The Hyuga Clan Compound

In all honesty Hinata hadn't been quite sure what moving back home would change. She talked to Neji and Hanabi more, true – but as for the rest, there really wasn't much difference. The other Branch Family members continued to go about their business as always. There was that careful politeness present, but little else. Even after all of her training with Tsunade, the only reason why they even looked twice at her was because of her station of birth.

On the bright side, Hiashi Hyuga was no longer regarding her with slightly more respect than a piece of dirt on the ground. Before, he only spoke to her if he had orders, or if he had found yet another thing about her training or behavior he wanted to criticize. Now, he was just distant; he did not speak to her at all. He regarded her with the same exact wariness as everyone else in the compound except for Neji and Hanabi.

This new attitude was a small step above the blatant disappointment it used to be, but it was a step above nonetheless. Hinata liked to think it was because she was no longer jumping in fright at every single little detail like some annoying little mouse. Dealing with innards and blood on a daily basis had numbed her to the worst of psychologically scarring things, and her daily work in the hospital – where very specific and clear-cut vocabulary was mandatory, unless you wanted to kill someone by mixing up similar-sounding organs – had also taught her to dish out orders at a loud volume without stuttering.

She was useful, now. Not weak.

It didn't change all those years prior, though. There was still a sharp divide between Hiashi Hyuga and her, and their with Hiashi Hyuga was icy at best. The air seemed to solidify every time the two of them even passed each other in the hallway, and only Hanabi's presence would be able to diffuse it.

In a sense, though, she thought she might have impressed him, with that. One year ago, that level of negative sentiment would have caused her to cry or faint. Now, she could stand up to it just fine, and deal it back in equal proportion.

Wasn't this what the man had wanted to prepare her for? Wasn't that how a future head of the Hyuga clan should act? Wasn't she perfectly executing the old policy of how they were supposed to deal with other clans – hold your ground and don't budge an inch, regardless of how many concessions you might have to make?

In any event, it had come as a shock to her when one of the maids announced that the clan head Hiashi-dono was requiring her presence – alone. The only time they ever interacted formally was at the dinner table, where everyone else also sat; if not, then he would at least have Hanabi or Neji there as a third party. But Hinata supposed they couldn't avoid each other forever. One day, he was going to have to name the clan heir.

Her former weakness had been the only thing that had kept Hanabi from getting the stamp on her forehead; that excuse had been wiped from the slate the day she broke the floorboards with Hiashi Hyuga's face. Now, there was a new excuse – that she had abandoned the Hyuga, and was not stable yet, and that they weren't sure if they could trust her with running the clan.

Hinata was completely fine with that. Relished in it, even. As long as she purposely continued to give the clan elders a reason to think she was not yet ready to be clan head – she could keep Hanabi safe. But she also had to continue to give them hope that she was fit for the job – which she did well, since Tsunade hadn't fired her yet – or she would be sealed in Hanabi's stead. It was a delicate balancing act, keeping them indecisive, while she figured out what to do.

"Hiashi-dono," she said, bowing.

Hiashi Hyuga, on his part, was not offended at her not referring to him as family, for he did not call her that in return. He acknowledged her presence, attached the proper suffix, and poured her tea as she sat down.

"We both overreacted," he said. There was no emotion in his tone. He spoke like a robot, as if there was someone else on the other end, feeding him lines on what to say. Hinata wanted to laugh at the mental image, but she didn't.

"Yes. We did. I apologize for my lack of conduct," she said instead. Painfully formal. That ought to satisfy him.

"As do I," Hiashi Hyuga said.

"I won't give up my ninjutsu," Hinata said, purposefully.

For his part, Hiashi Hyuga tried to pretend he didn't know what she was talking about. "Many Hyuga are healers. It is an honorable art."

"I mean the things Sasuke taught me, too," Hinata said, although it was likely she would never execute them in battle. The ninjutsu he taught her had been low-level, barely useful, and not so much meant for use as much as it was meant to make a statement. Hiashi Hyuga knew this, but he did not react except for a slight angry twitch of his mouth, which he suppressed.

Finally, he conceded, but he did not budge an inch, as per the old saying. "I am not a Yamanaka; I cannot reverse something which has already been learned. But do not use this as an excuse to give up your clan training. I still expect you to learn all of our techniques."

Hinata nodded. "That is reasonable."

More tea.

"I don't suppose we can forget this ever happened, can we?" Hinata asked.

"No," Hiashi Hyuga said curtly.

Hinata couldn't help the disappointment in her tone. "I thought not."

Hiashi Hyuga shrugged, aloof as ever.

"But we can pretend."

The road to healing a broken relationship is neither short nor easy. Sometimes, neither parties make it to the end. Sometimes, the end is not what it was before – a state of half-unity, of neither being enemies or friends, simply two people bound by an everpresent state of awkwardness. It would be years before Hinata Hyuga and Hiashi Hyuga finally forgave each other, before they finally saw one another as something other than oppressive clan head and disappointing heir.

Some would say better late than never, but in their case it was probably better never than late.


Boardroom 23

Here she was. The meeting with her brother that the Hokage had promised. Temari hadn't expected the old man to uphold his end of the bargain, so prepared to go to war with the old coot again, but then he had – and she was left wondering just what he was up to.

These Konoha types. Honorable to the end, as far as it suited them.

But if it meant being able to see her brother again, then she'd take what she had.

Gaara had grown into an impressive young man, Temari decided, a bit of grudging respect for Konoha building up in her. Whatever they had done, he no longer looked as sleep-deprived or insane as he once had.

He had never been a particularly cute child. Sure, as family, it was her obligation to find him cute, but she knew that from an objective standpoint he had not been very physically impressive. Already small and sunken from a premature birth, the influence of a demon and the resulting insomnia, combined with a fighting style that hardly used any movement, had left him looking weak and malnutritioned. He was not weak, of course, but he certainly looked it, except for that perpetual murderous look in his eyes.

Now, however, he looked a little more human. His eyes no longer displayed any outward malice, and he no longer resembled one of Kankuro's minimalistic puppets. Though, perhaps that was just a part of him growing up; he'd gotten taller and filled out. And, she supposed, he was better groomed. Someone had been regularly trimming his hair. Back in Suna, no one had dared to approach him with sharp pointy objects in hand except for their late father, and of course the old man had had better things to do than play barbershop.

At the very least Konoha had treated him well, not…tortured him or whatever. Though they could have done without the ugly brown hair dye, that made him look like a useless Fire Country civilian. Temari didn't know if she was disappointed by that or not. It was harder to hate Konoha for taking her brother away, once they'd made it clear that they hadn't done him harm. But what had she expected from an old softy like Sarutobi, anyway?

"I'm glad to see you are well, Gaara."

"As am I," he responded politely. His expression was guarded.

"I've missed you."

He stared back blankly.

Temari pushed further. "I've made arrangements for you to come home. You – "

"And why would I return to a village that has given me nothing but pain? And how dare you call yourself my sister, and Kankuro my brother, when all I have known is isolation? Granted, I don't blame you for that – I was a poor sibling myself – but please don't insult me by trying to use familial ties to take me 'home' – if Suna is even my home."

Temari felt herself reel. She was shocked. Of all the ways she'd expected Gaara to react, it had never been like this…she'd played out this scene in her mind so many times, wondering how it could go in so many different ways…

"Gaara, you are a citizen of Suna. Here, you will be but a second-rate captive, a prisoner of war, a spoil of victory."

"That doesn't say much about Suna, does it? Here, they seem to treat their prisoners of war better than Suna treats its own citizens."

"Gaara, I know we haven't had the best of relationships, but I really want to mend things between us and make you happy – "

"If you want to make me happy, then let me stay here. Please. I want to stay. I don't want to go back to a place where everyone shuns me and thinks I'm a monster. I just want people to not know what I am. I want people to treat me like I'm normal."

And just like that, all former positive sentiment she had been considering about Konoha flew right out the window.

They hadn't hurt him. No, they'd done worse than that.

They'd twisted him. Reached into the depths of his mind and twisted him, brainwashed him into forgetting his home and loving Konoha in its stead. This total invasion of his person…to Temari, that was more unforgivable than any beating they might have given him. Whatever connection he'd had with Sand…it was gone now. They – she was too furious to even speak, too furious to even put into words what she had just witnessed.

The Hokage was waiting for her with a smug smile on his face as she stormed out of the meeting room. "You've destroyed him," she snarled.

"Destroyed? Funny word you Wind Country people have for kindness and happiness," the Hokage said.

That was my brother, Temari thought, fuming. You've gone one step too far, old man. Do not underestimate me. I am Sabaku no Temari, oldest child of the Fourth Kazekage, and you've just pissed off the wrong person.


Jiraiya's House

It was a clear night. There were no clouds or stars, only the blood moon hanging low in the sky. Today Shikamaru had figured out how to bend his shadows in the exact sealing pattern used in explosive tags. The results were…well, explosive.

Sealing was so cool, but it took a really long time to do because you needed all the special ink and the right kind of chakra-conducting surfaces to put it on. At least for beginners. Obviously Jiraiya and his mom and dad and Kakashi-sensei could make seals with just a touch of their hands. Shikamaru was almost there, if he could do it with his shadows. Naruto was still in his phase of absolutely wild ninjutsu but maybe one day he'd manage it too and drag Ino along for the ride.

He was excitedly recounting all his stories back to Gaara, who had come over for a sleepover because Yamato had some sort of mission. They no longer needed to hide the rings around his eyes now that he was getting enough sleep. "…and so Ino got really mad and she totally just exploded a freaking rock into gravel using only her bare hands and even Kakashi-sensei was all freaked out, because even though he's a lightning type and he's already used to earth being weak against lightning, he never expected Ino to figure out how to do that so quickly, but that's just Ino for you because she's awesome at chakra control, why am I telling you this, you already know all that, you hang out with Ino all the time, and anyway what's up with you, Gaara, you're looking a bit down?"

Gaara blinked. "Oh."

"Come on, man, you can tell me. I've been talking way too much and I feel a little bad that I've been talking over you, you know?"

"Oh. Um. I saw my sister. Today." Gaara trailed off.

Naruto blinked. "Temari? Kazekage Temari?"

"…yes."

"She wasn't mean to you, was she?"

"No."

"Oh. So then…what's wrong?"

"She wanted me to come back to Suna with her."

Naruto blinked. On one hand, Gaara going back to Suna might make it harder for Danzo to get his hands on him, so at least he'd be safe from that. On the other hand, this was freaking Suna, with Temari as the Kazekage, where he was already an outsider. At least in Konoha, with people not knowing much of his childhood rampages, and with Jiraiya, Yamato, and the Yamanaka clan all looking after him…

"What did you tell her?" Naruto asked.

Gaara fiddled with his thumbs. "I told her no, that I liked it here better. I'm…happy."

Naruto tried to smile at him, but worry for his new friend's safety as well as the looming thought of war made his mouth stiffer than he would have liked. After all, this wasn't just any offended sister. This was an offended sister with a penchant for lifelong grudges, a militant stubbornness, and, more importantly, control over an entire shinobi village that absolutely hated all of their guts. "Well, I'm glad you're happy. But I can't imagine that she was."

"No. She was very angry. I might have told her off more harshly than I intended." Gaara shifted. Maybe he was thinking about war; maybe he wasn't. He seemed less bothered about the potential threat of mass violence, having sadly become far too accustomed to chaos and loss at far too young an age even by the standards of their world, than about his newfound emotional freedom. "I tried to be polite, but then she acted like nothing was wrong and…and I got…angry."

Naruto shrugged. "Everyone has a right to be angry."

Gaara stared at the ceiling, musing, "Normally, when I get angry, the monster inside me comes out. People get hurt. And die. Buildings get destroyed."

"But nothing happened, or else we'd have heard of it by now," Naruto pointed out.

"It's still a rather novel feeling. Being able to get angry and still be…myself."

"Hmmm…something bothering you?"

"She said that I was still a prisoner, and a hostage. That I could pretend for as much as I liked, but in the end I'd never truly belong here." Gaara rolled over in his sleeping bag and turned his sad eyes to face Naruto, and in them, Naruto could see exactly how his life could have been so much more miserable. Had his father been less careful in his sealing…had his mother's bloodline been less adapted to the Kyuubi's chakra…had the Kyuubi been more malicious than merely grumpy…had the people in charge been less competent at making reasonable decisions…that could very well have been him.

Don't flatter yourself, idiot, the Kyuubi grumbled. As if your competence could have permitted you to accomplish anything grander than defacing the Hokage Monument.

Shut up, that was an amazing prank and you know it, Naruto smirked. You're just jealous you didn't think of it yourself. "I'm not going to lie to you, Gaara. I don't know how the rest of Konoha thinks, or if you'll ever learn to enjoy every single local custom. But those of us who know you personally are smart enough to care and strong enough to handle ourselves."

"That's true," Gaara muttered. "I suppose I didn't really ever belong in Suna either. At least here, people don't know me enough to care if I don't belong. But…she's still family. She wants me around. I don't know about Kankuro. Or any of the others. I don't know. She actually wanted me back, though. That's got to mean something."

Naruto answered his unspoken question. "Everyone wants us for power, no use pretending otherwise. It's just going to get you killed. Maybe she does care about you as her brother, though you shouldn't act like she doesn't also want a jinchuuriki for Suna again."

"So what should I do?"

"Maybe you should talk to them, properly. Though, when we are at peace, obviously. Now is probably not the best time to leave the village."

"All the others…they're really gone, aren't they?" Gaara asked morosely. "It's just us two now."

"Actually, I think Kumo's still got one left. And maybe Kiri, although no one really knows what they're up to nowadays," Naruto shrugged.

"You get to know more than me. No one ever tells me anything. Don't we have any plans? I don't know what's going to happen to you or me or anyone."

Naruto snorted. "Oh come on, Gaara. This is a shinobi village. Somebody, somewhere always has a plan."

Gaara curled in on himself. "Inoichi had one. He's still dead." And Naruto didn't have a single clue what to say, because what the hell do you say to that?


The Akimichi Clan Compound

Teams 10 and 7 had always been on good terms, but ever since that awful fight against Hidan and Kakuzu, there was something…stronger between us. I don't know how to describe it; comradery forged in mutual trauma, maybe. In our earlier Genin days, inter-team relationships were more dependent on our senseis' relationships; our team had trained more with Gai-sensei's team, while I presume Asuma-sensei's team trained more with Kurenai-sensei's team. Now, even those times were distant as our skills grew more specialized, though the amount of time we found for pointless and not-so-pointless conversation remained the same as ever.

Therefore, it was not unusual to see Sasuke or Hinata milling about Choji's house; I couldn't help but notice that as our visits got rarer and rarer, theirs grew more frequent. Not that I held any resentment towards them for it. They were his teammates, and both of them preferred the happy coziness of the Akimichi clan compound to the ghostly emptiness of the nearly abandoned Uchiha district or the awkward austerity of the Uchiha main house. Certainly both Hinata and Sasuke needed the loving companionship of Choji's mother's homemade cookies more than I did (though of course I would never refuse food for emotional support when offered).

"This is one of the few places I can go that the clan elders can't complain about," Hinata told me. "And the hospital, of course. They like to think that the Hyuga are better than everyone else and above the law, but at the end of the day, they can't offend one of the other noble clans or the Hokage's son by disrupting a team meeting, and they can't offend Tsunade-sama by restricting her apprentice's movements."

It occurred to me that Hinata had grown exponentially more clever since graduating from the Academy. Oh, she had always been smart, but her shyness had prevented her from defending herself effectively because her skewed sense of cost-benefit analysis always put her own worth at the very bottom. Not anymore, though.

"The elders have no idea what to do with you, then," I surmised. "You have too many political connections to be dealt with the easy way, but you're too rebellious to ever be the type of clan head they want."

"Out of curiosity, and I mean this with absolutely no offense intended at old people, how long does it take for these guys to die of old age?" Sasuke asked, tactful as ever. Hinata shot him a glare, but it was halfheartedly at best. Even Choji thought it was amusing.

"Several guys from the Third Hokage's time are still kicking. I wouldn't hold out too much hope," I said. "It could take decades. We don't have that kind of time."

"Why are they still in power, anyway? Surely they're not universally popular."

"They're not. But people are afraid of them," Hinata explained.

"Ah. Yes, of course."

"The Caged Bird seal is applied to the unmarked children old enough to survive the process when the clan head turns three. Neji got his when he was four, see. The only reason Hanabi doesn't have one yet is because by the time she was old enough to get the mark, I had proven myself to be an utterly mediocre disappointment. And I still am."

"Not exactly mediocre," Choji pointed out. "And disappointment is a matter of perspective."

"I stopped caring about their opinions a long time ago. They don't matter to me; you guys do. But for the rest of the clan, the Branch members at least, they have all been marked with the Caged Bird seal since they were children. They don't know anything else but pain for disobedience. Even if they think rebellion, they could never act on it. And since they cannot act on it, they cannot prevent it for their own children. It is slavery spread across generations. That is the only way such a tiny Main House can control so many Branch Houses."

"Theoretically, the Hokage could forbid it," said Choji.

"The official excuse is still, of course, the threat of bloodline theft. That the seal is a benevolent thing meant for stability and protection of clan members. So they say." Hinata's eye-roll was highly visible even with her complete lack of pupils. "The problem is, that statement is not entirely untrue."

"And for someone like the Hokage, it's more important to prevent rival villages from acquiring a Konoha bloodline than it is to spend time and energy putting a stop to this mess," I said.

"Exactly. Meanwhile, any potential compromise of also giving the Main Branch members the Caged Bird seal is impossible, because they just claim 'the seal doesn't work that way'. And of course no one can prove it because the technique of applying the seal is a secret."

"But it should be trivial to create a self-destruct seal that destroys the Byakugan upon death without also allowing some other owner to use it to cause pain at will," I pointed out. "If there's less functionality, then it should be easier to make."

"I'm sure," said Hinata. "But that doesn't help the people who already have the Caged Bird seal on their foreheads. I know for a fact that it goes deeper than the forehead because extended punishment causes literal brain cell death. It's not just something you can wipe off or rip out."

"Have you looked at them using your Byakugan before?" I asked.

"Sure. It's not forbidden or uncommon. Everyone with an activated Byakugan has seen the chakra behind it at one point or another."

"And yet no one knows how it works?"

"All we know is, the chakra holding the seal together starts at the forehead and punctures deep into the skull, like a mass of tree roots. You actually get a better view of the chakra network of the seal itself when you look at someone's head in profile, rather than from the front. All the front really shows you is the surface design," Hinata explained.

"Tree roots, huh." An idea began to take form in my head.

"Yes. And obviously it's attached to either a chakra source or some kind of nerve for detecting brain or heart activity, because it needs a way to detect when the victim is dead. But it's also connected to the chakra of the Main House members otherwise the whole pain control aspect of it wouldn't work. "

Sasuke and Choji, used to both of our mutual nerdiness, shot each other a look that probably said, oh boy, here they go again.

"I mean," I said, thinking of Kakashi-sensei's arm, "won't any seal just die if we starve it of chakra for long enough?"

"The trouble is, if the seal is chakra-dependent – so if it counts 'no more chakra' as 'dead' – it might just blow up and render the person blind. And we don't want that. Here, let me get a piece of paper so I can draw it out for you."

"So we can't disconnect it before we deactivate it, otherwise it might damage whatever parts of the brain it's attached to. But we can't deactivate it before we disconnect it, otherwise it might think the person is dead and try to destroy the corpse?" I frowned. "Tricky. The seal in its current state can't be removed. But there's no reason we can't modify it…"

"I thought you said we can't disconnect or deactivate it?" Hinata asked.

"But we can draw on top of it. Right now, there is only a single 'death' condition that needs to be met in order for the corpse-and-eye-destroying post-death phase to trigger," I explained. "But if we simply add another condition, and attach it in such a way that both must be met…"

"We can make that second condition something impossible. Then, even if we deactivate the Caged Bird Seal, the post-death phase won't happen…and then we can wait for the seal to starve normally, and remove it. And after we remove it, we can replace it with the normal seal that isn't connected to the Main House!" Hinata concluded excitedly.

"So now the only question remaining is: can we do all this without getting caught? If a Branch Member's seal is deactivated, can the Main House feel it disconnect?"

"Good question. I don't think so, since neither Hanabi nor I ever felt it, but maybe it's different for clan heads. There's probably an easy way to check…"