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Pomp and Circumstance

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He kissed her hand.

It was a ritual, one of hundreds they had trapped between them, but this one she liked better than most.

The floor of the chuunin exams seemed endless shadowed years away now. The smell of blood, the determined coursing of it in her veins, the rage and frustration in his eyes, all of it was dim and faded against the backdrop of the years... but it would never vanish entirely. She would never forget.

Other times, other moments, she relaxed and let herself be shy and fumbling with others, let herself blush and gape and stammer. Other times, when Neji wasn't around, because those moments were a weakness, a surrendering to a habitual untruth she didn't really want to live anymore.

When they were alone, just the two of them and all the history between them, she forced herself to drop the polished mask and just talk to him, cousin to cousin, girl to boy, man to woman, friend to friend, whatever they were, whatever she or he wanted them to be.

On a cold night, one that belonged to February heart and soul, she pattered through the hallways wrapped in a nightgown and slid into bed next to him, shivering with a cold that went deep as her bones.

When he lifted the blanket for her, it felt like something he'd done thousands of times before, as though he'd ceremoniously let her into his heart like this every day and she just hadn't noticed.

It wasn't true, she knew it wasn't, but the feeling of ritualistic familiarity didn't fade, not even months later when she crept into his bed again and innocently seduced him, not even years later when he caught her arm to keep her from saying things she shouldn't to emissaries of other lands, and when he tasted her food before he let her come near the plate. Everything he did for her felt like something he should do, something he'd done before, something she'd dreamed of him doing.

He kissed her eyelids, her paper-thin elderly eyelids, and held her hand so tightly she knew his grip would never break.

It had taken years for him to love her, but it would take more time than he had left to change his mind now.

She was glad beyond words just to have him close enough to touch.