Notes: For some reason, ideas for short stories keep coming to me while I'm working on the next two chapters of "The Nature of Love." I've seen some people touch on this idea, but nobody every really pursues it beyond that. So I thought I'd try to run with it.

Summary: Hinata has always feared being forced into the Branch House. But the new seal on her forehead somehow accomplishes the things she has never been able to.

Branches

A Naruto Oneshot by

Nate Grey (xman0123-at-aol-dot-com)


The first sight that greets Hinata's weary eyes is that of Neji staring down at her. She cannot decide what is more dominant in his expression: shock or disgust.

She knows his eyes are trained on her exposed forehead.

Briefly, Hinata considers asking him, politely, to give her something for the throbbing pain in her head. Two things stop her: the realization that this pain is normal after the sealing, and the fact that they are technically equals now. Realistically, Neji has a higher place in the Branch House, if only because of his genius, but Hinata has never spoken an unkind word to any of them, and she knows that is not easily forgotten.

Neji moves first: he wordlessly drapes a strip of cool, damp cloth over her forehead. It soothes the ache, and Hinata is grateful, but her throat is raw.

From the screaming earlier, she recalls, and tears spring to her eyes.

Her father had been the one to perform the sealing. If the rumors were true, he could have allowed someone else to do so.

Neji seems to know, and does not appear to expect any thanks. "Once your strength has returned, I will show you where you'll be staying from now on," he tells her.

Hinata is surprised, and feels she must show it. "You... were ordered to?" she whispers.

"No," he replies simply, offering nothing more, but also not looking at her.

"Do you... still hate me?"

"No. I pity you."

Hinata cannot explain why that brings a smile to her face, but when Neji sees it, he doesn't look away.


Breakfast is a new affair.

In the Main House, no one can eat until everyone is present and seated. Being late, or not showing up at all, is the height of rudeness.

The Branch House cannot afford to do the same, even if they wanted to. One never knows when they will be summoned by the Main House, so eating quickly takes priority to manners. Food is prepared early, set out, and kept warm for those who want it. Eating together is largely a luxury, and usually no more than two or three people manage it. Neji's team meets early, just as Hinata's does, so they are able to eat together.

The servants (Hinata is ashamed to admit that she still thinks of them as such, even though this is truly her family, now) are kind and patient with her. An older woman offers a small jar of ointment, to keep the skin around the seal from becoming infected. Hinata thanks her repeatedly, but the woman simply grasps her hands tenderly before moving on.

She knows that most of them pity her, but even that is better than the hatred, dislike, or indifference she received in the Main House.

Neji eats quickly, pausing only to answer when Hinata has a question about the way things are done. He is eager to begin training, and (Hinata suspects) to get away from her. She doesn't expect him to be around all of the time, but he has been far more patient with her than she feels she deserves.

But the end of breakfast brings up a new concern: Hinata's team has not seen her since she received the seal. There is no real way to hide it: the medicated cloth on her forehead is fairly large out of necessity, and moving her headband over it would only make it more noticeable. Kiba is bound to smell the medicine, anyway, and Shino is sensitive to any shift in her mood.

It might even be better just to tell them at once, to avoid the awkwardness, and to assure them that she is fine.


"I am in the Branch House now."

Kiba does everything in his power to hold in the snarl, but it slips out, anyway. He calms down only when Hinata reaches out to gratefully stroke his cheek, and she allows him to fold her into a crushing, warm hug. Akamaru whines and pushes his head into her side, not wanting to be left out. She giggles and hugs him, too.

"How are they treating you, Hinata?" Shino asks. He will not offer a hug, and Hinata does not expect one. But his concerned words have the feel of one, and they are welcomed.

"Everyone has been so nice to me."

"So no contact with the Main House yet."

"N-No. Not yet." Suddenly she misses Hanabi, fiercely and overwhelmingly.

Kurenai squeezes her shoulder firmly. "Hinata. You know you are always welcome in my home, even if it would cause problems for-"

Hinata smiles up at her, places her own hand over the jounin's. "I know, Kurenai-sensei. Thank you."

"When are you going to tell everybody else?" Kiba asks, looking a little uncomfortable. He is trying to be supportive, and she loves him for it, but they both know part of him will never be okay with what has been done to her. To an Inuzuka, no person is meant to be tamed or held back in such a manner, reduced to little more than a beast of burden.

"There's no point in trying to hide it, Kiba-kun. I'm sure it will be all over the village soon enough. I am not ashamed, to be like Neji. Maybe... this is a second chance for me."


On her way to have lunch with her team, Hinata is ambushed.

Sakura, who she has never felt particularly close to (largely due to the pinkhead's harsh treatment of Naruto when they were younger), drags Hinata to the Hokage Tower, going on and on about how they have no time to waste. And in that she is correct.

Over the next few hours, Sakura, Shizune, and Tsunade herself poke and prod at the seal. This is their first opportunity to study a "fresh" one, and Hinata lets them, in the hope that others of her clan might somehow benefit from the research. Perhaps Tsunade can create a counter-seal of sorts.

It is only when the ordeal is done that Tsunade truly surprises Hinata.

"From now on, Hinata, you are to immediately inform me of anyone who activates your seal."

"Why, Hokage-sama?" Hinata asks before she can stop herself. Much as she hates it, this seal has long been part of her life, and part of her even thinks of it as normal.

"So I can punish them, of course," Tsunade replies without missing a beat. "I see no reason to destroy a person's brain because of a few mistakes. And I highly doubt there is anything that you could or would do that would warrant such treatment."

"B-But if I did that, then..."

Tsunade frowned at her. "It's either that, or I have ANBU follow you around. More than they do already, anyway."

Naturally, this completely derails Hinata's train of thought. "Why is ANBU following me, Hokage-sama?"

"They're ANBU," Tsunade says simply. "They follow everyone at some point."

This does not satisfy Hinata at all, but she can tell from Tsunade's tone that the subject is closed. "The ones following me will only report back to you?"

"That's right. If you do manage to spot them, I have to ask that you don't try to see through their masks. They'll probably signal you, so that you know they're around."


The signal, oddly enough, is a coupon for free ramen that floats out of the sky. Hinata looks up in time to see a brown blur vanishing over a rooftop, and wonders if she would've seen even that much if the ANBU hadn't intended her to. But at any rate, free ramen is free ramen, and she did miss lunch.

Along the way, she runs into Ino, Shikamaru, and Chouji. Ino spends the whole time pretending not to stare, while Shikamaru is satisfied with a somewhat long glance. Chouji, surprisingly, offers Hinata a large, unopened bag of barbecue-flavored chips. She takes a few to be polite, and insists on sharing the rest with him and Shikamaru (Ino doesn't eat chips, or so she claims).

Upon learning that she is on her way to lunch (again), Chouji asks to join her, and Shikamaru volunteers since he has nothing better to do. Ino is appalled at the thought of eating two lunches, and leaves shortly.

As she eats with them, Hinata is struck by the fact that she has never spent much time with either boy. She has no idea why, now: Chouji is easy to talk to, and Shikamaru is an excellent listener. Hinata wonders how much easier her life might have been, if she'd spoken to them earlier. A sympathetic ear from someone her own age would've meant a great deal when she was younger. Even now, Hinata is not really as close to the others as she would like, save for her own teammates. This is especially the case for Naruto, who seems to, unfortunately, only think of her as a sister or a permanently sick friend, thanks to her constant blushing around him.

The ANBU from earlier makes a brief appearance on a nearby rooftop as Hinata leaves the ramen stand. She knows it is the same one because he goes to the trouble of waving, briefly, before dropping out of sight. Something about his mask, which resembles a monkey's face, puts her at ease, though she will not realize why until the next time she spots Konohamaru tearing through the village on the back of his personal summon monkey, while Moegi, Udon, and an irate Iruka do their best to keep up.


Much to Hinata's surprise, she encounters Neji and his teammates on her way home. She realizes much later that they positioned themselves along the path in such a way that she almost had to go through them to reach the Hyuuga compound. Whether that was their idea or Neji's, she will never be sure.

Lee is the first to greet her, bounding up and offering several encouraging but loud words.

Tenten is quieter, thankfully, gently patting Hinata's back (and all the while subtly steering her away from Lee). She doesn't say much, and Hinata doesn't need her Byakugan to see that Tenten is nearly as upset as Kiba was, and probably for similar reasons. The purposeful weakening of a kunoichi without excellent reason is practically a sin in Tenten's eyes, and Hinata finally understands why she feels so strongly about such things. Even if she redoubles her efforts in every aspect of her training, the seal will remain her greatest weakness.

Neji says nothing, merely waiting until his teammates leave. Then he and Hinata walk home in strangely comfortable silence.


Hinata is summoned back to the Main House for the first time that evening.

It is far worse than she expects.

She has to stand before a full gathering, almost: she is the only Branch House member present.

For what seems like an hour, the council discusses other business. Some of it has to do with Hanabi, and there is considerable excitement (or what passes for such among the Hyuuga) about announcing her as the official clan heiress as soon as possible.

Hinata notices that her father has his eyes closed the entire time, and she knows instinctively that even if they were open, they would not turn in her direction.

Hanabi, on the other hand, stares at Hinata the entire time. The expression on her face is completely unreadable, but Hinata suspects this cannot be a good thing.

The last order of business is what finally has anything to do with Hinata. It is ultimately what she expects: she is to be Hanabi's new servant.

What she does not expect is for Hanabi to quickly restrict her to only being a handmaiden in the baths. It essentially means they will bathe together, as they have done periodically over the years, although now, Hinata will be expected to be doing all the bathing for them both. It is one of the least humiliating posts Hinata can be assigned to, since no one but Hanabi will be there to witness it.


"Your bath is ready, H-Hanabi-sama."

"Don't ever call me that when we're alone," Hanabi mutters, brushing past her roughly.

Hinata blinks, but follows Hanabi into the bath without protest. "How should I-"

"You're supposed to bathe me, not talk."

The only reason Hinata isn't hurt by that is because she can see how uncomfortable her sister is with the situation, even if she is hiding it behind a mask of rudeness.

The tension eases somewhat as Hinata begins her task. Hanabi is suspiciously clean already, as if she had taken a bath only hours before, and somehow, this does not surprise Hinata at all. She never really thought Hanabi would want her here for cleaning purposes, anyway. But they go through the motions all the same.

Hinata finishes with Hanabi's back, and suddenly embraces her from behind without warning.

Hanabi tenses up, but says nothing and eventually relaxes.

"I'm sorry I wasn't strong enough, Hanabi-chan," Hinata whispers, and for the first time in years, she hears her sister cry.


On the way back to her home, Hinata almost runs into one of the elders. Upon recognizing her, his eyes flick up to where her seal is hidden, and a cruel smirk settles on his face. Hinata knows at once what is about to happen, just as she knows there is nothing she can do about it.

But before he can make the needed hand seal, a long, pink object bursts through the wall and smacks his hands, breaking all of his fingers with ease. The elder's howl of pain is cut off quickly as the object wraps around his head and slams him into the floor, leaving him out cold. It is only when the object withdraws that Hinata recognizes it as a tongue.

She quickly runs outside, only to find the monkey-masked ANBU from earlier atop an orange toad the size of a large person. Only now, the monkey mask is resting on his forehead, and brilliant blue eyes track her as she slowly approaches.

"When did you join ANBU, Naruto-kun?" she asks softly.

"When they put another damned seal on someone else who didn't deserve it," he replies easily. There is rage in his voice, but it does not reach his face, because he is looking at her. "And I'm not ANBU, not really. Baa-chan needed someone to tail you, and I wanted it to be me."

"Why?"

"Because I never seem to notice you until it's too late to save you. It won't happen again. I promise."

It is Hinata's turn to cry then, because she knows Naruto makes promises the same way that he makes friends, and he is either unable or unwilling to abandon either. She knows that he has effectively bound his life to hers, and it frightens her a little, to know that he might one day have to use Kyuubi's power against her own clan.

Hinata's fear fades as Naruto wraps his arms around her, and she raises her head, knowing that this is the perfect chance to tell him how she feels, how she has felt from the moment she first saw him.

But whatever Naruto sees in her eyes speaks louder and faster, because it is he that says the words first, and then there are no words at all.

The End.


Endnotes:

Once again, written largely late at night, not sure if it's as good as I think it is. But then, everything looks better when you're headbanging to "Ultimate Secrets," I guess...

Okay, this is probably way too optimistic, all things considered. But the very idea of Hinata getting sealed is so danged depressing, and I didn't feel like writing about that.

Neat as a fox mask would be, it'd also be obvious. And what kind of Hokage would Tsunade be if she let Naruto walk around with yet another target on his face? The monkey mask is something they should be able to agree on, I think.