Freed Unto a Cage

Hanabi is turning sixteen soon, in a few months time. She doesn't have much time left, she knows. Soon, the elders will be holding council to choose on an official heir, and then she'll be too late.

So Hanabi wakes up feeling desperate one morning, desperate enough to pretend it's courage. Still, she stalls, and the early morning has passed already before she steels herself and knocks on Hinata's door.

"C-come in," her sister's gentle voice quavers, and she does as she is told. Hanabi finds herself wondering what it will be like to obey every command given to her, whether it be stuttered, barked, or a snap of the fingers.

The thought displeases her vaguely, but she sinks to her knees and bows low to her startled sister, to humble herself and practice for utter subservience.

"H-hanabi? What are you d-doing?" Hinata yelps, looking almost frightened as she forces the younger Hyuuga to stand. She is not used to such courtesy and respect, much less from her family.

Still, Hanabi bows her head politely as she speaks with her sister. Sometimes, she wonders if she had been born the elder of the two, Hinata would of have been happier. Hanabi likes to think she would have been a good elder sister and would of have protected Hinata better.

But there's no sense in dreaming of could have beens, so instead she concentrates on changing what will be.

She was never very good at persuasion nor at manipulation, so she settles for blunt truth and logic.

"Give me the cursed seal, Sister," she says abruptly, holding on tight to the other's hands. Hinata's eyes widen, not wanting to understand. "Please," Hanabi adds, hating how her pleading makes the other girl cringe, and how forceful and distressed she sounds.

Hinata refuses to acknowledge her request, acting confused by her words. She shakes her head frantically, not willing to let it sink in. Instinctively, she knows it's something she doesn't wish to hear, doesn't want to understand.

But Hanabi's piercing eyes catch her own, and the younger girl begins to speak. Her voice is quiet and unassuming, and before she realizes it, Hinata has heard every word. Even though she desperately wishes she didn't, she understands the other's reasoning, understands her plea.

The elder Hyuuga has always been a compliant girl, and she has never been able to refuse anything of anyone, but now she wishes she could say no to her younger sibling.

So Hinata finally acquiesces after an entire afternoon of discussion, and Hanabi leaves with a weight off her chest and a stinging in her eyes. They both cry that night, faces buried in soft linen sheets, heaving the noiseless sobs that are the only tears the Hyuuga shed.

Do it for Father, Sister. He'll have to brand one of us once the heir is chosen. He suffered so much with Hizashi-san's death already. Let's not burden him so, let's not reopen old wounds. Do it for him.

As it was custom to, the branding took place on her birthday. Not on her sixth, as it should have been, but sixteenth was good enough. They met at noon in the Hyuuga temple, and they drew the sealing grid on the wooden floorboards with chalk.

It was easier to erase than the traditionally used ink, though the effect wasn't as grand and looked rather like a child's hopscotch grid. Nevertheless, when Hinata stood in the Sealer's spot, and Hanabi in the center, forehead bare and lips pressed tightly together, they were solemn. They knew it wasn't a game.

Do it for yourself. You're the eldest, you have the better heart, the sweeter nature. You were the heiress all along. If it's not me, then it shall be you whom they brand and throw to the Branch House. You do not belong there, Sister. I do.

The technique of the cursed seal is taught to and performed only by those of the Main House, not because Branch members lack the power, but because they often lack the will required to execute the sealing technique. A branding failed once, long ago. The Sealer's resolve wavered, as she was branding her son. The boy screamed for hours before he died, his face a tattered mass of mangled flesh and hot, streaming blood.

Hinata loves her sister, so she performs the ritual with dry eyes and steady hands. She can't afford making a mistake. When the last words of the incantation are pronounced, Hanabi screams and clutches her forehead. When Hinata pries the younger girl's hands from her face, she is oddly relieved to see the ugly mark on her sister's once-smooth skin.

Do it for Neji-nii-san. How it must pain him to see me free, while his father suffered the cursed seal. And you'll be good to the Branch House, Sister, I know you will. I fear I might not be so, if I were to become head of the clan. Do it for him.

Hanabi convinces her sister to stay away from the house until Hiashi's anger is passed, so Hinata spends the night at the Inuzuka's. She cries and cries and cries until she cries herself to sleep against Akamaru's comforting warmth, Kiba murmuring awkward words of heartfelt sympathy.

Hanabi comes to find her the following afternoon, a few fresh bruises on her face and her forehead-protector hiding the cursed seal. She bows low before Hinata, and Kiba glares at Hanabi hard when the elder sister chokes down a sob.

"Let's go home, Hinata-sama," the girl murmurs, eyes downcast in perfect submission.

Hinata misses the way she used to call her 'Sister', but she knows it can't be helped. The Branch members' duty is to obey, serve, and protect. There is no room in their lives for blood-ties, love, and freedom.

It's a cruel fate, and she hates herself for bringing that unto her own flesh and blood. She burns with shame and self-loathing each time she sees Hanabi's cursed seal, and tries so hard to forget. Yet, years later, when Hinata is head of the Hyuuga, and Hanabi gets married and begins to smile again, she wonders if her guilt is misplaced. Only Branch members can marry out of the clan, as long as they don't have children. So now Hanabi is finally free, free though she is branded, free though she lived so long in servitude.

And Hinata knows that on her sister's sixteenth birthday, Hanabi received the best gift she could offer.

Do it for me, Sister. I don't wish to become head of the clan; I don't wish to abide by these rules that bind us. What is worse, to hurt or to be hurt? I'm selfish, sister, so I ask you to do this for me. Please.