Summary: Because he's done with living his life for other people. NejiIno
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto
"We own nothing."
One of his earliest memories is sitting with his mother at the small garden at the back of their home late one afternoon. She lets him rest after spending the afternoon playing with his cousins, his head on her lap, while she strokes his flowing dark brown hair.
An elder of the main family suddenly appears, accompanied by two servants who follow behind him. His mother taps him in the shoulder gently before rising to bow respectfully to the elder. She makes him do it was well.
"Mikage." The elder says. "I heard that you are in possession of an exquisite golden flute, supposedly created by the great Ensui himself."
His mother looks up humbly. "I am, Hanori-sama."
"Good. The main family is trying to win the favor of the Iwamoto clan of Kagen. The Iwamotos have a keen interest in music, and I have no doubt that a flute made by Ensui will have them grateful to no end."
His mother looks down again, not saying anything. She knows what the elder is trying to portend, but she tries to deny it. The flute has been in her family for five hundred years, passed on from parent to child. Her mother gave it to her upon her marriage, and in turn she wants nothing else but to give it to her son when time comes.
It is not just a tradition. It is a legacy.
The elder narrows his gray eyes at her silence. "Mikage. Give me the flute."
He looks at his mother. Her usually clear brown eyes are glazed, and her lips are slightly trembling.
She makes no sound. She just stands up and slowly heads for the house. After a few moments, she returns with a narrow, black lacquered box bearing her family's crest. It's the one which he knows contains the most important object to his mother.
She hands it respectfully to the elder and bows to him again, emotionless eyes never looking at the main family member.
The elder does not say anything. He takes the flute and simply turns around, leaving with his servants.
The orange sun completely disappears in the horizon, and the dark nighttime sky starts to creep. He goes to his mother and touches the hem of her pale gray kimono.
Hyuuga Mikage turns to her son, tears glinting in her eyes. She had just given away half a century's worth of her family's love.
"Kaa-san…" he says, his little heart burdened by the sight of his mother in tears. "It's yours… someday I'll take it back…"
His mother tries her best to smile. She takes him in her arms and embraces her tightly so he doesn't have to see how she cries. But even though all he could see is the fabric of her dress, he could still feel how her chest rises and falls every time she sobs.
"No, Neji… We own nothing."
"You will live for the main family."
He cries in pain as the glowing iron tool comes in contact with the skin of his five-year old forehead. The pain is so intense that he fails to hear a sizzling sound, just as he fails to smell a rubbery scent, both of which come from his burning flesh.
"Otousan! Otousan!" he shouts desperately, deliriously, pleading for his father to do something and spare him from the excruciating pain. But nothing happens, except that the branding iron is pressed into his flesh even harder. His cries spiral into screams just as hard.
In front of him, the elders of both the main and branch families watch together, their old, wrinkled faces painted with the same blank expression. Behind them, Hyuuga Hizashi struggles to keep his face as emotionless as everyone else in the room, but he cannot ignore the piercing pain in his chest. He inhales deeply but it is as though he cannot breathe.
The branding iron is finally removed from his forehead. He is released from the physical manacles he was cruelly bound with, now that he has been permanently marked with the symbol of the caged bird. Ironically, he had just been bound with the worst manacles in the world.
His father rushes to his side. Hizashi takes his traumatized son in his arms and cradles his small form.
"Otousan…" he says weakly, barely able to keep his eyes open. His world is spinning and all he can feel is the pain in his forehead.
The head of the council of elders of the main family steps in front of them. He puts his right hand on Neji's head and declares, "Hyuuga Neji of the Branch Family: from this day forth, you will serve the main family with your life, as long as you are capable, to the best of your abilities. They will always be before you; their interest before yours, their safety before yours, their sake before yours."
The old man continues saying something, but he no longer understands him. He no longer even has enough strength to hold himself conscious. The last thing he hears before he succumbs to the overwhelming darkness is a single phrase.
"You will live for the main family."
"Your life should be about Konoha."
His first teacher in the genin academy is nothing like Umino Iruka. Nobuo Meguri does not give a rat's ass about student-teacher relationships. The sooner the students got used to the cold, cruel and dangerous world of the shinobi, the better. It was completely impractical to teach students about kindness and friendship if afterwards you were going to tell them to forget their emotions and just do what it takes to accomplish the mission.
She isn't really supposed to be a teacher. She is an interrogator in Morino Ibiki's squad, but she was seriously injured during her last mission. Ibiki told her to lie low while she recovered, but she didn't want to, and took teaching a genin class instead.
"Imagine that you are in this situation: You are held hostage by the enemies. They threaten you that if you don't tell them what they want to know about our village, they will kill your family. What will you do?"
All the students are silent.
The teacher puts a hand on her hip. "Seriously, you're saying that you want to become shinobi and you can't even answer that question?"
She looks around the class. "You. With the glasses. Answer me."
The spectacled boy swallows. "Um… I guess I'll… tell them what they want…because I love my family… and…"
Meguri's eyes narrow. "Get out of my room. Now."
The boy looks at his teacher, confused.
"I said get out." Meguri barks again. "If that's your answer, then you're never going to be a useful ninja. All you're going to be is a nuisance to this village. Out!"
The child, frightened out of his wits, dashes out of the room.
She turns back to the remainder of the class, who are as scared as the student she sent out, if not more. "If there's anyone else whose answer is the same as that boy's, I suggest you get out now too and migrate to a non-shinobi village. You are not going to make it as a shinobi so don't waste your time trying."
A girl in traditional Chinese garb and signature Chinese hair buns raises her hand. "So the answer should have been we'll let them kill our families?"
"Naturally." Meguri replies, looking almost irritated. "When you are a shinobi, nothing must matter to you more than your village."
"Even if you want to be a ninja to protect your family?" His seatmate asks.
The teacher rolls her eyes. "Who said that ninja's life should be about what he wants, anyway? A shinobi should not care about his family, his friends, not even himself. Your life should not be about you, or them, or anything else."
He does not take his silver-gray eyes off his teacher and holds on to every word she says. He remembers that day his father offered his life for his uncle's.
His father said he did it for the village.
Meguri looks at her students, her eyes filled with dead certainty.
"Your life should be about Konoha."
"You're not mine and I'm not yours."
The first thing he tells his first partner the first time they meet is an instruction.
"I am your superior and you are my subordinate; you are to follow all my directives throughout our missions. My name is Hyuuga Neji."
The woman in front of him tilts her head sideward. She introduces herself but does not offer her hand. He doesn't look like the type who would take it, anyway. "I am Yamanaka Ino. I am your subordinate and I will do my best to follow your instructions. However, it does not mean that you will own me."
He raises an arrogant Hyuuga brow. "And by that you imply…?"
"I will act as I deem necessary if I do not believe that your commands are apt." She plainly says.
He frowns in annoyance. "Which is synonymous to 'I will disobey you whenever I want to.'"
She smirks and turns her back on him, heading for the door. "That is your interpretation, not mine."
He watches her leave the room, her long, pony-tailed blonde hair swaying with her hips. He knows that there is very little possibility that they will get along, and he is right.
- - - - - - - - -
"What the hell did you do that for?" he demands angrily as he heaves her into the chair so she could sit down. She ignores him and continues holding a towel over her nastily bleeding right shoulder.
"You are the worst mission partner I've ever been given. You don't listen to me, you never do what I say and you always get yourself hurt." He says as he soaks a clean piece of cloth in antiseptic.
"Shut up, captain. I'm the only partner you've ever been given." She shoots back. "And I think it's because they know that I'm the only person who can put up with you and your attitude."
It takes a lot of effort, but he ignores what she said and just takes the soaked cloth. "Get rid of that towel and let me do this."
She reluctantly removes the formerly white but now blood red towel she covered her wound with. He groans when he sees the injury. It's not a smooth, unilateral slice. It is as if someone pounded her with a spike ball, which is probably what actually happened. Lots of blood. And torn muscles. And jagged flesh.
"Jesus fucking Christ. I told you to stay back and just guard the sword! But you just to fight too, didn't you? Now look at what happened!"
"What are you bitching about? We have the sword and the Kiri nin are gone. Everything worked out fine." She replies, trying to appear nonchalant.
He dabs her bleeding wound with the disinfecting cloth and she howls in pain. "Ow! Watch it, will you?"
He looks at her sarcastically. "This is what you call 'everything turned out fine'?"
"It's just a small – ow!"
"You were saying?"
She keeps quiet for the remainder of the time, wincing occasionally, but she lets him clean her wound. He understands that her silence doesn't really mean that she sees his point; she's just too tired to argue. And she knows that he knows he hasn't won, but their word war has to be postponed for another time, and she appreciates the fact that he doesn't say anything more and just lets her rest.
He takes his time dressing her injury. By now he's used to doing this, because she has disobeyed him so many times that he has lost count, and all those times were exactly like this one: he tells her to stay somewhere safe, she doesn't listen, she takes more than what she could chew, she gets hurt in the battle, and he ends up cleaning her mess.
She falls asleep just as he finishes tying the bandages he wrapped her wound in. And like all those times this happened, he just sits back and watches her sleep, because he doesn't know what else to do.
He knows that he's supposed to think about his mission, or about protecting the main family, or the welfare of Konoha, but he really doesn't see what good that will do to him right here, right now. It's during times like these - when he has just done what they ordered him to do and he's a thousand miles away from the people he's supposed to serve - that he wonders if his life means anything other than an existence for other people.
Later that night, when everything is quiet, save for the crickets singing their nightly song, she wakes up from her sleep. She finds him still awake, still watching her.
"What are you doing?"
He doesn't want to answer, because he doesn't know what to answer. So he uses the best technique to dodge a question: ask a question in return.
"Why do you always disobey me?"
She shrugs. But for the first time, she answers his question directly.
"Because you never protect yourself."
"…" He doesn't know how to react.
"You never protect yourself. You always tell me to hide somewhere safe but you go out on your own to take on the enemy. We could hide somewhere safe, but you want only me to do that."
"Because you're too reckless for your own good."
"And you don't think that fighting the enemy alone is reckless?"
"I can take it."
"Sure you can. If I didn't take on that nin who was supposed to attack you, I'd be dragging your corpse back to Konoha now."
He doesn't say anything else. He doesn't know what else to say.
She rises from her seat and walks in front of him. The wound on her shoulder hurts, but she ignores the pain. She brings her face as close as she dares to his, which is very close. "You want me to protect myself, but you never protect yourself. The truth is, it's like you don't even want to protect yourself."
She raises a finger and lightly touches his forehead. "Tell me, Neji, do you even value your life?"
He stirs uneasily and immediately looks away, effectively breaking their contact. "Shinobi must value nothing above their village. Why are you even asking me if I value my life?" he says gruffly.
Her lips curl into a reserved smile. "Because I do. That's why I disobey you. You don't want to protect yourself, so I'm the one who's going to do it for you."
He looks at her again. He doesn't understand what he feels. "You care for me?"
"I know it's wrong… but…"
"You mean that?" He asks, matching her gaze and suddenly finding himself touching her lips.
She reaches for his hand on her lips and holds it. It's warm, like her breath.
"Let's just say I like how your hands feel when you fix me up after I get hurt."
That night, for the first time in a long, long time, Hyuuga Neji sleeps in peace.
- - - - - - - - - - -
She sleeps wrapped in his embrace. He rests with his head on her lap. They share many baths together on the same shower, and even more nights together on the same bed. He buys flowers from the Yamanaka florists just to give to her, even if it's too cheesy for a man like him, and she actually cooks for him, something she never does for anyone else.
But they never do it when other people are around. And when Rock Lee asks him who Yamanaka Ino is to Hyuuga Neji, he simply replies "My missions partner."
He never calls her his girlfriend.
He never tells her "I love you" either.
Even in private.
Not that he hasn't tried. He tells her of it the moment he first feels it.
But she only looks away. "We're not supposed to say what we feel. We're shinobi."
"But you said you care for me."
"Because you are my partner, and I have to look after you."
He doesn't say anything else because she holds his hand tight, and he sees through her excuse. She does love him, she just isn't supposed to say it. Because she, like him, is not supposed to feel. They're supposed to exist just to serve their village. He's supposed to exist just to serve the main house.
But in the dark sanctuary of their room, he takes her in his arms and whispers those three words again, anyway.
"I love you."
She looks into his eyes. They are not supposed to own anything, not even their own lives. "But I am not yours and you are not mine. We will never be each other's. We are… Konoha's."
He just holds her tighter. And for the first time, he doesn't let it end the way it began. "We can always pretend…"
She gives him a knowing smile and embraces him back, tiptoe-ing so her lips could touch the lobe of his ear.
"I love you too." she whispers.
That is the last time they ever say anything about love. But both of them know what each other feels, so who needs to hear it again and again?
He sits in the frontmost pew in the church, quiet, almost unmoving, focused intently on the scene in front of him. He can't really believe this time had come – he never counted the days, but it always seemed so far. Now it's really here.
Today, he watches his missions partner – correction, former missions partner - get married to the Godaime Kazekage of Sunagakure no Sato.
Five months ago Yamanaka Ino informed him (informed, not asked his permission or anything) that the Sand Council had somehow chosen her to be Sabaku no Gaara's wife. The union is supposed to strengthen the alliance between Leaf and Sand, and as a kunoichi it is her duty to marry the Kazekage because it is what was best for the village she swore to serve.
And that is exactly what she is going to do.
He doesn't really react all that violently when she tells him about this. After all, it is clear to him what kind of relationship they are in: the kind that prioritized their obligations as shinobi, the kind that lasted while it could, and the kind that ended when work began.
Beside him, Hyuuga Hinata, his fiancé, sits as quietly.
The other reason why he does not react emotionally is because a week prior to Ino's news, he had been first to tell her that he is engaged to his cousin, the heir of the Hyuuga main family.
Apparently the main house had decided that he, heir of the branch family, is obviously superior to their own female heir, and they would never allow the branch family to be more powerful than the main. To make things straight they could kill him, which was a less likely option since they want his power. Or they could resort to the only other option – make him a member of the main house. The only way it could be done is to have him marry Hinata. The union is supposed to be for the main family's interest, and as a member of the branch family it is his duty to marry Hinata because it is what was best for the family he swore to serve.
And that is exactly what he is going to do.
She doesn't say anything either. Because like him, it is clear to her what their relationship is.
So she thanks him for being an efficient mission partner and turns back to leave, like how she did the first time they met.
And he watches her leave, not saying or doing anything else.
This is the first time he sees her after they part ways. She wears an elaborate Uchikake Kimono, the turquoise green field shimmering behind an exquisite mix of gold thread and jewel tones. Her wheat blonde hair is styled into a delicate Midomori, adorned with emerald-laden bun holders.
She is beautiful – she has always been. But he doesn't have the heart to feel anything about it.
The minister begins the ceremonies. He sits in silence, telling himself over and over that all he has to do is to go through thirty minutes. In his country, it takes only thirty minutes, thirty fucking minutes, to get married. So he just has to endure the next thirty minutes and all of this would be over. She would be married to the Kazekage, and then he could go home and continue living 'his' life.
"If it be your intention to take each other as husband and wife, you will manifest it by uniting your right hands."
The Kazekage takes her hand, his face bereft of emotion. She gives it to him almost absent-mindedly.
"Do you take this woman, whose hand you hold, to be your lawfully wedded wife?" The minister asks the blue-clad Sand Royalty.
Watching from the pews, he heaves a heavy but quiet breath. He forces himself not to think about anything, but he fails. His mind is filled with images of her and of her alone – blood gushing out of her wounds while she continues to fight for her village, smiling at her stems and leaves and flowers as she gracefully weaves them together to create the most beautiful Ikebana, and most of all, sleeping contentedly in his arms after a night of true and honest existence where only he matters to her.
Sabaku no Gaara's face remains as it is, devoid of feeling. "I do."
He closes his eyes and bows his head down. Now all he is left to do is forget. Because being with her is not in the best interest of this village and of the family he has to serve. It doesn't really matter that it means everything to the two of them.
The minister turns to her. "You now take this man, whose hand you hold, to be your lawfully wedded husband. Do you promise to love, honor and cherish him, and that, forsaking all others for him alone, you will faithfully perform your duties as his wife?"
She looks at the Kazekage, whose fierce green eyes soften as he holds her hand tighter. She opens her mouth to answer.
But no words come out.
She closes her eyes briefly, a pained expression painted on her face. And then she opens them again and gently draws her hand back. Gaara looks down on the floor as he lets it go. She slowly turns her head and looks back at the man with the silver gray eyes in the frontmost pew.
He doesn't need the Byakugan to see her blue green orbs. And suddenly, he realizes how tired he is.
Tired of not owning anything.
Tired of living for the main family.
Tired of his life being about Konoha.
For once, he forgets about everything he is supposed to do. He looks right at her, gray eyes meeting blue.
It is as if she understands. Or maybe she does. After all, they've been together long enough in a relationship where words are unimportant.
She smiles at him.
Time stops. He feels his heart beat stronger. In her smile, he finally finds courage he needs.
He raises his head and slowly stands up.
The church is all quiet. Sunlight pours in through the stained glass windows, forming speechless colored shadows. Outside, even the birds perched on the April maple trees have stopped singing.
His voice breaks the silence.