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empty hand (gentle fist)

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Hyuuga Hinata is three years old and holding mama’s hand on the way to market. As they walk, they play Hinata’s favorite game - whenever she notices a minty tingle like toothpaste in the center of her palm, she squeezes mama’s fingers. Hinata has been doing this so long she doesn’t remember mama explaining the rules. It’s just something they’ve always done.

Today Hinata feels different in her hands. Something like a thought occurs to her, and when the tingle comes again, this time she focuses on the heartbeat in her palm, warm and thrumming against mama’s heartbeat in mama’s palm, and presses her heartbeat into mama’s heartbeat.

Mama looks down at her with pale eyes wide and bright. Hinata is scooped up and hugged close, which hasn’t happened since mama’s belly started changing, and they buy the fancy sweet mochi with flower petals pressed in at the market. Mama says new words to papa that night at dinner, ‘chakra’ and ‘tenketsu’, and for the first time Hinata can remember papa hugs her like mama does.

The next day papa takes her to the shrine, where they clap hands and bow and papa rings the bell for her. Then he takes her to the dojo. He doesn’t hold her hand like mama does; he puts one heavy hand on her shoulder, herding her along with his arm behind her head and her other shoulder brushing against his leg. It’s different, but Hinata thinks it feels nice - warm all over and surrounded with papa’s smell.

Neji-niisan is waiting for them at the dojo with oji-san who looks very much like papa. Nii-san smiles his special Hinata smile at her and bumps his shoulder against hers when they sit next to each other. She sits very carefully in her best grown-up sit while papa and oji-san talk to each other quietly. Nii-san grabs her hand when she isn’t paying attention, and the two of them sit there gently squeezing hands in different rhythms until the grown-ups turn back to them.

Oji-san smiles at them holding hands, and papa’s eyes soften. The grownups help them shuffle around until they’re facing each other, and papa gently holds her wrists to move her hands until they are palm-to-palm with nii-san’s - like praying at the shrine, but with two different people’s hands. Hinata likes the idea. Papa and oji-san talk to them softly now, about being family and loving each other and protecting each other. Hinata smiles brightly at them when she agrees, but Neji-niisan puts on his serious grown-up face. He’s five years old, big enough to go to the temple school with the other big kids, and he’s always been Hinata’s protector. Then, following papa and oji-san’s directions, Hinata focuses on the heartbeat in the heel of her hand pressed against the heartbeat in Neji-niisan’s hand and presses out - with her mind instead of her muscles. It leaves her feeling a little dizzy but nii-san smiles brightly and tenses his fingers, and Hinata feels very strange in her hands - not mama’s cool minty tingle but a warm fuzzy rush like a cat running past your leg, except inside.

It feels like Neji-niisan, like his grown-up face and his back when he stands between her and a bully and his hand on her wrist pulling her through a crowd. Like she can lean on him always.

Hyuuga Hinata is five years old and she understands now that mama is dead and dead means not coming back.

Baby Hanabi isn’t so little anymore, and more squirmy. She came when mama left, but Hinata didn’t see her at all for a long time because Hanabi needed a nurse to feed her and take care of her while papa was busy. Papa was always busy. So oji-san took her away to live with him for those empty months. Neji-niisan didn’t have a mama at home either, and the first night she stayed at his house he hugged her, fierce like if he pressed his chest into hers hard enough they’d turn into one person and neither of them would be alone. Oji-san let them have sleepovers, snuggled up in the same futon under the same quilt that smelled like nii-san. Hinata would bring snacks she made in the kitchen with Cousin Makoto and they would lick their fingers to pick up crumbs off the sheets. Sometimes they would fall asleep on their own sides of the futon and wake up in the middle with Neji-niisan hugging Hinata and Hinata drooling on nii-san’s shoulder.

In the mornings, oji-san always kissed Neji-niisan on the forehead (though he whined about it and said he wasn’t a kid anymore) and Hinata too (she smiled at him, even though it felt fake, because it did make her feel better) before leaving for work. Cousin Makoto who cooked and cleaned for oji-san would walk them both to the temple school, where Hinata went into the first classroom and nii-san went into the third classroom because he was seven now, old enough to go to the Academy next year. They would walk home for lunch, Neji holding Hinata’s hand and the two trading chakra pulses like they had mamas anymore to do it with them, and Cousin Makoto would walk them to the dojo after lunch for training.

Training started a year before the temple school. The calendars were a bit different though, so Hinata was still in her first year and Neji already in his fourth. He had started sparring a few weeks ago, while she was still learning her first form. It was hard work - Hinata didn’t have the gift for it that other kids seemed to have, the squat stances felt awkward and her elbows strained a bit when teacher made her do backhand tenketsu strikes. Nii-san was amazing, and when the first-years took a break to watch the fourth-years spar she thought he moved like water around his bigger opponent.

Then they walked home together, holding hands and trading gentler pulses, and he was just nii-san again. Home for snack with Cousin Makoto and then playing in the garden until oji-san got home from work.

This is one of those evenings, when oji-san comes through the front door and calls brightly into the house. The three inhabitants call back brightly, and the children scramble to their feet to tackle him in a hug as he comes through the kitchen. Oji-san wobbles a bit, then straightens and smiles gently down at them - the Hyuuga equivalent of a beaming grin. Waddling like a mama duck, oji-san moves them over to the table and sits them down for dinner.

For a moment, with a man who looks very much like her papa smiling at her and a boy who she calls brother holding her hand, eating the cooking of a woman who looks very much like her mama, Hinata feels like she doesn’t just have a clan. She has a family.

Hyuuga Hinata is six and her world is fear.

It’s dark and cold and she was warm in bed at home next to Hanabi-chan but now it’s dark and scratchy and starting to rain a little. The man’s shoulder is pressing into her stomach and she can’t move and her mouth feels bitter and chalky. Drugs? Poison? Her mind clicks through all the possibilities, and remembering her training she goes limp. Her captor could have picked up on the tension from earlier, or any motions she made while she was waking, or the change in her heartbeat and breathing. If he was a sensor-type he might even have noticed the changing flow of her chakra.

Hinata carefully, slowly moves, timing her shifts with the jostling lurches and landings of her captor (springing across the ground, not through the branches, she decides after a moment. Probably not Konoha nin). Then her palms are pressed together where they’re bound behind her back. She takes a deep breath, slows the circulation of her chakra so on the surface it looks like she’s sleeping. Meanwhile, like Neji-niisan taught her, she’s deepening the flow of her chakra and pressing it into her muscles. Gathering energy.

She’s the daughter of the Hyuuga clan head. Somebody will notice that she’s missing. Father will summon all the forces of the clan, Hiashi-ji-san will tell the Hokage and probably pull together the jounin force.

And Neji-niisan will tear the world apart to make her safe. He took the seal last year, when Hinata was still recovering from kaa-san’s death. She’d been so angry she cried when he explained. It took her a long time to understand the seal as he understood it - a way to commit everything he had to his service as a ninja without worrying that he would be taken captive for his bloodline (and her mind tips over into a small dark place, she is a captive now for her bloodline and no seal will protect her. Why hadn’t Father protected her?).

It ends up not mattering. There is a ripple in the flesh and chakra of her captor, and Hinata flings herself away, landing with a lucky roll that dissipates the force. She rips through the binding with chakra-enhanced muscles, pulls the bag off her head to see Hizashi-ji-san standing over the man - kicking his limp shape on the ground. The rest of the night is a blur as she comes down from her adrenaline rush and the effects of chakra-saturating her muscles (the medic-nin tells her something about her growth plates and straining her chakra pathways but it goes right over Hinata’s head), and she doesn’t remember much beyond Hizashi-ji-san carrying her home from the hospital and turning her over to Neji-niisan’s shaking hands.

Nii-san hugs her very tight to his chest, and she leans into his scent - sweat, kunai grit, a whiff of tea and the clear sour smell of yuzu that Cousin Makoto puts in everything. He fusses over her for a few moments that seem suspended in time. Buries his nose in her hair, pulls back and frames her face in his hands, grabs her hands in his (shaking hands, shaking, Neji-niisan is never scared). Father practically has to push him aside to take Hinata in his arms. Hanabi-chan is already sleeping there, and blinks confused at her nee-chan and all the fuss going on.

They can’t go home - Hinata was, was kidnapped from her own room, it’s not safe there - so Hinata and Hanabi are bundled off to the Room of Secrets in Hiashi-ji-san’s house. She wishes she were more awake so she could look around; this room had tormented her and Neji-niisan with curiosity when she stayed with him after kaa-san’s dying, they were never ever to go in and now Hanabi is snuffling in the corner and Hinata can’t sleep.

There’s an old remedy for that. She folds back a corner of the blanket, slides out of her own bedroll and gently into Neji-niisan’s. He holds still for a moment, then rolls over to face her and throws an arm over her, reels her in tight like when he hugged her at the gate. The kunai grit is fainter, ground into his skin but he’s not wearing any weapons to bed tonight. He still smells like sweat and tea and yuzu, clear and bitter with comforting warmth underneath.

Her last thought is that Neji-niisan smells more like home than her own bed.

Hyuuga Hinata is ten years old and Neji-niisan has only grown more distant since graduation. He started drifting away from her at Hiashi-ji-san’s funeral, when Hinata cried and cried and Neji-niisan just glared at her father like he could shoot chakra from his eyes into Father’s tenketsu.

That night at the wake he stopped calling her ‘Hinata’ and started calling her ‘Hinata-sama’.

He isn’t angry at her. That’s the worst part. He keeps his eyes down when talking to her and calls her ‘Hinata-sama’ and uses polite forms and bows too deep for a girl two years his junior and a rank below him now in the military system that rules their lives, a girl who can’t even master the fighting style of their clan. With every syllable and gesture he says you are in charge. The elders mutter approvingly that he embraces his role, branch clan and guardian of their heiress. He’s right next to her and it feels like he’s miles away.

Hinata hates it. And worse, he keeps staring at Father whenever they’re in the same space. Watches him. Puts his back to a wall and never turns his back on Father, like he doesn’t trust him, which is true because really he doesn’t. And always watches Father with his Byakugan active. Like an enemy nin.

Hinata doesn’t hate that. She understands. She’s seen Father make Neji-niisan scream, and she understands why nii-san acts the way he does. And that makes her bone-cold afraid.

Today, Neji-niisan is a graduate of Konohagakure, and they are having tea.

Ostensibly it is a chance for Hinata to practice her kunoichi tea ceremony, and she does include carefully the gestures of adding ‘poison’ to the bowl (really powdered sugar, which is almost a blasphemy against the tea ceremony but when she’s rehearsing the act of poisoning her guest, a little sugar doesn’t seem all that bad) and covertly signaling mission handsigns. She remembers with a pang the days when Neji-niisan would huddle up with her at the kotatsu and help her learn her fingertalk. Those were the good days, before oji-san died and everything went wrong.

Really it is her last chance to see him in private before he joins a genin squad and becomes, for the first time in his life, part of something bigger than Hinata. They’ve been a two-person world all her life. Since before she could read or write or hold a kunai, Neji-niisan was hers and she was his.

She isn’t afraid, because Neji-niisan is still sealed to her in chakra and ink and blood, and nothing will part them from each other. But she is wistful. Her own world is growing too, there are other girls her age who laugh and teach her elaborate hand-clapping games at the Academy. Soon Neji-niisan will have responsibilities and missions besides his one lifelong mission to keep Hinata safe, and soon Hinata will have responsibilities of her own as a ninja and a member of the Main House. Soon the days of their two-person world will be only a faded memory.

Neji-niisan’s fingers brush hers when he returns the bowl to her hands with a deep bow. If their lives were different, he might have then faked his death-by-poisoning to make her laugh. Or he might have opened a conversation about school, friends, his upcoming team assignment. These days he only shows her a silent face with lowered eyes, and Hinata is suddenly sick of it. With terrible boldness, she reaches out and presses her fingers under his chin (two tenketsu there, one for speech and one for appetite, nearly on top of each other). Forces his gaze to meet hers, pale lavender to bone-white.

“Neji-niisan,” she says firmly, only a hint of her shy quaver showing through, “I know you will make the clan proud,” It is verbal filler, something that falls off her tongue without thinking while she tries to gather her thoughts. It is also the wrong thing to say, and she sees anger gather in the quirk of his eyebrows. She interrupts him as he draws breath to speak in the only way she can think how - she bows, dogeza, the deep formal bow that a daughter of the main family should never give to a son of the branch. “There is nothing you could do,” she says to the floorboards, voice thick with emotion, “That would make me not proud of you.”

There’s a suspended pause, everything feeling floaty and wow, Hinata should have probably thought this through because dogeza in a formal tea ceremony kimono is really hard to breathe in. Then Neji-niisan works his hands between her hands and the floor, picks them up, picks her up from the bow that says I am sorry to have troubled you and I beg your favor and you are too high to touch.

“Hinata-sama,” he says softly, and then, “My Lady.”

Her first thought, and second, and several thoughts after that, are all the same. You shouldn’t. As he bows, you shouldn’t. As he puts away the tea things, you shouldn’t. As he tails her on their walk through the tea garden at the right distance for a bodyguard, you shouldn’t.

I’m not your clan head. I’ve done nothing to earn your respect. I’m weaker than you. More selfish. I’m not a worthy leader to follow. I’m not worthy of your fealty.

It occurs to her, faintly, that maybe Neji-niisan disagrees. The thought makes her feel - well, nervous enough to throw up. But also warm.

Hyuuga Hinata is eleven years old and the world is ending.

Because Hyuuga Hinata, yes, Hyuuga Hinata, has a crush. On a boy.

It’s awful.

She’s reserved by nature, she knows this about herself, but whenever he turns around or stands up or laughs too loud (and this boy is always too loud) it’s like she’ll die if he notices she exists. There’s nothing she could possibly do that would make seeing her as important to him as seeing him is to her, and the thought of that is so terrible sometimes she has a hard time getting out of bed in the morning to go to school and face him.

Cousin Makoto says this makes no sense. Then she laughs fondly at Hinata’s blushing pout and puts on tea.

Neji-niisan is a terrible eavesdropper, which is why Hinata can catch him at it even though he’s the clan genius and she takes forever to learn anything useful (and Hanabi-chan is so much better than her and Father is starting to make pointed comments at dinner and it’s making Hinata very nervous). She scoots over to the shoji and opens it. Neji doesn’t try to conceal that he’s been shamelessly listening in, only folds his arms and glares outwards in the general direction of the garden, putting on his best ‘stern heiress protector’ face.

“Why don’t you come in and have some tea, nii-san?” she says quietly, enjoying the embarrassed blush. He knows and she knows that the charade isn’t fooling anyone, but her manners shame him into accepting.

“Ah, Neji-kun,” Cousin Makoto looks completely unsurprised that Neji-niisan has turned up - he has a reputation for great diligence in his duties as her guardian, tailing her around the compound. “Come sit, I promise we won’t bite.”

Cousin Makoto has a sense of humor that is perhaps not entirely befitting of the Great Hyuuga Clan. Tea is served, compliments are murmured, and Cousin Makoto proves her undignified bearing by launching back into the conversation. “Really, Hinata-chan, I wouldn’t worry about it so. Just smile at him. You’d be surprised how much that counts for.”

Nii-san has gone stiff as a board next to her and Hinata is ready to die of humiliation right here in this kitchen. Woodenly, she takes another sip of tea and Cousin Makoto keeps talking. “Any boy who doesn’t see how beautiful and wonderful you are doesn’t deserve you anyway. Isn’t that right, Neji-kun?”

The world is ending. And it just keeps getting worse.

“Hn.” A grunt is all Neji-niisan seems willing to contribute, and Hinata gradually loosens, thanking the kami for small favors. The rest of the tea visit passes mostly in silence, with Cousin Makoto making some idle chitchat about other branch clan members. The names would be familiar to Neji but Hinata is ashamed that she can’t match them with faces. It’s awful that she is expected to inherit headship of a clan she doesn’t even really know.

Cousin Makoto bustles off into the kitchen to start on dinner. Hinata’s about to rise and make good her escape with a bow and polite goodbyes when Neji speaks again.

“My lady,” and she wishes he would stop calling her that, at least he only says it when they’re alone so nobody can accuse him of treason and take away her dearest companion. “In matters of the heart,” he says lowly and with deep feeling, and he’s glaring at his teacup so hard his Byakugan is activated, she’s surprised he hasn’t crushed the thing to powder in his grip, “None could be worthy of you.”

It’s too much. Hinata flees.

Hyuuga Hinata is fifteen years old and Naruto-kun is back.

It doesn’t matter as much as she thought it would.

“Naruto-kun is back,” she says quietly over dinner.

Father raises an eyebrow. Hanabi scrunches her nose. Neji-niisan, kneeling deferentially behind her as always, twitches.

“He’s gotten taller,” Hinata adds after a thoughtful pause, knowing that Father will be amused by the turn of the conversation so long as Neji-niisan continues being transparent.

Neji-niisan’s total lack of movement is very telling.

Even last year, Hinata would have been too afraid to play this game. Family dinners were agonizing. Nii-san had broken her of that, with relentless training and bribes of Makoto-san’s sweet mochi for the rare times she let her tongue run away with her. It had felt unconscionably rude to let go of her temper, but Neji-niisan and Kurenai-sensei were right in the end. Letting herself be angry did wonders for her confidence.

But she’s still learning to deal with the puckish turn it gives her. “He seemed well.”


Very telling. And strangely gratifying. She takes a sip of tea.

Hyuuga Hinata is eighteen years old and covered in blood.

If she were a civilian, this would be the day she was considered a legal adult. She might have gotten engaged, or entered into professional studies, or left an apprenticeship to work full-time.

She’s been working full-time for what feels like her whole life.

Hinata is eighteen years old and she’s bone-tired.

Neji-niisan settles next to her on the hospital bench with a quiet stilted release of breath. It’s the closest thing to a groan any of the ‘sitting casualties’ will permit themselves. The medics are running low on beds so anyone who isn’t gravely injured (as in missing limbs or bits of spinal cord) is sitting elbow-to-elbow on a bench.

“Hinata-sama,” he murmurs, “Hiashi-dono is asking for you.”

Hinata takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders, and stands. Her muscles throb weakly with overuse. Her skin feels tight and hot, only partially healed from the second-degree burns a mutated Zetsu clone left over almost all her body. She’s wearing Neji-niisan’s spare flak jacket over blacks borrowed from Hanabi. The high collar smells of sweat and kunai grit, and faintly of yuzu.

Her father has many things to tell her, in case the injury that has taken one of his eyes from him proves fatal. Hyuuga Hiashi has never been sentimental. He tells her many secrets of their clan, the arts of the Caged Bird Seal and the hidden histories in their blood. Teaches her strings of handseals to open the Clan Head’s archives, and how to open the sealed scrolls she will find there.

In case her father does not survive.

She has hated him for a long time, for what he’s done to her cousin. For the terror that filled her genin years. For the pain that marked her passing into chuunin. For the way he made her own little sister a stranger to her.

But he is her father.

It is almost noon the next day when Hyuuga Hiashi stops talking. Silent, she slips out of his tent and leaves him to rest. Seeks out the one person in this world she can lean on.

Neji is still sitting on that bench, and when he sees her, he seems to relax just a bit. Hinata sits next to her cousin with a stilted release of breath. Leans against his shoulder.

In a week, there will be peace for them. One way or another.

Hyuuga Hinata is nineteen years old and there is a saying in her village: “A Hyuuga bride is lucky; she has only one mother to please with her wedding”. It’s only half a joke at best, prodding at the sensitive history of the clan’s inbreeding. First cousins, half-siblings, full siblings, even a niece or nephew to their parent’s sibling - none of these are unheard of in the Hyuuga family registries. It’s a saying more common among the elderly. For the last few decades, the Hyuuga have been in a phase of outcrossing. It is more common these days to wed a third cousin or further, even to adopt in an outsider for fresh blood.

The saying is even less a joke for her and her fiance. Neither of them have mothers. In fact, between them there is only one living parent - the head of her clan, and therefore banned from his traditional role as father of the bride. Hyuuga Hiashi will officiate the ceremony which unites his daughter with the son of his twin brother. Meanwhile, Hinata is confronted at every turn with reminders of the absent, substitutes walking in the place of ghosts. Her mother’s first cousin Hyuuga Sachiko will stand for her mother, and her father’s nephew twice removed Hyuuga Shinobu will stand for her father. Neji’s maternal aunt Hyuuga Kazu will stand for his mother, and Kazu’s husband Hyuuga Ren will stand for his father. The stand-ins are good choices, she recognizes - carefully selected by the clan elders for their neutrality. This wedding is as much a truce within a long-shattered house as a joining of two individuals. It wouldn’t do to remind Neji too strongly of his blood feud with Hiashi.

Hinata thinks that there are three kinds of time in the world - normal time, which crawls by or flies by as it pleases and according to the tasks she fills it with; ninja time, when every second of a battle feels like a year and she just can’t get her body to move fast enough to keep up with her mind; and ritual time, which clicks forward at a steady ceremonial pace. She remembers the same mechanical progress in the week of her mother’s funeral, the night of Neji’s sealing, the weddings of various aunts and cousins.

It’s worse when it’s her own wedding. She’s the one who has to accept the yui-no gifts, make offerings and prayers to the ancestors, stand for fittings, let the hairdresser pluck and pull her locks into a traditional sculpture of a hairstyle, sleep with her head on a glorified wooden stool to keep the shape, contort her face at the behest of a makeup artist. Then she’s in front of the altar, surrounded by family. She can’t look at Neji during the ceremony, Cousin Sachiko was very firm about that, but she feels the print of his chakra in the air between them as familiar as the smell of their shared blood. She feels a sudden absurd impulse to grab his hand like the Hinata of long ago. It would be shockingly incorrect, scandalous, but it might be worth the gossip and the disturbance to the ceremony if she could just hold her best friend’s hand and trade little three-pulse and four-pulse squeezes, I-love-you, I-love-you-too, back and forth.

Hyuuga Hinata is twenty years old. She is of age, strong in the Juuken and the Byakugan, proven in war, honorably married to a talented Hyuuga husband of subordinate rank. She (finally) has her father’s respect.

It shouldn’t be this hard to be instated as Clan Head of the Hyuuga.

But the Hyuuga are old, and proud, and older and prouder still are their clan elders. Hinata is not fooled by their self-importance. When the Hyuuga were rootless wanderers, their elders were the grandmothers of every Hyuuga family branch, meant to give their children and grandchildren a voice to the Clan Head. It is settlement with civilians and Senju and Uchiha that has given them an Elder’s Council of resentful old men.

Sealed against age into the oldest scrolls, Hinata has read the names of nomadic Hyuuga heads who were women as often as they were men, mothers and fathers, great healers, genius inventors of their clan techniques. Settlement has made them stale, and now they only have room for a Head who is strong in wartime.

She is of age, qualified in every possible way, and her father is backing her ascent to the Headship. She stands before the Council day after day and lets them insult her with word and gesture. Lets them joke about making her serve tea like a housewife. Lets them argue about cruder things.

But she will not stand their comments today. Tempered by war, she lets her anger bubble up.

“With all due respect, Honored Council Elders,” Years of listening to Nii-san have taught her how to make a title sound like an insult, “The fertility of my marriage has no bearing on today’s proceedings.”

Elder Yoritsu leans forward like a predator bird preparing for flight. “Then you deny that a Clan Head must provide an heir of sufficient worth?”

Hinata doesn’t smile, but the proud jut of her chin is as good as one. “Is it not said that the Clan Head must be parent to the clan before their own family?”

Elder Yoritsu looks like he’s swallowed an umeboshi, while Elder Mitsuki lifts an eyebrow and Elder Tadatsumu’s gaze settles firmly on the middle distance. They cannot contradict this without declaring Hiashi’s treatment of his family - his daughters, his brother, his nephew - to be abuse. She pushes the advantage. “I will be mother to the clan before I am mother to my children. It is fitting.”

“And of the matter of inheritance?” Elder Mitsuki idly opens one fold of his fan. He’s the swing vote, leaning towards her side over the last several days of debate but still rooted in conservatism.

“I assure the council that my marriage will produce an heir,” Hinata says, color burning in her cheeks. She refuses to hide her face before these shriveled prunes. It is no shame to love her husband.

Hyuuga Hinata is twenty-two years old, as of two minutes ago. She glances at her clock to confirm. Three minutes. Three minutes of being twenty-two-year-old Hyuuga Hinata, wife of Hyuuga Neji, head of the Hyuuga clan, jounin of Konoha, master of the Juuken, decorated war hero.

It’s stupid to have regrets. She’s done more than half the kunoichi her age. Risen higher in the ranks of combat and governance, walked further down her ninja path. It would have been nice to be a jounin-sensei. Or a jounin by exam promotion and not wartime merit. It would have been nice to be married later, Clan Head later, when she felt more ready for the weight of it.

But she doesn’t regret the things she thought she would. It didn’t even occur to her to resent her father’s choice of husband until Ino-kun said something at the last Rookie Nine night out. Who else would she have married? Some Main House pet chasing a title for his children? The scion of another clan, where she would be a payment for political alliance every day of her life? Or in some other life, a handsome face she swooned over for a year or two and then grew apart from?

Hinata slides into bed, still pondering Ino-kun’s strange half-strangled remark. The woman has always been invested in her friends’ happiness, and she can only assume her inquiry was motivated by that all-consuming interest, but it seems rather misplaced. So she shrugs and dismisses the thought, curling into her husband’s side. He shifts, murmurs something indistinct, wraps an arm around her shoulders. She presses an absentminded kiss to his shoulder as she waits for him to settle into sleep again.

Others have told her that Neji is a cold man. They describe frosty glances, cool formality, icy disdain.

That is not the Neji Hinata knows.

He has always been her warmth.

Hyuuga Hinata is twenty-three years old and currently disobeying the direct orders of her physician. She’s a jounin, a Clan Head, and a mother - three things that even five years ago she thought she would never be - and she can damn well exercise her discretion for a moment if she chooses. That her physician is also the military dictator of her country and her commanding officer doesn’t figure into her reasoning. Tsunade-sama can damn well let her have this.

Hinata rolls over in bed, then slowly - painfully - sits up. Her entire midsection feels like fire, and everything between her ribcage and her knees is numb from the hours of strain.

She’s a jounin and a Clan Head and a mother. She can do this. Hinata stands, wobbles, widens her stance and lowers her gravity until she feels steady. Moving with the deliberate grace of a woman in pain, she walks over to the crib in the corner. Braces herself on the rail. Looks down.

“Hi there,” she breathes.