drowned gold and purple and royal rings
and all time past, was it all for this?
times unforgotten, and treasures of things?

- Swinburne, the Triumph of Time

The Branch were beholden to the Main, their servants, their slaves, the mark of their servitude graved upon their brows for all to see. But it was not - it could not be - all one-sided, and the Branch enjoyed some freedoms the Main could not. The happiest of them learned to focus on those simple pleasures and not on the bone-deep chains, knew that to do otherwise was to go mad from struggling and yearning.

One of these freedoms was that, unlike the Main, those of the Branch were free to choose their spouses, to make love-matches. And sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, and sometimes they married for reasons as mercenary as the Main's, but - and this was the important part - it was all done by their own choice, and for their own consideration.

The end result was that there were far more good-looking females in the Branch than in the Main.

But the wisest of the Branch knew that even their freedoms were not free - that the Main exacted toll from them for these things.

He was valued, he was needed, he was a _leader_, a leader of _Hyuugas_.....

...he was so utterly bored.

Neji sighed, leaned his face into his palm, and gazed out the window. He was seated at a desk carved of the finest hardwoods, in a chair custom-built to his measurement, and even the writing-implements he used for his paperwork were expensive, fountain-pens carved of green glass with golden nibs. Yet with all that luxury, the one thing he appreciated most about his office was the large window right beside his desk, the glimpse of non-office-bound freedom it afforded him. He left it open this morning, inhaling deeply as if drinking from the cool, sweet-scented breeze. The springtime morning was fresh, clean, sun-soaked - there was birdsong in the air, music from the small finches and starlings in the trees of the Hyuuga gardens.

(They weren't caged, Neji knew.)

His mind wandered, as it never used to wander, down old paths, remembering mornings like this with his team - on missions, training, just 'hanging out' as Tenten would put it. He missed it. He missed the satisfaction of a mission well-accomplished, he missed the exhilarated adrenaline rush of fights conducted at insane speeds, dodging a rain of weaponry that blocked out the light of the sun, the warm ache of muscles after a good training session.

He even missed the little things, like watching Lee set and then carry out his ludicrous self-inflicted 'punishments', and Gai-sensei's beaming at them as he urged them onto impossible accomplishments - and somehow, between exasperation, pricked pride, some very real moments of stupefied horror, and sheer cussed...hard work, managed to shove them over the lines of their own limits.

And Tenten. He began to absent-mindedly scribble her name in the margins of his paperwork. He missed her most of all, which was simultaneously to be expected - he spent the most time with her, so of course there would be more to miss - and stupid, because she lived right there with him, he went home to her every night...

He never saw her anymore, though.


She looked up, and immediately rose to her feet to bow, the etiquette-training that Neji and Hinata had given her having become reflex by now. She fought the urge to fidget, and to wipe her hands on her uniform pants. She was filthy, she knew - she'd just come back from a mission, and as usual she'd sat down at her workbench (she loved having a workbench) in the kitchen to begin cleaning her weapons, and so in addition to the blood and sweat and dirt she had smears of polish and turpentine and chemical cleanser.

Not the best face to present to a Main House Elder.

But the middle-aged old man only smiled at her, a gentle smile that reminded her a bit of the Sandaime, and made soothing motions with his hands.

"No, no - no need to stand on ceremony for me, Tenten-chan. I just wanted to see how the newest member of our clan was faring."

Tenten smiled nervously and dipped her head, but had no idea how to respond.

He smiled at her again.

"Why don't you walk with me a little, Tenten-chan?"