Title: Let Nothing You Dismay
Disclaimer: After over ten months, I'm back to hijack Kishimoto-sensei's wonderful characters for my nefarious purposes. Those of you who despaired of me ever writing Naruto fic again, you'd better review ;)
Summary: I'm just a station on your way, I know I'm not your lover.
A/N: Written for sarolynne as part of the oh-shit-santa exchange on livejournal. Check out the community for more awesome stuff from authors and artists you surely have on your watch list.
Let Nothing You Dismay
"You say you're looking for someone
Who'll promise never to part
Someone to close his eyes for you
Someone to close his heart…
But it ain't me, babe
No, no, no, it ain't me, babe
It ain't me you're looking for, babe."
The messenger girl Nikano can't stand the sky in Iwagakure. It comes out in a sullen mumble that follows some inconsequential question of his or other, three weeks after they meet for the first time on the doorstep of Neji's new Earth Country home. She's a Genin, he learns, fresh scraped out of the Academy, by the hungry wolfhound tightness of her features. Fourteen years young and stubborn. Neji remembers himself at that age; he hadn't yet learned to hate the sky then.
"But can't you see how it's grey and gloomy here all the friggin' time?" she complains, handing him his preset schedule for the week and frowning horribly. It's Monday again, and they're both feeling it, bone and mind. "How can anyone stand it?"
She lifts open the flap of her messenger bag and from it, produces his mail. Three letters, he counts, two official notices from the Hidden Stone's administrative office, and one battered envelope postmarked: Konoha. The bright red Hyuuga seal catches his eyes even before he registers the name on the front sleeve. He pockets them without a word.
"What's the sky like where you're from?" Nikano goes on, eyes bright and already turned from him, observing the milky, seamless face of her adversary.
"Different," Neji says, and doesn't tell her about the kites that come out in the summertime, cutting through the shocking, endless blue with their white edges. The golden shimmer of sun fracturing on an upturned wing, fleetingly, before the flick of a wrist somewhere on the ground tugs at the near-invisible glass string and makes the angle change, sending the kite dipping forward into a gutsy dive, paper tails rippling in pursuit.
He doesn't tell her about the rivers of air that rush through the wind chambers of its bamboo flutes, filling the sky with kite music, a longing call of childhood and summer.
In Iwagakure, the sky is the color of steel and bruises, a year-round menace. The air always smells like iron and the sea, snapping, gritty with salt, the wind howling pitilessly, and no one flies kites.
The thing about Neji being a creature of habit is that, most of the time, it's true. He's like that old dog that grew too used to the feel of a hearth, or, and this is a riot, a bird the shape of her lifelong cage, it's hard for him to break out of his ways. In his line of work, that could be dangerous, but spontaneity isn't ability, and Neji already has that: ability. In his daily life, well. He had a one-bedroom apartment with an ugly dying plant in a terracotta pot on the windowsill in Konoha, and he has a one-bedroom apartment with an ugly dying plant here, in Iwa. This is his life. That is what it means.
Or, rather, that is what TenTen tells him it means when she drops in on him literally out of the sky, over half a year after the reassignment.
"For a moment, I thought I'd made a wrong turn in Albuquerque and wound up back at your old place," she says, leaning against his doorway as her hefty travel pack drops to the floor. Metal clanging noisily. "Don't you ever think about redecorating?"
"I've been told I lack the imagination."
TenTen pauses in the middle of unslinging a massive chui from her back, holding it aloft like a giant plastic toy. "Hey," she says quietly. "Let me get a look at you."
Her eyes are easy and brown and their expression unbearably fond, and even five years ago Neji would have turned from that, would have felt the edge but shown the disdain. Today, he just stands there, rolls his shoulders back and receives her gaze. They're neither of them hugging people, but a decade back and forth, they've got this routine down to a science.
"You look good."
"Thanks. So do you."
Later, her weapons safely assigned to a corner within grabbing distance, she kicks her muddy boots up his coffee table—half-keeled piece of junk salvaged from the former tenant—and goes through his mail. Old habit from their time in the ANBU together. He's a shinobi working two separate administrations that hate each other's guts, so these days most of what Nikano hauls in for him on Monday are bills and notices.
"Shut in on a Saturday. Typical. You haven't made any friends here or what?"
"One teenage girl. Smart mouth—she reminds me of you."
"Kinky. What about your neighbors?"
"I'm a diplomatic liaison sent by a recently signed ally. Don't be surprised if they don't lean in through the window and ask you to break bread with their kin."
Bills and notices. Except…
"Who in the Hyuuga Clan still writes you?"
"Hinata-sama," Neji answers, palming his teacup for no real reason. He's sitting on the only accommodable article of furniture in the room other than the threadbare sofa, which happens to be a chair. Comfort doesn't quite factor in when you're going for prison chic.
"Really," TenTen replies. Flatly nonjudgmental. "What about?"
"Notable happenings in the greater Fire Country area," he says. "Current events." Casual as casual. "Clan minutiae."
He puts down his cup on the table at this and meets her flaying gaze over it, a signal for a change of topic, and in some ways, he still calls the shot, because she relinquishes the envelopes obligingly and throws her head back over the couch, cracks her neck along the headrest.
"Lee wanted to come with me," she says to the ceiling. Neji swallows a mouthful of hot tea, nearly choking himself.
"You haven't told him my location, I trust," he intones, suppressing a—mild, quite mild—sense of alarm, totally knee-jerk. This elicits a wry grin from TenTen.
"The completely hush-hush location which I'm not supposed to know? Of course I didn't tell him, he tried to follow me out of Konoha. Would have managed it, too, if I hadn't pinned him to a tree and threatened to rat him out to Gai-sensei." Her smile widens meanly. "Speaking of whom, has Gai been to visit you?"
He has. "Two months ago," Neji says simply. His apartment still shows the signs, lingering wear and tear, a hole in the ceiling. The neighbors wouldn't stop giving him spectacularly dirty looks—more so than usual, even—but they also hadn't formed an angry torch-wielding mob and chased Gai-sensei out of town with sharpened pitchforks or anything, so.
After all, he's the one that has to live there.
He tells TenTen as much, and when she wrinkles her brows at him and says, "Just because you keep telling yourself that doesn't mean it's true," he looks away politely.
It's a sore issue, sore and tried, and he knows the sting's been felt, because when TenTen speaks again, her voice is determinedly merciless. "Uzumaki Naruto hasn't been seen in Konoha since April. Thought you should know."
The year Neji turns twenty-one is the year of big promotions. Hatake Kakashi is made Rokudaime Hokage, the previous incumbent having dealt her last Queen of Hearts and gone to play in that big casino in the sky. Haruno Sakura inherits the Konoha Hospital from her deceased mentor, and also the perennially unenviable task of assisting the new Hokage. Word on the street is that the girl will be driven to drink before the year is out, which is just too bad because it'd be nice to have a sober Chief of Medicine for a change.
That's other people, though. Neji's been ANBU Squad Captain going on three years now, and this January, three new recruits got themselves gutted like a fish on a recon doozy. One of his undercover agents turned up dead by an icy river outside the village. Sweet kid, smart if prone to stupid acts; by the time they found him, rot had already set in and caused skin slippage, his own mother wouldn't have recognized him. It's shaping up to be an all-around bad year.
Then it's February 14th and his superior's dropping a folder four inches thick on his desk with specific orders to "disappear" all the contents, and it's…
"A matter of strictest confidentiality. You understand."
Neji glances at the front cover, sees UCHIHA SASUKE stamped in glaring red. Well. He hasn't thought about that name in years.
Konoha's prodigal son seems to have led a productive life, starting with fratricide the year he was sixteen. That's in there, too, filed under "Ongoing Investigation", like anyone actually thinks Uchiha Itachi's murderer should be arrested and not, say, be awarded a medal instead. Everyone also thought Sasuke would have snapped, though, either killed himself or crawled back home with his tail bent between his legs, nice and penitent.
Because they're morons.
Neji knows guys like Sasuke, and he knows if can't outright say that, under differing circumstances, he could be Sasuke. Which is not to say he admires or even likes the Uchiha: he never has. Even as a kid, there was always something too smooth, too slick about the bastard that he found unsettling, downright dissonant on a person with so many edges, jagged and bloodied and water-sharp cutters that by all rights should show. Guys like that couldn't be trusted; people wanted to, though, and look how well that turned out.
He's cleaned up good, though. Formed his own band of ragtag terrorists and gone loose cannon. A respectable, benevolent leader of rogue nin. His organization—and Neji relishes the irony, he does—primarily targets groups that engage in experimentation on humans. People like Sasuke, have high expectation of them and they tend to live up to it. For years, the Leaf's ANBU have been keeping a close tab on him. Until the body count got too high.
So now Konoha's washing her hands of her wayward prince, saying good riddance. The Uchiha Clan is a pale ghost anyway, a relic of the past, at least three other families leaping to take their place in the hierarchy. His uncle's had something to do with this, he's willing to bet. The Hyuuga Clan hate the association, want their bastard offshoot under rug swept, the sooner the better. Neji doubts the new Hokage and his plucky assistant would have folded so easily without the added pressure.
Neji doesn't like Sasuke. Would hate him, even, if the years and his former teammates' best effort hadn't sucked most of the venom out of him. Some part of him, the three am voice, whispers that it's because Sasuke could be Neji, except for how he got away. He broke free. He's flying high up and down the continent, and Neji's still chained to his desk, his reputation, navigating a sea of red tape and one day probably drowning in it.
That's enough to make him hate Sasuke, sure, but that's not it. Not entirely.
Rather, it has more to do with the fact that he walks into a pub that night at the very moment that Naruto breaks a glass over some guy's head, shoving him off his stool.
The Blue Bonsai is an ANBU haunt. By 11, you can't walk two feet without scratching somebody's tattoo. Everybody knows that. Everybody also knows that no one is more likely to be found lonely, drunk, and brawl-happy on Valentine's than an ANBU.
Everybody except, apparently, Uzumaki Naruto.
By the time Neji reaches the bar, Naruto's got five other men bearing down on him, all of whom clearly in the "fuck your shit up" stage of intoxication. It's not funny and it's not smart and even though Neji knows full well Naruto is more than capable of taking any of these fools, all of them at once if necessary, he isn't keen on the night ending with a kunai in the back of somebody's head, either.
It is with this in mind that he edges in his shoulder and slides into the near-nonexistent space between Naruto and his biggest opponent, the one still bleeding from his glass-imbedded face, some knucklehead named Nobu, and says, "Keep it cool, alright?"
"You fucking stay out of this," Naruto hisses, trying to shove past him, but Neji pushes him back firmly, closing one hand around his wrist in warning. He feels the tremor running through Naruto's body, the skin burning hot beneath his fingers, and it makes him frown.
"Are we all done here?" he says to the group of ANBU, using his crisis management voice, the one that leaves no room for question.
Most of them recognize him immediately, drawing back with their heads down. Nobu still looks mutinous, and it takes a look, then a look, before he finally backs off. Neji makes a note to pull his name for the upcoming psych evaluation.
"You didn't have to do that."
Naruto's wrenched his wrist from Neji's grasp, and both his hands are fisted on top of the bar, white-knuckled and shaking. His eyes are like two open wounds.
"Actually, I did," Neji says, keeping his voice on an even keel. "They're my subordinates. If they cause an incident within my presence, it will be my responsibility."
Naruto doesn't look at him. "Pussy fucksticks," he mutters, rubbing his thumb and forefinger. "Talking like their shit don't stink," so Neji knows it's about the Kyuubi. Always is, one way or another, and there's no use telling Naruto to keep a leash on a it. Over the years, he's exchanged loud insults and childish pranks for snarls and fists and sullen glares.
Prejudice doesn't totally die because you keep risking your neck for the village, sadly to say.
"We're going for a walk," Neji announces, pulling Naruto off the barstool by his upper arm. "Come on. Wait for me outside, I'll pick up your tab."
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
It takes some tussling before Naruto capitulates, and Neji finds himself using both the voice and the look in greater frequency than is usual for a Friday night. When Naruto finally stalks out the door gloweringly, knocking people and furniture out his way as he goes, everyone stares after him, drawn by the chip weighing down his shoulders into a dark slouch.
This, Neji reflects, is what Uchiha Sasuke has left behind, his fucking legacy. Long ago, Naruto was supposed to battle his rival epically and bring him home, fulfilling some childhood promise to his ladylove or other. Somewhere along the way, something went wrong, and here is the end product: an overgrown punk with a fuse shot all to hell, loudmouthed and quickfisted, who curses like a sailor but still helps old ladies across the street, whom all the girls inexplicably have a soft spot the size of Gamabunta for.
It's like Naruto's missed some crucial stage of development growing up, and now he's stumbling because of it, not working right. To put it simply, Sasuke broke him, once upon a time. It's the reason he didn't make Jounin until he was 18, the reason he keeps disappearing from Konoha periodically, chasing ghosts.
The reason he's more than overqualified for the ANBU, but is consistently denied anyway, labeled "unstable". Footloose, with nowhere to go.
"How much has he had to drink anyway?" Neji asks, thumbing his wallet.
"You won't believe it if I tell you," says the bartender, a smile playing around his crinkled eyes. "Kid's been drinking orange juice all night. Said it helps his digestion."
Neji blinks, then smiles to himself. Still surprising.
Naruto's waiting for him beneath a lamppost outside the pub, and just as Neji expected, he's all easy and loose-shouldered again, tantrum blown over. He's even smiling, the open, million-watt smile that only ever comes out anymore when he's sure of being among friends and doesn't have to watch his back. Neji doesn't realize he's missed seeing it, until it's right there, bright and brilliant and burning a hole through him, just like before.
"Sorry you had to get into all that." Naruto sounds sheepish, a little embarrassed. "I think I'm just gonna hit the road, so you can go back inside if you want."
"It's fine." He has a feeling there's more to this than meets the eye. "I asked you to take a walk, so if you leave now, I'll have to assume it's because of me."
Naruto laughs, shaking his head. "Oh man, that was a joke. I can't believe my ears."
"Shall we?" Neji asks, cocking an eyebrow. Naruto's still laughing when he falls into step beside him.
Predictably, it comes out before they reach the second crossroads.
"Sato's dead." Naruto's voice is somber, all traces of mirth vanished, and Neji marvels at that. "Some kind of mission gone awry. I just heard the news this morning."
"And Sato is?"
"My student. The one I threw into the river that one time, remember? Damn."
Of course. The one time they caught Naruto stationary enough—just after passing his Jounin examination—to saddle him with a Genin team. All three of them passed the Chuunin exams within the year, which says something for reckless negligence as an enduring and effective style of teaching.
"She's not your student anymore. She's a Chuunin. Was. Had been for over a year."
Naruto makes a noise, bitter outward rush of air. His expression is also one that Neji knows well, regret mixed with anger, laced with the edges of sorrow. "Doesn't make any difference. You still call Gai sensei, don't you? I taught her, and now she's dead. Obviously, I must have missed something, made some kind of mistake."
"That's a dangerous way of thinking," Neji says carefully. Thinks about the dead recruits, the frostbitten corpse of the kid he sent out there to die. "We're in the business of killing for money, it's not exactly feeding the poor. You know this."
"Yeah?" Naruto says, deflating. "Guess I do know. Fuck, Neji, you always know what to say, don't you?"
"No, no, you fucking do." He's missing something here. Something in the air's changed, and he smells blood in the water. "You're a real smooth talker, aren't you? How'd that happen?"
And this is yet another thing about Naruto he needs to take note of, if he's to be taking notes at all, this way of his that snaps from one end of the mood spectrum to the other, lightning quick, playful one moment and vicious the next. Not that he's being vicious, per se, just unreadable. Which is not something that Neji generally likes.
"You misjudge me."
"Go fuck yourself."
"Why not you?"
Huh. He really did say that.
He can tell Naruto's reading into that, too, because he smiles and leans in, whispers in Neji's ear. "See what I tell you?" Mouth getting closer, teeth nipping at his neck. Breath searing hot.
"Are you sure you want to do that?"
"Why? What am I doing?" All innocent and wide-eyed, harmlessly flirtatious, but the smile's back on, sharp and drawing blood. It makes Neji feel a little lightheaded, a little like maybe they're both drunk, which is stupid because he hasn't had a drop all night and Naruto's been drinking orange juice, god, fucking orange juice.
"Wanna get out of here?"
"Where do you want to go?"
He doesn't remember saying yes. He definitely doesn't remember saying no.
The next day, in the Hokage's office, he corners a harried Sakura on the pretext of dropping off a mission report, and the moment she stops yelling at Kakashi long enough to meet his eyes, he says in a tight whisper, "Perhaps you should know that Naruto nearly got into a fight with a group of my men last night at the Blue Bonsai."
Sakura blinks, then quickly narrows her bright green eyes. "And since when are drunken bar fights a particular concern of the ANBU?"
She's whipping smart, always has been. Her intelligence only sharpens with age, and Tsunade had coated her with invisible steel all over. Neji has to admire that.
"They're not. I just felt you should be made aware of that fact. Or perhaps you think people haven't noticed his little trips out of Konoha. Does the Hokage office authorize those, or should I start up an investigation over this dereliction of duties to the village?"
"Cut the crap." Her voice is sharp, but not entirely unkind. Just tired. There is history here, hidden weight. "You don't have to beat around the bush. I'm keeping an eye on him, okay? I'm looking out for him."
Neji shrugs. "I'm not trying to interfere. I just think someone who's actually in it should make an effort to marginalize the collateral damage, that's all."
Sakura laughs, and Neji is surprised by the bitterness in her tone. It reminds him of Naruto, the look on his face the night before, traced in tangerine lamplight. "If you think I'm in it, you're quite wrong. Nobody is really in it except Naruto and…"
She trails off suddenly, angling him a quick, startled look, like she knows something. For a moment he thinks, she must have guessed, but it can't be.
Then again, he isn't even sure why he came here in the first place. He leaves, disquieted.
Naruto starts tearing at his clothes at the door, pushes him against it while stripping him. Neji spends exactly 3.5 seconds thinking that maybe he doesn't mean this, really, before he starts pushing back and pulls Naruto's shirt roughly over his head, kisses him fiercely while his arms are caught in the tangled fabric.
They leave a scattered trail of clothing all the way to the bedroom, and when they get inside, Naruto shoves him down on the bed, crawling in after him and holding his wrists down. In the darkness of the room, his eyes are bright as diamond, menacing and supernatural.
"I've wanted this forever, damn," Naruto murmurs, leaning down to level with him, and Neji knows this is a lie, because Naruto's a terrible liar.
He doesn't particularly mind, though, parts his lips for the tongue that Naruto shoves into his mouth, frantic and searching and hungry for a taste, any taste at all. Arches his back and bares his throat and skitters his fingers over the back of Naruto's neck, digs into skin until he hisses. Then Naruto's snaking down the length of his body, fingering old scars and taking his flushed cock. Holding him down while going down on him, all teeth and saliva and zero finesse, leaving purple, possessive marks the shape of fingers on his hips.
Two guys walked into a bar, it's simple as that.
Two guys walked into a bar, and someone came onto someone else, and the rest is obvious. Never mind that this is Uzumaki fucking Naruto with his head buried at Neji's navel, working his furnace of a mouth in a way that no student of the most notorious skirt-chaser Konoha has ever produced should realistically know how to do, all the while sliding two fingers up his ass, spit-slick and scissoring in and out of him, steady as you go.
That thought carries him over to the next moment, when Naruto is swiping his tongue up the length of his cock, over the veined side and pressing into the leaking tip, and he shudders, blanks out hard.
Next thing, he's very conscious of being on his back, his hair fanning out and silky-cool beneath him, and watching Naruto roll on a condom one-handed, three fingers still deep inside of Neji. It doesn't sting anymore, not much. He's twisting around a knot of pleasure when he feels the kiss, sloppy at the edge of his jaw, warm and wet at the line of his collarbone, a wallowing scent, musky-sweet and familiar at the borders of his awareness.
"Not really," but he does, has always since they were Genin, since that autumn day on the Sound-Nin's trail, so it's no use.
"Now you're just making me feel like an asshole on purpose."
"You don't need my help."
Naruto laughs again, soft and infectious, still laughing as he lifts Neji's long legs and arranges them around his shoulders. "Happy Valentine's Day, you dick," though the alarm clock on the dresser informs them it's already the 15th.
He slips out before dawn breaks, and Neji pretends to be asleep when the window slides back into place with nary a whisper while the clock lies about it being five am.
Exactly one month later, the whole thing repeats itself like some kind of gay sex White Day, only instead buying one of those horrible convenience store boxes of flaky, inedible chocolate, Naruto just shows up at Neji's door in the middle of the night and kisses him against it, his mouth angry and hard and more than a little mean. He assaults Neji's throat, the small hollow at its base, traces the butterfly of his ribcage with bruising fingers, and Neji allows this to go on for all of five minutes before he shoves Naruto back, all the way into a wall and pinning both his wrists to it, ignoring the picture frame that crashes to the floor.
He slaps the protests away, kisses Naruto silent and sweet and dewy, until they're both breathless and half-collapsed against each other, melting into the wall of the apartment. When Naruto curses under his breath, tries to jerk away, Neji fastens him in place with one arm. It's no cakewalk; Naruto's wider about the shoulders, thick around the torso, but Neji's got a few inches on him, still.
"What do you want?" he orders, taking one cheek in his hand and tilting the scowling face up. He thinks he can see the oxygen between them, panting breaths in the lingering chill of March.
Naruto has all the fine subtlety of one of Gai-sensei's spinning kicks, so when a growl tears through his throat and he throws his head back, hitting the wall with an obscenely loud crack, proffering his neck and thrusting his hips forward, Neji takes the hint. There's a time for talking and a time to leave aside all questions, and Neji proves he understands which this is by closing his mouth around the soft skin of Naruto's throat, proves it with his teeth.
He opens his eyes again and the bed's empty next to him, sheets cool. There's light on in the kitchen, and Neji shakes his hair out of his face and drags himself across the room, tying his hair into a loose ponytail as he goes.
Naruto's sitting at the table, sulking into a beer bottle.
Neji leans against the doorway, watches him for a long time. Darkness melts into the room through the tiny kitchen window, glass pane looking inked over, fogged black.
Naruto is the first to break the silence. "I still can't believe I found beer in your fridge. It just seems too… common, you know."
"I'm allowed to be human, Naruto."
"Yeah? Sometimes I'm not so sure."
There's not much use keeping this up. "So they told you."
Naruto snorts, almost noiselessly, into the rim of the bottle. "Why am I not surprised."
He waits, watches a brown thumb ghosting vaguely over the damp bottleneck, and presently… "Fucking funny thing to tell me, out of the blue, don't you think? Don't know why they even bothered. I mean, now."
"She was your mother."
"I know that. Of course I had to have a mother. Always knew that, didn't need them telling me. And she's still dead, right? I don't remember shit, so what does that change?"
No, it doesn't change anything, not if you can't remember, but then again, it was war time. Mothers died. Neji tries to recall the person who told him that: it was TenTen, and that time he let her use him for target practice, let Lee kick both of their asses in a foot race, let Gai-sensei cry and buy them all dinner.
"I even went to my—the old house they told me she used to live in. You know, when I was born and shit. Someone else owns it now. They couldn't even tell me if anyone lived there before the war. What a fucking waste of time."
"Did they say anything about your father?"
And that surprises him, really, because unlike not remembering your mother, this is not a nonissue at all. He doesn't think about his father much these days, except when he studies his face in the bathroom mirror in the morning, but that is a face that he will always see, wearing his clothes and using his toothbrush, running a hand through his damp hair.
"No, nothing at all. Who knows if I even had one."
"Everyone has a father."
Naruto is silent at first, like he hasn't heard him properly. Then he puts down the bottle, gets up and presses his mouth to Neji's, eyes fluttering shut. Neji lets himself be drawn back into the bedroom by enthusiastic kisses, insistent fingers, a bone-rattling snarl thrumming through the skin of his neck.
Waking up in the morning feels like coming into consciousness after a four-day bender, but the surprising thing is that Naruto's still there next to him in bed, warm and pressed up against his back, a wiry arm slung over him, mouth in the crook of his neck.
Just for now, they're good like that.
He plays checker with Nikano one day in high summer when there's a windstorm out, the hot air outside whipping around and rising up in gusts, clouds of red earth spinning against his window. Hidden Stone lies smack in the middle of hurricane country, only a shift in the temperature and the crackling radio to let you know when disaster's coming, and Nikano who grew up watching this just takes one look at the gathering sky before pushing past Neji into his apartment, barricading all the doors and windows behind her.
The electricity gave out an hour ago; it's pitch black. They're playing in the dark, and soon he'll have to let Nikano know exactly why she's losing so badly.
"When I make Chuunin, I'm going get some money together and leave this hellhole," Nikano says, squinting at the board in vain. "Become a mercenary, see some real action. They can get some other kid to deliver mail, some chickenshit maybe."
"Chickenshit who deliver mail can be of more use than field shinobi, you never know."
Well, he knows. The more successful a village grows, the less real work gets done on the field, spilling over onto negotiation tables and the lovely trappings of bureaucracy instead. This time last year Neji was splitting an enemy's throat; these days, he has an office and a secretary and goes home at 5 pm, and who can say which is the more fulfilling track, the road not taken.
"Bullshit. Tell me you don't miss it."
"I don't." What he does miss, though, he misses the summer sky, tall and sheer and impossibly blue, and the colorful kites like traces of paint streaked carelessly across it. When he was younger, he looked at the sky so much, yearned for it so strongly that the memory of it is burned into the retina of his mind, calling up a deep, souring gut ache.
It takes two to launch a kite, only one to bring it down.
"Do you know what happens to kites when their strings get tangled up mid-air?" Neji asks, pretending not to see when Nikano misses a row.
"I don't know. You untangle them?"
"No, you can't. You have to cut them down. In most cases, what happens is the two flyers both try to cut the other person's kite down with their string. The losing kite is the first to fall out of the sky."
In all the ways that matter, life is just like that. Someone always falls out of the sky in the end. A twin brother. A best friend. A teammate.
He opens the door this last Monday and there's a boy on his doorstep, scruffy and carrot-headed, holding out his mail to him in a sloppy bunch with a sour face.
"Who are you?" Neji asks, surprising even himself. "Where's Nikano?"
"Hospital," answers the boy, scowling. "Name's Hiroaki. Our team got ambushed last week, so sensei has me covering Nika's mail route until she gets out. Sign here please."
He barely makes sense of the words, too busy sliding Lee's 12-years-old bandaged face over Nikano's, his own over Hiroaki's grim frown.
It's not a normal thing, like how normal is usually defined. They don't hold hands, or kiss in public, or have candlelit dinners. They push each other's buttons, sometimes, lots of times. They don't talk about it. But eventually, against all odds, things start to come into a pattern anyway. Naruto seems to settle down a bit, no longer static with excess energy, and sometimes they eat together or walk down a street side by side or go drinking or something, out in the open air for everyone to see who cares to see. And.
There're just some things.
Like how, the first time Neji has a decent conversation with Sakura after the fiasco in February, she grabs his arm in the middle of a sentence and says, almost frantic, "Listen. I wasn't lying before, I am keeping an eye on him. But it's so hard. He—he doesn't let me take care of him."
Neji blinks. "That's not what I'm doing."
It's not untrue. He's doing a lot with his life these days, always busy. He's writing and handing in mission reports due weeks—possibly months—ago. He's letting Gai-sensei buy him some furniture that aren't strictly functional. He's allowing Naruto to kiss him in his office, after hours, with the door closed, allowing him to make the coffee and leave cup ramen and an orange toothbrush over at Neji's apartment.
But he isn't taking care of anyone.
Still, there are things, and these are things which change the status quo, which, if left unmonitored, have the potential to be dangerous. They breed complacency. Because of them, Neji, well, he's started, against his best judgment, to have expectations of things. Like, for this to last.
Because he's fucking stupid.
TenTen actually can't stick around, for which Neji's mostly glad. He doesn't tell her this, of course, even as she clucks around his apartment, pokes around the shelves and cupboards in his kitchen and makes snide comments on the state of his domestic hygiene, which, as always, is pristine. He waits until she's safely mid-rant and out of sight before picking up the envelopes she's left spattered across the coffee table, fingering the parchment around the familiar Hyuuga seal thoughtfully.
Hinata's letter this week goes on about prudence in diplomacy, the importance of discretion in dealing with unpredictable allies, parroting the bulk of the things Hiashi told him in their last meeting before he left Konoha. Near the end, there's a tagged on note about recent decisions being made in the Clan, changes to the Branch House assignment schedule, and what did Neji-san make of that? The quivering question mark timidly asking for his opinion.
What does he think, indeed.
Eventually, dusk falls, and TenTen remembers she has to get back to the rest of her team in the next town, which is how Neji learns that she's actually on an outsourced mission, and that she's been promoted: to his old position.
"Someone has to keep the ANBU going while you're off playing diplomat," she says, faintly smug, reassembling her weapons and adjusting the straps of her armor. "Hinata's kid sister would have cut my throat for it, if I'd only let her."
"You should be careful anyway. Hanabi was never really much of a kid."
"No offense, but what Hyuuga is? Thanks for the tip, anyway."
It's started to snow lightly, the tiny flakes frosting the naked branches of trees, sticking to windowpanes. The air sharp and nippy, a fresh, unbroken smell. TenTen wrinkles her nose when a snowflake lands on it, pulls up the collars of her winter qipao. She gives him a long look, honest and quietly searching, a sharpness materializing at the edges of her eyes.
"You'll take care of yourself?"
He digs up a smile for her, says, "I will." She has never asked it of him, never once, but there is no one else around, he can afford this.
The flurry matures into a fair blizzard, keeping up well into the night. Neji watches the window, until pinpricks form behind his eyelids and the cold sinks into his bones.
He's about to turn in when there's a knock at the door, growing ever more insistent, and he opens it to find Naruto, shaking snow out of his hair and yelling, "About time, I was dying out there. You got something to eat?" blowing in with a freezing gust of wind.
By the time Naruto's changed into some dry clothes and wolfed his way through three steaming portions of instant ramen, he's recovered enough to be wandering around the apartment on a self-imposed tour. Neji follows silently in his wake.
"Where've you been?" It might pass off for a casual question, from the host to an uninvited but not unwelcome guest.
That, admittedly, he did not expect.
"That's where I've been for the last six, seven—God—eight months?" Naruto tilts his head, thinking. "I went to Whirlpool Country, and fuck, at first I didn't have the faintest clue where the hell that was supposed to be, so I just wandered around for awhile. Finally got there around late June."
Neji blinks, realizing his hands are shaking. They've somehow ended up in his bedroom, with him sitting on the bed and Naruto safely on the other side of the room, leaning loosely against a wall. He swallows, hard, and asks, "What did you find there?"
"Not much. Not too many people stuck around after the war, and most of them who live there now are civilians. Nobody could tell me anything about her or, you know. The family."
He nods. Fakes understanding, hoping it'll dam the undercurrent threatening to overflow.
"But I stayed for a bit, went around the old sights and tried to gather as much information as I could. Then there was this thing about a sea monster."
Neji nods again, because of course there was.
"Finally, there wasn't anything to stick around for anymore, so I packed up camp and left. Then I came here."
"Then you came here."
"Yeah." A quick laugh, easy and unsuspecting. "Want to hear the story of how I found out where you were?"
"Not particularly. What I really want to know, Naruto, is what the fuck you think you're doing here."
Silence falls between them, falls and can't get back up. The calm before the implosion.
Naruto looks like he's shifting on his feet, eyes darting all over the place, like he's finally picking up on the changing wavelengths. "You're angry."
"What do you think? After what happened the last time?"
The last time—the last time—was at Naruto's place, because eventually they had decided it wasn't fair to use Neji's apartment all the time. He remembers half falling asleep beneath Naruto's familiar weight—it was the early afternoon, his lunch break, of all things—when he happened to look over and notice the traveling pack, sitting unobtrusively in a corner.
"You're going somewhere?" No, that wasn't quite right. "You're leaving the village again?"
Naruto had looked as if he'd wanted to say something, but couldn't seem to find the words.
It wasn't necessary. Neji had gotten up, dressed without a word, and gone back to his office to do paperwork. He was still doing paperwork half a month later, when a new post opened up for a diplomatic liaison position in Earth Country, whereupon he immediately tendered his resignation from the ANBU. Even the Hokage had to acknowledge that Neji was perfect for the job: member of an influential family, though not quite important enough to be inexpendable; impeccable records; a strong reputation for discipline and discretion.
A week later, Neji arrived in Iwagakure. The first time he was greeted by that smoke-colored sky, he knew for certain he hadn't flown anywhere at all. The cage was still upon him, solid and suffocating as ever.
And now Naruto's back. The worst part of all is that he's standing in Neji's new apartment, seven months and thousands of miles after the fact and still expecting to barrel his way back into the thread of the story, thinking that it has stayed on hold for him. He's wrong.
"Answer me," Neji orders, and it sounds like saw on metal.
"I get that you're angry," Naruto says, voice a controlled whisper. "But I didn't have a choice. That was something I had to do."
"There is always something you have to do. But there's always a choice, too."
"And I made that choice! I'd have thought you, of all people, would understand."
"I understand plenty," Neji says, lightly. "Let me ask you this. What were you hoping for, coming here?"
Naruto scowls, but doesn't speak.
"Is this just a nice little visit, or is it something else? A rest stop, perhaps, on your way somewhere else?"
Still no answer.
"West Thunder Country, maybe?"
Naruto glares at him. "I was right. You never stopped being an jackass."
Neji snorts. "So the rumors are true. Hebi has been sighted again. Word on the street is that they've cut a deal with the Hidden Cloud, isn't that right?"
"I don't fucking know if the rumors are true." Naruto is angry now, his words coming out in low, harsh barks, but Neji doesn't particularly care. "I don't know because I haven't fucking been to Thunder Country, okay?"
Neji tosses him a withering look, extra venom added for good measure. "Maybe you should get an early start, then."
"Are you actually kicking me out?"
"You shouldn't have come here to begin with."
"Dammit, Neji, what the fuck is your problem?"
"Is that a real question?"
"Fuck yes, it's a real question. You were always going on about responsibilities, taking charge of my life, so silly me, I thought you'd be pleased if I start taking some real steps in that general direction."
Something is going on here. Suddenly he's on his feet, taking advantage of the fact he's still got those inches on Naruto and is capable of staring without flinching, even when he's seeing red and yelling and using words he never thought he'd find the sounds to shape. "Since when is running rogue and throwing your shinobi career down the drain synonymous with taking charge of your life, Naruto? Tell me that. What is this worth to you?"
"I'll tell you what it's worth to me," Naruto yells back, eyes snapping. "How long have you fucking known me? What I thought—what I actually thought—was that you wouldn't be able to accept someone who couldn't even live up to his promises!"
It hurts, cuts quick and brutal, and just like that, the mood changes. Somewhere, a line's been crossed, and neither of them ever really learned how to take it back.
Neji can feel himself cracking open, all his anger spilling over and dissipating, blood red, and all the arguments that had seemed valid a moment ago fall apart in his mind. He takes a few steps backward, stumbles onto the bed.
It doesn't matter, really, how many times Naruto's eyes have managed to outstrip Neji's genetically superior ones in foresight, how many times the wild winds of his determination sweep through the desolate wasteland of their lives, flattening grass and bringing the sweetness of rain. It comes down to this: Neji has been picked up by that whirlwind, picked up and tossed back and broken to pieces, and he knows in the end, Naruto will always win.
He has seen their battle, seen the kite lines cross and hopelessly tangle into knots, and he is certain as anything can be considered certain that Naruto will emerge victorious, raising his bright flag triumphantly and recklessly as he soars higher and higher on a favorable wind, up above and beyond the camouflaging clouds where his next opponent lies in wait, a dark, ominous splash against the sky.
Neji wants to scream out a warning, but it's too late. He cannot see anymore, because he's falling already, a loose kite cut from the sky, plummeting to the ground and an end to flight.
So, in the end, he says, "I'm not asking you to give up Sasuke for me."
Says, "You know I wouldn't ask that of you, you know that" and thinks, so this is what it looks like at the end of the rope, feeling the cold, unyielding bars of the cage slamming shut all around him, pressing up against his shaking body, prone and flightless as claustrophobia steals in on stilted feet.
"But you would prefer it if I did nonetheless, that's what you're saying," says Naruto, meeting his gaze unflinchingly. Neither sullen nor accusatory. Just stating a fact.
"I would never force you," Neji says bitterly, laughing a little. "I don't have anywhere to force you to. Haven't got any leverage, now do I?" and clearly, he's raving now, he can't process a single thing that's coming out of his mouth at all. But apparently Naruto can decipher 'babbling idiot' perfectly well, probably from long practice because his mouth presses shut, and he stays on his side of the room, asks none of the dense questions that Neji's always depended on to save himself, reassuring ballasts in a sea of angry semantics.
"Just forget it," Neji says, fisting a bunch of his bed sheet in his hands. "It's not going to change anything. We're not doing this anymore."
Naruto frowns. "You don't get to decide that."
"Why not? Tell me why not. Give me one reason, Naruto, because…" He wants to finish that sentence with, "you've made all these choices and shut me out," or, "you don't let me take care of you," or, "it doesn't matter what, you'll fall anyway, I've seen it."
Any of those thing would be better than what he actually croaks out, which is, "because I don't know."
"You don't get to end this," Naruto says, tight-voiced and blazing a little about the eyes. "Not until you've heard my pitch."
He stops and closes his eyes, looking like his throat is welling up with bile, like he's going into anaphylactic shock, but somehow manages to breathe, in, out, and say, "Not until I've had a try at making this work. Because I get that, now, I get that I never really tried for us. Before. So just let me try, alright, Neji? Please."
Neji has at least seventeen reasons to deny that request, all of which die on his lips when Naruto opens his eyes to look at him, tousled and weary and far from home, pleading and scared but still hopeful. This is a place neither of them has ever been.
"I'm going to Thunder Country, it's true," Naruto says carefully, weighing his words and watching for Neji's reaction. "I'm going to find Sasuke. But I'm not going to bring him home. Or maybe I am. I don't know. Maybe people are right about him not wanting to come back, and maybe they're wrong, but I'm still going to find him."
Neji puts his face in his hand. That's—that's just great, just fucking perfect.
"I'm not finished. Look at me when I'm talking to you."
He looks up, and Naruto says, "I'm going to find him to tell him that this—whatever this thing is, going on between us, all these years—it's over. I'm putting an end to it. He can go back to Konoha on his own accord, or he can not, I don't give a shit, but I'm going to bring him back at least once to apologize to Sakura-chan. He owes her—owes us that much."
Closure, is what Neji hears. The end of the road. Cutting the string and letting the kites fall.
"And after that," Naruto goes on, voice softening into an almost-whisper. "And after that, I'm coming back here to get you. I'm coming to get you, and we're going home."
"Yeah," Naruto says, grinning tentatively. "How's that for setting things right?"
Neji is silent for a long time, considering, before asking, "Are you done?"
Naruto nods. Open and laid bare and nervous for it.
"Good. That was your pitch, now listen to mine."
The room seems to hold its breath. Neji takes in a deep inhale, holding the cold air in his chest for a moment before speaking.
"I'm not taking anything that's not mine to take. But I'm not taking anything less than what I deserve, either. That's how this is going to stand."
He's twenty-one, almost twenty-two, old enough and all scarred up. He's twenty-one and his father stares out at him with blank eyes through the fog of his bathroom mirror. No one can fly forever; Neji never even made it past takeoff.
"Those are my terms."
"Okay," Naruto says, serious and solemn-eyed and looking all of his twenty years, as he's never before in his life. "That's okay. I accept these terms."
His smile is back, small and hard but sparkling like shardglass, hypnotic, and Neji is still staring at it when Naruto crosses the room and kisses him. Takes his face in between large brown hands and kisses him carefully, closed-mouth, like sealing a deal, and Naruto's touch is almost unrecognizable when it's gentle, tremulous and unsure, calluses scratchy against his skin. Neji leans into it, almost subconsciously—or not, he doesn't care anymore.
"So, what now?"
"Maybe we should sleep on it."
The words are like magic, and suddenly he's floating in drowsiness, a deep blue water washing over his mind and drowning out the crowding thoughts, worries of before. The light goes out in the room, and he feels himself being handled and rearranged—his head hits the soft mound of a pillow, sinking immediately. He senses a weight depressing into the mattress next to him, and that's Naruto, pulling the thick blanket over them both, pressing soft, dark kisses to Neji's face, neck, lingering on his left shoulder.
"You're a pretty tough nut to crack, Neji," Naruto murmurs, wrapping an arm over him and twining their fingers together, "but you've always been hardest on yourself."
In the dark, Neji closes his eyes, and allows over a decade of fatigue to settle into him, the new snow coming down on his bones and drawing out a deep ache. He keeps his eyes shut. Byakugan dormant, and he's fumbling in the dark. It feels like he's been fumbling in the dark for a long, long time.
But in the grey morning, it's white and soft and silent all the around, the snow still fluttering down soundlessly, and all Neji hears is the sound of Naruto's breathing, Naruto who's flushed and golden and reassuring next to him, traced in the pale, early light that filters in.
On Monday, he'll visit Nikano in the hospital, let her know she's needed back at work. If he finds Hiroaki lurking about—and if stereotypes hold, he will—he'll frogmarch the boy into his teammate's room and teach them both blind checkers. At the end of this week, he will go to the Hidden Stone's administrative office, go to the Tsuchikage, and nominate a replacement.
By the time the ground starts to thaw, the numbness in his heart will be gone, and he will see the Konoha sky again.
But today, today is buried in snow, and snowy Sundays are for deep beds and warm hands. Neji thinks about going into his kitchen and making a dent in the groceries, drawing from every breakfast he ever ate as a child, sitting across his father at a small table in their personal quarters, rice and hot miso soup in the early morning, before the rest of the world wakes. He thinks about taking Naruto out into the courtyard, later, and watching him attempt to eat snow, waiting for the inevitable moment when he gags and slips on a patch of ice. Thinks about saying all the things he doesn't have the words to articulate, saying them with his hands and his mouth and the brush of his cheek against Naruto's spiky hair.
They don't have all the time in the world, not yet, but they have today, and for now, they're good like that.
On a sudden impulse, Neji goes to his writing desk, and tears off a fresh sheet of paper. Beneath the heading—To Hinata-sama—he writes:
"I have received your letter regarding the Branch House situation, and far be from me to interfere where my opinion is not wanted, it is in my thinking that the best course of action must involve commensurate decisions on both sides…"