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The Fall of Icarus

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Hyuuga Hiashi was not an impressive person as a man, Hyuuga Neji thought almost absently as his uncle let himself into his room. Sure, the face had also been the one on his father’s head, and yes, the voice was almost the same timbre but there was a distinct lack of . . . something that had made Hyuuga Hizashi a better man than his twin, and brother, and jailer and executioner. But Neji wasn’t bitter about that anymore, not entirely. There would always be sadness at the loss of his father but he knew the truth of it now; his father was no less a hero in the knowing. In fact, it made Hiashi look that much worse, that much weaker.

But unimpressive as he was, there was a reason to fear him. Hyuuga Hiashi was from the Head Family, and even without being the leader of the entire clan, both Head and Branch, all Head Family members were Keys to the Birds in the Cage. Neji was young, but even he’d felt the Lock from quite a few Keys. The Lock was not a pleasant feeling; Hyuuga Hiashi was not impressive, Hyuuga Hiashi was Head Family, he was a Key to Neji’s Door. Hiashi was a person to be feared. Neji stood and bowed.

“We must speak. Please raise your head.” The Key seemed uncomfortable, noted the Door. Bunke were not equal with Souke. There was no reason for Neji to not look at the floor for hours if need be, aside from that a Head Family member had made the order. Neji’s eyes met Hiashi’s.

He hadn’t been Locked in awhile, Neji thought. As a matter of fact he hadn’t been Locked since the first Chuunin exam concluded. Was it guilt the boy wondered, as there had been plenty of times his mind could have suffered the consequences of his mouth. The truth had been found out. The reason why some Hyuuga members could proudly display their unmarred forehead while the others were hidden was no mystery anymore. The much lauded and powerful Head Family of the Hyuuga had fallen in a sense; a certain degree of respect lost for how they enslaved their own clan. Neji felt nothing, not even when the clan elders bent enough to properly honor his father’s sacrifice. The Hyuuga name meant nothing to him, he didn’t want their apologies. Actions couldn’t be undone.

The Key spoke again. “Neji, you are nearing your sixteenth birthday.”

It was a statement, it was a fact; it was the truth irritatingly enough. Bad things always happened to the Bunke in leaps of fours. At age four they were forced into the Cage using a painful binding jutsu. At eight they felt the Cage Lock for the first time, a reminder of who was in charge through force. At twelve they were given a physical and mental inspection by the elders; it was to decide who would be powerful with whom. Good Bunke breeding was important after all. They weren’t worth much if they couldn’t protect the Head Family. It had been an embarrassing and exhausting examination. Neji hadn’t shown his full potential and hadn’t been discovered. Little good it did him at this point; all knew he was a genius among them. Their only recourse now was to find him a woman with good child childbearing hips because twins were a definite possibility. Neji knew this, expected it even, he did not agree with it, however. The Hyuuga were an aristocratic bunch, name and etiquette meant much, but even the eldest and most respected of them could be a little crude.

But he was thinking of The Fourths as the Bunke called them, synonymous with crude elders true, but still a different subject. At sixteen Neji knew he could expect his wide-hipped woman. She would be a gently reared Bunke member versed in the arts of ninja as well as classic literature. She would know all the Souke Hyuuga waltzes and execute them perfectly in front of the elders, and shake to the beat of the Bunke Hyuuga dancing behind closed doors. For the Bunke were indeed different from the Souke, and after so many years of being trapped in the Cage they had developed their own hidden culture.

Hyuuga was the oldest and most powerful clan in the village. It had always been their way to marry children off early and have lots of heirs; especially the Bunke. Neji knew he was too powerful to let such potential go to waste waiting. If he wasn’t married off at sixteen, then it would be twenty and if for some reason not twenty, then definitely twenty-four. And after that there was no more scheduled bad luck but it would come in watching his own children suffer through The Fourths, or some other tragedy.

And what proof did he have of this? His beloved father of course; born second though more noble, one genius son at twenty-eight -- someone had told Neji once that Hizashi had done everything to delay the inevitable, and a first child at twenty-eight was unheard of for a Bunke member. And then Hizashi had martyred himself at thirty-two . . . But Neji didn’t believe in fate anymore, these were just observations. Still the future was not bright.

His uncle spoke calmly, slowly, as though he had thought long and hard on what he was about to say, practiced. “I’m supposed to just deliver this to you and tell you to study for your wedding night.” Hiashi pulled a book from his robe and handed it to Neji. The youth glanced down at it once, twice, because his eyes had obviously processed something incorrectly the first time. But they hadn’t. He had just been given a book that read Love, Lust, and Passion; the characters drawn in human figures connecting in ways Neji was certain wasn’t possible. An eyebrow rose, invisible beneath his Leaf forehead protector. He was certain his face was an interesting hue; red or green being the choices because he did feel both embarrassed and sick.

He needed to think on something else. Thankfully the Hyuuga Key was silent. Neji couldn’t put the book down; a Head Family member had placed it directly into his hands meaning he was meant to hold it in their presence. He didn’t have to look at it though. His brain was empty, but that was a good thing, Neji wasn’t certain he could summon a clean thought. The boy managed to focus on the Key’s left eyebrow. Hiashi didn’t seem to mind, likely sensing his discomfort and having no desire to heighten it. There had been a ‘but’ somewhere in his previous sentence. It had been a raindrop, Neji awaited the downpour.

He didn’t have long. “You were done a great unforgivable disservice twelve years ago,” the Key began. Neji had to refrain from nodding. No amount of remorse would keep Hiashi from Locking him over that display of impertinence. “I regret it more than I can say.” Neji didn’t doubt it. Hiashi’s body language said as much, but then the Hyuuga had been bred to look appropriate in any situation. What was the man getting toward? “You’re upcoming nuptials had me thinking that it was a shame that you, who was most blessed with our blood is not a member of the Souke. Even so, I thought, your children could be.”

The eyebrow was still more interesting than Hiashi’s words. Neji understood them, figured out all the little hidden meanings and repercussions in record time, he did not like the implications, however. He wasn’t entirely willing to meet Hiashi’s eyes, but he did and he saw that the Key was waiting for a response from him, any response as he had yet to speak since the head Hyuuga’s entrance. But then Bunke weren’t really meant to speak, just take orders. Neji inhaled shallowly but deeply, preparing himself. The Key might Lock him for this one. “I’m sure you’ll choose whatever you want.” He couldn’t help it; he closed his eyes when Hiashi seemed to automatically raise his hand into a familiar gesture that was always performed too quickly for him to see it clearly. Good Head Family breeding always came out in the end. His jaw clenched. Why couldn’t he have just said ‘what was best?’ flattery of that nature always made the Head Family less violent. But Neji couldn’t bring himself to it, preferring the pain as a reminder to why he hated the whole system, the whole family, everything about the clan. But there wasn’t any agony inflicted. Neji cracked an eye and looked up.

Hyuuga Hiashi just wasn’t impressive Neji couldn’t refrain from thinking again. Words of that nature always ended in a Lock, had he the power, and the position of Hiashi he wouldn’t have hesitated. However, The Hyuuga seemed to be horrified instead, staring at his hand and then looking to Neji when he noticed movement from the boy.

“You are the greatest of us, but it seems you are only as great as our restraint,” Hiashi stated.

Neji would have smirked but even he wouldn’t tempt a fate he didn’t believe in anymore. When given a reprieve one should inhale and exhale graciously and nothing more. And the Key was correct. He was a genius among them; but his life could end on the whim of a Head Family member with a superiority complex. It was hard to choose one’s own path when others had the distinct power and pleasure of doing it for one no matter how one struggled.

“Neji . . . you don’t have to accept this offer, it is merely a . . . proposal.”

Neji had a good guess at what the proposal was, but he did acknowledge that proposals were different. Proposals indicated a choice. So basically his decision would consist of two evils instead of being forced into one. The Fourths were truly the work of a devil.

“You could accept a woman of the elder’s choosing now, or you could marry Hoheto’s daughter, Emiko, when she comes of age. Please speak frankly.”

Neji wasn’t so certain he should speak period, but that was insubordination and he’d already used up his luck in that regard. A discussion involving that girl who’d had the misfortune to inherit her father’s heavily bagged eyes would not be flattering. They were Head family sycophants whose loyalty had won them a reprieve from the Curse Seal.

“You assume too much,” he said. For it was true. No one had ever asked Neji if he wanted a wife to begin with.

“What do I assume?”

“That anyone would want Hoheto’s daughter for one thing. And that I of all people would willingly unite with the Souke for another.” If there was any being in the entire world that could strike him mute Neji welcomed it in ways one who had never felt the Lock could never understand. He was truly setting himself up today.

“Is that so?” there was unbridled anger in The Hyuuga’s voice though the words were barely uttered.

“You told me to speak frankly, I am,” Neji replied smoothly though his heart had dropped to his toes and his lungs couldn’t seem to get enough air. Hopefully Hiashi would lose all sense of property and break his Door when he turned the Key to Lock it. He was daring too much, how long would his foolishness be tolerated? “You assume that all Bunke are envious of the Souke and want into it, when in fact we hate you. My father aside, I hate you. And there is no way I’d--” Neji took a calming breath. He was getting too loud, too emotional. “Don’t get me wrong, this,” he touched the center of his forehead, “this is the worst, but at least I’m not one of you monsters who do this to other people.” He plowed on even though Hiashi’s jaw had clenched and his hands had fisted at his sides, visibly shaking with sheer willpower not to lash out. “You assume too much,” Neji repeated quietly. “I want no children.”

The shaking stopped. Hiashi was beyond surprised. It was in his stance, his face, his voice. “What?”

“I want no children. That’s what I would choose for myself if I were free to decide. I wouldn’t do this to them, I could never cause my own flesh and blood suffering.” It wasn’t quite an afterthought when he added, “I would never curse any child with the name Hyuuga. It is nothing to be proud of.”

“Said the one with the most talent?” Hiashi challenged.

White eyes met white. “Says the one,” Neji affirmed without hesitation.

There was silence and Hiashi was the first to look away. “So you’ve decided on . . .”

“What decision was there!” His wrapped hand immediately clamped over his mouth; Neji was appalled. Was he stupid? Had he just seriously interrupted the head of the clan, raised his voice even? Courage could be defined as doing something you’re afraid to do regardless of the consequences but at what point did courage and idiocy merge? Neji removed his hand. If he was going to spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state for this then so be it. He was tired of living in fear; he was tired of being ignored. At least he would be able to speak a little of what he’d been dying to say for years now. “You tell me there’s a choice between two things that I don’t want to do anyway. That is not a choice. I don’t want to marry, whether into a Head family or a Branch is of little consequence, I wouldn’t do it. I’m a human being too you know. I have my own dreams, and I have some one to dream about and that isn’t something I’m willing to let you take away from me too. And everyday that passes I have just that much more time to dream . . .” he paused.

Hyuuga Hiashi’s hands were peacefully at his sides, his white eyes filled with sudden comprehension, understanding, and even compassion.

“You’re in love,” The Hyuuga stated.

Shit. Neji blinked. It wasn’t often that he was utterly baffled or caught off guard, or said things that he didn’t remember saying. It wasn’t often that his emotions leaked through enough for the unimpressive likes of The Hyuuga to be able to so easily discern them. Just what had his fear had him admitting to? This turn of events was not inspiring.

“Who is she?”

The Head family really did assume a lot. Hadn’t he just said that he would do nothing to encourage reproduction of more Hyuuga? And he’d never said he liked girls. Well, Tenten was alright as far as they went, Neji allowed. She threw deadly objects at him and was more interested in strength than the opposite sex unlike other girls; Haruno and Yamanaka came to mind. But no, that was a large inaccurate assumption on Hiashi’s part. Neji felt no need to correct him. Young white eyes would not meet older. “What does it matter who this person is?” he answered, because for all his insolence of late, a Souke member had asked him a question and he had to answer.

“It could,” Hiashi replied. “Is she one of us?”

“Of course not,” Neji snapped. He was beyond caring about his tone of voice. If Hiashi hadn’t Locked him at this point it was just a possibility without a high probability.

The Hyuuga was thinking. He spoke after a time. “If you could have one wish what would it be?”

“I’m a bit too old for useless fantasies like that,” Neji scoffed.

“Answer anyway. If you have imagination enough to consider a non-Hyuuga lover then I know you’ve considered it.”

For the first time in his entire life he wanted to be Locked, the Door noticed. A few countless hours of untold torture would still his tongue or at least put it to better use cursing the Souke or screaming in agony. “One wish, huh?”

The Hyuuga nodded.

“I wish my father was here to put his hand on my shoulder and look me in the eyes, and tell me everything is going to be alright.”

The Hyuuga’s face fell.

Neji shrugged. “I told you it was useless.”

“Is that all you would ask for?”

“And now you assume too little. What else would I of all people ask for? I don’t believe in destiny anymore, but I do still live in reality. No matter what I dream there are still people like you who make up my mind for me. I think I got used to not having to think on my own, and started calling that fate.” The boy decided to bend a little. If someone like Hiashi had managed to see his secret even he could allow himself to be a tad impressed. That was worth some cooperation. “If I could wish for anything else though, it would be for freedom from the Hyuuga to choose my own destiny.”

“And that’s all?”

Neji nodded. What more was there? He’d been pecking away at his Cage for years and still hadn’t figured a way out.

“Then you have it.”

Something had gone wrong within the space of a second, Neji thought. He hadn’t read Hiashi correctly, that was the last thing he’d expected The Hyuuga to say. What did it imply? “Sir?”

“You have it,” Hiashi repeated. “Not without conditions of course, but you have it.”

“Why?” suspicion adorned Neji’s voice now.

However, the Hyuuga Head only lowered his eyes, his face taking on a faraway look as a bittersweet smile graced his mouth. “Because you sound just like your father, those were the last words he ever said to me.” And it was then that Neji knew that Hyuuga Hiashi missed his brother, his twin -- a man that had died for him because of who he was and not what he represented -- on a level the boy would never experience.

This was his apology, he realized. It was worth more than the Head of the Hyuuga Clan prostrating himself, as the name Hyuuga meant nothing to Neji. But this, his one wish answered in life instead of death. It was priceless.

“What about The Elders?”

“I’ll worry about The Elders,” Hiashi answered.

“And the conditions?”

“Nothing you didn’t already want.” The Hyuuga turned his back and headed for the door. “Do as you will, Neji.”

The ends of Neji’s lips tilted upward briefly. It wasn’t often that he was so completely wrong about a person.

Hyuuga Hiashi . . . that was damned impressive.

Chapter Text

The sands on the banks of the river were cold. The sun had yet to warm the slightly damp dirt and grass. The trees provided ample shade so that it would be noon before any such thing happened. This river was on Hyuuga land; a calm place where one’s thoughts could flow with the current. In his childhood, he would often come here with his twin and they would sit on the banks and fish sometimes. Hizashi didn’t speak unless he was told and he would often look to the sky where the birds flew free. Hiashi hadn’t thought too much of it then.

Hiashi would touch the center of Hizashi’s forehead through the bandages and feel the power in the Seal placed there. He would often make a sad face, replace his fingers with his lips and tell his twin he was sorry, though he hadn’t really considered why he was apologizing. It hadn’t stopped him from Sealing Hizashi at times, and it hadn’t stopped him from doing the same to his child. His apologies hadn’t stopped a lot of things. But for him, who had been the privileged one of the two of them, it had been enough to always have his brother by his side.

It had been many years since he’d had that honor. It had been the only thing he’d wanted since that day. To sit beside his brother again, on the banks of this river, kiss the Seal on his forehead and say he was sorry was all he dreamed of. But not only did he want to apologize, he wanted to understand why he said it; he wanted to mean it.

There were many times in the years since he’d been thrust into the leadership position of the clan that Hyuuga Hiashi felt that a mistake had been made. Some would say these feelings of inadequacy happened all too often. Some would say that good leaders often didn’t feel themselves to be so. Hyuuga Hiashi couldn’t agree with either. He knew it, just knew it without a doubt in his brain, that there was someone more fit for his job. There was someone with the required diplomacy, and rigidity and even frigidity in the clan somewhere that could fulfill the role ten times better than he could ever hope to. Perhaps that was the problem. Hyuuga Hiashi couldn’t find it in himself these days to want to be better than he currently was. He had thought to groom Hanabi in to that person, but maybe that was a problem too.

All he had left of his family was his father, a sister-in-law, a brother-in-law, and two daughters, one of whom he’d failed to acknowledge for many years. His two nephews, both of whom held no love for him, had been placed into the Cage when they were children. His was not a big family as most Hyuuga were known to have. Many times the large family came about through the use of Bunke. More often than not siblings were divided at birth into their classes; it was from the Cage that the majority of children were born. Head Family rarely produced more than two in their lifetimes. Bunke were encouraged to have more.

His wife had been chosen for him by The Elders long before his birth. Hiashi wasn’t sure of the details; a favor, a debt repaid, he did not ask -- he hadn’t wanted to know. But for his brother, Hizashi, choosing his wife had been one of Hiashi’s distinct pleasures. Was she an apology to his brother also? Perhaps. He could not say.

There was a woman further upstream. She was often there whenever Hiashi happened by. She collected the flowers that grew by moonlight and wilted in the sun. He didn’t know what she used them for, but her lone figure in that particular spot was comforting. It was a sign that everything was still the way it was to be; not necessarily the way it should be.

“Master,” she whispered when she noticed he’d encroached. The customary braid of most Bunke that hid her forehead nearly touched the sand as she bowed low, not wanting to meet his eyes.

Was this how it was supposed to be? Something his nephew had said the day before rang through his mind: At least I’m not one of you monsters who do this to other people. At the time he’d thought that the boy was being irrational, his fear and hatred for his father’s lost life goading him to say such things. Perhaps those things needed to be said. Perhaps those things and more should be freely said without Sealing them. These thoughts were what made him an unfit ruler of course.

“Did they bloom well last night?” he asked. It was his way of soothing her. She was always rather jumpy around him, but he supposed that couldn’t be helped.

“Yes,” she answered without elaboration. He hadn’t asked for details, she would not give them. Her forehead still hovered above the sand. There was something wrong with what he was seeing; he knew it deep within his soul. But his soul had disappeared the day his brother had punched him in the gut and went off to die for him. Perhaps that was the reason he returned to the river; to search for that missing component of himself.

“I will not keep you from them then. The sun will destroy them soon.” He continued his walk upstream, but was brought up short after he’d taken eleven steps.

“Sir!”

The woman behind him was on her feet, he knew, her hands fisted before her bosom, her doe shaped white eyes saturated with unshed tears. He merely tilted his head to the side to indicate he was listening.

“Thank you, sir,” she said as her voice cracked. “Thank you for Neji.”

The Head of the Hyuuga nodded and continued to search for the man he should have become.

====~- X -~====

Once the evening meal had concluded Neji was told to remain behind when the rest of the Branch family had been dismissed. This wasn’t new. Branch members were chosen -- seemingly at random -- for the task at least twice a week. Anytime Neji was not scheduled for a mission or recovering after the completion of one, the Elders would ask him to stay and pour sake for them as they discussed clan matters in the way only old people could.

He did not exist, Neji thought as he sat seiza in the corner like an unruly child beside a table holding three bottles of warm sake. When any of the Souke lifted their glass he would shikkou over to them, a relic of the past that stubbornly clung to life, and refill their saucer. He was a servant; he merely fulfilled his capacity as one. Without saying a word, without a lifting a finger, the Hyuuga Elders chastened him. He was Bunke, subject to their whim. He was the most talented Hyuuga alive, and yet he did not exist.

At the head of the table sat the current Hyuuga Head, his Uncle Hiashi, but directly to his right was the former leader. Hyuuga Ichiro, Neji knew intellectually, was his grandfather. His skin was more tan, his face creased with age, his hair gray, and yet his eyes remained shrewd. He sipped his sake, blank eyes darting to Hiashi every so often, likely to gauge his reaction to topics. Once or twice Neji had felt his grandfather’s gaze rest upon him, but his own eyes were riveted to the floor, relying on his peripheral to see if a sake saucer rose or not.

He did not exist. Neji had been doing well to tune the conversation out thus far. None of it applied to him. Hyuuga Ichiro raised his cup and Neji grabbed a sake bottle from the table. His kimono was one reserved for meetings with the Souke. It was of an acceptable quality for a Branch family member without being flashy; a drab green-gray fabric which hid stains well and refuted wrinkles. He was glad he was a ninja academy graduate so he was permitted to wear his forehead protector at all times. He did not care to show his forehead. His prison was well established, the bars were not needed to be on display. That the souke could find no fault in his appearance was what mattered.

To shikkou one needed balance and strength in one’s hips. It was actually a good form of training for the Gentle Fist style and Neji needed to recover time lost that afternoon. Ordinarily he would have spent the day training as far from Hyuuga land as he could be without the benefit of a mission. Instead he had spent most of the day gathering and transporting his meager belongings to an apartment he had rented in town. It could not be done all at once as that would raise suspicion. To be Hyuuga meant to live in a glass house. All could see inside. There were no secrets. Creating reasons to visit his own rooms had raised a few eyebrows from fellow Branch members, but he was not challenged. The members of his Branch knew him well; he did not tarry on Hyuuga land unless it was a mandatory order from the Elders or he was practicing the finer points of the Gentle Fist with Hiashi, who -- for all his faults -- was an apt teacher.

Emotion did not touch his face as recalled the day he’d been medically cleared to practice ninjutsu again after so many months recovering in the hospital from the wound he’d sustained during his fight with Kidoumaru of the Sound. Hiashi had summoned him to the main house, and for the first time in many years Neji had set foot in the Hyuuga family dojo. He’d been told to assume the jyuuken pose of the Sixty-Four palms and without a word more Hiashi had circled him and then corrected his stance.

Neji had not been in awe of the change in protocol. He had nearly died. The Hyuuga Elders had likely decided he better served the clan by learning and growing stronger in secret techniques. He did not exist and yet he was not allowed to expire so easily. He was nearing his sixteenth birthday; he completely understood why they had made an exception in his case.

He poured the sake carefully.

“Then we move on to the matter of Hinata and Hanabi,” Ichiro stated. Neji was too close, he couldn’t help but hear.

Another elder seconded, “Yes, at three Hanabi was more talented than Hinata at eight; it has been proven time and again since. If Hanabi is to inherit despite her being the younger then there should be no more question. Give Hinata the Seal and be done with it.”

There was a chorus of affirmations around the table.

Hiashi took a sip from his saucer before replying, “Hinata has vastly improved of late. If Hinata and Hanabi were to duel it would be difficult to say who would win.”

It was the diplomatic answer, Neji thought as he shuffled back to his corner. What Hiashi had said was true though, Lady Hinata honed her skills daily. She would never be his favorite person, and her tendency to hesitate grated on his nerves, but she could be a decent clan leader if given the chance. The trouble came in not wanting to repeat a past mistake. Bunke could not be allowed to continue to birth exceptional shinobi, and to see the shift in power two generations in a row was cause for alarm. The Elders were not supposed to make mistakes.

“Then what of Neji . . .” an elder began only to be interrupted by another as he warmed to the subject.

Neji did not physically flinch at the mention of his name only through years of practice. He could feel his grandfather’s eyes upon him once more. He held himself rigid; he would give nothing away.

“Exactly. He’s already almost perished once, and now he’s a jounin. More susceptible to dangerous missions . . .”

“He’s of marriageable age -- why hasn’t a wife been chosen for him?” That was the first again.

“He should already have a child on the way,” said a third, who sat with fingers laced before his mouth to hide the disapproving tilt of his lips. “That genius lineage cannot be allowed to simply die off.”

“The real question is what house will she be from? Do we elevate Neji to an honorary position amongst Souke or leave him as he is?” The second’s queries were met with silence for a long moment. The issue was the irreversible Seal as always.

Then Ichiro nodded. “In either case there are only two choices of women with notable ability. That is Souke Kikue who will be twenty this year or Bunke Madoka, who is already sixteen . . .”

Neji closed his ears. A wife, he frowned internally, was just a word synonymous with breeding partner to Branch house members. It was occurring to him that his Uncle Hiashi had known this conversation concerning his future would take place. The Elders had yet to be informed that Neji’s cage had been expanded though it could never be lifted. He was exempt from this conversation. The Elders were merely advisors; their word was not law, only Hiashi’s was.

His uncle was interceding on his behalf.

It was subtle, like a battle employing the Gentle Fist style in an argument, the damage immense though the words simple. Hiashi’s voice carried the weight of authority as he addressed his clansmen. Hiashi’s choice was Emiko. Though she was only twelve she had proven to be proficient in Hyuuga jutsu. When pitted against Hanabi she’d fared better than Hinata ever had. Emiko was barely Souke, but Kikue was too high in the hierarchy and Madoka too low, though he would consider them as prospects if Neji displayed an interest in either. What was four years? Haste was not an ally of the Hyuuga.

Every muscle in Neji’s body relaxed. For a moment he’d been afraid that his uncle would renege, that his newly given freedom would be snatched away to appease The Elders. Really, The Hyuuga was beginning to impress him. He was slowly becoming able to see Hiashi’s quality, a reason why his father had chosen to die for him.

====~- X -~====

Neji cleaned the table of the dishes after the Elders had retired for the evening with a contented smile on his face. It was alright for now. Hiashi had not spared him a glance. He was a servant, he did not exist, and in Neji’s nonexistence there could be no favoritism. Hiashi had played the Elders well in using their own superiority against them.

When the dishes were stacked neatly beside the sink Neji headed for the door. He would not sleep another night in Hyuuga territory while the choice was his. He wanted to shout his joy. He wanted to run in a Springtime of Youthful exuberance that his mentor, Gai, would applaud -- but he wouldn’t do that on principle alone. He wanted to sing but couldn’t carry a tune. He wanted to tell someone, but the only one who mattered wasn’t in the village. He wanted to dance, dance as his father had taught him -- dancing he could do. He had planned to go straight to his apartment, change out of his kimono, and unpack his things, maybe peruse his new book, but instead he modified his course to walk along the wall toward the stream passing through Hyuuga land.

To find The Aviary one had to follow the Tears of the Moon and show them one’s Sorrow. As he walked he couldn’t halt the refrain in his head of wild blond hair and bright blue eyes. Neji didn’t like to think about him when he was near Hyuuga territory, afraid that they would see his delight and somehow discern its cause. They would take it away. But all the same, Neji reflected with a smile, he had meant it. He wanted to tell him that even though he wasn’t Hokage yet, though it was only one person, he had succeeded.

Naruto had once vowed he would change the Hyuuga. Neji had gazed at him with wondering eyes at that time and thought that even if it couldn’t be done, in Naruto caring enough to end his unhappiness the blond already had. Though he hadn’t recognized it for what it was then, that was the moment Neji had fallen for loudmouthed, flashy, horrendously naïve Naruto.

Neji paused; he was barely on Hyuuga land now. He focused on the moon flowers growing at his feet and moved his forehead protector just enough to bare the Seal. The flowers closed; a moment later the earth parted to reveal a stairway. The Aviary was located on the barest dregs of Hyuuga land fifteen meters below the surface. It was a private place for Bunke under a barrier jutsu, undetectable and invisible to any who did not have the Hyuuga curse mark. The Aviary was a place for Caged Birds to fly.

The Aviary was a warm place. The walls were painted in murals of people with wings gliding through a clear sky. There were tables, a bar, a stage, a dance floor. There was always music. Even as he descended the stairs he could hear the beat of a drum and knew Kuji was pounding on them. By the fury of his tempo, he had to have had a lousy day. Kuji was twenty-one and ever in trouble, the only person Neji knew to make a kimono look sloppy. His hair was unkempt and shaggy; he refused to shave the patches of a beard that wouldn’t grow in properly from his chin. His white eyes always looked sleepy and dismissive. The Souke hated his attitude. Kuji was Locked almost every morning -- and he didn’t care.

He entered The Aviary as the song was dying down. Dancers were moving from the dance floor to sip at their drinks. A singer stepped down from the stage as Madoka climbed up and set down her koto. A woman with light brown hair and doe-shaped eyes sat at a table closest to the back pulling the petals from a moon blossom and tossing them into a mortar.

“Neji,” she acknowledged him and indicated the chair beside her.

“Nadeshiko,” he replied and sat down.

“I saw you had the pleasure of serving The Elders tonight. Did they say anything interesting?”

“Do they ever?” Neji rejoined. His eyes strayed to Madoka as she plucked a tune on the koto; her long black bangs covered the Seal on her forehead. Everyone agreed that she was very talented not only as a kunoichi but as a musician as well. If worst came to worst, he preferred her over Kikue.

He recalled the bits of the evening he’d actually paid attention to. “The line of succession is in question.”

Nadeshiko snorted. “Really?” Her voiced dripped sarcasm. “Then Lady Hanabi won’t be joining us. Shame.”

“I feel your heart break, but nothing’s been decided as yet.”

“She grows arrogant,” Nadeshiko stated as she grabbed another flower to strip.

Neji nodded in agreement. Where Hinata would succeed as Clan Head or Branch member, Hanabi had never learned to bow. Her talents had kept her from hardship and she knew she had value.

“Well, what else?” Nadeshiko prodded. She picked up the pestle and began to smash the contents of the bowl. The scent of moon blossoms filled Neji’s nose.

“There could be trouble for Madoka and Emiko.”

Nadeshiko paused for a moment; their eyes met. “And you?” she asked.

“Uncle and I had a chat.” He looked back to the stage. “I’ve moved in to town.”

Nadeshiko almost dropped her bowl.

Neji held up a hand, flexed his fingers, and smiled. “I think I’ll dance.”

Her mouth worked but sound was delayed. “Then I will ask Ozora to sing.”

Neji left his seat and squeezed his way through the audience of Bunke over to the dance space. Bunke dancing had only one rule; fingers remained together and flat, palms open, like a bird in flight. He twirled once, twice, his mind drifted as his body was seized by the rhythm of the drum, then Neji spread his arms as though they were wings. Tonight he was going to fly freely, literally beneath the Souke’s notice.

Chapter Text

Neji always wondered why hospitals were stark and sterile. How could an expanse of white walls, white floors, and even white bed sheets speed recovery? If anything it was testament that there wasn’t much out there worth living for; nothing changed. So, it was with great satisfaction that Neji gingerly brought his legs over the side of the bed and slipped his feet into the provided thin house slippers. He clutched his side as the movement jarred half-healed injuries and breathed deeply as he waited for the vertigo to pass.

The only time in his life that he could recall ever feeling so poorly was five years ago when he’d felt the Lock for the first time. It had utterly debilitated him, ruined his coordination, fried his nerves, and vanquished his sight. It was all temporary, yes, but Neji knew from that moment on that he never wanted to warrant the Lock again. When his senses had returned that day his cousin, Ozora, had been tending to him, placing towels soaked in Nadeshiko’s special moon blossom salve on his forehead and eyes to ease the pain. Kuji had been in the corner, sloppily put together as always, tapping a rhythm on the wall. When he’d seen Neji had returned to consciousness he had paused for a moment, morose, sleepy eyes looking him over as he mumbled, “Sorry, nephew.”

There was no one to greet Neji this time. The hospital room was a single, the window was badly placed, and the only visitors he could recall were Lady Tsunade accompanied by Shizune to check on him and a brief conversation with Shikamaru and Kiba. He thought he’d dreamed his teammates, TenTen admonishing Gai and Lee to be quiet as she placed a vase of orange and purple tulips on the bedside table, but as he glanced to the right he confirmed its truth with the existence of the sole splash of color in his room.

Shikamaru had said Chouji was just as badly off as Neji was, or his friend would have visited too and that Naruto had been admitted as well. He’d been told that a hole had been punched through Naruto’s chest, literally as well as figuratively. Neji took another deep breath and slid off the bed. His left arm was taped to his body and cradled in a sling to immobilize it while it healed. He grabbed his IV holder with his good arm and leaned on it as he shuffled toward the door.

Naruto had failed.

Neji sighed.

He would have to speak with the blond. Naruto was surprisingly fragile for someone so strong. Neji had the feeling that nobody was telling him what he needed to hear and if Naruto had seen Sakura already his guilt would be even more profound. That girl making him promise something beyond his control would be the death of Naruto. For a moment, as sweat from his endeavors formed on his upper lip, and pain niggled its way up and down his spine, Neji hated her for not understanding. Naruto had crushed his own heart to allow hers to keep blithely beating. She’d never really seen him; now that Naruto had been unsuccessful he would think that she had been right to overlook him in favor of Sasuke.

He didn’t meet anyone in the hallway even though he’d inverted the last two numbers of the room Shikamaru had said Naruto was assigned. Sweat dripped from his forehead; his teeth gritted with a determination Lee would have appreciated as he cursed his body’s weakness. Leaning against the wall for support he let go of the IV drip stand to knock on the door. Eyes wide with shock, Shikamaru answered.

“Hey, what are you doing up?” he demanded crossly. Neji looked past him to see the blond on the bed, heavily bandaged. “If you make yourself worse it’ll be troublesome. How did you get here anyway without anyone seeing you?” Shikamaru supported Neji as he hobbled into the room scowling the whole time, but as he helped situate Neji into the chair at Naruto’s bedside his calculating dark eyes swiveled from Neji to Naruto and back. “So, Naruto, look who’s here.”

Neji grimaced internally. Nara Shikamaru was too intelligent by far; he would have to speak with him later.

Uzumaki Naruto had averted his eyes at his entry; it perplexed Neji as Shikamaru had been the team leader. It wasn’t as though a Hyuuga Bunke member’s disapproval weighed more than a Nara’s. For Naruto to think so was ludicrous.

Shikamaru cleared his throat. “I’ll uh, just go find someone who can yell at Neji properly. It’ll suck if I have to do it.”

After he left silence reigned. Neji studied Naruto’s battered body, while the other boy clenched his sheets in his bandaged hands, blue eyes surreptitiously gliding to Neji’s face and then back to his lap. Naruto wasn’t meeting his eyes because the other boy was looking at the center of his forehead, Neji realized. He was staring at the Hyuuga Curse Seal. Suddenly self-conscious Neji raised his good hand to his left temple to partition off some strands of hair and drag them across his forehead and perch behind his right ear.

Naruto colored. “Sorry,” he whispered.

“It’s nothing,” Neji replied.

With a grimace, Naruto wiggled his toes and flexed his hands again. “Shikamaru’s right y’know. You don’t heal as fast as I do so you shouldn’t be up.”

Neji offered a half-hearted nod as he agreed. “This isn’t my best decision.”

Blue eyes squeezed shut, Naruto’s chin dropped to his chest and his shoulders quaked with pent up emotion. “You almost died for nothing,” he choked out.

Neji reached up and placed his hand over Naruto’s. The action shocked the blond into finally meeting his gaze and Neji could see the tears lurking, held back only by Naruto’s determination not to cry in front of the brunette. As if my opinion of him matters, Neji thought again but this time he was touched by the notion that Naruto spared him any attention at all. The promise to change the Hyuuga was a long time coming.

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Neji stated.

You wouldn’t have failed,” Naruto raged quietly. His fingers abandoned the sheet to grasp Neji’s. “You would have brought him back.”

Neji shrugged his good shoulder. “Maybe.”

White eyes dropped to their clasped hands and for a moment he allowed himself to imagine what that would be like under different circumstances. But a world where Naruto was capable of considering him and he was free to reciprocate wouldn’t place them in the hospital after a tragedy, when Neji’s feelings could be misunderstood. So he kept them to himself; allowed the thrill of holding Naruto’s hand to soothe the aches his body had sustained and fill him with the right words to ease the blond’s mind.

He exhaled slowly. “When I found out my father was dead I thought, How could the Souke do that to him? It never crossed my mind that my father would choose to leave me. To find out that he had made me wonder if being dead was more preferable to being Bunke.” He swallowed. “Even though I knew the truth I still wondered if my father thought dying was better than staying with me.”

He blinked. Calloused fingertips slowly stroked the bandaged ones entwined with them. “Just like right now you’re thinking, How could Sasuke leave you? Is what he hopes to accomplish really more important than you?” He saw Naruto nod out of the corner of his eye. The younger boy looked miserable and awkward as he likely realized how shallow he seemed in comparison.

“It took a really long time for me to process that what my father did wasn’t about me.” He squeezed Naruto’s hand encouragingly. “It’s the first time you’ve lost somebody, so, take whatever time you need to understand that Sasuke leaving wasn’t about you.”

“Aren’t you going to tell me to quit chasing after him?” the blue-eyed boy asked, his voice shaking.

Neji shook his head. “I don’t do that anymore -- tell people what they can and can’t do. What do I know, right?” When he looked at Naruto, the blond’s face was bright and open and awed as he stared at Neji. The brunette gently grinned and squeezed the fingers laced with his again. “You may have better eyes than me, but you sure are stupid. Cheer up. So what if you didn’t bring Sasuke back -- since when do you get anything right the first time?”

The smile Naruto leveled him did more damage than Kidoumaru’s arrows could ever hope to rival. With its sheer magnitude there could be no stealth involved; there was no avoiding it as it punched through Neji’s guard and pierced all his vital organs.

It wasn’t for nothing, Neji deemed as his heart figuratively stopped in his chest. Returning Naruto’s smile is worth --

====~- X -~====

Neji woke to realize that he hadn’t been squeezing Naruto’s hand.

Glancing at the clock he noted that he’d been asleep approximately four hours since coming in from The Aviary. He would have to get up within the next half an hour if he expected to get any training in today. He groaned as his penis pulsed in blatant reminder that he had other business to attend to first.

And while he felt vaguely dirty at the thought that he was essentially jerking off to the image of a twelve year old, he soothed his conscience with the melancholy reminder that his memory was the only picture he had.

This was one of the things he couldn’t do in the Hyuuga compound. To be Hyuuga meant to live in a house with no doors and no one wanted to be caught with their pants down. No one wanted the Souke to see them at their leisure, witness their pleasure.

For the first time in his life Neji didn’t have to spare that a thought; he wasn’t on a mission, he had no teammates at his back, and while he wanted to prolong the novelty, enjoy the rare moments he was allowed to be utterly alone with himself, he had to end it.

Sated, as he struggled to regulate his breathing, he activated his byakugan. The hand still sticky-slick with his semen grasped his balls, in the other he concentrated his chakra to his fingertips and aimed.

He was finally in a world where he was free to do the things he’d dreamed of with Uzumaki Naruto and he wouldn’t allow anyone to take that away from him. He would never return to that prison.

It was the same process as severing Kidoumaru’s chakra infused webbing, Neji thought absently.

His was some of the most coveted seed in all Konoha, and he cheerfully destroyed it.

====~- X -~====

Tsunade, Godaime Hokage of Konohagakure, placed the latest mission request in a growing pile and stretched out in her chair to allow her head to loll upon her neck. It was too early in the morning to have so much paperwork. She hadn’t remembered that aspect of the job from her childhood bouncing on her grandfather’s knee. Worse, she hadn’t even had a sip of sake these past few days, as Shizune had complained about her bad habits leading to the pile of work sitting before her. At least with alcohol in her system paperwork was tolerable.

A glass of something stronger than tea as the day wore on kept Tsunade from dwelling on things she could not change, kept her from worrying about Jiraiya and Naruto on their journey. Her former teammate did well in keeping her informed, Tsunade allowed. Against all expectations, Naruto progressed in his training. That had been a relief to learn as he’d been so dejected at Sasuke’s betrayal. A grin formed as she recalled the short missive written in Naruto’s messy handwriting on the last report: Hi Granny! That had been all, but it had warmed Tsunade’s heart.

Oddly enough, Naruto’s ‘endearment’ was almost accurate, Tsunade mused not for the first time. When she’d met the little boy and he’d shoved the name Uzumaki at her like a badge of honor, she’d been reminded of her own grandmother, Uzumaki Mito. They were probably distantly related so that ‘Granny’ was indeed apt coming from him.

Ah . . . she thought giddily, Such a cute grandson. Her legacy to him as the future Hokage meant that she would have to work harder to ensure proper documentation of policies; Naruto wasn’t the paperwork type. Break time was over.

She’d just managed to force her body to pick up her writing utensil and conform to a properly studious and Hokage-like pose when the village council advisors, Utatane Koharu and Mitokado Homura, barged into her office unannounced.

The pen snapped in half.

Someone was going to die today if she had to listen to these remnants sober on top of everything else. It was too early to deal with them too.

“Tsunade.” The lack of title had the Godaime’s eyes narrowing at Koharu. The old woman ignored it and dropped the documents she’d been holding onto the already overcrowded desk. “The village’s population has been a subject of concern. Upon speaking with the clans’ elders, there are many who would like to invoke the Familial Duties Provision of the village’s doctrine.”

Tsunade gritted her teeth. On top of their militant ways, blatant disregard for closed doors and of all their other loathsome, odious habits, that bit of rudeness of going behind the Hokage’s back to push their agendas -- good intentioned or not -- was probably their worst trait to Tsunade. She hated to be treated like she was still a toddler in swaddling incapable of making an intelligent decision concerning her village.

“Ninja have never had the privilege of long life. That so many have not provided progeny as they should have long before now --”

Tsunade snorted contemptuously. That logic was dubious. Weren’t these two old cronies proof that ninja were living too long?

“For instance, the son of the White Fang --”

As Hokage, Tsunade knew she probably should be listening but Koharu had a talent for pissing her off. Konoha was peaceful in comparison to other countries, but that peace was hard fought and harder won. The world that relics like Koharu and Homura had created did not favor children. Those young ones who’d had to live during that time period of constant war and death carried scars carved deeper than their skin. She’d seen what Tsukuyomi had evoked in the son of the White Fang; that a ninja like Kakashi still got up every day to perform his duties was a miracle in itself. And if he found solace in Gai’s arms every night instead of sleeping on the memorial centograph, she wouldn’t fault him for that. Not everyone needed nor wanted children.

The simple facts were that demilitarization had halved their fighting force. Insult to injury was the fact that the village’s population had never recovered from the Uchiha massacre, and the Sound and Sand coup d’état had set Konoha back even further. To ask the younger shinobi, who -- she hated to admit -- were already behind the other nations in strength and skill to take time out to create the generation after them was an act of senility. Tsunade was not that far gone.

Missions already had a set amount of downtime allotted upon completion depending on length, difficulty, and any injuries sustained. Asking for a few extra hours off every so often for ‘bedroom duty’ was the right of every clan. She scowled down at the paperwork, annoyed that the requests were written in perfect, legible order so that she couldn’t even deny it based on improper protocol. Among the petitioners was the Sarutobi Clan, but that made sense as Sarutobi Asuma and Yuuhi Kurenai were rumored to be enjoying each other’s company lately. There were three other forms; one from Hijiri, Mimura, and lastly Hyuuga. She sighed internally. Hyuuga. It never ceased to amaze her how that clan could make sex a punishment.

“-- Even you the last of the Senju clan wasted your fertile years drinking and gambling.” That was from Homura. The fact that Koharu nodded approvingly only angered Tsunade more.

Her fist clenched. She was allowed to destroy them for that. How dare they scold her for mourning her little brother and the love of her life? She’d just worked herself into a proper rage, fist concentrating an obscene amount of chakra, when there was a single knock to the door before Shizune burst in carrying a tray of tea and dango.

“Lady Tsunade I happened to find -- oh, I wasn’t aware you were in a meeting.” She shot an apologetic wince Tsunade’s way which was acknowledged with the slightest incline of her head. One could describe the gesture as a twitch.

“Ah. We were just leaving,” Koharu stated as a trickle of sweat meandered down her temple. Homura had already taken a step toward the exit. The door closed quietly after their departure.

The Hokage managed to disperse the chakra gathered in her hands before they slammed down on her desk as she stood. Those pitiful old fools deserved whatever bad end came to them. While Tsunade would love to be the one who delivered their death, she didn’t have the time and it was too early in the morning for the kind of mayhem she wanted to unleash. Her adorably naïve grandson was counting her to be a person worthy of the name Hokage. He wouldn’t approve. Tsunade took a few breaths to clear the bloodlust and brought a hand to her temple to ward away a headache with a few circles from her thumb.

“Shizune,” she said when she felt suitably calm. “That tea had better be spiked with sake.”

Her assistant emitted a terrified noise from low in her gut and gripped the tray in white knuckled tension. “I’ll go get some,” she promised.

Tsunade took another calming breath and then asked, “Where’s Sakura?”

Shizune settled the tea tray on an uncovered corner of the desk. “Uh. You sent her to work at the hospital this morning,” she answered warily.

“Hm. I forgot that.” Tsunade’s hand abandoned her temple to allow her to nibble at a fingernail. She glanced at the pile of simple missions she’d been working on before the advisors had interrupted. She needed to fill them before the day was out. “There’s a Hyuuga of at least chuunin level off-duty right now isn’t there?”

Shizune took a moment to search her memory. “Yes. Um. Hyuuga Neji, a jounin,” she offered.

“Send for him then.”

“Right away.”

====~- X -~====

Tsunade didn’t have long to wait before her quarry stood before her. The Hokage would almost swear that he’d been eavesdropping outside the window from how little time it took to locate him. Or, maybe Shizune had had the good sense to realize how precarious her boss’s temper was at the moment.

“You sent for me, Lady Godaime?” Neji queried as came to stand before her desk.

She studied him a moment. Hyuuga Neji was his clan’s prodigy. He was the studious, hardworking, quiet type from what she had discerned over the years. Neji was only fifteen years old, yet already a jounin. That was considerably impressive considering they lived in a time of relative peace. Shinobi didn’t usually advance so fast when there wasn’t constant war. When she’d promoted him from genin to chuunin, then chuunin to jounin she’d remarked that Neji had excellent instincts, both on the battlefield and as a leader. One could say his keen observation and analysis skills were on par with Nara Shikamaru’s.

When members of his clan reached fifteen most were arranged to begin courtship rituals.

Her headache threatened again as she put it all together.

So, The Hyuuga Elders have a hard on for this one, do they? Hyuuga Hiashi sent a messenger by this morning concerning his nephew but the Elders don’t agree with his decision. Because they can’t disobey the Hyuuga Head they found a loophole. The Elders couldn’t outright say they wanted just Neji -- their best and brightest --to produce progeny so they had to ask for the whole clan and rile the other clans into doing the same.

Tsunade swallowed her disgust.

She pulled a scroll from the pile and handed it to the jounin. Tsunade steepled her fingers before her mouth and perched her chin upon them as she regarded him. “I’ll be sending you on a reconnaissance mission. It should take no longer than a week.”

Neji nodded.

“When you return you are to report to the Hyuuga compound for a period of no less than three hours to attend to familial duties. For the foreseeable future, whenever you return from a mission you are to report for that amount of time.” Her eyes narrowed. “Before you ask, the answer is ‘no’ that interlude is not deducted from your standard time off.”

Neji took a deep breath and released it slowly. “I apologize for the inconvenience. I’m sure it will amount to nothing.”

He didn’t look surprised, nor particularly bothered either, she noticed. He appeared confident and in control despite what the Hyuuga Elders had undoubtedly devised. She didn’t know Neji very well, but she had heard about the trials he endured as a member of the less favored Branch Family.

On the day he’d been promoted to jounin she had even witnessed his reaction to a Souke member. After congratulating him she had bid him farewell for the evening. Neji had taken a barely travelled back-route out of the building -- one Tsunade used when she needed a break and didn’t want to be found and scolded by Shizune. She’d been wandering around inside the building in an attempt to refocus her mind when she happened to look out a window and see her brand new jounin hemmed up by three Hyuuga women on the empty street. One pale-skinned girl in a silk kimono with lustrous black hair piled upon her head, eyebrows plucked into a perfect arch, and lips painted bright red had been jabbing a finger into Neji’s chest. The beauty mark resting under her right eye twitched with every word she said. Tsunade had been too far away to hear, and couldn’t interfere as it was a clan matter, but she had noted the proud yet dejected slump to Neji’s shoulders as he looked at the ground. No expression touched his face but the anger that radiated from him could have been a signal flare. That had been the fury of resentment, of having power but unable to use it. It hadn’t mattered what he did or didn’t do, that girl won.

Neji was never confident when it came to his family.

Tsunade’s chin slid off her hands as realization struck. “You -- You’ve already taken care of it haven’t you?” she demanded.

Tsunade would never admit to condoning Bunke training, but as Hyuuga Neji stood straight and blank-faced before her she felt a measure of pride and satisfaction that such a powerful, well-mannered young man was a part of the village. His mannerisms did not favor her as she was sure the completely flabbergasted expression she wore was not how a Hokage should ever look.

“Lady Godaime, I am at a loss for what you could possibly mean,” he replied calmly.

Tsunade shook her head. Such as waste, she lamented.

“And why would you need to do something like that? Just this morning your Uncle has reportedly delivered an edict to the Hyuuga Elders to leave you alone despite what they’re trying to do. I’ve seen paperwork requesting an allotment be sent to an apartment complex instead of the Hyuuga coffers for your upkeep. You’re free. So why would you need to go so far?”

Hyuuga Neji stood straight and undaunted as he addressed her. “Lady, no disrespect, but you don’t know the Souke. The only true freedom there is for a Bunke member is death. My Uncle is granting me a reprieve but it won’t last forever. As important as it is to the Hyuuga Head to improve relations with the Bunke it’s more important to keep the peace within the clan. He can’t be seen as biased.” Neji met her eyes without wavering. “As my position within the clan threatens the hierarchy, I must remove myself from the equation. If I have nothing to give then there is nothing to lose.” He took a breath, the only hint that he wasn’t as composed he would have her think. “The Elders can’t know and I respectfully request that you not tell them.”

Tsunade was sure The Hyuuga Elders couldn’t know -- a vasectomy was illegal in the Hyuuga Clan, especially for servants. Neji was making himself nothing to lose but nothing to gain either; a dangerous balance to keep when one was Hyuuga. The Godaime pursed her lips as she absorbed the predicament, looked down at her desk at the paperwork she had yet to get to. She frowned as her anger rekindled upon sight of the request the council advisors had dropped off. Tsunade had had about enough of old people meddling.

She recalled the notes the Third had taken concerning the rift between the Main House and the Branch House of the Hyuuga. The Third’s missives had stated Neji was brilliant but a fatalist with a surly attitude toward his teammates and his clan. Tsunade could not see that child in the one before her. This boy did not cower in the face of adversity. This was the boy she had found in Naruto’s hospital room years ago; in no condition to be out of bed yet willing to break himself in half to cheer her foolish grandson.

“And you’re certain you did the procedure correctly?” she asked.

Neji blinked, the only hint that he was startled by the question. “Of course.”

Precision wasn’t something one had to worry about where the Hyuuga were involved. She somehow refrained from sighing. It wasn’t the ‘Hokage-thing’ to do to let Neji go, but how could she clip his wings when he’d fought so hard to fly? She liked the Hyuuga Neji who was confident much more than the one who was bitter.

“Your assignment starts first thing tomorrow morning. Might I suggest ice until then?”

She lifted a pointed eyebrow but only succeeded in gaining another blink.

“Neji,” Tsunade began as the jounin half turned toward the door. “What did you say to my grands-- Naruto that day in the hospital? He was really depressed before you talked to him.”

The smallest of smirks touched the young Hyuuga’s lips. “I only reminded him of what he was.”

“Oh?” Intrigued, Tsunade tilted her head to the side. “And what is that?”

“A loser,” Neji answered, but there was a twinkle in his white eyes and a chuckle in his voice as he said it.

How curious, Tsunade reflected as Neji left. That was the most emotion she had seen from Neji in almost three years. If she didn’t know any better she would wager that Hyuuga Neji harbored a crush on her cute grandson.

====~- X -~====

Neji bit his tongue to stifle a groan of discomfort and gingerly shifted the ice pack. The research he had conducted was very misleading. Why had he thought that the lack of an incision would mean no pain? The endorphins from the orgasm had worn off, the euphoria of spiting the Souke, long gone. The terror of the Hokage punishing him for the very illegal act he had committed was soothed by the Lady Godaime herself. No incision, but trauma was still trauma. Neji gritted his teeth. He didn’t get to complain.

He decided to focus on his new apartment. It was nice, chosen mostly for its distance from the Hyuuga estate, but also because the landlord catered to ninja in providing fully furnished holdings. The apartment was a single room shaped in a katakana ‘ト’ (to). From the front door if one looked left one would see a kitchen and a door to the bathroom, to the right was a sitting area replete with a couch, a coffee table, and small television. In the niche was his full-sized bed, granted privacy only by the strategic placement of a colorful four-panel shoji screen depicting the four seasons at the foot of it. When he felt better he knew he would appreciate it more, but even so it was a very cozy set up. He laid on his bed on top of the blankets, a loosely wrapped fundoshi his only adornment as he cradled an ice pack, with a day off, and not a Souke to command him. If not for the pain this could have been an ideal arrangement.

A nap was in order. If he didn’t sleep he would brood on The Elders’ plot to snatch him back and ruin his Uncle’s plans. ‘Familial Duties Provision’, my ass. He was willing to bet a Hyuuga had had a hand in writing that decree when the village was first founded. He shifted again in a vain attempt at comfort, and closed his eyes.

He was mid-transition from doze to deep sleep when there was a loud banging at his door.

“Neji!”

A white eye cracked open. That very distinct yodel sounded like his teacher.

“Neji, are you home?”

Slightly more polite but no less vocal, that was definitely Rock Lee. Neji groaned.

“Are you even sure this is the right place?”

Tenten at least had the decency to sound vaguely annoyed.

A sigh escaped him. This was unfortunate. He deliberately hadn’t given his teammates his new address when he’d seen them earlier that morning before Shizune had found him. It wasn’t as though the information wasn’t readily available, but he’d been hoping in his neglecting to give them directions they would realize he didn’t want company. That was asking for too much, Neji supposed. Not that it mattered; he wasn’t getting up. They could come back later.

His doorknob jiggled. There was a click.

Were they serious?

“Ooh, this is very lovely inside isn’t it?” Lee crooned. Neji could hear his footsteps as he pranced around admiring the apartment.

“Of course it is -- Neji has awesome taste,” Tenten stated, but Neji could see her shadow following Lee’s around through the shoji screen.

The place wasn’t that big; it was only a matter of time before they converged on the niche. Neji thought to move, hide under the covers for an ounce of dignity in the situation but wasn’t able to do more than twitch a leg. Fortunately, it was a plastic bag full of takeout held by Gai's large hand that was first to greet him, followed by his mentor peeking around to the left of the shoji screen and near-blinding Neji when the late morning sun bounced off his smile. To the right, Lee mirrored the pose with another carry-out bag that smelled like herring soba.

“Neji, to celebrate your Youthful Flight From The Nest, we bring you--” Gai broke off into an indignant squeal as he took in Neji’s state of undress and absolutely venomous expression.

Whatever Lee was going to add curdled in his throat as his eyes comically rounded and his mouth dropped. It was barely a second before his sense of propriety kicked in; he schooled his features and ordered his eyes to study the wall, but the damage had already been done.

There was a disgruntled sigh. “That wasn’t how you two practiced it.” Tenten ducked under Gai’s extended arm and had just made eye contact with Neji before his team leader twirled her around and blocked her path.

“Tenten.” Gai stood with hands akimbo, curry takeout dangling in distraction. “A woman shouldn’t wander freely in a man’s bedroom.”

“What?” Tenten scoffed. “It’s a one room apartment.” She placed a hand on her hip and radiated exasperation.

Lee appeared at Gai’s elbow to take the food. He fumbled a bit as he handed a bag to Tenten, who just barely managed to save the meal from the floor. “Let’s set this up in the kitchen, Tenten!” Lee suggested with a smile. As he cast a furtive glance in Neji’s direction, his cheeks pinked with embarrassment. “Ah, you do have dishes, right Neji?”

Neji growled something unintelligible.

Lee had been trying not to stare. Neji’s mental scowl threatened to give him a headache. Lee had never seen his bare forehead and Neji found he had preferred it that way.

How was it he had less privacy now than on Hyuuga land?

“Do you mind?” Neji grumbled, meeting his teacher’s dumbfounded expression with a mutinous one of his own.

Maito Gai dragged a hand down his face. And almost immediately, as though he could wipe away his Youth, Neji’s mentor became the man Neji could talk to without the urges to strangle him. Gai knelt down on the floor and took up Neji’s closest hand to sandwich in between his large warm ones.

“Neji,” Gai frowned, his face uncomfortably close to the younger boy’s. “What happened?”

Knowing that this was likely the only improvement to Gai’s disposition that he was going to get did not help matters. “Would you believe a training accident?” Neji asked, because he didn’t want to lie to his teacher.

Big manly tears welled in Gai’s eyes as he shook his head in distraught denial. “Do you think so little of me that you Can’t Confide in your Loving Mentor?”

Shit. Neji blinked. Was he not the one mostly naked in his own home being intruded upon? His team shouldn’t even be here. He pulled his hand from Gai’s grasp, attempted to sit up and cover himself but only succeeded in jarring his injured parts and half turning his back to Gai so the other man wouldn’t see him wincing in pain. He reached for the ice pack to find it had melted. Just my luck.

“Lee, bring some ice,” Gai ordered before Neji could properly mourn its loss.

He could hear rummaging in the kitchen -- quite possibly for a glass -- before the freezer door opened. “None here, Gai-sensei.”

“There’s a machine at the end of the hall,” Neji gritted out.

“Take Tenten,” Gai added.

“But I want to know what’s going on,” Tenten protested, but obediently followed Lee out the door.

“Neji,” Gai began in the most serious tone the Hyuuga had ever heard from him. “What have you done to yourself?”

“What I had to,” Neji answered. He didn’t turn around to face his teacher. Gai didn’t understand and he never would.

Lee would always be Gai’s favorite. Even if Neji beat Lee one thousand times out of one thousand challenges, to Gai, the fact that Lee had tried so hard would always make Lee one thousand times better than Neji. According to his teacher’s ‘Rules’ one really could win for losing. Being on Team Gai was almost a near constant reminder of who he was to the Hyuuga Clan -- a genius who did not exist. But Neji would never say his teacher was inadequate in any way; Gai was merely the person a student required him to be. And if Neji couldn’t bring himself to divulge that he needed to be acknowledged, that he was tired of being punished for being such a daedal shinobi, then that was hardly Gai’s fault for not noticing.

His existence was an obstacle that someone always felt they had to overcome. Only one person had ever stopped to look back at what he’d stepped on to progress. Neji exhaled noisily. It was a bad day when daydreams of Naruto did little to soothe him.

“I had to serve them last night.” The young Hyuuga laughed mirthlessly. “You should have heard them -- scheduling a breeding plan in between missions for me as though I were a prized peacock--” Neji bit his lip momentarily, saw his teacher’s solemn expression out of the corner of his eye. “Sorry. You made me promise not to talk about anything concerning the Souke. I broke it again. I apologize.”

Neji had believed that would be the end of it. The Souke didn’t rule Gai’s life, so he was capable of ignoring them. Gai had never understood that Neji didn’t have that luxury. In Gai’s presence Neji was only allowed to shut up and deal. Knowing how his mentor felt, Neji was unprepared for Maito Gai to leap upon his bed and gently pull Neji into his arms.

The embrace was loose but the younger man was shocked into rigidity. Until that moment he had thought it was well established that he did not like to be touched. Normally, people tended to respect that. But Gai was not normal by any means. He wasn’t forceful. He was just what Neji needed him to be in that moment. It had been a long time since anyone had held him. Neji rested his cursed forehead on Gai’s flak jacket, closed his eyes, and relaxed. It had been a very stressful couple of days.

He didn’t startle when his teammates returned, merely eased out the embrace and cast about for something to cover the Seal.

“Gai-sensei, we’ve got ice!” Lee announced.

“Good.” Gai reached for the ice pack only to have Neji’s hand ward Gai’s away with a piercing look for Gai’s trouble.

His teacher’s black eyes were as guileless as ever and Neji’s mortification quickly dissipated. For once he wasn’t being reprimanded, he had the rest of the day off, and the aroma of herring soba drifting into his nostrils. His teammates were trying to take care of him. Even though he seemed to have no choice in the matter, he could think of worse things than what he was presented.

“I’ll get that.”

Chapter Text

Shiranui Genma was not in the best of moods as he hopped from tree to tree, making good time on his way back to Konohagakure from the Fire Daimyo’s estate. The Daimyo had a large, beautiful, well-guarded castle with huge gardens and man-made lakes to wander around. The Daimyo had excellently trained servants who had taken hospitality to a whole new level during Genma’s overnight stay. But the Daimyo -- in Genma’s very humble opinion -- was a moron and so was his wife.

Madam Shijimi and the Daimyo had five children. It pained Genma to think about the two of them and sex with the same brain cells, but he had to have the story straight before he saw Lady Tsunade. The Fifth didn’t suffer stupidity well and she’d been of a mood lately that no one and no amount of sake could cure. So. Of the five children, only the youngest remained in her parents’ home. Lady Yuina had a penchant for dance and other artistic pursuits and had asked to visit the theatre when a new troupe whose main feature was a musical puppet show had come into town.

Lady Yuina never returned.

And almost two weeks later, the Fire Daimyo and Madam Shijimi had finally noticed.

Genma had been promoted to a genin when he was ten. He could recall finding countless cats for a younger Madam Shijimi. The Lady would be on the doorstep within the hour of her current feline’s departure. She would pace the halls until Dear Kitty-Whatever was found. That her offspring didn’t warrant the same conduct was ridiculous. Of the many ways to lose a child -- diseases, accidents, assassination attempts, poisons, war -- Genma could not think of one more foolish than pure negligence. They hadn’t even summoned a thought for their daughter until a messenger from Wind Country had asked after her health. Lady Yuina was a potential bride -- and peace offering -- for one of the Wind Daimyo’s sons.

Whoever had taken the Daimyo’s daughter hadn’t made any demands so finding her when the trail was already cold was going to be damn near impossible unless a miracle happened . . .

The jounin shook his head to clear it; there was no sense getting riled or pessimistic. He nodded to the Leaf shinobi at a check station as he ran by. The sooner he returned, reported to the Hokage, and was granted some down time -- though he doubted that last one with that ‘Familial Duties’ crap they had in effect -- the better off he would be.

He took a turn at the river that divided Hyuuga land from the rest of the world. It would be quicker to cut through, though technically nobody trespassed on Hyuuga land without express permission. Genma had always wondered why that was so, even as a kid. One of these days he would have to ask the Hyuuga on the reconnaissance team. Maybe over dinner if Tokuma displayed interest in more than his questions --

Something was off. Shiranui Genma stopped mid step and listened. The wind flirted with the leaves; the river calmly gurgled on its course downstream; birds chirped overhead . . .

There was a hoarse shout as water splashed erratically.

The jounin already had chakra concentrated in his feet as he zipped from the shoreline and over the river. He could see the person now, struggling to stay afloat as the deceptively calm current carried them further downstream. Within seconds he had a thin arm in hand before he firmly yanked a woman from the river. He carried her quickly to the banks and set her down, patting her on the back. She spasmed and coughed liquid, disjointedly clawing her way through the moon blossoms on the shore.

“Are you alright?” Genma asked, following her.

“I-I . . .” She sputtered, spat some more water and then continued. “I . . .” She stopped. Genma watched as her doe-shaped white eyes squinted. She groaned as she grabbed her head. The braid that had wrapped around her forehead fell to one side revealing a Seal that he had only seen once before. It glowed with eerie green light as angry veins bulged from it. Staring at it, he could hear Hyuuga Neji’s voice in the back of his mind as the boy explained how simple it was to crush a Bunke member’s brain with one gesture.

Another fit rippled through the Branch House woman before she collapsed; face down in the flowers. Genma instantly knelt beside her, pulling her into his arms as he checked her pulse.

He was taken by complete surprise to find himself upside down and falling though the sky remained the same.

====~- X -~====

Maito Gai gently kissed Kakashi’s forehead before bounding out of bed to the shower.

“Sure you won’t join, Kakashi?” Gai offered magnanimously, suggestive wiggle to his impressive eyebrows. He stood in Pose Number . . . Kakashi never really paid attention to what Gai called them. Though he would never give any indication, he was usually too caught up staring at Gai: tall, muscular, honest black eyes framed by long lashes, a sleek mane, prominent nose, perfect smile, and high cheekbones displayed to the fullest.

His lover was a good-looking man.

Kakashi lazily waved him off before reaching for the book resting on the nightstand. While he admired Gai’s stamina, he was more than content to relax after such dedication to his body’s pleasure -- the Lotus of Konoha could indeed bloom twice. In bed, Gai’s single-minded focus was a dangerous, delightful, and, oftentimes, deliciously overwhelming thing.

It was a relief to have Maito Gai operating at his usual zesty level when this past week he’d been inexplicably subdued -- prone to stillness, dispirited moans as he fretted, and an unhealthy slump to his broad shoulders. Kakashi hadn’t seen Gai in such a state since Rock Lee’s surgery a couple years ago. The Copy Ninja pulled Gai’s pillow close to prop against as he picked up where he left off in the book, the shower sounding like rain in the background.

He managed to read one page before he looked at the closed bathroom door and frowned.

Gai hadn’t reprimanded him for his lack of ‘Youthful Enthusiasm’.

Dammit. Whatever was ailing Gai was worse than he’d thought.

Many people would say he and Gai weren’t right for each other. They were too different on the inside -- Kakashi, cool and mysterious, Gai, hot-blooded and unconventional. From their looks to their fighting styles, they were, undoubtedly, an odd combination on the surface. But at their core, underneath the underneath, they were the same -- Gai, an old-fashioned gentlemen and Kakashi, a closet hopeless romantic.

The water stopped and a minute later the bathroom door opened. Kakashi peeked over the rim of the book in time to see Gai step into his fuzzy green house slippers and wrap the tiniest towel in creation around his hips. The hem barely covered the essentials; it was so unconsciously sexy and indecent that for a moment Kakashi forgot that Gai was in dire straits. That is, until his lover paused in tucking the towel as his thick brows knit together and that now-familiar low moan rumbled in the silence. Then he stalked back into the bathroom to finish his toiletries.

The Copy Ninja dragged his open eye down the page he was currently reading in search of the resolve necessary to confront Gai. Usually, if Maito wanted him to know something he would just say so in his boisterous and demonstrative way. There were no secrets between them. Kakashi nodded to himself at that last thought, looked back the bathroom and opened his mouth --

“Good night, Gai-sensei. Goodnight Gai-sensei’s Special Someone,” a voice recited through the door. It was eerie how that kid did that. If Kakashi didn’t know better he would swear his lover’s protégé waited outside with his ear to the door until movement ended for a significant amount of time. But Kakashi knew it was far more likely Lee listened for the shower and timed it from that.

The last Hatake deflated a little. “I have told that kid he can call me ‘Kakashi’ when we’re at home right?”

Gai peeked his head out from the bathroom, toothbrush in hand. “He’s trying to be respectful. Lee believes you’ll kick me out if he’s not useful -- or don’t you recall what you said the day he moved in?”

Kakashi hid his smile behind the book. He remembered the day well enough. The Lady Godaime had released Lee from the hospital on the condition that he remained under constant supervision to keep him from rushing his recovery. Gai had come to Kakashi wobbly-eyed and begging on his knees for his Precious Student to take up residence with them. Hatake Kakashi could not refuse. Rock Lee had secured Gai’s Way of the Ninja long before Kakashi and Gai were together; to have one meant to have both. So even though he wasn’t opposed to the idea, he had said something vague about Gai paying for Lee’s board in sweat or Gai would be sleeping outside.

To be fair, it wasn’t as weird as Kakashi had thought it would be.

The rooms of his family home were full of energy when they were once oozing despair. The kitchen was in constant use as Gai mixed health concoctions. The training grounds, once again, were trampled as Gai and Lee practiced.

When he watched them, Kakashi often speculated that Lee’s parents had been Samurai. Samurai molded chakra differently and as a result wouldn’t necessarily excel at ninjutsu. It would have been easier to tell Lee to find another profession in life; that the definition of a ninja could not be changed. But there was Gai perfecting Rock Lee’s taijutsu while teaching him kindness, loyalty, chivalry, and hardwork; they were living proof that the best of a shinobi could not be found in bloodline limits or natural talent. Gai could not have made a better son if he’d tried.

“He wasn’t useful when he got here and he still stayed,” Kakashi pointed out.

“Yes, but now that he’s better, he feels he must make up for His Great Imposition.” Gai shook his head. “Already, his Riv --” But there were no more words, just that moping groan to fill the silence as Gai shoved his toothbrush into this mouth and retreated to the bathroom sink.

Kakashi gnashed his teeth in irritation. He did not like The Sigh of Deep Manly Thoughts -- dammit. Now he was naming it. It had to go.

“Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?”

“Uhhmmm,” issued from Gai’s throat as he brooded. He banged around in the bathroom for a moment before coming out and leaning against the dresser. He met Kakashi’s expectant eyes as he stated, “I think I failed.”

A white eyebrow raised in inquiry. “Oh?”

“When we went to give Neji a housewarming, I found --” Gai’s face crumpled. When he continued, a fist shook in righteous grief. “I found that My Precious Student had gone and unmanned himself.”

Kakashi’s legs jerked involuntarily at the news as it felt like his own man-parts had retreated into his body in fear of the same. The other eyebrow joined the first. “He did it himself?” Kakashi wondered, morbidly fascinated.

Gai gravely nodded.

Another sympathetic twitch from below the covers had Kakashi fiddling with the pages of his book as he waited for the queasy feeling in his stomach to pass. “I don’t know, Gai,” he mused. “I think that may be the epitome of manliness.”

Gai shot an accusing look Kakashi’s way. “What’s with that cool reaction when I’m Serious!”

The Copy Ninja sighed, noted the page in his book before he closed it and placed it on the nightstand. He could give all his attention to Gai this time as it wasn’t one of Jiraiya’s Icha Icha Series, and the romance to intrigue ratio was slightly off for his liking. He had never considered himself a literary snob, but quality shouldn’t be optional just because of the genre. He snagged his robe from the floor and slipped it on as he padded across to the room to his lover and joined him in leaning against the bureau. He threw an arm around Gai’s waist and bid Konoha’s Beautiful Blue Beast come closer and draw comfort from their proximity. Gai in distress was an unpleasant notion that twisted Kakashi’s insides worse than bad plot. It would be better for the both of them to get it out of the way.

“Have you ever met a group of the Hyuuga Bunke members in the Hyuuga compound?” Gai asked quietly.

Kakashi couldn’t say that he had. He’d been teamed with one or two in the past for missions, but aside from being relatively reserved and more than competent he hadn’t formed too much of an opinion on any of them. The Hyuuga were notoriously private; rarely did anyone not of their clan go near their home. “No,” he answered, because Gai was looking at him with that woebegone expression that demanded actual participation in the conversation.

“I have,” Gai replied, dark eyes unfocused and swept to their corners as he remembered. “When Neji was first assigned to my team I had to speak with Hyuuga Hiashi. There were a few around then, their foreheads all covered.” Gai frowned. “They were all quiet -- sullen and terrified without an ounce of Youth between them.” He crossed his arms over his broad chest and dropped his chin. “And there was Neji, praised as the Number One Rookie, but he was the same as them. I believed there was no reason for someone so talented to be that way. I should have realized there was more Underneath.

“But I didn’t. I thought to inject some normalcy into Neji’s life since he was around such gloom all the time. I encouraged Lee to make a Rival of him and thought Neji was deliberately cruel when he’d completely dominate in a sparring match. It never occurred to me that Neji didn’t want to fight. Didn’t need a Rival. Just needed a friend who understood what he was going through even if they couldn’t change it. In that, your Naruto has done more for Neji in four minutes than I have been able to do in four years.

“I’d asked him to make a Warm Promise with me not to lose his head over the Head and Branch family situation and he had agreed. But now I know he did so only because he couldn’t trust me to take his side. To find out he’d been swallowing his pain all these years because of that -- I could only hold him in a Loving Embrace.” Gai shook his head, chagrined. “You genius types are surprisingly fragile.”

Hatake Kakashi released a small sigh. Now he understood. His lover was beating himself up for not understanding that Hyuuga Neji was essentially a slave in his own clan. It couldn’t be fixed with any amount of hard work or luck. Its existence was a direct contradiction to everything Gai believed in.

“Hold him?” Kakashi slyly queried. He bumped his elbow into Gai’s side. “Should I be worried?”

The completely aghast shriek sounded more like the lively Maito Gai that he preferred. “Kakashi! Don’t imply such things about My Cute Student.”

“Saying it like that just makes it worse.”

Kakashi’s sleepy eye surveyed his partner as he blustered and declared his intentions had been absolutely pure. When the brunet quieted down and they stood together, side by side, in the silence the Copy Ninja knew that he had to act before Maito relapsed. Gai wasn’t the kind of man who could live with his beliefs shattered.

“Look, not all geniuses are the same. Neji’s operating off a different set of circumstances.” Kakashi jiggled his shoulders to keep them from hunching defensively. It was weird when he had to console Gai of all people. Gai was the proverbial unstoppable force and unmovable object; it was those traits that attracted Kakashi in the first place.

“If I tell you this, you don’t get all mushy.” He hazarded a glance at his lover.

The besotted glimmer in Gai’s eyes let Kakashi know it was already too late to abort the maudlin, but he trudged forward anyhow.

“Back then -- When I finally came home to find you at the gate ready to challenge me like nothing had changed --”

Kakashi had been as disheartened as he’d been determined in those days, plagued by regret, despondent toward his own life, and apprehensive about his return. But Maito Gai -- clad in the most hideous green outfit Kakashi had ever seen -- paced the entrance to the village like a diligent sentry, pausing to look down the road every so often as though he were expecting someone. And when Gai had spotted him he had --

Kakashi wiggled his toes and smiled. Gai always said or did the right thing at the right time. “I thought, you just may be a genius . . . ”

That last part was mumbled but it didn’t seem to make a difference. Sobbing, Gai scooped him up into capable arms and strode toward their bed, too-tiny towel fluttering to the floor in his haste. Big, manly, tears sprinkled Kakashi’s torso where the robe didn’t cover as Konoha’s Beautiful Blue Beast wept his relief and happiness.

But that was alright; the Copy Ninja had always found Gai’s sensitivity to be one of his greatest strengths. Maito Gai, the gallant, was one of the main reasons why Kakashi had started reading trashy romance novels in the first place. There was something appealing about a man barreling in, flashing a smile, and promising to end your troubles or die trying. He had to laugh at himself for that thought, run his fingers through damp, black strands as Gai’s wide mouth hungrily descended on his.

Gai had challenged him, courted him, found every piece of his broken heart and determinedly glued it back together. And when it was complete Kakashi had told him to hold on to it. Because Gai could be depended on to keep it safe.

Gai was exactly what a person needed when they needed it, and if that wasn’t a talent then nothing was.

====~- X -~====

Naruto forced himself to wakefulness with a loud yawn and life affirming stretch to his shoulders only to feel the surface he laid upon move too. Long, shaggy white hair fell into his face and the boy batted it aside as it tickled his nose.

“Oh. Have a good nap there, Naruto?” Jiraiya asked, looking over his shoulder at his charge.

Sitting forward, Naruto shot a grin at his mentor, who held a pen and a notebook, faithfully recording whatever dirty thoughts swam in his mind. It was a pose Naruto had awoken to find the Old Pervert in many times after he had collapsed from training.

The blond wiped at the drool stain on the side of his mouth as he surveyed the peaceful countryside, entranced by the mid-afternoon sun dancing off the flora. “Eh. I guess so.”

The Ero Sennin paused in packing up his supplies to bestow his full attention upon his charge; a twisted smirk to his lips. “Finally dreaming about girls then?”

Naruto shot to his feet and pointed an accusing finger as his teacher. “Only you dream about something like that!”

Jiraiya exhaled mightily and resumed packing. “I’m starting to think boys who create sexy ninjutsu have no real interest in women at all,” Naruto heard him mumble in that forlorn tone he used whenever the blond told him his writing was boring.

The problem was he wanted to refute that claim -- extol on the many virtues and beauty of Haruno Sakura -- but knew it for the lie it was. It had been months since he’d spared Sakura a thought besides reminding himself of his promise to her whenever the Old Pervert was teaching him something he couldn’t quite grasp. He couldn’t go back on his word just because something was a little difficult. But aside from that, nothing. Not one dirty thought. Not a desire to see how she had grown. Not a query into the deep on the length of her strawberry blonde hair. Naruto’s face scrunched as he thought. That last one was especially damning, as he’d been the one to start that rumor about Sasuke liking girls with long hair when they were younger.

“Why are we leaving anyway when you’re the one who said we would camp here tonight?” Naruto demanded. He reached out to grab his own backpack as the Perverted Hermit stood and stretched.

“Mah, I need to do some research --”

“You just want to go peeping again!” Naruto interrupted with an annoyed growl.

“And you need the practice in stealth,” Jiraiya returned with a glare of his own. “Che. Kids these days have no respect for . . .” the Old Pervert grumbled as he meandered through the tall grass back to the path that led to civilization.

Naruto followed in sullen silence. He didn’t need to peek at any more women. His latest creation in perverted jutsu would put anything Konohamaru had come up with to shame. It was already a pathetic thought to know someone as powerful as his teacher would fall for something so basic.

From an artistic perspective Naruto could appreciate the female form. With the right proportions, in the right pose, with a proper come hither expression, any woman could be sexy. But that kind of thinking applied to men too. Worse, he didn’t even seem to notice --

The blond scrubbed his fingers through his spiky hair as though he could dislodge that traitorous image and fling it into the atmosphere. Jiraiya had been half right when he’d guessed Naruto was dreaming about someone. Lately, in his idle moments, sleeping or awake, all he could seem to fantasize about was Hyuuga Neji, embarrassed as he pushed long brown tresses behind his ear.

A wistful sigh escaped him. Neji had really pretty hair.

“Ahem!”

Naruto startled at the sound of Jiraiya’s voice to find his mouth in the cheesiest smile it had ever formed as he stared up at the clouds. His teacher was thirty paces ahead of him, watching him with a knowing smirk.

“She must be something, eh Naruto?”

The teen jogged to catch up. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he stated stubbornly. He threw his hands behind his neck and stuck his chin in the air angled away from Jiraiya in a patent pout.

“Mm-hmm.” His teacher glanced down at him from the corner of his eye as they continued toward the town. “Just don’t hurt yourself thinking about it.”

Naruto swallowed the retort he had ready only because The Old Pervert was right. Thinking wasn’t something he excelled at. He didn’t really understand if the Neji in his head -- gently encouraging as they held hands -- was more than a figment his imagination had created after so long or not. The feeling he got whenever he thought of Neji was confusing. Naruto wouldn’t know what to make of it until he saw him again.

Chapter Text

Neji stepped out of his bathroom toweling his hair, only half-revived from the shower he’d just indulged in. With his eyes, reconnaissance work wasn’t the chore it could have been for someone else. If he was willing to expend the energy he didn’t have to travel as far, or risk giving away his position. Neji had spent the better part of the week submerged in a cool stream, undetected by his quarry. While he was sure algae had started forming on his toes, it had been worth it to keep certain parts still, and take note of the decidedly odd traffic patterns going on around the border.

He’d reported his findings to the Hokage upon his return, and she had mumbled something unflattering about reports and punctuality before motioning him off to prepare for his ‘date’.

Neji scowled at the verbiage, picked up his brush and began to work it through his damp strands. This was more of a tragic coercion of two unwilling parties to sit in the same room together than anything so intimate as that word implied.

He’d been on a date before.

Well, he classified it as a date, though he knew it probably hadn’t registered on Naruto’s radar. The day before the blond had left, Neji had found him moseying down the street on the way to Ichiraku’s, hands behind his head, mouth puckered in defiance, face upturned toward the overcast sky and intermittent sunshine.

Neji had thought the sun was jealous of him, envious that no cloud would dare to keep Uzumaki Naruto hidden.

But that wasn’t exactly true. There was Sasuke; there was that battle Naruto had with himself over his own worth -- the worst kind of blight.

Neji had fallen into step beside him and been gifted with a smile. “Hey, what brings you out?” Naruto had asked him.

“I thought I would eat something before going to train with my Uncle.”

“Really?” Naruto had appeared puzzled and Neji couldn’t blame him. The last the Uzumaki would have heard, Neji and the Souke were still practicing mutual excommunication.

Neji had nodded. “Yes. Apparently my ‘Absolute Defense’ could be a little more absolute.” The corners of his lips quirked upward.

For a moment Naruto had looked guilty but then he brushed it off and grinned.

The Hyuuga had garnered his courage and made the offer as innocuous as he could. “Ichiraku’s is around the corner -- would you like to join me? It’ll be my treat.”

Naruto was not a person who would turn down free food.

Neji sighed.

He was so pathetic.

He pulled his hair into the usual ponytail and turned to look at the kimono he’d laid out before his shower. It was nicer than the plain green one he’d wear if it were an ordinary clan gathering. Midnight blue with embroidered cranes taking flight from the hem, it had been a gift from Nadeshiko on his last birthday. She’d claimed Ozora had never grown into it and Kuji wouldn’t do it justice, so he may as well have it. Neji couldn’t recall a time when she’d ever outright given him anything. It was always under guise of things going to waste if they weren’t used. After his father had died there had been no one but Nadeshiko carefully not mothering him, Ozora teaching him the things he’d learned at the academy to occupy his mind, and Kuji, barely older, but demanding Neji call him Uncle. Their only sanctuary had been The Aviary.

And then shortly after Neji had started at the academy Ozora had been found Locked and forced to quit as a ninja. There was no investigation. No one was punished for it. It was simply the fate of the Branch family to be treated thusly, and it would never change. First his father had been taken from him, and then his vibrant and capable cousin was reduced to nothing more than a drooling shell. Neji had shunned The Aviary as useless, his hatred for the Souke unable to be dispelled through Flight.

He pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t have time to wallow in his less than cheerful memories. He couldn’t afford to be angry if he was to see the one prospect he had absolutely no care for. He donned the kimono.

Hyuuga Kikue was exceptional in appearance. Her skin was flawless; her hair black as ink spilled across a page, always piled into elaborate twists upon her head. The beauty mark under her right eye was like a symbol of superiority. She was four years older than him. As a child, when his father had been explaining the Head Family hierarchy, he had pointed her out as the next in line for her family. Neji had thought that she looked like an empress, imperious as she ordered her friends around her like ladies-in-waiting. His father had frowned at that and Neji hadn’t understood why then.

But it was engraved into his forehead now.

Sometimes a life of privilege made people compassionate to the plight of others. And then sometimes it produced those like Lady Kikue who took their positions for granted. He couldn’t stop the thought that in a couple of years, if nothing was done about Hanabi, then that attitude was a possibility for her as well.

Finished with his clothing, he slipped on his sandals and tied his forehead protector around his head.

He had a difficult battle ahead of him. Somehow, covertly, he was going to have to be a perfect gentleman and a servant above reproach and yet still force Lady Kikue to Lock him.

Nothing said incompatible like one’s intended intentionally liquidating one’s brain.

====~- X -~====

Nara Shikamaru scribbled a note into the margin of his paperwork before tucking it under his arm and proceeding to his next destination. This was, without a doubt, the biggest pain in the ass the Lady Fifth had assigned him yet.

As he approached the Hyuuga compound he had to pause as he considered how to approach Hyuuga Hiashi for the information he needed. A moment later he saw Hyuuga Neji emerge from the gate. He was neatly folded into an elaborate blue kimono that had cranes embroidered around the hem. His long hair was pulled back into his usual low ponytail though it seemed extra shiny today; forehead covered as always with the Leaf bandanna. He looked decidedly harried, the vaguest of twitches present at his temple as he ground his teeth. Neji took a deep breath and then white, fathomless eyes zeroed in on where he stood.

“Shikamaru?” Neji said his name as he encroached, curiosity evident in the tilt of his head.

The Nara shrugged and decided not to shun a gift; if he didn’t have to speak with the Head of the Hyuuga Clan then that was just fine with him. “Hey. You’re just the person I wanted to see.”

An eyebrow rose in response, but they were interrupted before Shikamaru could expound on the details.

“Uh-Uhm, H-Hi Shikamaru. Hi, B-Brother.” Hinata mumbled the greeting. Her eyes watched the ground for sudden movements, no doubt, and her fingers couldn’t seem to stop fiddling with each other as she held them up before her chest.

Neji didn’t say a word.

The vein at his temple flexed again, and a sandal shifted in the dirt; as Shikamaru watched, Hinata forced herself to stand up straight and drop her protective stance.

Only then did Neji address her with a small smile and slight bow of his head. “Lady Hinata, how are you today?”

“I’m fine, thank you.” The smile she offered back was as free of anxiety as her voice now was. “Father wanted me to let you know that if you aren’t busy, Hanabi could use a sparring partner after classes end at the academy tomorrow.”

There was the briefest pause as the cousins regarded each other in a language Shikamaru supposed was purely Hyuuga. Then Neji nodded. “Thank you for telling me, Lady Hinata, I will be sure to make myself available.”

“I’ll see you two later then.”

With a brief nod of farewell Hinata turned and headed back toward the Hyuuga gate with her chin turned up and her shoulders straight, self-assurance radiating from her. Shikamaru kept expecting her to wilt back into the hunchbacked mumbler he was used to seeing, and he found himself slightly bewildered when she didn’t. His half-lidded, shrewd gaze slipped from Hinata’s retreating form to land on Neji.

“What?” the Hyuuga Bird asked, tone defensive. “She knows it annoys me to see her parrot-toed and sniveling. If she wants the title of Head of the Clan, then she needs to raise her head.”

The Nara raised a placating hand. He could understand Neji’s ire. One couldn’t have a cousin like Hyuuga Ozora and accept hesitancy in anyone else when there was no good reason for it. This would be especially true of a Souke member who would never have to endure the kind of trauma that had made Ozora the way he was.

Hyuuga eyes were blank, yet always seemed full of information, as though their intelligence couldn’t be caged with a proper iris. This was not the case for Ozora. That particular Hyuuga’s eyes were empty. Shikamaru grimaced internally, remembering the first time he'd met Ozora years ago in Neji's hospital room. Ozora had snuck away from home to come check on his favorite cousin’s health. Neji had begged Shikamaru to escort him back to Hyuuga territory; said Shikamaru could leave him at the entrance and someone would take him to his house from there. Ozora didn’t process the real world correctly, Neji told him. He functioned in it, but just barely, constantly scribbling reminders on his arm in little symbols only he understood. Neji had said Ozora had been Locked too young and his brain seriously damaged. His vision was now skewed. Knowing that, Shikamaru found it difficult to fault Neji for hating Hinata all those years. It didn’t excuse him for trying to kill her, no, but at the same time, Ozora was Hinata’s cousin too. From Neji’s perspective, she had no right to cower.

Shikamaru dragged his attention back to the original reason for his visit to find Neji studying him. “You don’t usually come around this side of the village,” the Hyuuga pointed out. He shifted and the cranes on his kimono gave the illusion of flapping their wings. Neji seemed annoyed to be seen so dressed up, or whatever had put him in a foul mood earlier had yet to dissipate.

Shikamaru opted to tread carefully. “Ah, well, Lady Tsunade assigned me the job of working out the schedule for those clans invoking that Familial Duties edict.” He glanced back the way he’d come. “I already talked to the others so that just leaves you.”

“Me specifically?” Neji asked. “Lady Hinata was just here.”

“Psh. Shy girls are just as troublesome as pushy ones in some ways.” The Nara exhaled gustily. “Look, it’s less of a bother talking to you than someone else.” He waved the folders as a visual explanation. “The other clans are really straightforward. When it comes to the Hyuuga, though, it’s a bit more complicated. I mean, I got a list from Tsunade on everyone eligible but it makes no sense.”

“In what way?” Neji wondered.

Shikamaru shuffled his papers around, then dragged his finger down a page as he read the list of names in his head. “Like, Hyuuga Emiko.” He scratched uncomfortably at the back of his neck. “She’s twelve. What twelve-year-old is thinking about marriage and making babies?”

Neji stepped forward and frowned down at the page. “She’s not.”

“Oh?” Shikamaru looked up from the lists and regarded Neji a moment. “Well, then there’s something horribly cracked with the person thinking it for her.”

“It’s not like that either.”

Shikamaru pinched the bridge of his nose and expelled a sigh. “Look, I’m pretty smart, but this would go a lot faster if you would just spit out the information I need so I can be on my way.”

“Right.” Neji glanced around, then gestured to a small tea shop up the road; Shikamaru nodded and they walked to it in silence. It was only after they were seated in a booth and served a cup of tea that the Hyuuga spoke again.

“Keep in mind that the Hyuuga clan is even older than the Nara. You’ve heard the story that the sharingan is a derivative of the byakugan, correct?”

Shikamaru nodded and folded his fingers around his tea cup.

The walk had seemed to calm to the Hyuuga down but now Neji’s lips bore the slightest tic, as though he couldn’t quite contain his frustration. “Because our bloodline limit is so unique the clan takes extra precautions to ensure it’s kept safe and pure. Another sharingan can’t happen again. Hyuuga can’t be allowed to defect. To that end all births are documented. All children fall under a certain founder of the clan. For each generation one child is named Head Family; all of their siblings are Branch and Caged. When a child turns twelve they’re given an inspection of their strength and intelligence, their birth is cross referenced to ensure inbreeding is kept to a minimum, and then The Elders choose an appropriate mate. Emiko is too young for marriage, yes, but there’s no reason why she can’t acquaint herself with her intended.” With white eyes riveted to the paperwork, he muttered, “In this case, Emiko’s future husband is me.”

“Really?” Shikamaru sat back in his chair. “So you’re all arranged marriages then?”

“Yes.”

The clan was fucked, Shikamaru couldn’t help thinking. There was no other way to put it. The Hyuuga were still adhering to a precaution dating back to before Konoha was even a village. And, if he was understanding what Neji said correctly, then the Uchiha were the reason they practiced the Bird in the Cage Seal.

It went against his nature to pry, but the Hyuuga had piqued his interest and Neji seemed willing enough to impart information as it was an order from the Lady Godaime. “Alright, I’ll play this game.” Shikamaru’s finger drummed his bottom lip as he considered the proper way to word his thoughts. “The Uchiha exist because of the byakugan, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Then what is Sasuke to you?”

If he paid attention, Shikamaru could see the faint lavender that indicated Neji’s irises had shifted to their corners as he formulated the response. “Sasuke,” he said the name as if it were a curse. “Technically we share an ancestor, so he is a very distant cousin.”

“So, if an Uchiha and a Hyuuga created a child . . .”

“We’re talking hypotheticals, now?” Neji queried, head tilted to study the Nara.

Shikamaru shook his head to deny the question. When he considered it properly, the Hyuuga would never forgive the Uchiha Clan’s betrayal and Shikamaru couldn’t blame them. The only Uchiha he had ever met had almost gotten Chouji killed for his selfishness. He had never liked Uchiha Sasuke, and after that, he never would. It was hard to digest that somewhere down the line, he and Neji were related.

“Let me put it this way instead. Your byakugan is a dominant trait, right?”

Neji nodded, though confirmation wasn’t really necessary when Shikamaru couldn’t think of one Hyuuga who didn’t have those eyes.

“But there’s no guarantee that two byakugan of considerable power create a stronger one, right?”

Another nod.

“Then why don’t your Elders allow outsourcing since your gene pool is getting a little too crowded as it is?”

The blank look Shikamaru received somehow conveyed Neji’s disappointment in his intuitive powers without saying a word. “Can you see any person of even the most miniscule amount of intelligence allowing this to happen to their children?” Neji asked with a light tap to his forehead protector for emphasis.

No, actually Shikamaru couldn’t. Nobody would put up with that kind of foolishness if they had the choice.

“Then I guess the thing that surprises me most is that Hanabi isn’t a candidate for you also. As I understand it, she should have been given your brand already, right?”

Neji shrugged. “I’m sure The Elders thought about it, but the problem is my Branch is already too close to the Main Family. They couldn’t risk it two generations in a row.” The Hyuuga fiddled with his teacup. “Besides, identical twins are considered the same person when it comes to genetics so by clan law I can’t marry into my own Head Family.”

So then if Hiashi and Hizashi were looked upon as one person from a genetic standpoint then Hiashi could claim Neji has his son.

“And that’s why Hinata calls you brother instead of cousin,” the Nara deduced.

Neji nodded. “As Nadeshiko explained it to me, a Bunke having a first child at twenty-eight doesn’t happen. My father was fine being considered my Uncle’s clone; he wasn’t so keen on having a child that would be a servant. But Lady Akahana -- Lady Hinata’s mother -- had trouble conceiving; it’s what happens when you’re too closely related sometimes and she was pretty fragile anyway from what I remember.”

The Hyuuga boy paused and swirled the contents of his cup absently; his expression was one that said memories flitted through his head. “But the Souke needed an heir. So, my Uncle chose a wife for my father from Lady Akahana’s Bunke. And when I was born everyone had what they wanted -- the Souke had an heir and my father had a son who wouldn’t be put into the Cage.” The Hyuuga boy shrugged again, allowed a chuckle to escape before taking a sip of his tea.

That sardonic little laugh said everything the Hyuuga Genius didn’t. It was simple for Nara Shikamaru to fill in the blanks. After going through all that trouble, the Lady Akahana finally got pregnant, and her miracle baby was worth more than Neji, who was ultimately the child of two Bunke -- genetic clone or not. Perceptive eyes studied the boy before him and saw powerful, smart, even-tempered, well-spoken; Hyuuga Neji looked like a leader. It must have been frustrating as hell for Hyuuga Hizashi to see Hinata be given the role his son was more fit to play.

Shikamaru grinned, his own intermittent titter unchecked. “I’m starting to see how you became a fatalist. Irony of that magnitude would shake anyone’s beliefs.”

Neji sipped his tea. “I don’t believe in fate anymore.”

Shikamaru stabbed the paperwork with an index finger. “You sure you want to say that with this looming over your head?”

The most tranquil smile Shikamaru had ever seen on Neji’s face emerged -- slowly, as though it was new to his mouth to perform it. With eyes downcast and far away he stated, “Well, a genius like me should be able to figure something out.” He met Shikamaru’s querying stare.

Game, the Nara thought. Neji was still carrying a thing for Naruto after all this time. Shikamaru doubted Neji had told him, and that was a damn shame.

“Yeah. Well. I’d figure it out faster.” Shikamaru sipped innocently at his tea. “When I was visiting the Fifth she mentioned fate was on its way back.”

Neji’s tea cup paused on its way to his lips. “Then I suppose I will gaze at the clouds for inspiration. It seems to be beneficial for you. Plenty of sizeable returns.”

And match, the Nara groused. Sometimes the Hyuuga saw too much.

“Next.” Shikamaru picked another questionable name off the list, and listened to Neji’s explanation of why they were eligible. By the end of the hour Neji had helped him draft a preliminary timetable for every Hyuuga on active duty and each of their intendeds if there were more than one. And when Neji yawned, reminding Shikamaru that he had probably just returned from a lengthy mission, the Nara waved him off to find some sleep. Watching Neji leave he couldn’t help but think that this was definitely a troublesome assignment, but it was also probably the most interesting one the Fifth had to offer.

====~- X -~====

Neji covered his mouth as another yawn threatened to crack his jaw with its intensity. He was tired. His highest ranked priority was another shower to wash the Lady Kikue and her poison from his system, and then to properly appreciate the bed he’d left behind. He didn’t want to ponder the Hyuuga; wonder why Lady Hinata’s name wasn’t paired with another prestigious Head Family, but it seemed to be all he could think about.

What he’d told Shikamaru was true. After his Uncle had explained the circumstances of his father's death, after the village began to recover from the Sand and Sound coup d'etat, Neji had returned to The Aviary for the first time in years. He'd sought out Nadeshiko and asked her for the truth of Hiashi's words. She had confirmed it and more. She had told him he had been born to be the next clan head; that his sister was a sweet girl, and Nadeshiko bore her no ill will, but the fact that she had turned out to be such a disappointment was no more than The Elders deserved for reneging on the deal. For Hinata to usurp Neji’s place hadn’t been what Lady Akahana wanted.

And now that he’d seen Hinata’s name linked with two candidates, one Bunke, the other the son of Hyuuga Kou -- someone barely Souke -- he could clearly understand what The Elders were doing. They were trying to tempt the Bunke in to accepting their positions in life; quell any rebellious thoughts by giving their children a chance at the life they would have had if there was no Seal. Encourage your children to be strong and one day they too can be Souke, was the message. It made him feel sick to his stomach. This edict was merely to switch the genetic line-up a bit, a bid to ensure the strongest and best the Hyuuga had to offer remained in charge. Neji had the uncomfortable feeling that this was inadvertently his fault. All of this trouble brewed just so that after a proper observance of at least three generations of gene dilution, The Elders could rope the children of his line back into Hiashi’s line, thereby correcting their original mistake. None of the them would even be alive then.

He thought his Uncle was beginning to comprehend the inanity of the Hyuuga. That was something. It was further proof that people really could change. Hinata was finding her spine, but so was her father in telling him to spar with Hanabi. His cousin was at the academy, but so was Emiko and they walked the same road home. Neji would be seen spending extra time outside of sanctioned ‘dates’ with one of his candidates and it would devalue any other claim The Elders’ preferred. Such a simple plan that could be ultimately devastating; Neji couldn’t find it in himself to be anything less than impressed with this Uncle for that.

But Naruto was on his way back.

Neji forced himself to walk normally instead of skipping down the street as he made a turn. It was a very roundabout way to the river, but that knowledge was worth a visit to The Aviary and a twirl around on the floor in step to the beat Kuji set. That was worth modeling the clothing Nadeshiko had made, and seeing that understated yet proud sparkle in her doe-shaped eyes. That was worth not brooding over his failure concerning Lady Kikue. He had no doubt that someone had taken her aside at some point, fussed at her to keep the juinjutsu from her fingers no matter the provocation. He was going to have to try harder. Maybe when Naruto returned he could ask him about the best ways to catch someone off their guard, as that was something Naruto had excelled at. It would give them something to talk about.

He paused and gazed up at the dusky sky to pick out the brightest stars twinkling overhead.

He had no idea what Naruto was like now.

Neji doubted he had even crossed the boy’s mind.

He shook his head and continued on. He really was going to have to stop being so pathetic.

There was no music playing in The Aviary.

Neji was instantly on his guard.

Cautiously he inched down the stairs and around the corner. The byakugan couldn’t be used here. He had always thought that concession to privacy when Bunke weren’t subject to it regularly was brilliant. He didn’t think so anymore. He eased through the curtain leading into the main room, chakra concentrated to his hands --

And saw Nadeshiko in Ozora’s arms as he tentatively dabbed moonblossom salve on her eyelids. Kuji looked murderous with drumsticks in hand. Hyuuga Tokuma had a kunai drawn. Madoka held senbon at the ready between her knuckles but seemed confused. And a stranger was curled up on the floor in the fetal position hands cradling his head as he groaned in misery.

Chapter Text

Tenten pulled her forehead protector down over her eyes. The target was in her mind; there was no reason to see it. She felt its center, knew its heartbeat in the same way she knew her own. There were shuriken divided between her hands; she leapt from the rock she stood upon into the air and flipped.

When Tenten was a little girl she'd heard many stories of Konoha's Slug Princess, Tsunade, the strongest, most skilled kunoichi ever born. And as she lay in her assigned bed at the orphanage, staring up at the ceiling after lights out, she'd sworn that she too would become as legendary as Lady Tsunade.

She loosed two shuriken.

It was her dream even though she didn't have the benefit of a bloodline limit, or even a developed chakra system that had been passed down from whoever had made her. She didn't know who her parents were, but it was safe to assume that they had been civilians. Probably not even the kind of civilians who'd grown up in a ninja village. Maybe not even the kind of people who would approve of such a dangerous profession despite the pay.

The shuriken struck and Tenten tucked under and twisted to recalculate her position in relation to her targets. There were two behind her, one to the left, and one on the other side of the tree.

Being at such a disadvantage meant she had to work harder, train a little bit longer, run a little bit farther; but little by little, she was going to achieve her goal. And after she accomplished it, if there was still time to have children, then she wanted to pass on her two greatest strengths as a ninja.

Four shuriken flew from her hand. Two aimed at the previous targets at just the right angle that would allow them to glance off and nail the two circles behind. The remaining two required exact timing. She threw one shuriken, seemingly at random, but then the last quickly followed with more force. She listened for the 'ping' as metal met metal and changed the trajectory, then she whipped a kunai from her tool pouch and sent it slamming into the target at the left just in time for another ping as the shuriken that was off course ricocheted from it and twirled into the remaining completely obscured circle.

"That's amazing, Tenten!" Lee cheered as she landed beside him, pushed her forehead protector up, and surveyed her handiwork.

Her legacy would be one of skill and accuracy.

"Thanks, Lee," Tenten said with a smile.

She was already being scouted by ANBU, she knew. Her no frills approach, speed, and precision were exactly what they were looking for when it came to assassination. She would never be called a genius like Neji, or a hard worker like Lee, but she could be called a technician — Tenten the Precise. Some likened her to Haruno Sakura in that they had civilian parents, and it annoyed Tenten that Sakura's strengths were better suited to be Lady Tsunade's apprentice. While she wanted to rail against it, Tenten acknowledged that perhaps it was best that she was making a name for herself based off of her own merits; no one would ever say she was a clone of Lady Tsunade—she would only ever be Tenten, her own person.

In some ways it was a relief to not be associated with a clan. Neji's clan was ancient but could be considered more a hindrance than a help, unlike the other members of Team Gai who were free to be whoever they wanted. Their dynamic was unique. When they were first teamed up it was awkward to say the least, but they'd learned, and suffered, and eventually got it right. And now their relationships were changing again. She could argue that it was for the better. Neji and Lee had come to an understanding. Lee had eased off from his constant 'Rival' this and 'Hard work can beat a genius' that. In turn, Neji had finally relaxed around them, at least as much as Neji could. When Tenten trained with Neji, they usually concentrated on improving his defense while improving her accuracy, but lately Neji was teaching her how to channel her chakra—stingy as it was—into her weapons, and not just her aim. It was not something he would have done before his fight with Naruto during the chuunin exam. Neji was no longer indifferent to his teammates.

Lately, however, Gai wasn't the same either. Whatever had happened a week ago in Neji's apartment had triggered another evolution. That Neji had issues with his family was an understatement. That Gai generally ignored or forbade mention of the Hyuuga clan went — literally — without saying. But Neji's plight had finally reached Gai that day. She'd seen it in his eyes though her mentor had tried to hide it with his usual jovial personality quirks.

She wasn't really paying much attention to her surroundings, so when Tenten looked around again, she found Lee examining the pierced center of a target dummy. "Lee, what's going on with Gai and Neji?"

Lee's eyes met hers then blinked owlishly. "I'm not sure what you're talking about, Tenten."

"You live with him," Tenten pointed out, brow furrowing as she sensed a cover up in progress.

Lee scratched at the back of his neck. "I—"

"Look, I just have a weird feeling and it started around the time Neji ranked jounin."

"You don't like Neji leading our missions when Gai-sensei can't be there?" Lee asked. "Because sometimes Gai-sensei really should be watching Kakashi-sensei's back, especially since Kakashi-sensei doesn't have a team right now."

Tenten waved him off. "Yes, yes, and they can continue their Eternal Rival thing, and all that." She sighed. "That isn't what I meant. I saw Hinata two days ago and she said something about having to leave or she would be late for a date." Tenten shook her head. "Do the Hyuuga strike you as the dating kind?"

Lee fidgeted. "Well, no."

"Exactly. And I'm willing to bet whatever is going on will affect Neji, and because Gai-sensei has taken an interest it's going to affect him too. And that's going to screw us all up."

"I think you're over thinking it, Tenten," Lee stated, though he didn't seem convinced by his own words.

"We'll see," Tenten allowed. She wandered over to a target and pulled the shuriken from it. There was something brewing and she was going to get to the bottom of it, see the bull's eye even though she was aiming blindfolded.

But first she needed to train.

====~- X -~====

The sun hadn't been up long when Uzumaki Naruto leaped atop a pillar. His bright blue eyes scanned the village before landing on the Hokage Monument. Granny Tsunade's face looked back at him. Naruto smiled and could only think, I missed this place.

====~- X -~====

Neji slept in.

He slept in because it was one of many luxuries not afforded on Hyuuga land. Bunke were servants, never given a day off or a moment's respite if it wasn't the will of the Souke. No Head Family member did their own bidding. Nor was any self respecting, pompous Head member ever seen without an entourage befitting their status. If one was a ninja one had the benefit of leaving under guise of using the day for training. Neji had spent as much time as he possibly could far from his home compound all his life. His hospital stay two years before was the only time he had ever not been up with the sun on a day off.

He slept in because he was exhausted both mentally and physically. For the first time in recent years there had been a stranger in The Aviary. If he searched the archives of his memory it could yield an old and dusty recollection of someone with featureless eyes and a clean forehead sitting in the corner grinding moonblossoms with Nadeshiko. If he thought a little harder about it, he could see that that person had been the Lady Akahana, though he hadn't thought it was significant at the time. But Shiranui Genma in the Branch family's sanctuary was indeed notable.

Neji doubted the one-time chuunin referee realized how close he had come to death last night. Tokuma, Kuji, and Madoka had been prepared to drag him out and stage an accident before Neji had arrived. Instead, Neji had asked two sanity infused questions: Why was Nadeshiko Locked, and did Shiranui Genma really know anything?

The first answer required waiting on kunai and senbon for the portion of Nadeshiko's brain in control of speech to unLock. She'd squeezed Ozora's hand as bruised doe-shaped eyes met Neji's and she queried, "Did you enjoy your date?"

"No," Neji had solemnly answered.

Nadeshiko had snorted contemptuously. "Shame. I guess we'll be doing this all over again." She had taken a deep shuddering breath and then offered a tremulous smile. "You look good, Neji."

"Thank you," he had replied, expression blank though he was pleased she'd noticed even in her distress.

"Now can you please get that man upright and fetch him a cup of tea?" Nadeshiko had continued. "He saved my life."

They had sat around a table while Genma and Nadeshiko nursed mugs of moonblossom tea and explained what had happened. Earlier that morning Nadeshiko had been collecting blossoms as usual when Lady Kikue found her. The lady had informed Nadeshiko that she was to tell Neji that bad things would happen if he didn't express an appropriate level of interest in her; that The Elders should have no reason to consider any other candidate besides Lady Kikue. To ingrain the message into Nadeshiko's skull and prove her point all the more, the lady had Sealed her. Nadeshiko had been too close to the water's edge when her motor skills shut off, and she would have drowned if Shiranui Genma hadn't decided to take a shortcut that morning.

The second question had been answered with a resounding no, Genma hadn't seen anything. When the barrier around The Aviary had been erected it was made to act as a reverse juinjutsu to the Seal on their forehead so that anyone who happened upon it who wasn't Bunke would suffer a fate of similar agony to being Locked. They had all apologized. Then as Nadeshiko insisted Genma drink another cup of tea she'd explained that the recipe had been created to alleviate the effects of the Lock and mend damage to affected areas in the brain. It also worked to counteract the barrier's effect.

Neji slept in.

He slept in because even after the drama at The Aviary he had returned home anticipating a shower and his bed, only to find Hatake Kakashi in the hallway leaning on the wall beside his apartment door. Kakashi's arms were crossed as he read a book, seemingly oblivious to Neji's presence. But when one lazy eye zeroed in on him, Neji was left floundering for a reason why the Copy Ninja, for all his coolness, was annoyed with him.

Neji had invited Kakashi inside, as that seemed the proper thing to do and Kakashi had begun what could have been a casual conversation between friends. Honestly, Neji would have thought nothing of the visit as random jounin had begun speaking to him at odd hours since he'd made rank. He had even run a few missions with Kakashi, Gai, and Aburame Muta shortly after his promotion. This could easily have been chalked up to Kakashi being overly cautious of anyone considered a 'genius' who, at one point, had been a little less than friendly. But the line of questioning and the forced pleasantness gave Kakashi away. For a moment Neji was angry, believing he had been betrayed by his mentor; however, Kakashi had explained that Maito Gai was ill-equipped to handle the particular problem the Hyuuga presented, that Gai had had to speak or be committed to the grave with Neji's dilemma burying him.

Neji could not read Hatake Kakashi's expression, but the fondness in his voice and the protective stance he'd taken over Maito Gai's continued kooky well-being had Neji's eyes popping in disbelief as realization struck. Neji could have gone his entire life blissfully unaware of what or whom Maito Gai did in bed when he was off duty. The fact that Gai even had sex, apparently regularly, had knocked the stars out of alignment for a moment. The fact that Gai was having sex with his Eternal Rival, apparently regularly, had caused Neji to stare at Kakashi of the Sharingan as though he could see his whole face; because suddenly Neji was really, really curious about what Gai would find appealing under the mask, when Neji had never been tempted to know before. The fact that Lee hadn't let it slip once in the years since he had moved in with Gai, or that Neji and Tenten hadn't put it together was a mystery on par with the techniques of the Sage of the Six Paths. Completely uninvited thoughts had bombarded him about what Gai's particular brand of passion could achieve when applied to a situation where passion was generally considered a good thing, and suddenly he could understand why Hatake Kakashi allowed the relationship and zealously guarded it.

Neji slept in because after knowing something like that, his brain needed rest. His mind required a few extra hours of ignorance to filter out those disturbing and unnecessary images. After their talk, the Hyuuga knew he had a friend in Hatake Kakashi, and that he should probably direct all his angst toward this inadvertent member of Team Gai if he didn't want Kakashi's full abilities visited upon him.

Neji had slept in but he woke gratifyingly hard and aching. Of course, he shouldn't have been worried that he'd done the procedure correctly, but he'd spent the better part of week submerged in cold water and too busy to really make sure. Neji liked to think that he was still a virgin due to circumstance and not for any defect in features and he hadn't planned on remaining so forever. The goal had been to end the possibility of children; he didn't want to think he'd overcorrected—especially now that he knew Naruto was on the way back to the village. Not that that — sex with Naruto — was probable, but Neji wanted to remain cautiously hopeful until he knew for certain.

He just wanted to see him and he had no idea how old Shikamaru's intelligence was because he'd been too giddy to ask.

It was closer to noon than he liked to think about, and it wasn't like him to waste a day doing nothing. His apartment had no food and he was meeting his cousin and another wife candidate in a couple hours.

The Hyuuga hugged his pillow goodbye and sat up.

====~- X -~====

Tsunade, Godaime Hokage of Konohagakure, was clearly not amused, Genma realized. His lips firmed and his front teeth clamped down on the perpetual senbon hanging off his lip. Shizune had wisely taken a step back; Gemma wished he could do the same. The Godaime's eyes had narrowed dangerously; her hands had crossed in front of her nose, elbows resting on the desk.

"So," she began almost casually.

Shizune took another step backward; Genma's teeth clenched on the senbon so hard that his jaw ached. The Fifth wasn't a person to take lightly. She was known for her foul moods and freakish strength after all. Genma could only hope for the best; after experiencing the life of a Hyuuga Bunke member under a 'Lock' as they called it, he just wouldn't be up to par if he had to defend himself.

"You're telling me that there's someone out there who just flashed a smile and a puppet show and managed to waltz off with the Daimyo's daughter?"

"She's been gone for two weeks," Genma repeated. For some reason he felt more inclined to be on the side of the kidnappers. Whoever had taken Lady Yuina obviously paid more attention to that little girl than her own parents did. Perhaps the thieves should be rewarded instead of hunted down and killed for giving a damn.

"And not a soul noticed?" the Fifth muttered more to herself. Genma nodded anyway. "And now the Fire Lord wants her found with as minimum a fuss as possible so no one will find out what an absolute ass he is?" Tsunade's fist slammed down on the desk rattling the poor wood and sending papers flying. "Wonderful. Do we know anything?"

"Dancing," Genma offered as he produced a photograph of Lady Yuina from his tool pouch and rested it on the desk.

Lady Tsunade studied it minutely before spearing Genma with an inquisitive glance. "What?"

Genma shifted uncomfortably under that sharp gaze. "When I searched her room the Lady Yuina had all kinds of dancing and artistic paraphernalia. It stands to reason that if the kidnappers aren't keeping her drugged then she is entertained and happy, or we would know more."

The life of the Fifth's thumb nail was cut tragically short as she nibbled on it while in thought. "So you're saying they're probably hiding her in plain sight and she's a willing hostage to whatever they have planned?"

"Well, it's not like she has much of a home life to return to," the shinobi answered uncomfortably.

The Lady Godaime said something unflattering under her breath that Genma didn't catch before she continued. "We don't know enough and I can't even send out a proper reconnaissance team because the more effective ones have Elders with shit for brains."

Genma merely nodded again. He wasn't giving the proper amount of attention to the conversation. While he knew that was dangerous considering the Fifth's mood, he couldn't seem to keep his bruised mind from wandering to a memory of one of those primary members of the recon team she had just mentioned. That young man had held Genma in his slender yet strong arms and forced a sweet liquid with a tart aftertaste down his throat scant hours ago to ease his pain. Hyuuga Tokuma, exotically tilted eyes roaming his face for changes to his disposition, had been a very pleasant surprise indeed. If the Bunke members had been trying to apologize for their unwitting devastation to his senses they had succeeded beyond their wildest hopes. He shoved a hand into his pocket to feel the tea packet Hyuuga Nadeshiko had given him along with an invitation to return whenever he wanted. Tokuma had even offered to lead the way and because they were all being so generous on account of his good deed, Genma had shamelessly taken advantage and asked if Tokuma would have dinner with him and explain what the big deal was.

"I swear if it isn't one thing it's another," Tsunade's outburst brought Genma's attention back to the matter at hand. "I have parents angry that the legal age to purchase adult books has been lowered, an emissary from Sunagakure will be here to discuss the next Chuunin Exam, and our Daimyo chooses now to prove what a moron he is." Tsunade was massaging her temple, likely to ward off a headache. "Genma, you're dismissed. Did you happen to see Nara Shikamaru on your way in."

"Yes, he's waiting his turn outside," Genma answered.

The Fifth seemed to perk up at that. "Oh, good. Send him in on your way out."

Gratefully, Shiranui Genma nodded his compliance and left the room to do as bid.

====~- X -~====

Neji still didn't feel very well put together as he ambled the familiar path that would lead to the academy. After implementing his usual morning regimen earlier, he'd disposed of the week-old take out in the refrigerator. He would have to remember to never allow leftovers to grace his fridge again. He had then gone out to purchase groceries.

It was a novel experience. For the first time yesterday he had seen his pay. Not that he hadn't been getting paid before; it was just that living on the compound meant automatic allotments were deducted from his mission fees. The Hyuuga were given a stipend for housing him, feeding him, and allowing him to accept missions in the first place. Neji had frowned at the amount. He wasn't quite certain if the word applied here, but he wanted to accuse the Hyuuga Souke of being pimps. Hyuuga Hiashi was losing a nice chunk of change in letting Neji leave.

He'd returned to his apartment to put away his goods in just enough time to head back out the door and be there when the Academy let out. As he approached his destination, he could see Umino Iruka handing a forehead protector to one of his now-former students. Neji's Uncle had chosen a good day to send him. He'd forgotten the academy's graduation was today. There were newly-promoted genin milling about before heading home; his eyes danced over a kid needing to wipe his nose, a rosy-cheeked redhead, and a boy whose scarf was as big as the grin on his face as he held the forehead protector up. He saw Hanabi next, leaning against the school wall, expression petulant as she viewed the scene. She was only ten and a couple years away from graduation herself. Then another Hyuuga walked up to her, fingers busy as she tied proof of her graduation around her neck.

Honestly, after yesterday's events in The Aviary, Neji had been prepared to see Lady Kikue exclusively, but Nadeshiko had been very adamant about his not doing so. "That bitch doesn't get to be rewarded for terrible behavior," she had railed. "If she hurts me then she hurts me, but she doesn't get to have you." It was Nadeshiko's wish, and his own preference, so he worked his way around the crowd toward his cousin, and the girl he would assume was Lady Emiko.

"Brother," Hanabi greeted, scowl temporarily displaced as her eyes widened with curiosity at his presence. He found that odd as he'd thought for certain that his Uncle would have told her of his plans. But then, he didn't know where Hanabi's loyalty lay in regards to him, and apparently Hiashi did.

"Hanabi," Neji returned. For all Hanabi's forehead was free of blemish, and though she was a candidate for head of the Clan, she was still not a named heir, and Neji was not required to address her as one. To be frank, he preferred not to give her any delusions. He had every confidence that Hinata would succeed in proving her worthiness someday, and it wouldn't do for Hanabi to keep that elitist attitude she seemed to be cultivating.

His cousin seemed nonplussed for a moment at his lack of deference, but she said nothing to him and instead turned her attention to the girl beside her. "Stop fussing with that thing, Emiko, it isn't going anywhere." The look she gave Emiko was not flattering, Neji noted.

Lady Emiko was not a Lady Kikue by any stretch of the imagination. He'd heard about her, of course, but seeing her in person was altogether different. She'd inherited the deep lines under her eyes courtesy of her father, no doubt. Her hair was light, a shade of brown that was more blond and generally frowned on as an imperfection in the genes amongst Hyuuga. But her worst offense yet, as a Souke member of their clan—

She didn't respond to Hanabi, fiddled with her forehead protector once more just for spite, he was sure, but her eyes were on him. "Hello, Hyuuga Neji, my name ith Hyuuga Emiko." She nodded her head in an abbreviated bow. "Iths a pleathsure to meet with you like thiths."

—The lisp.

"It's a pleasure to meet with you too, Lady Emiko," Neji replied with a slight bow, but she was shaking her head in an embarrassed, negative fashion.

"No-no. Justh Emiko," she corrected. There was an inquisitive tilt to her head and a hesitant smile on her face as she looked at him. For some reason Neji thought she resembled a puppy who'd been kicked too often, uncertain of its welcome, but hopeful all the same. Perhaps he'd been overly harsh when he'd refuted Hiashi's claim barely more than a week ago. Maybe his Uncle really did try to ensure Bunke members he match-made were compatible and could be happy with each other even though their joining wasn't a choice.

"Well, Emiko, you were just promoted, so we should celebrate. Do you like ice cream?" Neji wondered.

The kicked puppy smile was back. "Yesth."

"Then let's go." He placed a hand to her shoulder to guide her in the right direction. Almost as an afterthought, Neji glanced behind him. "Are you coming?" he asked his cousin, whose annoyance was becoming more palpable by the second.

Hanabi nodded curtly, and took up the spot on Neji's free side. They walked in relative silence — Hanabi, a pit of petulance to his right, and Emiko, the puppy who stole glances at his face as though she couldn't quite believe he existed, to his left.

It wasn't until the ice cream stand was in view that Emiko stated, "If we get married, I hope our kidths don't look anything like me. They should look like you—you're really pretthy."

Neji blinked, at a complete loss on how to respond to that.

====~- X -~====

His best dreams always contained Naruto.

Smiling recklessly at him.

Gasping breathlessly under him.

Always Naruto . . .

"Neji, you've been neglecting training."

Naruto never said that in the dreams. Neglecting touching maybe. Neglecting tonguing definitely. But never—

"I know you heard me. Now let's go."

Neji shook his head, bleary eyes opening, attempting to focus on the clock at his bedside table. "Tenten, I don't get up for another hour and a half." He squirmed, rearranged his blankets in a way he hoped hid anything indecent.

The thump to his shoulder was unexpected. "Details." She clicked on the lamp. For a moment he feared Tenten was staring at his bare forehead, but her eyes were riveted to the scar on his left pectoral; a wound that had been much too close to his heart for anyone's comfort. "Are you going to get up?"

"I sleep nude," Neji stated.

Tenten rolled her eyes dismissively. "Oh, please, I've seen it before."

"No you haven't." His tone was harsher than he'd intended, but only because it was Tenten. Sometimes it was awkward having a girl on the team. When a mission called for overnight out in the woods, it was long established that Tenten only woke up Gai when it was time to change watch; she probably didn't understand why even to this day — was merely grateful that she always had either first watch, or last watch, and as such got the most sleep out of the four of them.

Concerned brown eyes met his after a moment of deep scrutiny scrawled across her face and suddenly Neji was aware that this was not about training.

"Neji. Are you going to tell me what's going on with you?"

No, not really, Neji thought. If he had to pick a best friend it would definitely be Tenten. Of anyone in Konoha, except for Nadeshiko, she was the most perceptive when it came to Neji's well being. She was always on his side even when he hadn't been kind. She respected him, challenged him, and completely ignored his wishes in a way only a true friend would.

"Gai-sensei was right. You really shouldn't be in a man's bedroom."

Another thump made him flinch at the stinging pain. "Where's a man?" Tenten demanded.

"I am a candidate for marriage, and you're in here impugning my honor."

Tenten made an unflattering sound deep in her throat. "Please. What boy goes to his marriage bed a virgin?"

"Apparently, Hyuuga boys do. Now could you—"

But she was shaking her head in blatant disbelief. "No way, Neji."

The Hyuuga blinked in confusion. "'No way' what?"

She was frowning. "You're not a complete troll—I don't accept that you haven't had sex yet."

Neji was completely baffled for a moment. Even if the sources were questionable at best, this was the second girl in as many days who had told him he wasn't ugly. It was almost flattering. "Not a complete troll?" he parroted back. "This from the girl who thinks Kakashi of the No Face is attractive?" He pulled his blanket up briefly to demonstrate the point. The flick to his shoulder afterward wasn't a shock.

"It isn't his face so much as his aura." Tenten's mouth was pursed in annoyance. "I don't expect you to get it."

Well that was nothing new. Apparently there was a lot he didn't get where Hatake Kakashi was concerned. "Fine," he agreed, because an argument meant that Tenten would linger and likely notice things that would be embarrassing for the both of them.

A tsk of aggravation escaped her. "Stop trying to change the subject."

"But you were so dutifully led," Neji mourned. He closed his eyes and sighed only to have it turn into a yelp as Tenten's fingernail met his shoulder again. "Mind?" He rubbed the area on his arm as he glared at her. "You hit the exact same spot—that hurts after a while."

"I know, that's why I do it," Tenten pointed out. "Now answer the question."

"What question?"

"Besides this whole thing I heard the Hyuuga and some other clans were doing, why aren't you, y'know, seeing people?"

"Why aren't you?" Neji rejoined and guarded his shoulder from retaliation when it looked like Tenten would thump him again.

"We're not talking about me right now."

Tenten was not known for letting anything go until she'd been knocked out and rendered unable to continue. Neji sighed again, squirmed restlessly, and aimed disgusted thoughts at his aching cock in hopes it would take offense and retreat.

"When, Tenten?"

She blinked, no doubt shocked that he was cooperating. "When what, Neji?"

"When could I have seen anyone? Having these eyes means the Hyuuga frown on casual sex, so if I had displayed an interest that could lead to a bastard I'd be in trouble."

"But there are always —"

Neji held up a hand to halt her words. If she wanted an answer she would have to let him finish. After Tenten was silent and fuming at being cut off, he continued. "If one completely disregards my family's position on unsanctioned relations, there's still training the long hours that we do and then there are the missions."

"Can I speak?"

"No." He fluffed the pillow behind his head. "And even when I'm not on missions, and have finally gotten my own place, a teammate still breaks in and gets me up at two-thirty in the morning." Featureless white eyes met brown, briefly, as Tenten had the grace to look away in light of his censure. "What if I'd had someone here?"

"It was closer to three," she mumbled as though it would save the situation. Tenten bit her lip as she mulled it over. "I'm not apologizing. If you weren't so damn weird I wouldn't have to do things like this to get you to talk."

"We're on a team with Lee and I'm the weird one?"

"Yes," Tenten answered succinctly. She sat down on the bed and pried one of Neji's reluctant hands from the blanket to hold between her own. "Neji, you don't fit in." Her eyes were soft as she regarded him. The tone of her voice, so matter of fact, shoved the confrontation out of him. "It isn't a horrible thing. It just makes you . . ." She seemed to struggle with the words, her lips pursed, brow drawn, deep in thought. "I don't know, it makes you a bit more like Naruto than the rest of us, I guess."

Neji tilted his head as he stared at his teammate. "How does that make me like Naruto?"

Tenten shrugged. "It's just, Naruto has tried his entire life to blend in and become one with the village, and even though he's accepted now, he's not really part of it."

"How can you say—"

Tenten held up a hand. "Uh-uh. You had your say," she stated.

Neji inhaled deeply, but held his tongue.

"Naruto isn't really part of the village; he's kind of separate but equal, equal yet elite. Like, he can joke around with Kiba, but Kiba doesn't get anything about him."

Which was true, Neji acknowledged. Kiba was always part of a pack, be it dog, human, team, or clan; he was never left out.

"And he can goof off with Lee and Gai-sensei and it feels like they've always been a team, but I don't think anyone really belongs with Lee and Gai-sensei, y'know?"

Well, actually, Neji knew differently, but couldn't say. He was beginning to understand how difficult Lee's life had been these last two years when it came to correcting that particular misconception.

"Shino thinks the world of him, but . . ." She squeezed his hand as her shoulders lifted higher in an eloquent shrug.

"Aburame," they both stated in unison, because that was an answer all by itself.

"And then there's the girls — you can't count Ino and Sakura, they never really pay him any attention unless they want something. And Hinata admires him so much but says nothing." Tenten sighed. "She's such a nice girl, but it's no wonder Naruto thinks she's a freak."

Neji had long since resolved to leave any thought concerning Hinata and Naruto where it grew, walk away, neglect it and let it wilt. If his cousin had chosen to hold her peace after all this time — and he'd given her plenty of opportunity before Naruto had left to stake her claim — then he could only assume she didn't love Naruto as much as Neji did.

"I mean, in some ways, I think Chouji and Shikamaru are Naruto's only real friends." Tenten was saying, as she absently stroked his hand. "When I saw them talking yesterday, I thought, they've always looked real natural together, like proper outcasts who aren't really out—"

Neji snatched his hand back as what she'd said registered. "Wait. Yesterday?"

Tenten looked down at her empty palms a moment before meeting his eyes. "Well, yeah. Naruto returned to the village yesterday morning. Where have you been?"

Neji had slept in.

The thought compressed all air from his lungs even as Neji was moving, flipping off the covers and running for the bathroom.

He had to see Naruto for himself.

As he applied toothpaste to his toothbrush Tenten's voice reached his ears. "You were right, Neji. I-I really haven't seen it."

Neji scrubbed his teeth and made a mental note to apologize later for flashing her.

Chapter Text

Shikamaru walked the streets of the Nara compound with a quarter of his attention on the way home and the rest on yet more folders the Fifth had handed him. He didn’t know whom to be the most furious at about his current ridiculously busy predicament — himself for proving to be competent, the Fifth for having either no forces or no one of relative intelligence to do the work, or Temari of Sunagakure for piquing his interest just long enough for him to . . . to ultimately screw himself over.

His narrow black eyes became slits as he glowered at the folders — as though they cared about his ire. Why was there no downtime in between thinking? In some ways it was more vigorous than running an S-Rank mission. In some ways it was more tiring to see paperwork day in and day out than to do physical labor. You didn’t see old man Teuchi pissed off at ramen making. Ino bitched about a lot of things but watching the family flower shop was never one of them. Kamizuki Izumo and Hagane Kotetsu weren’t twitching from monitoring front gate traffic in between Chuunin Exams.

Shikamaru frowned a little harder at the folder labeled ‘Chuunin Exam’ because as he saw it, there was no reason why those last two persons mentioned couldn’t sit with the ambassador of the Sand and puzzle out a workable exam schedule. But no, as it was, prove to be skilled in any area and there was no reward for great work. There was just more work and it was expected to be completed without complaint and at the speed of Flash Step or something. He’d just sorted out a breeding plan for four different clans. Now he was expected to do the same for the exams while making nice with Temari of the Sand, on top of — he flipped through the folders to find one labeled ‘Recent Inter-Country Traffic’. As far as he could tell on that one he was supposed to find a common denominator for why villages in the Land of Fire were having delayed annual events; festivals and the like had been disrupted for the past month.

Why anyone would give a good damn about a bunch of carnies in the first place was beyond even Shikamaru’s immense intellect. It wasn’t as though there was a trail of dead, colorfully clad circus bodies to follow. The acts still showed up — just later than they were supposed to and none the worse for wear. But, go figure, enough people complain about something and put up the money to have an answer and suddenly Shikamaru was employed to do something he thought could have gone to any junior member of the Intelligence Squad. This kind of thing was their job after all.

Do something physical, gain accolades of your prowess and excessive days off; think for a living and nobody pats you on the back, there are no thanks for pushing paper. Shikamaru kicked a stone, paused in his trek to get his mind right before continuing on to his home. Dealing with his mother required a certain level of peace and tranquility. He couldn’t go into his house in his current state and listen to Nara Yoshino dissect exactly how useless his father was down to his limp pinky toe. He could not watch Nara Shikaku nod and agree with whatever infraction he’d supposedly committed just so he could get laid that night. Shikamaru needed to be able to walk in, say goodnight, plead work as the excuse, and disappear into his room before the fight started.

He was a house away from his home when he heard his mother’s voice. Shikamaru could only believe his existence came before the marriage, elsewise his father would have run — sweet moments be damned.

How troublesome. Working at his own house was off the table. He just wanted to do his job and get a decent amount of sleep without the yelling interrupting his dreams. Shikamaru had had a stressful couple of days; he couldn’t see where his request would be considered unreasonable. So he rearranged the folders as he backtracked — because there was nothing better to do while he walked — leaving the Nara compound and entering the Akimichi.

It was late but not so much that there weren’t a few stragglers still on the street. Shikamaru was pretty much a staple on their land so he got a few waves and invitations to dinner from various clan members — he loved that about the Akimichi; everyone was so nice and the air always smelled delicious — but he politely turned them down. There was only one place he wanted to be.

As Shikamaru approached Akimichi Chouza’s home he briefly considered walking around the back and slipping in through Chouji’s window because he was in that kind of mood, but he knew he’d only feel dirty in the morning whether he skipped out before breakfast or showed up for it from inside the house. The nature of Chouji and Shikamaru’s relationship wasn’t a secret, but at the same time, they’d never outright said. Thus Chouji’s parents knew, but pretended they didn’t, and oddly enough, it wasn’t awkward.

Shikamaru knocked on the door, offered a tired smile to Chouza when he opened it and waved Shikamaru inside wordlessly.

"Hungry?" Chouza asked as Shikamaru kicked off his sandals and lined them up neatly with the other shoes in the foyer.

"I’ll just grab an apple," the Nara answered, because there was always fruit in the kitchen.

Chouza nodded. "Chouji’s in his room," he said. "Goodnight." Then he turned off down a hallway, probably to his own bed, Shikamaru supposed. It didn’t matter, this was what he’d wanted, minimal parent interaction, a warm house that smelled — Shikamaru sniffed the air and allowed his mouth to water a bit — it smelled like they’d had honey barbecue ribs for dinner. Chouji’s mother, unlike his own, was an amazing cook.

And it was quiet.

Shikamaru released a sigh of contentment, forewent the kitchen and headed to Chouji’s room. His friend was awake, but just barely, eyes drooping as he read a scroll, bundled beneath his blanket. It wasn’t cold; Chouji just liked sleeping with covers. Shikamaru closed the door behind him and rested the work folders on the nightstand. He looked down and saw he’d managed to capture Chouji’s attention more than sleep. "Hey."

Chouji smiled. "Hey," he tried to greet back, but it was interrupted by a yawn. "Did you get everything Lady Tsunade wanted done then?"

"Nope," Shikamaru answered as he stripped off his clothes. "Finish one thing and she gives another."

Chouji lifted a corner of his blanket for Shikamaru to slide in next to him. Shikamaru was vaguely annoyed to see Chouji was wearing a singlet and boxers when Shikamaru wanted to see skin after the day he’d had. But that was okay, he would get Chouji out of it later.

"Anything I can help with?" his friend asked as Shikamaru slipped a hand beneath the shirt to caress Chouji’s stomach and rested his head on Chouji’s chest.

After a few minutes of listening to nothing but Chouji’s heartbeat and breath, feeling a large, warm hand on his back rubbing soothing circles, Shikamaru answered, "You’re helping right now." He felt at peace for the first time in days. Shikamaru would force himself to look at the chuunin candidates and traffic patterns in a few minutes, but at the moment he just needed to recharge, have some downtime. He always thought better when Chouji was around anyway.

"Neji saw us," Shikamaru mumbled as his finger doodled aimlessly around Chouji’s belly button.

"Saw us what?"

"Naked," the Nara responded. "Cloud gazing — but I don’t think we were looking at the sky."

Chouji laughed. "I kind of feel bad for him. Hyuuga must see all kinds of things they wish they hadn’t. But with Naruto back, maybe he can keep Neji’s attention?"

Shikamaru’s finger stopped. Of course Chouji would notice when there was something wrong with any of their friends. He’d witnessed Neji carefully not moping those first few months after Naruto had gone the same as Shikamaru. The Nara sat up just enough to drop a kiss on Chouji’s lips. "You think Neji will tell him?"

Wide shoulders lifted briefly in a shrug. "I don’t know. Sometimes I think because of Neji’s clan it doesn’t really matter what he does or doesn’t do. Really, it’s about if Naruto likes him back isn’t it?"

When Shikamaru thought about it, he had to concede Chouji was right. For years they’d known how Neji felt — he’d confessed in front of all of them on that last mission to bring Sasuke back — but none of them had ever heard of Naruto reciprocating. "Well, that’s going to be troublesome," Shikamaru remarked, mostly to himself. If Hyuuga Neji went through all the trouble of finding his balls to confess again when it would really mean something and Naruto blew him off —

There was a hand fondling his ass.

Shikamaru’s thought train derailed, eyes instantly on Chouji.

"I’m just helping," the Akimichi murmured.

Indeed he was. Shikamaru was supposed to be relaxing and Chouji’s hand squeezing his left buttcheek and keeping his mind off stupid stuff that had nothing to do with him was a really good means for helping him do that. "Chouji . . ."

"Are you ready to work?"

Shikamaru kissed him again, fingers actively working toward removing the offending shirt. "In a bit."


Team Gai tended to begin teamwork practice in the wee hours before proper dawn when they weren’t involved with a mission. After training the morning was theirs to accomplish whatever needed to be done before meeting up again prior to noon to see if they’d been given an assignment. Neji’s team was renowned for stealth and speed, thus they had the dubious privilege of a later start time. If there was no trouble brewing on the horizon for them, and Neji or Gai hadn’t been dragooned off on a solo jounin mission, then they had a second practice session in the afternoon that focused more on individual strengths.

Gai was his jubilant self that morning and for a moment Neji’s mind wandered to Kakashi, the dots connecting that his mentor’s excessive ‘Youth’ at dawn probably coincided with Kakashi’s excessive lateness.

Oh, please kill the visual, Neji beseeched his brain. He didn’t want to conjure the two teachers together when he could be anticipating seeing Naruto again. Wondering how he’d changed. Maybe gotten taller, as Naruto had been the shortest male in their age group. Maybe a different hairstyle. Maybe he’d decided his favorite color shouldn’t be a full jumpsuit when a ninja’s job involved stealth. Neji wanted to know; he wanted to go in search of Naruto right then and blow off training. But he couldn’t. It wasn’t even four in the morning, and Naruto wouldn’t be up. And if Neji showed up on his doorstep without a valid reason people would begin to wonder after his intentions. Neji could ill-afford to draw the attention of The Elders anymore than he already did. He was free, yet he had to behave as though the Cage still bound him.

So he made an honest attempt to clear his mind and focus on the exercises that would utilize his team’s best assets against a shadow clone of Gai’s making. His group had been well planned. Neji didn’t acknowledge the Third’s wisdom very often — usually because he was quite certain that it had been sometimes accidental — but his placing Neji on Team Gai had likely saved Neji’s life. Training with Tenten, whose accuracy was tremendous, and Lee, whose speed was ridiculous had been the kind of experience he’d needed against a foe like Kidoumaru, who’d been an annoyingly strong combination of both.

After a couple hours, Gai dismissed them, overly cheerful as he bid them to enjoy their day until the afternoon meeting. Neji’s first thought was to look in the registry for Naruto’s address. Casually drop by. See him. Just see him and reaffirm that he wasn’t idealizing what he felt for Naruto. It had been over two years since Neji had last seen him and there was a chance, however little, that the Naruto who’d returned wouldn’t live up to the one in his memory.

He was not expecting Tenten to separate herself from Lee and Gai and fall into step beside him. She’d never done it before. Tenten had an odd sleep schedule, usually choosing to go to bed in the six hours between practices and remain awake throughout the night if there was no mission. Neji had no idea how she wasn’t exhausted all the time, but Tenten claimed her body functioned better on less sleep.

They walked in silence, Tenten with her hands clasped behind her back, shooting glances at him as she chewed her lip, him surreptitiously scanning the streets and early morning traffic for anyone who looked like they could be an older version of Naruto. He wanted to use his byakugan but knew, while it would be faster, it was overkill in a way.

"Okay," Tenten breathed after awhile. "I’m sorry."

Neji didn’t miss a beat, "One — you said you weren’t apologizing . . ."

"I didn’t mean it."

"Two — I should be offering an apology to you for inappropriate. . ."

"No-no. You had a valid point. I’ve seen your valid point. And you have the right to your space without worry that someone’s going to come in. Cause you really need to get laid. Obviously."

The way she harped on it had it him stopping, mouth slack as he stared at her. "For some reason I feel insulted."

Tenten turned, waved a hand negligently. "Don’t. I only meant that you’ll feel better after you’ve released some frustration with someone other than your . . ." She twiddled her fingers individually letting the sentence run out but she really didn’t need to complete it after a gesture like that.

"Oh. And you have?" he asked. Because it was the obvious rejoinder to such a slight, Neji thought. Why would anyone make fun of a person for having not been intimate with another, anyway?

"Of course, Neji, you know I don’t like not knowing things. I decided to see what the big deal was and get it over with."

So nonchalant, so matter of fact, it was nothing but the truth and like many things with his teammates, Neji had missed the obvious. Next, if he and Lee ever sat down to discuss sex, he’d probably be told his other teammate liked watching squirrel porn or something.

Neji refused to be the one to drop the subject when Tenten looked so smug and knowledgeable even if he did really want to find Naruto. "And?" he wondered.

Tenten shrugged. "It had its ups and downs," she answered deadpan.

Neji lifted an eyebrow, lips pursed in annoyance. "Lewd humor now, Tenten? You see my parts once after breaking in to my home and our relationship progressed that far?"

"Well yeah," Tenten answered with a smirk. "I mean it isn’t like you’re going to joke around with the boys about this."

"Don’t sell yourself short, I’m speaking with you aren’t I?"

"Don’t be an ass." She took the few steps that brought her within range and he forgot to defend his already mildly bruised shoulder. "My only point is that I know you have a playful side, but nobody else gets to see it because they don’t expect it of you. I mean, I’ve seen you try to participate in Gai-sensei and Lee’s challenges and they completely ignore you."

"Ah," Neji sighed and continued walking. "So you’re finally going to get back to the explanation."

Tenten shook her head, confused. "Explanation? What explanation?"

"The one you were trying to make back at the apartment on how I’m like Naruto. You never finished making your point."

She scoffed. "You begrudge me needing to duck so I wouldn’t lose an eye . . ."

"I am hardly so well endowed, Tenten," Neji interrupted, eyes wide, back straight. He was sure he looked the proper affronted gentleman. Neji was beginning to think she wasn’t making fun of his virginity, but complimenting his . . . virility.

"Aw," she crooned. "Such modesty but really tell me — you switched to the Hyuuga garb because it’s a lot less revealing huh? I bet you strut around the boys’ bath with no towel . . ."

"No," Neji choked out, his throat tight with embarrassment. "Because I’d be shamed by Chouji, now can we please stick to the topic?"

Tenten stumbled and Neji knew his plea was lost. "Chouji?" her voice had risen an octave to match the level of her disbelief. "No!"

Shit. It wasn’t like him to divulge sensitive information about other co-workers like that, but he’d never been in a situation quite like this. In general, Hyuuga didn’t talk about the flowers and the bees — they were given a book on it and left to figure out the mechanics on their wedding night. If he wasn’t so damn flustered the admission never would have passed his lips. Fortunately Tenten wasn’t the gossiping kind so his slip up wouldn’t come back to bite him. Neji squeezed his eyes shut and expelled a frustrated breath.

"Focus Tenten."

A hand flew to her mouth. "Oh wow, no wonder Shikamaru has no interest in you . . ."

Neji massaged his temple to ebb away the oncoming headache. "Dammit Tenten, how does . . ."

"I’m on the right subject this time," she pouted. "Shikamaru is your Kiba." The face he made at that statement was probably condescending because her eyes promised retaliation was to come when he least expected it. "Kiba and Naruto," she began slowly as though she were speaking to a simpleton, "have a similar sense of humor; you and Shikamaru are both really smart. On the surface you two should be hanging out more often — but you don’t."

"I ‘hang out’ with Shikamaru plenty."

"No. You have old man sit-downs like twice a year where you two drink tea and contemplate the state of the universe I guess —"

"Definitely not, Tenten."

"I don’t care — it looks boring, and you both appear relieved afterward."

"You’ve been spying on me?"

"Oh please, Neji, you’re not that important. Konoha is just only so big. Anyhow, I’ve noticed that smart people tend to be kind of isolated — like, you talk to someone of comparable intelligence every so often but you don’t want to be around it all the time. And then under the smartness your personalities and motivations are completely different, and then you’ve got that thing. So, again, no wonder Shikamaru has no interest in you."

"Thing?"

Tenten solemnly pointed at her forehead. "Shikamaru doesn’t take on problems he can’t solve."

Neji frowned, gaze darting quickly down a side street they passed. "There is an answer."

"Yeah," Tenten agreed. "There are actually two. But Shikamaru isn’t the kind of person who would do either of them."

"Been thinking about it?"

She shrugged. "You’re my friend." She looked up at the Hokage monument, refusing to meet his eyes as she quietly added, "Everyone just kind of expects you to figure it out. I hear the ‘Neji’s a genius; he’ll be fine’ speech all the time." She frowned. "But just because you see three-sixty, that doesn’t mean you don’t need someone watching your back."

Neji had no idea what he’d done to deserve such a friend. At this point he’d spent the majority of his life unhelpful, half-traumatized, and surly. He’d held himself aloof from everyone, hated the world and his place in it, and would have killed his own sister if no one had intervened. And even though Hinata was her friend, Tenten still championed him after that incident. He was humbled, his eyes unable to meet her earnest ones; he could only look at the ground as the corners of his mouth tilted upward. "Tenten . . ."

She slapped him on the shoulder and smiled at his surprised glare. "Don’t start," she warned. "If you wanted a friend who would hold your dick while you peed then you should have been more like Naruto and got yourself a Gaara after your big cathartic moment a couple years ago. Cause I’m the wrong kind of person for that."

Neji needed a moment for his brain to filter through that sentence but when it did, he felt a little flip-flop in his chest that boded ill. "Wait. Naruto and Gaara?"

"Well, yeah." Tenten was suddenly in his face, hands on his shoulders, tiptoes employed, noses almost touching, eyes wide and wobbling as she illustrated. "They’re always looking at each other all: As-long-as-I-breathe-you’ll-never-be-lonely."

Neji blinked, swallowed. Took an uncomfortable step back. "They do?"

She twirled on her toes and continued walking though she had no idea where Neji was headed. "Uh huh, but I don’t think either of them realizes it if it makes you feel better . . ." Tenten’s teeth clicked as they met.

Neji was instantly under her greige-eyed scrutiny and he didn’t like it.

"Oh shit, Neji, it does make you feel better." Her hands flew to her mouth as she did a little two-step in excitement. "Oh my — Oh crap. Really?"

"Really what, Tenten?"

"You like Naruto."

Neji blinked again. Face carefully blank.

She was back in his space, bouncing on her heels as she studied him. "You’re so transparent." Her smile was absolutely mischievous. "I should have noticed before. It explains so much."

Neji begged to differ on all accounts. "It explains nothing, what are you talking about?"

"You got up this morning. You’re out here wandering around in plain sight when you usually disappear after training." She stabbed an accusatory finger pointedly into his chest. "You’re looking for him, because you like him, and you haven’t denied it. Not once since I said it."

Neji’s lips twitched but denial was the furthest thing from them. "It is what it is," he answered slowly. "Though maybe translucent is a more accurate adjective."

She gasped at the confession. "Does he know — I mean did you tell him before he left?"

"In a way."

Tenten rolled her eyes. "He doesn’t speak Cryptic so whatever way you tried likely went right over his head." She scratched her ear as she looked down the road. "So. Are you going to tell him now?"

"I haven’t decided yet."

"Huh." Tenten grabbed Neji's arm and turned him ninety degrees, lifted the other hand to point to a figure in orange with bright spiky hair looking down from the rooftops. "Think fast," she suggested.

Neji’s brain shut down.

Chapter Text

First there was Hyuuga Neji, Genma was ashamed to think as he stood outside the restaurant patiently waiting for his date to show up. Hyuuga appeared to have that timeless, aristocratic, clean beauty, but one tended to ignore them. Neji had made that impossible. He had given Genma a lasting impression of Hyuuga behaving as though they had normal human emotions. It had floored Genma. He’d taken an interest, first in the outcome of the fight of loser versus genius, and then in Neji’s plight of slave versus freedom. After the match was over, when Konoha was rebuilding, Genma had continued to watch Neji as though he had some personal stake in Neji finding the answer. Genma didn’t. He’d just been inordinately pleased to see Neji continue his small mutiny of Hyuuga tradition in less destructive ways. Neji worked hard toward perfecting his jutsu. Neji was kind toward his teammates. Neji had quit trying to kill his cousin. And whatever else had happened when Genma hadn’t been able to watch, it had created a relatively stable Neji.

All the same, Genma acknowledged that it had been singularly inappropriate for his then thirty-year-old self to be crushing on a thirteen year old kid no matter how mature said kid seemed to be. But he just couldn’t let his curiosity over Branch Family Hyuuga go.

Then, fortunately, a couple months later, Hyuuga Tokuma had been promoted to jounin and accepted to the Reconnaissance and Infiltration squad. On the day Genma had seen him, Anko was waltzing around with her team showing off her latest acquisition. And how lucky was she, Genma had wondered, to have gained Hyuuga Tokuma? He wasn’t like others of his clan either. One had to be slightly off in personality to work with Mitarashi Anko, and in Tokuma’s appearance — sporting a bandanna, long hair in the front, and shorn off spiky curls in the back — one could see a rebellious streak, even if his mannerisms were above reproach. What was really a bonus for Genma, however, was the fact that Tokuma had been of age — eighteen? Nineteen? Legal enough that Genma didn’t feel like a lecher for finding him attractive.

As Tokuma walked up to the establishment, the look on his face subtly bespoke harassment, but he looked nice. His kimono was shades of green and lavender that appeared as though he moved through a field of verbena with each step. It was odd seeing Hyuuga all dressed up. Really, depending upon hairstyle it was a guess at gender, which made sense to Genma as he wasn’t usually attracted to men. When he thought about it, he became fairly certain the robes were merely a concession to modesty when one had eyes that could see anything. If one was naked no matter what one did, then it made sense to be comfortably clad in what could be considered a bathrobe and footsies.

Still, Tokuma looked elegant as he apologized and bid that they enter the restaurant. They got seated in a private nook and ordered. "I’m not used to my daily routine being interrupted," he was explaining as they waited for their meal. Then he expelled what could only be an exasperated huff of air as his eyes drifted to their corners. "Actually I am used to having my day rearranged, just not so frequently in one afternoon." Tokuma seemed to force a smile. "But enough about me, how are you feeling?"

"Much better, thank you," Genma answered. Whatever it was Nadeshiko put into that tea made it as delicious as it was healing.

"You probably have a few questions?"

Genma’s tongue worried at the senbon hanging from his mouth as he thought about how to answer that. The tone of Tokuma’s voice implied he could ask anything he wanted, but the questions Genma had weren’t all about the Hyuuga Branch family. His first look at the Hyuuga clan had him thinking of prim and proper little dolls whose faces were as blank as their postures were straight. The second had been a glimpse of the rage more than half the clan held in check, usually. And now this third look was of the Branch family who had somehow managed to create their own subculture underneath their jailers’ toes. But ultimately he wanted to know about the Hyuuga in front of him.

"I like your kimono," Genma stated, though it had nothing to do with the topic.

It gave the other man pause, quite literally, as Tokuma’s head tilted slightly to the left, hands limp on the table as he regarded Genma with those very piercing Hyuuga eyes. And then he blinked. "Thank you." He removed his hands from the table to fold them in his lap. "I had a date."

Genma’s lips twitched. This edict was really starting to get on his nerves. On the one hand, Tokuma having to date said that he was available and saved Genma an awkward question, but at the same time Tokuma having to date said that the clan wanted more little Hyuuga running around and thus limited his time to make any kind of move. "So, they got you roped in on that whole Familial Duties thing?"

"Yes. I was dismissed early from my job to go sit with the," he took a sip of his drink, "charming Lady Kikue."

"Wait. The same girl who tried to kill Miss Nadeshiko?"

"Mm." It was the most ambiguous yet irritated sound Genma had ever heard in his life.

"I thought she was supposed to be getting to know Neji?"

"That isn’t how it works," Tokuma replied. "In other clans you ask for the whole edict thing for people who are more or less already exclusive, would like to establish themselves as a couple to their clan, and start a family. In my clan, this is when we meet, date, marry . . . . pollinate whoever our partner will be."

The Shiranui was frowning. "No say whatsoever?"

Tokuma shook his head. "No. We have a choice, it’s just . . . minimal. We’re given a couple candidates The Elders approve of and from there we see which of them are the most compatible."

"I don’t see how you guys live like that."

The Hyuuga smiled, leaned forward as he whispered, "That’s because we don’t. And you have seen how."

Maybe it was because he’d spent many hours slightly off-kilter that it finally came to Genma that he’d almost died. Tokuma was sitting across from him as he’d wanted, but if he thought about it, this date, to his mind, could be the Bunke way of making sure their secret remained as it had been. He hunched forward also, met Tokuma’s steady gaze and mumbled, "Yeah, well, I’ve got bad eyesight. Who knows what I’ve seen."

His dinner companion smiled in approval and sat back. Genma felt ridiculously accomplished and did the same.

The server arrived with their food.

After she had gone and Genma had eaten a few bites, he decided to satisfy more of his curiosity. "Y’know, I don’t mean to pry or anything, but, you made Chuunin by the time you were eleven — what took you so long to make Jounin? I mean, I only ask because Neji did it in two years and it didn’t make sense for you to have flown out of the academy but not . . ."

He let the sentence dangle when he noticed Tokuma had that paralyzed look again.

But then Tokuma lifted a corner of his napkin to his lips to wipe off some crumbs. "Neji is different from most Bunke. He spites the Souke by being better than anyone they have to offer — they really hate that. So, it works for Neji, especially considering the circumstances of his birth."

Genma would kill to investigate what those circumstances were but knew that question would go unanswered, so he encouraged Tokuma to continue. "And you?"

"I was in Itachi’s class in the beginning."

Genma frowned. "Uchiha Itachi?"

"Yes. People become uncomfortable when they hear the name, but . . . I don’t know. At the time, everyone was terrified that we were going to erupt into civil war and it would be clan against clan, and the Elders kept harping on a need for one of us to be able to oppose Itachi. Then they decided that person should be me because I was the best of our clan at that time." Tokuma took a sip of his drink, mulling over his memories, no doubt, before continuing. "But you know what? I actually liked the guy."

Genma choked a bit on his food. "Huh?" he managed to gasp out after a pound to his chest.

Tokuma shrugged, allowed curious eyes to peruse his dinner companion for any further sign of strain without addressing it any further. "We ran missions together sometimes before he got drafted to ANBU. When I was around him . . . I know Hyuuga and Uchiha are supposed to hate each other, but Itachi wasn’t like other Uchiha — he was probably the least confrontational person I knew." He took a few more bites of his dinner, chewed slowly and swallowed before finishing his story. "Itachi once thanked me for not making everything a competition between us, and after that it didn’t matter what the Souke said — I didn’t want to fight him and I don’t think I could have beat him anyway, so I slacked off a bit. Took the punishment for it. It wasn’t so easy to bounce back from that — you probably understand why."

He met Genma’s eyes and for a moment Genma’s world was the wrong way as his mind recalled the feel of the Lock. Then Tokuma ate a carrot and the memory collapsed as Genma’s brain was stimulated to other things of similar shape that Tokuma could put in to his mouth.

"I get that it sounds strange because Itachi was good at his job," Tokuma continued, completely oblivious to the south turn Genma’s thoughts had taken, "but inherently, I think, he was actually very kind."

Genma dragged his attention back the conversation at that, eyebrow raised. "The guy who murdered his whole clan? Kind?"

The Hyuuga actually cracked a smile, a hand briefly brushing across his forehead protector as he murmured, "They probably provoked him."

Shiranui Genma could just bet they had. He watched Tokuma’s face closely and thought he saw something akin to envy; a silent wish that some similar fate would befall their Main House Family. They’d Locked him, Genma thought. And it was so severe that a cup of tea couldn’t fix the damage right away. It made him wonder how powerful the Branch Family would be if there were no Seal — how powerful the Hyuuga as a whole would be. As it stood, Branch family members of the Hyuuga Clan probably found it difficult to empathize with the genocide of an entire people. They would be the last to censure Uchiha Itachi for that.

They finished eating and Tokuma paid the bill before Genma could say he’d handle it.

Outside, Tokuma touched his arm and stated, "Don’t worry. We Bunke wouldn’t do something as drastic as that to wipe out our problems." He indicated with a twitch of his head for Genma to follow him. "There are ways around many of the issues that we go through."

The plan had been dinner and then a visit to The Aviary. Genma had drunk the extra draught Nadeshiko had given him before leaving for the restaurant; he was sure the benefits were still in effect to keep the Reverse Juinjutsu Barrier from Locking him.

"And you’re one of those willing to work around them?" he asked as he fell into step beside Tokuma.

"Of course."

Well, here goes. "Aren’t you the rebel — next thing I know you’ll be telling me you have a lover on the side too."

Tokuma shut down again, like someone had just pulled the plug mid-step. He stumbled, caught himself, flashed a look at Genma, and then concentrated on the ground as though looking for the culprit who’d tripped him. "Um."

It was unexpected, especially when one looked to the Hyuuga as that clan who were always graceful. Genma had to think he’d said something horribly wrong. "Ah. I was out of line — forget . . ."

"It isn’t that — I do have someone." Tokuma wouldn’t look him in the face at all. "It’s just kind of ironic that you fell in to The Aviary and I’m still awaiting permission to bring him."

It was Genma’s turn to collapse a little on the inside. "Oh," he choked out even as his mind reprimanded him to keep it together. He and Tokuma weren’t an item, no matter what he’d fantasized. Tokuma hadn’t even known how he felt so that was at least his saving grace. So he ordered himself to act like a grown-up when he really wanted to demand the name of whoever it was and go kick the shit out them. "That serious, huh?" he asked as though his heart wasn’t being sacrificed to the demon of irony.

Tokuma shrugged. "He bugs me." The words were completely noncommittal but his smile was one people in that stage of giddy love do when speaking of their significant other.

Genma hated him already.

"Huh. So, you think he’ll be allowed down there soon then?"

"Well. Yes. He’s on Hyuuga land all the time, and his Clan is renowned for secrecy. So." They detoured down a side street that led to the woods which would eventually lead to the river if Genma was remembering his topography correctly. "It isn’t as though non Branch Family can’t come to The Aviary, it just hasn’t happened in a really long time," Tokuma was saying.

"Then what happens when you get married — won’t your wife be angry with your lover?"

"Why?" Tokuma appeared genuinely confused. "As long as my wife is Branch Family and we’re obviously not in love, then it stands to reason that she should have her own lover to worry about."

Genma blinked. "What?"

"It really isn’t that complicated. Yes, the Souke have a lot of rules and honestly the consequences for breaking them just aren’t worth it. But after marriage the Souke don’t pay as much attention. They think we’ve done everything we’re told, we’re docile, we’re obedient, we are perpetuating the cycle. So as long as you go to your marriage bed pure and your children come from the correct spouse, you can be with anyone you want — they don’t know the difference."

"Then how can they tell something like purity in the first place?"

Tokuma released a disgusted sigh. "Oh, they can tell. These eyes are very annoying on old people. Uchiha eyes get worse with age and use; in contrast, Hyuuga eyes see more."

Genma rolled the senbon from one side of his mouth to the other as he thought. "So, then, for all you’ve been seeing this guy for however long, you’re still —"

"Waiting," Tokuma interrupted curtly.

"And . . ." He scratched the back of his ear as he quelled that tiny jolt of optimism the answer had given him. "He’s okay with that?" Genma hoped not.

"There are ways around everything," Tokuma repeated cheerfully enough that Genma could infer that the boyfriend was just fine with their arrangement.

Tokuma motioned Genma to follow him over to a patch of moon flowers, to which he then flashed the Seal on his forehead.

As they descended under the ground Genma puzzled through a list of clans the Hyuuga were on good enough terms with to allow access to their territory. There weren’t very many. The only pattern being consistent was that Hyuuga tended to work with clans who excelled at tracking. The clans who stood out in that category were Inuzuka — one of whom happened to be their Lady Hinata’s teammate — and the Aburame — who happened to have members on both Hinata and Tokuma’s squads.

"He bugs you," Genma repeated as his brain put it together. "You meant that literally?" He was sure his shock and a minor amount of revulsion was emblazoned all over his face because Tokuma was frowning at him in a way that made Genma wish the ground hadn’t closed back over their head, hindering his retreat.

"What?" Tokuma demanded defensively. "Aburame are hot."

Genma didn’t know how to respond. It was bad enough he kept falling for people way too young for him on top of everything else he’d gone through since leaving for the Daimyo’s home and returning. Now to find out that his competition for the person he liked was from a clan almost all of Konoha agreed was weird was just the kunai in his naval to what had already been a crappy couple of days.


Uzumaki Naruto had been back in Konohagakure for three days and he still hadn’t found who he was looking for. He hopped from roof top to roof top as he searched, sometimes choosing to walk the mostly empty streets when he needed to get his bearings. He’d lived in Konoha his whole life, but leave for a couple years and even he got turned around. Three days, and not one person had been able to point him in the direction of Hyuuga Neji. And by ‘point him in the direction of’ Naruto meant 'casually mention Neji’s name some time during the conversation', because Naruto couldn’t outright ask for specific people after two years — it would make him look like he was playing favorites. While he was on the subject, to be honest, he hadn’t really been able to dedicate the amount of time to the search for Neji that he’d wanted to.

The first day Jiraiya had turned him over to Kakashi. After that they’d run into Granny Tsunade and Haruno Sakura.

Sakura.

Naruto stopped where he was and sat down on the roof. Legs spread, he rested his elbows on his knees and expelled a tired breath. Sakura was at least one question answered. He’d seen her after two years of separation and . . .

He’d thought nothing of her.

Not a blip on the radar. Not a lingering gaze at her face, or her body. Not a dirty thought about her bust size — though to be fair, anyone standing beside his Granny looked inferior in that department. But still, to Naruto Sakura was the same; he was the one who had changed.

After reaching that unsettling confirmation Konohamaru had found him, and that was probably the best feeling ever to see his ‘little brother’ again, interact like time had stood still but they’d gotten taller. Until that moment he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed the younger boy.

Then, when he hadn't even been back in the village for an hour yet, Kakashi was jingling those stupid bells from years ago in his and Sakura's faces. It was both a nostalgic gesture and a challenge at the same time. Granny wanted to make sure he could function on a team again after so long, and fighting against Kakashi to see if he could hold his own while coordinating attacks was the fastest way to do that. Though he and Sakura had managed to get the bells, Team 7 wasn’t reactivated as yet. Something about teammate flexibility — Naruto had tuned out the reason cited, had nothing to do with him anyway.

So after being out all night proving he had learned something in all that time he’d spent with the Old Pervert, they had walked the market street of Konoha. It was almost therapeutic after being dragged from countryside to townscape and back for the last two years. He and Sakura were equally excited about their victory, mostly ignoring Kakashi because his nose was stuck in Jiraiya’s boring book.

"Well you have become strong," Kakashi had acknowledged at one point in the conversation. It was the kind of praise Naruto had always wanted from him but rarely got because . . . well, because there was always someone better than him around. "I’m amazed you were actually able to get the bells."

"Yeah," Naruto had agreed, head high, thumb pointing at himself with absolute confidence. His former teacher couldn’t take it back now that he’d said it. "Maybe I’ve even surpassed you Kakashi-sensei!"

The taunt barely got him a flick of attention. "Don’t get conceited," Kakashi said, and then he’d laughed good-naturedly. "Anyway, I’m still young and recently I’ve developed a brilliant new jutsu . . ."

Naruto’s stomach had growled noisily.

"I’m starving," he’d announced. "Haven’t gone home or to Ichiraku Ramen yet. This is ridiculous, I just got back."

"Yeah I'm a bit hungry after training yesterday too," Sakura had responded.

Naruto leaned closer to her and whispered conspiratorially, "Then it's Kakashi-sensei's treat."

"Yeah!" Sakura agreed. "Sensei, you can . . ."

"Sorry, with this edict going on I have to create and submit a formation of the new teams," Kakashi had interrupted, fingers poised to release his jutsu. "So it’s goodbye for now." He’d poofed out of the vicinity.

"Ugh, he ran away," Naruto had complained.

Sakura’d made an annoyed sound. "Blaming the edict." She’d tossed her head. "He’s probably just going off to finish that nasty book."

Since things seemed to be a bit more normal between them, Naruto had thought to try one more time to get his feelings straight. Jiraiya was right in that he wasn’t very good at figuring things like that out. He should gather more evidence than just his first response. He had to make this work. If he really liked her, like he’d told himself he did then this would be it. Naruto had laughed nervously, thrown a bright smile on his face as he placed both hands behind his neck. "So, if it’s just the two of us then it’s a da—"

"Ok, but it’s your treat," she’d interrupted. And she hadn’t looked happy about it. Naruto had turned his back, pulled out his frog coin purse and inspected its contents. He hadn’t known then if he was more angry with the fact that he wasn’t devastated at her rejecting him again or that she would carelessly put the bill on him when she knew he hadn’t worked in over two years.

"Hey, Shikamaru, Temari, look who it is!" Sakura had sounded kind of desperate, as though she’d been looking for a way out of the agreement she had just made. Naruto couldn’t help but think they’d both dodged a kunai in that regard and at the same time he’d been so excited to see his friend again that his mouth had run away with him when he’d spotted Shikamaru beside Temari of Sand and automatically assumed that they were courting.

Shikamaru had looked grumpy as hell that morning but he’d been calm about dismissing Naruto’s assumption. "Nah, that’s not it."

Temari had appeared both amused and offended. "You’re joking," she’d stated. "Why would I go out with such a . . . Oh forget it. There’s a Chuunin exam coming up and I’m the liaison between the Sand and Leaf."

"And it’s troublesome, but I’ve become an examiner now and we have to work together," Shikamaru had added, his look of long-suffering not something he would feign.

"A Chuunin exam — wow. That takes me back," Naruto had replied. The day just seemed hellbent on nostalgia.

Shikamaru had scratched at the back of his neck. "Yeah. About that — what are you going to do?"

"About what?"

The Nara had given him a look that said he was exercising patience. "It’s a Chuunin Exam; do I need to add you to the list? Because right now the only one from our class who hasn’t advanced is you."

Naruto had been a little devastated to hear that, eyes seeking out his teammate for confirmation. "Sakura?"

She’d held up a gloating victory sign as she smiled. "Yep!"

Dumbfounded, Naruto’d then wondered how they’d been reacquainted almost twenty-four hours and in that time she’d asked him about her looks and berated him for his childishness, but never mentioned her promotion in the ninja world.

"Plus," Shikamaru’d added, "Neji from the class above us, Kankurou of Sand, and Temari here are already jounin."

That had been the first time anyone had voluntarily mentioned Neji. He wanted to pursue that line of questioning, but at the same time Shikamaru was standing beside Temari and they hadn’t updated him about one person at all. "Then . . . Gaara. What about Gaara?"

Naruto came back to himself with a deep frown on his face. He glanced down at the street without really seeing it as something that felt briefly like jealousy, but more like joy and pride at the thought of Gaara becoming Kazekage fluttered in his chest. Gaara was lucky in that he hadn’t been targeted by Akatsuki and forced to flee his home. Instead, he’d gotten to stay in Sand and become its primary defender.

He stood, cast about to pick a direction, eyes floating over an alley before eagerly swinging back to it. For a second he’d thought he’d spied his quarry. Hyuuga had a very distinct look to them and this one was standing beside a green covered trashbag that Naruto had come to associate with Shino’s new look. He’d reunited with Team Kurenai yesterday after leaving Sakura, Shikamaru and Temari, and after not recognizing Shino right away Naruto dared not approach in case Shino was still cultivating that grudge. He refocused on the alley, eyes cataloguing the unnamed Hyuuga from the distance. Ultimately, he decided the hair was too radically different — bandanna, long bangs in the front tied off into two, cut off in the back. That produced another emotion in his chest that was a bit like betrayal and shock because damn but Naruto hoped Neji hadn’t cut his hair. That day in the hospital was one of Naruto’s most persistent memories.

He sighed, looked back to the street to see which way he should head.

And there he was.

Naruto’s memory made flesh.

Hyuuga Neji.

For a long moment Naruto couldn’t breathe; he could hear his heart beating in his ears, feel sweat pooling in his armpits, feel a queasy bubbling in his stomach, but it wasn’t bad. It was just . . . Neji.

He was dressed in white, a stain or two on the hem to suggest recent training, but he still looked regal, like an emperor surveying his kingdom while he stood in the street talking to Tenten. Neji was taller and his face was more defined, having lost its childlike roundness. His hair was longer — much longer than Naruto had expected. His expression . . . well, Naruto couldn’t say what emotion Neji was feeling because in everyday situations it never showed on his face.

Then Tenten spied him on the roof and enthusiastically waved. Naruto forced himself to draw air into his lungs, put a smile onto his face and leap down.

"Hey!" he greeted.

"Welcome back," Tenten replied. "Saw you a couple days ago but you seemed busy."

"Really?" Naruto seethed a little on the inside — this whole search could have been avoided. He injected cheer into his voice. "You should have said something anyway — I haven’t seen you guys in like forever."

Tenten shrugged. "Well, I was busy too. Duty and all, right Neji?" She thumped the Hyuuga on the shoulder causing his eyes to widen briefly, mouth flexing before he nodded agreement.

"It’s . . . good to see you again, Naruto." Neji’s head was tilted at an angle that hinted that he was watching Naruto but at the same time looking at the road. Naruto thought it was weird for a second, but then recalled Neji doing the same gesture in the hospital, and again the day Neji had treated him to Ichiraku right before he’d left, and even that Hyuuga in the alley hadn’t really been looking Shino in the face. For a second he wondered if some Hyuuga were trained to do that — show deference even when they didn’t need to.

"Yeah, you too."

"It’s really early, Naruto, are you up to something or have you been assigned a mission already?" Tenten asked.

"Oh, no I was just, y’know," Naruto scratched at the back of his neck, "uh, getting used to the place again."

"Uh-huh," Tenten chirped. "Like what you see?"

He couldn’t stop his eyes from swinging back to Neji at that question. A hand was rubbing the arm Tenten had offended; Neji’s attention was on his shoulder, leaving Naruto to think maybe Tenten too had developed freakish strength.

He was supposed to answer. He smiled widely at Tenten. "Yeah!"

"Uh-huh." Tenten smirked. "Well, if you need a recap of the place, Neji has a couple hours off, I’m sure he would gladly show you around. Right Neji?" She elbowed him in the gut.

Neji blinked, hand moving from his shoulder to his side, but he looked Naruto square in the eye and answered, " . . . Sure."

"Uh-huh." Tenten was practically beaming. "Then it’s settled. Naruto — in case you forgot, if you walk a mile down this street and then make a left you’ll be at Ichiraku’s — you do still like eating there don’t you?"

"Of course."

"Uh-huh. Great." She clapped her hands in front of her face. "As long as you guys walk slowly, Mr. Teuchi should be opening his shop by the time you get there. Neji just got paid — he can treat you."

Neji and Naruto both stared at Tenten, then glanced at each other before Neji bowed his head toward the ground again. But he didn’t dispute paying for Naruto, and the Uzumaki began to wonder if maybe Neji didn’t realize that the way Tenten had offered his services made it sound like a . . . date.

"Wait!" Naruto called out upon realization that Tenten was walking away. "You’re not coming?"

Tenten turned back around to wave a hand dismissively at them. "Oh no, I’ve got to get some sleep. I can only imagine what kind of crazy crap Gai-sensei will have planned for us this afternoon. See you guys later."

And so Naruto stood in the street beside an impossibly still Neji with his mouth hanging open. Anticipation was coursing from his head to his toes. That queasiness was back in his stomach. This shouldn’t have felt awkward, being with Neji again. But it did. It was . . . the way he should have been feeling when he’d been with Sakura — terrifyingly awesome. Hopeful.

"If you have something better to do then you don’t have to —" Neji began, ever the gracious one.

But Naruto was already cutting him off. "Ah, nah, nothing like that." He threw his hands behind his head and pointed himself in the direction Tenten had indicated. Tossing a smile Neji’s way he said, "It’ll be just like old times."

Neji blinked, inclined his head in acknowledgment. "I guess it would be." He fell into step beside Naruto.

And it was silent.

Not because Naruto didn’t want to talk — quite the opposite; he just really didn’t know what to say to Neji now that Naruto knew for certain that he really liked the Hyuuga. He was sure already that there was no way Neji was thinking that walking him around Konoha on a supposed ‘refresher’ of the topography was anything more than just two friends getting reacquainted. And if Naruto slipped up and said something like, ‘Hey, here’s a crazy idea but — I like you, like, like you like you and you should like me like me back’ then it could probably go badly.

"I take it your training was a success?" Neji calmly asked while Naruto’s thoughts were a mile a millisecond.

Naruto jumped on it. Ninja stuff was an excellent topic. He was fairly certain he was rambling most of the stories he’d accumulated, but Neji only asked polite, pointed questions to keep him on track every now and then; by the time they arrived at Ichiraku’s and took a seat, Naruto was finishing up the tale of a fumbled summoning — he was always screwing those up he’d imparted dramatically — that had Gamakichi ending up in the girls’ portion of the hotspring, and they’d all run out naked much to the Perverted Hermit’s joy.

Neji laughed at that story. It was unexpected. It was nice. Watching his lips curl upward, the detail of his cheekbones visible, the evenness of his teeth. Naruto hadn’t thought teeth could be attractive on anyone but Sensei-Huge Brows until that moment. He ordered his usual from Teuchi; Neji only requested a drink.

"You’re not eating?" Naruto queried.

Neji shook his head. "Ah, no. I can’t eat so soon after training."

"You sure you’re not broke or something? Cause if so you don’t have to do what Tenten said —"

"No, I’ve got it," Neji interrupted.

Teuchi placed his food before him and Naruto heartily thanked him before digging in. His mouth was full when he remembered what Shikamaru had said about Neji — the reason why he'd probably have extra money. "Oh, yeah!" Noodle was still hanging from his mouth when he reached over to pat Neji on the back. "Congratulations on making jounin."

If Neji had anything to say about the deplorable table manners it didn’t pass his lips because he was smiling again. His white eyes were on Naruto’s blue ones, his head slightly tilted in a way that could be deferential or embarrassed as he pushed long brown strands behind his ear.

And just like that, it was two years ago in the hospital, and Neji was making Naruto feel like he was the most amazing person in the world.