Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto, etc. Borrowing for the purposes of entertainment, procrastination, and basically, escapism.

Warning: Possible spoilers.



The Hokage's office was a well-lit room, illuminated by both the wide-spanning windows that welcomed crisp daylight and the unbelievable collection of knowledge crammed within the stacks of current reports and piles of aged scrolls, either resting on the sturdy desk or stowed in the surrounding shelves. All sorts of information graced this tiny space at any given time, from highly guarded whisperings in the high court of the distant Tarsier country to the idle gossips on the streets about the most recent—and most torrid yet—love affair of some minor princling with some buxom movie starlet. Its mundane appearance was highly misleading: if the daimyos of the five great shinobi countries had their magnificent halls, the absolute commander of one of the most powerful shinobi groups in the world had this cluttered room.

Through the ages, ninjas had hardened against the little love the rest of the world had for them. Feared and hated by many, their very nature defied the human capacity to trust. A simple person cannot claim to love those that lurked in the shadows, those that operated under the mask of darkness, those harbingers of death that followed convoluted principles and undisclosed ideologies...

Those that few understood. Those that had little desire to be understood.

It was said that the ninjas were willing to do the most disgusting, the most atrocious of deeds for the right price. It was said that they, having forgone all morals for the sake of society and fellow humans, were the most honorable and the most high in morals, for they could discern the best course between two rights or two wrongs, could make the most painful decisions, the most impossible sacrifices, the most hopeless gambles.

It was said that ninjas were living ironies, but Neji didn't care. Ninja was his way of life. It was his destiny.

He would, however, acknowledge that many people's imaginings would paint a dimly lit, cavernous throne-room for the leader of the Leaves. Perhaps, a man might say to a fellow drinker, the leader of these ninja creatures was a brooding behemoth spider in a dark hole on a mountainside or an underground metropolis, that the fair village of Konoha was just a complicated disguise for these barbarians. They wouldn't believe if they were told (which he certainly wouldn't do) that, just this morning, the Godaime Hokage scolded the servant who closed the shutters of the office at the appearance of a few morose-looking clouds in the sky.

But why should ninjas shun light? Without light, shadows cannot exist. There was darkness; there was light. Each was defined by the other. Neither can be explained in absolute terms. There was umbra and there was penumbra, but they cannot be graduated like distance or time. They were merely sensed and perceived by human faculties.

And the ninja played with these fallible human faculties. That was how Neji was there in the room, and at the same time, Neji was not there in that room.

As far as the rest of the world was concerned, he, as well as the other ANBU, didn't exist: the Hokage was alone in that office. Of course, that wasn't true. Simply put, there really was no such thing as darkness; there was simply the absence of light. Similarly, Neji really was in that room, but others were simply unable to sense him.

That was the power of the ninja.

Even so, walls were just walls. The ANBU had no eyes and no ears. They were naught. Naturally, they had no tongues either.

Even as he fulfilled his duty as the motionless sentinel, Hyuuga Neji kept this reminder pinned at the back wall of his skull: the pleasure of using ones tongue too loosely was never commensurate to the price eventually extracted later. Guard duties were tedious for many, despite the honor afforded by serving the Hokage so directly, but Neji cared little for the nature of his duties and always performed them impassively and impeccably. Of course, he had ears in reality, and ears in reality couldn't help but listen, whether they were attached on rookie genins or on high-profile assassins.

"You really want to do this?" the blond, seemingly ageless woman spoke in rich, low tones.

"Yes, Hokage-sama."

"There are others willing to take on this data-gathering mission, Kakashi."

"Let's just say, I'm more than willing to take on the job."

Hatake Kakashi, number one technician of Konohagakure no Sato, was being sent to a distant northeastern country to study their various cultures, and it was the most impressively unmitigated bullshit Neji had heard so far that day.

Pastoral pacifists were sent in missions like those, usually life-long genins who were excellent in data-gathering but poor in leadership and the martial arena. The Copy Ninja was not new to the petty accusations of insecure enemies, those that dismiss him for merely being a talent-less aper. To Neji, Hatake Kakashi was a genius worthy of his fame as a warrior-child and of the formidable reputation he later gained with the sharingan. The man defied fate and genetics, mastered advanced bloodline skills he was not born with—a feat some still called impossible. And here, the same man was spouting trash about the thrill of seeing new landscapes, meeting new food, and tasting new women. (That was probably the other way around, but Neji rarely misheard things.)

"Your students will see through your mask."

"Can't be helped." Kakashi sighed. "Puppies eventually have to be weaned."

The Godaime nodded. Neji saw that her eyes were slightly shut, just enough to soften the sharpness of her light eyes on her face, the fluffs of shadow falling on shiny surfaces; nostalgia was what he read on her. The slightly downward curve of her full lips meant regret.

"I didn't do such a bad job with those three, did I?" The question was rhetorical, Neji knew, knew that the unanswerable question was asked by all jounin-senseis. "I never wanted to give 'em the job of redeeming the three-nins, you and the others of the third generation, Hokage-sama..."

"But fate can really be a bitch when she wants to." The Hokage's ample breasts shifted as she shrugged.

"Yeah, the fourth generation died out. The fifth generation's just me and I'm not much."

"Let's not make them the new legend of the sansukumi, even in our minds; the name of the three-nins is cursed and I don't wish to pass it on to any of those children. Albeit... I do feel redeemed somewhat. They show much more promise and much more sense than we did their age."

"Their trials and tribulations came early, but they seem to be more or less intact at its wake. Of course, some wounds never heal..."

Tsunade suddenly waved him away. "Enough of this, Kakashi. I'm starting to feel positively geriatric."

"Well, they are getting older." He hefted his bag. "Someday, they'd be old enough to ask guidance from me again. I just want a bit more maturity for that."

But Neji's full attention was now on the doorway of the Hokage's office. There was going to be an interruption, not dangerous but not necessarily pleasant.

A respectful knock was heard.

"Come in," said Tsunade.

In entered three personages of considerable importance. However, Neji's half-attentiveness to their presence was borne merely by their potential bearing of ill will toward the Hokage. Naturally, he knew all their names, knew that a theoretical act of violence from even all three of the newcomers could be easily countered by Kakashi alone, and any chakra-based attack could be totally foreseen by his own Byakugan.

Of course, they weren't going to attack the Hokage. Utatane Koharu and Mitokado Homura were the elders, wise people who had given counsel to three Hokages now. They were already old when Neji was still a child, and he could remember seeing the pair beside the late Sandaime Hokage in important gatherings. The third person he was even more familiar with.

His name was Hyuuga Hanatarou, a distant member of the branch family, a cousin several times removed. He possessed a natural talent for politics and a honeyed tongue. Neji despised him.

"Hokage-sama," he spoke. His voice was deferential and apologetic, but haughtiness bubbled underneath that artificial obeisance. Neji saw it in the wide sweep of his ringed hands, the regal swish of his kimono, the tumbler-shaped cap that sat almost precariously on his head, the slightly obtuse angle of his neck and head that held his nose minutely higher than most people held theirs. "We are so sorry to interrupt, but we must stop this waste of resource."

"Oh?" Tsunade replied, equally formal. "Why's that?"

"We have great need of the Copy Ninja," spoke Mitokado Homura quietly.

"How may I be of service, your honors?" asked Kakashi respectfully.

"You have always had influence over Uchiha Sasuke. We need that now."

"Sasuke?" repeated Kakashi. "Are we talking about the same Sasuke, your honor? Lone survivor of that clan? Went missing-nin, became Orochimaru's toy?"

"You must intercede on our behalf," declared Utatane Koharu. "You must make him see things at the right light!"

"Utatane-sama, when did that boy ever listen to me?"

"He must now!"

"And there is the matter of the heir of the Hyuuga," added Hyuuga Hanatarou. "You have heard of the news from the Mist Country, have you not, Hokage-sama? She must be planted down as soon as possible! It's for her own protection."

"The Hyuuga clan had always been an important asset to the village. This is a pressing matter, Tsunade-hime."

Tsunade, fingers splayed on her temples, showed the beginnings of a tension headache on the vertical crease in the middle of her forehead.

"Let me get this straight..." she began.

Neji cocked his head in interest for the first time that day. Apparently, the world was losing its collective mind. Without meaning to, he stepped out from the shadows, and the others in the room had no choice but to acknowledge him.

January 10, 2005 (2:21am)

07/07/2011 As advised. BEFORE GOING TO THE NEXT CHAPTER and slugging through this unwieldy thing, I bear !WARNINGS!:

1. My ambition for this story was for it to have a bit of mystery, adventure, romance, and coming-of-age stuff. I most likely failed; from what I gather, people have found the romance aspect to be either too much to continue reading or not enough to sustain interest. So if there are particular pairings you ABSOLUTELY CAN'T STAND, you'll probably be better of not reading on.

2. If you stumbled into this story after reading my other Naruto fics, you might find this boring, but it'll probably have the 'SHIP outcomes you want.

3. I'm older, lazier, much, much harder to motivate. I don't know for certain how long I can keep trying. I love this baby because I've been working on it for so long. There's nothing more I'd want than to have it finished and put behind me, but I can't promise that anymore. Will this fic be finished? I don't know. I'll do my best, but don't bet on it.

4. If you got bored before I got to number 4, chances are, you'd have gotten bored (or will get bored) before any of the previous warnings matter. Thank you for reading, however far you have or will get. I wish you luck in finding what you want in the immensity of FFnet. XD I know I spent hours hunting fics here for any number of fandoms.

5. If you complain to me about wasting your time, I'd think it sad. (Don't worry. I already think it sadder that I'm even writing number 5, since this is the sort of note that would have pissed me off myself if I had encountered it. I'll surely regret writing it in a less hormonal state.) I mean, FFnet has always been a procrastination tool for me so... I'm doing my part, right? By wasting your time?

I think that's it. Again, truly, thanks for reading. (I feel like I'm writing my own obituary.) At some point, I will clean this fic a bit, too, remove typos and the long-winded author notes. (The next time I'm pissy about work, maybe I will.)