Caged

Persepolis130

Notes: Sorry for the nightmares about Neji in spandex, but just be thankful you're not in Tenten's place! Anyway, this here is officially the last chapter, so I hope you like it!

CHAPTER 19

All things considered, the next few days passed relatively uneventfully. Gai was too worried about Lee and Tenten's progress in the Exams to concern himself overly with Neji, and since he stayed well away from the exam site and anything relating to it, Neji managed to avoid Temari as well. He also saw little of his uncle, and when he did, their exchanges were nothing but formal and appropriate. Neji was left to assume that Hinata had, indeed, spoken to the man and couldn't help but feel relieved and grateful to her.

Despite all this, or maybe because of it, the days seemed to stretch on endlessly. With nothing worthwhile to do, Neji's mind ran in circles, one thought chasing another like an idiot dog chasing its tail.

He wished he knew what he wanted; such constant indecision was beginning to drive him mad. He knew it was wrong to want Hinata back, to want to be with someone who didn't want him. And to love his own sister… it was unthinkable. But he couldn't make himself stop. It wasn't as if he could just flip a switch and suddenly not care anymore, as much as he wished he could.

So he trained, working himself to exhaustion and stumbling home with his eyes half-open to a night of restless tossing and turning. He requested yet another mission, any mission, even D-rank, he didn't care. Anything to keep his mind off things, he'd do it. Hell, he even bought a girlie mag.

It sometimes worked.

Other times it left him feeling sick and empty, staring down incredulously with bleary eyes at his sticky fingers as if they belonged to someone else.

So on the third day as the preliminaries drew to a close, his heart beating hard in his chest and tongue thick in his mouth, Neji couldn't even pretend he was waiting outside the training complex to see how his own team had fared. When the doors were finally thrown open, he barely noticed the enormous grin on Tenten's sweaty face or Lee's tired but exuberant bouncing, hooting, and fist raising.

The only thing he truly saw was Hinata, limping, jacket torn, dirt smeared across her pale cheek, and eyes sparkling like the surface of sun-lit water. A sense of great pride welled up inside him, and Neji blinked as he felt his eyes begin to sting. And he realized he didn't care.

It didn't matter who she was, whether she thought she wanted to be with him or not, he had to have her. There was no way around it. His cousin, his sister, his own daughter, it made no difference.

"Hinata-sama."

"Nii-san…" she seemed startled, and he suddenly realized how close he was to her, close enough to touch, though he hadn't felt his feet move.

"You've done well," he murmured, feeling his breath hitch when she looked up at him, catching his eyes with hers. He thought at that moment that she'd never looked so beautiful before. It was all he could do not to take her right there, onlookers be damned.

Hinata seemed not to notice this though, only nodding a respectful thank you and smiling in that soft way of hers. "Um… now that I made it, I was thinking… that you could maybe help with my training for the finals. If you have the time…"

And there he saw it. His chance, while it was still fresh in her memory, to convince her that she belonged with him. That he could be what she wanted. That their destinies were entwined. That she didn't need Naruto and never would.

"Hinata-sama, I would be--"

And suddenly he felt Tenten's arms around him, her sweaty cheek pressed to his. "Actually, he already promised to help me and Lee, so I'm sure he wouldn't have time. Right, Neji?"

For a moment, he stood in open-mouthed shock at the statement. When had he ever promised such a thing? And why was she TOUCHING him? But then Tenten turned to face him, and he saw the look on her face. He felt something hard grind against the pit of his stomach.

"Really, Neji? You're going to help us!" Lee, who seemed to appear out of nowhere, turned fiery eyes and clenched fists to his teammate. "Is it true?"

Neji just stared, jaw slack, slowly turning his gaze from Lee, to Hinata, to Lee, and then back to Hinata again as he felt Tenten's arms tighten around his chest.

This was not happening.

"It's alright, nii-san. I'm sure father will help me," Neji heard his cousin say quietly. And then he watched helplessly as the silver-eyed girl smiled, waved, and trotted off to catch up with Kiba. The boy grinned fiercely and put an arm around both her and Shino as they walked away.

"Come on, Neji," Tenten said quietly. When he didn't respond, his feet stuck to the ground where he stood, Tenten took his hand and led him away. Looking back over his shoulder, Neji watched as Hinata disappeared behind him.

It was a strange feeling, walking away from the one person he loved on this earth besides himself while holding someone else's hand. Someone who'd just hurt him on purpose. He felt something harden inside of him, and he wanted to hate Tenten for it. But really, what did it even matter?

Hinata, his cousin, sister, lover, whoever she was, could never be his, and he knew it. He was walking away from her, and he would never have her again. He was alone now, back to how he'd always been, as if none of it had ever happened. The choice had been made for him, as had so many others in his life. It was fate. And it hurt like hell. But somehow, through the pain that wrenched his heart, he found that he really just felt…

Relieved.

Because it was over. It was fate, and despite what Naruto had said to him, what his father had written, what he'd always wanted desperately to believe, how could one really fight fate? Better to resign himself to it than worry about what could've been. After all, hadn't it just been proven that it was the only real option?

"Tenten…" he said in a quiet voice as the sounds of the others faded behind them, "thank you."

"Hey, no problem," she smiled, maybe a little slyly, "What're friends for?"

Neji frowned, glancing down at their joined hands. "Are we friends then?"

Tenten shrugged. "Don't you want to be?"

Neji wasn't quite sure how to answer. He'd never had a friend before, but what she'd just done didn't seem so friendly. Finally, he shrugged. "Alright."

"Great!" Tenten pronounced and let go of his hand, turning to walk backwards in front of him with her hands clasped behind her. "Then we can go out sometimes, and if anyone says anything indecent about me, you can beat the crap out of them! That way, you can keep your promise to avenge my honor AND get some extra training in! It'll be fun, right?"

Neji blinked several times before clearing his throat and admitting, "Yes. Very." Why hadn't HE thought of something like that? It was so simple…

"Good!" Tenten proclaimed. "Now buy me dinner-- I'm starved!-- and I'll tell you all about the Exam. You won't BELIEVE where Lee hid our Earth scroll..."

And just like that it was done. They were friends. It felt nice, calming somehow, to have someone who cared about him more than just on the battlefield, expecting only his friendship in return. A friend was someone important, to be protected, cherished. Walking beside Tenten, he saw her in a new light. And Neji couldn't help but wonder, as she chatted on and he ignored her, when it would be proper to ask about friends with benefits.

After all he'd been through, he damn well hoped it was soon.

XXXXX END XXXXX

What, you thought he'd changed? lol

Anyway that's it! Comments, requests, virgin sacrifices for the Neji god? Thanks for reading, and as always, feedback is HOT.