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brightness, pouring itself out of you

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Neji doesn’t like to think of himself as someone who ever runs behind schedule. It just isn’t in his repertoire. Punctuality is key. It worked for him as a child, when being the last one at the dinner table was liable to get you disapproving grumbles for a week and underheated, meager portions. It worked for him through college and his first job, with smiles at his laminated folders and glittering A+’s on his term papers.

It simply worked in general, as a rule or a principle or a priority, and really, Naruto is by this time a half hour late. What does the bastard take him for?

His secretary peeks out from behind the office door. He’d hired her because she obeyed the punctuality principle to a tee, (unlike certain other individuals.) She is quiet, discerning, and can whip up an excellent hangover cure concoction if the need should ever arise. Not that Neji normally needs such things, but Tenten assured him it was quite a useful thing to have on hand.

Neji scoffs to himself. Tenten would know. Tenten spent most of her nights out on the town now, in svelte, body-hugging dresses that looked like she’d simply been poured into them, and red lipstick that leaves sweet-smelling smears on his cheek when she pecks him goodbye, and coiled and oiled hair that shines under the light.

He supposed he should be happy she is choosing this method of coping rather than the one where she stays locked in their apartment for the whole day, but Lee being sick isn’t something they are going to get used to soon, he knows.

He knows, but that doesn’t mean he has to think about it.

His secretary brought a note and a tall glass of ice water.

“Heat’s been awful this year, Hyuuga-san. I thought this would be refreshing while you wait.”

“Thank you, Ayumi.”

It’s true that the heat has been awful. Giant waves of 90 to 100 degree weather are gusting off the sea, so quickly approaching but stagnant the moment they arrive, content to settle onto the shoulders of the city with a heavy, pressing lethargy.

Neji glances at the note, and resists the urge to press the glass of water against his forehead. He suddenly felt another headache coming on.

Sorry about the late notice, but have to cancel.
Something came up.
-Naruto

 

The bastard.

“Ayumi-san? Cancel the rest of the afternoon.” Neji drains the water, feeling decidedly miffed. This was the third time in a month. He was beginning to suspect that Naruto was avoiding him.

In all honesty, he’d suspected that awhile ago.

Ayumi peeked around the door again. She had a face like a bird, all quick inquisitive tilts of her head and bright eyes. Half the office was madly in love with her. Neji liked her because he’d seen her with one of the boys in the office, late one night when he’d finally just gotten his print model finished. She’d had her skirt hiked up and a long sweep of satiny white thigh spread open on the desk. The boy moaned as she dragged her toes up his pant-suited calf, but she just arched her head back and laughed; a breathy, fluttering sound. Neji liked her for laughing, and for the way her hair was still perfectly coiffed upon her head, even while her chest heaved. He liked her because the next morning the boy was late and sulky, but Ayumi was early to her desk, fresh-faced and not a sleek curl out of place.

He liked her for it.

“I can move the Aoyama presentation up to 2:00 tomorrow, Hyuuga-san.”

“Yes. Good.” Neji distractedly ran a hand through his hair. He is more bothered than he should be. He’s annoyed. Tenten would say he was fretting, but that is ridiculous. Neji never frets about anything; He’ll settle for being mildly concerned. He got to his feet, grabbed his bag, and rolled a few plans that needed finishing into cylinders with quick, economical flicks of his wrist.

“Should I give a reason for the schedule change to the client Hyuuga-san?”

Neji managed to curb his irritation with Naruto’s bold and oblivious lack of appearance for a brief moment to draw level with Ayumi, who is tilting her head sideways again like a slightly curious canary.

“Tell them something came up.”

X

As of course Neji knew he would be, Naruto is in a bar that was only a few blocks from the office. It was pathetic really.

Slumped on his stool, knobby fingers just barely dangling a shot glass, and rocking a gold-scruffed bedhead and four-o-clock shadow look, Naruto was in his element. When he saw Neji, the usual smile cracked wide across his face, like the comet end of a shooting star.

Neji didn’t bother to exchange pleasantries.

“Something came up Naruto? Really?” Neji slid onto a stool, his voice dry-cut and trying not to be too sharp, massaging his temples. “What would this something be? Is it, by any chance, just your pressing, life-altering need for a midmorning beer?”

Naruto’s smile gets bigger, and he slings a gangly, leanly-muscled arm over the angles of Neji’s shoulder. “Beer’s are no fun, Neji-kun. I’ve been doin’ raspberry-sugar vodka shots.” He lolled his neck, making an exaggerated kissy face at Neji to showcase the stained red tinge to his lips.

“They’re sweeter than birthday cake.”

“Wonderful.”

Naruto giggles, knocks back the shot that was still swinging from his fingers with an ease that should make Neji worried.

“Y’know Neji, people are such dicks. I don’ like it. Some fucker tried to tell me this--” He brandishes his shot glass in Neji’s face, “--was a girly drink. Like I fucking care. I let him know he's an asshole. Don’t Tenten drink whiskey like a pro?”

Neji held back a smile. “Tenten has Jack Daniels sometimes. Most of the time she drinks water, like a sensible person. Like you should be doing.”

“Sakura thinks I should stop drinking too. Y’all are party poopers.”

Neji bites his tongue on Sakura’s name.

She’d called him just last week, when Lee had had some sort of infection scare and was thrashing in the hospital bed from fever so hard he needed restraints. Sakura had sounded tight and exhausted through the speaker of his phone and looked worse in person; pale like weak white bread.

That had been a rough night for most of them. But then, Naruto wouldn't know that, would he?

Neji sighed. He tugs the now empty shot-glass from Naruto’s hand, hands him a glass of water, kneading his forehead distractedly.

“Why do you keep doing this Naruto? If you don’t want to meet at my office, just say so. It’s not the end of the world. I clearly can get out.”

Naruto tapped his fingers in a drum over the bar, tilted his head back at Neji. “I don’ know what you’re talkin' about, Hyuuga-san.”

“Don’t call me that. You sure as hell know what I’m talking about. You could try caring enough to be punctual--”

Naruto blatantly ignores Neji and his glass of water, instead signaling the bartender for another shot. Neji sighs.

Naruto is a force that can’t really be stopped, just diverted onto slightly different paths for a short time. He has practically no interest in listening to Neji in his office, and Neji should’ve known a different venue was hardly going to do the trick. Naruto doesn’t really listen to anyone anymore, except Kakashi-sensei, but unfortunately that bridge was burned. By Kakashi himself, quite literally; Kakashi hadn’t been seen by anyone since May.

Naruto downed another shot, stretching and smacking his wet lips together in satisfaction. The worn orange T-shirt he wore rides up slightly, exposing a strip of his navel, and Neji lets his eyes linger. He knows that T-shirt. It was one of Naruto’s old ones, from college days.

In college, Naruto had been different. He’d smiled because he couldn’t stop himself, not because he thought it fooled his friends. Naruto had been crazy about dreaming when he was at University, crazy about being in love, whether it was with an idea, or a person, or the world.

Neji remembers a few times when the world loved Naruto right back. He remembers getting so drunk he passed out in Naruto’s bed, amongst yellow-orange sheets and the sweet grassy scent of weed. They’d all smoked a lot of pot during freshman year. Neji remembers Naruto coaxing him into trying his first joint and being rather surprised by the results when his mind floated out softly beyond his reach and everything seemed beautifully hazy.

Naruto had grinned widely. “Check out Neji, y’all!” He’s wasted!” Naruto himself was no stranger to pot, and his tolerance seemed to be higher, as he watched Neji drool onto his pillow with unveiled amusement. “Shut-up..’m fine...”

Sasuke, sitting nearby, had hauled Neji into an upright position and gripped his chin with cool fingers. He peered at Neji’s pupils with those startlingly dark eyes of his, and declared Naruto right. Neji was actually quite sphongled. Naruto doubled over with laughter, while Neji groaned his disagreement.

“I wouldn’t get cocky, Loser. You are too.” Sasuke drawled, stretching like a satisfied cat across the tiny dorm bed next to Neji. Naruto had straightened up, gasping for breath and smiling a dazzling smile.

“Course I am!” He bends over Neji’s stomach carelessly to smooth his hand across Sasukes ribs, and leaned in for a kiss, high and hot. “Difference is, I know it!”

Neji had watched them kiss. Usually he looked away from them doing that sort of thing, but the drugs always made him feel bold and shameless. He watched Naruto pull his lips away after a moment and whisper something in Sasuke’s ear, making the other man snort dismissively. Naruto laughed again; a ringing, bell-like laughter.

Neji closes his eyes on the memories.

That had been a long time ago, and things were different now. Naruto was different now, and Sasuke...

Neji doesn’t want to think about Sasuke.

Naruto was still swaying on his barstool.

“Come on Naruto. We need to go. I’ll take you home.”

Naruto turned to him, his eyes bright in the afternoon sunlight filtering through grubby windows. “Don’t wanna go anywhere, Neji-kun.” He closed his eyes, tilted his head back. “Don’t wanna.”

Neji sighed. Right now, with Lee thrashing in a hospital bed, Sakura overworked with worry, and Tenten throwing away her feelings on fast women and faster drinks, and everything starting to crumble apart the same way Naruto is sitting in pieces next to him, Neji doesn’t really want to go anywhere either.

But that isn’t his choice. Nothing had really been his choice for awhile now.

X

End Chapter

Chapter Text

Getting Naruto home was a process, but Neji eventually managed it with a combination of cajoling, threats, and pure exasperation. Naruto poured himself into bed and splayed out on the messy futon, legs and arms spread akimbo and mouth drooling as he snored. Neji tried not to smile at the sight.

It’s easier not to smile when he realizes the absolute shithole Naruto’s apartment had devolved to.

Empty beer bottles, crusted dishes, ramen containers and questionable laundry were scattered around the one room apartment like some sort of unwashed war zone fought by extremely lazy soldiers. Naruto’s flat has always been messy, but Neji would’ve thought Naruto could have stopped it from degenerating into this state. This was the kind of messy that itched underneath Neji’ nerves and in his nose until he felt compelled to do something about it.

Sighing at the wasted day, and perhaps a little at himself, Neji started to pile the debris into some semblance of organization.

Naruto stayed asleep the whole time Neji did laundry and washed dishes and unpacked new groceries like some kind of fucking housemaid, and Neji caught himself wondering, more than a few times, the last time anyone had bothered to clean up after Naruto.

He’d been off the map too much lately, with everything happening to Lee, and after the fiasco with Kakashi no one really wanted to tackle Naruto’s temper. It was hard enough to deal with him already; he’d been a wild card ever since what happened with Sasuke.

To be honest, Neji was having trouble remembering the last time he’d really seen Naruto outside of a bar.

He muttered a curse under his breath, because he didn’t need this shit, okay. He had a lot going on, and he was already losing sleep every night between rushing to the hospital and finishing projects and picking up Tenten from the apartments of sleazy women at six in the morning.

In his sleep, Naruto looks much younger, with snot on his nose and one hand curled around the edge of a sheet like it was a lifeline away from bad dreams. Neji watches the steady rise and fall of his chest under that stupid old orange t-shirt. Beneath the frayed hemline, he glimpses a hint of Naruto’s stark collarbone; golden and sharp-edged.

Grumbling to himself, Neji picked up a spare key on his way out the door, against his better judgement.

X

“...Naruto’s place?”

Shikamaru’s voice is slow and wicked, the way it always is after they have sex, and Neji didn’t want to him to keep talking, because then Neji would want to blow him again. He shouldn’t have mentioned it in the first place.

Reluctantly, he sat up in Shikamaru’s bed, chin in one hand. Shikamaru is already propped against the wall next to him, the blanket curled over his hips and smoking a cigarette lazily. The edges of his fingertips are yellow.

Neji has gotten used to the smell of cigarette smoke after sex, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it.

He sighs. “Have you been there recently? I took him home yesterday, soused, and saw a pack of your cigarettes there. His place is a fucking disaster.”

Shikamaru looked away from the silky waterfall of Neji’s hair down his back, damp with sweat. “Too troublesome to go over there. Naruto’s having a shit time.”

Neji was annoyed. If the sex wasn’t so good with Shikamaru he would’ve ended this little tryst a while ago. Shikamaru had a wife, somewhere, for gods sake, and Neji isn’t going to be some other woman pining lustfully behind the scenes.

He has more dignity than this usually, more self-respect. The last time this had ended up happening had been more than a month ago, but lately his defenses were shot all to hell.

Shikamaru had trouble caring about the moral reasons for doing anything. He liked for Neji to suck his cock, and he liked to fuck Neji, and then he liked to smoke a pack of cigarettes afterwards, while the futon still smelled ripe.

Neji has self control. He was punctual, and respectable, and he didn’t need to have sex with Shikamaru, really he didn’t. But Neji has also had a long day, and Naruto’s emptiness was hard to swallow, next to everything else he’d had to grit his teeth and bear lately.

In comparison, Shikamaru was easy on his throat.

In some weird way still, Shikamaru was a friend. He’d been there in college, a budding genius, through everything that had happened. He might be heartless now, but he had always been there.

That doesn’t stop Neji from being pissy though. “Naruto’s been having a shit time for years. It’s just gotten shitter since Kakashi left, and we’ve all looked the other way.”

“We should be ashamed with ourselves.” Shikamaru agrees casually.

Neji sucks a breath in through his nose. He knows better than to get riled up. He tosses his head and reaches for his clothes.

“It’s not like Naruto has looked at us much either,” Shikamaru continues, blowing a sheet of smoke into the air. “He hasn’t even visited Lee.” without waiting for a response to that stickler, Shikamaru glances from under his lashes at Neji. “Seems inconsiderate, given Lee’s about to kick the bucket.”

Neji pauses in buttoning his shirt.

“You’ve seen him, haven’t you.” It isn’t even a question. Shikamaru’s eyes cut sideways. He is just as lazy with lying as he is with everything else.

Neji shook his head. “You’re a bastard, Nara.”

“We fucked.”

That was one thing that Neji hadn’t been expecting. He manages not to splutter, just barely, and slowly buttons the last hole of his shirt. “Amend that to heartless bastard. Didn’t even bother with his dirty dishes?”

In a weird way, it almost makes sense, when Neji thinks about it. Naruto likes to be hands-on, always has been. His frequent way of coping with anything life throws at him is to put a body in his bed, warm and breathing and reassuringly alive. He hasn’t had a problem spreading his legs for most anyone ever since college, and Shikamaru isn’t the type to resist charm, in any form it takes.

Shikamaru meets Neji’s gaze levelly, something too knowing playing in the shadows around his mouth. “Actually, we were right here.”

Neji doesn't stop the intake of breath this time.

“He looked a bit like you do, with a dick in your mouth.” Shikamaru had the upper hand now, with that gasp, and he wasn’t going to let it go easy. “Better with his tongue though.”

Neji slides one hand over the rumpled sheets on the futon with fingers that just barely tremble.

“I suppose you would take advantage of that.”

Shikamaru let out a bark of harsh laughter, and his eyes might have been a little soft, searching for something as he gazed at the shiver of muscle in Neji’s pristine jawline.

“More like he took advantage, Neji. Couldn’t wait to screw me--fucking exhausting.” His voice is careless now, and Neji turns back to see him lighting a new cigarette. “Didn’t even want to cuddle.”

Shikamaru was a prat, but Neji might have felt a tiny bit grateful for it, right then. He doesn’t stop the slight smirk spreading over his mouth. “He wore you out, huh?” He leans in, right up close, and Shikamaru smiles just a little, slips the smoke from between his lips.

Neji kisses him, hard and dirty because he certainly doesn’t feel respectable now. “I guess he’s got some spark left then.”

He can still hear Shikamaru’s answering lazy chuckle in his ears as he slams the apartment door shut, headed for the tube line. He has two drawing plans to finish, and he wants to take a shower.

Shikamaru has a habit of sticking to his skin like cigarette smoke.

X

Naruto does not call Neji to thank him for cleaning up his godforsaken excuse of an apartment for three whole days. One day, and Neji would not have been bothered. Two, and he believes Naruto could make some excuse. But three?

He terrorizes his office workers instead, because it gives him a certain little thrill. Ayumi can whip them into shape all by herself, but he’s sure a little extra superior status looming over his interns shoulder can’t go to waste.

It would’ve been relaxing, if he wasn’t so offended by Naruto’s inappropriate lateness. Did the Uzumaki pick up just one too many of Kakashi’s bad habits? (It wouldn't be the first one. Lumping a fake smile, a penchant for bad porn, and a tendency to vanish in with Naruto’s recent lifestyle choices, lateness seems rather trivial. It’s a shame Hyuuga Neji puts far too much in store by timeliness.)

He also picks Tenten up from two clubs and one rich-looking apartment within the space of the three days. Tenten has her heels dangling from one finger and her hair curly around her shoulders as she waits for him by the curb.

He’d like to comment on the fact that he’s still struggling to keep his company going and he didn’t really inherit enough precious family money to keep using the “Emergency and Spontaneous Road Trip” car every night to drive all over the city for her, but each time she settles next to him and slams the car door shut the words die quietly in his chest before they ever make it to his throat.

She looks too tired.

They go to the hospital, of course, because they always do and because the perk (a perk no one really wanted to have to use) of having a friend so high up in the medical pecking order means they can bypass regular visiting hours on a whim. Sakura is nearly always there when they go anyway.

Tenten reapplied her lipstick in the car before they went in every time, because she tries to look youthful for him.

On the evening of the third day, Neji glares frostily at his caller ID for almost a full minute before answering, cool and professional.

“Hyuuga Neji speaking, you prick.”

Naruto had not, in fact, called to thank Neji. Instead, he’s invited him out for a drink.

Neji doesn’t really know why he accepts the invitation, except for the fact that he iknows this is perhaps the only time Naruto has invited anyone anywhere in a while, and if he doesn’t accept Naruto could very well drink himself silly that night without any cause or care in the world, and who would be there to make sure he doesn’t do anything really stupid?

Neji knows that Naruto likes to play things fast and loose, down and dirty, and this used to worry him less, but no one has heard from Kakashi for too long now, and Naruto in the bar three days ago had been too listless, too empty, too...weak.

In any case, he still needs to guilt the crazy bastard into seeing Lee.

X

Chapter End

Chapter Text

The drink, as it turns out, is actually a drink at a club. A real club too, with dim lights and thudding music and too many people. They brush past Neji without seeming to care about his personal space bubble, skin slick with sweat, and it’s been a long time since Neji went to a club, long enough for him to feel a little dazed, a little dazzled, a little insignificant.

He tries not to show this to Naruto, who is glamorous under the flashing lights, his skin glowing and his smile wide and careless.

“Naruto, why are we here?”

Naruto laughs, signals the man with too many piercings behind the bar that he wants another shot. He’s had two already and Neji thinks he should probably put his foot down about excessive drinking this time, but he knows Naruto isn’t going to listen so it’s hard to gather the energy.

“Because you need to lighten up, Hyuuga-san.” His hand is warm as he pushes his newly acquired shot into Neji’s fingers instead of drinking it himself. “You need to loosen up.”

The words sting under Neji’s skin, make his jaw tighten. Naruto thought he needed to loosen up? Naruto needed to get a fucking grip. Not everyone’s life is sunshine and daisies right now.

“Oh, my apologies Naruto. Did I forget to mention that one of your old friends is currently fighting cancer in the fucking hospital, so far unsuccessfully? I would’ve thought you could remember that by yourself.” He’s sharp, scathing.

“Maybe you wouldn’t forget if you could be bothered to actually get up off your ass and visit him.”

Naruto is taken aback, hurt crashing across his face and twisting his wide smile into something small and sad.

Neji downs the shot. He wants to wash the bitterness out of his mouth, but the alcohol doesn’t help much. He asks for another shot, because he doesn’t like feeling dizzy like this, with the heavy beat of the music against his chest and a ringing starting up in his ears. He doesn’t want to look at Naruto, at the open wound of his eyes.

Naruto sets his shoulders and the wounds are gone, bandaged over. “Shut the fuck up. I don’t have anything to say to you,” The sentence is a snarl.

“Maybe you should smell your own shit before you start talking, Neji.” His voice is like a burning cinder, snapping white-hot against Neji’s ears.

Neji looks away.

He’s forgotten that Naruto can be vicious, with his carelessness, with the crackling edge of something singed in his words. When Naruto is angry he’s angry, a destructive force as powerful as a roiling thunderstorm. Neji has forgotten the sting of of Naruto’s tightly leashed, whiplash rage.

It hurts to remember it now, and Neji downs another drink to scald his throat from tightening, knuckles white. Naruto is leaning against the bar, head down and long-fingered hands tangled into the wild strands of his hair that’s long enough to fall into his eyes now.

A long pause.

“You need a haircut.”

The words slip out of his mouth before he really registers their inappropriate timing, but Naruto has glanced up now, mouth still scowling but eyes softer. “You think? But I kinda like it longish. Gives me some flair.”

Neji mouth quirks. “You have plenty enough flair already, dumbass; you’re wearing glitter on your eyes.” and Naruto laughs for real now, a clear pealing bell of sound, and Neji’s forgotten a lot, because he’s forgotten how much he missed Naruto laughing. There is a hint of gold sheen on his eyelids; one of the daring fashion statement phases Naruto occasionally throws himself into with fearless dedication.

Somehow, this one looks good. The slight make-up is muted, just present enough to shimmer when he looks at Neji directly, eyes blue as a tall summer sky.

Neji must be tipsy.

It isn’t hard for Naruto to pull him onto the dance floor, to push another glass into his hand, giggle into his ear like a child with a brand new toy, asking his opinion on the club, the drink, the people, and Naruto’s new collection of trashy porn novels he appears to have taken a liking too since he lived with Kakashi, which Neji had neatly organized and categorized while at his apartment.

“Thanks for cleaning Neji-kun! If you come every Tuesday I’ll give you a tip.”

Neji vision is starting to blur a little, spiraling into dizzyingly bright colors, but he manages to cut a dry, non-plussed look towards his friend. “Your place is a dump, Naruto.”

He laughs the comment off, his arm loose around Neji’s neck and pulling him along the tight-knit corridors of the gyrating club, but Naruto’s eyes tighten at that, his mouth sets in his face.

Naruto pulls Neji into one of the darker rooms, sees a seedy little guy holding a bag full of needles in shaking hands lurking in one of the corners, and smiles beatifically at him, angel-like. He mumbles a half-hearted excuse in Neji’s ear, not seeming to really care whether Neji sees him or not, and shambles over to the man.

There is heavy thudding in Neji’s ears as he watches Naruto murmur in the man's ear, as a few bills change hands and the man hands Naruto a needle-syringe and a miniscule vial of fluid. Naruto’s smile is like cut glass in the dark of the room.

Neji feels like he wants to be sick.

Naruto saunters back over to him a while later, with his pupils blown and his steps loose and loping, his mouth warm as he puts it by Neji’s ear. “Heeey, I’m boreed. Dance with me, Neji-kun?”

“What the fuck is wrong with you? Did you seriously just do drugs?”

Neji wants to push Naruto away from him but instead his hands pull him closer. He can’t think of the last time Naruto was this close, this warm, this happy.

“Nejiii,” Naruto drawls his voice over the name, and Neji must be really tipsy because he likes the way it sounds; likes it too much. “You really need to loosen up. It’s safe, I promise. Just a little bit of excitement.”

Then he jerks away from Neji suddenly, his hands in fists as he strides away down the dark hall towards where the music is loud and shakes the ground, and Neji struggles to keep up. “Stop fucking judging me.”

Neji wants to be disgusted by Naruto when he’s like this, jumping from joyful to vicious in just a few seconds, a snapping firework, but he can’t stay disappointed for very long.

He’s been drinking more than usual, and he hasn’t thought about Lee or doctors bills or Tenten almost all evening, something that hasn’t happened for months. Naruto is beautiful like this, angry and punchdrunk and unafraid, the look in his eyes when he pulls Neji beside him on the dance floor of the club something almost dangerous.

They dance, and drink, and laugh at one another. Neji has to stop Naruto from starting two bar fights, and when Naruto runs one long-fingered hand casually down Neji’s arm as they dance he pretends it doesn’t make his breath catch, but Neji can’t remember the last time he had this much fun.

X

When they stumble outside the club a few hours later there is thick heat in the air, bone-dry summer heat that has sunk into the city walls and between the cracks of the sidewalk. It feels odd to sweat when there is no sun outside, and Neji decides to blame the moon instead, which hangs ostentatiously in the sky as though from a shoestring, mocking and untouchable.

They have decided to go back to Naruto’s place, sensibly for less expensive drinks. He lives only a few blocks away, and Naruto grabs Neji’s hand and swings it as they set off down the sidewalk, his grip comforting and friendly, spitefulness forgotten in the sweat that has started to bead along Neji’s forehead and drip into his eyelashes.

Neji manages not to smile at the casual touch. Normally, he wouldn’t hold with such signs of affection, friendly or otherwise, but he’s understandably drunk, and Naruto is beautiful.

He has no idea why the next words come from his mouth.

“I was at Shikamaru’s the other day.”

Naruto glances at him, his eyes crinkling in a slow smile as though he knows what Neji wants to say.

“Shikamaru happened to mention that you and he...that...” Really, Neji doesn’t know why he is saying this.

This is not how he usually conducts conversation. This is not his territory, not his business. His chest feels somehow tight, constricted with more things he doesn’t want to say right now, or perhaps ever, but then Naruto squeezes his hand.

“You’re being nosy, Neji.” His laugh is like a bell in the dark of the night, ringing through the pools of watery yellow light from the streetlamps around them and then up, high above their heads. “Shikamaru..he’s a lazy fucker.”

Neji feels himself smile, maybe a little ruefully. Naruto cranes his head back to look at where the stars have peeked out from the dark, midnight blue folds of sky above them. “Y’know...if Shikamaru wasn’ such a good guy underneath all his crap, he would’a reminded me of someone.”

Neji’s throat suddenly goes tight.

 

They have arrived at Naruto’s apartment, and Naruto breaks his hold on Neji’s hand to open the door, keys jangling. He slings off his shirt as he strides inside, whining about the heat, and opens the tiny fridge to toss Neji another beer.

Neji feels suddenly cautious, bitter. It is awkward to come into Naruto’s apartment and accept the drink. He feels as though suddenly he doesn’t belong here, even though he personally restocked Naruto’s groceries earlier that week. He tries to swallow the sourness that has risen in his chest, flips his hair over his shoulder nonchalantly.

He wonders how Lee is holding up tonight.

Naruto is opening windows and turning on fans, trying to get the stagnant air to ease its heaviness in the cramped, still disheveled space of the flat. Neji watches.

Maybe it’s because he’s so close to being drunk, but Neji’s bitterness wins out.

“Naruto, I hoped you had stopped searching for him in people now.”

Naruto stops abruptly, his hand on a window latch, and Neji immediately regrets the words. He readies himself for Naruto’s anger, for the sting of a whipped insult and for Naruto to neatly close himself out of Neji’s life for about another four months.

That’s what happens when someone brings up this subject around Naruto. Neji should know better.

Instead, Naruto sags. He lowers himself into a chair at the table and rubs the bridge of his nose.

“God, Neji. Can’t you just leave me alone.” He sounds defeated, and Neji tries not to let the comment sting.

“I can leave if you--”

“No. Don’t go. Fuck, Neji. I’m just...tired of trying so hard.” Naruto leans back in his chair, the sweat on his chest a sheen dancing over his skin under the dull light over his kitchen table.

Neji moves to sit down, cautious.

Naruto has always been tanner than the rest of them. He is proud of it, citing a vaguely European relation, but it has always made him seem different, his skin dark and warm against Sasuke’s sharp-cut paleness, like a sun and moon.

Neji snorts to himself at the image. What does that make himself? A raincloud? A dim little star? Thinking in metaphors when he’s drunk makes his head hurt, and Naruto doesn’t need him.

Naruto sighs and slams his bottle back down on the table, a strained giggle breaking from his lips, as though it hurt to laugh. His eyes are red rimmed. His hands shake a little, coming down from the drug-induced high in his system. It looks wrong, almost pathetic.

Naruto might not need Neji, but he sure as hell needed somebody.

“Naruto...you know that looking for him in other people won’t work. You know that. You don’t have to try so hard for him.”

Naruto laughs again. “Here, everybody still thinks I’m trying for that fucker. Shit.”

Neji doesn’t know what to make of that. He still feels bitter, a little bit hurt underneath his more reasonable thoughts, and part of him is frustrated, deep inside, because for once, for fucking once, he doesn’t want to worry about everyone.

Neji doesn’t get to have what he wants very often.

“You couldn’t find him in Kakashi.”

Sitting next to him a the table, Naruto sucks in a sudden breath.

His knuckles crack, white as they tighten around the neck of his bottle. Neji feels his own words hang in the air, presumptuous and stupid.

That had been the wrong thing to say.

Naruto stands up, slaps his hand against the table. His eyes are tight, vicious. Neji tries to keep his face composed. He is a stone, and Naruto’s anger will wash over him. He has always been a stone.

“Neji, you have got some fucking nerve.” Naruto’s beer bottle topples as he slaps the table again, but neither of them notice, even as the stain spills like rusted blood across the wood grain. “You want to come in here and tell me how to wash my dishes, clean up my shit, how to go do the right thing? How to try dealing, because you’ve always been so fucking good at it?”

There is something in Naruto’s brittle, breaking voice that makes Neji pause, makes him curl his own fists and grit his teeth, makes him tear his gaze from the stark blank wall over Naruto’s shoulder to look him in the eyes and see the sudden desperation written like an penned-ink suicide note over Naruto’s face.

“I couldn’t find anything in Kakashi!”

X

Chapter End

Chapter Text

“I couldn’t find anything in Kakashi!”

There it is. Naruto’s hand is shaking on the table, and Neji can feel himself move to look, almost unwillingly, at the deep scar splayed across Naruto’s palm there, spanning from the edge of his wrist up to between the second two fingers, still raw and red.

Kakashi had taken Naruto in, after the catastrophe of their senior year at University. It was pitiful, but none of them could have dealt with him then, none of them knew how.

They had been too young.

Naruto lived with him for three years, repeating his last year of school and finally managing to get a job or two. Once Neji had seen them walking together along the street, with Kakashi’s arm slung long and loose over Naruto’s neck and Naruto’s tight around his waist, steps perfectly in tandem. Something in Neji’s chest had flipped over itself sickenly, gloriously, because Naruto had actually been smiling.

Neji never really knew what to make of it, but the fact was that Kakashi helped Naruto, in some way that none of the rest of them could, and it hadn’t been perfect, but it had worked, it really worked.

Then there had been the night in early May, and Neji had been over at their apartment, a hole-in-the-wall place Naruto had decided to liven up by painting mostly orange. They’d all had too much to drink. Neji knows now that nothing good could have happened that night, nothing at all. They’d broken the most important rules for the first time, and were talking about him, grief heavy in their chests.

OOOOO

“...You knew...?”

Neji could cut the air around them with a knife. It was morbidly quiet. Naruto was staring at the floor, his shoulders quivering. Sakura clasps her hand over her mouth, a soft noise of exclamation dying in her throat. Kakashi is unnaturally still.

Kakashi’s tone is always languid, mild like warm pulled taffy, but when he speaks now his voice is controlled and soft. “I suspected...”

Naruto slowly looks up, and Neji thought he could see something crack in his eyes, like a promise broken, too sweet to have lasted this long.

“You suspected?”

“I knew that he.. he maybe...” Kakashi’s voice is never muffled, despite the cloth medical mask he’s compulsively worn, as long as Neji’s known him, but somehow now Neji has to focus to catch his words. “But I couldn’t do anything...I couldn't get there.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you.”

Naruto is deadpan, dry and incredulous, but his whole body shakes with anger now, as he stares at Kakashi as though seeing him for the first time.

He stands abruptly, and the chair he was sitting on clatters as it falls onto the tile.

Sakura starts, her eyes wide as she stares at the place where Naruto had been sitting. She bites her lip. “Naru--”

“No! This is fucked up. What the fucking hell is wrong with you!?”

“Naruto.” Kakashi stands up too, slowly. He moves as though exhausted, despairing. “I tried everything I could. You know that I did.”

Naruto smiles at that, derisively mocking as he points an accusing finger at his teacher, his partner, his lover, his friend. “I don’t know anything! God, you have got to be kidding. I don’t fucking know you Kakashi!”

“Naruto, this is pointless--”

Naruto laughs maniacally, grabs his beer bottle and hurls it towards the wall near Kakashi’s shoulder.

It shatters on impact with a horrible sound, and Kakashi ducks as shards of glass fly. Sakura chokes on a scream, running forward as though to catch Naruto’s hand, but Naruto shoves her away violently. Neji struggles to focus as Sakura backs towards him, and when he holds her shoulder in a bracing grip, her skin is chilled.

She shakes her head. “Naruto, stop! This isn’t going to help and you know it!”

Sakura has always been a rock, solid and unwavering. Where Naruto is jubilant and Sasuke was reckless, Sakura is whip-smart, keeping them all out of serious trouble more than a few times. When Neji met her, volunteer supervising a blood drive on campus, she took one look at him with level green eyes and told him he could afford to give at least a full pint and she wasn’t going to hear otherwise.

He did, aversion to needles and discomfort with blood notwithstanding.

Now, there are tear tracks down her cheeks, and she shakes against his chest like a leaf.

Kakashi is walking slowly towards Naruto, hands clenched by his sides. There is a muscle twitching in his neck.

“Naruto, you’re acting like I wanted...You’re acting like it was my fault!”

“Well, tell me it’s fucking not, Kakashi! Tell me you knew what he was going to do, and you did nothing, and it isn’t your goddamned fault.” Naruto growls the words, his eyes bloodshot and streaking tears he doesn’t seem to notice he’s crying. Stray glass crunches under his bare feet, and he picks up Neji’s empty bottle on the table, tight in his fist like a weapon.

Sakura shudders under Neji’s hand on her shoulder.

“You think I haven’t blamed myself? I didn’t do fucking nothing Naruto. I tried, I tried everything I could--”

Kakashi’s voice is so tired. “I just--.”

“It wasn’t enough!” Naruto roars, painful and shattering. He is a foot away from Kakashi, a live wire of rage and heavy, hard-hearted pain, his words rumbling like black thunderclouds from his throat. He’s angrier than Neji has ever seen. “You didn’t do enough, because it didn’t fucking work, did it?! You got the fucking guts to take me in now? You can’t take care of anyone!”

He cracks the bottle violently against the edge of the table at the end of his statement an uncontrolled burst of savage fury. “Your fucking student threw himself off a goddamn roof, stuffed full of pills, because you just couldn’t. do. anything.”

Kakashi’s hand comes up over his face, fingers trembling. His shoulderblades bow outward, and Neji doesn’t fucking know what to do. He can’t think. There is something cold and numb crawling up his limbs and Sakura is sobbing loudly.

Naruto breathes hard, his movements jerky as he picks up the sharpest piece of glass he can scramble from the floor and holds the edge to his open palm.

Sakura makes a shrill, keening noise. Neji feels like the world must have stopped.

“Naruto, what--?”

Naruto’s blue eyes are burning. “Are you gonna do anything to stop me, Kakashi?”

Kakashi’s face is suddenly very white, and Naruto’s hand is suddenly very red.

With a movement that is simultaneously instantaneous and achingly slow, Naruto slams the jagged end of glass deep into his palm, his face dark with crippling sadness and his fingers smeared with blood.

“Naruto what the fuck!--” Neji moves towards him but Naruto is laughing again, digging the glass deeper ruthlessly. The shards split apart and his fingers curl spastically as the dark crystal of glass spears through his palm, crimson.

“Are ya gonna do anythin', Kakashi? Huh!?” Naruto is frenzied, words slurred by pain. “ 're you gonna fucking do shit!?”

Neji dashes forward and grabs Naruto’s wrist, sticky with blood, but Naruto and Kakashi are face to face now, inches away. Kakashi looks tormented, uncontrollable, his long-limbed frame shaking so hard Neji can see it like a vibration over his skin, drained white.

“Naruto--” He chokes on the name. His hand shoots forward, wrenches the jagged glass out of Naruto’s palm with a sudden precision that makes Naruto howl.

Kakashi’s fist moves again, a pale blur, and then Naruto is passed out cold on the floor, his hand a bloody flag.

Neji watches as though detached, dazed by shock. This isn’t how things are supposed to be, something must have gone wrong. This is Kakashi and Naruto’s apartment, their tiny kitchen, the one where once Neji walked in to see Kakashi pull Naruto back into himself from somewhere far away, with a hand steady on the back of Naruto’s neck and his voice calm and smooth, sweet as molasses.

This isn’t the same place.

Kakashi is breathing in deep, shuddering gasps. Sakura dashes to kneel by Naruto’s side, her hands reddening as she presses on the gash. She is crying so hard she can hardly answer as Neji, moving with dim, auto piloted motions, gets out the first aide kit from where he knows it sits on the top shelf of the third sunset-orange kitchen cabinet, and hands her a roll of gauze.

Everyone is silent, until Kakashi manages to speak. His voice is hoarse and grating, as though he’s just aged ten years.

“Get him to the hospital.”

OOOOO

Now, sitting in Naruto’s tiny kitchen, with burnt-orange kitchen cabinets and a linoleum tile floor, Neji feels stupid, pathetic. It doesn’t do him or Naruto any good to remember that night now.. They’ve been silent for too long. Neji reaches out and traces the scar on Naruto’s palm with one finger, raised and ridged.

Naruto shivers under the touch.

When the ambulance had come, Naruto had woken up as they put him on the gurney for a few brief moments, dizzy and still wrathful. Neji, going up to sit in that tiny, uncomfortable passenger seat next to the stretcher for the ride to the emergency room because he didn’t know what the fuck else he was supposed to do at that moment, had gripped his arm. “It’s all going to be fine, you idiot. It’s okay.”

Naruto’s hand had been wrapped in bandages so thick Neji could hardly see his fingers, but the pink stain beneath them was still spreading. Naruto had rolled away from him, eyes screwing shut. His mouth was twisted into a grimace. “I don’t care.”

Naruto curls the fingers of his scarred palm loosely around Neji’s as Neji traces up the outline of his scar again, almost without thinking. “That was stupid of me t’do, I know.” He is looking out the window instead of at Neji’s face, all the fight and ferocity gone from his frame, leaving him quiet and almost calm. “I’m not like that, I would never--you know I would never...” He sighs. “I was just so angry, so goddamned angry.”

Naruto tightens his hold on Neji’s wrist, and then slowly uncurls his fingers, still white-knuckled, from around the bottleneck of his beer bottle to fall helplessly onto his knee.

Naruto had needed surgery for the small, shallow bones of his hand. He also needed therapy, which Sakura had insisted on, green eyes flaring and final, but which Naruto regularly blew off more than he attended.

Kakashi had left a week later, packed up out of the apartment and cleanly vanished in the middle of a May thunderstorm before any of them noticed he was gone. Neji remembers the last time he’d seen him, right before the ambulance had left. Their ex-teacher had been sitting on the steps to the apartment building with Sakura, her arm soothingly around his shoulder and his head heavy in his hands.

“You know, you know I tried to help him.”

Neji still wasn’t sure which of them Kakashi had been talking about.

He tightens his own grip on Naruto’s hand. “I know.”

X

They move, slow from the heat and exhausted emotion, to sit out on the biggest windowsill Naruto owns, a fan blowing on their backs lazily. Granted, the window wasn’t that big, but Neji is comfortable now, his veins warm and slick with booze and Naruto’s broad shoulder pressed against his own, a sweating furnace. (The roof of Naruto’s building would have been cooler, and in all likelihood more comfortable, but roofs make Naruto look angry. Neji thought that roofs made Naruto look broken, but Naruto refuses to accept that.)

The lights of the city are spread like a dazzling sheet before them, sparking and bright against the cloudy dark sky, and the JR train line chugs along next to them, close enough to jump onto the railings. Neji actually has jumped onto the railings before, when he was feeling daring and impossible one night with Kakashi and Naruto and Lee goading him on from the balcony of the next apartment building over the way. As Neji recalled, the entire experience had not ended well.

Naruto plucks on a thick-cased electric wire winding above their heads like a guitar string, easy and relaxed. Next to Neji, Naruto seems like a younger version of himself, lost in an urban jungle. He looks like he belongs back at Uni, with his hair styled a new way every month and his mouth permanently in a careless, million-watt smile.

Here, they are in the adult world, where Neji has to file some reports tomorrow afternoon, and check up on how Lee’s taking his new medications. They have grown up and grown lives, in only a few short years, but Naruto is still a cut-string kite, missing something important during his persistent climb upwards, stuck unmended and drifting pointlessly in the sky.

When they were freshmen in college once, they went to a party Neji now remembers as being significantly lame, but which at the time had seemed like a doorway into a new, tantalizing life. Neji remembers seeing Naruto drag Sasuke out to dance in the throng of sweaty, buzzing students that the house was bursting with. He pulled his hips flush against Sasuke’s, ran a hand up the pale column of Sasuke's neck to tilt his chin, and kissed him right there in front of everyone, messy and triumphant.

Neji remembers intending to laugh at them, but not quite managing to. He doesn’t remember later that night, when he grabbed the first remotely attractive, apparently interested guy he could find and let himself be pushed up on the wall, kissed breathless in one of those few moments he allowed himself of unacknowledged and lustful impulsiveness. He doesn’t remember finding his way out of said guy’s apartment the next morning, but he does remember meeting Naruto and Sasuke for lunch later that day, and struggling not to flush when Naruto congratulated him with a teasing, rough-and-tumble voice.

“Stick-up-his-ass Hyuuga got some last night, everybody!”

Sitting on the windowsill next to him now, Naruto throws his bottle cap out into the heavy night air in front of them, skipping it against three tangled wires on the way down. He laughs delightedly.

Neji sighs. “Naruto, are you planning to go visit Lee?”

There is a long, pregnantly silent moment, where Naruto looks anywhere but at Neji’s face, and Neji sighs again, twirls his own bottle cap on his finger a few times before sending it out into the great unknown of the city street to follow Naruto’s.

Naruto wasn’t going to. Was Neji really even surprised?

“Ahh, go fuck yourself.”

Naruto glances sharply over at the words, but there is a half-smile on Neji’s lips, and he bumps his shoulder against Naruto’s as though he can’t really bother mustering up the energy to be truly upset.

It just wouldn’t be much point. There are stars peeking around the clouds of the sky, and Neji is too hot and too drunk to worry right now, for once in his life. Naruto has never tried to follow anyone else’s rules.

Naruto gazes softly at him, his eyes a wild, glittering blue in the dark haze of night. He smiles suddenly, wide and mischievous, and then leans up to Neji, all right up in his personal space bubble. Neji feels his stomach bottom out with a sudden sweet rush when Naruto presses his mouth, wet and hot, against Neji’s ear.

“All honesty Neji, I’d rather fuck you.”

Chapter Text

brightness, pouring itself out of you

X

“All honesty Neji, I’d rather fuck you.”

X

Wow, he really did say that.

Neji’s stomach is doing crazy things to his insides right now, but he tries to get a grip on himself. He isn’t some fairy just out of the closet who doesn’t know how to suck dick. He has sex a lot, okay.

But Naruto is suddenly kissing him, slow after the words he just murmured in Neji’s ear, and there is heat shooting down Neji’s spine all at once because it’s fucking good to be kissed by Naruto, it’s really fucking good.

Naruto deepens the kiss, lips soft on Neji’s mouth, tasting of booze and something salty like miso ramen. Neji would never have thought that combination would be attractive, but god it must be because suddenly he is hard and aching, all over. Naruto pulls back a little, looks Neji right in the eye.

Neji realizes suddenly he’s serious about doing this. Naruto’s never been afraid to look at people directly.

They should really stop and think about this, but Neji can’t anymore. He really, really, doesn’t want to. He wants this fucking bad. Also, he’s drunk. It’s as good an excuse as he’ll allow himself.

“Alright then.” He’s absurdly proud of himself for managing to sound a least a little casual.

Naruto laughs at him under his breath, a low chuckle of amusement that thrums like a slow, heady roll of thunder through Neji’s skin. He smiles. “Alright.”

Then he’s kissing Neji again, kissing him rough, kissing him needy, kissing him like theres a fire on his lips, and his hands are everywhere at once. Neji gasps for breath, opens his mouth, and Naruto swallows him whole.

So they have sex.

Neji doesn’t remember everything, because it’s all in short busts like sunspots and flashes of white heat, his veins hot and singing and his mouth wet.

Naruto backs Neji up to his bed until he trips over it, landing on his back and barely getting a moment to think before Naruto is over him, kissing his way down the step by step ladder of Neji’s ribs, his hands rough and his teeth brutal.

Naruto holds down Neji's bucking hips with one wide, warm hand and Neji tries not to struggle too much, tries not to be too desperate, but fuck did Naruto knew how to use his mouth, knew how to work his tongue on Neji’s cock, up the veined side and over the swollen tip with a swirl, sucking hard with his cheeks hollowing in, making a picture so lasciviously filthy that Neji, flat on his back and squirming, has to lock his jaw to keep from groaning.

“Fuck, Neji let me hear you.” Naruto whisper-moans words to the smooth, sensitive skin at the junction of Neji’s hip and thigh, dirty words, and Neji fists his hands into the wildly soft tangles of Naruto’s golden hair, glinting silver edged in the moonlight from the window. “C’mon Neji. I’ve been wanting this for a damn long time.”

Neji rolls his eyes up, laughs around the electricity in his head, because Naruto couldn’t be telling the truth, Neji knows he couldn’t be telling the truth, but it sounded so good, too fucking good against Neji’s skin and in his ears, all the way through him to warm behind his neck and the soles of his feet. He digs his nails into Naruto’s head viciously, curls his toes.

Naruto has long, knob-knuckled fingers, and they sting like mother-loving hell when he scissors two of them up Neji’s ass, his furnace of a fucking mouth still sucking down Neji’s dick like he wanted to swallow it whole. He rolls Neji’s balls carefully in his palm, rakes his nails down the pale skin of Neji’s chest ruthlessly, crooks his fingers in Neji’s ass just right, and Neji spasms, blanks out hard.

Naruto is still fingering his ass when Neji comes too, lube sticky on his fingers now and dripping down onto the sheets messily and Neji wonders when he managed to get that out of the bedside drawer because Neji certainly doesn’t remember that happening. Its a deep pressure now, sweet and slick jolts of pleasure twisting his insides into knots. Naruto is licking his lips around the salty aftertaste of Neji’s cum, which is really too hot of a scenario for Neji to think very clearly about.

He grins at Neji, a too-bright sun, something ragged and breaking in his voice. “Damn, Neji. You look like a fucking wreck.” Neji pulls him down for a kiss with one hand gripping tight on the back of Naruto’s neck, like he could pull Naruto into him if he just tugged hard enough.

Naruto fucks Neji, with Neji’s legs up over his chest and Naruto’s eyes rolling back in his head when he pushes in, a groan simmering out from the back of his throat and the long golden line of his back shuddering. Neji’s eyes are screwed shut because even though he’s good at this by now that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt like a bitch at first.

Only, this is Naruto, fucking Naruto’s cock in his ass and hands clutching at his skin, and so Neji pulls his eyes open and watches the way Naruto’s teeth are gritted hard and the slow fall of his neck as he tilts forward to hide his face against Neji’s shoulder, more noises breaking from his mouth like hot coals as he finally starts to move.

It burns, the way Naruto fucks, burns like a wildfire. Neji rakes his nails up Naruto’s back, pants open-mouthed onto Naruto’s lips, manages to swallow his sounds until Naruto jerks his head back and snarls into his ear. “Fuckin’ hell. Why don’t you--moan for me Neji--”

Naruto thrusts on his words, his thumb stroking hard over the tip of Neji’s dick. It hits somewhere blue-flame-hot inside Neji and he decides to just give up trying to hold himself back, because Naruto clearly isn’t gonna beat around the bush.

“Ahh-ha-sh-shit!”

“Ha--I thought--that might work--” Naruto is grinning as he corkscrews his hips again and Neji laces their fingers together tightly, like a lifeline.

“You’re an-- ah fuck-- asshole.” Neji turns his head to the side and bites the tender skin of Naruto’s wrist with a rough scrape of his teeth. Naruto’s eyes flutter shut, and quietly, in some part of Neji that isn’t on fire with sweat and sex and elation, he decides he likes the delicacy of that movement, so unexpectedly soft.

Naruto fucks like he’s guilty of something, for all his dirty words and his confident mouth, and when he comes he hides his face again in Neji’s skin, his whole body shuddering. Neji is burning, burning and burning all the way from behind his eyes to the bottoms of his feet, and when he comes it’s surreal somehow, like maybe he will wake up tomorrow and this will all have been a dream, even the sated, sleepy smile on Naruto’s face when he tangles their legs together in bed, fumbles blindly for a blanket, breath still hot on Neji’s neck.

Neji wonders if this is what he’s always wanted, if its better than or worse somehow or the same as what he’s always wanted, and that thought scares him, but it’s good, so good, really fucking good, and maybe, he supposes tiredly to himself in the haze of fucked-out afterglow exhaustion, it’s what he needed.

X

Neji wakes up to heat. The window they left open last night is doing absolutely nothing to let in some breeze, although it’s managed to welcome plenty of sunlight, and of course they forgot to turn on Naruto’s ventilation fans in their haste to get each others clothes off. Neji feels mildly stupid realizing that, because now he’s sticky with sweat on top of everything else, and the sheets are damp on his legs, and the air in the apartment is positively soupy with humidity.

Trust Naruto to not have something as necessary and life-saving as the invention of air conditioning. The prat.

Neji lies there for a grand total of ten minutes, feeling decidedly ungrateful for the sunbeam across his part of the futon, slowly letting the harsh reality of daylight, the ache of an ass well-fucked, and a killer hangover sink into his temples.

He’s in Naruto’s bed. It’s not like this is really that new of a phenomenon; in college he’d crashed on Naruto’s bed often when his own roommate decided to put a sock on the door, and he’s even slept here a few times just out of pure drunken stupor or, in that time he doesn’t like to think about right after senior year, to make sure Naruto didn’t do anything stupid during the night. But all those other times had been different.

He hadn’t spent most of the night having sex with the owner of said bed all those other times, for one thing.

Neji groans a little, flops a hand over his eyes. What is this going to mean? What is he going to say? At least a third of the night before is blurry behind his eyelids. Neji has never been good at morning afters-- it’s one of the reasons he always hightails it out of Shikamaru’s flat.

What is even more disturbing is that while half of Neji is a sore and headachy mess, the other half is practically giddy, if Neji ever would admit to feeling giddy, which he wouldn’t. He feels soft and pliant, buzzed out, something sweet lingering in his mouth behind the leftover boozy dryness.Naruto words in his ear flicker through his memory like a candle-flame, rough and hot and careless.

“All honesty Neji, I’d rather fuck you.”

Neji manages enough energy to roll over, dismissing the heat flushing his face. It’s too hot and he’s too hungover to be thinking like that.

Damn it all, where was Naruto anyway? There is an empty space in the futon next to him, rumpled sheets by the foot of the bed and spilling onto the floor. The pillows smell decidedly like Naruto when Neji rests his aching head against them again. Belatedly, and with another spike of misplaced morning heat, Neji realizes that he probably smells decidedly of Naruto too.

Naruto, sex, and booze. A not-so-excellent combination, but at the same time with an edge of spice to it, like something exciting.

Neji sighs.

X

He manages to pull himself out of bed, with much groaning and an attempt to finger-comb some of the worst tangles from his hair--Tenten likes to tease Neji for being notoriously fussy about his hair, but he isn’t. He simply appreciates good hygiene and the ability to toss one’s hair and have heads turn. It’s not that big of a deal.

He wanders past the little curtain partition that Naruto (or more likely, Kakashi) put up to separate the bedroom area from the rest of the apartment, and finds Naruto in the tiny kitchen, looking positively golden.

He turns around from where he’s actually pulling a carton of cereal down from the cabinet, a bottle of creamy white milk in his hand, and greets Neji with a mischievous grin and a kiss squarely on his mouth. “Good mornin’!”

Neji is a little blindsided. He wasn’t expecting morning kisses. Frankly, he was expecting an awkward chat and a reevaluation of their friendship.

He considers Naruto with one eyebrow raised and a stony face. Naruto is shirtless, wearing only boxers and a pair of bright orange house socks, padding around in a sleepy but contented manner, pouring juice into a coffee mug. There are still streaks of pale gold make-up smeared over his eyelids. Neji tries not to notice the purple dark hickey on his neck, or the smooth, leanly muscled planes of his back that Neji now knows tastes delicious against his tongue. Naruto gestures with another chipped cup to Neji. “Want some? I’m don’t have coffee right now. Heard somewhere it’s bad for the heart.”

If possible, Neji’s face grows stonier. He doesn’t think Naruto, who drank at least his body weight last night and quite possibly shot himself up with narcotics of questionable legality, should be talking about things being bad for you. Naruto’s been living unhealthily for a long time-- one attempt at better diet doesn’t begin to cut his lifestyle into anything resembling normal.

Besides, Neji has gotten through entire work days before on absolutely nothing but coffee bean and pure adrenaline. It’s just the principle of the thing.

Still, he takes the offered juice, and chooses a type of cornflakes from Naruto’s impressive lineup.

It occurs to him, as he watches Naruto sprinkle obscene amounts of sugar onto this already frosted fruit loops, that this should really be awkward, but instead Naruto is companionably curling his foot around Neji’s as they eat, all casual. It’s like they didn’t bang wildly last night or anything. Naruto jabs his spoon at Neji and accuses him of being entirely too sexy last night. When did Neji stop being a stick-in-the-mud and learn how to have fun?

Well, that clears that up.

Neji decides not to answer, focusing instead on his soggy breakfast, but he does kick Naruto’s shin a little, just for solidarity. It’s nice sitting here, with Naruto smiling around the corners of his mouth and his face prickly with a golden fuzz of morning stubble. It’s unbearably hot of course, and Neji’s head aches fiercely behind his temples, but it’s nice.

When Neji thinks about it, he supposes it’s only understandable that Naruto simply doesn’t hold with awkward morning after conversations about friendships or attachments. Naruto has probably fucked more people now than he did before what happened to Sasuke, and he just doesn’t do awkward anymore.

Instead, they drink orange juice.

Naruto is laughing against his lips about something and Neji is halfway through his breakfast--and personally he thinks Naruto really should have at least a little protein in the morning, because Neji is the kind of man who will make the whole long shot of eggs and miso and rice and bacon in the morning if he can spare the time-- when he realizes he can’t actually spare any time at all.

It’s eleven o’ clock in the fucking morning, unless that dratted little stove clock blinking neon green at Neji is lying. He was supposed to be at the office at least two hours ago, and he might sign Ayumi-chan’s paychecks but that has never stopped her from reaming him out something fierce when he doesn’t show good form in the company.

Shit.

Naruto sniggers at him infuriatingly as he scrambles for silly things like pants and socks and his hellishly wrinkled tie until Neji is finally ready to go, hoping that he can convince Ayumi to whip up her hangover cure if he asks nicely enough.

Neji fumbles at the door uncertainly. What does he say now? Naruto is still shirtless and still beautiful, like something that doesn’t quite belong. Neji is breathless for a minute, and then Naruto comes up to him, all close, a creaky smile on his face scrunching up his eyes.

“Sucks you have to go to work. I wasn’t done yet.”

Neji wishes he knew exactly what Naruto meant by that, whether Naruto was about to fuck his brains out again or simply thank him for casual sex and tell him perhaps next time Naruto needs a fix he’ll hit him up.

Maybe Naruto meant that they were about to sit down and discuss how their friendship of about nine years has now suddenly and irrevocably changed, but Neji doesn’t have time to start questioning, because Naruto decides to kiss him goodbye.

He kisses Neji hard and careless like he’s been doing it his whole life, and Neji still hasn’t gotten over how much Naruto likes to kiss, at the end of sentences and in the middle of jokes,kisses quick and sharp on his lips like flecks of flame. His smile is sleepy and his his hands warm on the back of Neji’s neck, and even as the door shuts behind him, Neji thinks he tastes like sunlight.

X

End Chapter

Chapter Text

X

Ayumi is anything but pleased when Neji gets to work, ridiculously late and clearly wearing yesterday’s clothes.

At least Ayumi is subtle. Neji looks like he came from a night of grueling debauchery. It’s almost enough to make Neji blush, but he controls himself. He isn’t that far gone. He still has some pride, damn it.

“It’s almost noon, Hyuuga-san.” Ayumi cocks her head at him in a half quizzical, half judgemental way. Her lipstick is very dark, almost hiding the smile curving her lips ever so slightly, and if he didn’t know better he’d think that she was almost amused by the whole situation.

Usually, Hyuuga Neji is practically notorious about punctuality.

“I am, in fact, aware of the time, Ayumi-chan.” Neji tosses his head, pulls together all the frostiness and dignity he can scrape together as budding CEO of the company, and strides into his office without a backward glance.

A few hours later, when she’s given him adequate time to wildly bemoan his headache and curse furiously under his breath at the decrepit state of their interns’ handiwork and penmanship, Ayumi brings him her hangover cure, which is a sickly yellow color.

She also takes away his coffee cup.

“Hyuuga-san, take this down all at once and then drink some water like normal person who values hydration more than caffeine intake.”

Neji decides he’s required to love her more than hate her, at least for the day, because he didn’t even have to ask for her help.

The hangover cure tastes like peeled celery and old piss. He gags, and wishes he could hate her instead. Unfortunately, Ayumi is too good for that.

She has the gall to almost laugh at him. “Oh, and there’s a call on line three for you.”

She flits away, her chic pencil skirt annoyingly unwrinkled and her heels clicking sweetly. Neji wipes his mouth, presses the water glass to his throbbing temple rather than actually drinking it, and carefully doesn’t think to himself that he’s sure Naruto would get a hilarious kick out of Ayumi-chan.

X

Tenten is on the line.

“Damn it all Neji, I called your cell about five times.”

She had, but Neji had been...indisposed.

He’d been going to town on sucking Naruto’s cock, but he decides Tenten doesn’t need to know about that just yet.

“I apologize, Tenten. Did you get home safely?” Neji glances at his watch, grits his teeth. “I can leave work if I need to.”

“No it’s okay. I’m...actually at Ino’s place. She picked me up.” Tenten’s voice is rather quiet, a slight hesitancy around her syllables. “...I...stayed the night.”

“Alright.”

Neji keeps his voice carefully neutral. Tenten didn’t often like to have sex with people she knew. Tenten liked to dance in clubs until a strange woman grabbed her by the hair and kissed her hard and took her home with them. This was quite different than her usual flings.

Then again, he wasn’t exactly one to talk.

Tenten sighed on the phone. “You aren’t going to tell me where you were last night right now, are you.”

“Not particularly.”

Tenten’s tone is not quite bemused. She knows him far too well. “Fine. Well, I’ll see you at the hospital later, Ino will take me.”

The hospital. Neji had forgotten.

How had he fucking forgotten?

Tenten hangs up with a muttered endearment and Neji sets his phone carefully on the desk, trying to breathe normally.

It was Friday. That meant that the new round of chemotherapy would be starting today, around three in the afternoon. He and Tenten usually visited around that time, and then again sometime during the small hours of the night, once Neji had picked Tenten up or just succumbed to an emotional upheaval and gone by himself while Tenten was...busy.

He hadn’t visited last night at all. It was odd how little he’d thought of it. Now, there is a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, a familiar weight heavy on his shoulders.

He’d been thoughtless, let himself go, let people down. Neji cursed under his breath, eyeing the thick stack of paperwork on his desk.

Neji was partly responsible for Lee’s treatment plan; he helped out with the hellishly large costs that would have put Gai-sensei out of business months ago. Today was a big day for Lee; they were all holding out for this round of drugs to be the magic ticket. Lee was certainly optimistic.

Lee was always optimistic though, his constant, million-watt smile continually setting Neji’s teeth grinding with an uneasy combination of annoyance and tentative hope.

It was painful, Lee being so gung-ho about the whole damn thing, every fucking day. Neji pushed himself away from his desk, made a conscious effort to unclench his jaw and breath deeply.

Neji found it hard to be optimistic these days.

 

X

The hospital air-conditioning billows forth with the same overly sterile, chemically white smell that stings in Neji’s nose the way it always does. When Neji checks into the hospital’s main center to get a customary lanyard with his designated “guest” pass he notices a new sign welcoming visitors to partake in the “cleansing, peaceful atmosphere of the Tokyo Regional Hospital’s newest attraction, the prayer garden.”

Neji scoffs. ‘Attraction’ seems like a strong word. ‘Prayer’ seems even stronger. He imagines wizened little old ladies settling down on the tacky miniature benches to clasp their hands and mutter words for the pocketbook of an ill husband, or fresh-faced, overly eager new parents bringing a squalling infant out into the world for the first time just for a walk around the cramped, under-ventilated space.

It was enough of an architectural disaster to make him want to gag.

Luckily though, Lee is awake to distract from such sickening thoughts when Neji finally gets to his ward, awake and sitting up in bed, and of course he’s smiling.

“I apologize, I’m late.” Neji is still kicking himself. He was kept at the office far longer than 3 o’clock because of his own stupidity, and knows that by this point the first round of new meds have come and gone, and Tenten is probably down at the cafeteria grabbing a quick, measly-portioned dinner.

“Don’t worry about it Neji! I would never hold it against you. Your commitment to your work should be greatly admired!”

Lee is as earnest as ever, and it helps to tug Neji’s mouth into a smile, as he settles down in the guest chair on the left side of Lee’s bed. Gai is already tucked neatly into the chair to the right, as he probably has been for quite some time. He’s knitting, as is his usual bedside activity. Neji thinks that by this point in Lee’s illness, Gai could have knitted enough clothing to outfit a small army.

Because he is a saint, and probably the most tactful person Neji knows, (which makes the act all the more bittersweet) Lee is wearing one of Gai’s monstrosities of manly needlework; a cap over his head of a garish green color.

Neji knows it’s because most of Lee’s hair has fallen out by this point from radiation therapy, but from the way Lee proudly models the headgear, you’d never guess it.

Lee is as pale as his sheets, eyes huge in his face and mouth very small, despite its smile. His long legs and arms have shrunk drastically, so that somehow instead of the agile strength and sinew that always gave his gangly frame a certain elegance, he now looks awkward and thinly stretched, like an overgrown child. There are needles taped to his bony chest peeking from behind his hospital gown, tubes in his snubbed nose--a nose Neji used to insult when they were kids--and a matching set of machines at the foot of his bed that buzz, beep and hum like a miniature chorus.

It’s a lot to take in, but Neji is used to it by now. Mostly used to it.

“How did the newest meds go down?” Neji asks.

Lee beams at him. “I only threw up twice, so I’d say that was a marked improvement!”

Gai, counting stitches with a concentrated fashion, looks up to meet Neji’s eyes, which suddenly feel tight, with a look of bracing encouragement and a smile as white and sincere as a toothpaste commercial.

“Of course! That’s the ticket, Lee my boy.” Gai brandishes his knitting needles like a pennant battle flag. “Once more, unto the breach! It’s the only way to look at it. You have been facing this with the gusto and zest as you face every challenge of your youth!”

Neji winces.

Gai reaches forward to gather the blanket of Lee’s bed with both hands. “I am so proud of you, for all you’ve accomplished, perhaps I will even let you skip the warm-up class this competition season!”

Neji has known Gai and Lee for most of his life, and Lee has never once missed a warm-up exercise in the entire time he’d been training and teaching at Gai’s mixed martial arts dojo. The thought was absurd, but Gai continued to offer it up, even though it’s really clear at this point there will be no competing this season.

There was no competing last season either.

Neji is never sure how serious Gai is about Lee’s future, when he smiles so brightly and brings things like Lee’s favorite kick-boxing legwarmers into the hospital, or a pair of weighted barbells that sit unused and gathering dust in the corner, and then sits by Lee’s bed and watches him while he sleeps, but at this point in the game Neji knows it’s best not to ask.

X

He has to tell Lee about Naruto, because of course he does. He’s never not told Lee about a sexual experience he’s ever had in his life, even when he was 13 and seemed to have a crush on his extremely shy, but also very understanding cousin. (Lee was instrumental in explaining that this was, in fact, not a healthy attachment, and pointing out that perhaps the real issue was Neji’s then refusal to admit his ‘budding flower of homosexuality.’ It had not been the best conversation of Neji’s life.)

Lee might seem like the oddest person to chat with about how he took it up the ass rough last night, but sometimes his oldest friend’s blind optimism, total acceptance, and assured trumpeting of Neji’s admirable qualities had it’s perks.

Lee is nice about it, or about as nice as someone can be when they really have a lot of shit going on right then and will not be getting off anytime soon, but still are nice enough to make time to listen to their emotionally-confused friend talk about how he had sex with someone. It goes something along the lines of yes it was awesome sex, but no Neji does not know how feels about it and yes, by someone he means Uzumaki Naruto, the one guy who hasn’t yet come to see Lee in the fucking hospital, despite the many times Lee has bailed said guy out of stupid shit.

Predictably, Gai starts to tear up in a manly fashion about love and the power of connection, and then has to leave the room before Neji kills him, or does something else suitably violent. Gai knows way too much about Neji’s personal life at this point, but Neji supposes that is no one’s fault but his own, not that he would admit it.

Lee doesn’t often bring up Naruto in conversation, even though they used to be close. Nobody could hope to beat Naruto in an eating contest, but Lee always gave him a run for his money. As a rule, nobody talks about how he’s changed, or the fact that he never comes to visit, or even goes near the subject Sasuke. It’s one of those carefully not discussed topics, like competition season, or how they will figure out how to pay the next hospital bill.

“It’s not love. It’s probably just blind hormones.” Neji says this in a long-suffering way after Gai has jauntily closed the door behind him. He is slightly red in the face by now. “Naruto will fuck anyone, always did.”

It comes out harsher but also truer than he intended, which hurts more than it should.

Lee is looking at him with big, somber eyes. Neji always regrets telling him about sex after the fact, because of course Lee has a history of making even the most shitty one-night stand seem like an act of true purpose and enlightenment.

He looks different with his hair falling out and the tubes in his chest, looks wrong. It’s made all the more weird by the fact that instead of launching into a full analysis of the potential of Naruto and Neji’s not-relationship, all he does is look down to where his hands are folded over his bed-sheets and smile gently.

“It’s okay for you to want it to happen again, Neji-kun.”

Neji splutters inelegantly, suddenly more irritatingly self-conscious than he's been with Lee in years, but there isn't much time to respond because the door to the ward is opening and Tenten is walking towards them. Neji decides this is good, because he has no idea what he would say.

X

Tenten isn’t alone. Ino follows her into the room, wearing a gorgeously tailored, high-fashion lavender business suit that manages to somehow look both inviting and intimidating at the same time, which has always been one of Ino’s charms.

Neji is confused. Ino is a friend, but she’s not that good of a friend. It feels almost sacrilegious to bring someone else, someone new, into the room, gathered around Lee’s bed the way they were, like it was a shrine.

(Naruto could have been the first to tell him that jealousy is likely one of his personal shortcomings, but at least it’s one they share.)

Then he notices that Tenten is very pale, and her hand is gripping Ino’s so hard the knuckles are white, although you couldn't tell this from Ino’s calmly serene expression. The new round of medication earlier must not have gone as nicely as Lee was claiming. Neji sighs inwardly, mentally skinning himself for being so late.

Tenten greets him with a smile and drops an affectionate kiss on his cheek, and he’s pleased that at least her hair smells clean, tossed up into a messy bun, and there’s a brightness in her eyes that suggests perhaps she actually ate a full meal recently.

Usually Neji is the one who convinces Tenten to eat something more than a mild soup for dinner.

Neji shifts a little on his feet. He doesn’t know how he feels about Tenten and Ino.

Tenten is sharp like a piece of hardened metal, used to hunkering down to fight the long battles, used to taking hard knocks. But Ino has always been sharper, sharp and acidic like under-ripe oranges and fresh lemon rind. When Ino cuts you, there’s always a burn. Neji would know, because he was there on the sideline when she sliced Shikamaru out of her life as neatly and sweetly as a piece of citrus pie after the cheating debacle, way back at University. Neji can only admire her for it.

Now, her wheat-blonde hair is swept into a delicate twist. She catches Neji’s eye, and suddenly in contrast her smile is soft, soft like whipped cream and balmy summer nights.

He decides he won’t press the issue of Tenten’s new lover yet. It's really none of his business. The novelty of something that doesn't directly require his attention feels strangely comforting, a swell of relief in his chest.

X

When Sakura comes in, a little over an hour later when they are playing cards and Neji is losing horribly to the combined force of Tenten and Ino and Lee against him, she’s holding a clipboard of test results, but makes a beeline straight for Neji.

He should have guessed this was probably coming. The blonde idiot still loves Haruno Sakura more than he's ever loved most people, even if there aren't many people left in his life available for the attachment.

“Can I talk to you in the hall for a quick moment, please?” She sounds painstakingly polite, and tired. Sakura always sounds tired these days, but she is nothing if not loyal, and will always make time for Naruto.

In the hallway, her eyes are questioning. “Did you see him last night?”

Neji debates exactly how much she probably knows already, and then decides to keep it brief. Just because Lee is privy to his sexual activity doesn’t mean anyone else has the right to be.

“Yes.”

Sakura gives him an exasperated look. “He called me earlier today,” her tone is increasingly wavering somewhere between worry and defeat. “He hasn’t called me in weeks.”

Neji doesn’t know what to say to that, except that Naruto was really such an idiot, and it’s against his better judgement to be standing here right now, with his ass still sore from Naruto’s dick, when Sakura hasn’t heard a peep from him for so long. There’s only so much she can do.

“I saw him.”

“He mentioned you, and he asked if I’d heard anything from Kakashi.” Sakura chokes up a little, and Neji would have put his hand on her shoulder in a hopefully comforting way if he didn’t feel incapable of touching her right now from raw guilt building inside him.

“I don’t think he was sober, Neji.” Sakura is struggling to keep it together here, a sob hiding beneath her voice. Neji feels like his skin is being pulled the wrong way, stretched thinly over a canvas. “He told me he couldn’t wait to go for ramen and see me... me and Sasuke again.”

Neji makes a noise, but strangles it before it can fully leave his throat. Sakura looks up at him again, and her shorter height has nothing on the fierceness in her green, green eyes.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on Neji, I can’t hope to know what’s going on.” Her voice gets steely, puts itself back together piece by piece. “But you saw him last night, and he still talks to you, so you’ve got to be there for him, at least just to listen, alright?”

Neji has to be there for a lot of people right now, and honestly, he wishes he was better at doing it.

Sakura handed him the sheet of Lee’s test results, squeezing his hand briefly in the process.

“He isn't okay. I know you’re worried about him too, and I don’t know what else I can do now.” She says this very softly, and then turns around, disappearing down the narrow fluorescent-lit hallway. He can’t blame her. She has other patients to see, other friends to save.

Neji closed his eyes, fingers clenching on the paper. Before he can quite stop himself, he crumples it spastically into a ball, fist starting to quiver. His jaw feels very tight.

He is suddenly reminded of how his aunt used to make pots and pots of strong powdered green tea to avoid talking about a sensitive topic. ‘If you’re really drinking the tea, focusing on the flavor, there is no need for any discussion,’ she used to say dismissively, while Neji, frustrated and mute, politely accepted his cup.

He slowly smooths out the test results, pressing them against his pant-leg futily a few times in an attempt to get out the worst of the wrinkles, and reads them over carefully before heading back to Lee’s ward.

Neji thinks that perhaps right now, he could really use some tea.

X

End Chapter

Chapter Text

Chapter 7:

When Neji pulls walks up the steps to his apartment later that night, the air is dank with humid heat, and the sky is a stinging coppery red, burnished with the last streaks of sunset. His shirt-collar is sticky with sweat, steps heavy. The streets of the bustling city seem quiet, for a few hours at least.

Neji’s landlady is a sweet old thing, and gives Tenten and Neji a great deal on the rent, but she’s also extraordinarily lax about upkeep. He’s been trying to get the loose, grubby locks to the front door changed for months. It’s pure luck that they haven’t been robbed yet.

Which is why it shouldn’t surprise him that Naruto has managed to let himself into the apartment, and is sitting comfortably on Neji’s couch, a beer in one hand, watching cartoons on the tiny TV.

Somehow, it’s still a shock.

Seeing him, a part of Neji is relieved. At least the idiot is alive and seemingly in one piece, instead of drunkenly wandering through the streets. Sakura had implied that Naruto had been on a pretty bad trip when he called her, and that wasn’t all that long ago.

But most of Neji is just exhausted. He’s spares a mental prayer of thanks that Tenten had headed off with Ino when they left the hospital instead of coming home; He’d rather face whatever happened next with Naruto alone.

When the door snaps shut behind him, Naruto looks around. There’s an easy smile on his face, and he looked like he might have showered recently and probably helped himself to Neji’s facilities, because when he walks up he smells like Neji’s shampoo.

“Finally off the grind, huh? I was waiting for you to call me -- you took too long, so I let myself in.” His voice is teasing, causal. As if he didn’t know that Neji was late because of the hospital. As if he didn’t deliriously call Sakura and dredge up a few horrible memories for everyone in a drug induced haze earlier that day.

Neji doesn’t know how to answer. Somewhere, a small but insistent part of him had decided that this is entirely too much.

A day ago, he had never so much as kissed Naruto. A day ago, everyone still thought that Lee’s new meds would be a great success. Only yesterday, Neji had everything under control.

Now, almost everything has fallen apart spectacularly. It would be laughable if he wasn’t so tired. He turns away from where Naruto stands with his hip cocked against Neji’s kitchen counter, arms folded over his chest cheekily.

“Look Naruto, I don’t really have time for your shit right now.”

He doesn’t bother to see Naruto’s reaction, instead dropping his briefcase to the floor with a thud, walking around the kitchen with quick, jerky movements to wash his hands and pour himself a glass of whiskey. He doesn’t want to think about how much he needs this whiskey. It’s not exactly the really good stuff, but it will do.

Neji’s stomach gurgles uncomfortably. He hasn’t eaten anything since Ayumi forced a protein bar into his hands at work, hours ago. He’s pretty sure there should be a microwavable dinner somewhere in the fridge--He’ll have that.

Naruto is watching him closely, blue eyes hardening, but he’s quiet. Neji can’t quite bring himself to care.

“This is breaking and entering, you know that, right? I don’t suppose you mind!? Is that how you get your drugs?” He slams the frozen dinner into the microwave with more force than really necessary, not bothering to listen to Naruto’s sudden sharp intake of breath. “Look Naruto, last night...I have no clue what last night was, but now I still have tons of shit to do, and it’s because of you I was--” He chokes on the next words involuntarily, “I was late to see Lee--”

Naruto stalks up close to move in and corner Neji against the fridge, not bothering to be gentle about it.

“Alright, hey! What exactly are you getting at, huh, Neji? You blaming me for all your shit? Do you have something you wanna say?” His voice is loud and tight.

The hard part of it all is that Neji does indeed have a lot he wants to say, starting with “what the hell happened last night” and ending somewhere around “what the hell happened to you,” but none of the words seem to come to his throat. He locks eyes with Naruto for a brief moment, notices the way Naruto’s hand near his head against the fridge door is shaking slightly, and reminds himself that the idiot is probably still coming down from his high. He feels somehow even more tired, remembering that, and takes a gulp of whiskey from his glass, looking away, hair falling across his eyes.

“No. No, I don’t want to say anything.”

Naruto opens his mouth, and then closes it again, as though confused by Neji’s sudden defeated tone. He backs away almost awkwardly, digging his hands into his pockets and looking at the floor as though half-ashamed of himself. “Well, fine...O-okay then.”

The whiskey burns against Neji’s throat and he closes his eyes, waiting for the microwave to beep, willing himself not to fall over. When the alarm buzzes, he busies himself with ripping off the steaming plastic cover over what looks like congealed pad thai and sitting at the table.

Naruto watches silently. He seemed to backtracking a bit, if Neji was bothering to pay attention, and his expression has quieted into something surprisingly tender when he leans over to plant his elbows on the table and flap a hand hesitantly in the direction of Neji’s food.

“You’re working yourself to the bone, babe. It’s not good for ya. Dontcha think you could use a little TLC...?” He says it jokingly, but Neji finds himself glancing up in shock despite himself.

Is that where he and Naruto are at now? Calling each other by pet names and whispering sweet nothings? Well, how lovely of Naruto to be so generous with their screwy, twisted little not-relationship. Really, that was just splendid.

Neji has never been good at obvious displays of affection. Truth be told, Neji has never been very good at affection at all.

There is silence in the kitchen for a moment, before a slimy pad thai noodle slips from Neji’s chopsticks back into the bowl with a faintly audible plop.

Naruto looks distinctly uncomfortable, wincing as Neji breaks the moment by dropping the rest of his noodles into the bowl and sitting back in his chair, sighing. It appears he hadn’t expected this to be Neji’s reaction. He scrubs one hand through his hair fitfully.

“Look...uh....I can just go...--”

“Well, what the hell did you come here for Naruto?” Neji hates this. He hates having Naruto, of all people, see him here in the dingy kitchen he hasn’t actually properly cleaned in ages, exhausted and not-really-holding-it-together, sitting down to eat a fucking microwave dinner, alone.

Naruto’s brow furrows. “Neji, I was just tryin--”

“No really, what the fuck did you even come for?” The words come faster than Neji intends, his voice hoarse. “I am pissed at you, y’know? After everything that happened today, you just come waltzing in like it’s all fine and dandy, right?”

Naruto steps back a pace, scowling. “Hey, you don’t know---”

“Exactly, I don’t really know anything, do I?” Neji feels very hot in the face. He stabs his chopsticks into the bowl viciously. “I don’t know anything. I’m just here to be a convenient fuck.” He looks up, eyes fierce. “What, am I just supposed to stroll in and fall all over myself for your big hot dick, like I’ve been waiting for it all day? Is that what I’m supposed to do now?”

Naruto is frozen, mouth half open in surprise.The muscles in his jaw work visibly as he swallows, hard.

If this were another time, Naruto could have stormed out, or snapped back a burning retort. If this was another time, perhaps Naruto would have sucker-punched Neji in the gut, or done something else comparably self-destructive. It wouldn’t be the first time, Neji thinks dryly to himself, aggressively skewering a limp piece of carrot on his chopsticks.

But Naruto used to be able to read a room like it was a fucking book. For all his oblivious banter, he could always clock Neji’s mood. Neji remembers in college, Naruto had always been able to tell when Neji’s family had written, or more often when they hadn’t. | Naruto could always tell when Sakura was about to rage, when Sasuke needed a punching bag, when Shikamaru was skillfully evading the truth. For someone who acted like a complete idiot most of the time, it was surprising how much perception was behind those blue, blue eyes.

Maybe some of that understanding was still there, lingering under the surface.

Slowly, Naruto unfurled his brows, mouth settling into an easy smile, eyes curving. He splays out his hands wide on the countertop and leans forward, spine long and loose. “Naahh, babe. You don’t have to do anything, I promise.”

He’s reassuringly earnest, tone just as touchingly sincere as the old days, and Neji involuntarily heaves a heavy sigh, shoulders bowing in, dropping his chopsticks. He’s suddenly worried he might collapse into his noodles.

As if he was planning to do it all along, Naruto moves behind him, settles his arms bracingly around Neji’s middle and nestles his chin into Neji’s neck, like it was no big deal. For a long second Neji is tense, chest tight and annoyance curled like a fist in his throat, but Naruto smells fresh and warm, like crisp laundry and Tenten’s favorite pumpkin lager beer, and even though Neji knows Naruto probably used his washer-dryer and it will rack up the utility bill he doesn’t quite care.

He relaxes slowly in Naruto’s half-embrace, not sure why he’s caving so quickly. A second ago he had half a mind to skewer Naruto, and now they’re...cuddling, for lack of a better word. He doesn’t get it. Naruto rumbles comfortingly as Neji tips his head back despite himself, lips the skin behind Neji’s ear.

“You don’t haveta do anything, okay?” He murmurs it again, and his hands trail along Neji’s stomach, flatten and nudge his thighs ever so slightly apart on the spindly chair to press against his groin. Neji’s eyes flutter shut at the sudden rush. “Nothin’ but let me kiss you.”

Neji scoffs at that, a kind of amused disbelief in his voice because he didn’t know what the hell Naruto was thinking, doing this again, and he didn’t really know why the hell it was working on him, either. Naruto just grins at him over his shoulder, bright and all-encompassing, and twists his head to kiss him.

The only other times in his entire life Neji had kissed Naruto were drunkenly last night and groggily this morning, now seeming terribly long ago, but kissing Naruto already feels strangely familiar, soft lips pressing just hard enough with a hint of teeth, a touch of insistence lingering on the tongue, an undercurrent of urgency.

He really likes kissing Naruto.

Neji certainly didn’t plan this at all - in fact would have vehemently opposed it if he’d been informed ahead of time - but suddenly they’re lip-locked and Naruto is slowly palming his dick out of his pants and pushing him backward onto the kitchen table. Neji’s fingers curl into the damp strands of Naruto’s hair, and he feels half-exhausted and half-turned on, which is a combination he didn’t know was possible.

It’s not a bad combo though, all things considered. Naruto is slow in moving over Neji’s body, compensating for Neji’s height by practically climbing on top of him, and Neji coughs with a sudden burst of laughter at the confused and then disgruntled faces Naruto makes when his head knocks the hanging light above the table, twice.

His hand is warm and steady on Neji’s dick, lips warmer on his collarbones, stubble scratching his chest. Under the cage of Naruto’s body Neji feels anchored, almost secure, a boat at sea suddenly in sight of the lighthouse.

“Why are we doing this again?” Neji gasps the words when he gets a chance to breathe - everything coming a little dirtier and grittier and rushed now, lights sparking in his head at the slow pull of Naruto’s fingers, heels tucked up under his ass and shuddering. “I’m not - ah - even really tipsy. I have no - ex-excuses. Shit.”

Naruto has one hand bracing himself up on the table to look down at Neji, his eyes focused and dark, hooded in the shadowed light over the table and breath coming in heavy pants. At Neji’s words he blinks distractedly and barks a short laugh, like he’s almost exasperated.

He scoots down on the table to slink Neji’s long legs up over his shoulders with a grunt. “Ah c’mon Neji, it’s all good.” He winks, a diamond flash in the dimmed light. “Friends bang friends all the damn time. Just enjoy yourself for once, huh?”

Neji is about to tell him that really seems like a stretch of logic, because really-- do friends bang multiple times a day? Do they call each other pet names like the ones that now slip so carelessly often from Naruto’s mouth?-- But then Naruto is kneeling over at the edge of the table with Neji’s legs high over his shoulders and his hands are firm on Neji’s hipbones, lifting Neji’s ass to his mouth. True to classic fuckboy form, Naruto is exceedingly good with his tongue, and Neji suddenly has other things to think about.

He breaks his throat on harsh, half-swallowed noises, tosses his head and gets sweaty strands of silky hair caught on his teeth, digs his heels hard into the muscles of Naruto’s back to make him moan and bucks his hips as much as Naruto will allow, those wide brown hands clenching Neji’s ass and hips to leave sweetly aching purple-toned marks. Neji’s arms are flung out across the table, one hand gripping the edge above his head for a hint of leverage. It feels deliciously good to be splayed open, exposed and completely careless under Naruto’s fingers and tongue and teeth. He soaks it in.

“Don’t you-- put your dick in--Naruto.” Neji grits the words between his teeth, face flushed crimson and thighs twitching with a slow-burning anticipation. “I’m fucking sore.”

“Poor Neji.” Naruto flicks his tongue mischievously, chuckles under his breath when Neji gasps, brings one hand up to messily suck two fingers. Neji tries not to think about how obscene it sounds. “Don’ worry beautiful, I’ve got you.”

His fingers sting, but it’s the good kind of sting, and Neji groans the good kind of groan, strung-out and breaking around the edges, and when he’s done finally cumming down Naruto’s throat he’ll worry about cleaning the table later.

XXX

 

XXX

After indulging in spending a solid hour and a half lying in a sleepy heap on the smooth wood of the kitchen table, Neji forces himself to sit up and tuck himself back into his pants, shaking his head at how late it suddenly was but managing not to be too bothered.

He feels suddenly better than he’s felt all day, and as Naruto, sweaty and grumbling at being awakened by Neji moving off the table, pushes himself up on his hands and then wanders winsomely down the hall to make himself comfortable in Neji’s bed and pass out without so much as a by-your-leave, instead of the annoyance that welled in Neji’s throat earlier that evening at the sight of him, he laughs to himself.

Neji manages to keep his eyes open long enough to give the kitchen a quick wipe down and hazily review a few planning forms that have been cluttering the bottom of his briefcase before giving up and slowly making his way down the hallway himself.

Naruto is sprawled out and slightly snoring in his bed - a regular western style bed because Neji is a sane person - and for a second Neji surveys the picture. Naruto in his bed isn't a new occurrence if you count all the times he crashed there in college, but college was getting to be a damn long time ago, and the past two days had really been just too strange - terrifyingly easy and simultaneously complicated.

He takes a deep breath. Thinking about the situation as if they didn’t just fuck on the kitchen table, as if Naruto hadn’t called Sakura in a drunken stupor that afternoon, as if Neji hadn’t been about to break down over his pad thai just a few hours ago, made this all a bit more manageable, a little easier. Neji pretends it’s normal, pulling the blankets back, sliding in next to Naruto. It’s normal when Naruto rolls towards him, flops one leg sleepily over Neji’s. It’s normal when Neji’s eyes close, almost immediately sinking into sleep. It’s all perfectly, regularly, normal.

XXX

 

XXX

But really, who was he kidding?

In the tiny hours of the night when Neji wrenches himself awake in a freezing sweat, hair plastered to his forehead and heart hammering out a staccato beat on his ribcage, reeling from a dream he doesn’t remember, Naruto is already awake.

He’s standing by the doorway with a glass of milk, looking faintly fragile - older than he should be by now almost bitter around the eyes, the frown on his mouth. He turns to look at Neji gasping for breath and his brows furrow.

He comes back to bed and pulls Neji in close against his chest, sighing a little like Neji should know better. Embarrassment rises hot and cloying behind Neji’s eyes, warring nauseously with the rushing of panic in his ears and he tries to pull away, hissing. “Stop it Naruto, I’m fucking fine, I’m not a goddamn kid.”

But Naruto’s arms are lock-strong around his waist and he pushes his nose into Neji’s hair, breathes deep and slow. “You don’t haveta say anything Neji. Just shut up.” His tone is sleepy and gently exasperated and very soft. He pulls Neji coser. “You don’t have to say nothin’. Just go back to sleep.”

Somewhere in the back of his mind Neji wonders if friends who bang friends all the time are the same kind of friends who act the way Naruto does in bed at night, the same kind that make Neji’s eyes grow wet and his breath shudder slowly back down into a steady rise and fall. The feel of Naruto’s skin is sweet on his own, and as he drifts back to sleep, he reflects that perhaps he doesn’t know.

X

 

End Chapter.

Chapter Text

Good to know you’ve finally realized it then, eh?”

 

Neji looked up incredulously in the middle of chewing a mouth full of rice and crab, and raised an eyebrow. Shikamaru sighs, one hand propping up his chin as though utterly exhausted by the task  - which, to be fair, always seemed to be case - and unceremoniously snatching a piece of sushi with his chopsticks from the line of small plastic plates clattering gently by their table on the restaurant’s winding conveyor belt with the other.

 

Sometime during college, Shikamaru had absolutely done away with the effort it takes to possess anything but the most rudimentary table manners, which made it exceedingly hard for Neji to meet him anywhere without overly tipping the servers by way of apology. For this reason, their current kaiten sushi spot with its minimal wait staff and quiet, somewhat seedy atmosphere had become his go-to lunch suggestion.

 

“Realized what, exactly?”

 

Shikamaru waves his chopsticks in Neji’s direction. “Realized that you’re completely besotted, of course.”

 

Neji splutters slightly. Trust Shikamaru to deftly read far more into the casual news that he and Naruto were hooking up every so often than Neji intended.

 

Fine. Yes, they were regularly hooking up. Yes, pretty much every other night at this point. Also, Neji had recently stashed one of his toothbrushes - and a travel size bottle of his salon grade shampoo - in Naruto’s cluttered medicine cabinet. Naruto was teaching Neji how to cook proper pad thai and introducing him to bad American movies and had a tendency to hold Neji’s hand in public whenever Neji would let him, which was admittedly not often but still - Shikamaru didn’t know any of that.

 

“I am in NO way--”

 

“Don’t try to deny it Neji, you have been for years. You’re a hopeless romantic.”

 

Neji’s cheeks darken to a deep poppy shade briefly in embarrassment, before regaining his composure, smoothing his napkin neatly.

 

“I’ll admit no such thing. Please Shikamaru, you and I are proof that a relationship does not need to be exclusive or emotional to have mutually beneficial results.”

 

His face is still flushed, and Shikamaru eyes him levelly over the rim of his sake cup. He waits until Neji has faded back to being appropriately pale, faint shadows under his eyes and skin still slightly sallow. Naruto doesn’t like to sleep before one or two in the morning, if at all, and after that Neji still has work plans to review, bills to pay, and hospital treatments to research. Shikamaru can see it.

 

Neji and Shikamaru haven’t so much as kissed since the day Naruto and Neji went dancing, almost three months ago now. Then again, Shikamaru hardly expected them too. He was far too reticent to expect handouts.

 

“Keep telling yourself that, Neji-kun,” Shikamaru murmured, and Neji tossed his hair irritably, deciding to pretend not to hear.

 

Instead, Neji fiddles with the primly stacked kaiten plates on the end of their table, waiting for the tired, slowly shuffling waitress to come pick them up. He’s had about seven mini rolls and a hand roll the size of his fist - lately, he can’t stop himself from gorging, as though there’s finally room in his stomach for food again, a thick knot of stiff despair in his belly slowly coming loose.

 

“Lee is doing better, did you hear? Seems like the newest set of pills might be the ticket. Sakura said things are looking ‘tentatively optimistic.’”

 

Optimistic was a strong word, but Neji, Gai and Tenten had completely thrown out ‘tentative’ as it’s mitigating factor. They were raucous with joy when they saw Lee, sitting up in bed for longer than an hour, getting out of bed and walking carefully but still boisterously through the hospital garden. Neji left bills on a pile on the corner of his desk and stayed up late watching dumb cartoons on the hospital TV, helped Tenten goad Gai into sneaking in their favorite takeaway chinese to Lee’s room, and chattered to Naruto about Lee’s plans for possibly attending a tournament when season started up again in a few months - just as a spectator, of course, but you never know, right?

 

Shikamaru was smiling a faint, lazy smile at the news. 

 

Neji is kicking himself before his next words came out, but it was too late - they tumbled from his mouth incessantly. “Naruto was so excited to hear about it - totally over the moon. We celebrated the first successful round of meds with drinks at Sakura’s.”

 

This was true. Neji remembers the sudden bubbles of overwhelming giddiness flooding his chest when Naruto decided to neatly out that the fact that they’d clearly been sleeping together by kissing him in front of everyone, bold and already tipsy. Tenten, who of course knew by then but was in such a good mood she convincingly pretended to be completely shocked, wolf-whistled at them and made Naruto laugh. Sakura shot Neji an appraising look that he pretended not to see, but later when they said goodbye, her bright smile seemed like a blessing in and of itself.

 

“He’s assisting me with treatment research as well.”

 

This was entirely not true, and Neji really doesn’t know why he says it.

 

Shikamaru snorts loudly. “I’m sure he’s been extremely helpful.”

 

Neji’s fingers clench against his chopsticks. “Of course. He’s not ready to visit yet, obviously. But that doesn’t matter now.”

 

Shikamaru, rather too pointedly in Neji’s opinion, says nothing.

 

Why the fuck was he justifying this, to Shikamaru of all people. The silence between them lingers obstinately, growing to fill the air over the tiny table and starting to sink slowly down his throat as the seconds tick by.

 

Neji drains his sake, glances at this watch.

 

“We should probably head off soon, right? I’ve got to get back to the office before Ayumi skins me for missing another meeting.” Neji flags the waitress again, reaches for his wallet. He always is the one to pay for their lunches.

 

Shikamaru blinks slowly, then stretches, his arms loose and long above his head. “S’pose so - Temari is in town anyway, she’ll want to see me.”

 

The mention of Shikamaru’s wife was never something Neji took lightly - even now his breath suddenly hitches at the the thought of her, all sharp eyes and sharper tongue, but to be fair he was rather more oblivious to such delicate matters than usual lately.

 

It must have been some excess energy from Naruto that seeped into his limbs, his mouth, passed from Naruto’s tongue. Sweetly newfound joy fizzed under his skin like champagne - he felt constantly hungry, constantly drunk, almost dizzy with a potent cocktail of lust and hope, simultaneously overwhelming and triumphant.

 

So, instead of clamming up like a shell at the notion of Shikamaru going home to Temari, sliding his wedding ring on and sliding her pantyhose down, Neji only shudders slightly and then punches Shikamaru on the arm as he signs the check.

 

“Finally back, huh? What’s it been, four months?” He manages a small smile.  “Good. Maybe she’ll actually whip you into shape.”

 

Shikamaru ran a hand easily through his hair, which was down from it’s high knot today and in the shadows through from the restaurant window looked dark, looked full of smoke. “Maybe. If I don’t whip her first.”

 

For once, Neji had no patience for the complex web of Shikamaru and Temari’s extramarital dealings, even if he was technically part of them. He was already thrumming in the balls of his feet, in the knobs of his spine. Naruto would be coming over that night when Neji was back from the hospital, with a cold six-pack of beer and another horrible DVD to watch and eventually ignore while he licked his way down Neji’s ribcage.

 

They walk into the hazy sunlight of the afternoon, already sweating from the heat that even now still hangs unrelenting like a dank cloud over the city. Light reflected from a shiny metal telephone pole and hit Neji’s eyes, blinding him.

 

“You’ll have to get back to loving her at some point, you bastard - I know you do deep down.” He claps Shikamaru’s shoulder affectionately in farewell and heads off down the road - steps brisk, shoulders back. Ayumi really would throw a fit if he was late, and he’d been late so often lately.

 

Shikamaru watches him go carefully. He thinks Neji has been likely thinking about love too much, to mention it so casually - throwing the word around like a toy, which as with so many things, Shikamaru knows, is something Neji often liked to pretend he could do.

 

He lights up a cigarette, heads up the road the opposite direction.

 

Unfortunately, one of the greatest reoccuring themes of Hyuuga Neji’s life was that he was often wrong.

 

X

 

Lee is truly getting better, and so Tenten has finally started metal-crafting again. When she goes out at night, it’s not to shove her tongue in a stranger’s mouth, but to hammer iron and shape copper at her studio or sit for hours in a lily-lavender scented bath at Ino’s with long, blonde strands of hair catching on her fingers like silk.

 

Neji shoves his tongue in Naruto’s mouth instead, and doesn’t begrudge Tenten for more-or-less moving out on him after a month to spend most nights at Ino’s high-rise apartment, which is a pristine, airy architectural glass marvel and also constantly vaguely smelling of flowers. Ino’s closet had not been featured in Tokyo’s Organized Living for nothing, and Naruto had never in his life been referred to as quiet about any activity, least of all sex. When Neji returns home one night and wonders out loud if perhaps he should invest in an air freshener, Naruto guffaws so hard he chokes, and makes sure to cook an extremely pungent batch of ramen.

 

Whenever Neji turns around, it seems like Naruto is with him, waking with him in the morning and guzzling orange juice naked in the kitchen, bedhead absolutely wild, meeting him after work and dragging him quite unnecessarily to the zoo to gawk at penguins fainting from the heat wave, showing up just as visiting hours end at the hospital with a faintly buzzed look to his eyes and a sheepish, tentatively hopeful smile that melts Neji into the floor.

 

Neji tries half-heartedly once or twice to organize their relationship - as it was quickly seeming to become one -  into neat lines, because he’s Hyuuga Neji and nothing if not conscientious. “I think you should probably declare yourself my boyfriend, shouldn’t you?” He asks Naruto one evening, point blank. His tone is serious, but the effect is slightly ruined by the fact of his mouth being where it is, which happens to be hovering teasingly above Naruto’s cock.

 

Naruto laughs at the question, groans a little. “What do I gotta do baby, ask your daddy’s permission?” His hands are fisted above his head, clenching and unclenching as Neji’s tongue dips lower.

 

Neji huffs in faint annoyance. “Yeah, I’m quite sure you know how well that would go.” Which is to say, horribly. Neji’s family barely managed to survive the knowledge that he wasn’t planning on bringing home a wife anytime soon, let alone the thought of actually having to meet one of his ‘friends’. At this point it didn’t sting anymore, much.

 

Naruto thrusts his hips up so Neji’s lips just -brush- the head of his dick, grips the back of the sofa more firmly. “Well y’know, I can think of a few other things that won’t go half as well as you’re hopin’ if ya don’t put your fuckin’ mouth where it belongs soon, alright?”

 

His voice drawls the words with just enough of a rasp to run a hot shiver down Neji’s spine, and his eyes are harsh discs of bright, needy blue in the half-light of the evening slatting through the window. Naruto aching and ready, ready for him, was never something Neji could resist for long. Swallowing hard, he decides some questions are best left for another time.

 

X

 

The problem was that there didn't really seem to ever be a better time for questions like “What are we to each other now?” or “How long are we planning to keep this up?” or even, tentatively building stronger -- “Do you feel the same as me, like this is a wave growing so fast it might sweep you under? Do you feel like you’re going to let it?” The words are too tender to say aloud, but every time Naruto presses his mouth to Neji’s so sweetly he can feel them sighing in his throat. 

 

X

On one of the rare occasions that Neji doesn’t have to work the weekend, Naruto and Neji go to a park on the outskirts of the city that stretches long, green and glistening in the heat, talk about Neji’s business plans and Naruto’s favorite comics and take bets on how long Tenten and Ino will last (the mutual consensus is definitely longer than any other couple they know). Neji had of course sensibly brought a picnic blanket and a packet of onigiri, and Naruto had actually managed to bring something other than beer, for once. Instead, he shows up with a huge shiny bag of spicy potato puffs that crunch loudly under their teeth.

 

Naruto stuffs himself with rice balls and chips until his lips are smeared with salt, stretches back on the blanket. His forehead and arms are already faintly glazed because it’s really too hot for a picnic, but at least it means they have the park relatively to themselves, and so Neji doesn’t mind leaning down to kiss him, tasting a faint leftover heat from the puffs on his mouth.

 

Naruto smiles sleepily, “Look at you Neji-kun, kissing in public. I’m scandalized.”

 

Neji doesn’t answer. He feels a swelling in his chest at the sight of Naruto, sun-dappled and sweaty under the shade of the tree above them, a peaceful stillness to his face. Naruto looks younger than he should be, but also happier than he’s looked in a long time, maybe since before that afternoon at the bar a few months ago that feels like forever, maybe even since before Kakashi. Neji tangles a slim hand into Naruto’s golden curls and tilts his chin down to kiss him deeper, hungry.

 

When he’s kissed Naruto enough to make him restless, make him roll them over so that Neji’s hair is messy in the grass around their blanket and Naruto crouches above him cheekily now, Neji sighs, not quite ready to graduate from kissing in public to grinding in public, however secluded the park may be.

 

Naruto laughs. “Don’t ya worry babe, I’m not about to start compromising your dignity.”

 

“You’ve both already done that and would happily continue, don’t lie.” Neji smiles despite himself.

 

“Ah, but I love you too much to disrespect you.”

 

Neji shifts uncomfortably at that, because for a while now he hasn’t been sure if he deserves Naruto saying those three words as often as he does, as casually as he does; playfully in jokes, unexpectedly in bed and off-hand over dinner.  

 

He catches Naruto’s eyes carefully. “Is that right?”

 

His voice is suddenly too soft, and the way Naruto looks at him is too understanding, too knowing of things Neji has wanted for so long now, all the things he’s found other ways to get.

 

“Of course it’s right, beautiful. Of course it is.”

 

X

 

End Chapter

Chapter Text

Many hours after their leisurely picnic, on the subway ride back to their part of the city, Neji sits as though exhausted, head occasionally falling sideways to lean partly on Naruto’s shoulder and hands loose in his lap.

Naruto’s shirt is stained with sweat now, but it doesn’t stop him from striking up annoyingly cheerful conversations with other commuters, all of whom seem to respond to Naruto like he’s an old friend or a long lost son, unable to resist the charm of those blue, blue eyes.

Tired from murderous heat of the day, from the sickening sway of the train, from the thought of the work piled in his file folder for tomorrow morning, Neji slumps, tetchy. He keeps his eyes resolutely closed, steadily growing increasingly annoyed at the racket of chatter generated from Naruto with passenger after passenger.

Neji has never naturally had good timing, despite his emphasis on punctuality, and so as soon as the words roll off his tongue he hardly can believe he’s said them, that they didn’t stay tucked neatly away in the secret part of his heart that’s only loyal to Lee.

“Here I was, thinking you’d be able to manage striking up a conversation with your actual friend, the one still in the hospital, if you can talk so well with strangers, huh?”

Shit.

Naruto pauses mid-sentence with an elderly man whose bushy mustache ruffles faintly with distress at the interruption. He rounds on Neji, gritted teeth making his jaw look old and grim, and it’s different now that they've been fucking, when Naruto gets angry it’s a different kind of anger - burning deeper because now he knows just where to cut--

He slides in close to Neji, arm deceptively loose around his shoulders, and puts a too warm mouth by his ear. “Well babe, I’d think you’d be able to keep your legs closed for a married man, if you’re so high and mighty in your principles, wouldn’t ya?”

Neji’s eyes burn, and he jerks himself from Naruto’s grip. He wants to fly at Naruto, claw his face or punch the wind from his stomach, but the traincar is quiet now after his initial outburst and instead he sits, hands clenched in his fists, furious.

“You sound just like Sasuke,” He mutters.

He doesn’t look at Naruto when he says it, and so doesn’t see Naruto’s face break open in shock.

X

Twenty silent, soul-crushing minutes pass, and finally Neji is off the train. He speedwalks down the crowded city sidewalk, steps tight and quick and aggressive, trying to leave Naruto behind. The important thing is just to get home right now, get home as fast as possible and lock Naruto out for a good 24-48 hours. Whatever it takes.

Strangely, Naruto is keeping step with him on the sidewalk, dodging passerby and cutting between packs of schoolchildren to stay astride with Neji as he tears through the streets.

Usually after a fight, Naruto and Neji spend some time apart, each retreating without a word to nurse his hurt like a festering wound. Generally, Naruto boozed for a day or so and Neji threw himself into his work, snapping at Ayumi until she informs him he’s being a pill.

Since that first fateful fuck, the longest they’d gone without speaking was two days, before Naruto grudgingly called Neji to invite him out to a beer pong festival that his buddy at the ramen shop was organizing, a little too nonchalant about it all for it not to be an olive branch. Neji scoffed at the idea of something so juvenile as beer pong still being played by grown adults, before showing up and cheering as Naruto managed to drink Choji Akimichi under the table.

Usually, Naruto calls first. Usually, kissing and making up also means kissing and forgetting anything was said at all. But then, usually Sasuke's name isn’t mentioned.

Finally at his apartment and faintly out of breath, Neji abruptly whirls around, shoving a finger in Naruto’s chest, who is still right up behind him as though about to walk right on through the door, easy as pie.

“What are you doing, exactly?” He glowers at Naruto’s mutinous face. “Do you really think you get to come home with me after the absolute shitshow on the train? Because fuck that.” Some part of him is worried the neighbors will hear this, but it’s not a very big part, yet.

Naruto slaps away Neji’s finger from it’s accusatory jabing. “I wasn’t the one makin’ a scene Neji. You still think you can say crap like that and get away with it?”

Neji is still too surprised Naruto didn’t immediately hightail it off the train to some obscure watering hole where Neji would never find him to appropriately react to such bullshit.

“Wha-what? You actually want to talk about this? You never want to talk about anything. Frankly, it’s infuriating and unhealthy.”

Neji is quite good at noticing other people’s bad habits, he knows.

“Alright, yeah I know. It’s sad how completely fucked up I am, innit?” Naruto runs an agitated hand through his curls, glaring at Neji balefully. “But I don’t wanna - I don’t wanna be like him, I can’t do that. So you should just listen up for a second, if you can get over yourself.”

Neji splutters, hopefully not too righteously. “Excuse me, If I can get over myself!?”

“Yeah, get over the being everyone’s lord and savior for just a damn second. Look--” When Neji moves to interrupt, Naruto puts a hand over his mouth warningly, still glaring with a piercing energy that sticks Neji to the spot. His voice is low, like he’s trying to keep from showing that he’s angry, which is utterly incensing.

Naruto trying to control himself was never something Neji thought he’d be upset by.

“You can’t just always go telling me off like that Neji, always actin’ like your own shit don’t stink. Can’t keep fuckin’ doing that.”

Neji knows he’s talking about Shikamaru now, and his blood thunders in his ears, color rising in his cheeks despite himself. He jerks Naruto’s hand from his mouth, which does come away easily, but doesn’t let go of his wrist, standing closer now.

It oddly feels good to stand closer to Naruto, makes everything sing higher in his veins, but then it always did- no matter what Neji did or said or thought, no matter what.

“How dare you say that when you and I both know you’ve done the same exact fucking thing!” His eyes burn into Naruto’s furiously. “Shikamaru told me you fucked his brains out and then barely stuck around to shower, but I don’t see you running to Temari, do I?”

Neji can hardly believe they are actually discussing this, that there should be so much of his private, intensely personal life on display, on the very front stoop of his apartment as the sun sets, velvet in the sky behind them like a theatre’s closing curtain. He’s already seen one old lady with a pushcart look curiously at the pair of them as she walked by, and doesn’t know whether to be embarrassed or rageful.

As usual, embarrassment is winning.

Naruto can tell, because he’s known Neji forever and he sees too much already. He snorts. “C’mon Neji, am I really supposed to stick around to be impressed by Shika’s pillow talk? As far as I can tell, it’s not his strong suit.”

Neji blushes, heat cloying and trapped under his collar and behind his ears. He remembers lying in Shikamaru’s bed for hours, way back when they first started fucking, passing a cigarette back and forth and peacefully saying nothing at all. But it’s not like that lasted. As it went on, Neji quit sharing the cigarette and started leaving earlier, his thighs still slick - he couldn’t be bothered to deal with Shikamaru’s bathroom when it still had girly soap on the shelf and perfume on the counter.

At the beginning, Shikamaru had always tugged his wedding ring from his finger after the first kiss, tossed it carelessly on the bedside table, but as time passed he started leaving it on, a blaring siren on his hand, a red flag.

Naruto’s voice is rougher now, and his blue eyes softer, as he watches Neji struggle through the memory.

He moves a little closer, cups Neji’s face in his hands, which feel cool on Neji’s over-warn cheeks. “Listen, I’m not proud about it-- there’s a lot of things I’m not very proud of,” His thumb brushes tenderly over Neji’s lip. Neji feels his heart jump, sick and elated all at once because he knows those things that Naruto’s not proud of, knows them too well.

“Shikamaru and I are too alike sometimes. And he kinda reminds me of...well...you know.” Naruto’s voice is so quiet now there’s no chance of the neighbors hearing, for Neji’s ears only, although that doesn’t make it any easier. The unspoken name hangs in the air, maliciously sticking around far past its welcome.

“We’re all too good at looking the other way, right?” Neji snorts at that, and Naruto moves back, sighing and crossing his arms over his chest.

“The difference is that I know what I’m good for. And so does Shikamaru.” Naruto’s face is tired. He suddenly looks his age in such a sad way Neji’s breath catches, it’s so different from the boy-man in the park, just a few hours ago. “You’re better than that, babe, I know you are.”

Neji wants to argue this point. Something tells him that he is definitely not better than Naruto. There’s far too much blame and responsibility on his shoulders for that now, it weighs him down. But he also knows better than to say so, because convincing Naruto he’s deserving of anyone, deserving at all, is a finish line he knows they just can’t cross tonight.

He sighs wearily, wipes the sweat that’s beaded on his forehead with the back of one hand and then covers his face, squeezing his temples. The headache coming on will be fierce.

“God, Naruto.” Neji feels a pit in his stomach yawning open--bone-tired exhaustion flooding his body.

A pause.

“You gotta stop pushing me like this, Neji.”

Neji turns to go into the house. It’s a problem, he understands, that he doesn't really ever like to leave anything alone, and never will. “That’s not going to happen, you know.”

“...I know,” Naruto’s voice is hoarse.

Neji looks back, key fiddling in the lock, and in the blaze of the red clouds streaked across the sky behind them Naruto’s outline is merely a shadow on his front steps, but his eyes hold Neji’s own; an unwavering, salty blue.

X

Naruto kisses Neji before he leaves, one hand braced against the doorframe and the knob digging urgently into Neji’s back. It’s high-strung and hot, a make-up kiss without the make-up, but Neji swears he still tastes like the sun.

X

So it’s not to say that everything is just right as rain and all hunky-dory, because it’s not really - Neji bites his nails to the quick at work trying to file builder’s plans that he’s barely looked at because the hospital has started sending notices about payment schedules that are battle plans spread over his desk, each one carefully assessed for defensive strategies and points of weakness. Hyuuga Neji is supposed to be punctual, damn it, and he isn’t about to break the practice now because of how frustratingly bogged in bureaucracy it could all be, from complex chemo treatments and CAT scans to mundane office supplies and employee holidays.

He cranks the air conditioning in the office to a freezing temperature to combat the dead heat pressing insistently in from all sides outside, cold enough to make him keep a sweater slung over his chair and make his interns actually complain once or twice, the ungrateful lot. Still, when Naruto slips in after work hours to keep him company, first wadding paper balls at Neji’s trash can and then pushing Neji backwards on to his desk to drop kisses along his collarbone, his hands are always warm.

Naruto isn’t bogged in bureaucracy by any means, floating aimless and uncomplaining through the day when Neji is too busy to see him, when he’s kept for hours in Lee’s ward or up late coordinating drawings with Ayumi at the office, and it’s almost refreshing. It seems like being with Naruto this way is almost made to fit his not-entirely-conventional schedule. Naruto always lets Neji go on his merry way with an easy goodbye smile, and always shows up just when Neji’s energy is spent. He takes one look at Neji’s wan face and pushes him roughly against a door or a wall, kissing him breathless. It spills a heady excitement into his limbs, a live wire of need.

It can be just as frustrating though, because Naruto still gets drunk in the mornings and afternoons sometimes, maybe a little more often than sometimes, but maybe not as often as he did before. His place is still a mess but every so often he actually does laundry, although usually mixing the colors incorrectly, variations of orange steadily bleeding into white like ice-cream melting. It ends up not mattering anyway, because Naruto unabashedly stills wear the ruined shirts and socks, and somehow it looks good.

Naruto snaps whiplash smart and defensive at Neji on the moments whenever they veer terrifyingly off course, into conversations about those people better left behind - Sasuke and Kakashi, and sometimes even Lee. Neji hates himself a little, for that. Afterwards, Neji is careful and Naruto is subdued, but during their fights Neji starts catching himself screaming back, ruthless. It’s like snipping at his veins, stinging. Like nipping a flower in the bud.

Neji frankly wants to strangle him occasionally, because sometimes, maybe a little more often than sometimes, it was all just too much.

X

“What did you call me?” Neji’s voice is soft, quietly dangerous in a way he hasn’t felt dangerous in a while.

“I said you’ve gotta get more milk Saaa-suke, we’re runnin’ out.” Naruto is leaning halfway on the open fridge door, bloodshot eyes roving the shelves. His fingers twitch slightly on the handle.

Neji moves to stand next to him, feels his pulse shuddering furiously in his ears. He closes the fridge door with a decisive snap and Naruto leans back, glances sideways at him, head moving a little too slow. It’s not the first time Naruto’s ever called him by the wrong name, but every time it smarts, digs under his skin - angry at Naruto, angrier at the dead boy on his lips, at whole crushing unfairness of it all.

“Sasuke is gone, Naruto. He died.” He only half-tries to keep the viciousness from his voice. Naruto looks confused suddenly, and then cruel, his eyes flicking over Neji’s face a little too fast.

“Who the fuck do you--” his hand comes up hard and fast as if to shove Neji away, but Neji’s almost used to this by now, the way Naruto spins slightly out of control. He uses his height to somewhat pin Neji to the fridge door, and glares hatefully at him, unable to stop himself.

“You said you’d stop taking the hard stuff, Naruto, you fucker, you promised.” He hisses the words against Naruto’s tight jawline, trembling slightly, and then Naruto finally finds his gaze, recognizes Neji all at once, and sags like a child into his arms.

Neji sleeps alone that night.

X

The next night Naruto is all over him, the apologies on his lips devastatingly sad, tone hesitant and humbled. Neji would try to stay angry, but he can’t because at the end of the day, he blames himself a little bit too maybe - for looking away for too long, for not seeing it before, for everything.

“Neji, Neji, Neji, yes please--” Naruto whispers it to him like a benediction and prayer, and Neji loves his own name on Naruto’s lips like he loves Naruto’s dick inside him, like Naruto next to him in bed, like he loves Naruto’s hand in his own, hot and struggling and perfect.

Hope flutters, a baby bird, under Neji’s ribcage-- overconfident and fragile, too easily overcome. Hope for Lee, for Naruto, maybe even a little for himself.

X

But really he shouldn't have bothered, because that hope burning so carefully in his chest is what made it all really fucking hard when everything abruptly splinters apart and falls to pieces, just like he somehow knew it would all along.

X

End Chapter