A/N: Written for the May round of Naruto flashfics on LiveJournal.

Enjoy!

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Umbrella

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The rain is warm, the air heavy with its moisture. It is summer. Konoha is rank with the scent of growing things, so much so that Hinata can hardly breathe.

Neji stands in the middle of the courtyard, staring up at the wrathful grey sky. He is drenched to the skin, but he does not seem to notice it. What is he looking at that so fascinates him? What is he thinking of that so enthralls him?

Hinata wants to know.

She is too afraid to ask, however, seeing in her mind even as she considers it his angry, cold face and hearing the harsh words he will doubtless utter if she dares to try.

Hinata has good reasons to be afraid. She is not frightened by the world because she is a coward. She is frightened by the world because she knows it too well to believe it will be kind to her. Before she does anything she can see-- with the eyes of one sadly gifted with understanding-- the way the ripples of consequences will flow. She sees death in every word, pain in every glance, and cannot escape it.

Instead of asking, therefore, she only brings him an umbrella and pretends his gaze does not hurt her.

Neji does not thank her.

xxxxx

The Hokage sends him on missions far more often than she sends Hinata.

It's understandable. Neji is by far the better shinobi, and also, as the heir of her clan Hinata is not so easily spared. Hinata doubts the Hokage knows how torturous it is for her to sit at home with her maids and her resentful sister and all the expectations on her. Neji is not free... but he is freer than Hinata, for one; and secondly, she worries for him when he is gone.

He hates her, oh yes, that is undisputable. For having everything he has ever wished for and being too weak to bear it, he hates her without mercy or forgiveness.

Even so, she does not hate him. She cannot. Even when he glares at her as though he wishes her dead, she cannot hate him, because he is everything she wishes to be and strong besides. He has tried to kill her, once, twice, many times, but how can she hate him for that when she has wished herself dead easily as often? She does not blame him for feeling as he does. He is right. She should be dead for her weakness, he should be the heir, but she lacks the courage to take her own life and the tattoo on his forehead ensures he will never reach that most honourable of positions. It is not fair, but the life of a shinobi rarely is.

Hinata wishes she had the courage to explain all this to him.

He would not seem to listen, she knows, but he would mull over the words and decide for himself on his own time. If only she was not so afraid. If only she was brave enough to risk her life for the truth like Naruto-kun does all the time, or Kiba-kun or Shino-kun or any of the people who surround her who put their lives on the line every day for what they believe in. She would give everything for a fraction of the courage they possess... but of course, life does not work like that.

This fear is her constant companion, and will be for the foreseeable future. All she can do is face it as it is and live despite it... but it is hard, so hard.

All she wants is someone to stand beside her and make it easier, but there is no one who cares enough.

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The years pass, day by day.

She learns what she must do, learns how to lead the Hyuuga in such a way that they will follow. The lessons are longer and harder than the ones making her into a shinobi ever were. She knows how to make a double of herself, knows to replace herself with something that will take daggers in place of her, knows how to change herself into someone else so well that everyone will be fooled. Those are easy. She can do them in her sleep. But learning to make speeches before dozens of nobles, all stronger and more ruthless than her? Memorizing laws so that no one can ever trick her into agreeing to something she should not? These are more difficult than anything she has ever done.

Hinata is clever. There is nothing wrong with her mind. It is only that with every law she learns, she thinks of what atrocity must have occurred to make its writing necessary. With every trick she learns for speaking to her subjects, she thinks of how they will feel being spoken down to by someone so weak.

Neji would be better at this, she thinks with every word her tutors speak. Neji would know what to say to make them cower and obey, how to stand to make them respect him, how to lead to make the Hyuuga prosperous and happy.

If Neji led them, Hinata would be happy to follow.

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He glares at her from the back row as they anoint her brow with oil, as she drinks the ceremonial sake and speaks the expected words. His resentment is palpable. She can almost taste it on the air along with the harsh edge of alcohol.

Guilt swallows her, but she fights it back down as she has done every time for the past two years. Yes, Neji would be a better leader, but he is not the leader and never will be. Hinata is, and though she is inadequate, she knows she must do her best for her family. Their unhappiness and discontent are not things she would be able to bear, she knows. She must satisfy them, first for their sake and secondly for her own.

Neji will never be satisfied, but she understands now that she cannot help him.

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For two weeks after the ceremony, he is nowhere to be found.

When he returns at last, it is late and night and raining again. It is fall, so the rain is cool and thin. It had been lulling her to sleep, but she hears the change of pitch as it falls on his skin and opens her Hyuuga eyes and sees him through the walls of her chamber.

Her nightrobe is thin and pale blue like her eyes, and it is soaked within seconds of her stepping outside. An umbrella, cream silk patterned with cranes, a woman's umbrella, is clutched in her fingers.

She welcomes him home and opens it over him.

His hair drips quietly onto the cobblestones of the courtyard. There is no anger in his eyes.

"It's cold outside," she says. The weather is always a safe topic, even with him. "Come inside."

"I'm sorry," he says instead of following her.

She turns back to look at him, and notices all of a sudden how different he looks. He is wearing the same clothes, his hair is still long, his eyes are still pale and harsh, but there is a gentleness to him that was not there before. His shoulders are stooped with defeat. She wants to straighten them with her hands, make him stand tall and defiant as usual, but doesn't dare. "For what?" she asks.

He walks forward, decisive and desperate, and pulls her into himself. His heart beats strong and wild against her ear, pressed against his chest, and she can feel his breath in her hair.

"For not protecting you," he says; and then, "Hinata-sama."

All of a sudden, everything is laid bare.

Hinata hears the understanding in his voice. She does not know what has happened to wreak this change in him, but she cannot find it within herself to complain. Everything she has ever wished to explain to him but not had the courage for, he has discovered on his own during these missing days. He knows. He knows, and he no longer hates her. It is more than she has ever wished for.

"Neji," she whispers against his rain-soaked skin. "I'm sorry too."

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When next the nobles gather under her, Neji stands beside her.

She can tell from the rustle of shocked whispers that they had not expected this. As she had not expected it either, it does not surprise her. Nevertheless, she ignores them and continues her address without regard to their curiosity.

Neji is a warm presence at her back, all his ferocity directed towards her enemies now rather than towards her. It is an unspeakable comfort. She wishes she could give him everything she has to thank him for it, but she cannot, and he would not take it even if she could.

There is new respect then from those under her-- not towards Neji, but towards her for having Neji standing behind her. She knows they believe that he would only support someone he believes in, and thus it follows that he believes in her. Their respect for him has metamorphosed into respect for her the moment he knelt to her.

She wants to explain to them that they're wrong, she didn't convince him to stand with her, she had indeed had nothing to do with his choice. Neji stands with her because he wishes to, not because she asked him too. It seems unfair to let the council believe otherwise, but Neji has made her promise to say nothing to them about it. It hardly makes a difference, he had told her, whether I follow you because I decided to myself or because you stated your case to me and converted me. All that matters is that I follow you.

Neji never tries to influence her decisions. If she asks his opinion, he tells her honestly, but she knows he does not expect her to decide as he orders. He trusts her judgement, and so, slowly, Hinata begins to trust it as well.

Together, they become a great leader. Hinata knows she would have been mediocre at best, but she also knows now that Neji would not have been as good a leader as she has always thought. He lacks patience, and compassion, and would always rather fight than compromise. She lacks confidence, he lacks subtlety, but together they have more than enough of both.

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The years pass, silent and hardly noticed.

They have led for half a decade. The Hyuuga are not dissatisfied with them, and though it is not as much as they ambitiously hoped for when they were children sitting on thrones too big for them, it is enough.

xxxxx

Neither of them remember when they first began sharing a room.

Now, it seems natural, as if they have always done so. Neji sleeps on the right side of the bed, closest to the door, and keeps a kunai under his pillow. Hinata sleeps on the left without fear for her safety.

Some nights, when the rain is loud and the thunder louder, they sleep in the middle with their arms around each other.

The sound of their breathing keeps the storms out.

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A/N: Why isn't there any fanart of leader!Hinata? I want it. :

Thanks for reading!