Kankurou doesn't believe in fate.
He guesses, if he believes in anything, you could say he believes in chaos. Or perhaps random chance is a better way to put it. Mostly he believes the world doesn't make sense, never will, and probably wasn't supposed to either. If there's any one creature or any group of them out there somewhere that's responsible for all this, obviously they don't give a shit about what's going on here anymore. Otherwise Gaara... Otherwise Father... Otherwise he...
Well... otherwise, so many things would have to be different. But they aren't. So he figures there's nobody pulling the strings on these marionettes, nobody hiding backstage directing. Everybody has to make their own path, carve it out in a bloody swath if necessary, and anyone who can't handle that is pretty much just screwed.
Absently, he thinks he remembers that Hyuuga Neji's name means 'screw', and he is amused at the irony.
The young Konoha scion is standing around looking impatient in the lobby of the Red Sand Playhouse, and Kankurou wonders what brings a Leaf-nin here to the theatre where the puppeteers of Sunagakure make their home as he sits on the other side of the empty foyer, cleaning some blades detached from Karasu's mechanisms and lazily keeping watch over the front doors. He can feel those white opal eyes turn on him more than once, but he's not in his work clothes today, outfitted only in a plain black yukata top and hakama, and today's makeup is a simple design of purple around his eyes and lines straight down the front of his cheeks; without his distinctive working appearance or the bandaged bundle of a puppet on his back, he thinks the other boy is unlikely to recognize him.
Still, he keeps his face turned toward his task just in case, because he rarely feels like dealing with strangers and today is no exception; but it's to no avail, for the Hyuuga stalks over to him with steps echoing through the silent lobby and he can feel a distinctly irritated white gaze boring through the top of his head.
"Where is the receptionist?" Neji demands like the prince he is, with a sharp gesture toward the counter where he's been standing. "I've been waiting for nearly an hour. If someone doesn't show up soon-"
"Do you always start your conversations by making threats?" Kankurou wonders with a sarcastic smile, looking up now to quirk an eyebrow at the foreigner. Neji stiffens, narrowing that eerie gaze at him in a haughty expression.
"That wasn't a threat. I was going to say that if you Sand people can't be bothered to do your jobs properly, I'll just have to be rude and go inside on my own."
Kankurou snorts quietly, and drops the blade and cleaning cloth he's holding back into the bag beside him. Can't have a foreign shinobi poking around in the stronghold of the puppeteers' secrets - hell, they don't even let other Sand shinobi backstage most of the time - so he supposes he'll have to go to the trouble of catering to the stupid Konoha boy.
"For your information," he says rather snidely, putting away the rest of his things, "that's a ticket counter, not a reception desk, and the only time there's somebody behind it is when we're putting on a show. This is a theatre, if you didn't notice," he adds with a smirk as he ties up his bag.
"You mean to say this is a real theatre? With plays?" Neji scoffs. "You're battle puppeteers, aren't you?"
"We're puppeteers. Period. There's a time and place for puppet battles, and a time and place for theatre." Kankurou snorts as he rises, slinging the bag over one shoulder. "Not our fault if saps like you don't understand art. Now what are you doing here?"
Neji purses his lips, and if Kankurou isn't mistaken he seems slightly offended at being accused of not understanding art, but he says nothing on the subject. "I'm looking for someone," he explains, tersely and distinctly grudgingly. "I was told the master of this theatre would know where to find him."
Kankurou blinks. "Oh, well, why didn't you just say so? You don't need a receptionist to talk to me. What's the name?"
Neji just stares at him blankly for a moment. Kankurou shifts the bag on his back and raises an eyebrow.
"...Are you implying that you are the theatre master?" Neji ventures after a moment, face a picture of perfect disdain.
"I'm not implying, I'm saying," Kankurou replies with a scowl. This is no longer at all amusing.
"Impossible. Just looking at you, you can't be any older than me I doubt you're Jounin yet, let alone the leader of this place. Stop trying to irritate me," Neji demands flatly.
At this Kankurou narrows his eyes with rather wounded pride, and draws himself up to his full height wearing the coldest, haughtiest expression he can muster.
"Excuse me?" he intones cooly. "I am Sabaku no Kankurou, son of Godaime Kazekage, right hand to Rokudaime Kazekage, head of the Red Sand Puppeteers and the owner of this theatre." A hint of a snarl slips out on the last few words.
Kankurou, after all, is a prince too.
He doesn't know exactly what reaction he is expecting from Neji; perhaps some expression of further irritation, perhaps an entirely uncharacteristic apology. What he gets instead is a surprised blink from the other young man, and he can feel the Byakugan activating for a moment to look inside the bag Kankurou is carrying with him. If Neji looks closely enough, he might be able to recognize a familiar wooden arm from the Chuunin fight he bore witness to.
"...You're Kankurou?" Neji murmurs, with a bemused frown. He doesn't seem caught off-guard exactly, but Kankurou gets the feeling this is not usual behavior as the other boy stares at him, raising an eyebrow. "You look very... different."
"It's the hat."
They stand there in silence for a few seconds longer, and Neji keeps looking at him, and Kankurou wonders if he's the only one of the pair that is starting to feel tense.
"Anyway, who'd you come here to find? And why?" he ventures finally, raising his eyebrows. In return, Neji purses his lips, glancing away toward the front doors of the theatre.
"I am supposed to meet with a puppeteer named Izuno. I am to be married to his daughter, Miki," he volunteers flatly.
"...You're Miki's guy?" Kankurou does a double-take, blinking with no small amount of shock. He is acquainted with the girl in question, only a couple years younger than him, and he knew she'd been betrothed to someone recently but he's surprised to hear it was with a member of a different village. Is this another half-assed attempt at conciliation of some kind? Relations are still getting back to normal between the Leaf and the Sand after that Chuunin exam debacle from a couple years ago, and he's seen a few weird ideas come and go, but nothing quite this unusual. He wonders what it took to get two haughty Hidden Village aristocrat families like the Hyuuga and the Izuno to agree to intermarry... Probably, he concludes, the promise of shared power. The Izunos do have an interesting bloodline limit.
He supposes at last that it's not really all that different from the sort of power play that goes on here every day, when one gets right down to it. A typical loveless political matchmaking. Just international instead of intra-national, this time.
"Well..." he muses for a moment, glancing away thoughtfully as he recovers. "I think Izuno's working in the back. If you stay here," and he raises his eyebrows at the other shinobi with a rather pointed look, "I'll go fetch him for you."
Neji gives a disdainful sniff, but nods his assent. Kankurou turns to go, flicks out a chakra string with an imperceptible twitch of his hand to switch on the security cameras, and heads away into the warren of back rooms to search out his subordinate.
Hyuuga Neji doesn't want to believe in fate, anymore.
It was something Naruto taught him. Uzumaki Naruto, all blonde hair and bright colors and idiotic smiles. Naruto, who knew of the burdens of fate, but chose to shrug them off and live free to chart his own path for himself. Naruto, who he thinks he can truly believe in.
That is not to say he doesn't have his daily battles. Even if he is ready to let go of fate, it seems as though fate is not ready to let go of him yet.
Just after he made Jounin, his uncle presented him with the "good" news, that he was to be married off to an heir of Sunagakure's Izuno clan in order to promote good will between the patrician families of the two villages (and also to attempt to consolidate the power of their respective bloodline limits, but no one was going to be the first to say that out loud). He voiced his opposition as strongly as he dared, but though Hiashi was sympathetic, the entire council of elder Hyuugas were already decided. After all, Neji is only an insignificant Branch Family member; it isn't as though they're toying with the lives of any of their precious Head Family sons.
Naruto... Naruto promised to help him change Hyuuga, someday. He wants to believe that it will come about. But whether it does or not, it will still be too late to spare him this lifelong indignity.
Since the bride will be moving to Konoha, the wedding ceremony will be held in Suna. A careful compromise eked out by touchy, uncertain allies, each worried to offend the other - much like the Sand and the Leaf as a whole, these days. Neji has been sent to make wedding arrangements, and oh, the council had added as an afterthought, he should meet his bride-to-be while he was there. After all, he might find it awkward if the first time he talked to the girl was on his wedding day.
Neji has no particular desire ever to meet the anchor his family has chained onto him, and so he is saving that visit for last, hoping to let the girl remain a distant idea in the back of his mind for as long as possible. Instead he has come calling after the head of the Izuno family. He's been told that the easiest place to find the man is in Sunagakure's great theatre, for the puppeteers are apparently an insular lot.
He wondered offhandedly, walking in earlier, whether he would bump into the black-clad boy here whom he had seen trailing behind Gaara of the Desert and his fan-wielding sister for much of the Chuunin exams. If such a meeting were to occur, he wasn't expecting it to go quite like this. He certainly wasn't expecting to discover that Kankurou was the leader of this group. He doesn't know much about the mechanics of puppeteering, but he has heard it's quite hard to master; and Gaara's big brother can't possibly be much older than himself.
Well, he supposes that in a village where one can become Kazekage at thirteen, he should know not to expect the obvious.
Kankurou returns before long with a tall, rather imposing man trailing behind him. Izuno, or so Neji presumes, is dressed in a familiar black tunic, pants, hood, and facepaint - this man's pattern is drawn in deep red, rather than Kankurou's royal purple - and Neji supposes this must be the puppeteer troupe's standard uniform. Izuno doesn't look particularly happy to see him, and Neji wonders offhandedly whether he too has a family council waiting at home and making decisions he doesn't like very much; but Kankurou steps to one side with arms crossed over his chest and the man gives Neji a small, stiff bow of greeting. Neji returns it, but very carefully does not bow any lower. He'll be damned if he is to assume a position of inferiority here. He may be younger and this may be his future father-in-law, but he has come as a representative of the prestigious Hyuuga clan and if he can control nothing else about this situation, he will see that he is treated as an equal.
"Good afternoon, Hyuuga-kun," Izuno greets him, eyes narrowing slightly. "It is a pleasure to meet you." Neji resists the urge to bristle at the diminutive suffix attached to his name. Well, two can play that game.
"Good afternoon, Izuno-kun," Neji replies coolly, raising his eyebrows. It strikes him all of a sudden that this is an extraordinarily bad idea, but hell, he's already started it now. "The pleasure is all mine."
The other man purses his lips, expression perceptibly darkening his displeasure is apparent even to someone without Neji's talent at reading faces. In the corner of his eye he can see Kankurou watching the exchange with a little smirk. Whether it's intended for himself or Izuno, he isn't sure.
"Well, I'll leave you two to hash things out then," the young puppeteer says with a flick of his hand as he turns away, voice and movement suddenly full of a careless imperial grace that screams 'I can't be bothered to waste my time standing around with peons like you'. It's an attitude that Neji recognizes all too well, considering the number of the times he has worn it in his own life.
However, he never realized before quite how much it rankled to have it turned on oneself.
He wants to shout after Kankurou, has an absurd urge to beg the puppeteer not to leave him alone with this man, but of course there is absolutely no logical reason for Kankurou to be here and what would he do if he was? He's hardly Neji's automatic ally just because they're of similar age. About the time Neji is squashing these thoughts, the other boy glances back to throw a look at Izuno over his shoulder.
"Oh, Izuno, don't be too long with this, huh? The set still needs to be done before tomorrow," Kankurou says offhandedly, as though the matter is nothing, but from the way Izuno snaps to attention it becomes clear that the words carry the force of an order. Neji has to admit that this sudden transition into the careless prince from... well, whatever Kankurou was earlier... is a tad jarring. This Kankurou seems much less approachable - perhaps much less open is the word - than the one Neji was telling off a few minutes ago.
"Of course, Kankurou-sama," Izuno replies rigidly, and he gives a small bow as his boy leader exits. Neji can hardly help a small surge of schadenfreude at the man's obvious discomfort. Izuno turns back to him and makes a valiant attempt to hide his disgruntled expression.
"Well, follow me, Hyuuga-kun. We can discuss this at my home."
They walk back out the doors into the desert heat, and Neji thinks about fate.
Kankurou knows about puppets.
Well, he certainly ought to, shouldn't he? He's only spent the last fourteen years of his short life making an intensive study of them. One doesn't get to be the leader of the Sunagakure puppeteers at sixteen by slacking off. One also doesn't please the Godaime Kazekage, known more infrequently as Father, by not becoming the most ruthlessly effective shinobi possible in the shortest period of time. A shinobi strong enough to kill and die at a moment's notice, and with any luck, one lethal enough to murder the youngest member of the Kazekage's brood. Well, he had never passed down the order, thankfully. But the implication, the unspoken admonition to prepare for the future, hung there between them every day from when Kankurou received his hitai-ate to the last time they spoke. You had better be ready, my son. You wouldn't want me to send your sister, would you?
Yes. Kankurou knows all about puppets. And though he is convinced there is no otherworldly puppeteer running this stage called life, sometimes down here on Earth there are still people who can pull your strings and make you dance. But people, unlike puppets, are capable of cutting those strings away. Learning to walk all on their own.
They're learning to do it, the three of them. Gaara cut his own strings first, the day he uttered a quiet apology to his two astonished siblings in the midst of the Konoha forest. Temari's and Kankurou's were snapped forcibly, when they arrived home to receive word that their father was dead. Since then they've all been practicing how to move and dance and fight without their puppeteers hanging over them. Kankurou occasionally finds himself glad now, in a twisted way, for the upbringing his father gave him; because if he had not been taught to be a prince as well as a shinobi, he is not sure he would know how to deal with the new world Sunagakure has become since his brother assumed the mantle of Kazekage. Kankurou is the eldest son of the house, and thus he is the heir, the owner of their big empty palace and their family fortune and the caretaker of their household's interests. He is also the leader of his troupe now, heir to the legacy that the last master puppeteer has passed down to him. And he is the right hand of Kazekage the Sixth, and Gaara needs his and Temari's support in many ways while trying to take care of a village that has always despised him. Kankurou's presence has never in his life been as necessary as it is right now, and the prospect is at times quite intimidating.
Right now he is at home, alone in the sandstone palace as he watches the sun set from the long balcony of his room. Of course there are servants scurrying around somewhere, just like there are rats hiding in the walls, but they go about their business quietly. The palace is ever a quiet and empty place, even when all three of its young occupants are here; at present Temari is away and Gaara is off doing Kazekage business somewhere, which leaves Kankurou entirely to his own devices for the evening.
Or almost entirely, at any rate.
"Any particular reason you're sneaking onto my balcony right before nightfall?" he wonders casually, not bothering to turn around. Unlike his visitor, he may not have fancy Byakugan eyes in the back of his head, but he is shinobi and he knows when someone is sneaking up on him.
"If you make some perverted joke, so help me..." Neji growls, and Kankurou can feel the chakra vibrating in the air and he knows those white eyes see it when he smirks, still turned away toward the red-gold-brown skyline of the Village Hidden in the Sand.
"Hey, I'm not that kind of guy," he insists with no particular conviction, turning his head a bit to aim that smirk directly at Neji's face. The Konoha ninja stalks over looking distinctly disgruntled.
"So..." Kankurou tries again, marginally more polite this time as he raises an eyebrow at the other boy. "What brings you here?"
Neji purses his lips and glances out over the balcony for a moment before answering.
"I... have a request."
Kankurou raises an eyebrow, waiting for him to continue. Neji has a look on his face as though he's tasting something bitter and wants to spit it out.
"I am to return to Konoha in the morning," he says at last, stiffly. "If it's... permissible, I would like to stay the night here."
Kankurou gives him a long, measuring look.
"How're the wedding plans coming?" he ventures cautiously, raising an eyebrow as he leans one elbow against the stone railing of the balcony. The expression on Neji's face now is determinedly unreadable.
"A venue has been selected," he states in a flat tone, gaze still turned away. Not that that means anything for a Hyuuga. "The list of bridal attendants has been made up. Everything is going smoothly."
They stand there for a moment in an oddly tense, charged sort of silence. Kankurou shifts on his feet a little, and thinks.
"Are you going to answer my question?" Neji asks tersely at last.
"Why here? We do have hotels." He is certain the Izuno family offered to put Neji up, but the reason behind that refusal is pretty damn obvious.
Neji looks back at him directly this time, and Kankurou feels almost as though he is being measured in some way as the other boy speaks.
"You... you and your siblings... are really the only people here I'm acquainted with," Neji murmurs, as though it's an actual explanation. His face is neutral enough while he speaks it, and those blank opal eyes are no help in determining whatever he's really trying to say.
So, Kankurou can spend the night dogging the steps of a nosy annoying Konoha Jounin, or he can spend it by himself. Probably holed up in his workshop, tinkering with his puppets until some ungodly hour of the morning, or whenever Temari arrives home to smack him upside the head. Alone in the dark the way he likes it.
He has no idea what possesses him to shrug his shoulders and give a grudging, "Whatever."
...Well. It is an awfully big, empty palace.
Neji nods stiffly in response. "I'm in your debt," he says, turning back toward the horizon.
Kankurou snorts at that, feeling grumpy all of a sudden. He gets the feeling he's missing something here and he doesn't like it at all. It's his job - a shinobi's job, but his especially - to be in control of the situation. "You don't owe me anything. God knows the place is so big I could have a hundred guests underfoot and never notice a single one of them."
They pause as a cool breeze whips past. Nightfall is gradually sneaking up on them.
"Just you and your... siblings live here?" Neji wonders quietly, glancing back through the open archways into the dim reaches of Kankurou's room, and the door on the far side.
"...Are they here now?" He's not sure, but he thinks he detects a hint of apprehension in Neji's voice. Kankurou smirks a little. If he were a foreigner, he'd be a bit intimidated at spending the night in the same house as Gaara too.
"Nope. Just you, me, and the servants. And maybe some rats," he adds with a quiet chuckle.
Neji doesn't know why that sounds so strange.
Perhaps it's just that Kankurou seems like the sort of person who would always want to be surrounded by people. Granted, Neji has not had long to try and read him - this visit to Sunagakure is the first time they've ever really spoken with each other; during the Chuunin exams they were hardly more acquainted than just happening to be in the same space at the same time - but the Kankurou who interacted with Izuno earlier had presented the very picture of the careless nobleman.
He has no idea why this interests him. He has less idea why he is here in the first place. He could have just gone to a hotel.
"Is that... the usual routine?" he wonders, trying his best to sound like he is only asking because he's completely bored. After all, it's true, isn't it? He's just passing the time. This is certainly a less excruciating way to do it than at the Izuno house, maneuvering around... the girl. He refuses to think of her as his future wife.
Kankurou shrugs and grins and Neji observes closely, notes the wry tilt of the mouth and the way the expression totally fails to reach those cold cat eyes. "The three of us are pretty busy. Especially nowadays. Gaara and Temari are away a lot, with all the stuff they've gotta take care of... My business mostly keeps me close to home, though."
The Kankurou Neji remembers from years ago was hard to read, the few times he caught a glimpse of him; the facepaint obscured every expression, made them inhuman and fearsome. Neji wonders if Kankurou knows how transparent he seems without such elaborate makeup.
"I don't mind, though. I like the quiet," the puppeteer muses, shifting his weight a little to lounge lazily against the stone balcony railing. It is gradually darkening outside, sky blazing red with tints of purple as the sun inches below the far horizon. "Too many people around always bugs me."
"Really?" Neji is still putting on his best bored tone. "I would've pegged you for a people person... it seems like performers always are. If you really are a performer."
"I'm a performer," Kankurou insists, a hint of a pout in his tone. He scowls over at Neji. "Why wouldn't I be? I'm a puppeteer, dammit, it's my job. You should come watch me sometime and I'll prove it to you. Really a performer, my ass."
Neji thinks about the prince from earlier, and the lazy, grumpy boy who stands before him now, and supposes he shouldn't begrudge Kankurou his title. He wonders if it's possible to somehow be transparent and opaque at the same time.
He will not be satisfied, he realizes all of a sudden, until he has solved this puzzle. Is that what possessed him to come here? Something his eyes recognized, but his mind did not?
Neji doesn't understand. And Neji hates not understanding.
"So you're a solitary performer then," he probes, raising an eyebrow. "There for the art, not for your audience."
"Well - no, I mean-" Kankurou blinks, caught off-guard. "If you're telling a story there's gotta be people there to hear it or else what's the point, and- When the hell did this become an interrogation, anyway?"
Face turned away from the other boy, Neji smirks a little. "So you do like people, then."
"Well- I- To perform for. What the hell?" Kankurou demands exasperatedly. "God, I can't believe Miki's getting herself stuck with a weird prick like you."
Whatever Neji was going to say next, it flies right out of his head. He stands there very rigidly for a second, gripping the stone balcony with tense fingers and wondering why in the world such a thing should make him feel betrayed.
"You Sand people are sorely lacking in manners," he grits out stiffly at last.
The Byakugan sees how Kankurou winces and then turns away after a second, scowling.
"Whatever," the puppeteer mutters. "I don't even know why you're getting your panties up in a bunch about it... Not like she's begging to marry you either." He sighs, annoyance fading into a weary expression as he crosses his arms over his chest. "Fucking political bullshit."
Another breeze whips over the top of the balcony. As always in the desert, it will be a cold night.
Neji wants so very badly at this moment to be like Naruto.
"...Funny to hear words like that coming from the Kazekage's right hand," he murmurs, finally.
The tartness of Kankurou's voice is belied by the way Neji can see him shifting uneasily on his feet as he speaks. "Gaara doesn't do that political shit. Hell, you've met him, can you picture him doing it? And I don't either. I'm a shinobi, not a... Not a whatever."
They wait there in silence in the cool wind blowing across the balcony, and Neji watches Kankurou without turning around, and Kankurou just stands there probably fully aware he's being watched; and Neji grips the balcony hard again, and prepares for... He doesn't know what.
He notices all of a sudden that though the makeup draws attention away from them, Kankurou's eyes are green. Turquoise, almost, a shade darker than the Kazekage's jade. (The same color as his seal, he does not think.) They are rimmed with a thin line of kohl in the manner of all the desert people, and then next comes that purple facepaint, and hiding beneath it he thinks he sees shadows under the other boy's eyes in the dim light of dusk. How often does he sleep? Neji finds himself wondering. Is he the type to retire late and rise early? Does he stay up all night playing with those puppets and then crash in his bed until noon?
Neji wants to be like Naruto. He wants the power to laugh in the face of fate.
"You know, if you're so dead-set against this thing, you could just tell them all no," Kankurou suggests, rolling his eyes as though it should be obvious. "If it's making you this miserable, I think it'd be worth the hassle."
"You really think I could do that?" Neji allows himself a small, bitter smile. "I'm not that brave."
"Well, why the hell not?" Kankurou says irritatedly, storming forward with a scowl to jerk Neji around by the shoulder. "Are you just gonna let your fucking clan or whoever run your life for you? Don't be a moron, you big... fucking..." Neji stands silent with pursed lips, not sure whether to be offended or amused, and Kankurou lets go of him to whirl around and fling out his arms in an exasperated gesture. "Moron!"
"...Tell them no."
Neji says it quietly to himself. Tests the idea on his tongue. It's so... beautifully simple. So simple and so utterly impossible that he never would have considered it on his own.
"You really... truly think I should?"
Kankurou is halfway back to his room, grumbling something annoyedly under his breath, and he glances back at Neji with a disgruntled expression, flopping against the nearby bit of sandstone wall between two arches and crossing his arms over his chest. "I think you should do whatever the hell you want to do, I think you should live your own fucking life for five seconds and stop being a good little aristocrat boy, I think you oughtta thumb your nose at your family whoevers while they're still alive for you to express how much you hate their asses, and I think this has nothing to do with me and I'm leaving now."
Neji doesn't want to believe in fate.
He doesn't want to be Hyuuga Neji of the Branch Family. He just wants to be Neji. He wants to live his own life. He wants to make his own decisions. He wants to stand tall and proud and noble and be recognized for himself. He wants to be like Naruto, to break those chains at last. He wants...
He walks toward the other boy. Kankurou has half-turned as though to stalk back inside, but he moves no further, stilling with his hands dropping to his sides as he meets Neji's gaze, expression uncertain. Neji draws closer.
Neji thinks that if freedom has a color, it is green. Turquoise, almost. Not quite jade. A color to match his seal. A key to unlock the door.
He presses Kankurou against the wall, traces the other boy's jawline with one hand, and makes his own fate.
Kankurou is being kissed.
It has been a while since Kankurou was last kissed. He is a sixteen-year-old boy, so of course it is a situation he has found himself in before, but not recently. He has kissed the occasional girl and the occasional boy, and gone further with several - most of them looking to curry the Kazekage's favor, whether that happened to be his father or his brother - and dumped them mercilessly after his hormones were satisfied. It has always been business to him, and a rather insincere and messy one; just people trying to take what they want from him, and him taking what he wants from them in return. Never a matter of giving anything.
This, he thinks, is a gift.
Neji's weight is pressed against him, pinning him to the wall, one hand against his jaw and one reaching up to tangle in his hair; the other boy's fingers slide across his face and Kankurou thinks they'll probably smear his makeup as he kisses back, surprised and hesitant but welcoming enough. The hard pressure of Neji's lips is insistent, searching, as though there is some mysterious puzzle he can solve only by kissing Kankurou as breathless as possible; those opal-white eyes threaten to fall closed for a moment until they suddenly snap open and he pulls away from Kankurou, stiffening slightly. Kankurou catches his breath. He can feel a telltale warmth spreading through his body already.
"Holy shit." He can see Neji is about to say something, probably make an apology and go back to being so goddamn well-mannered and aristocratic, so he speaks first. "If that's how you say thank you in Konoha, maybe I am living in the wrong village after all."
"I- didn't- I mean..." Neji looks a little lost all of a sudden, but he hasn't yet untangled his hand from Kankurou's hair. "Your, your assistance..."
"So, are you gonna finish what you started?" Kankurou murmurs, with a lazy blink.
Those opal eyes are weird, but really kind of pretty in their way, he decides. They look prettiest when Neji is smirking. As he is doing now, after the surprise and pleasure and indecision have faded from his face.
"Not shy, are you?"
Kankurou smirks back. "Not a bit."
Neji raises an eyebrow. "That sounds like a challenge to me," he murmurs, the confidence returning to his voice; his smirk widens into a grin as he descends on Kankurou once more, lips meeting, a hand sneaking down to the tie of his hakama. One of Kankurou's arms is still pinned to the wall, but he throws the other around Neji, hand fisting against the fabric of the other boy's shirt. They are rubbing against each other as they kiss and he can feel Neji's arousal, feel the heat building up between them, more than welcome as the desert air begins to turn chill. He hasn't pulled the drapes across the archways of his room yet and it's going to be cold inside tonight, now, but at the moment he doesn't think he minds.
This may be the best gift he has ever received.
At some point they make it into the bedroom, flop down on top of each other on the futon; and after they are finished Neji wonders if he should get up, or move away, but he has already crossed how many lines tonight and would one more really make any difference? So he throws an arm over Kankurou and Kankurou laughs once, tired and perhaps pleasantly surprised, and turns to rest his cheek in the crook of Neji's neck. He raises a hand after a while, and Neji can see the faint glimmer of the chakra even without Byakugan as the puppeteer flings out a string, and heavy drapes slide into place over the open archways of the balcony. The room is thrown into darkness as they obscure the glow of the rising moon, abating the cold breeze that had been drifting through. It hasn't been long since the sun set, but it feels to Neji as though it ought to be midnight.
"I think..." he murmurs. "I think tomorrow I'll go back, and tell them I'm calling it off."
Kankurou is silent. Neji can't see his expression in the pitch-blackness.
"Maybe if Miki and I stand together on this..." He smoothes a lock of hair out of his face. He's so unused to having it down. "It might be easier that way. I know she doesn't want to leave her home..."
Kankurou hadn't asked about the seal branded across his forehead. Had only kissed it, and moved on.
Neji had lightly kissed his smeared facepaint in return, and thought that perhaps he was getting closer toward understanding.
He has decided he will solve this puzzle. It may be a long time before the answer comes. Perhaps it will take his whole life. But he feels somehow that if he is willing to try, the picture he'll see when he sets the last piece into place will be worth the effort.
In the darkness, Kankurou's stomach growls.
There is a stunned moment of silence before the puppeteer says, slightly abashedly, "You know... I haven't had dinner yet tonight."
Neji sits up, smirking a little. "Well, then, perhaps we should take care of that."
"Uhh... can that Byakugan of yours see in the dark?"
Neji can't stifle a single laugh at this question. "Don't tell me you can't fumble your way to a light switch in your own room?"
"Oh, fine, fine, I'll go do it myself." He has not been observing Kankurou for long, but Neji can already picture the disgruntled scowl on the the other boy's face as Kankurou's shadowed form rises, padding across the black expanse with a shinobi's grace, and only a couple muffled thumps and curses here and there. A dim overhead light clicks on a few moments later, and they both go about picking up their clothes.
"Lemme fix my makeup," Kankurou mumbles as he walks by, headed for a low dresser, "or else if Temari gets home tonight I'll never hear the end of this. You hungry?"
"I could use something to eat, if you don't mind," Neji defers politely, pulling his shirt over his head and beginning to smooth his mussed hair.
Kankurou snorts. "Of course I don't mind. I just offered, didn't I?"
They linger in silence for a few moments longer. Neji reties his hitai-ate over his forehead and, fully dressed again, goes to stand behind Kankurou, waiting as the other boy touches up his facepaint. He silently watches Kankurou's progress in the mirror.
"...So..." Kankurou begins, hesitates, and looks down at the purple jar sitting open on his dresser for a moment before continuing. "I guess you'll probably be making a bunch of trips back and forth to Suna while you get this mess sorted out." He picks up his makeup brush again.
"Probably," Neji agrees with a quiet nod, sliding his hands into his pockets.
"...So, I guess... You'll be needing somewhere to stay..." Kankurou starts, pauses again, and leans forward to look very closely at the line he is painting around his eye as he continues. "Paying for hotels all the time can get expensive..."
"It can," Neji agrees, and tries not to smile, and wonders why he feels relieved.
"So... you... Might not mind staying here, while you're in town? Since it's cheaper and all." Kankurou looks down very intently at his dresser table, dipping his brush back into the jar of makeup.
Neji lets himself smile.
"If you don't mind."
"Dammit, I just said I don't mind, I'm offering, aren't I?" Kankurou snaps, turning around to scowl rather comically at him.
Neji raises an eyebrow, smirks, and decides that this is what freedom feels like.