Summary: Years have gone by, Naruto and the others are respectful members of Hidden Leaf Village. There is the continued threat of the Akatsuki.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any of its characters. I'm just borrowing them. I am not…I repeat…I am not writing for profit.
Recap: From previous chapter
Neji glance away from her, his shoulders tensed and his jaws clenched. It was quick, but not quick enough that she saw the pain that flashed through his eyes; the strong emotion that he tried to hide from her and repress from the object of their discussion.
"You're the only person I trust to protect him if anything manages to get past me."
Chapter 3: No Choice
Hinata tried not to tremble as silent dread ran up her spine. Everything was moving too fast for her to process. So many secrets, so many unanswered questions; the future of Konoha was being questioned, the very heart of the village, their Hokage, might be in danger.
She wanted desperately to believe that Naruto was safe, but in her heart she knew that Neji was right. Even before Naruto was Hokage, he was well known by both enemy and ally. Now that he held the title of leader to Konoha, the animosity of other villages have doubled.
Neji silently observed as Hinata tried to digest all of the information, he watched as her face turned pale and she began to fidget. As if on queue, her hands began their nervous twitching.
He reached over and grasped her hands. Her pale eyes stared back at him with barely concealed anxiety. He tried to comfort her the only way he knew how. He briefly squeezed her hand before he let her hands go and turned his face towards the window and the outside that was swallowed by the darkness.
He knew that by saying these things he was just frightening his cousin, but he wanted her to be ready for anything. No matter how strong their Hokage was the Akutsaki would exploit anything to weaken Naruto. Especially where Itachi was concerned.
Neji felt Hinata's scrutiny, but he was too far into his thoughts to acknowledge her. He knew that he could trust Hinata to protect Naruto, even with her life. It pained him, but many things have happened in the recent years concerning Naruto that he was weary of how to proceed. The Hokage was a shrewd leader and skilled and powerful ninja, but to those he trusted he tended to be kind and generous. That was Neji's fear, that Naruto's trusting nature will get him kill.
"Don't underestimate him, Neji."
Neji train of thought was disturbed by Hinata's soft voice. He turned his head to glance at her, only to find her face grim and determined. He felt himself relax when he faced this Hinata; the brilliance of the Hyuga was always present in her posture whenever she was like this and it put Neji's mind at ease. She was the Hyuga heir, and he felt pride and content when she displayed it so.
"Neji, he's not the Hokage for nothing. He cannot be so easily manipulated. It's just a façade, which seems to work perfectly if his own Anbu captain is fooled so."
Neji continued to remain stoic as he stared at her.
Hinata sighed as she smiled sadly at her cousin, "Make me understand Neji. I…I know my duty, but I love Naruto, he is my most precious friend, I have to understand how the intensity of all…"
Hinata tried not to push when he saw the closed look fall over her cousin's face. She knew how sensitive Neji was to anything-concerning Naruto's personal life, but if she was guessing, Naruto's life was connected to the whole ordeal. She kept repeating to herself that it was to ensure the Hokage's safety that she wanted to be pervaded to such information.
/It had nothing to do with helping Neji find happiness./
Her silent musing left Neji to drown himself into memories and painful reminders of things that he rather forget.
Back then, he resolved himself to the simple fact that he could never express such feelings. He was only fourteen and infatuated with a being that paid him no mind. Someone whom only saw him as a distant comrade; it had frustrated him to watch as the blonde continued to tirelessly pursue the promise he made to his female teammate. His determination to bring back his best friend drained him of hope until one day he just vanished from the village.
For days Neji's concern was not eased as he continued to wonder if Naruto was all right and safe. He tried to quell these feelings when Hinata started her silent observations of him. He knew of his cousin's affections for the blonde ninja, so he tried to be indifferent to her constant talk of Naruto.
It was two years later that Neji was subjected to the brutal reality of Naruto's life outside the shinobi world.
Neji stood silently between Lee and Tenten as they watched their sensei retrieve the scroll from the Hokage. Tsunade rolled her eyes as Gai started shouting about something or other before she gestured for them to leave.
"Alright, now leave, I have to get back to my nap…er I mean paper work. JUST GO!"
Gai hurried his team out the door before shaking his head mournfully. "The difficulties of being Hokage."
Neji shared a glance with Tenten, neither could tell if their sensei was serious or not. But neither was given the time to contemplate as their sensei shouted his excitement.
"YOSH! Come team, we have a mission of great importance. The Hokage wants us to deliver a message to the Kazekage."
Tenten groaned. "That's important? It seems trivial for all of us to go, just to deliver a message."
Gai shook his head at them. "This scroll is top priority, only for the Kazekage's eyes. Let us go. We have much to do. We will meet at the western gate in three hours."
Not letting his team say anything else, Gai disappeared and left the three teenagers to themselves.
As they passed through the forest Neji kept wandering about the scroll in his sensei's possession. Even during the meeting with the Hokage Gai-sensei was very quiet and whispering to Tsunade-sama, not like his usual deafening roar that brought people to his attention. Neji was tempted to move closer to the two adults to eavesdrop, but was able to contain himself… barely.
Gai halted their progress and turned to his team. For once their sensei was serious as he explained to them the situation.
"We're almost there…now, the Kazekage knows to expect us. You are to be respectful to the sand-nin, our behavior will reflect upon the Hokage and what she wants to be done in her scroll, understood?"
Neji only raised an eyebrow in question at that, but he nodded with his other two teammates.
"YOSH! THE FIRES OF YOUTH BURNS BRIGHTLY IN ALL OF YOU. LET'S GO!"
"So much for that second of sanity." Tenten murmured as she watched Lee shout back an affirmative.
Under an hour, they found themselves at the gates to sand village. The shinobis guarding the gate nodded to Gai when they glanced over the scroll that Gai presented to them.
"The Kazekage is waiting, Tenchi will escort you to the tower."
A female shinobi stepped forward and gestured for them to follow her. Neji kept pace with Tenten as they watched Lee try and flirt with the sand-nin. Tenten snickered when their guide sniff in dismissal at the comrade before quickening her pace.
"Sakura would be so disappointed Lee."
Lee struck a pose for them, with his blindingly white smile he exclaimed, "Sakura will always be first in my heart. SAKURA!"
As they waited outside in the reception area for the Kazekage, Neji closed his eyes and tried to seem oblivious to the sand-nin's obvious admiration. To be fair, she was attractive, with short dark brown hair and green eye that kept peering at him through long locks of her bangs. She was of average height with tanned skin and toned slender form. She would have been an interesting person to associate with. But Neji could care less if she was posing for him naked; his thoughts were occupied and not likely to change in the near future.
He came to accept his attraction to Naruto. His confusion before was valid, for he never in his life found a male attractive. Until he met Naruto, he always assumed that his mild interest in the opposite sex would increase when he grew older. He still found women attractive, but men have never held an attraction for him. So he was extremely baffled when he found Naruto to be an exception.
He found nothing feminine about Naruto, all his characteristics were definitely male; his physical and psychological features were highly attractive to Neji. Naruto was just special…someone that has come to understand Neji like no other, someone who melted his cold heart with just one smile, who pierce his very being with his intense blue eyes.
Someone that Neji could quietly admire without hesitation; his own precious person ……whom he knew was completely 'straight.'
Neji opened his eyes to see Tenten motioning to the open door that led into the Kazekage's office. He stood from his seat and followed her in, realizing that during his musing, Lee and Gai were already in the office waiting for them. They all bowed respectively to the Kazekage.
The sand village leader motioned for them to seat. There was a quiet pause as they all stared at the leader of sand.
The red-haired leader was only fifteen years old and already he was commanding his village with proficiency that rivaled those of Tsunade-sama. Sometimes he wondered if Gaara ever experienced anything beyond his duty of Kazekage.
"I will read the scroll and decide. Until then, you are welcome to stay. Temari."
Neji turned to see the Kazekage's sister open a side door and step through. Instead of turning to her brother she smirked at them. "Let's go people."
Gai turned to his team and nodded, "Go with her, I have some things to discuss with the Kazekage."
They did not question his decision. They followed the blonde outside and were greeted with Tenchi. Temari frowned at the other shinobi. "What is it, Tenchi?"
The younger girl glanced at Neji for a brief moment before speaking, "I'll escort you and your guests Temari-sama."
Temari was about to object when Lee agreed for them, "Yes, please. We would like the extra company. Temari-chan, would that be alright?"
Temari raised an eyebrow at the endearment that Lee included in her name. She shrugged as she continued on. "You'll be staying at the Kazekage manor while you continue your stay at the village."
Tenten moved up to Lee and whispered, "Temari-chan? Getting a little cocky Lee. Not everyone is going to find that funny."
They continued to chat amongst themselves as they followed Temari through the streets. Neji spared Tenchi a glance when he felt the girl walk up to him. Their stride fell into step as they watched the friendly banter between Neji's teammates. They all stopped in their tracks when Tenten shouted in excitement.
Neji stiffened at that exclamation, before he turned in the general direction that Tenten was waving at. He calmed his beating heart and equalized his breathing. Lee grinned as he recognized their leaf comrade. Even with the crowded streets and light-colored buildings, Naruto was not hard to spot. He was not alone though. A dark clothed male was with him, and from his facial paint and the bandaged pack strapped to his back, Neji realized that this must be Temari other brother, Kankuro.
Neji let out the breath that he realized he was holding for over two years. Naruto was alright; he seemed perfectly healthy.
From ten yards away, Naruto waved at them as he and his companion moved towards them.
Neji used that time to observe the change in Naruto; after two years of the blonde shinobi's absence, visible change was evident. He wasn't short any longer. He seemed to be in equal height to his companion. Neji was surprised to see that Naruto was not wearing his usual fashion of orange and blue. He was in fact shrouded in a white long sleeve shirt and standard black shinobi pants, over he shirt was a dark green vest.
The two ninjas joined the group and they all watched as Lee rushed over to Naruto and clamped an arm over the blonde shinobi's shoulder.
"NARUTO…THE FIRES OF YOUTH SHINES BRIGHTLY FOR YOU. WE HAVE MET AGAIN MY RIVAL!"
Naruto grinned at the green clad male before chuckling. "I thought Neji was your rival."
Lee posed for them and grinned happily at Naruto. "I have more than one rival Naruto."
Naruto raised an eyebrow at that, "Good luck keeping track of that Lee."
Tenten came forward and greeted Naruto. She smiled warmly up at him, "How are you Naruto? We've all been wondering where you've been all this time you know? What are you doing here?"
Naruto grinned sheepishly at them, "Well, I've been with Jiraiya-sennin. I've been training with him."
Tenten nodded, "You've…grown Naruto. You look very…um…you look good." She blushed when she realized that he was towering over her now.
Lee nodded in agreement; in surprise Lee reached behind Naruto and pulled his hair over his shoulder.
"Naruto…you grew your hair."
Neji and Tenten glanced at the gold plaited hair that fell over Naruto's shoulder. They watched as Naruto snorted as he flicked the long thick braid over his shoulder letting it swing back to lie serenely along his back.
"It wasn't a matter of liking this particular hair style, when you're on the road, you have no time to go to a barber. And after the first hair cut from Jiraiya, I don't want to repeat that experience."
Tenten giggled, it was so unlike her, but Neji had to wonder if it had something to do with her nervous glances at Naruto. "It suits you." A slight blush to her cheeks followed her quiet remark.
Neji turned his head to hide the slight tilt to the corner of his mouth. /I guess I'm not the only one./
"How are you Neji?"
Neji tried to repress the startled sound that almost burst from his throat. He mentally scolded himself, he was never this nervous in his life. At the same time he was content to see Naruto after such a long absence.
He stoic silver gaze fastened onto Naruto as he nodded his head in greeting, "Hmm..Naruto."
Neji's indifference didn't faze the blonde as he chuckled at the Hyuga. Neji ignored him as he turned to Temari and gestured to her. She met is gaze and turned to address the new arrivals, "We're going to the house. Are you to coming?"
Kankuro shook his head before nudging Naruto with his elbow. He smirked when he saw the blonde sway slightly to the side as he glared at him.
"No, we're suppose to report to Gaara after we got back. We'll see you later."
After saying farewell to them, Naruto and Kankuro walked away. Neji watched them walk away, and for a brief and inane moment he thought that the next time he saw Naruto again would be in another two years.
That night Neji turn his head and glanced across the room to the occupant of the other bed. Lee was sound asleep and wasn't likely to wake up any time soon. He peered over at the wall clock through the gloom of the room, 2 am, he sighed softly as he sat up and quiet swung his legs over the bed and stood up. He made sure that Lee was still asleep before he moved to the open window and exited.
It was a cool night in Sunagakure as he jumped from up onto the roof of the manor. He took in the sight of the sleeping village; the moon gleamed over the rooftops and made the sand glisten. He admitted that hidden sand village had its beauty, even if the residents were odd. He smirked as he thought to earlier that evening when Naruto and Kankuro came back. Kankuro and Temari took turns teasing Lee about his wardrobe.
He really wasn't paying attention, for he was more interested in what Naruto, Gai and Tenten were discussing. Naruto was telling them about what he and his sensei have been doing for the past two years. It seemed that Naruto was a chunin, courtesy of the Chunin Exam that was held at Amegakure no Sato, explaining Naruto's green vest. In between that explanation Tenten remarked proudly that Neji and Lee were chunin as well; which Naruto immediate congratulated them on.
Gai-sensei, not being able to hold to his curiosity any longer asked about Jiraiya-sennin. Naruto informed them about Jiraiya's perverted thrills, which he was doing more of his research and for Naruto to wait in Sunagakure until his return.
He kept to himself the whole night, seeming indifferent to everyone around him. But every time Naruto laughed at something Tenten said Neji felt his inside clench and his brow perspire.
He shook his head at his melancholy; he knew how he felt, how he wanted Naruto as his lover but in the real world Naruto was only fifteen, and Neji highly doubted that Naruto would welcome his advances even if he was gay. Naruto barely spoke to him after their Chunin Exam.
He froze in his place as he heard something coming from the other side of the roof. He quiet moved towards the sound making sure to keep himself out of sight. He doubted that anyone would be foolish enough to spy on the Kazekage manor.
He glanced around before he spotted a small bricked room that probably led a staircase down into the manor, he swiftly made his way towards the shadows it provided and slowly peered around the corner.
There sitting on the rooftop together was Naruto and Gaara. They seemed oblivious to everything around them. They were speaking in low tones, but Neji could still make out what they were discussing. Naruto's voice carried over to him.
"Jiraiya will be here soon."
"Gaara, don't do this. It's bad enough that Temari is on my case about leading you on. If she only knew how her little brother acted around his guests."
Neji frowned at the teasing note he heard in Naruto's voice, in the moonlight Neji could make out Naruto's features. He was smiling serenely at Gaara before nudging the silent Kazekage.
"Temari wouldn't care."
Naruto threw back his head and laughed out loud. Neji watched as Gaara stared at the blonde shinobi with undisguised hunger in his green eyes. "I think she would Gaara, if she knew how much you have been persuing me, you can't take no for answer. I should be flattered."
"You weren't complaining every single time it happened."
Naruto leered at the red haired young man. "You gave me no choice, how could I refuse you, after all…you are the Kazekage. That just won't do to disobey."
Naruto's laughter was silenced by Gaara's mouth pressing against the blonde ninja's. Naruto moaned into the kiss before he wrapped his arms around the sand-nin and pulled him close. Neji turned away from the scene as he tried to regulate his erratic breathing pattern. His surprise was second to the remorse he felt at the scene he witnessed. Naruto and Gaara. Naruto and Gaara. Naruto…was sleeping with Gaara.
Neji remembered the shock and hurt as if they happened just a few moments ago. After that night, he had to keep reminding himself that Naruto was more than he let anyone else see. The fair-haired shinobi was always surprising them, and yet hiding from them, even in plain sight.
He distinctively remembered not being able to keep his mind from wondering the couple of days after that night. Every time he saw Naruto and Gaara together, he would remember what he saw. Time seemed to pass in a blur to Neji then, even after the kidnapping attempt on the Kazekage, Neji was distant and aloof. He pulled away from his emotions so he could observe more closely what happened around him and it was because of that he concluded the real reason that they were in Sunagakure in the first place. The danger to the Kazekage was anticipated and they were there to make sure that nothing happened, and even Naruto's sudden appearance was not a coincidence. Of course he was concerned for his lover.
Neji also remembered the bitterness he felt when he watched Naruto disappear with Jiraiya a couple of days after the incident. Only staying long enough to make sure that his lover was alright before he left again. Leaving behind Neji and his unspoken emotions.
He gritted his teeth in anger at his sentimental lapses, he tried to pushed these feelings to the corner of his mind as he willed himself to focus on the here and now.
He cleared his throat before raising his head to meet the steady stare of Hinata's eyes. He recognized the determination and loyalty for Naruto reflecting in those pale eyes so similar to his own. He had no choice, Hinata will push and he will eventually fold under her concern.
"I never underestimated Naruto's strengths Hinata, it is other people's constant pressure on the Hokage that keeps me on edge. I don't really know the specific reason their liaison never continued but it was partly political; a Kazekage puts his village first right?"
Hinata nodded in agreement. She knew that Naruto would have thought along those lines as well, his noble nature would never cause the village any real danger, even at the expense of his own happiness.
"Uchiha Sasuke is another matter. As I told you before, Tsunade-sama assigned me to keep an eye on him when Naruto brought him back after his three year absence. She had the right idea to keep an eye on him, for even though he agreed to serve Konoha again, he was still unstable."
Neji clenched his jaws in frustration. "During his probation, Naruto was one of the few of us of the orginial genin teams that accepted and helped Sasuke. And trust me, Sasuke did not make it easy on Naruto."
Hinata shook his head at that statement, for she too remember the hardship that Naruto went through to help Sasuke engrain himself back into Konoha. The harsh treatment and insults that Sasuke tortured Naruto with. And yet, Naruto remained true to his friend, and eventually Sasuke accepted his friendship and slowly he took his role again as a Konoha shinobi.
"I know how Sasuke acted back then, sometimes I wonder how Naruto could take it calmly. But Naruto never gives up on a friend. I would be flattered by the attention as well if I was Sasuke."
Neji sighed softly as he ran a hand through his hair. He had to agree with Hinata, but he wasn't about to verbally state the fact.
"No matter what the impression Sasuke may have had, Naruto always considered him as a friend, nothing more. But I think Sasuke wanted more, which Naruto was oblivious to. And on one fateful night, Sasuke's impatience for Naruto's affections led to a drunken mistake with Haruno Sakura. Thus…"
Hinata smirked, "Thus, the hurried wedding between Sasuke and Sakura. A mistake…leading to a pregnancy. And of course, Sasuke had no choice, but to marry. Oh poor Sakura, marrying for less than love."
Neji snorted at that. He met Hinata's gaze with a glare of intent. "I don't think Haruno was very saddened by that fact. She finally found a way to trap Uchiha, trust me when I say that she's not complaining."
Hinata frowned at him. She could clearly hear the amusement in his voice, and she didn't have to guess to why he was amused. With Sakura's clutches on Sasuke, Neji was not worried on that front. But Neji didn't have to be so insensitive to the circumstances.
"At least Uchiha Uzaki turned out fine."
Neji could not hold in a smirk at his cousin's valiant effort to see the good in everything. "Uchiha's son is an arrogant little brat, just like his father. He's only four years old, and yes he seems to be a clan genius, but he's starting to remind me of Sasuke. And that is a bad thing."
Hinata kept quiet. There was no need to defend the Uchiha clan against Neji, he would never forgive Sasuke for his abandonment those years ago. Especially when Naruto was involved in the suffering. It was kind of sweet to see her stoic cousin this protective over a man he would never admit to loving.
Neji cursed under his breathe before he stood and started toward the window. Without meeting her gaze he spoke again. His voice was strained. Hinata now knew why he turned his face away from her; if his voice was evidence, he was very vunerable, his façade cracking.
"Uchiha Sasuke may be honor bond not to start anything with Naruto, but his brother is not. Itachi will come for the Hokage, and he will use this village as incentive. Naruto will do anything to secure Konoha's safety."
Hinata stood as well and moved toward her cousin, but she did not try to touch him. "Itachi would not dare challenge Naruto. He is no match to the Hokage. Naruto is not so easily defeated by that traitor!"
Her voice was shaking with her fury, he would not be surprised if she had woken up the whole house. He turned around and held her shoulders trying to calm her shaking nerves.
"Hey…" Neji's soft voice silently relaxed her angry explosion. She smiled in gratitude, but her cheeks were warm from embarrassment.
"You're right. Nothing is going to happen to Naruto, especially with you there with him. No one should underestimate Hyuga Hinata." The attempt at humor was generous.
Hinata tilted her head to the side and glance at Neji through her bangs. She smiled gently at him.
"And what would Hyuga Neji do? How will you take it when Naruto has to make a final choice for this village?"
Seeing his confusion, Hinata elaborated.
"What will you do when the man you're in love with has to make the choice alone?"
She watched as Neji stiffened and moved away from her. She was sad to see that his face grew cold and unyielding to her. She knew without a doubt that he felt cornered but she had no choice. If the uncomfortable truths about Naruto's past is any lesson, Neji should say something before it's too late.
Hinata's words died in her throat at the glare that Neji sported. He was angry, but she didn't back down. This needed to be addressed…something that has been waiting for years now. She was determined to help heal her cousin.
"You are trending on dangerous ground Hinata, things you know nothing about."
He voice was quiet but vicious. She still remembered a time when he spoke to her thus. It was still hurtful and full of venom. But she knew now what was behind it; pain and he was trying with all his might to hide that hurt.
"I know how it feels to love-"
"Love? Are you out of your mind Hinata!" Neji leaned over her and whispered harshly.
Steeling her voice, she confronted him head on. Lifting her chin and standing erect, posture of noble blood, she was not going to succumb.
"I've seen you Neji, you may seem indifferent to everyone around you, but I can see. I'm not blind, no matter how much you hide, I know how you feel; you have to tell Naruto how you feel….before it's too late."
From the set of Neji's stubborn jaw and his narrowed silver eyes, she knew he was not grateful to her for her meddling.
"If he doesn't know about your feelings, then how can you be sure that he would reject you?"
The silence was deafening, Hinata switched her weight from one foot to the other, waiting anxiously. She clasped her hands in front of her heart and waited.
His glare did not falter, but he turned his gaze from her to the window and beyond. Both male and female Hyuga stood there silently, one waiting and one deciding. Hinata was pulled from her musing when Neji cleared his throat and pinned her with his emotionless eyes.
"This is not the time to be fighting amongst ourselves, Hinata. You will do your duty and I will do mine. Goodnight cousin."
To her dismay, Hinata watched silently as Neji walked over to the chair and picked up his cloak and draped it over his shoulders before placing his mask back on. And with the mask firmly in place, her wish to see the exact emotion swimming in his eyes was destroyed.
/When will the mask come off Neji/
She bit her lip as Neji turned to her and inclined his head in farewell before moving towards the door.
/Just one more time, Hinata./
"Doesn't he deserve the right to make his own choice? Don't you own him as least that Neji?"
Neji paused with his hand on the door, before he shook his head. "This has nothing to do with choices Hinata…. It never did."
His voice was so soft that she had to strain to hear it. The door closed behind him and Hinata stood there trembling with silent tears streaming down her pale face.
Neji stood in the middle of his room unmoving. All he could hear was his erratic breathing that filled the silence. He felt cold, so very cold. A strong feeling of nausea ran through his body. His throat tightened with repressed burdens, for a moment he could not see anything but his own darkness…his own pain closing in on him.
With badly trembling hands he pulled the mask away from his face and let it drop to the floor. Slowly, he raised his hand and touched his face; in the soft light of the moon that spilled into the room from the window, Neji gazed down at his retreating hand with wonder. His fingertips sparkled with moisture. He tasted the salty tears that silently fell down his face; they were bitter and full of anguish. He swallowed down the sob that threatened to escape as he felt his strength leave him.
Without shame of an audience, Neji fell to his hands and knees. Under moonlight, he watched the teardrops fall to the floor. /Duty, comes first. Always./