have Naruto smile at her, encourage her. Maybe... maybe he would even be there to cheer her on again, if her team did take the exam again next season.
She would like that. Naruto-kun made her feel like she could do things. Maybe even the things she wanted the very most to do.
Hinata stared down at the page before her with some astonishment. Just when she thought she understood the shape of her clan, something different revealed itself.
The fourteenth head of the clan had been blind.
She'd spent the past two years reading volumes of journals and chronicles from the founding of the clan forward, and the records that filled some of the early pages had been... harsh. For much of their early history, a child who was flawed would have been killed. And, to the Hyuuga clan, blindness was about as great a flaw as one could have. In later years, of course, that had changed. They had become more civilized. The flawed children, if they were whole enough to live, were only... solitary. To be honest, Hinata had wondered more than once if that was to be her fate--to live with neither husband nor lover, that her weakness not be passed to her children.
By all precedent, that should have been the fate of Hyuuga Ririko. Instead, she had risen to lead the entire clan!
She took a breath and sat back. See the space, she reminded herself. This was one more part in the bigger picture. Perhaps...
Perhaps the clan of that day had become too focused, the way Hinata herself had been until Neji-niisan explained things for her. Perhaps Ririko had been the one to step back and broaden their vision again.
Perhaps she had been the one to show that not looking at something helped one to better perceive its movement. Perhaps she had been one of those who had changed the clan.
Hinata leaned over the book table again and turned the page eagerly. Perhaps Ririko could help her.
Hinata shifted her weight on the packed earth of Konoha's arena and ruthlessly stifled a wince as her wrenched knee protested.
The chuunin exam had not precisely been a "cakewalk" but she had gotten this far, along with all her team. The first test, to shadow a chuunin unseen across the fourteenth training ground, had been easy for all of them. They had gotten their 'rescue subject' out of the Forest of Death alive, for the second test, despite Hagane-san's complete lack of cooperation and apparent dislike of Akamaru. Hinata had entertained a faint hope that the last round might actually be the simplest, this time. She had learned a great deal in the past couple years, after all, and even her father seemed to approve of her progress in training lately, though he hadn't said anything. She was starting to actually be good at her clan's arts!
And here she was, facing an opponent that turned those arts into a disadvantage.
The Rain-nin across from her laughed, completely hidden in a shifting mist that fogged both his body and his chakra into an indistinguishable blur. "You should give the match up," he called. "Maybe you'll even get points for knowing when the opponent is too strong to beat."
That annoyed her and she frowned. "That would only be true if my objective were expendable or a distraction," she pointed out sharply. "Neither of those conditions is set, here."
And no un-sealed child of Hyuuga dared surrender, in any case.
The seal, always the seal, and she didn't even know where it came from yet! She gritted her teeth, pushing her Byakugan harder, trying to see past the mist of dispersed and refracted light and chakra. The blur was giving her a headache just to look at. She tensed as it rushed toward her and stepped forward to meet it, spinning on her good leg to catch anything that might be coming. A fist glanced off her arm, and a foot caught her weak knee, and she went down with a gasp, rolling clear to come back up spitting dirt and twice as angry as before.
There had to be a way! Some way to see!
...gift of our clan is not sight alone, or even first. Rather, it is understanding.
Hinata could almost see the page in front of her, the slanting strokes of Hyuuga Ririko's words, of the blind clan head who had written so powerfully of the vision, not the eyes, that Hyuuga passed down generation on generation.
Control the space.
Hinata dodged aside from another rush and chewed on her lip, thinking furiously. She knew the human body, knew it better than anyone but a medic might. She knew where to strike and how, whether she could see or not. If she could just find her opponent in the middle of that fog of...
Her eyes widened.
She could do it. It would work. The plan settled in her mind and she knew it, like she knew the weight of her own kunai. But... Her eyes flicked up to find her father in the galleries, and Hanabi beside him. She was sure he wouldn't approve. Would think it was another failure. What if...
"Hinataaaaaa! Kick his ass! You can do it!"
The yell pulled her gaze over to the next gallery, where Naruto was half standing on the rail, waving his arms as Sasuke-kun kept a casual grip on the back of his jacket to keep him from going over. Determination sparked through her heart again; doubt hadn't stopped Naruto! And behind him... behind him was Neji-niisan, standing still and quiet, arms folded. Their eyes met for a single breath, and he nodded to her, firm and confident. Warmth wrapped around her heart and she straightened with a slow breath.
And released her Byakugan.
A rustle like wind through the leaves passed around the galleries. "Ha! You forfeit?" her opponent called.
"Not at all," Hinata answered calmly. The headache had eased as soon as she released her sight and she let her eyes unfocus too, watching the small bank of mist but not trying to penetrate it.
Merely watching where it moved.
And she'd been right. Without the distraction of details, of seeing the shifting chakra laced through that blind of mist, she could see that it always 'faced' toward her in exactly the same orientation, even as the Rain-nin circled, as if it were a stiff form he pulled along with him.
The sound of his steps, though, said that he was moving to the side of that masked space.
She smiled and kept her eyes open--no sense giving him a hint by closing them. But she spread her attention out to her other senses, just the way she spread her sight out to see the whole field of movement when she and Neji sparred. She could hear the faint scuff of his feet, feel the shift of air as he moved the mist bank, and she stood, stable and relaxed, and waited.
Another rush, and this time she swore she could feel his steps, through the air and the ground, and she turned lightly to meet him. His arm was high, his knee was against hers, and it was so simple to step and turn and strike, hard and sure, hand open and precise as befit a daughter of her clan.
The chakra mist raveled away under the sun and Hinata stood, breathing slow and deep, with her opponent crumpled at her feet.
A roar went up from the galleries, and the referee appeared beside them to turn the Rain-nin over and check him. "Unconscious, but uninjured," he reported to the approaching medic, and glanced up at Hinata. "Smooth." While Hinata was still blushing, he raised his voice and declared her the winner.
She stole a look up at the galleries, at Naruto, who was jumping up and down and waving his clasped hands over his head; at Neji-niisan, who was smiling, faint and satisfied; hesitantly, a little fearfully, at her father. Who nodded to her a fraction, expression cool but not disapproving. She released a silent breath of relief and made her shaky knees support her up the stairs to the examinees' gallery.
Where Kiba caught her up in a hug and swung her in laughing circles until Kurenai-sensei scolded him to let her get a look at Hinata's knife cuts. Hinata was laughing too, though.
She'd done it.
Not even the news, three days later, that she had passed and was promoted could quite compare to that first moment of knowing and triumph.
Hinata sat at the table in the archive room with her head on her folded arms, the last journals spread out around her.
She had her answers now. She knew where the seal had come from and why. She had read from start to finish, from the beginning to the present, and having reached the present she had arrived at the end of other people's words and understanding.
Now she had to make her own.
A shiver ran through her. She had to act, and she was afraid to. Afraid because she knew what she wanted to do but had no idea whether her father would agree. Whether her sister, after him, would agree. Whether this was even possible to dream of.
But she was the one who knew. And so she was the one who must act.
A faint sob caught in her throat, and she huddled closer in on herself. She was so afraid. But the weight of twenty generations was behind her, and she knew them now, felt them. And, set aside or not, she was a daughter of the main house; it was her duty and no other's.
She twitched upright at the soft scrape of the door opening.
"Hinata? It's time to eat soon..." Her mother looked in and frowned, coming across the room to lay a hand on her head. "Hinata, are you well?"
Hinata summoned up a smile for her mother, afraid that it was still rather drawn. "I'm well Haha-ue. I just have a bit of a headache from my reading, I think."
Headache, heartache, it was close enough, surely.
"Well, come out of this close room for a while, then," her mother ordered, chivvying her out the door. "Eat a little and have a walk, and see if that doesn't help. You've been spending so much time here, I'm not really surprised. You have to remember to take care of yourself, even when the research is calling!"
Hinata went meekly, casting only one last glance behind her before she closed the door on the archives.
What she had to do next moved beyond this room.
It took over a week to nerve herself to the only course of action she thought had a chance of working, and another two before she and Neji were home at the same time. She crept through the halls of the compound, tiptoeing around patches of moonlight from the windows, until she reached Neji-niisan's door and could tap delicately on it. She had to tap twice before he heard and came to open it with a small frown.
"Who is... Hinata-sama?" His brows rose. He wore a sleeping robe and he'd taken off his forehead protector and her eyes flickered up once to the seal, clear and dark on his forehead.
"May I come in?" she whispered.
One brow rose higher, but he stood aside and slid the door closed behind her. "Is something wrong?" he asked, eyes lingering on her hands, and she realized she was twisting them together. She took a deep breath.
"Neji-niisan, would you... would you let me try to take the seal off you?"
For the first time since they'd been five or six, Neji completely lost countenance and stared at her in clear shock. "Take the... but... Hinata-sama, what are you saying? That's," he swallowed and finished, husky, "that's not possible."
"It is," she insisted, firm with the surety of her years of research and the copied counter-seals tucked into her sleeve tonight. "I found it, in the archives. Where it came from. Why we used it. It isn't what anyone thinks!" She took a breath and lowered her voice again. "And it was made with a counter-seal that cancels it."
His fingers brushed over the mark on his forehead before he clenched them and lowered his hand. "It's good of you to attempt this, Hinata-sama," he said, very level, "but it would only be re-made."
"That's... I..." her fingers tightened on each other again. "I want this for more than just you. I want it for the whole clan. But I need to know for sure that the counter-seal works, first, that there wasn't anything left out of the records about this." She lowered her eyes to stare at the mats, at his bare feet under the hem of his pale robe. "It isn't just that I know you want to be free. It isn't just that you... you've helped me so much. My reasons aren't that kind or... or good. It's that I know you want this enough to try, even if there's a risk of it not working or going wrong. And if it doesn't work, I'm fairly sure you'll keep quiet while I keep looking." She didn't want him to think better of her than she deserved.
She looked up, startled, when he laughed.
"You still think like the clan heir," he murmured, smiling crookedly, and her face heated with formless shame. He shook his head. "That isn't a bad thing." He looked at her in the half-light for a long, thoughtful moment. "If you're talking of the whole clan, then I imagine you have a plan. Under-thinking a thing has never been your weakness."
Hinata nodded, hesitantly.
Neji-niisan nodded back, looking quite calm. "Very well. If you think this has a reasonable chance, I'll be your test subject. What do you need?"
She swallowed, twice as nervous now that it had come down to the actual technique. "I need to write the counter-seal on you, on your chest." And, having read the records of the eighteenth head of the clan, she had her suspicions why. They would see if she was right. Neji merely nodded and moved over to sit with his legs folded in the fall of moonlight from his narrow window, shrugging his sleeping robe off his shoulders and down to his waist.
Hinata took a deep breath, and then another, concentrating on the movement of her diaphragm, the slow slide of oxygen into her blood, letting the familiarity of it still the trembling in her hands. Slowly and carefully she knelt in front of Neji-niisan, taking the copy of the technique out of her sleeve to read over one more time. She took brush and ink out of the thigh pouch she'd worn under her own in-house kimono and dipped the brush and took one more breath for courage. She rested one hand lightly on Neji-niisan's straight shoulder and bent to trace the counter-seal, character by character, over his heart, careful to keep the radiating lines of it at precise intervals so that they would cross the proper tenketsu in the proper order. Neji was still under her hands, tranquil as if he were meditating.
"All right," she said at last. "Now the activation." She nibbled on her lip and asked again, "You're sure...?"
Neji nodded, eyes dark. "I'm sure."
Of course he was sure. He hated the seal. That was why she had chosen him for this, that and the surviving shadow of trust between them. Hinata closed her eyes for a moment; this was it. After this there would be no going back. She clung to the knowledge of what she'd found in the archives and brought her hands together in the Ram.
Seal followed seal, Horse and Tiger and Bird and Boar and Bird, on through the full set of thirty-seven. She shaped each one carefully, smoothly, concentrating her chakra on the form of the counter-seal and the building energy of it. And with the final Bird she felt the quick drain on her chakra, like water past a broken dam, and heard Neji gasp. Her eyes flew open, sudden panic breaking past her calm. Had it worked, had it gone wrong, was he all right?
Neji-niisan sat in front of her, eyes wide in the dim room, one palm pressed over his chest. His forehead was unmarked.
"It's gone," she whispered.
"It is," he agreed, husky. "I felt it come undone." They stared at each other for a long moment, neither daring to stir, both maybe a little shocked by how swift and simple it had been. When he did move, at last, it was to gather up her hand and kiss her ink-stained fingers softly. "Whether this works or not, Hinata-sama," he said quietly, head still bowed. "I will always thank you for this moment."
Another time, she might have blushed at such a gesture from Neji, the clan's most brilliant son. In this moment, though, it was all she could do to catch back a tiny gasp of fear at the thought of what she had to to next, stifling it desperately, though she couldn't keep her fingers from clinging to his. "Can you hide it?" she asked, a little shaky. "I want to try to find a good time to speak with my father about this."
His mouth pulled into a crooked smile at the unlikelihood of that that, but he nodded. "I can hide the seal's absence as well as I usually hide the seal itself."
"Thank you." She swallowed. "I... I should get back to my room." He started to say something, one hand lifted toward her, but stopped and nodded silently and escorted her back to the door with a careful hand on her arm. He watched after her, eyes shadowed and thoughtful, as she stumbled down the hall in a daze. Only one thought was clear in her mind.
She was really going to do this thing.
She fell asleep that night praying fervently that the spirits of her ancestors, all the ones she'd spent so long reading and trying to understand, would favor her in what she needed to do next.
It took over a month to find her time. She kept going to the archives every night she was home, partly so no one would ask why she had stopped, but partly to read over the records of the eighteenth clan head again and hold those words to her like a talisman against fear.
Because, of course, what she'd finally realized was that she couldn't possibly speak to her father about this alone. If she did that, he would almost certainly ignore her, and tell himself it was for the good of the clan to keep things just the way they were. No. Not alone. There would have to be witnesses.
Ideally, the entire clan.
So she told over the words of the last few generations to herself and memorized the counter-seal line for line, and waited until the waiting and the secret she carried with her wound together into a hard, dark weight in her chest.
The negotiation of a marriage contract to an outsider involved only the principles and the clan head, but they never went forward until the whole clan had a chance to meet the prospective incomer. The Hyuuga were not as numerous as the Uchiha had been, and small quarrels had torn shinobi clans apart in the past.
And, of course, any outsider must know of the clan's seal, and agree to take it for themselves and their children.
Fushiyama Ran seemed a little troubled by the idea, but had, in the end agreed. And she mingled easily with the rest of the clan. Hinata thought it very likely she would be approved; Hinata's mother, the strongest of the clan in the healing techniques and their best medical researcher, said that Fushiyama's blood carried nothing that would harm the clan.
The hard weight of Hinata's duty to her clan sat behind her breastbone all through the afternoon and evening.
As the welcome feast wound to its close, in bottles of sake for many, Hinata shifted on her cushion at her father's far side. "Chichi-ue," she murmured, "I would speak to the clan of some history I've found in the archives, if you'll allow." When he raised a brow at her, she clasped her hands in her lap so they wouldn't tremble. "I have found some very great things in our past. A time of celebration seems appropriate to remember them."
His expression turned from questioning to tolerant, and he rose. "Very well, then."
She didn't hear a great deal of what he said to call the attention of the clan; she was trying to make the sudden butterflies in her stomach and the tips of her fingers go away. When her father gestured to her, she managed to stand and walk out into the center of the hall on steady legs at least. She raised her head and looked around at the crowd of eyes so like her own, and took a breath.
"I have read in the archives of our clan, and found much pride in the history written there," she started, voice husky despite all her attempts to raise it this once. The rustle and clinking of cups hushed courteously for her, and she took another breath, folding her hands. "We are an ancient bloodline, as all know," she went on more steadily. "This is our twenty-first generation as a noble clan, and our history reaches back even before that. But we have grown and changed over that time as well. In the scrolls and journals, I found that some of our traditions are new." She had to swallow before she could go on. "Indeed, the seal of our clan is only four generations old."
A startled murmur ran around the hall, and her father's mouth tightened faintly. He didn't stop her, though. Hinata held tight to that.
"In my reading, I found the journal of the eighteenth clan head, Akemi. It was she who developed the seal. It was made for times of war." She snuck a quick glance around; some looked startled still, but others were nodding thoughtfully. "It was made to give our clan strength, so that none need fear being forced to give up clan secrets, even in death; so that none need fear betrayal by their own blood, or fear to be turned against their clan and village. It was made to let us fight with our whole hearts and souls, without reservation." The hall was still around her, and she could see shoulders straightening at her words--but she could see that many eyes were also shadowed, in the lantern light.
"This too, I found." Now her voice was husky with something besides nerves. "In that first generation, when peace returned, the seal was removed."
The stillness broke into sharp rustling and muffled exclamations. Even the head table stirred. Hinata avoided her father's eyes and hurried on. "The nineteenth clan head made the decision that war was coming too often to allow the seal to lapse, but Akemi, who created it, wrote this: The bonds of clan are silk, spun from heart to heart. They are strong but not proof against all; when the fires of war threaten, we will wrap them in the steel of this curse seal that the clan may survive anything that comes with whole hearts. When the cool of peace returns, we may strip back the steel and let the silk fly free again, for it is the silk that lets a clan grow strong enough to bear the steel.
"In the archives, I found the technique for releasing the seal," Hinata said into the absolute silence of the hall, and held out her hands toward her father, pleading. "Chichi-ue... we have been at peace for almost twenty years! I beg you, will you not hear the wisdom of the eighteenth head, and undo the steel now?"
Her father laid his hands flat on the table, and his face was stern. "In your own lifetime, Hinata, we have had proof that the seal is still needed to guard our secrets from other villages."
"It was not the seal that protected me," Hinata whispered. "It was my father."
"The seal was what allowed us to avoid war and yet protect our bloodline," her father answered, inflexible. "Even without war, the life of shinobi is one of risk. The seal protects us." A shade softer, he added, "My daughter, you must see how suspect your position is, knowing that you will be marked yourself when Hanabi inherits."
Hinata met her sister's eyes for a moment, and the blank lack of response there made her shudder--no hope, no reprieve, no love showed in Hanabi's gaze, only determination without heart. "How can you not see this is killing us?" she burst out. "My sister's heart is dead! I would have died at the hands of my cousin if not for the intervention of outsiders! All because of that seal!"
"Hinata," her father said, voice flat with denial of her words, "calm yourself and sit down."
The memory of Naruto waving his arms to cheer her on during her exam flashed before her mind's eye. Never give up. She inhaled hard, hands clenched, increasingly wild thoughts of what she might do next circling in her mind.
And then Neji stood. "Hinata-sama." He paced gravely around the end of his table and out into the center of the hall, toward her. "You must calm yourself, Hinata-sama," he said quietly, as he came, and her heart wrenched at that completely unexpected echo of her father.
Until he came close enough for her to see the wicked glee hovering at the corners of his eyes and mouth.
"Calm yourself," he repeated. "You are not alone." He sank gracefully down to kneel at her feet in full salute, and his voice dropped clearly into the utter silence that gripped the hall. "Hyuuga Hinata-sama. I will follow you, and only you."
A roar like surf swept the hall and Hinata's father rose swiftly to his feet. "Neji!" His hand closed and flickered, half hidden by his sleeve.
Nothing, of course, happened, and hush rippled out from the head table, whispers following after.
Neji raised his head and looked over his shoulder with a not entirely nice smile. "You tried to force me, didn't you? It will do no good. Not anymore." He stood and tugged off his forehead protector, and the whispers turned to hisses of shock at his unmarked forehead. "Did you think Hinata-sama would offer such a thing without confirming it?" he asked, mildly. "She has freed me. Even after I attempted, in all sincerity, to take her life, she freed me." His stance shifted and he added, voice darker, "This is the lady who would free our whole clan. I will serve and protect her with my life."
"Neji, don't--!" Hinata gasped. The very last thing she wanted was to see her clan fighting over this, let alone over her.
"Hush, Hinata-sama," Neji told her, and the smile was back in his voice, though he didn't take his eyes off the head table and was still poised in front of her. "I swore to protect you when we were barely walking, before the seal ever touched me. You've simply proven that I was right to do so."
"Silk." Fushiyama Ran stood from the right-hand table, eyes wide as she stared at Hinata. "Your eighteenth head said it. The bonds of silk are what make a clan live, make them strong enough to bear the steel." She reached down and caught Hiroko's hand urgently. "This is true loyalty. This, I can give my life and the lives of my children to!" She and Hiroko exchanged a long speaking look, and even in the midst of tension and anger Hinata wished, wistfully, that someday she might find someone whose heart could speak to hers that way. Hiroko rose slowly and wrapped his arm around Ran's shoulders.
"Sometimes," he said softly, "an outside view sees clearest. Even with our vision," he added, rueful. A huff of laughter answered him here and there, and he met Hinata's eyes for a long moment. "I don't think there's any question that your heart lives, Hinata-sama," he said. "And if Neji will serve you, then perhaps the rest doesn't matter. You have the strength to release the seal. Let that be enough." He led Ran around the table and knelt down in front of it. "Hinata-sama, we will follow you, and our children after us."
"My children..." the whisper was from more than one mouth, and slid around the room like a breeze. One after another, four more women stood and came out into the hall to kneel and bow their heads to Hinata. In fits and starts, their husbands joined them, two with the speed of desperate relief. A knot of the unwed men a double handful of years older than Hinata herself followed. Panic fluttered under her ribs. She'd only meant to convince her father, not start a revolution!
Or a civil war.
Remembering some of the other things she'd read in the archives, of generations split against themselves, she spun back to the head table, hand stretched out in entreaty again. "Please," she whispered. Her father stood staring at the hall, just as shocked as she. It was her sister who slowly stood and came out to face her.
Hanabi's eyes were as shuttered as ever, and Hinata waited, biting her lip, with no idea how this moment would turn.
"You would really never set the curse seal on anyone again?" Hanabi asked, almost without expression.
This, at least, Hinata had already thought on. "Only by consent, and only in extremity," she said firmly. "It was made for a reason, a good one. But never as a weapon against our own clan." She hesitated and added, low, "And if it marked anyone in a team, in a family, in the clan... it must mark all. Including those of the main house. When it was first made, no one went unprotected. Or unrestrained."
"You've thought this out," Hanabi noted, and looked down at her toes for a long moment. "All right." She looked back up and added, "You're still weaker than me. But all right."
Hinata let out a shaking breath, stunned by unlooked for hope, and reached out timidly. "Hanabi... may I hug you? Please?" She hadn't for so very long.
Finally, the flatness of Hanabi's stare broke for a moment, and she stepped hesitantly closer. "I... guess so."
Hinata gathered her up in a tight hug, swallowing hard. "I never wanted you to hurt because of me," she whispered as tears prickled under her lids. "I never wanted to control or rule over you. I swear."
Slowly, haltingly, Hanabi's arms came up to close lightly around her. "You... really want to take care of everyone," Hanabi whispered back.
"Yes. Yes, exactly. Everyone. You too." Hinata dared to stroke Hanabi's sleek, soft hair.
Hanabi sniffed at that. "I expect I'll end up taking care of you. Me and Neji-san." She stayed close for another moment, though, before she pulled away, and she had the faintest of smiles curling up the corner of her mouth when she looked up and added, "Ane-ue."
Hinata had to wipe her eyes hastily. "I'm glad you will." She looked up at their father, feeling a deeper calm in her heart, now. "Chichi-ue," she said, and this time her voice filled the hall, husky as it was. "I beg you again to hear the wisdom of Akemi, eighteenth head of our clan, your great grandmother. The seal is a great strength, but it will weaken us if we let it become a crutch. Please. Let it be released while there is peace."
He swept a glance around the room, at the people who had come forward in support of her, and said dryly, "It appears I have small choice, unless I wish to split the clan." Hinata winced, and he snorted softly. "Very well. I will examine the documents you have found and consider how this might be done. And," he added, more dryly yet as a whisper of excitement spun around the hall, "it also appears that my eldest daughter will once again be our heir. Congratulations, Hinata."
"I didn't mean..." she said in a tiny voice, and he waved a hand as if to brush the words away.
"You did well."
On that stunning statement, he turned and paced calmly from the room.
As some of Hinata's more distant cousins came forward to ask eagerly after how this could be done, whether it was really true, Neji rested a hand on her shoulder and said very quietly. "Remember. I follow you and no other, now."
That support and responsibility settled around her shoulders and she straightened under them. Neji-niisan believed in her. They could never get back the past, the sweetness of their childhood, she knew that, but he had never stopped being her dearest cousin. His support meant something. "I'll remember," she promised.
He smiled and stood at her back as she faced her clan and tried to find answers for them.
Hinata made her way down the hall to the archives, one finger tracing down the lists in her hands. The archives were the right place for these, surely, even if her father hadn't officially decided yet.
Haruka wanted his seal removed, but his partner, Kanon, wanted to keep hers so the seal's trigger needed to be kept from Haruka for now. Arata wanted to keep his, which made perfect sense to Hinata given how much time he spent working at the borders, but he wanted his son's removed immediately until the boy was old enough to make his own choice.
And that brought up the question of when the choice should be made. Hinata supposed it would have to be at twelve, on academy graduation. And under what circumstances should the clan head be able to command it? Only in war? During any mission into non-allied territory? She sighed as she pushed open the archive doors, eyes on her lists.
"Difficulties, daughter?" her father's voice asked.
Hinata looked up, startled. Her father was in the archives, with Akemi's journals spread around him; she recognized them. He was also waiting for an answer. "Oh... well, yes. Or, at least, complications. I suppose that was to be expected." She came and offered him the lists. "This is a record of everyone's wishes regarding their seals. I can see already there will have to be some compromises, and some new policies about how and when the seal is called for." She hesitated, eyes falling. "If... if you approve it, that is."
He sighed and leaned back in his chair, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Sit, Hinata." When she'd pulled up another chair, he waved a hand at the journals. "You made a good point, and Akemi had more. I believe that you spoke for the good of the clan, as you see it." At her soft sigh of relief, he smiled just a little. "Once I calmed down, I remembered how long you've spent in here. Were you looking for information on the seal all along, or did that come to you as you went?"
Hinata nibbled her lip, hands laced together on the table. "I started out looking for the seal. I wanted to know how we came to use it. And as I went on and there was such a long time when we didn't... I started to think perhaps it wasn't nearly as central as we feel it is now. Perhaps it shouldn't be." She nodded at the journals beside them under the amber lamplight. "When I came to Akemi-san's journals, I was sure. But... I was sure because of everything else I'd read before then." She looked up to meet her father's eyes. "We have been many things, over the generations of our clan, Chichi-ue. We have changed, often and greatly. We have bred ourselves and killed ourselves and fought each other for power and for love. We have had leaders of great vision and leaders who were blind. I believe we have become narrow, over these last few generations under the pressure of the great wars. I fear we have turned away from much that we could be."
Her fathers brows had risen along with her voice, as she spoke more and more passionately. "Indeed," he murmured at last. "You are not lacking in vision, that much is clear." He nodded toward the lists. "How, then, would you deal with those?"
Slowly, Hinata pulled her thoughts together. "The seal was made to support us in danger. At war, in enemy territory. I believe it should still be used then. And if any of our clan wish for it, to keep our secrets safe, they should have it." She took a deep breath. "But it must not be the main house's way of controlling the rest of the clan. That's wrong. It creates division, when we need unity!"
"There will always be division," he said, more gently than she expected, "but I understand your point." It was his turn to hesitate, but at last he said, quietly. "There is justice in it." He reached out to touch one of the journals. "Silk as the foundation for steel. Not the other way around. Akemi-san was wise."
There was sadness in the still line of his mouth, the darkness of memory in his eyes, and she reached out impulsively to touch his sleeve. "I'm sure your brother loved you," she said, soft and shy. "Even as Neji-niisan and I still love each other despite it all."
She wasn't sure why that made him chuckle, but at least the sadness was gone. "He's certainly loyal to you." She blushed, and he patted her shoulder and stood. "Keep those lists a while, daughter. Study them. I will wish to hear your proposals for how to address them." He looked down at her with a tiny smile. "After all, you'll be the one who has to deal with the system you come up with."
Hinata stared up at him, stunned by that subtle vote of confidence in her as heir, and broke into a brilliant smile. "Yes, Chichi-ue!"
She had succeeded. And now... now she had to keep going.
For once, the thought didn't make her afraid.
Hinata had been aware that leading the Hyuuga clan involved a lot of training and overseeing the development of their arts. She had known that it involved overseeing every negotiation for marriage or children, consulting the line records and the clan's medics to ensure as few stillbirths as possible. She had even been aware, in a general sort of way, that the clan head was the custodian of a great deal of property held by the clan as a whole.
She hadn't quite realized that there would be so much bank paperwork involved, though.
She added and subtracted carefully down the rows of tiny figures to confirm that the final figure was correct, and cross-referenced with the clan's own paperwork for that quarter, the records of rents and produce. When she was finally sure it all matched, she took the seal her father had left with her and carefully stamped the bottom of the page.
And then it was time for the next page.
She was reasonably sure that her father was not petty enough to have given her this work as some kind of revenge. It was clear that this really was something that had to be done. But she couldn't help feeling that he was getting a certain satisfaction out of teaching her this particular task.
"Ane-ue!" Hanabi pushed the door of the office open and leaned in. "Chichi-ue wants you. He's in the room by the south gardens."
Hinata smiled. "Thank you, Hanabi-chan." Her sister made a face at the pet-name, which Hinata had started using again, despite Hanabi having just graduated from the Academy. Hinata wanted to regain something they'd lost a long time ago, though, and for all Hanabi's face-making, she never told Hinata not to.
Hinata cleaned her brush as Hanabi ran back toward the training hall, and made her way through the dim, quiet corridors to the large room that faced onto the water gardens at the south of the compound.
Her father and Neji-niisan were both there.
"You wished to see me, Chichi-ue?" Hinata asked, sliding the inner door closed behind her.
"Indeed." Her father sounded rather dry as he waved a hand at the cushion beside him. "Neji has something to report about his latest mission, and feels he can only report to you."
Hinata blushed and hurried to settle herself on the cushion. "Neji-niisan," she protested softly.
"You are my lady," he said, quite imperturbable. "I would hardly report to another."
Hinata blushed and stole a glance at her father. He seemed peculiarly amused by this insistence of Neji's; she supposed she was glad for that, but she did wonder why. His glance in return reminded her that this was, in a way, another lesson, and she straightened with a breath. "You have something of significance to the clan, to report, then?" she asked Neji-san.
"I had occasion to speak with your voice, on this mission," he said soberly. "My team was with Kakashi-san's, attempting to retrieve the Kazekage from Akatsuki, and we encountered Uchiha Sasuke's brother." He frowned. "For a madman, Itachi argued like an Elder. First he insinuated that I should be helping him, for the sake of the alliance between Uchiha and Hyuuga. When I pointed out that doesn't apply to outlaws, he said he wasn't; that he couldn't be, because Sasuke was the only one left to pronounce it and he'd never been recognized as the head of Uchiha." Neji-niisan cut a questioning look toward her father, who made a thoughtful sound.
"Indeed, he wasn't. At the time of the massacre, of course, he was too young, but it's true that his confirmation should have come up when he graduated. In the absence of any other heir, Sasuke had the right as soon as he was a working shinobi." He frowned, tapping a finger against his knee. "Perhaps the Third only thought it would be unnecessary pressure, but perhaps..." His lips tightened. "Go on."
"I could tell that point disturbed Sasuke," Neji-niisan continued, pointedly speaking to Hinata. "So, under battlefield exigencies, I spoke on your behalf to recognize him." He shrugged one shoulder. "I don't doubt the Fifth will agree to confirm him, and if she does, and the other noble clans agree, then it will stand. It focused Sasuke again, at any rate, and he declared Itachi outlaw."
Hinata pressed a hand over her heart. "That must have hurt him," she said, soft but sure. Sasuke had always scared her a little, so quiet and so focused, and yet blazing with naked wrath like his clan's own fire. That passion could never have come from an uncaring heart. She looked up at her father. "Chichi-ue, if we are allies with Uchiha, we should see Sasuke-kun confirmed. It's only right, since he's taken up the responsibility, even when it's so heavy."
Her father seemed to come back from his own thoughts, mouth quirking a bit as he glanced down at her. "You do, hm?"
She nodded, trying not to quail at that look.
"Well," he murmured, eying Neji-niisan, "since the motion was made in your name, perhaps you should take the case to the Hokage yourself."
Tsunade-sama couldn't possibly be as intimidating as her father was. Hinata only had to take a single breath before she could nod steadily. "All right."
"There's one thing more," Neji-niisan said quietly. "Itachi said that Uchiha Madara was still alive, and that he is the will behind Akatsuki."
Her father's habitual stillness turned frozen. "Madara," he breathed, after a long moment. "And the Senju's ruling blood too diluted to stand against him again, save for Tsunade-sama."
"There are other bloodlines in this village than the Senju," Neji-san returned, eyes level on her father.
"Indeed." His eyes were distant again. "Hinata. Take the case for Sasuke's confirmation to the Hokage as soon as possible. And then..." he reached over to close his hand on hers. "Then there are some techniques I must teach you, the arts our clan holds against the darkness in the Uchiha."
The very idea that she might have to face Uchiha Madara sent a chill of fear down her spine, but it was countered, here and now, by the warmth and pride that he was willing to teach her like his heir again. She straightened her back and her voice was clear, if low, when she answered, "Yes, Chichi-ue."
Neji-san was smiling, and that warmed her too.
Neji-san was downright smirking two weeks later, when their training session was interrupted by a visit from Uchiha Sasuke.
"Was this your idea?" he asked Neji-niisan as he brushed through the doors of the training hall, waving a scroll marked with the Hokage's seal at him.
"Only in the field," Neji-niisan answered a bit smugly. "If that's the declaration I think it is, you may thank Hinata-sama for it."
Sasuke raised his brows at her and Hinata brushed back long, damp strands of hair from her face. "Chichi-ue suggested I be the one to raise the issue officially," she agreed, still a bit breathless. "You've taken up the work; you should have the title and whatever recognition or support goes with it. The Hokage agreed." She'd agreed so gleefully, in fact, that Hinata now had a small list of questions to ask her father about the political situation between the Fifth and the village Elders.
"The only support I have now is from outsiders," Sasuke pointed out a bit dryly. Considering who his teammates were, Hinata didn't think he was really discounting that fact, so she smiled.
"I'm glad to have been of assistance, then."
Sasuke cocked his head, looking at her frank and curious. "You've changed."
Hinata thought about the past couple years, about the weight of her clan that she felt behind her just about every day now. Suddenly, she wondered if Sasuke felt that kind of weight too, if that was what had driven his burning passion for so long. The shadows behind his eyes and the tension at the corners of his mouth looked familiar, now. It was this that led her to answer, "Hyuuga and Uchiha are still allies."
The long, slow breath he drew looked very familiar indeed, and she met his eyes gravely when he finally looked up again. "Yes," he agreed, quiet and formal. "We are allies, still." He looked down at the scroll in his hand and smiled wryly, the formality dropping away again. "Thanks."
Neji-niisan was giving her a soft, approving look, and Hinata's cheeks heated a little as she smiled back. Her oldest friend believed she could do this.
She was starting to believe she could do this, too.
Rumor had been running through the village for months, among the shinobi and civilians both, stirred up afresh with each new scrap of news. Gossip and tension simmered hotter as Akatsuki attacked host after host, and today Hinata thought both had reached a boil. It seemed to her that half the shinobi of the village were clustered around the mission board in front of the administration building, and she had hung back with her yearmates while Shikamaru-kun pushed through the crowd to get details.
"If this is really a multi-national mission, it must be about Naruto," Ino said, standing on her toes trying to see over the heads of older shinobi.
"Naruto and the remaining Cloud host," Shino corrected quietly. "Most likely."
"I don't see Sakura-san anywhere," Lee put in from the roof above them. "They must have already gotten their assignment."
Finally, Shikamaru hauled himself back out of the murmuring crush in the square, nearly stumbling but for Chouji-kun's quick hand under his elbow. "Air," was the first thing he said, and the whole group joined Lee on the rounded, blue roof of the records office.
"It's the hosts all right," Shikamaru confirmed grimly. "The mission parameters are to provide security for Naruto and Cloud's host in an undisclosed location. Mission time is listed as months, so it probably won't last more than a year, but I'm guessing this could be a long-term one. Risk is listed as very high; it's an A rank mission, even with a dozen or twenty people being called for."
"They must expect at least some of Akatsuki to get through to this mission, then," Neji-niisan said, arms folded.
"Or at least they're preparing for that," Tenten agreed, absently sharpening one of her scythes.
"Akatsuki will get a nasty surprise when they run into us." Kiba lounged back on the roof with a toothy smile.
Shikamaru-kun shook his head sharply. "Not all of us. If the location is undisclosed, they're hoping to hide the hosts, and that means the villages must be hunting Akatsuki in their own territories. Some of us had better stay, too."
Hinata chewed her lip; a hide-out would be in great need of scouts to watch the approaches, but the hunting teams would need them just as badly. "Shikamaru-kun," she asked at last, "where would my team be best placed, in this?"
Kiba leaned up on an elbow, blinking. "Isn't that for Kurenai-sensei to say?"
"Kiba!" Hinata exclaimed. "Surely you've noticed! Or at least Akamaru must have!" She knew her mother sometimes muttered insulting things about men's observational abilities, but surely...
Akamaru panted smugly and Kiba turned a little red. "Well, I mean, of course I have, but...!"
"Even if the medical rules won't take Kurenai-sensei off duty for another month, the long duration of this mission suggests she will be disqualified to go," Shino noted.
"Wait, wait, wait." Shikamaru was looking back and forth between them. "Off duty? You mean Kurenai-san is..." he waggled his fingers in the vicinity of his stomach.
Hinata frowned a little. "Don't gossip about it," she said firmly, in defense of her teacher, "but yes."
"Oh fuck." Shikamaru's elbows thumped down on his knees and his hands fell into his meditative position. "Asuma-san will be totally distracted, and he'll never agree to leave now, that means it's probably Genma-san along with Kakashi-san; there're rumors Genma was kind of friends with the Two-tails' host..." He frowned into the distance for long moments while the rest of them waited quietly. "All right," he said at last. "Hinata, your team should go with Naruto. It will be unfamiliar ground, and you're one of the best scouting teams; we can manage here without you, we've got the territory advantage. I need to stay, and I want Chouji here, but the mission will need as many sharp thinkers and strategists as possible to coordinate a mess like that against Akatsuki. Sakura will be sticking tight to Naruto." He looked up at his other teammate, eyes steady. "Ino. It'll have to be you."
While Ino blushed a little at this vote of confidence from the best mind among them, Hinata traced the thought further along. With Naruto's team gone, much of the village's raw power would be reduced. And the village must still be guarded. She nodded to herself and spoke quietly. "Neji-san."
Neji-san glanced over at her, brows lifted, and she met his eyes levelly. He would have to stay; he and his team with him, to guard everything she was leaving behind. He straightened slowly as their eyes locked, brows drawing down. "Hinata-sama!"
"You must," she said, calm with the sureness in her heart that she was right. It felt good, to know that he wanted to protect her again, the way he had when they were very small; it made her warm again, whenever she thought about it, warm enough not to need her jacket so often these days. But the fact remained that the greatest strength of Hyuuga belonged here, protecting the village, not out wherever she was going protecting only her. She smiled just for him, tiny and soft, and knew he understood when he blew out a sigh.
"Very well," he said quietly, bending his head a little. "I will stay."
"Thank you." And then she realized that everyone was watching them and looked down at her hands, flustered. When she peeked up through her lashes, Ino was grinning and Tenten's eyes were dancing. Shino rested a calming hand on her back and Chouji-kun gave her a small, approving nod. Shikamaru's smile was crooked.
"That was easier than I was thinking it would be," he murmured. "All right, then, that's us. Ino, see if you can put in a few words with Morino-san. Whoever else goes from Intelligence has to have some heavy-hitting techniques along with sharp eyes." He nodded to Neji-niisan. "You're the only jounin among us yet; if you can spread the idea of a lot of small teams hunting in cooperation, here, I think that's our best configuration to find Akatsuki and still be able to lay hold of the strength to fight them quickly. I'll talk to Asuma-san about the same thing."
A chill ran through Hinata as she thought about being on a remote mission for so long, away from her clan, away from Neji-san's reassurance and company. But she would have her team with her, she would be doing good work for the village. Important work. Work that was worth respect.
She clasped her hands tight and thought that maybe the chill was one of excitement.
When Hinata looked back on that mission, months and years later, she found much to be proud of. She had fought well. She had protected her friend, the boy who had given her an example to follow out of the darkness. She knew she had gained the respect of many of the mission's shinobi, and all of that made warm memories to hold in her heart. But the best of them had almost nothing to do with the mission itself, or with Naruto. The best was of one early morning, standing watch over the island's east side, perched up among the cliffs of the Turtle's shoulder.
They took watches in pairs, on the principle that what deceived the senses of one scout might not catch both. Hinata's partner for this watch was Noburu of Hidden Rock, a chuunin a few years older than she was, very strong in Wind techniques. Strong enough to bend air into lenses and listen along it as though the currents of the wind were strands of a spider's web. He was quiet and professional, and Hinata found him a restful partner.
So she was a little startled when he said, out of nowhere, "You're not what I expected."
She blinked "I beg your pardon, Noburu-san?"
He ran a hand through his short, stiff hair, and looked at her sidelong for a moment. "From a Hyuuga, I mean. I suppose all villages that have ever fought have tales of each other's great clans."
Hinata blushed, twining her fingers together. Was it that obvious, still, that she wasn't up to the standards of a clan heir? She'd tried so hard...
"They say Hyuugas are arrogant," Noburu went on, glancing out over the water. "Arrogant and ruthless. But here you are, heir to the clan, and you're not like that at all." He tossed a small, rueful smile over his shoulder at her. "I suppose that's a lesson not to believe gossip."
The cutting edge of uncertainty abruptly blunted. "You... you really think...?" She looked down at her hands, smiling helplessly. "Thank you."
"You've been as good a watch partner to work with as any from Hidden Rock, Hinata-san," he assured her earnestly.
She couldn't help imagining her father's expression on hearing such a compliment offered to his daughter, and then she couldn't help laughing. "Thank you!" She smiled back at him, hands relaxed in her lap as she knelt on their shelf of stone. "Sometimes, you know, Hyuugas are like that. Arrogant, yes. And ruthless. But that's not all that we are. That's not all that we want to be. It makes me very happy, that you see more than that in us."
"Well." He cleared his throat and turned back to their watch over the ocean. "I'm glad, then."
Hinata turned back to the water also. "I'll remember," she murmured. "When I hear gossip about Hidden Rock, I'll remember, too."
He smiled a little, out over the waves. "Good."
She carried away from that watch the increasingly familiar satisfaction that she was accomplishing the mission her Hokage wished to be accomplished, and the unfamiliar excitement of knowing that a shinobi of another village judged well of her. It made her walk a little straighter, to remember it.
She thought was that it would make Neji-niisan smile, to know about it.
The day Hinata and the rest of the Konoha contingent came back from Cloud's Island Turtle, Neji-niisan was away on a patrol. And, despite the busy hours of debriefing and reporting to her father, despite the small, warm glow of being told she would be at his side to attend the council on Shimura Danzou's fate for ordering an attack on the Leaf's own host, she found herself feeling bereft. She hadn't realized how much she'd depended on the thought of getting back to Neji-san's support, how hard she'd come to lean on that. And despite everything, she found herself trailing around the halls of the compound as if she were searching for something lost.
Which was where Neji finally found her.
She could already feel the smile on her face as she turned, and it only got wider when she saw him standing on the engawa behind her. "Neji-niisa--" Her breath caught as he strode forward and caught her up in a tight embrace. She clung to him in return, breathless and startled.
"You're all right," he whispered against her hair, and abruptly slid down to his knees, catching both her hands in his and resting his forehead against them. "My lady."
Hinata stared down at him. "Neji...-san?" The intensity of his greeting startled her.
"They said you were back, but I couldn't find you anywhere I looked," he said softly, not looking up. "And the rumors going around about your mission are... rather wild and full of talk about assassination attempts. Against whom varies, but one version said it was you."
Slowly, her cheeks heated. Neji-san had been that worried? For her?
Since he apparently wasn't going to move, she knelt down with him, knees bumping against his. "I'm all right," she offered, a bit shyly. "I wasn't injured."
He finally met her eyes, smiling a little wryly. "I'm glad. I suppose that was obvious."
She blushed a little deeper, starting to feel as flustered as she used to whenever Naruto was around. The thought made her pause, nibbling her lower lip as she met Neji-san's eyes. They were warm; so warm, for her. Suddenly she felt like the day she'd activated her Byakugan for the first time--the world had gotten deeper; her hands tightened on his. "I never thought," she breathed, eyes wide and wondering. She'd never thought she could have this again, her beloved cousin, her first friend, looking at her like this. Not like she was the heir, or a good leader, but like she was Hinata and that was important to him.
Neji-san looked torn, hands tight on hers even as he straightened, as if trying to regain his usual reserve. "Hinata-sama..."
"You never said," she whispered. "Neji-san... why didn't you speak?" When they were very little, she'd assumed that of course she would marry her cousin, her protector, her best friend. When they'd gotten older and her failures and Neji-niisan's bitterness parted them, she'd set the little girl's dream aside because it was too painful. If they could have that back again... why on earth wouldn't he have said? Was there something still in the way?
His looked unaccountably hesitant. "Hinata-sama, I don't... It isn't..." He looked away, face still. "It's always been Naruto with you, hasn't it?" he finally asked, low.
She laughed, soft and unsteady. "I like Naruto," she admitted. "I had a crush for a while, even. And sometimes I've thought, if Haha-ue says it's all right and if Sakura-san and Sasuke-kun don't mind, I might ask for a child of Uzumaki blood. But it's not like that. He doesn't love me. It's... he's... he's an example to me. He lives the way I want to be able to."
Neji-san's hands tightened round hers. "Not quite that loudly, I hope," he said, husky.
"No, not quite that loudly." She nibbled her lip for a moment, looking at her cousin from under her lashes. "Just that bravely, maybe."
She took in a startled breath as Neji's eyes flashed and his hands came up to close around her face. "You are that brave," he told her fiercely. "That's why I chose to follow you. That's why..." he trailed off and cleared his throat, and Hinata was startled and just a tiny bit delighted to see faint color on his cheeks. "That's why I love you," he finished, very quietly.
She felt like a flower was opening in her chest, something unwinding, unfurling, something beautiful and delicate. "Neji-san," she whispered, hushed with sudden happiness and a whirl of warm memories from when they were small, before anything went astray.
When he murmured back, "Hinata," the warmth turned into something soft and heated, and she leaned forward willingly as his hands slid into her hair. It was just a little awkward, kissing on the floor with both of them leaning forward over their knees, and she never wanted to stop.
"I suppose," Neji said eventually, stroking her hair tenderly back over her shoulders, "that I should ask Satomi-obasama to evaluate our boodline in consideration of a possible match. To be proper about it."
"I'd like that," she said, completely unable to stop smiling. "I'd like that very much."
Her father's response was, "It's about time; I did wonder when you'd notice the boy was mooning over you again. Though I suppose flowers are a more usual token than noble titles, for most young men to offer."
"Chichi-ue!" Hinata pressed her hands over her flaming cheeks, wishing she could will them cool. Her father's distinctly amused look didn't help any.
But none of that could make her any less happy.
Her mother was openly delighted by the match, and held forth excitedly at the dinner table about the potential benefits of the cross. "Now, I know you won't want to weary yourself with too many children when you have the whole clan to worry about," she told Hinata, hands moving as if to shape a good gene mix out of the air itself, "but you might retire from the field a little early, you know, and have at least one before your father steps down."
"I'll consider it, Haha-ue," Hinata murmured and took another bite of ginger salad. She added, more sternly, as she caught her mother giving Hanabi a speculative look, "Haha-ue."
"I wasn't going to suggest it," her mother said, defensively enough that Hinata knew she had been thinking about it.
"Hanabi-chan is even more dedicated to the field than I am," Hinata said firmly. "It wouldn't be fair at all." She caught the faint relaxation of her sister's shoulders and patted Hanabi's knee under the table. She wouldn't let anything interfere with her sister's chosen career, certainly not clan breeding plans. Her sister gave her a tiny smile.
Her team took the news fairly well, too, though she hadn't quite figured out how to tell them before Akamaru sniffed her over one afternoon and whined inquiringly. That brought Kiba over to take a good scent from her inner wrist, and then there was yelling of course, but it only took him fifteen minutes to stop shouting about all the ways he was going to maim Neji if he hurt her. Hinata shared a tiny smile with Shino; Kiba was clearly happy for her.
"I'm sure this will please your clan," Shino murmured, standing under their meeting tree beside her as Kiba threw sticks for Akamaru and pretended they were Neji's arms. "Will it please you as well?"
"Very much," Hinata said softly, fingers twined together. "I never thought we could come back here, after everything that happened."
Shino touched her shoulder, and a few of his insects danced around his fingers in a secret smile. "I, on the other hand, am unsurprised."
The best part, though, were the times she and Neji met in the training hall and Neji wedged the door firmly behind him with a length of wood and gathered her up in his arms, burying his face in her hair. And proceeded to complain volubly about the fuss everyone was making.
"...and then Shirou pulled me aside to lecture me on how women were different from men! As if I didn't know that already; it's like they think I don't have a woman on my team. I haven't dared tell Gai-sensei yet. Are you laughing?"
"Oh no," Hinata gasped, giggling pink-cheeked against his shoulder. "No, go on."
"Hmph." The fingers that stroked through her hair were gentle, though. "It suddenly makes far more sense to me, why your mother is so determinedly wrapped up in her medical research. I would wager it started as a way to ward off over-enthusiastic friends and relatives who wanted to fuss over the new consort."
Shyly, unable to help blushing a little, Hinata murmured, "You can always come hide from them in my room, if you want."
He held her closer, laughing. "Now that would give them something more interesting to talk about." He kissed her hair and added softly, "Perhaps I will. We can steal mochi from the kitchen, like we did when we were little, and hide under the covers and talk about which missions we want most."
Hinata snuggled against him, smiling brightly; he remembered those times too.
These were the best parts.
Fortunately for her blushes, and the patience of her betrothed, the village was too busy preparing to meet Uchiha Madara to spare very much time on teasing even newly betrothed nobles.
"Your chakra must flow uninterrupted," her father instructed them as Hinata and Hanabi sat, hands pressed palm to palm. "That flow must circle on itself and leave no opening for another's to be imposed."
Hinata chewed her lip and concentrated on the flow of her chakra from palm to palm. She could maintain a closed circle as long as her hands were touching, braiding the two outward flows together, but as soon as she moved her hands apart she lost it. She heard her father sigh quietly.
"Hinata, practice that for a while. Come here, Hanabi, work on holding the closed chakra flow while you move and strike."
Hinata concentrated harder and resolved to ask Neji for help. Neji was, she'd slowly come to realize, a much better teacher than her father.
Of course, that meant she had to show him the technique, and that meant she had to broach the subject that had been on her mind ever since her father started training them in this jutsu.
"Chichi-ue," she breathed softly, trying not to interrupt her chakra flow.
"If Madara is expected to attack the village, would it not be wise to teach this to as many of our clan as possible? The more people who can defend themselves from his Sharingan the better, surely?"
"This is a technique of the main house," he answered sharply.
Hinata kept her eyes on her hands. "So it is, Chichi-ue."
It wasn't an agreement.
Her father actually huffed with annoyance. "Turning into quite the revolutionary, aren't you?"
"I speak only of practicality, Chichi-ue," Hinata murmured, braiding her chakra together more tightly and slowly standing. "Only of the good of our clan and village in face of a powerful enemy." She breathed in and out in careful, even rhythm, and stepped slowly across the room taking care with every shift of her weight and chakra. There was a heat in her chest, building with every step, and she spoke out of it. "We should be as strong as we can be!"
After a long, silent moment, her father said, "I will consider it."
Hinata lifted her gaze from her intent concentration on the circle of her chakra to see her sister making a tiny victory sign in front of her chest as their father looked away from her. Hinata promptly lost the technique to a burst of delighted giggles. She didn't even mind when her father shook his head with disapproval. Hanabi was smiling.
Hinata knew her sister was fiercer than she was, fiercer and stronger in combat. In the fire and chaos of the night Madara finally struck, it was Hanabi who went with the teams outside the walls, coursing the forest to find their strange, black and white attackers in the dark, tracking them through earth and wood. That had terrified Hinata for her sister's safety, especially once the casualties started filtering back out of the forest.
And yet, she was glad of it now. She and Neji were the ones who'd been sent to the south gate to aid their Hokage against Madara if they could, and Hinata didn't want her little sister anywhere near him.
Neji knelt on the top of the wall beside her, eyes sharp on Tsunade-sama as she fought Madara. "We're not the only ones who discovered how to repel the Mangekyou Sharingan," he murmured, a breath of humor through the cutting tension of the night. "Look at the Hokage's chakra."
Hinata breathed slowly, carefully keeping her own chakra folded in on itself. Which was not, she couldn't help noting, quite what Tsunade-sama was doing, and her mouth quirked a little. "I think that's just because Tsunade-sama is too strong for him."
Neji made a satisfied sound through his bared teeth, at that. "Probably why he's stopped trying to revive his Amaterasu. I think Sakura can let her counter go."
Hinata glanced aside at Sakura-san, kneeling a few arms lengths away on the wall, Kakashi-san beside her. Sakura's chakra was slowly drawing back from the brilliant flood of the technique that had smothered Amaterasu and let Sasuke-kun through to guard the Nine-tails as it fought Madara's demon. "I think she knows."
Just then, though, Sakura flinched and gasped, "Intruder... first!" The strain in her voice pulled Hinata's shoulders taut. Sakura-san sounded like she could hardly speak! But it was a warning worth fighting to give; if the first wave of attackers, the black and white ones, were coming into this area, all of them were in danger. Those intruders would be coming through the very earth itself. Every clan member watching on the walls or ranging the forest had seen that much.
Though usually not until too late.
Hinata bit her lip, thinking hard enough that her chakra flow started to unbraid itself and she had to wrestle it back into the proper knot, stream sliding over stream. There must be something they could do to see further, to guard the Hokage and Naruto inside the Nine-tails!
Sakura-san invoked the pure earth again with her jutsu only to gasp, wavering, off balance as if her strike had been dodged on the training floor. The wild life of Konoha and its land, flowing through Sakura's hands, ran faster still, wild as a river in flood.
A river. A stream. Like the streams of chakra Hinata was directing through and over each other right now. Could she do that with the chakra Sakura held? Slide her own through and over such vast power?
Sakura's own chakra was starting to run ragged; there was no more time, and Hinata took a deep breath for courage. "Neji, watch the Hokage," she whispered. He looked at her sharply and she could almost see the protest hovering on his tongue, but he bit it back, only reaching up to touch her hair with silent, desperate tenderness.
"Be careful," he whispered back, and Hinata added the warmth of those words to her courage.
She turned toward Sakura, releasing her chakra from the flowing knot she'd held and reached out to Sakura instead. "I'll try to see them," she said, soft and determined. "Sakura-san, can you hold on?"
Sakura jerked a nod, and Hinata laid her palms over the major tenketsu of Sakura's forearms, sending her chakra flowing lightly over the flood that ran through Sakura-san's hands. It was like sliding down a rope made of lightning, wild and terrifying and beautiful, and Hinata felt for a breath that there was spirit as well as life in it. Not human spirit, but a soul deep and ancient and wordless and new, changing like the colors of the sky and the surface of a river. "Permit me," Hinata begged, terrified and exhilarated by the vastness of this thing. "Life of our land, Will of Fire, permit me..."
And perhaps she was heard, because her awareness and her chakra slipped over and through that wild flow without drowning or burning, and she heaved in hard, panting breaths as her vision exploded outward. She could see a dozen knots in this stream, all converging on them, but the movement... the movement was strange. As if she saw a single hand drawing into a fist. No, two! "All of them," Hinata gasped. "All of them are coming. But they are only two. Only two that we need to find."
She saw the brightening of Sakura-san's chakra, her agreement. She concentrated harder, biting her lip, focusing the way she'd focused to learn this technique from her father, looking for the two centers approaching. "I see it," she whispered. "I see them! Neji! They're coming for the Hokage!" She pulled away from Sakura-san and the land's life with a gasp and would have staggered as she stood but for Neji's hand under her arm.
"Two of them?" he demanded.
"Coming to bracket Tsunade," Hinata gasped, dizzy.
Neji's chakra unknotted from its defensive flow and pressed against hers, steadying her like his hand on her arm. "Can you do Eight Trigrams, Two Mirrors?"
Hinata swallowed and tried to stand upright. It worked. She nodded to Neji, determined, and he smiled, bright and sharp and proud. "Let's go, then."
They sprang from the wall together, turning in counterpoint as they came down to flank the Hokage, and Hinata felt her breath opening up at the feel of Neji on the other end of this technique, sure as sunrise, there for her to lean against as she set her feet on the earth and drew her chakra in, spinning. This time she wasn't out of control or out of rhythm; this time she had someone to mark the correct time, and her chakra flowed up from her feet, through her center, into her hands in perfect sequence.
She and Neji spun together, and struck as one, her hand against the white creature and his against the black. The attackers blasted back from them, broken, and Hinata saw the flare of Tsunade-sama's chakra between them, triumphant and proud. She was smiling as she and Neji sprang back to leave their Hokage room to strike her enemy, and she saw that Neji was, too. They had done it.
Together, the way the Hyuuga clan should be, they had won.
Jiraiya-sama came to the Hyuuga compound, after it was all over, to ask how she'd thought of the possibility of touching Sakura-san's jutsu, let alone dared to act on it.
"I've never seen anyone but a priestess do something like that and not die of it," he said, watching her keenly over his cup of tea as they sat in one of the outer parlors.
Hinata clasped her hands to keep from shrugging helplessly. She felt very young and inexperienced, facing one of her village's legends, reduced to a child's stature again just by contrast to the square power of his frame. "It seemed like a possible application of the technique I was already using, and a reasonable risk at the time. I knew it would be dangerous, but once I'd touched the chakra she held it felt..." She hesitated. "Well, the records of our ancestors sometimes speak of seeing, not just chakra, but the spirit itself. It seemed to me that Sakura-san was touching the spirit of our land, and perhaps that spirit would help us defend it from attack."
Jiraiya-sama's brows had risen while she spoke, and she nibbled her lip, hoping he wouldn't think her foolish. Even her own clan sometimes gave her odd looks when she said such things. "An unusual approach, for one of your clan," he murmured. "I had thought Hyuuga's training emphasized only the reality of what can be seen directly."
At Hinata's shoulder, where he'd insisted on being for this interview, Neji stiffened. "My lady is the vision of Hyuuga," he stated, giving Jiraiya-sama as dark a look as if he'd questioned Hinata's legitimacy. "What she sees is real."
"Neji." Hinata laid a quick hand over Neji's, glancing at Jiraiya-sama. "Forgive us, Jiraiya-sama, I'm sure you didn't mean..."
Jiraiya-sama was smiling. "I see she is your clan's heart, as well," he said mildly, and Hinata blushed while Neji sat back, looking satisfied.
"It isn't truly that unusual, Jiraiya-sama," Hinata said, more concerned with the defense of her clan than her person. "Over the generations of Hyuuga, this is something that rises over and over again. I only took the example of those who have come before."
"And that's the scale of time you think in, hm?" Jiraiya-sama was still smiling faintly, but he was also watching her with sharp eyes. Hinata just nodded; wasn't that the scale any clan head had to think on? Jiraiya-sama set his cup down and rose. "I will be very interested to see what your vision makes of the Hyuuga." His gaze was warm, as it met hers, and he held out a large, square hand to her. "I think it might be something that hasn't quite been seen before."
Hinata rose also, hesitating a moment; she hadn't ever set out to be any sort of revolutionary, honestly! But finally she lifted her chin and took his hand; hers wasn't as lost in his grip as she'd expected, either. "I will do my very best for the people in my care, Jiraiya-sama. Whatever that is."
His smile broadened. "Of that, I have no doubt whatsoever."
Hinata thought about the smile Hanabi-chan had given her when she'd left two days ago on her first C-rank mission, and the softness of her voice as she'd promised Hinata she'd be back soon. She thought about her father's lack of surprise when he'd come to tell her that one of the Legendary Three was here to see her. She thought about her oldest friend, standing straight and proud at her shoulder. And, at the bottom of her heart, she found that she didn't doubt it either. She had people to stand beside her when she guided her clan, family and even a beloved who believed in her and the future she worked for. She was reviving her clan with her own hands and will. She would succeed.
And when she found herself thinking that, hearing the thought in her own voice this time and not Naruto's, she could only laugh.
When Hinata was fourteen, she wondered whether she was strong enough to change fate, the way Naruto did.
Four years later, looking back, she knew that she always had been.