The messenger bird had been returned to its cage clumsily, and now wicker latticework of an elegantly designed birdcage lay busted on the egawa floor. The rest of the cages, in such perfect order, lined up and the birds restful within had masked, at first glance, that anything was amiss at all. If Neji has to guess, his clan head hadn’t really bothered to shut the latch properly and the pigeons’ escape, likely a flurry of excited wings and flying at low angles to reach the bottom door, had knocked the cage far enough to send it tumbling down. He steps on old newspaper as he reaches down to pick up the remains and he sighs, knowing the smell will trail him as he goes in search of his wife.
Hyuuga Neji counted it as fifteen days between the expected return date of his sister-in-law’ shinobi team and today. There are, of course, any number of other Hyuuga on active duty. Two genins on their first overnight assignments, a second cousin who had taken an ANBU scroll with him to the missions office yesterday, a newly minted jounin-sensei who’s growing bored with D-missions, but is unwilling to ask for anything else with a rookie team still so unready. He could list more.
But he doesn’t bother going over names in his head. In fact, his entire journey across the compound, from the outside gate, where the cage lays shattered, to his destination, he tries not think at all. His suspicion is hardening into a surety he cannot displace, a stone dropped into his stomach, grinding up flesh.
Eighteen months ago had been Hanabi’s infamous sealing ceremony, and two months ago Hinata’s sister had been right where he is now, in their private rooms. Unlike him, she had been screaming profanities at his wife, their clan head, and Neji had wondered then at their family and this discontentedness that did not stop.
He doesn’t push down the thought though: in some ways, hadn’t this been inevitable?
“Hinata-sama, I’m coming in.”
He stares at the door, and there is no answer. Hardly a noise inside at all, but he reaches for the shoji screen.
She is sitting on the floor, wedged between the wall and the tub. Her feet are bare against the tile and her face is in her hands. Pressed between hand and forehead is the standard letter the Hokage Tower sends to a family when something of this nature occurs.
“-Would l-like to be alone, p-please.”
The words are almost not there, she chokes on them so much. The heels of her hands are press so tight up against her eyes, he cannot tell if she is crying. The voice too gives nothing away. He chooses to disregard the order, a rare move for him. Instead, his hands reach out for the sink, to brace himself as he lowers to the ground beside her.
“I said,” her voice cracks, hoarse. “T-that I want to be alone.”
His knees knock the exposed piping beneath their sink, and he almost chokes of guilt himself, for loving her the most for the one action that has brought them here, to this grief.
The weeks following their wedding and her subsequent rise to Clan Head had been stressful, and he’d found her some nights like he’d found her today, huddled up small in a corner of the bathroom. But there had never been tears over her fights with the Clan Council, and in the end, she’d won their biggest fight. When they had refused, flat out, to allow Hanabi, second daughter of the Main House, to remain unsealed though she was now, finally, officially a member of a Branch House, Hinata had prepared for the ceremony without any further complaint. The incense had been burned and their prayers said and it was only at the last moment that Hinata’s childhood stubbornness had given way to show itself as true steel. With her sister kneeling, a supplicant before her, Hinata’s hands had twitched, and, instead of moving in the series of hand-signs to make the seal, they had reached forward and grabbed Hanabi’s head between them. Holding her sister’s face, Hinata had leaned down and kissed that blank forehead and smoothed that Hyuuga-black hair. Then she had reached up, heavy kimono sleeves sliding down thin arms, asking for silence. She had told them there would be no more seals burnt onto single Hyuuga head.
It is for this reason, as much as for anything else, he does not leave. It is what she, the powerful Clan Head, wants- a moment to be merely Hinata, to just be and bear a true face to grief. But he had said he would be her partner and her support on the day he married her, and he will carry her through. Even now, as they sit and the clocks stop their movement for her, others are seeing the evidence of the messenger bird’s escape, are divining what it means. They need their Clan Head. They need her and need her to tell them they were not wrong for wanting a greater freedom for their children. They need her to tell them that this will not happen to them and theirs though it can and will and already has. A Branch member is dead. Hanabi, a mouthy, clever, pretty, proud girl Neji had hardly ever noticed except when she bugged him for extra practice match is dead.
“Its not your fault.”
“M-my orders, m-my f-“
He moves his hand very slowly around hers, very gingerly, not to startle or surprise.
“Hanabi wanted that mission.”
“But I was the one w-who-“
“Had a reckless sister who liked to take chances, who wanted to prove herself to ANBU, who-“
“E-enough, Neji.” Hinata pulls her hand from his, fingers sliding against his palm.
He grabs her then, tells, over and over, in murmuring tones, that this isn’t her fault, that she couldn’t have known, that Hanabi was careless and cocky and always too sure, that Hanabi wouldn’t want this- Hinata crying on the floor, that she had wanted the mission, no, sweetheart, this is not to lay at you feet, that its not politics, and that always, always, no matter what, she made the right choice.
Neji hates to lie, especially to his wife, and especially about this. But he wants to make it easy for her. Easy to grieve, easy to love the sister who had been so difficult to love, easy to lead without realizing that opening the door to a cage means something might be destroyed along the way.
Are there ever any completely right choices? Are there ever any paths completely free along the way?
“No,” he says as he rocks her, scrunched as they are on the narrow floor, “Not your fault, never yours, sweetheart. Never yours. Not you, Not you.”