As the months passed, Neji spent more time gone on missions than in Konoha; the council was doing their best to punish him as much as they could. But when Iruka was in the mission room, Neji found himself holding C and D-ranked missions inexplicably often -- inexplicable until he realized that none of the low-ranked missions would take him more than a day at most, and that he would be able to return in the evenings to Hinata.
He appreciated the sentiment, but wasn't sure which approach was more infuriating. When he watched his wife brushing her hair for bed in the evenings, dressed in a soft white nightgown that curved sweetly with her growing belly, he thought that he would give Iruka the benefit of the doubt after all. When he found himself chasing a simpering noble's evil-minded escape-artist cat through the woods for the third time in two weeks, he wasn't quite as sure.
Naruto was the one who took Hinata to sign up for birthing classes; a bit sheepishly, scratching behind his ear, he said, "Well, we know I'm going to be in town whenever the kids decide it's time to put in an appearance…"
Neji nodded stiffly, and fled up a tree to try not to be seen fuming, because Hinata would take it personally; Hinata took everything personally, and he lacked the skill or the gentleness to make her believe that his anger was at the council, not at them.
He'd just made up his mind to try to apologize when he saw Hinata sobbing into Naruto's shoulder; the young man had his arms around her gingerly, not quite sure what to do, and being surprisingly quiet for once.
Neji could only hear snatches of the one-sided conversation -- "…not your fault… you know he loves you, really he does, he's just not good at talking about stuff like that… Sakura-chan says everything makes you cry when you're pregnant, it's going to be all right… hey, smile for me, okay? It'll work out…"
Naruto dried her tears, and smiled for her so encouragingly that her smile came out too -- like a wavery tear-damp mirror, but it strengthened when he patted her cheek and flashed her a disturbingly Lee-like thumbs-up.
"See? That's better already! Come on, let's head to the library, I bet they'll have books on this baby stuff. --And you can tell me what the complicated kanji say," he added a bit sheepishly.
She was actually giggling as the demon's host looped an arm through hers and patted her snug, swelling belly, and then made a comically astonished face: "That little brat just hauled off and kicked me! Hmph. See if I ever change your diapers!"
Neji left for the top of the Hokage mountain at a dead sprint, hating himself for the fact that Hinata had never smiled like that for him; but however fast he ran, he couldn't escape the image of her tear-streaked face brightening under Naruto's coaxing, and the sound of delight in her giggles when the sunny young man touched the curve of her belly, growing ripe and round with unborn children that could have been his own if the world had been a little more fair.
He hadn't even noticed the sun setting, too lost in his own thoughts. He certainly hadn't noticed his own hunger, because his stomach had tied itself in knots long earlier, and his throat was still knotted shut with the grief and rage he didn't know how to handle. What he finally did notice was the sound of clumsy feet and panting like an overlarge dog, followed by orange-clad ankles stopping directly in his field of view, and then two smaller, more delicate feet joining them.
Naruto had carried Hinata up the mountain; when Neji lifted his face to look at her, she made a little squeak and ducked her face into Naruto's collar. Rubbing the small of her back, the blonde said awkwardly to them both, "Look, I know you two love each other. You've been looking out for each other practically your whole lives, except for when you got a little confused for a while. This isn't exactly a good time to be getting confused again. So let's get it all unconfused, okay?"
Neji waited, but that seemed to be the end of the speech.
After an awkward silence, Naruto mumbled, "Listen, I know Hyuugas have got this whole don't-talk-much thing at least as bad as Uchihas, I swear it's genetic or something, but don't make me come up with all the conversation here. Some of the things that come out of my mouth are pretty stupid sometimes."
"I'm sorry," Hinata whispered into Naruto's collar.
"Apologies don't count as conversation," Naruto reminded her wryly. "Look at me. How many times you ever heard me put an apology in a conversation? …see?" Over her huddled shoulders, he looked over at Neji for help. "It's not her fault, right?"
"No," Neji said softly, closing his eyes against the sight of his wife in the arms of the man she'd always loved. "It's not her fault she loves you. It's mine, for not being able to be someone she could love."
Hinata turned sharply at that, tear-filled eyes wide. "That's -- that's not-- not how it is-- that's--"
"You've loved him all your life," Neji said simply. "We both knew it, whether or not he did. You've never pretended otherwise. You'd have been happier with him, if you hadn't been the Hyuuga heir and he hadn't been… what he is. --I thought… maybe I could learn… to be someone you loved, but… you still flinch in fear when I surprise you, you still put your hands over your mouth if you've been laughing with him when I come in…" He shrugged a little, helpless, having run himself out of words.
Naruto bent his head closer after that one tiny little word, coaxing as though she were a shy puppy. "But what, Hinata-chan?"
"…but… I love Neji-nii-san too…"
"You might, but you fear me more," Neji said tiredly, staring at his own feet. "Listen. Both of you. He's right, I'm going to be gone more often than not, if the Council has their way. He should take you to the birthing classes. He's been more of the children's father than I have been -- he's the one who talks with you, laughs with you -- he's the one who'll be able to be here for you; all I have to offer you is an approved bloodline…"
It was difficult to say it aloud, more difficult than he'd imagined, but one thing Neji had never lacked was courage -- and, when even that wasn't enough, he had stubbornness to outlast the courage, when it was needed.
"…The law says only that he can't father your children, that your children have to carry Hyuuga blood. I'm good enough for that. But beyond that… a pregnant woman can't conceive another child while her womb is already full."
Naruto's jaw was hanging open. Hinata squeaked, "Neji-nii-san…?"
"You understand what I'm saying," Neji said tightly, turning away. "I'll take the Council's damned vengeful little missions; it'll earn money for the children, in any case. And… while I'm gone… the two of you have my blessing. I'll leave you in peace."
"No you don't," Naruto said, grabbing Neji's sleeve tightly enough that he heard stitches pop. "Hinata-chan just said she loves you, moron, and you're her husband anyway! No way in hell am I letting her husband walk away from her when she's carrying your kids!"
"You're the one who knows how to make her smile," Neji whispered, and it came out more raw than he'd meant. "I've never been able to learn that, no matter how I wish I could. She'll be happier with you. I love her enough to want that happiness for her, for both of you, even if it means I can't have it myself."
"I wish I could make Hinata-sama smile," he murmured. "I wish I could earn the right to see her smiling just for me, the way you always have. I just… don't know how. And that's my fault, not yours, not hers. That's entirely my fault."
Naruto let out a very undignified snort, and Neji lifted his head to glare at the insensitive oaf. It was humiliating enough admitting things like that, let alone being mocked for them.
"I don't recall asking your opinion, Uzumaki--"
Naruto snorted again. "Well, you should have! 'Cause then I could've told you how often Hinata-chan wishes she knew how to make you smile, since the two of you don't seem inclined to mention that part to each other. Must be that Hyuuga half-mute thing. You're going to have the quietest kids ever, I swear."
Even in the moonlit half-darkness, Hinata was blushing like a sunset, and rubbing her fingertips together so fiercely Neji was surprised she hadn't sprained them. Shaken, he managed to ask, "Are you serious?"
She ducked her head further down, and mumbled, "I remember… when you were little… you had such a beautiful smile, and… I wish I could see it again, I wish I could do things right for you, I just… can't, I stumble around and I say all the wrong things when you don't want to hear them but if I don't say anything then that makes it worse and... and I just... I don't know… how to make you smile either..."
Naruto, the stupid insensitive ass, was giggling. Not just giggling -- snickering even, snorting with glee and clutching at his ribs and pointing back and forth between both of them.
"Shut up, imbecile," Neji said, feeling an uncomfortable burning in his face that he suspected was blushing, and wildly grateful that he'd chosen to stand with his back to the moonlight.
"See, Hinata-chan," Naruto gasped, still wheezing with glee, "that translates from cocky-bastard-ese into 'we both know you're right but I'd rather eat glass than give you the satisfaction of admitting it so why don't I insult you instead.' Trust me, I know how that one works. S-... Sasuke and I did it to each other for years..."
Even when his voice caught, that irrepressible grin stayed rather firmly in place. "Hey, I know! I can make you a secret bastard-ese decoder ring! It'll be way awesome-- I'll get some sparklies out of the supply cabinet at the academy, we can make it shoot rainbows and flowers and girly shit like that if you want--"
"Hinata-sama won't need a decoder ring, thank you very much," Neji said stiffly.
"Oh yeah? Prove it."
Naruto grabbed each of them by the elbow, hauled them around facing each other, and let go to crack his knuckles and, somehow, his neck. "All right! Uzumaki Naruto-sensei's Pop Quiz no Jutsu! Neji, make her smile. And I grade pass-fail!"
"She won't need a decoder ring? Prove it. Make her smile. Right now."
Hinata was blushing so fiercely it was even visible by the moonlight; Neji was briefly grateful he was standing with his back to the moon, because his face felt rather suspiciously warm, and it was against his principles to be seen blushing. Particularly by Naruto, who would have derived far too much amusement from it.
A moment later, he realized Hinata was speaking, except that it was so hushed and so far under her breath he hadn't even noticed it at first.
"...it's all right, it's my fault anyway, never mind, and besides it's not fair if I don't have a pop quiz, so... so... we should just..."
"No can do!" Naruto said, wagging a finger under her nose. "Iruka-sensei never lets anyone out of their pop quizzes just 'cause they didn't study!"
"But... it's not fair if only Neji-nii-san has to... to..."
"We'll get you your pop quiz later," Naruto said airily. "Besides. Can't give out a pop quiz that the teacher can't even pass, and nobody's seen Neji smile for years. That'll be the final exam or something."
"Look," the blonde said, rolling his eyes. "This isn't brain surgery. You're married. Learn to make her smile. Starting here and now. 'Cause there's no 'better' time to wait for." He plonked down on Sandaime's stone skull and crossed his arms, clearly waiting for the results of his pop quiz to be handed in.
Neji stared down at the miserable-looking huddle of his wife, who had hunched her shoulders up around her ears and hidden her face in both hands in excruciating embarrassment. Feeling unaccountably helpless, he stared down at his hands, bone-white in the moonlight, and then reached up to carefully coax a hand beneath hers, so that he could touch her cheek and feel whether or not she was crying.
His hands were actually shaking. If he'd let his emotions affect him this badly in any of the fights he'd been in over the past six months, he wouldn't be standing there to wonder at it.
"How do you do this?" Neji breathed, unsure which of them he was addressing, or whether he thought an answer was even possible. "I don't know what to do-- I've never known... how to be gentle enough, how to be strong enough to protect you but still gentle enough not to hurt you -- I don't know how..."
Her bowed head was at the perfect height to rest against his chest; cautiously, he stepped a little closer, put an arm around her waist as stiffly as though he were one of the Sand puppeteer's wooden toys. And then he froze, his mind a complete and utter blank.
Naruto's barely-muffled snort was not a balm to his already-frayed nerves.
"How do you do this?" he demanded. "How do you live like this? You never think, you just dive right in, you say the most insensitive and crass things imaginable, you don't even pause before anything you think comes out your mouth, and somehow you just wade straight through and you make everything work out all right -- how do you live like this? Aren't you terrified? Anyone with half a brain would be terrified -- she's so fragile, she's so easily hurt, and you never think about anything before you just go ahead and say it-- but then if you had half a brain we wouldn't be standing here because you'd have taken her from me and she'd have gone willingly, you know she would; I'm not good enough for her, not kind enough; I'm this ludicrous legendary genius when it comes to murder but when it comes to life... she makes me clumsy; she's the only person in the world who makes me this clumsy. I don't know what to do, I've never known -- what to do, what to say, how to be what I need to be for her -- how do you manage it--? How have you managed to..."
Hinata's breath caught in her throat, and Neji went as stiff as though he'd been stabbed. "Are you crying?" he whispered. "Damn it -- damn it, I don't know what to do, what to say-- Hinata-sama, I'm sorry, I just... I don't know..." He took a deep, shuddering breath, and let it out, feeling tears prickle at the back of his eyes for the first time in fifteen years. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. "I don't mean to hurt you, it just happens..." With a cracked, hoarse sound that might have been a laugh in other circumstances, he asked, "Do you want his decoder ring after all?"
"Okay, you pass," Naruto said, with a lopsided grin.
"Don't mock me!" Neji flared, his hands knotting into fists at his sides. "I'm trying--"
"I know," Naruto said, grinning bigger. "I said you pass. What don't you get about not-failing?"
"But... she's..." Neji gestured helplessly at the shivering figure still huddled in the curve of one rigid arm.
"She's laughing at you," Naruto said, in a voice half choked with glee. "She's just scared she's going to piss you off when you figure that out."
"...She's laughing at me?" The rush of giddy, overwhelming relief was followed nearly as quickly by injured dignity: "...she's laughing at me?"
"That's what I said last time, genius," Naruto said, standing up and dusting off his pants with a casual swat across the backside, and Neji reflected that only Uzumaki Naruto could make 'genius' sound like an insult.
"Wait! Where are you going? --why is she laughing at me?" Neji heard the sheer panic in his own voice, and hated himself for it, but he would have thrown himself on Naruto's dusty sandals and begged for a painfully-shy-introvert decoder ring if the blonde took one more step away from them without translating.
"Ask her that," Naruto said, gleefully unhelpful.
"H-hinata-sama...?" Not sure where to put his hands, he tried to coax a fingertip under her chin; but she was agonizingly embarrassed that Naruto had just given away her secret, and she buried her face in Neji's shirt.
"...sorry... so sorry... didn't mean... s-so... sorry..."
"Don't apologize," Neji said, frustrated and helpless. "Just tell me. What did I say that... that... made you laugh...?"
Hinata gasped for breath, and rubbed a hand across her face, streaked with laugh-tears, and propped a hand in the hollow of her back where the weight of her child-ripening belly pulled most uncomfortably; still with her head ducked, she nestled her head under Neji's chin, to not have to look him in the face. It took her three or four tries to manage not to squeak with giggles, and her voice had faded to almost a whisper by the time she managed.
"I... I...didn't know... you thought those things too... I mean... every day I ask myself... how can I not hurt you? Because... you're so fragile too, and... N-naruto knows how to joke with you, and... I wish... I wish I could... could be... brave enough to try, strong enough for you... but gentle enough... not to hurt..." She dissolved into giggles again. "And I never guessed that you... that you thought... the same thing... --I'm so pathetic...!"
And now the giggles were slipping over into hysterical tears; in a panic, Neji put his arms around her too tightly, and then let go when she squeaked in discomfort.
Oh, gods, now what do I do--
"Hinata-chan, don't cry," Naruto said ruefully, lifting a hand toward her hair; then he remembered where he was, and who was holding her, and put his hand behind his own head and laughed at himself a little.
"But... I've watched... watched you for years... I try and try to be... more like you, more like someone strong enough... someone good enough for Neji-nii-san... and I still can't...! I'm pathetic--"
"You don't have to be more like me, Hinata-chan," Naruto said, awkwardly, which in some petty obscure way made Neji feel better: he's not THAT blindly lucky, to always have the right words. "You just have to be more like you, only like not scared and stuff!"
"That is more like you," Neji said wryly, finding that he'd found a better way to put his arms around Hinata, and that she seemed to need the little rubbing between the shoulderblades that was aimed at loosening some of the tension-knotted tenketsu. "You're the least scared person I've ever known."
"I'm scared of a lot," Naruto said, under his breath. "I'm scared of..."
He stopped there. Neji quirked a brow, and said, "Go on."
"It would help Hinata-sama," he said, playing his least fair trump card, "if she heard how her 'fearless' idol truly had fears of his own."
"...that's the trouble with you damn geniuses, you're right too damn often," the blonde muttered, scowling at nothing.
He heaved a huge sigh, and scruffled a hand through that shaggy mop, and for once in his life Uzumaki Naruto was actually working at finding words. "...I'm... I'm... scared of messing this up," he murmured. "I'm scared of doing something that would make you hate me. I'm scared if I screw up teaching your kids, I'll have to go begging from Iruka-sensei, and next time he could get hurt worse. I'm scared they're right, that just being around me could affect her kids, that I shouldn't have let Iruka-sensei let me teach, that... that S-Sasuke was my fault too-- that my demon was influencing him, that he couldn't stand the possibility of losing to a loser like me so that was why he went and--"
"The entire Uchiha clan was quite sufficiently messed up on its own, long before you even met him," Neji said calmly, firmly, because he knew he couldn't deal with two hysterical cases at once. "Itachi never met you. Sasuke was Itachi's fault, not yours. And the only demon influencing him was Orochimaru, who was born human, and look how much good his erstwhile 'humanity' did anyone. Without Sasuke's insane focus on vengeance, without that all-consuming hate, the two of you would have been like Lee and I. We fought like dogs in a kennel, we trained and pushed ourselves to outdo the other, but never to the point of betraying everything we ever loved for the sake of power. That was his choice, and not your fault."
"...but... if it's not my fault..." Naruto wavered a little, and then asked with a strained grin, "If it's not my fault, if they're wrong that I'm dangerous to be around, that the demon in me is what drove Sasuke mad, that I shouldn't be around the academy kids 'cause they can't watch my seal like the Hyuuga kids can -- if they're wrong about that, then what the hell point is there in what they're doing to me?"
"There isn't a point," Neji said. "Not beyond the fact that they're short-sighted fools who fear your power and the fact that you would have every reason in the world to have a grudge against them for a lifetime of abuse. --I know something about being abused by short-sighted fools, you see." Hinata flinched in his arms; he stroked her shoulder a little, and added, "So does she, since I was among the short-sighted fools who abused her."
"Don't bother trying to deny it," he murmured. "How you can manage not to hate me is still astonishing." Since this seemed to be a night for blunt, Naruto-style honesty, he added almost lightly, "I hate myself, most of the time."
"And this is old history," Neji murmured, stroking her hair with tentative fingers. "And it's far too late at night; you should be resting, Hinata-sama, for your own sake as well as the children."
She put both hands over her mouth, and mumbled, "I'm sorry..."
"It's not your fault that I ran off to sulk, or that I'm a clumsy fool who needs a translation manual to conduct what would be everyday conversation for anyone else," he replied.
"...translating for you or for me...?"
"Both, I think," he said tiredly. With a faint, shy almost-smile, she nodded against his chest.
"I t-think we need that too..."
"And how is that different than a decoder ring?" Naruto asked mock-grumpily, with a theatrical toss of hands in the air. "Anyway, I figure you two are good now, right? See you tomorrow!" He turned to leave, and discovered two sets of hands fisted in his jacket. Neji's grip was light enough not to tear if the blonde truly wanted an escape, but Hinata's grip was white-knuckled, and trembling.
"Where do you think you're going, Uzumaki?" Neji asked.
Naruto was blinking down in some befuddlement at their hands. "...Huh? Back to the ranch," he said, a little dazedly. "Some of the kids were planning to ambush me around sunrise tomorrow, I can't let a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears prankster-newbies get the upper hand with me..."
"...but... my decoder ring..."
Then Hinata glanced up at Neji, afraid of his reaction, but she relaxed immediately when she saw the faint quirk at the corner of his lips.
Meanwhile, Naruto was blinking in perplexity; then he scratched sheepishly behind an ear. "Uh... sorry about that, Hinata-chan! How about we work on that one later?"
"You're the one who said that there's no better time than the present," Neji said, feeling more confident now that he had some kind of even tenuous high ground from which to snipe at the blonde.
The thought of Hinata joking about a decoder ring was clearly within Naruto's mental capacity. The thought of Neji joking about a decoder ring was just as clearly not within that capacity.
"...Neji, you actually want a sparkly-and-rainbows-and-girly-shit thing tonight?"
"You promised Hinata-sama a decoder ring if she wished for one," Neji said, trying not to admit even to himself how much he was enjoying having the upper hand for once in the entire confusing evening. "Since you clearly haven't had time to develop one yet, and since you've been doing an excellent job of translating so far -- better than either of us have, certainly..."
Hinata nodded vigorously, then realized that she probably wasn't supposed to agree so quickly and ducked her head again, but she didn't let go of Naruto's jacket.
"There, you see? Hinata-sama agrees. We're both in need of a translator, and you seem to serve the purpose quite well. We would prefer to keep you close enough to perform your function."
The blonde looked even more poleaxed than usual. But the light bulb simply wasn't going on.
"…guh... uh... er... wha'...?" He blinked several times, tipped his head this way and that, and finally managed, "Guh?"
For a Hyuuga, this would already have been well-beyond blunt conversation, as evidenced by the fact that Hinata was blushing ferociously about the entire event. Neji reminded himself he was dealing with an Uzumaki instead, and decided to spell things out in words of as few syllables as he could manage.
"Did you completely miss the part where I explained to you that Hinata-sama loves you, that I'm being sent on missions that the Council quietly hopes will maim or kill me now that I've done my duty of getting her with child, and that you and she are both the best protection and the best solace for each other?"
"...You were serious?" Naruto yelped.
"Am I ever not serious?" Neji asked, nearly offended.
"...Gah. That's right," Naruto said, actually looking panicked around the edges. "You're Neji, you wouldn't know a joke if one walked up and bit you on the-- er-- gaaah..."
"She loves you," Neji said, exasperated, and dropping the discourse to the single-syllable level. "You love her. I'm gone too much. Should I spell it all out for you?"
"But... but... but... --gaaaaah!"
"What's your problem?" Neji asked. "The marriage? Naruto, we're first cousins. In anyone else's law books, that would have been illegal rather than mandatory. In any other village, I would have been the one watching your marriage. We all know it. I don't mind stepping aside for you."
"But that's not right," Naruto said, pained. "You love her, she loves you, you're married, you're having kids with your bloodline, that's all good -- what are you going around complicating it for? You shouldn't be talking about stepping aside!"
Neji felt that suspicious heat creeping into his face again, and hoped he was still at a good enough angle to hide his face from the moon. "That... that would be an... interesting solution, and one I admit hadn't occurred to me..."
"What would?" the little blonde asked, clearly lost and frustrated about it.
"Sharing, rather than stepping aside."
At wits' end, Neji said very slowly and clearly, "All three of us sleeping together."
Hinata was shaking again, one hand shoved tight against her mouth. But she still had the deathgrip on Naruto's orange jacket. This time, Neji was fairly sure she was laughing at Naruto instead. Of course, marriage for love was so much not a part of Hyuuga traditions that it was unsurprising that the two of them were more accustomed to the thought of unusual marital arrangements than an outsider would be... but his reaction was still quite amusing to watch.
One of the curses of a blonde's complexion was that the poor boy looked as though he was about to die of embarrassment. "ButbutbutbutbutGAAAAH--!" Both hands fisted in his hair, Naruto spluttered, "But she -- you -- I mean -- I can't--"
"Because it doesn't work that way!" Naruto wailed. "I'm the one who keeps standing on the outside, that's how it works -- with Sakura-chan and Lee, with you two, with Iruka-sensei even -- I'm always the one who..." He stopped, and gulped hard, and mumbled on an almost-breaking voice, "I'm just the one who goes home by myself..."
The next thing Naruto knew, he had an armful of Hinata -- a double-armful actually, given her shape -- and she was clinging to him and choking out something vehement into his orange collar, something that probably would have been much more convincing if she'd been anywhere near coherent around the hiccuping sobs.
Neji looked at the two of them, at his pregnant wife sobbing into the arms of one of the best and most decent human beings he'd ever known, one she'd loved for years, and he weighed it for a long moment.
He almost walked away; but in the end, he wasn't as pure as Naruto was. If they gave him the chance to be someone who went home with them, the chance to be someone who didn't always go home alone... unlike Naruto, he was too selfish to walk away.
So Neji stepped forward, and found it surprisingly easy to put his arms around both of them. And somehow it was easier to translate Hinata for Naruto than for himself, perhaps because this time he was confident he understood what she was thinking, because he was thinking the same thing himself.
"You," he said to the baffled and panic-stricken blonde, "signed a contract. You signed a contract to tutor the heirs of the Hyuuga house. Hinata-sama and I need tutoring in the arts of communication. We intend to set your hours in the evenings, since the days are taken up by the younger heirs..." His attempt at control was shaking; but he still managed to keep his voice from cracking completely as he said, "And when you go home, you go to the home where we are. You are ours. Your home is our home. You aren't going home to be alone again, you understand me?"
It was the one and only time Neji had ever seen Naruto struck actually speechless.
It didn't last long.
At least when Hinata-sama cried, she was quiet about it. Naruto burst into sniveling howls of blubbering gratitude-and-hysteria-and-giggles-and-sobs all tangled up together. It was probably, once Neji thought about it, the first time in years that someone had told Naruto that they acknowledged him and loved him as he was, for who he was -- Tsunade probably had, Iruka certainly had, but beyond those two... three times in one life was nowhere near often enough; Neji had had his own father long enough to know that. So, silently, privately, he decided to begin to make up that lack as best he could. He knew he'd have a more than willing co-conspirator in Hinata, of course.