I should really work on my other Naruto fic instead of starting up a new one. Oh wells. I'll say this once: there's yaoi. Sasuke/Neji, people. A most obscure coupling, but workable and quite appealing in my view. AU elements are involved since they are older, but the original manga storyline up to the point where the Naruto trio separate for their three years' training is the backdrop of the story.

Disclaimer: Me don't own Naruto, k?

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Dawnwalker

.I.

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There was a cold fury unleashed from within Neji whenever he fought. Whether the opponent be an enemy or a simple sparring partner, he battled with all his might—and an uncontrollable feeling over swept his usual quiet disposition. It was a freedom, a release from everything around him. He knew what it was like to be chained—to be caught up in a destiny that was beyond your controlling. He also knew what it was like to be liberated—to discover that perhaps not everything in the world was as defined as it appeared to be. He had learned that lesson long ago, and now relished in the thrill and joy of living his own life no matter how dangerous it was.

Hyuuga Neji had advanced to being in one of the top ANBU teams in Konoha as Vice-Captain of Squadron Thirteen. Alongside him was Rock Lee, a close childhood friend, and Uzumaki Naruto, another close acquaintance from his younger years. Their captain was Nara Shikamaru, known by the rest of the shinobi world as the renowned strategist that managed to pull a miraculous mission of hunting down ten renegades of S-class status with only three men—himself, Neji, and Naruto—and without acquiring any damage to themselves. Lee had been unable to aid them due to injuries.

The sun shone down on top of his home brilliantly, but it was a cloudy day nonetheless. Spring was entering its final stages and soon summer would be in full bloom. Neji treasured what days he had left before the weather changed to accommodate the usual heat and humidity summer brought along. He focused intently on his opponent—Naruto, this time—and dodged fluidly in the air as the blond attempted to land an attack on him. His form was ever changing, however, and Naruto knew that he would have to move faster if he wished to ever catch Neji off guard.

"Kage Bunshin!"

At once Neji flipped around and caught a whiff of smoke as Naruto's replications shot forward. Five at a time. Neji smiled slightly. Naruto had improved.

"I'll get you now, Neji!" declared the younger man triumphantly.

Neji remained calm and considered his options. One of Naruto's main weaknesses, even now, was his overconfidence. Eight years had done little to balance out his temperamental and headstrong attitude from his Genin days, and it was this that would prove his ultimate downfall—especially against one like Neji, who was always coolly thinking through his actions.

Moments later, Naruto found himself tied up against a tree by barely visible strings. Neji stepped up to him with a light smirk on his face. "You were saying?" he asked, amused.

Naruto pouted deeply. "All right, all right, so you win—again," he admitted.

Neji released the strings and Naruto began rubbing his arms. It was rare for the two of them to train together. Usually Neji trained alone, or with Lee. Today had been different, though. The blond had paid him a visit and decided to challenge him. It wasn't uncommon of course so Neji accepted graciously. Any chance to improve his skills was welcomed—and Naruto was no ordinary shinobi. Ever since he had confessed to having the Kyuubi within his possession, Neji had regarded him with a trace of respect and awe. He had always known there was something uncanny about Naruto's strength and endurance, but to discover that it was actually the Kyuubi's doing was still surprising. He didn't hold it against him, though. In fact, Neji basked in the chance of fighting against Naruto.

"You're always alone here. Don't you get bored?"

A raised eyebrow. Neji glanced at Naruto questioningly. "It's my home," he explained simply, as if that was all the reason he needed.

Naruto cocked his head to the side. "But you're always alone. I don't understand it," he pointed out.

For Naruto, being alone wasn't an option. He had been alone for a majority of his childhood. Now he had a constant crave for being with people. Neji had been alone as well, but he didn't feel the same joy and relief Naruto did when being around others. If anything, it made him more of a recluse. He had his close friends and that was it. He didn't require the handful of casual acquaintances Naruto did.

But perhaps, yes, he did crave some human companionship once in a while. That was why he trained so much nowadays—to keep his mind focused on something else besides the longing he felt in his heart.

"Some people are different from you, Naruto."

Indeed, rather than remedy his problems Neji had taken to isolating himself even further. Only Lee had sensed this change and bothered to lecture him on it. Even then Neji ignored him, though he knew Lee had been right. It was dangerous to bury yourself for too long. Some day you'll discover that you've hidden yourself so deep, that you won't be able to retrieve yourself. And that will be a sad day for you—when you discover that your heart is no longer capable of feeling. Lee's words haunted him. It was one of the rare occasions where he had been uncomfortably insightful on Neji's personality.

Naruto stared at him for a long moment. The tension between them was strange. Though they had been teammates for three years now, not much of that time had been spent in getting to know each other. They knew the other's habits and strengths, but that was it. Neither could really call the other a close companion—though they were friends. That much could be admitted. Neji knew Naruto was trying to become closer to him, to further the bond they shared. But he shied away from that bond like it was poison. Despite having changed his perspective on life and predestination, he still dreaded close ties. It was something that had always been ever since his father died. It had nothing to do with his being in the Branch House or having to bear the seal on his forehead—he simply didn't want to experience closeness with anyone after his father died.

There had been a few exceptions, though. Lee, for one—and Tenten as well. Of course Gai had also managed to bury his way into his heart as well, though Neji would never admit that to his former teacher. And now, his teammates were starting to edge closer to his guarded heart—something he feared more than facing off against a team of treacherous shinobi bent on ending his life. So he fortified his shields even further despite all warnings Lee gave him. It wasn't something Neji could control after all. It was instinct. And one couldn't fight against instinct.

"What about last week, huh? Wasn't it funny when Kiba fell for his own trap during training?"

Neji smiled slightly, though it was a reserved smile, one made out of sheer politeness and not out of sincerity. Naruto fingered his forehead protector nervously. Neji never spoke much to him—only during missions, and those were just orders or advice on how to face off against the enemy. Neji was strange. Neji was a loner. Neji reminded Naruto a lot of Sasuke, whom he tried in vain not to think about too often for the pain it brought him.

"Thank you for coming by today," remarked Neji evenly as he gathered up the weapons they had used in their afternoon training.

Naruto blinked and shifted from his right foot to his left. "Um, sure," he said hesitantly before brightening, "you should really join Kiba, Shino, and me on the weekends. We usually try to do a whole bunch of activities when we don't have missions—you know, to just cool down and relax. Sometimes Shika and Lee drop by, too. And the girls—when they don't have too much work."

"Maybe," replied Neji emptily.

"Well…then I guess I'll see you tomorrow morning, right? We have to be up early for our mission!"

"Right."

"Night, Neji."

"Goodnight, Naruto."

It was the usual short conversation the two shared. When Naruto or anyone else ever came over, Neji would always keep his answers as brief as possible. He didn't know when this change occurred—he had simply grown so used to the solitude, that anyone who broke it was seen as a threat in his mind. So naturally his defenses would be raised. Lee couldn't understand his reasoning. Neji never bothered to explain it to him.

Their mission tomorrow involved a secret scroll that they needed to acquire by means of investigation and espionage. The scroll was held in captivity by a traveling group of circus men—something that didn't fail in achieving snorts of laughter from Naruto—and therefore required them to be constantly on the move, especially since their roaming caravan was well into Stone Country by now. This mission would doubtlessly bring them far out of range from the rest of the shinobi villages—into a world where cities and modern life prevailed. It brought on a sense of curiosity from Neji. It was only within this half of the hemisphere did shinobi exist as a major tool for society. Elsewhere, however, shinobi were scarce. And the cities were glorious, far more advanced than anything he had ever seen in Konoha or any of the neighboring villages.

Neji turned towards the sun and watched the dark clouds sweep by in the gray sky. It was nearing night and he would have a long trip ahead of him. He needed to begin packing. He turned against the horizon and walked back into his home, a small two-story house that provided much more room than he required. Floral screens separated most of his rooms and tatami mats reigned supreme in this traditional home. If it hadn't been for the television set that had been a birthday gift from Lee, Tenten, and Gai, the home would have been entirely plain and old-fashioned.

In addition, Neji had made the mistake of allowing Lee to make a few adjustments to his home when he had been away. As a result several handmade carvings had been inscribed into his walls bearing the images of himself, the rest of his team, and the insignia of the Hyuuga Clan and Konoha. Neji had no idea that Lee could even carve. It was beautiful to look at, but it disturbed Neji's theme for traditional appearance quite greatly. Lee had also hung several picture frames in his room—some old and some recent, of friends and teammates. Neji didn't understand how he even allowed Lee to enter his home after all that.

Neji situated himself in his kitchen with a mug of herbal tea. There was a strange sensation coursing through him. He was tense and he couldn't explain why. The tea was doing little to soothe his worries. There was a mission tomorrow, but that didn't explain this uncustomary reaction. Neji seldom got nervous or excited for a mission. He placed a hand on the table and narrowed his eyes. There was just something that was simply not right. He looked out his window and saw nothing but dark skies and the dimming light.

"Yo!"

Blinking, Neji turned away from the window and saw Lee grinning broadly at him. He visibly relaxed for a moment before staring at the man before him coldly. Had he been that distracted that he had failed to notice someone creeping up behind him? Neji frowned at the thought.

Lee sat down across from Neji and poured himself a cup of tea. Lee was normally very polite and asked before he took anything, but with Neji he allowed himself to be less strict. He figured the other man was formal enough for the both of them.

"You seem distracted," he commented.

"Why are you here, Lee?" inquired Neji quickly.

Lee shrugged. "I just came to visit. I packed all my stuff for tomorrow's mission and was feeling a little bored," he answered.

"So you came to me?"

"Well, I haven't seen you in a while."

"We work together, Lee."

"But that's work! It's different from seeing someone to just see them."

Naruto's explanations were usually a bit hard to comprehend, but it wasn't impossible to do so. Lee, on the other hand, never failed to stump Neji's train of logic.

"Anyway, so what were you thinking about?" continued Lee cheerfully.

Neji sighed. There was no point in trying to hide anything from Lee. He had discovered that a long time ago as well. "Nothing in particular. I just had a bad feeling—before you came along," he replied sullenly.

Lee gazed at him in concern. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"Fine now. I can't explain it. For a second I felt inexplicably…disturbed."

"I think you've been working too hard, Neji," consulted Lee knowingly.

Neji stared hard at him. "That's funny—coming from you."

Lee grinned goodheartedly. "Point taken. But you really have been pushing yourself hard these past few weeks. I haven't seen you once not training. And if you're not training you're eating—or sleeping—or doing whatever necessary thing you have to do. I thought you had hobbies. Like origami," he said, looking at Neji worriedly.

Neji narrowed his eyes. Sometimes it unnerved him how much Lee knew about his life. "Training is not a bad thing," he replied softly.

"Yeah, but that's not like you. You don't train. Not unnecessarily. You never needed to."

"Maybe it's become my new hobby."

At this Lee burst out laughing. "If only Gai-sensei were here!" he gasped out in between snorts.

Neji watched him with mild annoyance and turned his mug around in a circle slowly.

"But I think our mission will be interesting. I mean, it's not every day we're following a roaming circus. And I can't wait to see all the sights we'll encounter," remarked Lee suddenly after he calmed down. He threw a wink at Neji. "It'll be an adventure!"

An amused smile made its way onto Neji's face unconsciously. Lee's enthusiasm was contagious. He was the idealist on their team—the one who never failed in bursting out with encouraging words when they were in troubling situations. Naruto was the daredevil—the one always willing to take the risks and give it his all. Shikamaru was obviously the pragmatist—always considering his options in a realistic manner, but never losing his head. Neji would then have to be the wild card. He was the one with the most skill, if not strength and speed, but was generally overlooked upon due to his silent nature. However, when the need arose, he could prove to be the hardest one to strike down.

"Always the opportunist," commented Neji.

Lee grinned. "Well, it will be an adventure! We're still young and we have a lot to live for!" he exclaimed wisely.

Neji placed his chin in his hand bemusedly. "There must be a reason this mission is S-ranked, though," he murmured to himself.

"Of course there will be pursuers! The scroll is valuable. Who knows what shinobi we'll encounter? The circus crew have no idea either. They just think it's an ordinary scroll they bought," quipped Lee.

A frown marred Neji's face. "It seems rather careless for the client to accidentally sell off such an important scroll," he pointed out.

"People make mistakes," replied Lee.

Neji narrowed his eyes. "You're too trusting," he stated dryly.

Lee stared at him in confusion. Shaking his head, Neji picked up his and Lee's empty mugs to rinse it in the sink. Suddenly Lee stood up.

"You didn't pack yet," he said as a matter-of-factly. Neji turned to face him warily. Lee shot him a thumbs-up. "I'll help!" he volunteered.

A few minutes later Neji found himself sitting atop his bed, watching the scene before him with something akin to wonder and exasperation. Lee had apparently taken sole responsibility of packing all of Neji's necessities for the mission and was currently seen fussing over which blanket would be best for traveling. The thicker one was obviously the best choice for cold weather, but it was heavy and might hinder Neji's pace. The thinner one on the other hand was perfect for traveling, but its uses might fall short in case the climate proved to be disagreeable. Lee went on to himself with this debate before finally opting for the thinner one. "I can always bring mine," he reasoned out. To Neji, it sounded like Lee was only burdening himself purposely.

It went on like this for an hour before Neji finally pulled Lee away from his packing to have some dinner. This was a first occurrence. Lee came by often enough but Neji had never allowed anyone to stay for dinner. He was unused to having someone else eat his cooking, but Lee had been a thankful guest and consumed the meal with all the appetite of a lion. Soon afterwards he finally made his leave and Neji resumed the night rearranging the things Lee had packed for him. Surprisingly enough, he had done very well with choosing out the items he would need, but Lee's method of actually packing them was beyond Neji as he set everything in his own order.

After setting his alarm clock and washing up, Neji took comfort in his bed. It had been a tiring day—dealing with first Naruto and then Lee. The latter especially always managed to tire him out mentally. Few could really keep up with Lee's constant chatter and upbeat attitude. But then again, Neji thought to himself, he preferred seeing Lee like this. After his fight with Gaara during their first Chuunin Exam, Neji decided that a dejected and weary Lee was simply too unbearable to watch. Fortunately, there were few instances now that could reduce Lee to that state again.

It was the silent ticking of his clock that lulled him to sleep. And it was the incessant beeping of that same clock that woke him up in the morning. Morning rituals followed about automatically before Neji found himself waiting at the entrance of the village, waiting for the rest of his team to gather. He was always the first one to arrive. Naruto was always the last. After waiting for fifteen minutes, the blond finally showed up with a sheepish look on his face.

"Sorry, Sakura-chan was giving me a lecture."

Sakura always gave her customary lecture to Naruto before he set off on a big mission where he would be gone for a while. The team was used to it by now. They were simply grateful that she didn't come to lecture the rest of them.

"All right, so off we go. We're walking to the port station in Kusagakure to catch a ride. Everyone set?" announced Shikamaru in his usual drawl.

Naruto stared at him. "We're getting a ride?" he inquired blankly.

"Well, we're not going to walk all the way to Iwagakure—though we could—but the caravan would be on the other side of the world by the time we caught up. We're paying for an escort to take us to Earth Country by train."

"We have trains?"

"Yes, Naruto."

"Why aren't they here?"

"Beats me. Do I look like the one who designed them?"

Naruto continued staring at Shikamaru in amazement. Lee punched the air with his fist. "All right! Then what are we waiting for? We have to catch up to that circus quick! Let's go!" he exclaimed loudly before rushing off.

Shikamaru gazed off behind him. "Oi, don't get too far ahead, Lee," he advised before following in his own leisurely pace.

Naruto trembled with excitement before looking at Neji. "Isn't this great?" he asked.

"It's an interesting turn of events," replied Neji as he leapt after Shikamaru and Lee.

He never factored trains into the equation. He had seen them before, but had never actually ridden one. So that was why Tsunade had told them to disguise themselves as ordinary travelers. Shinobi were banned from any sort of public transportation due to the alarm they would arise. Of course that did nothing to prevent undercover shinobi from sneaking in—though any action was strictly limited to observing.

As they trekked through the trees another wave of nausea washed over Neji. He narrowed his eyes and ignored the feeling. No matter how lighthearted everyone was about the mission, somewhere deep within his mind, he knew this would be unlike any other situation they found themselves in—and the reason being was not altogether before him. All he knew now was the sun shining directly ahead of him and the shadows they cast over the forest floor, like ghosts fleeing from the unknown.