Raising Albert

A/N: Note to impressionable readers: Always use a condom.

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Tenten interrupted her regularly-scheduled morning yoga to find Neji and a box of pastries at Team Gai's door, looking upset and delicious, respectively.

"Naruto broke up with me," Neji explained. "Do you want to eat these?"

So they sat down facing each other on the yoga mat, with the pastries between them. Tenten took an eclair. "Tell Mama Tenten what happened."

"He said that I'm ashamed to be dating him and then he kicked me out."

"Well, are you?" Tenten asked.

"Of course not! If that was the case, I would never have started dating him in the first place."

"Did you tell him that?"

"I tried, but he wouldn't let me," Neji said, waving his arms about to illustrate Naruto's stubbornness. "He kept yelling about how he was sick of me just apologizing whenever I pissed him off. It's like, what the hell am I supposed to do when he's mad? At least I'm willing to admit when I'm in the wrong. Not every guy would do that, you know? He's the one who's being immature. He won't even let me have visitations rights for Albert!"

"Your bonsai?" Tenten asked.

"Yes! I helped pay for him... it was my idea to buy him in the first place, I should at least be allowed to see him on weekends!"

"How hard for you," Tenten said sarcastically.

"I know! I love that plant. How can he take him away from me like this, without even asking for my side of the story!"

Tenten didn't remark that maybe it was something besides a cheap bonsai that Neji loved so much. She was smarter than that.

"Well, he's going to miss having me around," Neji said, glaring intensely at a turnover. "Right?"

"I'm sure he will," Tenten said soothingly. "You'll be the one who got away."

"Exactly. He should have asked me for my side of the story."

"Yes, he should have. Communication, that's what's important," Tenten said. "I'm telling you, Neji, penises are highly overrated. I don't go near the things, myself."

"I know, Tenten. Maybe you're right. Maybe I should just be single for a while. No more buying pastries for someone who won't even wake up for them, no more being hassled just because I don't feel like sitting my family down and telling them about every fucking detail of my sex life. It'll be good for me, prove to me I don't need some guy hanging around."

If Tenten thought Neji was being perhaps a little too assertive about his new independence, she said nothing, only pushed the pastries aside and hugged him.

"We'll hang out and do stuff together, okay? It'll be like old times. Fun."

Neji sighed into Tenten's purple leotard. "Yes, it will be."

Tenten contemplated this, and patted Neji on the shoulder comfortingly.

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"You're better off without him," Sasuke said when Naruto invited him over to talk.

"No, he's great. Er, he was."

"Naruto, he was nuts," Sasuke said emphatically. "If you were dating anybody else in this town, they would be dragging you outside all the time. You would have to beat them off with a stick in public. Anybody would be proud to have you... I don't know what his problem was, but you're better off dumping him now."

"Who's going to take care of Albert, though?"

"Albert is a very small tree. I'm sure you will manage as a single parent. Come on, cheer up. You'll meet someone who appreciates you. And let me be the first to offer you-,"

"Shut up, Sasuke."

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Hanabi was so unused to the sound of knocking that it didn't occur to her to invite the person at her door inside.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

"Stop that damn racket already!" she snapped, furiously dotting an i in her journal. Neji poked his head in the door. "What do you want?"

"I just thought I'd stop by and say hello," he said, sitting down next to her on the bed. "I mean, you haven't been in my room to bug me with your inappropriate remarks and teen spirit for some time now."

Hanabi sighed and threw the journal down on the bedspread. "Is something wrong?"

"No. I just want to spend some time with my little cousin. I've been distracted by... things lately, but that's over now, and I need to focus on what matters."

"I'm what matters?" Hanabi asked uncertainly, chewing on her thumbnail.

"Of course! You're family! What matters more than my promiscuous baby cousin?"

"So... does this mean you're finished with your plant scheme? Because Dad's just waiting for the next shoe to drop."

"Well, your father also frequently mistakes Sasuke for his dead mother, so maybe you should stop getting your conspiracy theories from him."

The two cousins sat next to each other in silence for a moment. Neji bounced a little bit on the mattress a few times.

"Uh... so..." Hanabi said awkwardly. "Read any good books?"

"Actually, I just finished the Polly Perks biography," Neji said enthusiastically. "It's really quite inspiring. You might like it."

"Hmm," Hanabi grunted noncommittally.

"It's about this girl from a small, war-torn country that didn't allow women in the army, but she wanted to find her brother who joined the army, right, so she-,"

Neji stopped talking. Hanabi had picked up her journal and was writing in it, not paying any attention to him. He cleared his throat. "So she cross-dresses and teams up with a vampire and a mountain troll, and they get stalked by a werewolf..."

Hanabi said nothing, only continued writing. Certain he was being ignored, Neji got up and left.

You know who would really like Socks and Coffee?" he thought as he returned to his own, Albert-free room. Naruto. He would love the part about how to cook hard tack.

He reached for his copy of the book, lying on the floor next to his bed, flipped through it and found the chapter on hard tack. He was about to fold back the page so Naruto would know he had gotten to a part Neji liked, when he remembered that he wasn't going to be lending Naruto another book ever again.

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Tenten took Lee aside about a week into Neji's Naruto-free life and explained to him that Neji was going to be a little out of it for a while, and that maybe they should schedule some... well, distractions for him. Lee immediately suggested a nature walk. Tenten was powerless to talk him down from it. Unhappily, she explained the idea to Neji.

"Sounds good."

"Really?" Tenten watched him closely, inspecting him for sarcasm.

"Yes. I like nature. I like the forest. Naruto and I tried to identify all the trees in the park one time, and it was fairly enjoyable." He nodded thoughtfully. "Very enjoyable... Maybe we can do that again. I bet you'd be better at it than that annoying bastard. I mean, how hard is it to tell the difference between an oak and a sycamore?"

Tenten coughed. "Uh, why don't we do something that you haven't done before? Like... not look at trees?"

Keeping Team Gai in working order was a full time job. Tenten had forgotten that when they all started growing up, heading their own ways, and (she had thought) maturing.

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"So, Neji... I see you haven't bought a new plant yet," Hiashi decided to swing by Neji's room casually and make some discreet inquiries into what he was convinced was a sinister plot against him.

Neji was rubbing sun screen on his skin, preparing for the nature walk Lee had planned out for them. "I don't want a new one," he sighed, glancing over at the empty desk where Albert used to sit.

"You sure?"

"Yes... I wasn't very good with them."

"I can lend you a little money, if that's the problem," Hiashi reached for his wallet and tried to block Neji from slipping out the door.

"Not really. I'm done with plants. I'm going out... get some exercise."

"Oh? You have a date?" For the first time in the conversation, Hiashi sounded genuinely happy about this, instead of suspiciously-solicitous, but Neji didn't notice.

"Ye-Nu..." Neji hesitated, then shook his head vehemently. "I'm not dating anyone," he said, forcing his way past his uncle, out of his room, onto the porch, and straight into one of the columns that held up the roof.

"You all right, Neji?" Hiashi called after him. Neji didn't respond, but backed away from the column and started towards the street dizzily.

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Team Gai's nature walk went surprisingly well. Tenten found that she was enjoying herself even, as she and her oldest friends meandered along an old deer path in the woods. Lee seemed unusually calm, Neji seemed content to walk along without identifying any trees or telling any ex-boyfriend stories, and Tenten got a rare moment of relaxation.

After an afternoon of wandering without any clear destination, they found themselves back at the gates of Konoha and decided to call it a night.

"Hey, Neji, what's that in your hand?" Lee asked as he went to force Neji to hug him goodnight, a long-standing Lee tradition.

"Oh, it's just that toad we found earlier," Neji opened his palm to reveal a tiny brown toad. "I thought maybe Naruto would like to see it. He likes toads and frogs and stuff."

Tenten cut in here. "Maybe you should leave it in the woods, Neji," she said gently, feeling rather as though she was babysitting. "It's probably happier out here."

"Oh... yes, you're right. Of course."

Lee turned to Tenten as Neji looked for a good place to release his toad. "I give him two more weeks at most," he said.

Tenten looked at her teammate, confused. "Two weeks to what?"

"Get back with Naruto," Lee said as thought it were obvious. "He's going to crack like an egg."

Tenten usually thought of Lee as the least mature and self-aware of their little group. It occurred to her now that she had no basis for this assumption whatsoever.

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"Sakura, hypothetical situation," Naruto asked one day as they were walking through the streets, trying to think of something to do in their spare time besides watch TV. "Suppose you were with someone who you really liked..."

"Walking along trying to think of something to do rather than watch TV?" Sakura asked. "Well, I would come up with a hypothetical situation about..."

"No, I mean, suppose you were with someone who you really like, and who really likes you... and you have a really good time together, and you love hanging out..."

"And the sex is good," Sakura added in.

"No, not just that! Although, say it is good... say, really good... and the whole set up is just pretty much everything you want..."

"Alright, let's say that," Sakura agreed. "Sounds like a nice little romantic fantasy you've got going in your hypothetical situation."

"Well, say that... this person that you're with is really ashamed to be seen in public with you because you're not good enough for him... but he still cares about you. Do you stay with him?"

Sakura rolled her eyes. "Seriously, Naruto? Can you even hear yourself right now? Look, I know that breaking up is hard, but sometimes the crazy arrogant bastard deserves what's coming to him."

Narutosighed deeply. "I guess so..."

"Do you want some comfort sex?" Sakura asked gently.

"Maybe..." Naruto admitted quietly, kicking at a rock in front of him. Sakura wrapped a comforting arm around his shoulders.

"Come on, let's go watch some porn on my computer. That'll cheer you up."

"You're not going to have comfort sex with me?"

"I don't think you're ready yet," Sakura said, patting his arm. "But I've got a great one where an attractive group of friends get sucked into the sex dimension and start switching bodies with each other."

"Sounds hot," Naruto said miserably.

"Not really, but it's utterly hilarious. You'll like it."

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Neji made it past the two week line, but it was starting to wear on him. He and Team Gai spent a lot of time together, because Tenten and Lee were a little reluctant to leave him alone. As Tenten had promised over pastries that fateful morning two weeks ago, it was just like old times, which meant that all of them were doing a lot more exercise.

"Come on, just 346 more laps to go!" Lee panted as he jogged ahead of them one afternoon, when the sun was at its hottest. Tenten had already started walking along at a reasonable pace behind them, staying with the boys only because Lee's legs gave out at regular intervals, giving her time to catch up. It was just like old times. Except that Neji couldn't remember being this out of breath as a child.

"All right, Lee, I think that's enough," he panted when he realized just how much longer 346 laps around the track would take.

"You're giving up?" Lee asked. "Then we will have to do 700 sit ups!"

"NO!" Tenten and Neji shouted in unison.

"No more training," Neji said. "We're done. Let's get ice cream."

Lee and Tenten looked at him uncertainly.

"I can buy," he offered. "My uncle's been giving me money all week because he thinks I'm having an emotional breakdown."

"So he's throwing money at the problem?"

"It's a big improvement," Neji shrugged. "He usually throws kitchen utensils at his problems."

"Yeah, that's what my mom does, too," Tenten sighed. "Well, I like ice cream when you're buying."

Even Lee was agreeable to the idea of ice cream, and so they strolled at a leisurely pace down to Snow 'n' Sweets, Team Gai's traditional dairy bar spot.

"Just like old times," Tenten remarked as she and Neji stood in line and Lee stood by, agonizing at the menu hung outside the little stall.

"I was in better shape back then, though," Neji sighed. "I never got this worn out just fooling around with Lee."

"That's because you never used to fool around with Lee. You were too good for 500 laps around the track or else. I'm glad you took that stick out of your ass, you were unbearable."

Neji growled a little and muttered something to the effect of "Yeah, I know," which Tenten noted as a sign of embarrassment. To alleviate any sting her reminiscing might have had, she threw an arm around her teammate and gave him a fast, tight, brotherly hug.

"Whatever, you were our asshole, and that's what matters. And I kinda want a triple-scoop tuxedo strawberry cone, old pal."

Neji looked at her sideways as she released him. She winked back sweetly.

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Neji, balancing a triple-scoop ice cream cone, a large popsicle made of unlikely-colored stripes, and a plain blue two-stick popsicle, tottered over to the bench Tenten and Lee had claimed for themselves. He carefully handed Tenten her cone and Lee his brightly-colored frozen novelty before sitting down comfortably between the two of them.

"Did you run out of money?" Tenten asked guiltily, noticing Neji's cheap little popsicle even as she hurried to lick the melting ice cream off the sides of her cone. "I could have settled for one scoop, you know."

"No, this was all I wanted," Neji shrugged. He broke the treat in two, trying to make the separate pieces as equal as possible. Instinctively, he turned to his other side, holding out one of his popsicle to Naruto.

Lee brandished his own popsicle, looking puzzled. "I've got all I want, Neji," he said, waving away the offering.

"Oh... right, of course you do," Neji grinned and quickly drew his hand away. "Like I was going to give you my popsicle anyway, you moochers."

"You don't even like blue flavor, do yo?" Tenten asked as Neji started to gulp down one of his popsicles before they could both melt on his clothes. "Didn't you tell me once that you were highly suspicious of any color trying to pass itself off as a taste?"

"...yes, I guess I did say that," Neji said after a moment of contemplation. "I suppose I just got used to it. Blue is Na..." Neji choked a little on the last bite of his first popsicle half. "I don't mind it. I don't like ice cream much anyway."

"You used to-," Lee started, but Tenten quickly cleared her throat in a meaningful way.

"Lee, did you ever find those old yoga books I lent you? There were a couple of exercises in there I wanted to try out, myself..."

"Um... I think so. The ones that have how to pour water through your nasal cavity?"

As Tenten and Lee began discussing new and interesting ways to cleanse one's body, Neji relaxed and focused on enjoying his second popsicle. It had been an excruciatingly long day, a day long as only Lee's masochistic training regimes could be, and Team Gai's after-training ice cream had always been Neji's chance to give his muscles and his mind a little rest by simply enjoying the moment.

He held the tip of the popsicle just inside his mouth and ran his tongue slowly around the edge. They hadn't bought ice cream together as an after-training treat for a long time, but he'd had an entirely different way to treat himself recently. And try as Neji might, he couldn't quite convince himself that "blue"-flavor frozen sugar water was a better reward than stripping down and getting a nice, long full-body massage from an attractive and naked blond man, letting himself relax against said blond's touch, feeling those strong hands knead into his shoulders, sift through his hair, rub against his neck...

Of course, it wasn't charity work, but Neji also had no problem when his masseuse finished and sat down on the edge of the bed expectantly, and it was understood that Neji would be rolling off the bed and onto his knees, licking delicately, slowly wrapping his lips around the man's growing erection, lapping his tongue over it, around it, teasing... and then relaxing his throat at just the right moment, sucking, hearing Naruto moan his name...

"Neji..."

Neji heard the voice just as he realized that the buzz of cheerful Team Gai conversation on either side of him had ceased entirely and opened his eyes just as he realized that he was deep throating a popsicle. Startled, his concentration broken, he choked, coughing up some blue liquid in the process. Tenten and Lee were both staring at him, looking distinctly ill.

"Geez, take the popsicle out to dinner first," Tenten muttered.

"I think I should get home," Neji coughed, stumbling onto the road. "See you guys later."

Tenten watched unsympathetically as Neji tossed his popsicle haphazardly into the nearest trash can and half-sprinted away. Lee, green in the face, held his thick, cylindrical popsicle out to her.

"Trade?" he asked half-heartedly. Tenten shook her head.

------------------------------

His first venture back into public following this embarrassing incident occurred the next day, when he was sent to the store for a half-gallon of milk.

"This is ridiculous," he muttered to himself as he examined the row of 2-percent, skim, and whole in the refrigerated section of the store. "I don't even fucking like milk." The whole mission was clearly a ruse to get Neji out of the house, either to make him stop moping or to give Hiashi a chance to scour his room for dead bonsai.

Neji selected a carton of whole, spitefully imagining it going straight to his uncle's hips, about the only form of revenge available to conscripted milk-buyers. Snickering maliciously, he joined the line in front of the only open register, which was currently serving a woman pulling along two shopping carts and four small children.

Ahead of him in line were Sasuke and Sai, carrying a basket of taco supplies. Both of them noticed Neji at the same time and glared angrily at him as he stood there, holding his milk tightly in one hand.

"Something wrong?" he asked in what he hoped was a cool tone.

"No," Sai said simply. He cocked his head to one side, considering Neji. "Well, maybe," he amended seriously, as if he were truly giving the question some thought.

"I have an issue with how you're behaving," Sasuke said. "We're not dating, you know. Stop acting like it."

"I'm barely even talking to you, Princess," Neji snorted, rolling his eyes.

"Exactly."

"I have trouble picturing Naruto with you..." Sai said seriously, still wearing the thoughtful expression of someone pondering an important issue. "I think it's because I always think of him dating men."

"The register next to us just opened up," Sasuke said coldly as Neji twitched. "I suggest you get in line over there. Naruto ran back to get some salsa, and we'd all appreciate it if you were gone before he gets back."

Neji glanced over his shoulder, towards the salsa aisle. Sai coughed to bring his attention back.

"Don't worry, he doesn't want to talk to you," he assured Neji. "About anything."

"Well, good, because I don't particularly want to talk to him," Neji muttered, trying to save face even as he retreated to the recently-opened express lane. "Enjoy your tacos."

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The next day, Naruto awoke, as he did every day, and searched his bedroom floor for the pile of clean boxers. "This place is a mess," he muttered as he tossed aside old magazines and food wrappers. He glanced up at his bonsai apologetically. "I'm sorry, Albert. I'm not much of a homemaker." He examined the plant a little more closely. "Is that a taco shell on you?"

It was. Naruto plucked the food fragment off his plant and was about to toss it over his shoulder. "Sasuke is so gross..." he muttered, holding the taco bit between his thumb and forefinger. After a moment of thought, he popped it into his mouth.

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"I missed you too much," Naruto explained, seizing Neji and flopping onto Tsunade's bed with him. Neji checked the door anxiously, but it was magenta so nobody could get in. "It hurt like pineapple."

Neji's mouth moved to respond, but no words came out. The rest of the room blurred, and he could only see Naruto, the blond hair and blue eyes and sweaty face so close to his own.

"I want you..."

"But we have to find the map before Tenten does!"

Naruto laughed softly at him, because even though Neji was worried about Tenten finding the map, he wasn't making any move to stop Naruto from running his hands along his stomach or grinding their hips together.

"We have a little time before the cinnamon starts. And I want you more than telephones."

Neji awoke with an unnecessary sense of urgency and a throbbing erection. After spending a moment orienting himself (it was morning, he was in his room, there was no map and Tenten was not looking for it), he decided that perhaps the time had come to deal with the fact that he had not had sex in over half a month.

Closing his eyes, he took a few deep breaths and tried to remember the feeling of the dream. What had Dream Naruto said to him? His hand grasped his still-stiff member. It had been the most romantic thing he'd ever heard...

"I want you more than telephones," he whispered as the dream came back to him. His eyes opened. "I want you more than telephones?" he asked his penis, irked. "You got hard over that? What does that even mean?"

His penis gave no response, and Neji realized that he was having a conversation with his morning hard-on. Taking a few more deep breaths, he tried to focus on the task at hand (so to speak). "Just like riding a bike, only more stress-relieving," he assured himself. Now, step one was to find a good sexual fantasy and elaborate, then include appropriate hand motions. Start in the shower... no, the dream had a good idea, the Hokage's office... on that couch in Tsunade's office, alone, when Naruto comes through the window...

"No... dammit, nobody I know; that's just creepy," he muttered. Right, the couch in Tsunade's office, and that guy from the zombie flicks that Hanabi's always drooling over...yeah, him, he's pretty sexy... he comes in through the window, in a thong... yeah, but it doesn't leave much to the imagination, and he grips the back of Neji's head and pulls him into a kiss, and his other hand is down Neji's pants, yeah, just like that...

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"

Neji's entire body jerked up into the air at the high-pitched scream. Hanabi was standing frozen in the doorway, an airhorn in her hand and an expression of pure disgust on her face. Neji snatched a sheet over his exposed body, but the sheet still had a telltale tent in the middle, and the damage was done.

"HANABI! This is why I tell you to knock!" he shrieked.

"Don't yell at me! It's not my fault you're a pervert!" she shrieked right back. "All I wanted was to wake you up and see if you wanted to go dumpster diving with me!"

"Maybe... Give me about fifteen minutes... alone."

"Fifteen minutes, really? That's giving yourself a lot of credit. Forget it, I'll go on my own. You and Mrs Neji's Hand have a good day."

Neji winced as she slammed the door behind her, making his tasteful framed art rattle on the wall.

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Naruto spent the day cleaning his apartment. He wouldn't normally, but Albert had only ever seen it clean before, and he wanted his baby growing up in a clean, sanitary environment, not a disgusting bachelor pad.

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Neji's average training session was not actually very strenuous. As one might expect, it was more focused on looking than on anything athletic. He estimated the distance to a certain tree behind him, then measured it, or he counted birds, or he searched the compound for various family members' porn stashes (Hanabi was particularly clever about her hiding places because she was hiding them not from a five-year-old little cousin, but from her father). The goal was not to punch the hardest, but to observe the most and as accurately as possible. Being able to pick out the important information in the sensory-overload that was byakugan use required a vast amount of concentration.

Unfortunately for Neji, he didn't seem to have any amount of concentration on hand, and he wasn't finding his search for Haruhara's copy of Busty Babes III; The Panty Seductions as calming as it usually was. Neji had turned his normal training routine into a meditation, and the disruption was particularly wearing on his mental health. He could handle the erotic dreams, the mental list of things he wanted to share, the lapses in memory that lead him to pick up toads in the woods, but he could not deal with his meditation time, his time to unwind and clear his head, being constantly interrupted by unwanted thoughts of Naruto rudely busting into his mind and demanding attention.

His only solution was to brush up on the old taijutsu, in the hopes that the constant movement would distract him into a pseudo-meditative state. With this in mind, he pulled out an old training dummy to poke black and blue.

"Jugular, diaphragm, backbone," he recited as he spun around the straw bundle, tapping each spot in turn, paralyzing, winding, and permanently disabling it as he went. "Rib one, two, three, four-," Perhaps he was tapping a little harder than would have been necessary on a real enemy, but the stupid straw hair of the dummy was reminding him of... "FIVE!" he yelled, trying to block the name from forming in his mind.

When a timid little hand tapped against his shoulder, he almost broke it and its owner's solar plexis as he angrily spun to face them.

"N-Neji?" Hinata smiled shyly up at him, seemingly unaware of the fact that he had almost put a palm through her chest.

"Hinata! Don't sneak up on me like that! What are you, crazy?!"

"I've been worried about you," she said, gently grabbing his hand, which was still stopped centimeters away from her chest, and pulling it up to her eye level to examine it. "You've busted your fingers up," she told him. "You don't need to hit that hard."

"You're not the only one who's ever practiced," he muttered, pulling his hand away. Hinata, as always, ignored his resistance and hugged him.

"Please let go of me," Neji sighed hopelessly.

"You've been upset lately," she whispered sadly into his chest. "Everyone's noticed. Do you want to talk about it?"

"No," Neji said shortly.

"Please, Nii-san... I know we haven't always gotten along, but I want you to be happy. I really do."

"There, there," Neji said, patting her head bluntly. "It's nothing to do with you." Which was, of course, a lie, but what was he supposed to say?

"But that doesn't mean you can't talk to me," she said, innocently as always. "It helps a lot to have someone to...well, to tell things to. You might be surprised."

"No, I know what it's like to have someone to talk to. Honest. You don't have to take responsibility for my sanity, Hinata."

"Yes I do! I'm your-,"

"If you finish that sentence with anything other than 'cousin', I'll hit you."

Hinata sighed heavily, and Neji realized, with a bit of an unpleasant jolt, that she really had not intended to finish her sentence with 'cousin,' and also that he did not want to know exactly what she had intended to finish it with. "Well, even so, I care about you. You don't have to keep secrets from me."

Oh, that's what you think, mah girl, Neji thought bitterly to himself, but he managed to disengage himself from Hinata without breaking any of her limbs. "I don't have to, but I want to. Really. Now could you stop prying, please? I'm trying to kill this lump of straw, and you're in my way."

"Well..." Hinata wavered on the spot, glancing between him and the path back to the house. "I guess... but..."

Neji tapped his foot against the ground and glared at her stonily. "Can you just once decide that your stupid second-class cousin is capable of making his own decisions?"

Hinata cringed as if he had slapped her, making this the first time in the conversation that she had the desired reaction to something he said. "That's not fair, Neji."

"I just want some alone time. Do you ever do that, Hinata? Huh? Spend time alone? Thinking? By yourself?" Neji snapped back semi-hysterically.

"Please don't be angry at me..." she whispered, ironically being even more infuriating.

"That would be easier if you'd take a hint when one slapped you in the face and left me alone," Neji growled over the sound of his brain exploding. Hinata instead stepped forward again and laid a hand on his arm gently.

"When you've calmed down, you should come talk to me," she said seriously. Neji wondered if maybe they had accidentally slipped into different space-time continuums so that she was hearing a completely different conversation from the one they were actually having.

"Fine, whatever. We'll talk later," Neji lied irritably. Hinata smiled at him, relieved for reasons beyond his understanding, and walked serenely back to the house.

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Ten minutes later found Neji beating the straw dummy to within an inch of its straw life.

"You want to take care of me? Seriously? Do you have any idea the lengths I go to to protect you? I'd give up a healthy relationship to spare your fuckin' feelings!" he growled at the dummy, jabbing his hand straight through the beat-up chest. He was in the compromising position of trying to yank his hand free again when Hiashi decided to show up.

"Not you too," Neji groaned as he threw his weight backward and knocked the dummy off its stand, still attached to his hand.

"Do you need some help?"

"No," Neji grumbled, kicking at the lump of straw on his wrist.

"For the love of-," Hiashi snatched up the dummy. "Pull."

"I said I didn't need help," Neji muttered resentfully, finally jerking his hand free.

Hiashi rolled his eyes as he tossed the dummy off to one side, but decided not to pursue the conversation further. "Hinata asked me to come check on you because she,"

"I'm sorry I snapped at her, but she wouldn't leave me alone! There's only so much 'heartfelt discussion' I can deal with before I just can't humor her anymore," Neji burst out, half-pleading and half-screaming. "I'm a very private person, I can't change that just because she thinks a good leader talks about her subjects' feelings all the time!"

"...thought you were going to break your fingers," Hiashi sighed flatly, holding out his palm, "Give me your hand."

Neji winced in anticipation as he held out his hand for his uncle to grab. "Please don't hurt me?" he asked hopefully.

"You don't need any help hurting yourself," he muttered, bending one of Neji's particularly-bloody fingers. Neji winced again. "Really, you're going to fracture every bone in your hand if you keep this up. Gentle fist is not the method for letting out steam. Neither is picking on Hinata... or whatever the hell you did to Hanabi to piss her off at you."

"Well, that should have been an appropriate method," Neji whispered bitterly to himself, nevertheless feeling grateful that Hanabi had not told her father what she had walked in on. "Is Hinata-sama very upset?"

"Oh, probably," Hiashi sighed absently, balling Neji's hand into a fist without noticing the tears welling up in his nephew's eyes from the pain. "You're going to end up with fingers like your grandmother's before you're thirty. I know when you're young you think that you're invincible, but believe me, m'boy, it's not-,"

"I hate it when she's upset," Neji said through teeth gritted against the pain in his abused hand. "I try really hard to take care of her, you know-,"

"Wouldn't it be nice if you could extend that courtesy to yourself once in a while... you don't even like Hinata," Hiashi muttered to himself, finally releasing Neji's hand to pull a spool of bandage out of his pocket. "Come on, keep your hand out. If I can't make you behave rationally I can at least make sure you don't cripple yourself permanently."

"I just wanted some time to think," Neji tried to explain before yanking his hand back. "Hey! That hurts!"

Hiashi only tightened his grip on Neji's hand as he continued to wrap the bandage around Neji's finger in what felt like an effort to crush the remaining bones and blood vessels. "I hurt you because I love you. Stop moving."

"Yeah, you really love me," Neji snorted sarcastically. "OW! You're doing that on purpose!"

"If you'd stopped hitting so hard when your fingers began hurting, this wouldn't be happening now. Pain is an important evolutionary response, Neji. It tells you- I said stop moving- when you are endangering yourself. If you are doing something that causes you pain, you need to re-evaluate what you are doing."

Neji watched uncertainly as his uncle tore off the end of the bandage now tightly encasing Neji's fractured fingers. "Is... this one of those lectures that contains a hidden larger message about my life?" he asked cautiously.

Hiashi looked at him as though he had started speaking Martian. "Huh?"

"Never mind," Neji sighed, flexing his hand experimentally. "Thanks for taking care of my hand, I guess."

"All in a day's work," Hiashi sighed, rather as though he wished it wasn't. "But do try and watch out for yourself from time to time. I really prefer it when you're not hurt or dead."

Neji laughed humorlessly. "How sweet of you... would... by any chance, would this preference still be valid even if it was in direct conflict with one of your loved ones' preferences? Like, say Hinata tried to kill me..."

"Your paranoid fantasy worlds never fail to amaze me, Neji. Nothing on earth could make Hinata want to-,"

"It's a hypothetical situation," Neji interrupted quickly, leaning in slightly. In the back of his mind, a glimmer of an idea was growing. "I mean, if she tried to kill me, would you stop her?"

"Of course I would stop her," Hiashi said, rolling his eyes. "Believe it or not, Neji, you do mean something to me. Maybe not as much as my natural children, but I'm still not going to let them murder you in front of me."

Neji mulled this over. He must have looked particularly forlorn while doing so, because Hiashi gave the most fidgety, uncomfortable, inept cough Neji had ever heard and said, "...Do you want a hug?"

Neji, thinking of other things, only computed the question at face value. "I really could use one, actually, now that you ask."

"Well, uh..."

"Not from you," Neji added on quickly, taking a step back. Hiashi looked relieved beyond words to hear this, but Neji was now thinking about the last time that someone offered him a hug. "But you can... yeah, why not. Can you meet me in the living room in about half a minute? Of course you can. He wants me to tell my goddamn uncle and his goddamn kids... Yes, it'll work! It has to work!" Neji muttered to himself, rushing off without another glance at his confused uncle.

-------------------------------

Hanabi was sitting on her bed, drawing mustaches on the heroine on the cover of her latest serial romance, when Neji burst open the door.

"Hanabi, get in the living room right now while I find your sister," he shouted quickly.

"She's already in the living room," Hanabi said flatly. "And I don't take orders from you."

Neji furrowed his eyebrows. "Fine. If you are not in the living room with the rest of your family in the next two minutes, you are no longer my cousin," he growled, slamming the door shut behind him.

Hanabi sighed. "Fine, I'm going, I'm going."

------------------------------

Hinata, true to Hanabi's word, was in the living room (a furniture and decoration deprived room that rivaled Neji's for cheerlessness. The Hyuuga family generally used the term 'living room' ironically.), talking to Ko, a distant cousin whom she got on with better than any of her close relatives.

"Yeah, I know I really enjoyed-," he was saying when Neji burst into the room, waving a piece of paper and a pen in one hand.

"HINATA! And..." Neji hesitated, as though he had forgotten Ko's name, even though the two of them saw each other fairly frequently. "Ko! Both of you! Stay right here! We're having a family meeting! I have something important to tell you!"

Hinata nodded quietly, but Ko, always on the lookout for drama (the Hyuuga Main house being ridiculously and famously dysfunctional), scooted towards the door discreetly.

"This is a family thing, I'll give you two some privacy," he whispered prudently. Neji stepped in front of him.

"No, you too!" he said. "You're here, you have to stay! This is important!"

Ko, like most Hyuugas, had many an opportunity to regret the unfortunate circumstances that had placed in him said clan. He had the distinct premonition that this was going to be one of those opportunities, an impression that Hiashi's arrival did nothing to refute.

"All right, I'm here. What do you want?"

"Not yet," Neji said emphatically. "We have to wait for-,"

Hanabi slouched into the room, looking around unamusedly. "Dad, too? What, are you finally going to tell us what the bonsai thing was about?"

"No," Neji said, rolling his eyes, "This is much more- KO! Stay right where you are!"

Ko, who had been trying to inch out the door unnoticed, froze solid.

"Now," Neji cleared his throat and looked around the assembled four people standing in a rough semi-circle before him. "I have something very important to tell you all."

"Make it snappy," Hanabi said impatiently, "My show's about to come on."

"Stop interrupting me and maybe this wouldn't take so long," Neji snapped at her.

Hinata coughed delicately. "What were you saying, Nii-san?" she asked sweetly, looking up at him with innocently-loving eyes. Neji's resolve almost vanished, but it was too late to turn back now and he knew that, deep down, he didn't want to turn back anymore.

"Hinata, I'm sorry that I snapped at you. You were just trying to help."

"For the love of fuck!" Hanabi burst out, ignoring the glare her father shot her for the expletive. "You dragged us out here to apologize to Hinata? What is wrong with you lately?"

"Shut up, Hanabi," Neji snapped. "Just, let me have this one thing, okay? Ko, I mean it, you better stay the fuck put!"

Ko gulped and returned to his spot next to Hinata.

"Right," Neji growled, "Hinata, I apologize for this morning. Now, Uncle, Hinata-sama, Ko, Midget," (Hanabi glared), "I have something to tell you all. I've..." Neji took a deep breath. Hanabi snorted audibly. "I've been dating Naruto for about six months and, if he'll have me, I intend to continue dating him until further notice. There. I said it."

"Uzumaki?" Hanabi asked, raising an eyebrow.

With a glance in Hinata's direction and a wince anticipating the pain of her springing on him with a knife, Neji nodded. Hanabi wrinkled her nose.

"But he's so... blond," she said. Neji decided to ignore her and deal with the more pressing matter.

"Hinata," he said gently, "I know this must come as a bit of a shock to you..."

"Not really," Hinata said with a polite, puzzled smile. "Tenten told me."

"You knew?" Neji choked out, pictures of how hellish his life had been for the past month flooding into his mind. "But... I told her not to tell anyone! Especially not-,"

"Well," Hinata blushed, "She told me not to tell you that she told... but she kind of let it slip... it was our second date and she wasn't thinking... please don't be angry at her, Nii-san."

"SECOND DATE?!" Neji gasped.

"We've been going out for about three months," Hinata said, her face going a deeper pink with happiness. "I'm sorry, I should have told you, but..."

"So when you haven't come home..." Neji stuttered, turning green, "You and her..."

"I've been spending the night at her house sometimes," Hinata admitted, smiling slightly.

"WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME?!" Neji shrieked.

"Tenten... thought you'd be upset," Hinata said, "which is silly of her, but she said-,"

"She's damn right I'm upset! You can't date my teammate, Hinata! I put my foot down! I- I- My whore teammate's been screwing my baby cousin and you expect me not to freak out!?"

While Neji shouted until his face turned purple and Ko looked for a corner to hide in, Hiashi turned to Hanabi.

"So... you're the straight egg?" he asked quietly.

Hanabi nodded. "Yup."

"Hmm... I always figured it was your sister," he shrugged, turning back to watch Neji and Hinata. "You've just always been so... you know. Masculine."

"Thanks, Pop," Hanabi said flatly. "Just... thanks."

"I'm not too young," Hinata was saying, "You and Naruto-kun are the same ages as Tenten and I, and that's fine with you."

"That's different!" Neji shouted. "I'm not my little cousin!"

Ko tried to make a break for it again, but Neji saw him. "You're not going anywhere until I get your signature!" he yelled, sprinting after Ko, who had made it out the door.

He tackled the man around the legs and pulled him to the floor five feet from the door. "Sign here!" he demanded, shoving the paper and pen in front of the flattened Ko's nose.

"Why?" Ko gasped, taking the pen anyway.

"I need to prove to Naruto that I told you," Neji explained. Ko signed the paper and, when Neji let him stand, took off to a more stable section of the Hyuuga compound. Neji, panting, returned to the room.

"All right, you heard me," he said to his remaining relatives, "Everyone sign."

Hanabi grabbed the pen, signed, and scrambled off to watch her television show. Hinata signed, smiled at him, kissed him on the cheek, and walked off calmly. Hiashi picked up the pen and looked at him.

"What are you waiting for?" Neji asked, impatient to get to phase two of Naruto's requests.

"You really need this, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Then let's make a deal, nephew," Hiashi said, folding his arms threateningly. "I sign... and you tell me what's going to happen to the dead plants."

"What dead-?" Neji started, then realized what was going on. "Are you serious? Look, there was only ever one plant and it's not dead. It's in Naruto's apartment. We were sharing custody."

Hiashi looked at him suspiciously. "A likely story. Very convenient that you tell me this after you decide that you're dating Naruto."

Neji sighed heavily. He suddenly missed Albert very, very much, and the unwelcome interrogation was the only thing separating the two of them. "Okay, you win. I started stockpiling plants to piece them together into a miniature forest that I was going to plant outside in winter to convince you that there was a hot spring under our property to see if you would try and dig it up, but the plants kept dying, so I gave the last one to Lee and gave up."

Hiashi smiled, satisfied, and signed the paper. "I knew you were up to something."

"Yeah, well, it was a good prank in theory," Neji sighed with a lighthearted shrug, snatching the paper away. "Thanks, bye!"

------------------------------------

Sakura, like any good ninja, did not get hangovers. She simply got the all of the symptoms. Hangovers were for the weak.

Stepping out her front door and onto the street, her sensitive eyes covered protectively by dark shades, Sakura turned her feet unsteadily in the direction of the apothecary to pick up a few extra ingredients for her special not-a-hangover cure.

"Dammit, Ino, I should never let you talk me into nights out," she muttered darkly to herself as her ears throbbed from the street noise.

Suddenly, the noise stopped, as did the people moving around her. Sakura turned her head slowly in the direction everyone was looking. Someone was shouting and moving in her direction. Against her better judgement, Sakura lowered her sunglasses so she could get a better look.

Had her symptoms not been so overblown, she would have laughed, as most of the other spectators were doing. The source of commotion was Neji, wearing a bright red thong, something written in day-glo orange across his bare chest.

"I, Neji Hyuuga, am Naruto's little bitch!" he was shouting. Sakura clutched at her head as he reached her and shouted this mantra near her delicate ears. Grimacing, she ducked back into her house, vowing that Naruto would suffer great pain for her headache.

----------------------------------

Naruto, still in his boxers, was staring suspiciously at his milk, trying to decide if it was worth keeping or not. He couldn't remember the last time he had cleaned out his fridge. Well, it had to have been pretty recently, since Neji had taken it upon himself to organize his stuff for him.

"So, within the last week, huh?" Naruto asked the carton, then shook his head. "No, it's been longer than that... I would ask Albert, but I don't want to remind him about the breakup. It would upset him..." Naruto trailed off sadly and decided, when in doubt, to keep the milk so as not to waste it.

"I was alone, I took a ride, I didn't know what I would find there! Another road where maybe I could see another kind of mind there!" some idiot started half-singing, half-yelling from outside his window, which was open to let Albert get some air. Naruto rolled his eyes as he returned the milk to his fridge.

"Ooh, then suddenly I see you! Oooh, did I tell you I need you? Every single day of my life!" the singer continued, clearly only partly aware of how the tune went.

Naruto surveyed his collection of mostly-empty salad dressing bottles and tried to block the 'music' out as the singer stumbled uncertainly but steadfastly through a verse about how he didn't lie and he wanted just to hold him. Naruto could hear some people laughing from the floor above him.

"That's so romantic," he heard someone say distantly. That was when he decided to put a stop to this nonsense. Not because he was jealous of the mystery serenader's target, but because the racket would disturb Albert, who just wanted a little time outside.

"Ooh, you were meant to be near me! And, ooh, I want you to hear me! Say we'll be together every day!"

Naruto stalked into his bedroom and stuck his head out the window. "Hey, you wanna keep it down?!"

"GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE!" Neji shouted up at him, dropping down dramatically to his knees as soon as Naruto's head became visible over the windowsill.

"Neji?!" Naruto shouted, squinting. "What are you wearing?"

"What can I do, what can I say, when I'm with you I want to stay theeeeeere!" Neji continued singing, but paused to take a breath and shout up, "Hey, is everyone in the building staring yet?"

"Yes!" Naruto snapped, suddenly realizing that his neighbors were, indeed, all staring back and forth between him and the barely-clad man on the ground. "Get up here!"

Slamming his window shut, Naruto stalked back over to his front door, then back to his bedroom to pull on some sweat pants before returning to the door to lean on the frame with his arms crossed, the picture of indifference.

"The Beatles, Neji? Really?" he asked when Neji made it up the stairs to Naruto's door. He tried to concentrate on a point somewhere just beyond Neji's head, avoiding any actual eye contact.

"You said you wanted me to sing in front of your window, and I don't know many songs," Neji explained. "I got you a gift," he explained further.

"Is it another headband you borrowed from me?" Naruto asked, trying to sound cold.

"No, it's my family's signatures stating that they know that you and I are... er, were a couple."

Naruto looked at him for the first time, then slowly took the paper Neji was offering. "It is?"

"Yes. I'm sorry I didn't tell them earlier. I was being unreasonable, you were right," Neji said seriously, "And I want you back. So. Do you want to go out for ramen so we can discuss this and, if that goes well, possibly play footsie and call each other pet names until the people in the next booth tell us to get a fucking room?"

Naruto grinned slightly, reading through the Neji's signature collection. "Are you doing everything I asked? Is that what this is?"

Neji nodded.

"So, you're willing to move in with me and have sex with me first thing every morning?"

"If you'll let me," Neji whispered, biting down on his lip anxiously. It wasn't the walking around town in a thong that Naruto really wanted, of course, but if this didn't work, then Neji didn't know what else he could do.

With a joyful, relieved laugh, Naruto jumped at him, throwing his arms around Neji's neck. "Of course I'll let you!" he cried, pulling his reclaimed boyfriend into the hug that Neji had been craving for longer than he'd care to think.

"You're getting orange paint-," Neji started to say as he felt his "I love Naruto Uzumaki" paint rubbing off, but Naruto pressed their mouths together, and Neji had no intention of objecting. And, even though he could feel the paint rubbing onto Naruto's body, he couldn't be worried about the mess they were making, because Naruto's naked chest was pressed against his for the first time in far too long. Naruto leaned into him even more, without breaking the kiss, and this time Neji lost his balance and fell backwards, Naruto on top of him, onto Naruto's welcome mat. Naruto's hand cushioned his head and neck well enough, but it was not Neji's most dignified moment.

"You all right?" Naruto gasped, landing a sloppy and shaken kiss on his neck.

"I've been worse," Neji panted honestly. Bruises healed, after all, and now he had Naruto, half-naked Naruto, lying on top of him, sucking on the soft skin of his neck as if to say "hahaha, I've wanted to give you this hickey forever."

Naruto moved to Neji's mouth once again, but he pulled back enough that their eyes could meet and Neji could see the contented smile on the blond's face. "I thought maybe you wouldn't come back," he whispered. "And I..." he trailed off and kissed Neji again hungrily. "I missed you."

"I missed you, too," Neji moaned, closing his eyes blissfully. "Like telephones."

"Of course you did," Naruto replied, deciding not to ask for fear of ruining the mood. Instead, he thrust his hips against Neji's crotch. "Want to know how I can tell?"

"Well, you just pushed me onto the floor and I'm still hard?"

"I didn't pu-," Naruto started, but Neji wrapped a hand around his neck and pulled him their mouths together.

"Cut me some slack, I haven't had sex in about three weeks," Neji explained. Naruto smirked.

"We're going to have to fix that right now," he said, gently pulling his hands out from under Neji's head and propping himself up on his elbows. His tongue traced down Neji's chest until he hit the smeared orange paint that had once said his name, and then he pulled back, grimacing at the acrid taste. He inched further towards Neji's legs, finally stopping right above the brilliant red thong.

"I love this thong," he grinned, pulling the garment away with his teeth. Neji moaned, feeling the warmth of Naruto's tongue as it licked at the tip of his neglected penis.

"I missed you-," he choked out.

"Very touching," came an unamused, female voice from somewhere behind him. Naruto's head snapped up.

"Oh... uh... Hi, Michiru," he said bashfully. Neji tilted his head back to see a young woman in a short skirt, with her hand on her hip.

"Naruto, I appreciate that you two are doing well as a couple," she said, "And I also know that I tend to bring home men and be a little loud about it, and I appreciate your understanding on these occasions. But blowing your boyfriend while lying in my way to get back into my apartment is really, really pushing it. So take it inside, nobody needs to see that."

"Right, sorry," Naruto said, hoisting Neji to his feet. The thong fell off, but they left it on the doorstep as they slipped into the apartment.

"I was so looking forward to that, too," Naruto muttered as he pulled off his sweat pants and boxers absently. Neji brushed his fingers longingly against Naruto's naked hips. Naruto grabbed his hand and pulled him closer. "Yes?"

"I wanted to take those off," Neji explained. Naruto grinned at him, forcing one knee between Neji's legs, tangling them together.

"Sorry, my mind's on other things," he laughed, squeezing Neji's hand. Neji winced, and Naruto, for the first time, noticed the heavy bandages. "What happened to your hand?"

"I was taking out some frustration on a dummy and things went a little too far," he explained as Naruto licked his finger tips- the only part of his hands not covered by bandage.

"Poor Neji... I didn't know you were injured. You'd better get in bed right now."

"Will you be joining me?"

"How else are we going to get you laid?"

They migrated into Naruto's room, Neji only stopping briefly to notice how it was almost-clean and the bed was almost-made with almost-clean sheets.

"Something wrong?" Naruto asked, wrapping his arms around Neji from behind and burying his nose in the long, dark hair covering his neck.

"I didn't think you'd do this well without me," he admitted.

"I missed your obsessive cleaning," Naruto sighed, hot breath running against Neji's spine. He took a step forward, pushing Neji ahead of him. "We're almost in bed, keep going."

Naruto spun Neji around when they got to the edge of the bed and pushed him back onto the mattress. A satisfied smirk spread across his face as his eyes swept over Neji's slightly-orange but still utterly sexy body, and then he dropped to his knees.

This time, no irrate neighbors interrupted.

------------------------

"Was that my name you were screaming?" Naruto asked as he crawled onto the bed. Neji nodded and reached out to run a bandaged hand over Naruto's cheek. "I must have lost my touch. That was half-coherent."

Neji's hand clumsily closed into a fist as he tried to pull Naruto toward him, but Naruto resisted and reached for the night stand and the barely-used tube upon it. "I haven't even gotten started yet, you know."

"Of course you haven't. Would I have walked through the village almost-naked if I thought you weren't going to keep me up all night?" Neji asked, propping himself up to kiss Naruto again, keeping their lips locked, rubbing one bandaged hand along Naruto's inner thigh.

"I guess I owe you, then," Naruto said, pulling away to unscrew the lube with his teeth. Neji smiled and ran his tongue along Naruto's collarbone, almost making the other man swallow the cap.

"Did I tell you how much I missed you?" Naruto panted, his fingers reaching Neji's entrance and putting the lube to good use.

"I can imagine," Neji whispered, once again pulling Naruto into a kiss. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting so long."

"It just makes this more fun," Naruto moaned back, gently positioning both of them back on the bed.

Despite the weeks of tortured erotic daydreams, Neji could not believe how wonderful the real deal felt. No matter how vivid he had thought his awkward wet dreams of Naruto plunging inside of him were, there was no doubt that none of them had even begun to capture the true experience.

I am a moron for putting this apology off, he thought blurrily as he and Naruto moaned and thrust and locked lips and released, panting, and repeated the process.

The sun was setting when the two of them decided they were too tired to move, let alone try for one more time.

"I'm glad you're back," Naruto whispered for the billionth time, his voice hoarse after the intense afternoon. Neji agreed for the billionth time. "My room has been missing something, decor-wise, that I've been meaning to ask you about."

"Hmm?" Neji inquired vaguely, running his foot lazily along Naruto's calf and only half-paying attention to the conversation.

"I think it needs something... deep chocolate brown," Naruto whispered, pressing his lips into Neji's hair. "And something... off-white, almost a cream color..." he kissed Neji's cheek. "And maybe a very light touch of lilac," Neji closed his eyes to let Naruto kiss his eyelids. "It would just make the whole room perfect."

"You're getting better at decorating," Neji smiled as he opened his eyes to meet Naruto's soft blue ones. "That would look lovely."

"Well, since my sheets finally match and my floor is visible and Albert fits in so beautifully, I thought it would be a shame to leave the whole thing unfinished," Naruto wormed an arm under Neji's neck and held him closer, both of them now facing Albert, gold-green in the sunlight. "It'll be perfect."

"Yes," Neji agreed, snuggling closer to Naruto's body. "Perfect."

--------------------

Polly Perks (c) Terry Prachett
Got to Get You Into My Life (c) The Beatles
Sage Harlequin and the Abortions series (c) to my friend JohnnyObnoxious (avaible via deviantart).