La Belle Dame Sans Merci: 01:

"Sorry, Dropout Boy, But this is Reality"

Please note that at this point La Belle has become AU, seeing as it only follows canon up to and including episode 135 of the anime series. At the time I wrote it, I had not watched any of Shippuden, nor read any of the post-timeskip manga. La Belle is also an experiment in many ways (most prominently: is it possible to make something genuine and coherent out of fandom clichés?), and I can only hope it is enjoyable. Please feel free to leave feedback, which is always muchly appreciated.

xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxx

Life goes on after Sasuke's departure.

Only, not really.

"I mean," Naruto would say, "if you can call it life."

He's very young in the forest where he throws agitated kicks and kunai at trees that refuse to budge and calls it training.

Because life, if you can call it that, is a broken promise. He's not going to break his promise, though. It sounds so selfless when he declares that, but really, it's not. He suffers the tearing there deep inside where nothing from the outside world can reach to touch, and to banish it he needs Sasuke, and to fight Sasuke he must find Sasuke, and it's all such a gigantic shattered mess (because once you love someone you don't just stop, that's not how it works and how could it be).

Nothing seems real these days, with only the bleak pain to remind me I'm not dead.

It's Country of the Wave all over again.

Except Country of the Wave had a happy ending, and belief is more brittle than it used to be.

There are a hundred thousand things he wants to express, but he knows if (when, please when, i'm going to bloody make it when) he meets Sasuke again they'll fight. They've done that often enough, and Naruto has the inkling it would be one of those struggles during which he suddenly discovers he's no longer angry, just has the dim idea somehow Sasuke is real.

He might scream it over the wasteland that is their battleground and his life: that Sasuke has never been kind or companionable or likeable or easy. That he's still the only one who's been truly close, who's gotten beneath Naruto's skin, bitching at the flesh and bones there below. Gotten inside. That Sasuke is real – impossible to ignore or dismiss or forget. Impossible to surpass or replace.

To move on past.

Even if Naruto touched Sakura-chan, like he sometimes sort of admits to himself that she'll never let him, he harbors the lurking suspicion she wouldn't be real under his hands. That she isn't the one that can matter, any more than Iruka-sensei or Kakashi-sensei or anyone else.

He was alive through the maddening pain in The Valley at the End, shockingly unquestioningly brutally vivid. Afterwards, ground down and apart below Sasuke's feet as he departed, death has started gradually intruding. It sure as hell isn't life, at least.

Life goes on but it doesn't go on. It's still here and days come and pass, but they don't get anywhere, can't move past Sasuke or the absence he left.

One morning out of every five they assemble as Team Seven, and it's a bloody joke. As if they were still Team Seven, as if any of it still mattered, the missions and the training. Naruto wants to say: It does matter, matters too goddamn much, and precisely because of that you have to give me a real mission so I can find Sasuke and make things right and whole again, you have to give me real training so I can be better than this world and keep my promises.

Kakashi-sensei usually declares they do have a mission, the formula that once raised such enthusiasm, held so much power. Sakura-chan sometimes believes, she confessed once when she could blame teary eyes on the glaring sun, that Kakashi-sensei rarely trains them because he doesn't know how. No, really, it makes sense if you think about it: he's a genius, and none of us are, you know that. Sasuke, though, he was too. So Kakashi-sensei could train him, and we just tagged along. He's no idea what to do with just us, though.

It doesn't make all that much sense to Naruto, but few of Sakura-chan's reasonings do and they're usually correct (and maybe it does make a little bit of horrible sense, like sakura-chan knowing sasuke was going to leave, except naruto refuses a reality that supports that sort of sense).

Suppose it's true, then, and he's just so sad his breathing hurts. Obviously Kakashi-sensei doesn't know what to do with just them; Naruto himself has no idea what to do with just Naruto save regain what has been lost, become whole again. Unbreak me.

In reality Tsunade decided that with her life framed by the Ninja War she has had enough precious people taken away, instructed Kakashi to the extent that: "If Naruto gets too cocky he'll try for Orochimaru on his own, and then we'll lose both of them." She didn't need to say: If you train him too well we won't be able to stop him.

Kakashi does not necessarily agree with the sentiment but doesn't argue, it's not his decision and every time it was he lost his precious people. Too bad I didn't stop making my own faulty choices until I didn't have anyone left.

Sometimes he's tempted to comment that death isn't the only threat that might take your loved ones, but Orochimaru's looming presence ought to be proof of that already, and anyway people can be precious without being properly loved. He knows that rather better than he'd have liked to.

"What kind of mission?" Naruto asks now, suspiciously, and in the space between the words Kakashi clearly hears the maddening fear and frustration caused by months and months of meaningless nothingness.

"We're going to hunt some bandits," he says, watches the stark distrust on Naruto's face blur tentatively.

All in all, if he looks at it critically, the time since Sasuke's deflection has given Naruto almost nothing. Too shattered by the Uchiha business to manage effectively improving on his own and offered no help, he's been stuck on basically the same level he was when his teammate disappeared.

Sasuke's a different matter, of course. Kakashi isn't sure what that kid knows or wants anymore.

What he does know is that the little shit left, and if Kakashi had been what he was supposed to be, that would not have happened (should-have-beens, so many of them).

Hell, he doesn't remember why he quit the ANBU anyway – he's much more skilled at killing people than at living with them, always was.

Only, he could be better at that too:

He looks at Sakura and Naruto during the battle with the robbers, and they didn't grow up during the Ninja War, they didn't accept their Chuunin badges with lifeblood sticking to their six-year-old hands. Out of some misguided idea about protecting them (and where would he ever have learned anything about that because his parents sure as hell never tried it with him but never mind) he only snaps necks and kicks through spines when his students aren't watching.

Oh god, he's trying to be better for them, now it's too late.

He'd laugh, except stupidity and unfairness are only funny when they happen to other people (not even then, not really, but learning to laugh at everything was an invaluable life lesson).

From childhood missions until four years ago Kakashi was a killer by routine so ingrained it was almost instinct, was famous for it, because it's simplest and cleanest and dead opponents don't return to make more trouble. ANBU prodigy, you know.

But things happen (uchiha sasuke happened).

Kakashi used to turn up every year with a test, couldn't be bothered to even invent a new one, read a few chapters of Icha Icha Paradise and let the kids try and fail to get his bells, just to have tangible justification for turning them down and pursuing his solo career as a slightly-alcoholic hit man.

Three years ago was much the same; he remained laconic in his response to the Third's hint of assigning him an Uchiha.

No, I've never wanted a son or a little brother, thanks.

But Sasuke wasn't anything like Obito, Naruto was, and Kakashi's one eye, which has never been allowed the grace of turning away from the difficult things, registered with cold lack of mercy that Sasuke knew death and the other two had never been touched by it. That whereas all Uchiha hail from the same blood-darkness and are shaped by it, Naruto should be nothing like his parents whom he hadn't even known but Kakashi had, but he was, he is.

Things happen. Things change; hell, even Kakashi was innocent once.

Coward that he is, not teacher material, Kakashi doesn't kill in front of them, and the bandits number plentiful, more skilled than they ought to have been, and Naruto is shattered and sloppy. Because of a lot of things, all these reasons and all the other unspoken ones there always are, Naruto ends up shell-shocked on his knees with his hand clean out on the far side of a man's chest.

Fucking hell (yeah, you wish there's fucking in the place you're heading) and Kakashi drops the charade like he dons the mask, stops playing at being a ninja for all audiences. Rated and angry and hating himself he's a kid again (still; if you were an adult when you were a child you can't properly grow up, can you) and no stranger to corpses.

"He's dead," Naruto says in the sterile voice of those whose entire life has been taken over by not letting trauma take over their life. "I, I, I didn't – didn't mean to kill him."

"I know," Kakashi says. Lying is cowardice, but cowardice is underrated, and the truth only makes things worse. "It's alright."

Sakura stares with one trembling hand covering her mouth as he grabs the corpse, still attached to Naruto's impaling limb, beautiful murderer's hands holding on to its shoulders while he wrenches it free, so much meaningless meat.

Not a suitable teacher after all, since at heart he's just never been nor wanted to be a people person (not since the precious people were taken away, and that was very long ago), he isn't sure what to do with this.

The Fourth, who was a people person, made things alright again after Kakashi had slain his first man. He doesn't exactly remember how, though.

Moreover, the Fourth Hokage is dead. Life sucks and then you die, and Kakashi can't seem to formulate any kind of coherent sentence expressing the general thesis that inadvertently taking people's lives is a beautiful intrinsic part of enjoying the springtime of your youth.

He should have known, did know, that there was a reason he refused all those others teams. This one was just too much like the old Team Seven, and he's failed them now like he failed Obito and Rin. If he'd been a responsible adult and sent them back to the Academy where Iruka would have taken care of them, the dumb childish man shaped by the kindness of being inadequate for the battlefield, then they would've ended up with a real teacher and maybe they would not have been so broken.

"Come on," he says (a ninja who's made it to adulthood doesn't complain about being on the right end of the killing).

(I'll make my own Way of the Ninja! and kakashi wants so desperately to believe, but he is not foolish enough to let himself)

He was never a dreamer and never selfless, but what few hopes he had left (after his father and his mother and obito and finally rin too) the Fourth took with him when he passed away, and the child who was sharp enough to sparkle blends in perfectly now in this graying world that's all that's left.

He says, harsher than intended, "You're not hurt, are you? Stand up."

"O-okay." His knees shake like a pitiful fucking fox cub.

Kakashi watches with what strives and fails to be laconic detachment as Sakura scrambles up as well and hurries towards Naruto, trembling steps stumbling over the corpse, one foot landing hard on the slippery dead chest. She doesn't slow down – too terrified to register what's happening?

Nah, she might've replied, the pink baby is tougher than that now, with grim realism hardening her.

Nah, Kakashi decides. Only people too strong or dumb or lonely to fear death delude themselves into believing they can afford entertaining crises over killing, and if he were as weak as she he'd have killed himself from sheer horror long ago. He's never been a fan of fright.

With Kyuubi eagerly licking its jaws inside his blood-drenched mind, Naruto kicks helplessly at the trunk of a nearby tree until he can look past the dead one without swallowing vomit.

"Move on," Kakashi tells him. "It's going to be alright." He makes himself grin, with little effort. Cheer is better than agony, always (sometimes cheer is agony, but not yet). "Now, we need to hurry up a bit or you'll be late for the ceremony."

Before she can bellow at him that changing the topic from death to a wedding (before the corpse is even cold, oh shit, oh my god), Sakura is struck by a kind of insight. A glimpse behind the mask, if you will.

These exact facts are not clear to her, but years and years ago Kakashi is nine and standing in a clearing he's fought his way to, studying his blood-splashed attire with dull distaste: it will be hell to get the stains out. And this is when he discovers he's lost count of how many he has killed. It is at once very surprising (because few things escape his unstoppable genius mind's automatic recording) and not surprising at all (because he always knew to refuse keeping conscious count).

That was then; this is now. The line is not as clear or steady as it should be, blurring and momentarily blindsiding.

But Naruto shapes up again once they're back in the village, wide grin below laughter-closed eyes and no pain at all left in his expression. There's just the everyday variety of it now, the never-ending agony clinging to his shoulders, shadowing his steps, worn with the recognized familiarity of a particularly favored piece of clothing.

Kakashi muses that the Hyuuga have been inbreeding without his help for many generations already and will no doubt manage today's wedding too without his support. He has none to offer.

What he does have is a well-filled liquor cabinet. He got drunk for the first time when he was eleven; resisted the silent siren call for years and years, although with slips, and now… Now he doesn't think he cares all that much about trying.

Everything you try fails you anyway, so what's the point?

He looks into his own eyes, dark muddled gray and stolen red in the scarecrow face. He has nothing to tell himself, nothing that can be said.

He shrugs. Yeah well, everyone's pathetic, I just don't bother trying to obscure it anymore.

He takes the appropriate flasks from the cabinet and the world becomes mercifully soft; the sharp edges aren't removed, but they're hidden and he has learned that that is enough.

One emptying of the rather large mug: and he is a child again, before the killing and the comrades gained and lost, blood falling chilled and slimy on his face, which he has tilted back, its eyes wide as it measures the distance to his father hanging from the ceiling (no harakiri for the shamed man).

Another knock-back, practiced steadily since that first time he got wasted when he was a kid: Obito, and the images are moving faster now, one rock crushing the boy's body, another bearing his name. Kakashi screaming at the piece of fucking black basalt that thinks it means anything at all, dares scorn the survivors with the notion death can be anything but loss.

Third emptying: the Fourth Hokage's name on the Heroes' Stone.

Fourth: his mother gone, and Rin, and no heroics, no saving to be had. Heroes are the only ones ever remembered, but it's never just the heroes who die. Kakashi's girls did, and were forgotten by the village that had killed them, before and after the loss of the Yellow Flash, of the man who was too bright and animated to be caught in rock and carvings. Kakashi lets himself marvel, sometimes, that the administration of the village has yet to learn what he knew before he made Genin: that it's better to let the dead lie, it hurts so much less that way (sometimes he wants to crush the stone of heroes).

Fifth, because he is going to drink himself to hell to prove his sober life isn't: goddamn Uchiha fucking Sasuke, Kakashi's look in Obito's eyes, my last lost chance to fucking do something right. Unbreak us.

Sixth: and Obito's grinning at him, and everything that could have been, and Rin's kind hands, the Fourth ruffling his hair; smiling up at his father, his mother singing him to sleep long after he told her she needn't

Seventh: he is dreaming, and he was never a ninja, he died when he was still innocent. His students weren't so broken, under someone else's hand.

Eighth: life's a bitch Kakashi isn't in love with anymore. Save for the kids he'd leave her.

Ninth: go to hell, all the people in my memories, except I don't think my apartment is large enough for all of you.

Tenth: alcoholic comas are the best kind, the only good one.

The wedding too is drunken business, but it has not quite yet commenced. Naruto, who has learned greater respect for punctuality since Sasuke's disappearance because there's not a second to waste, not a second that isn't agony, is at the grounds in fairly good time, stands around talking with grins and overdone gestures, having words with Shikamaru Chuunin of Leaf and Temari his girlfriend from Sand. She's made Jounin, Naruto thinks.

It might have mattered once.

Before the Chuunin Exam following the one that ended so badly was postponed and his team missed the next one because they were looking for Sasuke, and no one had the energy after that to commit heresy by suggesting the remnants of Team Seven try it with an outsider. Hell can be a fiercely private place, their hell is theirs and Sasuke alone is welcome.

So Naruto's a Genin and he doesn't care. He's beaten Jounin and he doesn't care. The ranks are all bullshit anyway; I kicked the conceited lying ass of a Chuunin instructor before I was even out of grade school, didn't I?

If only it had mattered.

Shikamaru shakes his head at him because it's too troublesome to laugh, slings an arm around the convenient girl-shoulders next to him since she leans discreetly closer the way that indicates he should, and anyway it's what they both need after that god-awful family dinner they've just endured.

Those who believe Shikamaru was unfortunate to involve himself with the family of Gaara and Kankurou obviously lack any comprehension of the situation. A couple remarks about his good friend Naruto plus a few pictures of same, and Shikamaru could enjoy the heartening security of knowing Gaara was ninety percent certain to hesitate before massacring him because blood is pretty.

Those who believe that's grave have not suffered through a family dinner with his alcoholic father and frigid mother. Temari has, and so has he, and she's a warm weight against his side. Comfortable there, and staying.

Having a girlfriend is a damn hassle, true, but regardless of whatever preferences he might have had on the subject she did smile kindness at him in the soft-sharp lamplight of the hospital after Uchiha fucking Sasuke left, and she did put her arms around his neck and tell him he was an incompetent fucking baby who would have been better off staying home sucking on his mom's tits for a bit longer, but now he was here how about he suck on hers instead?

He did. She was tangible and lively in his arms, then and later, after he'd had the first men under his command killed. She'd saved his sorry ass, actually, when the image of falling comrades overpowered any forming plans in his mind. Maybe it was not so strange: the Genin Exam in Leaf requires its taker to successfully perform a basic transformation technique, while in Sand its completion demands a death by the examinee's hands. She was vivid, though. Still is.

Naruto used to be. Shikamaru hopes to hell that goddamn Uchiha who stole it from him puts the vividness to good use, or Shikamaru intends to fucking kill him.

Temari might miss him when he's failed; I've read the reports. It's troublesome, but if he lets the Jounin handle the brainy stuff they'll all wind up dead, and no matter what Naruto thought and fought for then (and he might have learned better since), the one who had the truth of it was the boy with the knowledge craved into his being that even bereft of its wings a bird must eventually seek the sky:

Sorry, dropout boy, but this is reality.

There's a reason Shikamaru's neck remains unmarked by dark powers. Well, if you don't count Temari's sex drive among aforementioned dark powers. He's too pragmatic, too smart, not good enough.

He sighs, rests his eyes.

Further into the crowd, swarmed by friends and teammates, one can glimpse Kiba, a wild thing lost in the sea of humanity. And, it might be added, appearing perfectly content with this state of affairs. Least so long as he has Akamaru with him, and he always does, today proving no exception. It hardly could, since a frantic Kiba going berserk during the wedding is not on anyone's wish-list.

Despite attending the ceremony with good humor (though growing uncertain from dawning distress born of his girl teammate's scent being that of a prey animal playing dead whilst the predator chews on her flesh) Kiba has never given much thought to marriage. It's a part of life, but nothing acute, nothing he feels truly concerns him. Girls just are.

Most particularly, love isn't related to females, save of course for his mom and sister and the bitches, love is a wet black nose nuzzling against his skin, is lying curled tight amongst the warmth of mutual skin and pulsing blood, the smell of belonging thick around them.

He bends over Akamaru and breathes in the scent, but knows:

Hinata is watching Naruto (this is not a first by far).

With her Byakugan (this is).

Propriety was ingrained in her numbingly, unchangeably long ago. But she has reached at last the stage towards which she has been struggling all her life, has nothing left that can be taken from her.

Naruto she will never gain and so cannot lose, and finally she has conceded defeat and ceased to hope and thus has been made free to act upon this.

Before she can approach him, however, someone else does, and she watches it reduced to the mere spectator she's so weary of being.

"Hey, Neji!" Naruto calls with enthusiasm she can't definitely identify as faked or earnest, administering a slap to the Hyuuga's back. Being untouchable does not work around Naruto, Neji knows that. "Congrats on tying the knot! Guess you and Hinata really did start getting along better, right?"

Neji can feel his wings rot unused on his body, caught in a cage too slim for him to spread them. Says, because that kind of internal vermin breeds all kinds of twisted darkness, and because Naruto's eyes are the blue of the sky he knows he can never reach: "Amai no Jutsu."

Naruto's look at him changes completely, from bland amusement to something too raw to be described in human terms.

Whom does he see? Neji bides his time, and after a short length of same Naruto breathes, "Hey, smile for me, will you?"

He's smiling himself, a soft unstoppable expression too brittle to be touched. His chest hitches against Neji's.

"Why?" Neji asks from the other side of the genjutsu. He knows it can't be him that Naruto is looking at. For the moment he does not care. Might kill someone later, though. Not now.

"'Cause it just struck me it was so long since I saw it and I – miss it." He sounds like he's choking.

Hinata thinks he might be ready to cry.

"I'll smile for only you," Neji breathes against Naruto's mouth, hands uncertainly, unaccustomedly soft on Naruto's shoulders, and briefly he wonders where his words are coming from. For Naruto only I will inch the corners of my mouth upward, curve my lips in unused invitation.

Naruto watches with his eyes filled with blue – unspilled tears over blue irises or madness, and you believe what you want to believe, don't you? Like he believed for so long in getting strong enough to trip inevitable destiny up when she strove to walk past them in all her torn ruining glory, save he can't believe now, not in this.

Not when the smile he's shown is tempting and shining and achingly, accusingly, absolutely hollow. "That's not your smile," he says. "That's like – that's nothing but a substitute for tears."

The illusion-mask cracks at that, the false expression of gladness falling away to reveal pale wretched weariness, and it doesn't matter how his stomach is clenching with the anticipation of pain to come, not when it's so much like how it should have been (one of my might-have-beens, one of the precious ones). The person in front of him inches forward slow and graceful, and Naruto's gasp isn't surprised.

His mouth inches open, warm under Neji's, two bodies clumsy with ardency clutch at each other, sliding together. With bruises forming on him from Naruto's grip, wetness that might be Naruto's tears or snot or saliva or his own sliding down his chin and Naruto pressed between Neji's body and the wall, Neji disregards his chocked panting and the bitter-sweetness swelling crushing inside him and just looks at this slip of a boy he has no real reason to want. Know that I do, irreversibly (fate is like that). Indescribably much.

Too much, by far too much, for the Amai no Jutsu to be fair.

"…ke," Naruto breathes unevenly, face open and worn and desirous, shaking in his arms. "Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke."

The jutsu melts away and leaves him dangling in Hyuuga Neji's arms.

Hinata still watches, bereft of sound but never of sight, studies her cousin's deft movements as he disentangles and waits for Naruto to come back to them; realizes belatedly that he has been at least partially gone since he went to The Valley at the End and returned with one half of a broken promise.

Shock can't quite reach him through the ache. "You're getting married!" he sneers. "How can you do that to Hinata?"

There may be a reason after all, it dawns on Neji. Might be a real reason he wants this slip of a boy. He'll analyze it later, after nursing his introvert mind back together. Unbreak him.

It is in the very essence of Naruto to refuse understanding of arranged marriages and of what forces people into them: Neji discovers it is possible for him to smile, in spite of everything, but doesn't.

"You said Hyuuga would be made to change," he explains, serene almost in the anguish. "Make no mistake, I grew to believe you. As of yet, however, Hyuuga is what it has always been."

Naruto would punch him if he could find the energy to move.

Unaffected and bred for brilliance Hyuuga Neji turns on his heel, declares with that detached solemnity he has, soiling himself at last with honesty: "I won't bother you again, Dropout Boy." A bird has it in him to fly, but wings rot and vermin live in their rot. There is a sky though, blue and untenable as Naruto's eyes: he adds, just before he is out of earshot, "I'll serve you as Hokage."

Hokage? Someone still believes in that, still cares about that? Naruto laughs softly because I have seen a Hokage try to reclaim Sasuke and I have seen her fail.

Why did I let him kiss me?

Maybe for the same reason he can't give up, the reason that forces him to remain now slumped against the smooth cold wall.

Just before she is to ascend the platform on which the ceremony is to take place Hinata hurries, as best she can when forced by the billowing purple silk wrapped around her person to limit herself to a sedate gait, to his side. She looks down at him, bowed blond head that has dried its tears and is grinning pain again when it rights itself, with something akin to judgment.

Naruto perceives it, and starts. However, it is not directed at him primarily.

For being uttered in so hasty a rush they lean on each other, her words, whispered urgently under her ragged breath, are distinct: "Naruto you don't understand this is the duty of one who carries a Bloodline Limit but I'm afraid I mean aren't I always but."

Shocked into compliance he lets her kiss him. Gradually it comes to him that the coldness earlier was not meant for him, and he could have shrugged away save he knows what it is to crave. One of her arms stretches across his neck, helping to press her body to his, all of it soft. Even the little bit of tongue is innocent.

Because his mind moves in circles found in a Sharingan eye (translation: because i am an idiot, and proud in my way, and i will not, i cannot, give up) he remembers another kiss, a first kiss, a hard shove in the back; shock and air that smelled of chalk and Sasuke's lips perfectly fitted against his, dry but open.

Fucking absurd, and it didn't mean anything except a split lip, courtesy of Sasuke's tooth.

Neji meant something, shrouded in Sasuke's face.

Stop thinking.

Hinata kisses him and then she leaves: when his eyes are still wide, not the content closed arcs they were for a second with Neji-san, she fists her hand hard in the offensive fabric of her wedding kimono and walks away very fast, almost stumbles.

Hinata's wedding night is a textbook case, a study in the expected, an exercise in thoughts of a metaphorical England.

It hurts, but mostly because she has been told that it will; weak she might be, as far as the Hyuuga go, but that means merely that her experience of injury and pain is all the more extensive.

She fears his cold as she slips with shaking fingers out of her nightgown. Even her breasts, nipples hard from chill, tremble from how ragged with fear her breathing has become.

"I won't – I'm not going to force you," he says: she's on her back on white silken sheets, her body pale and clammy with cold sweat when she chances a quick glance at it, and she's gone through terrified into calm and wishes she could faint from fear for once, instead of due to embarrassment. Ironical, that; she'd likely have blacked out if it were Naruto about to push into her, but she'll have to stay conscious and aware for Neji-san.

The ironies of life, and the struggle to find them funny instead of bitter.

Not that it's this fault, exactly, any of it: he cares for her no more than she for him, and as she fears his cold eyes and colder hands he must resent her unmarked forehead, and his flesh is as innocent as hers in the ways of intimacy.

"You don't have to force me," she stammers, scared into frankness. "It is our duty to produce heirs more worthy than Hanabi or die so as to not stand in her way."

He nods after an instant of thought, the movement efficient and impersonal. Deft and decided like the fingers dispensing with his clothes, like his entering the futon. Though equally unused as she to the vulnerability of being watched naked, he has never regarded his body as anything for which he ought to be ashamed; he looks from his own bony thighs to her fleshier ones and swallows.

Consummating their marriage is a different experience for him, though she is not aware of this, different from how it is for her and different from how he presupposed it would be. It should be and has been assumed as a mere duty, a mechanical and vaguely distasteful requirement – a means to an end through shrouded in heavy physicality. However…

Never having expected anything from her, he is not surprised she stays unmoving as he leans over her, his hair spilling thick and dark over her body. Her eyes are closed beneath furrowed brows, her breast tense under his brushing finger.

Though he'd prefer better control over it above this proof it's working, his body is not unaffected.

He'd like for her, he thinks, not to hate him. This, however, does not come to him naturally the way new moves normally do, and hatred he has grown to learn to handle easily.

"Neji-niisan," she says, and he can't differentiate between utterings of pain and pleasure anymore: prior this event the association between the former sensation and his moan and involuntary shudder has been apparent and unquestioned (it isn't anymore. a lot of things aren't anymore).

"I," he says, afterwards. Still inside and reeling a little, her eyes yet closed. "I'm sorry?"

Her back is warm and sticky against his as he lies down by himself and tries to sleep: Hinata is ashamed to hope this one time will have been enough, that Neji-san's seed is already growing in her, while Neji is reluctant to admit he might have reason to be ashamed of hoping otherwise.

Next morning when everything should be normal Tenten looks at the struggling autumn-grass, Lee at Gai-sensei at the sky.

Because Gai likes to think in elaborate metaphors and poorly constructed similes he formulates it thusly in one of his darker moments: geniuses are born with the wings everyone else must train for, yet Neji does not fly.

You could say he is Kakashi bereft of wind beneath his wings, dropping feathers, and Gai… Gai might actually hate him for that.

Kurenai smiles sadly down at the blue-black crown of Hinata's customarily bowed head with a hand that strives to be supportive on the child's shoulder. Shino's silence is more bugging than usual and Kiba joins it, gaze flickering uncertainly between his girl teammate and the ground.

Hinata barely looks at Naruto, afterwards, her eyes on the floor more often than on Neji but on Neji more frequently than on Naruto – who supposes he was some kind of experiment that didn't turn out too well and shrugs the entire ordeal off.

After all, he has his own problems to (try and) deal with, and lacks the emotional energy to put others' troubles on his own shoulders anymore. Or, it's so pathetically, cheaply easy to be a hero of small people with small problems, a simple sickening thrill that can do nothing for him after a night alone with the fact he'd evidently let Sasuke kiss him. Allow Sasuke to stroke his lips into opening and his body into melting sweetness, his insides into a dizzying burn, a needy flutter all because of a stupid jutsu presuming to let you see whomever you truly want.

Like I needed a genjutsu to show me that.

Denial's a fine thing, though. Things are hopeless and complicated enough without... without this, whatever it is.

Damn you Sasuke. Damn you because I love you and I hate you and you left. You are my family, my precious person, and you are not getting away.

Temari kisses him too this day following the wedding. Naruto actually rather likes her, these days, and so it's not an unpleasant surprise to find her planted firmly outside his door.

"Ah, Temari-san." He scratches his nose. "What are you doing here?"

"Ask Shikamaru," she says, altering between her two customary expressions of annoyed and gleeful. "That boy has some seriously weird ideas about appropriate bet losing penalties for his girlfriend. Jeez, a role-play or some shit wouldn't have surprised me, but this…"

While Naruto is still frantically attempting to come up with a tactful yet exceptionally firm way of declaring that he has absolutely no interest whatsoever in learning any details regarding what she and Shikamaru get up to in bed, thank you very much, Temari shakes her head and cups his face firmly in hands warm and rough as the desert sand.

It's nothing like Neji (heated but clumsy, an active experience on my part) or Hinata (tentative and guilty, me doing nothing). Temari blows his mind with a handful sweet slow kisses, so obviously a grown woman. It's just – she's very good at it, but it isn't about us.

"Have a good day," she says afterwards, grinning crookedly. "If you see Shikamaru, tell him I'm looking for him, okay?"

"A-ah," is all he can say, and she laughs and winks and saunters off, the pretty Jounin he has never known.