Epilogue – Rosemary
There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember. – Shakespeare, Hamlet
It takes him two months to muster the courage to visit her at home.
Neji finds Hinata in the backyard, tending her newly planted herb garden. When she sees him, a smile lights her face, and suddenly things that he doesn't even know are broken feel whole again.
"I lost all of Okaasan's special hybrids," she says, as if they had been in the middle of a conversation.
Maybe, in a way, they had.
"But I think I can grow some hybrids of my own that will be just as good or better."
He nods. She is hard not to look at.
"So I'm optimistic," she finishes. Then she stands up and wipes the dirt from her knees. "Won't you come in and have some tea, Neji-san?"
After Uzumaki Hinata left the Hyuga compound that April evening, Hanabi retired to her room complaining of a stomach ache. Most of the household, and even her mother-in-law, secretly suspected that her feigned illness was an excuse to avoid her husband and in-laws. The "rape" had driven a wedge of suspicion between husband and wife, with Katsuro quickly realizing that the cursed seal prevented such unwanted attentions.
Hanabi's door guard, Hyuuga Taka, found her in her bed at four thirty that next morning. The young nin was alerted when she didn't hear the usual noises of her leader's morning exercises. Taka did not report her discovery until almost five though, out of fear of punishment. It took her that long to quell her panic and realize the only person who could reprimand her with the cursed seal anymore lay blue-lipped across her lavender silk coverlet.
"Are you well?" Hinata asks after they have sat down at the table with full tea cups.
"Yes, Hinata-sama." Now that he is here, the words aren't coming easily. "I've been reinstated into the ANBU," he forces himself to add. "They're keeping us busy. The squad was dangerously understaffed for awhile."
They both regard separate whorls of wood on the table for a moment. It's a painful subject they broach.
By the time the sun rose that morning, the Saito patriarch had called the Hokage in to give her expert opinion on Hanabi's demise. After a short examination, Tsunade peeled her gloves off and stated succinctly:
"I heard you are to receive a commendation from the Godaime," Hinata remarks to fill the silence. "That's great news!"
Neji looks away, embarrassed.
"Thank you, Hinata-sama"
"Just Hinata, Neji. Please just Hinata."
After that Neji was, of course, exonerated. Saito Katsuro requested a meeting with him that lasted long into the night. The next morning, as the Saito Clan – all of them – prepared to depart, Katsuro shook Neji's hand. What happened at their meeting was the subject of rampant speculation for years, but everyone knew better than to ask the reserved Hyuga genius and he never told.
Neji takes a deep breath. There were hard confessions, there were excruciating confessions, and then there was this confession.
He stops and begins again, more adamantly. "Hinata. I would never have raped Hanabi."
His bandaged hand lies on the table between them. Hinata covers it with her own.
"She wanted a strong Hyuga heir. But there is no excuse for what I did. I can only say that she held something over me to make me comply. If it hadn't been for that—well, I would rather have died."
"I know that, too." Hinata's hand tightens around his. He is aware of the faded scars on his knuckles, the ones he earned defending her honor so long ago. "And I'm glad you did what you did, because truthfully—I don't want to live in a world without you in it."
His nod is barely perceptible.
At first, Hyuga functioned quite well without a leader. Without the Saito's money, the elaborate construction projects fizzled and died. The nin forced to resign their commissions under Hanabi's leadership rejoined Konoha's forces. They were just in time, it seemed. The war with Sound loomed, more imminent than ever.
Neji is grateful when Hinata chooses that moment to get up and top off their tea cups.
"This tea is excellent. Your best yet," he comments after taking a sip, holding the steaming cup by the delicate handle.
"I'm still experimenting," she smiles. "It's not quite perfected."
Neji nods again. Then he stands up. Having just sat down with her fresh cup of tea, Hinata starts to stand too, but Neji puts his hand out to stop her.
"No, I want to do this right." He clears his throat.
"Hinata-sama." He doesn't catch himself and she doesn't bother correcting him this time. "You probably know I'm not here for personal reasons."
She looks down and for some reason he can't help but think back to that night on the wall. In the stinging rain.
"A group of the former councilors have gathered. We have decided that we want to invite you back as nominal head of the family. There will be restrictions, of course. The Council will have more power, and use of the cursed seal will be prohibited. But, well, there are things you know that we don't, and we…" He pauses. "We need you."
By the end of his request, Hinata has sat her cup down and stood up.
"You say you need me, Neji. But do you want me?"
Neji looks at her standing in her spotless kitchen holding a porcelain tea cup. This is his cousin, the woman he has been in love with for over half his life. He never planned to tell her. That day on the wall, he told himself that she would be better off not knowing, and since then he had thought of a thousand more reasons to convince himself that was true. But he knew too of the poisons that Hyuga Himiko grew in her garden. His father had warned him of them long ago. He had never imagined that shy, frail Hinata would ever be able to use them. What arrogance, to think that he knew what was best for her. What audacity to think that – just because he could look through her chest and watch its quickening beat – that he could ever really know the secrets of her heart.
"Hinata-sama," he swallows. "I've never wanted anything in this world more than I've wanted you."
Most of the heirlooms of Hinata's life are gone. The heart-shaped pendant that her father gave her on her twelfth birthday, once her mother's, was taken back from her pink musical jewelry box when she eloped. The hybrid herbs, her mother's legacy, were burned once, and later Hinata tilled their progeny under the earth in her own backyard as she prepared to end her life. The red top, an unborn child's toy, has been donated to charity. Lake Hinata with its distinctive white rocks is lost in the maze of lakes that dot Konoha's forest, and her sister Hanabi's ashes are scattered around the four corners of the village. A cheap silver wedding band lies somewhere at the bottom of the Nakano River.
She's twenty-seven and has a scar for every year of her life. She has done things that she will regret until she dies. There are things she has not done that she will regret just as long. But she has to put the past behind her. She knows now that that is the only way for a Hyuga woman to survive.
As her beloved watches, Hyuga Hinata steps back and slips the straps of her sun dress down over her shoulders until it pools in the floor, a puddle of lavender cotton and flowers. She has never imagined that Neji's hands, so rough and callused, could flicker over her skin like butterfly wings. Neji kisses her then, and she thinks she can hear the stars moving outside in the night sky. He kisses her neck, her ears, her stomach. He kisses the insides of her elbows, the back of her knees. He kisses her with fifteen years of want until she is so overcome with desire that she could almost let herself cry.
A week later, Hinata guides Neji's hand as he marks her with the distinctive forehead seal. He is reluctant, but his hands do not shake. It hurts, but she does not cry. Ever after, every Hyuga born with the Byakugan is marked. It is understood as a necessary sacrifice for the clan – it keeps their abilities from falling into the wrong hands, after all – but the stigma associated with the green symbol soon fades away, as no one now left alive knows how to activate the curse. Further, the only scroll containing the vital instructions is destroyed in a small brush fire in the area of the Hyuga compound known as Himiko's Garden. There is a wedding in that same spot the next year, a small affair of just close family and friends. The groom is handsome in a black formal kimono; the bride wears her mother's wedding gown.
When she repeats her vows, Hyuga Hinata cries.
She cries because she knows now that the past, well, that was nothing. But this…
This is everything.
So that's it. Thanks for reading.