Notes: I probably shouldn't be posting this here but I can't help it! I ache to hear what other people think of it. I don't even know if there are any others out there who like both NejiHina and SasuNaru and don't mind AU. But I'm hoping there is! About this fic, there are some things I think you should know before you read it. The names of places and stuff like that are from Kishimoto-sensei's marvellous work but the manners and clothing and the likes are from the 18th and 19th century Europe. Hopefully it's not very confusing. Also, I'll have to warn you of the scene where Sasuke and Naruto play billiards. I've never thought of the terms of the game in English so I don't know if they're accurate or not. I apologize if I've made errors. In order to make this fic work, Neji is as old as Itachi. In the later part of this, Tenten will be a bit of a bitch. Again, this is only to make the fic work. I think Tenten is a good person. That is all. I hope you can enjoy this.
Roses And Thorns
A white worse galloped through a vast, snowy field. Glimmering flakes danced around it, and its rider brought a hand to a collar of a fur-lined coat to keep out the bite of cold air. The rider's breath trailed after them in consecutive white puffs. Long, black locks whipped the air as the horse ran as fast as it could, obeying its master's wish.
The moon came out from behind a hazy cloud and for a moment the rider's face was exposed to the night. Pale, sharp features were marred in a frown as the rider squinted his eyes, scanning the vastness around him. A hand gripped round a heavy, black handle of a pistol while its twin reached out to adjust the bandages covering his forehead. An empty musket lay under his left thigh, still warm from use.
A wild howl echoed through the still night air and the rider grimaced and squeezed his legs tighter round the horse, encouraging it to go even faster. He bent down against its back, trying to maximize their speed. He saw a familiar landmark and his expression eased. He was close to his destination.
A clock hit midnight, startling Hinata out of her doze. She blinked to drive sleep away from her eyes and looked round the room from her cosy corner. A steady hum of people talking filled her ears, the occational bursts of laughter and the feminine, flirty screams informing her of enthusiastic flirting still taking place in the Hyuuga Manor at this late hour. She saw a woman lifting a fan to hide her mouth while batting her eyelashes at a relatively handsome young man and felt a pang of jealousy even though she strongly disapproved such behaviour.
Hinata gripped her own fan tighter and pressed her hands against the smooth fabric of her dress. She had never been able to flirt. All she could manage was blush and stammer and while some found this quite cute at first, they all got tired of it in the end. She couldn't behave normally when in the presence of others, no matter how hard she tried, and because of that she had become somewhat of an outcast. Of course she would never be totally shunned, since she was the eldest daughter of the Hyuuga patriarch, but she felt their scorn very painfully and she had thought she would never form a relationship of any sort with anyone and was destined to be alone. Many nights she had cried herself to sleep, thinking she would live a lonely life and die a lonely death, without a single person really caring what happened to her. She never would have thought she would be the first one of her age group to get married.
Her father had come to her last week, while she had been sitting in the garden, and told her she was to marry in less than a month. She had been shocked, of course, but hadn't even thought about going against her father's orders. She was an obedient daughter and a gentle person who never wanted to hurt anyone.
Her fiancé was her older cousin, Hyuuga Neji who had been away from home for years, only visiting them a few times every now and then. He was a soldier, fighting endless wars to keep the Fire Country free from invaders. After a long and laborous war against the Wind Country, there had been a short period of time during which people thought another war would not arise. But then a rebellious lord, named Orochimaru, had started causing trouble and after a week stay at home, Hyuuga Neji had returned to the battlefield. But now Orochimaru had been defeated, at least for the time being since the lord himself had managed to escape, and Hiashi, the patriarch of the Hyuuga clan, had requested Neji to leave his life of a warrior and return to the Hyuuga estate and also, to marry Hiashi's daughter. His meaning was clear. He wanted Neji to become his successor.
It had taken more than two weeks for Neji's reply to arrive. In the short note the young man had told them he would arrive once he had talked to his commander and that he would take Hiashi's offer. He had also sent his regards to Hinata. When Hinata had seen the letter she had felt a jolt of anticipation overriding her previous nervousness. She didn't remember Neji well but the memories she had were happy ones. She had a vague memory of protective hands and soothing voice from when she was little and of watchful eyes, making sure she wouldn't hurt herself. Warmness spread from the pit of her stomach as she thought of those memories. She had went to see Neji's portrait, hanging in the gallery, as soon as she had heard of her upcoming marriage. Neji was a handsome man with a serious expression and a dignified air which Hinata could sense even from the picture. She had blushed and run away, thinking such a man would never really care for her.
But then those few words had come. 'My regards and best wishes to Hinata-san.' She had begun to hope that her future husband would be a kind man and that she would not have to be afraid of him.
Hinata was so absorbed in her thoughts that she failed to notice a lackey arriving at the doors of the ball room, and was only roused from her musings when she heard a loud, clear voice announcing the arrival of a guest.
"Lieutenant of Her Majesty's Army, his lordship, Hyuuga Neji."
All activities in the grand room ceased as the patrons turned their heads to see who had entered after the lackey. A tall man, dressed in dark travelling clothes, stood before their eyes, adjusting his bandages and glancing around, looking a bit dazed by the bright lights and the heavy smell of parfumes.
Hiashi stood up from his seat and motioned Neji to come to him. Hinata tensed as she watched the young man approaching them with long, confident strides. She noticed he was constantly fingering the bandages covering his forehead and that blood had dirtied the white cloth. When he came closer, she stood up and bowed low. Neji smelled like snow. Hinata liked it.
"Hiashi-sama," Neji greeted with a light bow of his head. He turned to Hinata and bowed again. "Hinata-san. You look lovely. I'm afraid I am not suitable company for you right now. I am worn out from my journey here and dirty. Excuse my rudeness. I was not aware that Uncle was holding a ball tonight. Had I known, I would surely have changed my clothes before appearing in front of you." He bowed again.
Hinata blushed so badly she was sure her face would soon catch fire. She didn't know what to say to such a polite and smooth speech, even if it was said with no emotion in the voice, and was still stammering for words when her father spoke.
"Neji-san. I am glad to see you here at last."
Neji turned away from Hinata to regard Hiashi with a steady look. "Yes, Uncle. I apologize for the delay. I had to finish some business with my commander before I could leave."
"How was General Maito?"
"He was in full health when I left him, if a bit tired of the necessary paper work."
"Ah, yes. I have heard he is a man of action."
"Indeed he is, sir. But he is a man of honor as well and will do his duty toward his country no matter what."
"A respectable man, I see."
"I have grown to believe so."
"I am pleased you have served such an agreeable man, Neji-san."
"As am I."
"You mentioned you are tired?"
"I am. It was a long journey and I encountered some trouble on my way." Neji touched his bandaged forehead.
"Are you in need of a doctor?"
"No, sir. Thank you for your kind offer, but I am quite well. This is nothing."
"Very well then. Hinata will see you to your room. I will see you at breakfast."
"Thank you." Neji bowed his head in appreciation and turned to follow a very nervous Hinata out of the ball room when Hiashi called him back. "Yes?"
"I'm glad to see you again, nephew."
Neji nodded. "I'm glad to see you too, Uncle." With one final bow, he exited the room.
"So the prodigal son has returned," Uchiha Itachi remarked, sounding none too pleased about it. He was of the same age as Neji and had grown up competing against the proud Hyuuga boy. Their characters clashed in the worst way possible and they held no love for each other. Itachi had been glad to see Neji leave the capital to follow his father's footsteps in a military career and had enjoyed every Neji-free year he had spent since. When he had heard of Neji's rumoured marriage with the older of the Hyuuga sisters, he had not been happy.
"He is not Hiashi-sama's son," his little brother answered, swatting away an intruding female hand.
Itachi looked down, surprised to receive an answer. He had thought he was alone. "Sasuke. What are you still doing here?"
"Am I not allowed to be here?" Sasuke asked, boredom evident in his voice.
Itachi, not bothering to answer, turned his gaze to the dance floor which had by now filled with swaying bodies. Hardly paying attention to the dancers, he shifted his eyes further down the room and stopped at a particular, interesting sight. It was nothing new and nothing surprising but it would get him rid of Sasuke. "Uzumaki is once again trying to woo Haruno-san."
Sasuke followed his gaze and snorted. "He never learns." He watched with satisfaction how a short, blonde boy was dismissed by an angry wave of a delicate hand. The owner of the hand turned adoring emerald eyes in his direction as soon as she got rid of the pest but the object of her admiration didn't return her look. Instead he fixed his eyes on the blonde and smirked. It didn't take long for the blonde to sense someone was watching him and he lifted his eyes to meet with Sasuke's. 'Dobe,' Sasuke mouthed and then drew his lips into a sneer.
"Ah, he's coming," Itachi noted but Sasuke didn't hear him. The boy also didn't notice when Itachi slipped away from the scene, because by then, the blonde had reached him and stood fuming in front of his mocking onyx eyes.
"Sasuke!" the boy snarled.
Sasuke lifted a brow at the rudeness. Of course, he had not expected anything else. He knew the boy too well. They had been in each other's throats since childhood but unlike the relationship between Itachi and Neji, theirs was free from true loathing. They competed and they argued but there was never any real resentment between them. Neither of them would admit it under any condition but in fact they quite enjoyed each other's company and, oddly enough, trusted each other. That didn't stop them from wanting to beat the crap out of each other. "Dobe," Sasuke answered, knowing full well that the particular insult would enrage the blonde.
"Sasuke! You bastard!"
A hand came from out of nowhere and grabbed the blonde's shoulder before the boy could launch himself on Sasuke. "Naruto, you are too loud. It is not polite to our hosts," an amiable voice scolded.
Naruto wriggled in the hold, trying to free himself but not succeeding. "But, Iruka-nii! Sasuke was being an asshole!"
By then their little group had drawn numerous long looks. Iruka was starting to get uncomfortable. He held down the struggling boy and glanced at Sasuke. "I am terribly sorry, Sasuke-sama. Please forgive us," he pleaded, bowing his head at the same time.
"Iruka-nii! Don't apologize to him! We haven't even done anything!"
Sasuke regarded the two in front of him with an impassive face. His eyes held a barely visible shadow of displeasure as they landed on the man. He shrugged as a response to the man's apology. "Whatever," he said, sounding like he couldn't care less but throwing a challenging look at Naruto who didn't miss a fraction of it.
"Aargh! Sasuke, you piss me off so much!" Naruto squaled, snaking out of Iruka's grasp and ignoring the man's horrified gasp. "Look," he exclaimed, pointing a finger at Sasuke's nose, "I don't care that you're from the legendary Uchiha clan or whatever. I wouldn't care even if you were the Hokage himself. I'm going to kick your sorry ass so badly that you wont be able to walk straight for a week. You hear that, pretty boy?"
"I hear you, dobe, as does everyone else in this room," Sasuke answered, his eyes flickering down to the finger and then back up again.
"I challenge you!" Naruto shouted, grabbing Sasuke's collar and bringing his red face close to Sasuke's. "I challenge you right now!"
"You think you can beat me, dobe?" Sasuke smirked.
"I can beat you with my eyes closed and my hands tied behind my back," Naruto replied, waving his fist to furher press his matter.
"We'll see about that. Would billiards be fine with you?" Sasuke suggested and added with an evil glint in his eyes, "Or would you prefer chess?"
Naruto stumbled a bit at the mention of chess. He had a very long record of losing in that particular game. No matter how hard he tried or how hard he studied it, he could never beat Sasuke in it. "B-billiards is fine!" he stammered and then grabbed Sasuke's arm to drag him away from the ball room, sputtering insults and obscenities all the way.
Hinata stopped in front of a massive wooden door. She turned to face the man following her with a respectful bow. "This is your room, Neji-san."
Neji stepped past her, opened the door and peeked in. A maid had lit a fire in the fireplace. Warm air gushed into the cool corridor. Neji turned away from the soft light to face Hinata. "Thank you. I'm sorry to have deprived you of your fun just to show me my room."
"N-not at all!" Hinata hurried to answer, painfully aware that she had done nothing but sit in a corner the whole night. "I-it was a pleasure."
Neji regarded her with thoughtful eyes for what seemed like ages. Finally he shifted his gaze. "May I ask you something, Hinata-san?" he asked softly.
Hinata looked up at him, surprised by his question but she was eager to please him. "Of course."
"What do you think of our would-be marriage?"
Hinata blushed. "Wh-what do I…think about it?"
Neji looked at her again. "Yes. Are you displeased with it?"
Hinata could not answer. She tried hard in fear of Neji misinterpreting her silence but no words came out of her mouth. She felt unshed tears burn behind her eyes. Why was she always so useless? Why couldn't she open her mouth and tell Neji that she thought no ill of their marriage and that she would do her utmost to make Neji feel comfortable and happy? She clasped her hands together and twisted her fingers. Then she timidly glanced Neji's eyes to see how he had reacted to her silence.
"I see that you are not completely against it," Neji said, looking slightly pleased. "That makes things easier for me. And for you too, of course."
Hinata was amazed that Neji had understood her meaning even though she had shown oppposite signs to what she had felt.
"Pardon me for my rudeness but do you have someone you are fond of?"
Hinata blinked. "Fond of?"
"Someone you hold in your heart. If so, I will naturally cancel the wedding. I do not wish to rid you of your love."
Hinata's blush deepened. "N-no. I have no such person," she replied stammering.
Neji nodded. "Then I see no reason for us not to marry. If some day you find someone you prefer over me, tell me so and I will free you from our contract."
Hinata's heart felt heavy. Contract? Was there to be no affection whatsoever between them? How could they live like that? "Y-yes. Um…Neji-san, I…"
Neji quirked a questioning brow. "Yes?"
Hinata struggled with words but in the end, she could not find a way to convey her worries to Neji. She was afraid of him, of his polite but cold demeanor and the way he handled their supposed marriage. Perhaps Neji would think she was a romantic fool, an innocent school girl who knew nothing of the ways of the world. And perhaps she was both. "N-nothing."
Neji waited for a while to see if she would change her mind but when it became evident that she wouldn't, he nodded. "Very well, then. Thank you again for showing me to my room. I am much obliged."
"Good night," Neji said, reaching for her hand and gracing the back of it softly with his lips.
"U-um…G-good night," Hinata managed to reply. She stood in her place, dazed, and watched how Neji closed the door in front of her. Her hand tingled.
A soft thud accompanied a red ball when it reached its target and smoothly went into a pocket. Sasuke relaxed his stance and leaned on his cue. His dark eyes were fixed on his companion who could do nothing but stare. Taking his time to silently laugh at Naruto's expression, Sasuke finally decided to somehow comment the situation. "Well?" he said, a smirk tugging at his lips. "Th-this! This is!" Nartuo pointed his trembling finger at the billiards table.
"Yes?" Sasuke prompted, managing to supress his smirk.
Naruto turned to look at him with wide, blue eyes. "Im-impossible!"
"What is, dobe?"
"I didn't even have a chance! My turn didn't come!"
"That's why you should win the banking, usuratonkachi."
"Why you--! Rematch! I demand a rematch! And this time, I'll start," Naruto shouted, grabbed two balls and waved them wildly in the air.
"If you win the banking," Sasuke retorted coolly, placing a ball with number two on its side on the table. Ignoring Naruto's protests, he set his cue ball at the head string and took his position behind the table. He glanced at Naruto. "Are you backing out?"
Cursing vehemently, Naruto mimicked Sasuke's movements and then looked over his shoulder at the dark-haired boy. "I'm so going to kick your ass!"
Sasuke shrugged. "Whatever. Let's just get on with this." They hit their cue balls almost simultaneously and then straightened to see the results. Sasuke's eyes flickered to Naruto and a small smile lingered on his lips. The blonde was leaning over the table, staring attentively at the two balls when they hit the foot cushion and started to roll back.
"Come on! Here, here! No no no, don't slow down!" Naruto schreeched as his ball seemed to lose its speed. But soon he was filled with another fear. "Aargh! Slow down! Stop! Stop!" He watched helplessly as his ball hit the head cushion and bounced back to roll few more inches before finally coming to a halt. Naruto's eyes flew to Sasuke's ball and to his utmost displeasure, found it sitting tightly against the cushion. "Nooo! Again? Gods, why do you hate me so much?" Naruto wailed, threatening to hit Sasuke in the head with his cue as he unattentively waved it in the air.
Sasuke dodged it easily and stepped back. "Looks like it's my turn to start again," he said smugly.
"Hmph!" Naruto crossed his arms and pouted. He was about to break into another fit when the door to the room opened and a servant came in. The servant bowed to Sasuke.
"Sasuke-sama, Itachi-sama wishes to speak to you in the hall," he said, bowing again before vanishing from sight.
Sasuke grunted, displeased, but put his cue into a rack and started to leave. "We are probably leaving. Too bad I couldn't beat you again. Three times a night just doesn't seem to be enough."
"You bastard! How dare you run before I could show you my might!"
"I am not running. I already told you we are probably leaving. It's late. Iruka-san will soon come to fetch you too."
Naruto pouted. "No he won't. Ero-sennin is always the last to leave a party and Iruka-nii refuses to leave the old fart behind. He says it's too dangerous."
"It most likely is," Sasuke said, recalling the wild stories circling around the infamous Jiraiya-sama. His hand was on the door knob but he did not twist it yet. He looked back at his blonde companion and seemed to think hard. Coming to a decision, he smirked at Naruto. "Tell you what, you'll come to my place tomorrow and we can race."
Naruto looked up with shining eyes. "Really?"
Sasuke allowed a small smile rise to his lips. "Yes, really."
Naruto smiled a dazzling smile, his eyes turning into slits and his cheeks covering with a light shade of red. "Okay!"
"I'll send a carriage some time after twelve."
"I'll see you then. Good night, usuratonkachi," Sasuke softly said and stepped out of the room. As he closed the door behind him, he heard Naruto cursing him violently and he smiled widely.