Loko: Another chapter, this one with an even stronger attempt at plot, and longer! This is cause for celebration, yes? (Anou, moushi wake arimasen. It's late. D:)
Summary: There are moments when everything degenerates into the bizarre, and even Neji can't tell where reality is. SasuNeji, NaruNeji, implied NaruSasu
Disclaimer: Alas, not yet. Spoilers and AU for and from Valley of the End.
Neji has overlooked Uchiha Sasuke before, but he thought he'd sworn never to do it again.
Nevertheless, it happens, in a way so patently bizarre Neji thinks that maybe Gai-sensei has switched his and Lee's drinks on Drunken-Fists night again.
As a matter of fact, it is so bizarre that it involves a grocery store.
It's odd enough that Neji is in a grocery store in the first place: really it's Naruto's fault – Naruto with Sakura (exhausted by Tsunade-sama and generally furious because of it) finally fed up with the row upon row of ramen, ramen, ramen in his cupboards, from instant to dry noodles with ingredients written on slips of paper next to them incongruously neat and orderly, and threatening his life and a pre-mortem castration if he didn't buy real food.
Naruto had knocked on Neji's door at 11:00 at night with a piteous expression and pleaded, "Neji, I don't know what I'm supposed to buy. What the hell is 'real food' and where do I get it?"
Which is why Neji is standing next to Naruto and helping him pick out a cereal that is less than 80 sugar, in a shabby and questionable grocery store (shabby because the owner is an elderly man and hasn't had any kind of help for years; questionable because it is the only grocery store in Konoha that is open at almost-midnight), and trying and failing to explain why 'Ninjix! The Cereal for Young Ninja-in-Training!' isn't exactly appropriate for Naruto's age anymore.
Which is how Neji catches sight of black hair and pale skin and then laughs at himself for looking. Sasuke is miles away, he thinks, killing and maiming and generally being evil. Well, probably just training as furiously as ever and sniping in more ways than one at Orochimaru, Kabuto and whatever other unfortunate innocents have gotten themselves entangled with Oto, but Neji keeps his delusions because he has to fight Oto more often than not.
At any rate, Uchiha Sasuke is not in Konoha Plus!, critically eyeing the apricots.
And he certainly isn't a well-shaped, if rather slender, young woman. The dark hair is the same colour and the skin has the same papery, unreal Uchiha glow, but it's longer and tied into a sensible ponytail and the thin fingers have never been so gentle in their artless finesse. If anything, it's Uchiha Itachi in drag, not his younger brother.
Neji smirks a little, amused both by that mental image and by the fact that he has just essentially made himself look, and turns back, in time to see Lee enter the store in a raucous clash of bells and a wave of fumes.
"Neji, my beloved team-mate!" Lee says, thoroughly inebriated and brandishing two plates of – ah. Fumes. "Naruto, my youthful friend!"
"The hell?" Naruto says, distracted from his conundrum of Whole-Wheat Squares versus Shiny Baked Triangles: Neji takes a moment to wonder who the hell does the marketing in Konoha's companies before Lee unceremoniously shoves a plate of curry, pitch-black and lightly simmering, into his face.
"Lee," Neji says with all the patience of one whose eyes cannot make expressions and a team-mate who specialises in energy. "It's midnight. No one wants curry."
"It's Baa-san's improved Curry of Life!" Lee announces, red cheeks a dead giveaway, and sways dramatically before snapping his spine back into order. "I tasted it and found it absolutely stimulating and thought it imperative that I share with my beloved fellow Konoha-nin!"
"Lee," Neji says again, in the firm-yet-gentle voice he's learned from Ten-Ten and about two steps away from the spine-shattering shaking he's also learned from her. "It is not imperative that you share. We will be fine without it."
Naruto is edging away, the sneaky bastard. Neji opens his mouth to call him back, and realises that that is probably the worst idea he has had since he said You must not stop here.
"Of course you must!" Lee says, and with the speed and unpredictability of his best Drunken Fists scoops a spoonful and deposits it into Neji's mouth.
Spontaneous Byakugan, unlike Sharingan which cannot be repressed, is rather embarrassing. There is the aesthetic aspect of it – bulging veins and shifting black focus points in white pupils – and then there is a sort of awkward lack of decorum in staring at chakra points in peacetime. And then there are the unwillingly heightened senses which begin to catch everything regardless of the user's wishes – for example, there are precisely 478 flies in this grocery store – and the reflexes which force the body to react to all stimuli, like the suppressed amused sound of the young lady down the aisle which makes Neji involuntarily whip around and stare.
On second thought, though, Byakugan hasn't become a famous doujutsu for nothing.
Staring back at him through a watery film of genjutsu, eyes wide and startled and ten sorts of ohshit, is Uchiha Sasuke.
Even Byakugan cannot overcome Neji's shock and make him move. They stare at each other, frozen, and then Naruto pokes Neji's ribs and says, "Oi, Neji, are you okay?" and Sasuke's eyes snap to the right as if they've been avoiding that spot all night and Neji thinks If it wasn't treason before, it is now.
"Water," Neji croaks, and deliberately turns away, and thinks Oh, yes, it is now, and wonders if it is entirely fair that he carry all the burden of it: concludes, no, Sasuke should pay at least a pittance, shouldn't he? Naruto beside him, holding a cup of water begged from the proprietor and choking down raucous laughter, is golden and azure and oddly beautiful, and Neji is abruptly furious – Sasuke hasn't the right, hasn't the power, shouldn't, does, it's not fair and Neji is how old?
Water soothes Byakugan but not his simmering rage, and Sasuke's stricken face smoothing perfectly into a fine-featured, almost-plain blank lack of recognition seals the deal with as much finality as if he had stretched his neck along the aisle, past the apricots and the peaches and the nectarines, and bitten Neji's neck (tongue, Neji thinks, and almost loses the edge of the anger for a moment).
"I apologise," He says to Sasuke's henge, and Naruto is startled at the unexpected address and if Sasuke's false face weren't naturally pale it would have whitened, judging by the flurries of chakra escaping from the illusion's tight seal. If Uzumaki Naruto doesn't recognise it from the tight tiny bundles of sparks, Kyuubi does: the boy shifts uneasily at Neji's left, without really noticing it himself. "For the disturbance."
"It's no problem," Sasuke's voice is light and sweet and Sasuke doesn't possess that tone, Neji wonders where Sasuke learned it or stole it – if Sasuke had to use Sharingan to learn to speak kindly. It would be in keeping with Sasuke, Neji thinks. "I apologise for my intrusion on your night."
And where, Neji wonders, did Sasuke steal the courtesy?
"Nah," Naruto says easily, although Neji can still sense in a vague behind-the-eyes tingle: Kyuubi's restlessness, a taut blood-orange whorl in Naruto's smooth blue chakra. "You'll have to forgive Neji. He's high-strung. The Hyuuga, you know."
But the quirk of the lip just before the soft face remembers to smile is Sasuke, all Sasuke, and Neji remembers almost the press of it against his own mouth, only on Sasuke's face it should have straightened out, angled down, become a frown from which the humour is harshly squeezed. "It's really no problem."
"Are you new in town?" Neji presses, stepping forward, amused by the way his faint grey-tan shadow envelops Sasuke's smaller female form, the way it makes Sasuke's false face pale and unreal and dead, because that smile is not Sasuke, and Neji won't have it. "I haven't seen you before."
"I," Sasuke hedges, smile faintly fainter and eyes a wide melting black – Naruto is a tense shot of nerves beside Neji for a moment and suddenly relaxes. Neji wonders briefly and discards the thought for the present.
"Don't be afraid of him, nee-san," Naruto is brightly obnoxious, reassuring in a bizarre way Neji can't comprehend intellectually but feels between his heart and his gut, relaxing of muscles even ninja don't know to use and a soft warmth as tightened flesh sparks, easing. "He's not even trying to scare you. If you're new in town, though -- "
"I was passing through and got hungry, so I thought I'd look for some food here."
'Her' face is unguarded pleasantness, and Neji wants desperately – feels it at his temples, his cheekbones, pressure building behind his eyes almost painful – to see Sasuke's features, to see if Sasuke is grimacing as he manages his illusion's reality, to learn whose expressions Sasuke has referenced to build this woman: slight and assured and gentle and confident and tender. Whose smile Sasuke could possibly have known so well as to copy with such artistic affection, accuracy; who was possibly kind to Sasuke in his youth.
Neji isn't jealous.
"Pfft," Naruto says. "This isn't real food. -- sorry, ojii-san, I mean, you want hot food. Do you want me to show you a good place?"
"I," Sasuke says, hesitant. "I don't want to be a burden."
"Nah," Naruto says again, arms behind his head and blue eyes squinted into a smile, sunny and welcoming, and Neji feels the slick pull of Kyuubi's chakra threaded unnoticeably into Naruto's, slipping forward and nudging around Sasuke's genjutsu, nosing for hidden chakra, and the flavour of it makes Neji think that Byakugan wouldn't show threat, wouldn't show hunger – wouldn't show that kind of hunger. Byakugan's influence has finally faded, then: it's that or that Sasuke's genjutsu has been righted, no longer leaking even the slightest sigh of telltale icy chakra. The pressure building behind Neji's eyes says the latter, slowly intensifying to a dull, hollow pain.
"You're going to take her to Ichiraku's," Neji says (it's not a question).
"Yes!" Lee enthuses. "We must all support each other in the springtime of our lives!"
"Right," Neji says, takes Lee's hand and puts it into Naruto's. (Lee's hand still feels fragile beneath his own: for a long time after Gaara Neji hadn't been able to spar properly with Lee, seeing in Byakugan-vivid greyscale crunched bone and pulped flesh, and Lee had never really understood why. Naruto is solid, warm, Neji doesn't want to let go. He thinks: Dammit, Sasuke.) "And Naruto will support you home."
"Neji," Naruto whines, eyes blue and irritated and underneath the smooth flow of his own chakra Kyuubi's snarling swirls, and Neji thinks about shredding that frail genjutsu into useless pieces and leaving Sasuke standing with a considering hand still hovering over the apricots (ripe and full and blushed peach) and – what that would accomplish, Neji knows, is not constructive in the least (destructive, really, of course: at any rate Konoha Plus! will require reimbursement from the elders), even if smoothing his palm flush along Sasuke's cheek and – even if it is tempting.
"And I will escort our visitor to Ichiraku's," Neji says. "And you can meet us there if you'd like."
"I really shouldn't," Sasuke says, nervous laugh, the elderly proprietor looks suspiciously at the lot of them. Ninja, the twist of his mouth says, and Neji wants to turn and say Civilian with the tilt of his chin the way he used to say Lee, but Sasuke –
"I am a Hyuuga," Neji says. "I have no designs."
"I've heard of the clan," Sasuke says slowly.
Naruto heaves a theatrical sigh, grabs Lee's hand more firmly, and opens the door in a jangle of bells and a smattering of curses.
"Since Neji so obviously prefers your company to ours," He grumbles to Sasuke('s mother? father? brother, no: someone who smiled like that for him? Like he was brilliant and worthy and enough, and all he needed to be, and a little bit of – Neji wants Byakugan so badly it aches at the corners of his eyes, veins stiffening beneath the surface and forced to lie dormant – but he doesn't need Byakugan to think that Sasuke may have bled into that smile, because there is a tenseness to the woman's face that reeks of something like longing, yearning) and drags Lee into the night. "Neji! If I come to Ichiraku's and you're gone, I'll never forgive you."
The fade of Naruto's chakra (smooth blue edging around a corner and vanishing from immediate ken with general goodwill, and the fiery ripples punctuating the surface growling and reaching slightly backwards) leaves Neji and Sasuke standing facing each other down the fruit aisle and the proprietor growing impatient.
The domesticity of the action – and his own pride prickling under Sasuke's horribly pleasant eyes – irritates him, but he puts the abandoned shopping basket on the counter. He eyes the cereal lined in garish display near the register and remembers Naruto's unquestioning edginess and caves.
"A box of Ninjix," He sighs, thudding a box down next to the basket and adding a few more oranges for good measure. He supposes a sugar-saturated cereal for young ninja is poor substitution for a young Uchiha ninja bitter as fresh tealeaves, but it's the most he can do at present, with Sasuke still smiling like the silvery hint of a sun behind clouds and stubbornly refusing to move. "Ojii-san, if you could."
The air outside is bitter and nips Neji's nose and ears. Beside him, Sasuke's apprehensive step echoes quietly into the soft circles of lamplight they slide in and out of, almost avoiding the light from force of habit.
"What brings you to this part of the world?" Neji pointedly drops the polite Miss, shooting a sideways glance at the slender girl beside him and thanking Byakugan, not for the first time, for the white pupils that make it almost impossible to notice the direction of his gaze.
"I'm travelling, seeing the world," Sasuke's reply is glib and now that they are alone Neji can catch a hint of bitter humour below the lightness of that voice, something sultry and enticing beneath his sugar-coated smile. "I've heard so much about Konohagakure, so I thought I'd come and do a bit of sightseeing while I was in the area."
"I hadn't realised that Konoha was considered a tourist attraction," Neji comments. They've fallen into step, and Neji shifts his balance just so in order for his right foot to hit the ground at the exact same instant Sasuke's does.
"You'd be surprised," He says, and calmly places his left foot onto the sidewalk in perfect time with Neji. Neji allows himself a brief smirk and wonders again: exactly how old are we? "I suppose the real attraction is the ninja."
"I see," Neji says, and they turn down the street heading to Ichiraku. The proprietor – Neji's forgotten his name, Naruto's the one who does all the talking whenever they come to eat, anyway – is sweeping up, his daughter wiping down the counter and putting away bowls and chopsticks.
There is a moment of silence, and suddenly Sasuke is a sharp menace planted directly in front of Neji and the girl's face is frowning and furious; ghostly Byakugan-desire flickers painfully through Neji's forehead again, even though he can actually feel the snaps and slivers of blue-cool chakra leaking through tiny cracks in the genjutsu. It's a damn good thing cooking for ninja doesn't actually involve knowing anything about ninja techniques: Sasuke's stance and tightly clenched fingers and rapidly slipping hold on his chakra screams intent to the unwatchful world.
"What are you playing, Hyuuga?" The illusion hasn't slipped far enough for him to lose the feminine swirl to his voice, but the low growl is an echo of Sasuke's normal voice, and Neji can hear the threat and anger soaking hotly through that infuriatingly sweet timbre. "We both know."
"Do you want me to call Naruto?" Neji says, voice pitched just low enough to avoid detection and sharp enough to show anger. Sasuke's flinch is sharp and Neji can feel himself start with it – but Sasuke relaxes, frowning as he consciously loosens his muscles and packs the escaping chakra back into the illusion. "What the hell are you playing? You may have something to prove; that doesn't mean you sneak into a village that's almost branded you S-class under a genjutsu as flimsy as that one. You disappear for months only to reappear as a woman in Konoha Plus?"
He hadn't actually meant to say that last. Sasuke's eyes dodge his for a moment: lower right, indication of pain, Neji thinks in a exasperated, infuriated burst I am never your enemy, let me –
"I have business here," He says finally in his woman's voice. "Orochimaru's. And mine."
"Obviously I won't tell you," Sasuke snaps; not can't, shouldn't, but won't. Neji wants to shove Sasuke over to the right and against the wall and – wants something, Sasuke, breath, the smooth rush of skin beneath his fingers, anything.
"What will you do when Naruto comes back?"
"I'll be gone by then," Sasuke says. "This is ridiculous."
"I won't let you go," Neji says, short and sweet and calm. Sasuke's stance takes on that tight timbre again, dark eyes narrowing.
"What do you want, Hyuuga?" (Neji's home turf, sort of; certainly Sasuke will be at a disadvantage in sheer numbers: ninja battles don't go unnoticed, even in a village of shinobi.)
"Come back," Neji begins, and Sasuke's growl tears out of his genjutsu-throat as if it hurts. Neji wants to put his fingers in the graceful dip just before Sasuke's collarbone and slide the absurd high collar out of the way. "No – I'm not finished. I don't mean to Konoha. I mean let me help you."
"I thought we settled that that was ridiculous," Same word again. "I'm not playing a game, and you're not my playmate."
"Death is never a game," Neji snaps and is annoyed when Sasuke's mouth twists into an ugly line; Sasuke is one of the few who tries his patience and strains his control, and the vague surfacing red hinting in Sasuke's glare makes him want to toss logic out some metaphorical window, break out Byakugan, beat Sasuke into a pulp and drag him home to lecture once he wakes up. He's not sure if he can beat Sasuke, though. Maybe a year and a half ago, when Sasuke was practically running delirious through the Chuunin exams, but – "I don't care if it's ridiculous. I know you're there when I search. Stop hiding. I'm not going to hurt you."
"I'm not afraid of that," Sasuke snorts, black momentarily dominant in his uncertain certainty, and Neji wants to shove him up against the wall and bury his face into the faint smoke-forest-rain smell of him and never resurface. "I can't trust you." (Not don't.)
"You forget that you're at a disadvantage," Neji says. Sasuke's face is sharp angles again. "I am not asking, Uchiha Sasuke." (The name is deliberate, Neji likes it almost, a smooth flow across his tongue.) "You don't want to see Naruto, do you? Or should I say you don't want Naruto to see you?"
"So it's blackmail." Sasuke's smirk is slightly off and Neji can't identify how.
"If it matters to you," Neji says offhandedly. Sasuke moves his head in some imperceptible way that makes his bangs shadow his eyes – the Konoha hita-eate once held them back, but Neji likes the sweep of black on white, sharp contrast and not at all Sasuke blue-grey and undefined.
There is a silence during which Ichiraku's clanging cleaning just beyond them seems blasphemy and the faint breath of wind around them seems obscene. Neji wants absolute silence. Sasuke is something that fades into night, dark hair and dark clothes and dark eyes, and some irrational part of Neji says He will dissipate into the wind, he will never come back and the rest of Neji says I will never let him go. Neji wants absolute silence so he can hear if Sasuke tries to leave.
Sasuke is so beautiful it hurts in his wild-eyed and pale-fired glory and Neji thinks, recognising his own melodrama: Lost, Hyuuga Neji, there you go.
The pause stretches so thin Neji feels as if his heart is stretched with it, trembling and on the verge of collapse and Jyuuken doesn't hurt this much, not even when Hiashi makes full contact and Neji has to be rushed to the hospital for immediate disentangling of his chakra systems; his heart is thin, thinner, a fine string over an endless crevasse and breathless-empty-liquid-cold.
Sasuke's voice is thinner than Neji's voice, thinner than the silence and clawed rough with more pain than Neji can understand, but Neji is beginning and he refuses to stop.
"Good," He says, and prays that the breathless moment of Oh god, oh god, yes, oh god, let me, doesn't flicker into his voice. "In a month, Sasuke."
He can't repress a clench in his throat as Sasuke vanishes.
(He dreams that night of that smile deeper and softer in black eyes, something of pain and smiling through it, and feels almost the press of the sweet curve against his throat, feels almost the pressure of a body beside his, wakes in the morning to icy sheets and frosted windows.)
It isn't until five days later, as he sweeps his father's memorial and watches Hinata-sama pile flowers on her ancestral stones, that something clicks in his mind and he realises Oh, and Sasuke, and shit, he.
"Neji-nii-san?" Hinata-sama's startled cry is ignored as he shoots chakra to his feet and sprints, dredging his memories: The Uchiha Clan finds its roots in Hyuuga, Neji. That is why their memorials are so close to ours. See, one of your forefathers here is rumoured to be the first to breed Sharingan.
He's running so fast he isn't bothering to avoid smaller twigs and branches in his way, and when he bursts into the freshly-cleaned Uchiha monuments Sasuke's face glancing up from where he is laying a single violet bloom on white marble (something sweet tracing through the air, where the hell did Sasuke get flowers?) is startled and his black eyes are wide and pained and innocent, and fucking hell, Neji thinks, Sasuke sweeps how many graves every year?
It's probably gross disrespect to twist his hands into Sasuke's shirt and all but lift him bodily to slam him against another block of white marble and kiss him so hard he will probably have Uchiha printed across his shoulders in the end, but that's oddly appropriate anyway and Neji doesn't care. Sasuke's mouth is salty and his hands are a startled grip on Neji's upper arms and his burning breath is relief, relieved.
Reviews are for ninja-lovings and under-rested authors mired in college applications? (Yes, that was pitifully desperate-sounding. XD;;)