Disclaimer: Very obviously not mine. That honor belongs to Kishimoto sensei.

Summary: Hinata had come to ask his advice and had found, instead of the shinobi she knew, a man she didn't.

A/N: Many thanks to ketmakura for the beta. Any remaining typos are mine. As always, I welcome con-crit. Apologies for the first 'wall of text' version of this. I never remember that I can't upload while in Safari...


Hinata hurried through the center courtyard, slipping from one shadow to the next as she had been trained to do since her childhood. It wasn't really necessary, the Hyuuga compound was quiet and still, and the only disturbance was the underlying stream of chatter from the night insects. The only other souls Hinata had seen were the guards at the entrance. That didn't mean that she passed through unobserved, using the Byakugan on other family members was generally prohibited but there were always a few who were a little too voyeuristic for their own good.

It had been a long three weeks; the mission to the very edges of Fire Country couldn't have gone any worse. It had been the sort of mission that she excelled at, where her curves and her demure personality could be used to Konoha's advantage. She and Ino always pulled these missions, playing off one another, cold and hot, coquette and innocent, saint and siren. Tsunade's go to girls for missions involving letches.

Tired and weary from weeks of smiling shyly and behaving impeccably, all while constrained in heavy ceremonial kimono, she needed to see someone who would remind her of how far she had truly come. But with Kiba gone on reconnaissance and Shino off with his father, he was the only one she could think of.

Outside of her team, he was one of the few people who really knew how hard she had fought to get where she was. It didn't matter that she was good at it. The earnest attentiveness and the gentle stroking of men's egos, the prying out of secrets from behind the lazy flutter of an ornamental fan; all were things her upbringing had prepared her for. And she was proud that she could succeed so well where many other kunoichi could not. It was just that, occasionally, she wanted to be assigned missions that relied a little more on her Juuken than on how desirable the men with information found her.

Even now, two days and several showers later, she could still feel the chancellor's soft, weak hands on her body.

The Branch House was as dark and quiet as the rest of the compound. Taking a deep breath, Hinata pushed open the side door, hoping that none of the busy bodies were up and curious about who was sneaking inside. Some of them could read chakra lines like the civilian detectives could read fingerprints.

Hurrying down the warren like hallways, she wound her way to his room. Neji had had the same room since he was a child and, though she had only been there once or twice, she could easily remember its location. It was directly across from the painting depicting the fourth tenet of the Branch family, Deference. Someday she would destroy all those horrible family 'heirlooms.'

The door loomed large in the hallway before her, indistinguishable from its brothers. Hinata knocked quickly on his door, the rap from her knuckles against the dark wood echoing softly in the quiet hallway. She hoped he was in but had her doubts. Hinata had heard from the others that his mission schedule for the past few months had been nothing short of intense. If he wasn't available she would just have to settle for sparring with Ino and Anko tomorrow.

When Neji slid open the door immediately, as if he'd been waiting for her knock, Hinata was relieved. He seemed unsurprised to see her and for a second she would have sworn that he was pleased by her appearance at his door. She disregarded that thought; that was almost as improbable as Kiba declaring he hated dogs. But, as she looked at him, she realized that maybe that wasn't as unlikely as she would have thought. No quirk of eyebrows or haughty glances fell her way. Instead, he stepped into her, welcomed her arrival with hands and mouth and palpable desire.

She had only come to ask him to train with her tomorrow, help her sweat out the impotent frustration her mission had left her with, not seek out escape in physical pleasure. That he would desire such a thing seemed even more incredible then him waiting patiently for her to appear on his doorstep. Yet there it was, that unimaginable desire, bared for her to see.

The intensity of it all shocked her and she stepped back, pushing away as her mind frantically scrambled to untangle the thoughts his kiss had twisted. Neji gave way immediately, leaving the distance between them, his body still close enough she could feel the heat of him.

He tasted of sake, not too strongly, but the flavor of it was enough to know that he'd drunk it recently. Liquid courage maybe, even geniuses weren't without their fears. It was surprising, unexpected, and suddenly she remembered meeting him for the first time. How much she had looked forward to it, despite her own fears, and how wonderful she had thought him then. Before life had had her dirty, devious way with them.

It didn't take a genius to understand what he was offering her. Older and wiser now, she had played those games once or twice before when she needed to lose herself in the flesh of another. It wasn't exactly unheard of, though she imagined few thought her capable of it. Without a doubt, she had never expected to receive such an offer of comfort from him, her somber, serious cousin.

For a moment she simply stared at him, the shock allowing normally concealed emotions to flicker across her face; confusion, wariness, and the barest hint of interest all fought for dominance on her pale features. How would it be, she wondered, to tumble, uncaring, into the bed of a man such as him? When all that existed between them was tolerance and healed disdain. The seconds stretched on endlessly before finally, with a decisive motion born of shear, stubborn, curiosity she stepped into him, pressing him back into the room and sliding the door shut on fate.

Once inside her nerves fired up and she had to stop herself from nervously biting her lower lip or twisting her fingers together, habits she had long laid to rest. He alone could reduce her to her childhood insecurities. In desperation she looked around the room, eyes searching out anything to focus on other than him.

The space was as sparse and austere as she imagined it would be, a bed beneath the window, a weapons chest and an overflowing bookcase touching sides on the wall perpendicular. A single painting was the only object hanging on the walls.

Intrigued, Hinata walked over to the print. It was a sumi-e painting depicting a winter landscape. Snow and mountains and bamboo all done in stark lines. She almost smiled. Many people believed that winter indicated strength, integrity. It was no surprise to find Neji had such a thing hanging as the only decorative piece in the room.

Pulling herself back into the present she turned to face him. He was still standing by the door, looking at her with something like curiosity shading his features. Looking for all the world as though he didn't quite know why she was there after all.

Was he as surprised by her acceptance as she was by his offer?

For a handful of seconds Hinata simply looked at him, looked at him more directly that she had looked at any man for weeks now.
Not that she hadn't observed the men she monitored with fastidious intensity, she had. Every murmured conversation, every suspicious movement, every trip to the back rooms, and every stroll through the gardens had been noted and relayed. But, she hadn't looked at them with anything approaching real interest. She hadn't looked at them the way she was looking at Neji now.

He approached her cautiously, as though he suspected that she would vanish into thin air before he reached her. He ought to know better, he had come face to face with her sense of honor a handful of times over the years. She had not accepted what he was offering only to back down now. To do so would smack of the coy flirtatiousness the women of the court had constantly played at. She was sick of playacting; she wanted, even if it was only for one night, to actually grab hold of something real and not let go.

Watching him, his long strides crossing the floor between them easily, she realized this was a turning point that, once passed, would irrevocably alter their relationship.

Two meters was not a very far distance to go at all, and it only took the space between one heartbeat and the next before he was standing before her. The court her mission had taken her to had been full of large, portly men, dressed in the finest clothes the country had to offer, men whose jeweled rings and broaches glistened beneath the atmospheric lighting, men of pomp and wealth and certain standing. And yet, not one of those men had the presence of the man standing before her.

Leaning down, he kissed her again, mouth fitting against hers, warm and damp. It felt as though the world was compressed into that kiss. Looping her arms around him, she kissed him back, feeling herself fall deeper under the spell they were weaving between them. He was warm against her, the skin of his neck hot beneath her hands, and his hair felt like silk against her wrists.

If Ino ever found out about this, she wouldn't leave Hinata alone until all her impertinent questions had been answered. Ino collected gossip like she arranged flowers, with single-minded intensity.

The wandering bemusement of her thoughts was interrupted when he broke the kiss. Neji's robe had slipped open, revealing a pale triangle of skin, and Hinata forgot all about Ino and her big mouth. Suddenly, she felt like she'd drunk quite a bit of sake herself. It was far too easy for one of her hands to slip downwards to press against that smooth skin, feel the flex of muscle and the thud of his heartbeat.

This was something tangible, something she could touch and feel and taste. Despite the past he had never been false, never lied to her. It was always his honesty that was so brutal. She could trust him in that; whatever this was, it wasn't dishonest.

Tugging his head down she kissed him again, taking the time to savor the experience, as new and as strange as it was. He followed her lead, let her set the pace and the intensity. It didn't come as a surprise really, of all the men she knew he was one of the few she could picture being composed, collected, not frantically striping her of her clothes and not seducing her with practiced gestures and tried and true lines. In the past four years she had experienced enough of that kind of man to last a lifetime.

It wasn't long before they were stretched out upon the bed. Kneeling over her, one foot still on the floor, Neji's right hand cupped her breast through her top. That hand was hot and the thumb that stroked along the heavy underside of her breast left lines of shivering heat blazing across her skin. Hinata felt like she was fifteen again, being kissed for the first time.

Without warning he removed his hand and she made a soft noise in her throat, protesting its disappearance. When it returned, slipping beneath her top to slide, whisper light, up her stomach she trembled. The slight scrape of roughened fingertips over her ribs had Hinata arching into the coming caress. When it came, when that hand closed around the weight of her breast, she suddenly, desperately, wanted to touch more of him. Feel that hot skin against her own feverish flesh.

Though his robe gaped at the neck, it was still tied loosely at his waist, the ties themselves barely clinging to one another. It took nothing at all to untangle them completely. Sliding her hands under the light fabric, she freed it from his shoulders, pushing it down his arms until it caught on his wrists.

The first thing she noticed was the scar, the knotted starburst that was a permanent reminder of that first failed mission. In eight years it had faded to a shade paler than his skin but it still caught the eye. An identifying mark in a Bingo Book, though he carried others that were far more conspicuous. There were other scars as well, jagged white lines from kunai and katana and wire, all visible reminders that clearly and concisely illustrated the kind of life he lead.

Distracted she somehow almost missed the swirling black of the tattoo etched high on his left arm.

Staring at the inky design, things begin to fall into place. The overload of missions, the taste of sake in his mouth, as well as his absences from the family council, all of it was fitting together in her mind to form an image of what had been happening secretly around her.

Running her hand up his arm, she could not resist touching the tattoo with her fingertips. The skin beneath the design was raised and she could feel the slick healing salve that had been smeared over it. From what little Hinata knew, a shinobi didn't learn they had actually been accepted into the Anbu until he or she sat in some dark room in headquarters and bore the needle and hammer.

"When?"

Her voice barely broke the silence of the room. It was the one question she was sure he would answer. For a Hyuuga, joining the Anbu ranks was not a simple matter of application. There were intricate rules in place. The Byakugan was protected to the fullest extent possible. Hanabi will want to join now, she thought, father should have taken this opportunity to teach me what I will need to know.

It took Neji a moment before he answered her and, when he did, he spoke as quietly as she had. "Today, this morning." In the near silence of the room she could hear the slight wash of pride in his voice. She was glad for him, proud of him even though it did not surprise her.

It had been a long time since he was the damaged boy who had stood before her, trapped by his own philosophies.

The conversation went no further. He looked ready to retreat thinking, maybe, that her discovery of the tattoo had broken whatever insanity had over taken them. Tumbled them back down into reality. When he began to slide his hand back down her torso, fingers tripping over ever rib, she had to shake her head, and whisper, "No."

Neji had never understood her the way she understood him. Whatever this was, they both needed it.

He did not waver after that and she opened her arms, pulled him in and welcomed him gladly as his mouth once again descended on
hers.

As usual, Hinata woke before the sun was up, just as faint streaks of color were beginning to highlight the horizon. Still exhausted, it took a moment for the nights events to sink through her sleep cobwebbed mind. When they did, in all their unabashed glory, it took all of her willpower to not scramble from the bed.

Beneath the slight, contented hum whispering through her, she felt as though she'd swallowed a handful of small round stones. A wealth of uncertain emotion seemed to be physically manifested as the riverbed in her stomach. Untangling herself carefully from his sleeping form, she slipped from his room as silently as possible.

He had asked her, had invited her in, and she had gone knowingly, with only the certainty that it felt right, to justify her behavior.

Later, after she had showered and eaten and spent an hour pulling weeds in her sorely neglected garden, she made her way to the family dojo. He was there, of course, effortlessly moving through the advanced katas.

Anyone looking at him could not see what she had seen. Unbidden, images from the night previous filled her mind and all she could see was the smooth flow of muscle beneath his robes, could feel the knotty scar that marred his shoulder. The tattoo that burned black on his arm seemed illuminated in her memory.

Neji nodded when he noticed her eyes on him and she nodded back, mindful of the presence of the others.

Hanabi was there as well, watching the interaction between them suspiciously. Still intent on clawing her way out of the shadow cast by Neji's talent, Hanabi's jealousy and arrogance had left her suspicious of others motives. Despite Hinata's efforts to the contrary, no love was lost between them, and Hinata reminded herself to be cautious around her sister. Hanabi would dearly love something like an illicit liaison between the Heir and the Genius to cause her own brand of trouble.

Forcing herself to ignore the both of them, she spoke briefly with two other branch members practicing their chunnin level forms. Unlike her father, Hinata worked hard at forging and maintaining relationships with the Branch family. Her vision for the family depended on it.

After small talk with the girls about the Chuunin exam and how their missions were going, Hinata turned her mind to her own training. Focus was difficult to come by as some clever part of her mind kept gleefully reminding her of the night before. Shaking her head to clear out such unhelpful thoughts, she prepared for the first of twenty katas. Sweating out the confusion and frustration she could feel bubbling up beneath her skin was exactly what Hinata needed.

It went against her instincts, pretending that the night had never happened, but what else could she do. Things were precarious between her and her father at the best of times and, now that Neji had that second tattoo imprinted on his skin, things in the family were likely to get even more complicated. Neji followed her lead, his behavior as normal as it ever was, and she told herself that she was thankful for that.

They fell back into the routines that ordered their existence, their interactions confined to polite greetings in the hallways and the occasional small talk out in the village. The evening spent pleasurably between the sheets with her cousin took on an otherworldly quality in her mind, its reality becoming as hazy as the forest after a summer rain.

If she found herself following him more closely with her eyes, or listening more intently when he spoke, well, he was a beautiful, talented man; she was simply now more able to appreciate that fact.

In such a manner the days passed, became weeks and then months and time slipped slowly on.

One hot, humid evening Hinata awoke to the sensation of someone slipping silently into her bedroom. Forming the seals for the Byakugan automatically, her hand was already sliding beneath her pillow to grip the cool, smooth handle of the kunai she always kept there. Before she was fully awake and, just as she was deftly slipping the kunai into throwing position, she recognized Neji. Breathing a sigh of relief, she released the Byakugan and the kunai simultaneously.

He stood just inside the door, hair unbound, still clothed in his mission uniform. It was strange to see him in something other than his Hyuuga robes. The dark armored clothes of the Anbu made him look deadly and Hinata was suddenly reminded of how dangerous Neji truly was. In the faint moonlight, the stark white of his mask glowed from where it hung on his hip. She knew, even though she could not see it clearly, that the bold stripes of a tiger decorated the cheeks and forehead of the mask.

Distracted as she was by the sight, it took a second for Hinata to realize that something was wrong. Never before had she seen him stand so bowed, with such a graceless slope to his shoulders. Slipping out of bed she approached him carefully, unsure whether or not he knew where he was or who she was.

Only the barest flicker of recognition came from him as she approached. There was no burning vitality there, no stoic confidence that quietly and insistently made its presence known. A guttering candle in the dark, he was flat and lost, a shadow of his true self. She had seen it before, in other ninjas, the utter havoc a bad mission could wreck on a psyche. Seeing Neji in such a state wasn't unexpected, he was an elite ninja after all, and the truth universally acknowledged was, the higher you rose the harder you broke.

The rumor mill had hinted that his team was two weeks overdue. When days could mark the difference between life and death, a team missing for weeks often meant the worst. Her father had been in to speak with Tsunade twice already. Hiashi had never told Hinata about Neji's advancement to Anbu and she couldn't very well ask him about it. That was a direct route to finding herself facing questions she would rather not answer.

It had taken a week of searching through the family archives to find any definitive mention of Hyuuga Anbu at all. Hinata had known that there were extensive measures taken to protect the family secrets. What she hadn't known was that those limits were so severe. She didn't want to think about the proposals Hiashi had made, if Neji hadn't returned soon.

Looking at Neji, she knew her father had undoubtedly known how risky the mission was going to be. But then, every Anbu mission was rated as such because of the risk. Loss of limb or life was always a possible outcome. By his demeanor, the curved spine and the troubled eyes, she could see that the mission had failed in some terrible, costly way. Her heart thumped oddly against her ribs as appearance in her bedroom finally penetrated through her initial worry to settle uncomfortably in her weary mind.

Did it mean something that he had come to her in a time of crisis?

Kiba came to her for her compassion, her cool hands, and her soothing salves and healing teas. Though the long lingering one-sided
desire had finally faded to affectionate friendship, he still came to her in times like these.

Shino did not come and probably never would. And he did not come because of her empathy and the friendship between them. She would never be privy to his darkest, weakest moments. It was his way of protecting her. But Neji had come, shown up damaged and hurting and she didn't think he had come for salves or teas or desire.

Reaching out she touched Neji's chest, the armored plate of his vest cool and hard to her touch. Her fingers came away darkened, the dried blood on the vest flaking off at the contact. The faint gleam of moonlight that lit the room didn't offer enough light for Hinata to see if the blood was his or if it belonged to someone else.

She tried to reassure herself, if he was here and not at the hospital, his injuries couldn't be too severe. Though Sakura would testify that the concept of 'not severe" varied wildly from one ninja to the next. There would be no surprise if she found his idea of medic worthy injuries to be vastly different from hers.

It didn't take much to reach out and take him by the hand. Better to be cautious and make sure that he really wasn't seriously injured.

Neji followed her woodenly, seeming to focus only on the task of placing one foot in front of the other, his hand gripping hers tightly. The private bath wasn't far, ten meters or so, and Hinata was glad that Hanabi was away on a mission. Shrewd as she was, Hanabi's suspicious mind would puzzle out who had been with her sister easily enough. Whatever was between her and Neji was theirs alone; Hanabi had no need to know and Hinata wanted to keep it that way.

Once inside the bathroom, she took her time, carefully peeling off Neji's bloodstained armor. Whatever had happened, the reinforced gear had done its job; despite the copious amount of blood, very little of it was Neji's. Hinata stacked the pieces in a pile against the wall before tackling his usual wrappings next. She took her time unwinding the bandages before rewinding them into orderly rolls, trying to soothe him with all the calmness she possessed. Through it all he stood silently, though his hands twitched towards his kunai pouch occasionally.

The remainder of his uniform was a disaster. Everything that had been protected by the armor was simply dirty, but the areas that had not been covered were unsalvageable. Surreptitiously inspecting him for injuries, Hinata tossed the top and pants into the same pile as the outer armor and coaxed Neji into the bath.

Once in the tub, surrounded by the rising hot water, Neji just sat there, looking shell shocked and distressingly fragile. Hinata had been with Kiba during the aftershocks from a couple of nasty missions but that had been different.

Kiba was a friend. Neji was something else entirely. There was no convoluted history between her and Kiba. Her relationship with Kiba lacked all the drama that hers and Nejis seemed built upon. And Kiba, in general, was a fairly straightforward person. What you saw was what you got. The same could not be said for her cousin.

There was no guarantee that the conscious Neji would be pleased that his unconscious self had found its way to Hinata's room.

Pouring shampoo into her palms, Hinata began running her hands through his hair, working the lather through the heavy mass. It was slow going, as Neji's hair was long and thick and impossible tangled. It took three washes before the dark strands were finally rinsing clean and by then the water had become hazy, the surface covered in a hearty film of dirt.

Debating briefly the merits of emptying and refilling the tub, she decided against it. Having his hair washed had apparently relaxed Neji enough that his shoulders were losing some of their stiffness and his head had begun to tip forward sleepily. She had never seen him so unaware. Hinata scrubbed the rest of him the best she could, dirty water and all, before helping him out of the tub.

Guiding him to a stool, she took the time to untangle his hair and loosely braid it before tying it off with a scrap of bandage. Neji sat quietly for her, almost asleep already, and he made no grumbling protest when she put him to bed.

Tugging a chair over alongside the bed, she picked up a gardening journal from the bedside table before settling down to watch over her broken cousin. In almost no time at all he was fast asleep, breathes steady and slow. The journal had been her mother's and, while usually satisfactorily distracting, it failed to keep her attention for long tonight. Her eyes kept being drawn to the man in her bed.

Neji slept in a manner completely out of sorts with his character. It wasn't that he slept in some chaotic array, just curled on his side with his mouth slightly opened, breathing quietly. It was only that, in sleep, he seemed approachable and unguarded.

Several hours later she woke, cramped and stiff, to the sound of him muttering in his sleep. Whatever he was saying came out complete gibberish. Even in his sleep he gave away nothing that could be used against him. Touching a hand to his forehead she was glad to find it cool and dry. Fevers had always made her nervous, undoubtedly a throwback to the events surrounding her mother's death.

"Hinata?" The gruff sound of his voice startled her. Distracted by his condition, she hadn't realized that he had woken up. Those pale eyes were focused on her, the brows above them pulled together in consternation. That was good, promising, and Hinata hoped that he was making his way back to the real world.

Reaching up he gripped the hand touching the tattoo on his forehead. Embarrassed, she tried to pull it away but he wouldn't let go. Instead he started tugging her forward until she was balanced on the very edge of her chair. When he kept pulling on her she resisted. Obviously he wasn't as all right as she had hoped.

He made a disgruntled sound at her refusal to move closer and Hinata was reminded of her young cousins. They made that exact sound when they couldn't convince anyone to give them what they wanted. If it hadn't been for the fact that he was not himself, she would have laughed. As it was she only made a noncommittal hum, still trying to wrangle herself free from his grasp.

Huffing out a terse, "Don't sleep there," he resumed his tug of war with her hand. Surprised by his concern for her, Hinata relented, climbing into the warm cocoon of the bed. The moment she was lying next to him, the side of her body touching his, Neji fell back to sleep immediately. She spent the remainder of the night sleeping lightly, drifting between convoluted, twisting dreams and the drowsy contemplation of the complex man lying beside her.

It was late when she woke, far later than normal, and the sky was a hazy blue outside her window. Neji was still in her bed, the bruises and cuts looking awful in the morning light. Preparing to get up and retrieve the small tub of salve she kept in her pack, strong hands snared her before she had fully swung her feet off the bed. He tumbled her back into him, back against warm skin that smelled of soap and sleep and Neji.

Arms circling her he held her tightly, his breath stirring the hair around her ears. There was no romantic intent in the embrace, as far as Hinata could tell, just simple gratitude. Leaning her head back against him she breathed a sigh of relief. They had made it through the night unscathed. They sat there for a few moments, until he whispered, "Thank you," in her ear and slipped from the bed. It only took a minute for him to gather his things and then he was gone.

Lying in the bed, wrapped in the coverlet that still held the lingering warmth of his body, she thought about the whisper light touch of his mouth to the sensitive skin at the nape of her neck.

Two days later he was gone.

It had been a heavy month of missions for every ninja in Konoha's ranks. Rumors spoke in low voices amongst friends hinted at the movement of enemies long since thought defeated. Hinata had been deep undercover, ferreting out all the secrets the wealthy and jaded knew. Neji had been gone for all but five days, though he seemed to make it a point to find her whenever he was back in the village.

Unlike the previous, awkward interval, he spoke to her easily, even warmly. Regardless, she couldn't help but wonder, each time they met, if that night all those months ago had been a fluke. It was times like these that she found it easy to envy her friends, with their open camaraderie and largely unhindered romances.

Sometimes, the immense weight of all the previous generations of Hyuuga overwhelmed Hinata. How would she ever change a system so steeped in tradition and obedience? Or rather, she knew precisely how to do it, but all the constraints in place to keep the family aligned made it difficult. How do you fight such deeply ingrained reticence?

Tonight a group had gathered at the local hangout. The mounting unrest had everyone on edge and it had been decided, by Kiba, that a night out was in order. Of course, missions being what they were, any given night of the week was potentially a 'night out.'

The small bar was fairly quiet, just a few older nin sitting at the bar and a small group clustered around a table. Hinata was grateful for the laid-back atmosphere; the high drama of her missions often left her longing for the solitude of her garden. But time to visit with others had been limited lately and she was willing to forgo the quiet company of her plants to spend time with her friends.

The night progressed much as those sorts of nights always did. Hinata sipped her drink and listened to the conversations going on around her. Kiba had deserted them the moment he had a few drinks under his belt, heading over to mingle with the other group. Hinata smiled to herself as he leaned in to talk to Anko, his most charming smile already gracing on his mouth. At least she didn't have to worry about him changing. Lately her world seemed to be built on shifting sands.

At a quarter to eleven Neji and Lee showed up, still in their training clothes. Hinata was surprised to see them; the members of Team Gai, while always invited out, rarely attended.

As Neji was getting their drinks, one sake and one tea, Lee regaled the group with the results of their latest competition. Neji had apparently lost and the punishment had been innumerable laps around Konoha. Lee, never being one to overlook a training opportunity, had decided to run the laps with Neji. They had been on the twentieth lap when Lee remembered about the get together.

Despite a lot of good-natured pestering, Lee refused to name the conditions of the latest competition.

Neji sat down a few seats away from Hinata, squeezing between Shikamaru and the man with the senbon Kiba had convinced to join their group. Throughout the rest of the night she found herself glancing Neji's way. He was turned towards Shikamaru and they seemed to be having a fairly in depth conversation about something suspiciously benign.

Studying them out of the corner of her eye, Hinata determined two things. The first was that she would bet her mission pay that Shika was or had been Anbu. That conversation was nothing if not multi-layered. She and Ino had a similar sort of code they used on their missions. The second was that Neji was integrating well with the group, still reserved but not as haughty as he had once been. Smiling to herself, Hinata turned back to Ino, nodding her head as the other woman described the new kimono she'd had made for the upcoming mission.

When Hinata finally called it a night, Neji stood up as well, offering to walk with her back to the compound. It was a five minute walk at most but she accepted his offer graciously. There was nothing strange about it, as he had escorted her home on previous occasions. Saying their goodbyes they stepped out into the night.

The whole way back neither spoke a word. It was only in the courtyard, where their paths divided, that Neji inclined his head and said, "Goodnight." He seemed distracted, lost in thought, and wholly detached from the present. Hinata repeated the sentiment, thanking him for walking her home. It was nothing if not completely formal.

Less than an hour later there was a soft knock at her door. Before she had a chance to even toss off the covers he was in the room. After sliding the door shut behind him he stopped, looking at her from across the room.

As before, Neji just stood there, still close enough to the door that the fabric from his robes brushed against the wood. Hinata wondered if he was unsure of his welcome or if he simply didn't know how to approach her now. Climbing out of bed she tugged a robe on over her sleeping gown before walking toward him. Like the last time he had been in her room, he watched her as she approached, though this time his eyes were sharp and focused.

"Neji," she murmured, reaching up to run her hands through his damp hair.

"Hinata." He returned the caress, fingertips stroking along her cheek to run across her bottom lip.

Leaning down he pressed a kiss to the ridge of her cheekbone before whispering, "Thank you, for last time."

A slight smile stretched Hinata's lips. "You surprised me, showing up then, but I'm glad I could help you." She shrugged as if she could ease the faint awkwardness that still clung to them.

"I doubt that I surprised you nearly as much as you surprised me," he said, humor coloring his voice, "I never imagined…."

Hinata blushed then, as memories from so many months ago washed through her mind. Part of her desperately wanted to ask him why he had desired her in his arms and in his bed but in the end she decided against it. His reasons were his own, just as hers were. Even now, months later, she couldn't articulately explain why she found herself where she was.

Instead she just asked, simply, "Will you stay?"

Neji answered by finally pressing his mouth against hers, his tongue coaxing her lips apart and slipping inside to rub against hers. Sighing Hinata returned the kiss, fitting her body against his as tightly as she could manage. He smelled of soap and sandalwood and against her belly she could feel the hard press of his erection. The hands stroking the back of her neck and slipping down to trace mindless patterns on her back and sides left her shivering. Such obvious desire warmed her, and anticipation for the night ahead left her body languid and heavy.

For the briefest of moments, the uncertainty of a future between them fluttered briefly at the back of her mind but she pushed those thoughts firmly away. Such worries were to be counted another day.

Instead she let Neji tip her gently onto the bed and, from her supine perch, she watched in anticipation as he stripped out of his robes, the pale sleekness of his body glowing in the faint moonlight. Reaching out to him, Hinata pulled Neji down on top of her and together they tumbled willingly into the night.

They spun their passion out across the deepening night, learning one another's body through fingers and mouths and the slick heat of sex. Hours later, body flushed and sated, she wondered sleepily at their casual acceptance of this thing that had manifest itself so effortlessly between them. She was the girl he had nearly killed, had hated for so long, and with whom he had since formed a tenuous peace. It would be an understatement to say that it was surreal, finding herself wound around him, the taste of him in her mouth, his
fingers lazily stroking her side. It wasn't anyplace she ever expected to be.

It was only later that day, as Hinata was trekking across the forest towards the border and another mission, with Ino keeping pace at her side, that she thought about the way their relationship was changing. Despite, or maybe because of, her occupation Hinata insisted on being truthful with herself if no one else. There was no escaping the truth this time; things had changed between them. It left her feeling lightheaded, dizzy even with the knowledge that maybe, finally, the last wall standing between them had crumbled. What had begun eight years previous, with angry words and killing blows, had reached its culmination, though perhaps not in any way she would have ever imagined it.

And as she was slipping into her heavy kimono and preparing herself for the masquerade that lay ahead, Hinata realized that she had high hopes for whatever that unexplored country beyond the wall had to offer.