26. Leader

To realize one's thoughts were manipulated was enough to go mad. Enough to make a proud man break down.

Neji disliked Hideoshi, but the man never deserved this. This was a foul and wicked jutsu.

The Council of Elders had lost their desire to force its will onto clan. Instead of hate there was confusion and rage and deep regret.

The Branch shinobi had broken their formation around the Council and formed a half circle around the two sisters.

He walked over to Hinata and Hanabi, leaving Hideoshi where he stood. The three of them had not planned any further than this. The compulsion was gone, the Seal was gone.

This was it. Change. From now on things could never be the same again.

What now?

Freedom was his now and he could leave clan if he wanted to. But he was clan and could not deny that he had long since accepted his place within it. This was fate. He must always be close to her. A self-imposed prison, his shackles painful at times. But that was love and it was sweet nonetheless.

They were looking at Hideoshi now. The man had regained his composure. But some of his pride was gone and would never be regained again. Hideoshi knelt down and bowed his head, humbling himself before them. Like Hiashi had done before Neji, a long time ago. He was affected by Hideoshi's display. Neji realized it showed on his face. Today was not a day for wearing masks.

'Allow me to redeem myself, ohime-sama.' Hideoshi placed a kunai on the ground. It took Neji a moment to realize what he meant by it.

'You want to commit seppuku?' Hinata gasped with a soft voice.

'Hyuuga-no-kimi is dead and I have let his murderer enter this clan.'

There was always honour in dying, if there was none left in life. Dying was easy. It was what his father had done.

'Ridiculous.', Neji said.

'It is proper.' Hideoshi met Neji's eyes and then averted them. The older man was respectful towards him. Neji had a hard time dealing with it.

Three people separated themselves from the crowd. His grandmother, Hinamori and Hinagikou. The lady Nanaji walked with a brisk pace. Her Hyuuga style court kimono trailed on the dirty ground behind her, but she did not care. She was seething.

'The Branch prince is right.' His grandmother said. The lady was shaking with repressed anger. 'Hyuuga must find Danzou and kill him. Help the Hime do that, before she cuts off your head.'

-X-X-X-

Kazekage sired three children with three women. He had no love for his offspring. Not until his thirteenth year did Gaara realize that Temari and Kankurou were his siblings. They had always known, but they felt no desire to seek him out. His siblings feared him. There was no love lost between Kazekage's children. Gaara was wary of kin. Ties of blood were not enough for love or trust. Not enough to prevent attempts against his life. He had heard the rumours about his mother. She seduced Kazekage and brought upon her the despise of two clans. When she gave birth to a demon child she died. His mother's brother was the only one who cared. Yet in the end, Gaara was forced to kill him too.

'Kazekage has seen fit to trust his children with a mission to decide Suna's future.'

That's when he deduced that the two older genin beside him were his siblings. Of course everyone was weak compared to Gaara, but he would admit to himself that these siblings were fairly strong compared to other genin. They had a healthy fear of him, because they knew Gaara killed as he pleased.

While they travelled to Konoha, admiration for his skill accompanied their fear. They started to care for him. Their presence became increasingly tolerable to him. He remained wary, often he threatened to kill them. Yet it was fine this way. This was rather interesting.

When they arrived in Konoha he noticed a boy who carried with him a palpable hate. He was surrounded by friends, but he was alone. Later he learnt that the boy wished to kill his only remaining brother. That was fascinating to him. When it was clear that the boy would become his opponent during the Chuunin exams, Gaara took the time to tell him that he knew of the hate.

During the match nothing went as it was supposed to. The demon started to act up. The attack on Konoha failed. And he, Sabaku no Gaara, was defeated by a foolish boy who preached camaraderie and love. Naruto was right though. Acknowledging that truth, was enough for Gaara to truly change.

When Gaara heard that Sasuke joined Orochimaru he was not surprised. Hate required one to live in darkness. He knew that very well. Gaara had seen hell when he died. He now realized even more that there was no reason to live in hell during life.

Here amidst the rubble in iron country, Gaara was Kazekage and Sasuke an outlaw. Sasuke was driven by pointed hate. Still searching for power.

Gaara recognized the darkness surrounding Sasuke. He had lived in it once. When the darkness was breached, Gaara turned his gaze towards the light. Sasuke chose to close his eyes.

It was a painful thing to see. This darkness could only lead to hell.

'Gaara don't bother.', Kankurou said dismissively. 'If he could be convinced, Naruto would not have failed. He's a criminal now, a member of Akatsuki. He's not like you.'

'Besides', Temari interjected, 'Raikage and those harmed by Akatsuki won't stay silent. He is already an internationally wanted criminal. He has no future.'

'Don't make this personal. You are kazekage.', Kankurou said.

'I know.'

-X-X-X-

'Will you lead now?'

That was a fair question.

This was a meeting like none before. There was Neji who represented the Branch House, but also her grandmother who was no shinobi, Kikyou whom everyone assumed to be her chief retainer, Hanabi who was Hyuuga's heir, Ayase and Natsu, Fuuko, Hideoshi and the Elders.

'I left clan.', she answered her grandmother.

'But you are back now.', Ayase said. The young woman looked stricken. 'We know why you left, ohime-sama. You are the Hime. Because of you, Hyuuga regained itself. You should lead.'

None of them understood. How could she leave clan and then return to become leader. It was not right. It was not the way Hyuuga should move forward. A Hyuuga leader must be cold. He must put clan before everything else. She was led by her emotions. She did not have Neji's divine skill or Hanabi's foresight. Her emotions always interfered with rational thought. She could not lead clan.

'If it was not for onii-san, I never would have thought of leaving clan…and I would not have found a way to use the scrolls to remove the Seals. He would not have had a chance to remove the compulsion.'

Neji sat next to her and so blessedly, their eyes did not meet. Everything about her brother was bare today. He was out of chakra and very tired. She could feel his distress. And if she looked at him now, she would see it.

'Serving you, is serving clan ohime-sama.' His voice was flat. Neji was carefully distant. Never before had he called her Hime. 'No one forced you to remove the Seals from me or my brethren. I do not think I would have done the same in your place. Compassion is not my nature. I humbly beseech you not to give me credit, where it is not due.'

His words were humble, but there was pride. His posture straight, his voice even, his face neutral and thoughtful. He reminded her of her father, whose gaze always looked further than the words he said. She made up her mind.

'I need you Neji, who can see into a man's soul. The strongest Hyuuga in generations.' She looked at him now, catching his gaze. 'I need you by my side, to lead clan with me.'

His form became rigid. 'Hyuuga can not have two leaders', he said.

'Hyuuga has changed.', Hinata countered. 'But it has always had two leaders.'

'Why not just you, onee-sama.', Hanabi's words were almost a whisper. Her eyes went back and forth from Neji to Hinata and ended up resting on Neji, as if waiting for something to happen. Finally she looked away. 'We have worked towards your birthright. You're strong now. We have been waiting for you. You are the Hime now.'

'Onii-san is stronger than us all. He has no Seal and he is the leader of the branch houses. If I am Hime, then onii-san is a prince. Neji must lead beside me as an equal. The Branch House needs to be pacified.'

That was not entirely true. The branch houses had not problem with Hinata's leadership. It was the Main House that would not react well to the shift in balance. To make clear to the Main that the two houses were equal and that every Hyuuga must be treated with the same measure of respect, it was necessary to let Neji become a true leader of clan. Neji with the moonlight eyes. Neji who broke the compulsion.

'What of heirs?' Kikyou uttered the question with a matter of fact tone, which only served to emphasize its significance. 'Will you and Neji-ouji produce offspring together?'

A deep silence ensued. They all looked at her. Neji's face was drained of colour. Hanabi was angry. The girl opened her mouth, thought better of it and closed it.

The question chilled Hinata to the bone, because it was a serious one. It stated a course of action that would be logical in Hyuuga's eyes. But she could not do such. He was her brother. She looked at him. He avoided her. She took a long breath and carefully weighed her words before she answered.

'The council will choose an heir from the offspring my brother or myself may have. Until then, Hanabi is heir. Does the Council of Elders agree with this?'

The old men and women remained silence for several seconds more, as they mulled over the implications of such a set-up.

Hideoshi finally spoke. 'Since you are female, your offspring will be indisputably legitimate ohime-sama. If Neji-ouji marries and begets offspring, the council should consider it as heir.'

That seemed fair.

'Won't the council be preferential towards Hinata's children, who will be indisputably hers, and part of the Main House?', Akane-san said. The woman was the oldest of them all, but she looked no older than thirty. She had been her grandfather's most important advisor and an instructor to her father. Hinata knew her father had never really liked her. Akane was a strong fighter, but she was cruel.

Hinata stood. The weight of her blades pressed her feet firmly on the ground. Hyuuga would not regress to the way it was. In this she would let her will be known. 'The right to lead is based on merit. And that, we Hyuuga, can see.'

They stood and bowed. All but one.

-X-X-X-

'What do you know of Uchiha Sasuke?'

The three cloud ninja did not appear to want to let them pass without receiving an answer.

'What's it to you?', Naruto asked.

'He is an outlaw. A criminal. And we want him dead.', the girl answered. Snow had started falling again and rested on her big chest. Naruto distractedly wondered if her breasts did not feel cold.

'The cloud wants a lot of people dead.', Kakashi said. 'I am afraid we cannot help you regarding Uchiha Sasuke.'

'You lie!', one of the boys spat.

'Perhaps, but not much you can do about it.'

'Fuck you, we ain't letting you pass 'till you tell us.'

Yamato-sensei sighed. 'Look. We are out of your league. Don't be fools.'

'That piece of shit Uchiha killed our sensei. We ain't lettin' nobody pass who might know where to find him.'

Naruto began to feel numb. It was not from the cold. 'Sasuke would not do that.'

'Really?', the girl asked. 'Are you his friend that you have such insight into his character?'

Naruto remained silent.

Her dark skin flushed with anger.

'If you are such buddies that you're willing to protect him. You will not mind receiving punishment in his stead!'

Sasuke, what have you done?

'You can hit me all you want, if it will make you feel better.'

The girl charged.

Kakashi stepped forward and blocked her kick. 'But it will not make you feel better.', he said. He turned to Naruto. 'This is your mission kid, but I reckon we have no time for this.'

Vines crept up from beneath the snow and wound around the legs of the three cloud shinobi. Quickly ensnarling their bodies and making them immobile.

'I apologize for this measure,', Yamato-sensei said, 'But we need to go.'

Their curses followed him long after they were outside of hearing distance.

'You're a murderer if you protect one! Next time we meet, I will make you pay!'

-X-X-X-

It was yesterday Hinata returned. Today she was Hyuuga Hime and he her equal.

Ouji, prince. He laughed out loud. Ridiculous. Simply ridiculous. He would always serve her.

Neji assessed his chakra. It was completely gone. He needed to eat and sleep now, if he wanted to be in full strength tomorrow.

He walked to his kitchen in search of something edible. He found an apple, a carton of milk, a pack of spaghetti and a can of spaghetti sauce.

He contemplated going to the main kitchens in the compound then thought better of it. He did not feel like dealing with Hyuuga's observing eyes in his weakened state. He bit into the apple and gulped down the milk.

They would see him out of chakra, their prince. And know immediately the price of his Tsukiyo Byakugan.

Neji-ouji. He sighed and shook his head. He would be one if it pleased her.

He decided he did not want to cook and swallowed down two food pills. As he stripped down he thought about her. The way she carried herself. The way she spoke. There was something regal about her. It was fascinating to observe her. Her emotions were bare and every inch of pride, determination and arrogance visible. She hid nothing, and people could see why they should follow her.

He tied back his hair and started to pack. This was not a mission for Konoha. Tomorrow they would represent Hyuuga. They would not bring hitai-ate. They would not use Leaf gear. They would be Hyuuga all the way when they proclaimed their purpose at the Summit of Five Kages.

To kill Danzou and to retrieve the last Uchiha.

It seemed Sasuke's spree of vengeance was not as ridiculous as it seemed. They had a common enemy now.

'Hyuuga no kimi would not interfere with the boy's revenge unasked for.' Hideoshi had said. 'That was a mistake.'

Danzou had Shisui's eye, who knows how many other Uchiha eyes he had. At any rate, he must not become even more powerful by attaining Sasuke's eyes. From what he glimpsed in Hideoshi's mind he deduced that Danzou's plots led to his father's death. The Cloud ninja who snuck into the Hyuuga compound was under a compulsion. Why else do something as suicidal as trespassing into Hyuuga no kimi's personal domain.

Someone knocked on his door.

He walked to the door, took note of the fact he was dressed in only his boxers and decided he did not care.

Kikyou's eyes slid down from his face to his torso and rested on his crotch before finding his face again. She remained impassive.

'Come in.'

She entered and sat down on the couch.

'You are handsome.', she said.

He shrugged. 'You are beautiful.' He sat across from her. 'What do you want, Kikyou?'

Her blue-tinged eyes were cloudy. She was clearly upset about something. 'I think it would be in everyone's best interest if you pursue the Hime seriously.'

Not this again. 'We are siblings, she and I.'

'We are all Hyuuga in this clan, Neji-ouji.', she said. 'She is not just a sister in your eyes.'

'No, she is everything to me and I am well pleased serving her.' He stood. 'Excuse my bluntness, but I must rest now. Please, leave me.'

She stood as well. 'I will, but not before I tell you this. The Uchiha and the Hime spent a considerable amount of time together during her last mission. He has…become infatuated with her. And it seems that she is somewhat attracted to him too.' He felt himself flush with anger. He stopped himself from striking her. 'Hinata is the only credible source for information like this…and if it's true I'm sure it was not meant for my ears to hear.'

He opened the door. 'This is no way to serve your lady, Kikyou. Get out.'

Kikyou was wise enough to say no more and leave.

But she had succeeded in leaving behind doubt. Jealousy and doubt.

He caught Hinata in a lie once, when she explained why Sasuke did not kill her. Was she protecting him then?

Neji shook his head. No. He would not be dragged along with Kikyou's story like this.

He went to bed and slept.