Part One

He often found her out in the gardens in her free time, sitting quietly on a stone bench with a small pot of soil in her lap, diligently working seeds into the dirt and patting them softly into place. It was an act very much suited for her, one that was tranquil and nurturing, two traits that he would forever associate with her in his mind. It took a great deal of patience to cultivate a garden of the magnitude she had managed, but then, if she was anything, Hyuuga Hinata was a very patient person. There were times when he considered her too patient.

For the greater part of his childhood, Neji had considered his cousin something to be loathed. She had represented to him the bitter irony of life, as well as the unattainable. All of his frustrations as a boy had been poured into a burning, aching hate for her, and somehow, he had considered himself strong. How misguided he had been as a child.

Strength wasn't something to be measured by the standards he had been taught. It was funny how it took one little blonde boy to have him realize this, but eventually, he had begun to respect the differences in people in ways that he had never learned to before. Rather than hold himself so high above others, he'd felt his footing slip, and had seen the world as he should have from the beginning. How humbling an experience it had been, to finally understand that there were people who were far greater than he in so many ways he couldn't even begin to measure up to.

One of them was sitting before him now, unaware of his presence as she gently smoothed her fingers along the petals of a flower. Hinata possessed a rare, unique brand of inner strength that even she wasn't aware of. It was amazing how a human being could be so guileless. Perhaps he had begun his life jaded, however; there were women like Hinata in the world, but they were few and far between. As it was, it seemed there were none left for a man to claim as his own. Those people who were conscious of their value had already done so, and left the men like him, the ones who saw beauty too late, to be alone.

A faint frown line formed between his eyebrows as he watched her shift, the pale fabric of her kimono rustling slightly as she turned to face one of her maids. It was time that she return to the house, he supposed, to sit inside a dimmed room and discuss all manner of things that she wasn't suited to such a delicate, peaceful person. Neji no longer resented the fact that Hinata was the head of the family, he only felt sympathy for her plight.

Hinata had never wanted the responsibility of the entire family. She had too low an opinion of her own worth to believe herself capable of handling such an esteemed position, and even now, at twenty-nine, she still relied more on her council than she ever did her instincts for the family's inner dealings. Thankfully, the council had yet to take advantage of her disposition and influence her toward their own ends.

Should they ever, Neji would not hesitate to systematically break every man who tried.

It wasn't as though he particularly relished the thought of harming other people. Neji had never been cruel, even as child; misguided, yes, but causing other people pain hadn't given him thrills. However, as a man, his integrity would not allow him to stand by if someone should attempt to deceive Hinata to further their own ends. She was innocent, and wouldn't realize what they were doing until it was too late. More, she was far too kind and willing to forgive that sort of thing than he, even after all these years. Humans learned quickly the weaknesses of others, and it was in their nature to exploit them whenever possible.

His features leveled out once more as the maid was dismissed and Hinata turned back to her flower, hands fluttering skillfully around it as she pruned a dead bud from its side. While she was alone once more, Neji knew instantly that she was ill at ease despite that fact. It wasn't difficult to read his cousin; her emotions had always shown plainly on her face, unlike his own, and Neji was a particularly observant person. It helped that he had grown quite fond of her over the years, in his own way.

Her eyes now carried that wistful sadness that he had seen there lately. The cause of it was one that irritated, but there was nothing to be done about it. The family had been pressing her to choose a husband from within its folds for quite some time now, but she persisted in apologetically declining every time they asked. Neji suspected he knew why, and though he considered her foolish, in a way, he felt compassion for her.

Hinata was a simple woman. She was in love with a man that she couldn't marry, and because of that, she didn't feel right pledging herself to another. However, as head of the family, love was a luxury she wasn't allowed. All she could hope was to come to respect her partner in life, whoever he ended up being, and perhaps eventually it would blossom in something akin to love. Neji had no experience in matters such as these, and thus didn't waste much time speculating, but any man that married his cousin and managed not to love her was not only a fool, but obviously feebleminded. She was the type of woman that would never ask for much.

As such, she was exactly the type of woman who deserved everything the world had to offer her. Uzumaki Naruto, the man she loved, could give her that. However, he was very much in love with someone else, and for that, Neji considered him possibly the most foolish man in the world.

Love was such a complicated thing. Neji wasn't entirely certain that if he ever did fall, he would be able to cope with it as he should, but he knew that he would welcome the emotion. After all, he was free to love and marry where he chose, and to waste an opportunity like that when there were people like his cousin who would give anything for the chance was insulting. To them, and to love.

Closing his eyes, Neji allowed a small smile to tilt the corners of his mouth. As of late, he had become a very introspective man, musing on thoughts such as love and children. He supposed that sort of thing came with age. All the talk among the family of Hinata marrying must have gotten to him somehow, and forced him to finally admit to himself that there was something lacking in his life. As he was still close to very few people, there was no where to turn his thoughts but inward, and his rambling walks in silence had become a topic most discussed in the branch house.

Ah, but people did love to meddle. Many suspected him of becoming senile already, despite the fact that he was barely thirty. They blamed it on his position in ANBU, he supposed, and the fact that recently he had suffered a blow to the head, though he didn't waste his time ruminating on that. People would think what they wanted, and it was a waste of time to attempt to change that when it would just add fuel to whatever they chose to believe.

Opening his eyes, he was vaguely surprised to find Hinata hunched slightly forward, shoulders turned inward. It was a vulnerable position, one that brought to mind weights pressing in on her and bowing her body. Had she known he stood feet away, concealed behind a pillar laced with ivy, there was no doubt she would not give herself even a moment to appear weak, especially not in front of him. No matter how many years passed, young impressions always remained, and he knew that his cousin was made uneasy by his presence. That was precisely why he, more of then than not, quietly observed her and then left her in peace without speaking to her at all.

To say that she was little aware of just how closely Neji watched over her, would be a gross understatement.

He felt that he shouldn't be watching her now, in this vulnerable moment, and so he turned to leave. Had he not been wearing his headband high on his shoulder, as was his custom lately, he would have been able to slip away silently. As it was, the sunlight caught the metal, and sent a bright spike of light across the garden.

Immediately he saw her straighten, watched her quick attempt to push the worry lines from her face as she searched for the source of the light, a question trembling on the air that she hadn't voiced. There was no way he could walk away unnoticed now, especially not since she'd activated the byakugan.

Stepping forward into a spill of sunlight, Neji watched surprise flit across his cousin's face before nervous welcome forced her mouth to smile. It was always this way. She was forced to welcome everyone she was acquainted with, more by her own deeply ingrained sense of decency than any social conduct that might or might not have been pressed upon her.

"N-Neji-niisan. It's good to see you," she said softly, clasping her hands in front of her waist and bowing. When she rose, the byakugan was no longer active.

He did the same, strands of silken hair slipping over one shoulder and falling just in front of his waist. He'd taken to wearing it unbound when not on a mission, though it was at times more of a nuisance than not. Many people had suggested, quite out of turn, that he cut his hair, as it would be more practical. Neji had not deigned to reply.

"Hinata-sama. I apologize for my intrusion," he intoned, reaching up to brush his hair over his shoulder once more.

Hinata seemed more uncomfortable by the apology than anything, and just smiled somewhat falteringly. "Oh, no, it's all right. I was just taking a turn in my garden before the council meeting."

He watched her steadily, a move that seemed to unnerve her as well. Hinata was too self-conscious, in his opinion. Relenting, he took a moment to glance around the garden and allowed her to gather herself somewhat before he glanced back.

Inclining his head slightly, he said, "I could accompany you, if you like. It has been some time since I've seen the gardens in full."

Hinata blinked, surprised by the offer, and replied softly, "I would like that, thank you," before offering him a hesitant smile.

Folding his hands in the small of his back, he waited for her to begin walking and fell into step beside her. It was true that he hadn't taken a full tour of the garden in quite some years, and especially not since Hinata had taken charge of it and turned it into something lovely. Her taste was everywhere in the flora, the dominant colors being pastels with a flare of bright, unexpected color in places easily overlooked. The decor was tasteful and elegant, something that he could appreciate.

Neji tended to appreciate the finer things in life now, and though he was not the type that would take the time to tend his own garden, he would not mind sitting down with an easel and painting a portrait of it. It would be relaxing.

Which was the exact opposite of his cousin at the moment. He could feel the nervous energy rolling off of her at the silence between them, and though he wasn't a man who enjoyed conversation particularly, especially when it wasn't necessary, he didn't want to make her any more upset than she likely already was. After all, he knew what the meeting would be today, as he was a member of the Branch House's council.

Once again, a potential mate had been selected for Hinata, and they wished for her to meet him and decide.

Glancing toward her, he observed her silently for a few moments as they walked. She had changed from the young girl that he had detested so, inside and out. She was still the same gentle, giving person, and still very unsure of herself, but over the years, it seemed that Hinata was becoming at least a bit more comfortable in her own skin. Decisions were being made with more and more confidence at the meetings, and though she was still timid, she was getting better.

As many had suspected, though Neji had rarely given it thought, Hinata had physically changed as well. Obviously she would not remain a twelve year-old girl forever, but she was different now. More slender, rounded in different places. Her face, which he remembered from so long ago as being circular and easily overlooked, had lengthened and filled into something that would be more attractive if there was a bit more confidence. She wore her hair just past her shoulders, usually up in a traditional style, but Neji had the feeling that motion had been more pressure from her father and the other council members than her own will.

Overall she made a pretty picture, and no man that they had suggested so far would have been unhappy marrying her. Once she decided to marry, her husband would treat her well.

There would be repercussions otherwise.

They were nearing the end of the garden, which Neji found mildly annoying. The end of this walk brought the meeting all the closer, and he already knew precisely what would pass in the short time they spent in the room.

"Hinata-sama." When she glanced over, expression a mixture of relief and apprehension, he mentally sighed. Would she never manage to be comfortable in his presence?

"Y-yes, Neji-niisan?"

He frowned faintly at her, an action that had her swallowing and looking repentant, though for what, he couldn't imagine, as he hadn't said a word to her yet. She was also too quick to apologize, he noticed, as she opened her mouth to do just that. He held up a hand to silence her, and was vaguely annoyed that she went immediately quiet.

"Why do you call me niisan? We are not brother and sister."

The question seemed to catch her off guard and she blinked, looking unsure. "Well, I... I don't... I don't really know," she finished, wringing her hands in front of her. "If it displeases you..."

"It does not." That much was true. "However, I am not your brother. Please do not add a suffix to my name."

She nodded, looking at the ground, and murmuring a thank-you to the people who opened the doors for them. It was time to begin the council meeting, and though Neji didn't imagine either of them were thrilled about it, there were things that needed to be done. It would be irresponsible not to attend to important matters at hand simply because they did not feel like it.

They would continue their discussion after the meeting, and then Neji would ask her what he had intended to from the beginning. Perhaps she would consider it rude, and presumptuous of him to ask, but it was an important question that needed to be answered. Otherwise, he and the other councilmen would be continuing on this fruitless endeavor of finding her a husband for who knew how long.

When they entered the room where the meeting was to be held, Neji quickly scanned the faces assembled. He noticed there was no one new present.

Folding his arms across his waist, he focused on Hinata's father and asked in an even tone, "Where is the next prospect for Hinata-sama to speak with?"