AUTHORS: Kenen and E
DISCLAIMER: Naruto is a product of Kishimoto Masashi . . . lucky bastard.
PAIRINGS: Hyuuga Neji + Uzumaki Naruto

Chapter One: First Impressions

Hyuuga Hiashi was not an impressive person as a man, Hyuuga Neji thought almost absently as his uncle let himself into his room. Sure, the face had also been the one on his father's head, and yes, the voice was almost the same timbre but there was a distinct lack of . . . something that had made Hyuuga Hizashi a better man than his twin, and brother, and jailer and executioner. But Neji wasn't bitter about that anymore, not entirely. There would always be sadness at the loss of his father but he knew the truth of it now; his father was no less a hero in the knowing. In fact, it made Hiashi look that much worse, that much weaker.

But unimpressive as he was, there was a reason to fear him. Hyuuga Hiashi was from the Head Family, and even without being the leader of the entire clan, both Head and Branch, all Head Family members were Keys to the iBirds in the Cage/i. Neji was young, but even he'd felt the Lock from quite a few Keys. The Lock was not a pleasant feeling; Hyuuga Hiashi was not impressive, Hyuuga Hiashi was Head Family, he was a Key to Neji's Door. Hiashi was a person to be feared. Neji stood and bowed.

"We must speak. Please raise your head." The Key seemed uncomfortable, noted the Door. Bunke were not equal with Souke. There was no reason for Neji to not look at the floor for hours if need be, aside from that a Head Family member had made the order. Neji's eyes met Hiashi's.

He hadn't been Locked in awhile, Neji thought. As a matter of fact he hadn't been Locked since the first chuunin exam concluded. Was it guilt the boy wondered, as there had been plenty of times his mind could have suffered the consequences of his mouth. The truth had been found out. The reason why some Hyuuga members could proudly display their unmarred forehead while the others were hidden was no mystery anymore. The much lauded and powerful Head Family of the Hyuuga had fallen in a sense; a certain degree of respect lost for how they enslaved their own clan. Neji felt nothing, not even when the clan elders bent enough to properly honor his father's sacrifice. The Hyuuga name meant nothing to him, he didn't want their apologies. Actions couldn't be undone.

The Key spoke again. "Neji, you are nearing your sixteenth birthday."

It was a statement, it was a fact; it was the truth irritatingly enough. Bad things always happened to the Bunke in leaps of fours. At age four they were forced into the Cage using a painful binding jutsu. At eight they felt the Cage Lock for the first time, a reminder of who was in charge through force. At twelve they were given a physical and mental inspection by the elders; it was to decide who would be powerful with whom. Good Bunke breeding was important after all. They weren't worth much if they couldn't protect the Head Family. It had been an embarrassing and exhausting examination. Neji hadn't shown his full potential and hadn't been discovered. Little good it did him at this point; all knew he was a genius among them. Their only recourse now was to find him a woman with good child childbearing hips because twins were a definite possibility. Neji knew this, expected it even, he did not agree with it, however. The Hyuuga were an aristocratic bunch, name and etiquette meant much, but even the eldest and most respected of them could be a little crude.

But he was thinking of The Fourths as the Bunke called them, synonymous with crude elders true, but still a different subject. At sixteen Neji knew he could expect his wide-hipped woman. She would be a gently reared Bunke member versed in the arts of ninja as well as classic literature. She would know all the Souke Hyuuga waltzes and execute them perfectly in front of the elders, and shake to the beat of the Bunke Hyuuga dancing behind closed doors. For the Bunke were indeed different from the Souke, and after so many years of being trapped in the Cage they had developed their own hidden culture.

Hyuuga was the oldest and most powerful clan in the village. It had always been their way to marry children off early and have lots of heirs; especially the Bunke. Neji knew he was too powerful to let such potential go to waste waiting. If he wasn't married off at sixteen, then it would be twenty and if for some reason not twenty, then definitely twenty-four. And after that there was no more scheduled bad luck but it would come in watching his own children suffer through The Fourths, or some other tragedy.

And what proof did he have of this? His beloved father of course; born second though more noble, one genius son at twenty-eight - someone had told Neji once that Hizashi had done everything to delay the inevitable, and a first child at twenty-eight was unheard of for a Bunke member. And then Hizashi had martyred himself at thirty-two . . . But Neji didn't believe in fate anymore, these were just observations. Still the future was not bright.

His uncle spoke calmly, slowly, as though he had thought long and hard on what he was about to say, practiced. "I'm supposed to just deliver this to you and tell you to study for your wedding night." Hiashi pulled a book from his robe and handed it to Neji. The youth glanced down at it once, twice, because his eyes had obviously processed something incorrectly the first time. But they hadn't. He had just been given a book that read Love, Lust, and Passion; the characters drawn in human figures connecting in ways Neji was certain wasn't possible. An eyebrow rose, invisible beneath his Leaf forehead protector. He was certain his face was an interesting hue; red or green being the choices because he did feel both embarrassed and sick.

He needed to think on something else. Thankfully the Hyuuga Key was silent. Neji couldn't put the book down; a Head Family member had placed it directly into his hands meaning he was meant to hold it in their presence. He didn't have to look at it though. His brain was empty, but that was a good thing, Neji wasn't certain he could summon a clean thought. The boy managed to focus on the Key's left eyebrow. Hiashi didn't seem to mind, likely sensing his discomfort and having no desire to heighten it. There had been a 'but' somewhere in his previous sentence. It had been a raindrop, Neji awaited the downpour.

He didn't have long. "You were done a great unforgivable disservice twelve years ago," the Key began. Neji had to refrain from nodding. No amount of remorse would keep Hiashi from Locking him over that display of impertinence. "I regret it more than I can say." Neji didn't doubt it. Hiashi's body language said as much, but then the Hyuuga had been bred to look appropriate in any situation. What was the man getting toward? "You're upcoming nuptials had me thinking that it was a shame that you, who was most blessed with our blood is not a member of the Souke. Even so, I thought, your children could be."

The eyebrow was still more interesting than Hiashi's words. Neji understood them, figured out all the little hidden meanings and repercussions in record time; he did not like the implications. He wasn't entirely willing to meet Hiashi's eyes, but he did and he saw that the Key was waiting for a response from him, any response as he had yet to speak since the head Hyuuga's entrance. But then Bunke weren't really meant to speak, just take orders. Neji inhaled shallowly but deeply, preparing himself. The Key might Lock him for this one. "I'm sure you'll choose whatever you want." He couldn't help it; he closed his eyes when Hiashi seemed to automatically raise his hand into a familiar gesture that was always performed too quickly for him to see it clearly. Good Head Family breeding always came out in the end. His jaw clenched. Why couldn't he have just said 'what was best?' flattery of that nature always made the Head Family less violent. But Neji couldn't bring himself to it, preferring the pain as a reminder to why he hated the whole system, the whole family, everything about the clan. But there wasn't any agony inflicted. Neji cracked an eye and looked up.

Hyuuga Hiashi just wasn't impressive Neji couldn't refrain from thinking again. Words of that nature always ended in a Lock, had he the power, and the position of Hiashi he wouldn't have hesitated. However, The Hyuuga seemed to be horrified instead, staring at his hand and then looking to Neji when he noticed movement from the boy.

"You are the greatest of us, but it seems you are only as great as our restraint," Hiashi stated.

Neji would have smirked but even he wouldn't tempt a fate he didn't believe in anymore. When given a reprieve one should inhale and exhale graciously and nothing more. And the Key was correct. He was a genius among them; but his life could end on the whim of a Head Family member with a superiority complex. It was hard to choose one's own path when others had the distinct power and pleasure of doing it for one no matter how one struggled.

"Neji . . . you don't have to accept this offer, it is merely a . . . proposal."

Neji had a good guess at what the proposal was, but he did acknowledge that proposals were different. Proposals indicated a choice. So basically his decision would consist of two evils instead of being forced into one. The Fourths were truly the work of a devil.

"You could accept a woman of the elder's choosing now, or you could marry Hoheto's daughter, Emiko, when she comes of age. Please speak frankly."

Neji wasn't so certain he should speak period, but that was insubordination and he'd already used up his luck in that regard. A discussion involving that girl who'd had the misfortune to inherit her father's heavily bagged eyes would not be flattering. They were Head family sycophants whose loyalty had won them a reprieve from the Curse Seal.

"You assume too much," he said. For it was true. No one had ever asked Neji if he wanted a wife to begin with.

"What do I assume?"

"That anyone would want Hoheto's daughter for one thing. And that I of all people would willingly unite with the Souke for another." If there was any being in the entire world that could strike him mute Neji welcomed it in ways one who had never felt the Lock could never understand. He was truly setting himself up today.

"Is that so?" there was unbridled anger in The Hyuuga's voice though the words were barely uttered.

"You told me to speak frankly, I am," Neji replied smoothly though his heart had dropped to his toes and his lungs couldn't seem to get enough air. Hopefully Hiashi would lose all sense of property and break his Door when he turned the Key to Lock it. He was daring too much, how long would his foolishness be tolerated? "You assume that all Bunke are envious of the Souke and want into it, when in fact we hate you. My father aside, I hate you. And there is no way I'd-" Neji took a calming breath. He was getting too loud, too emotional. "Don't get me wrong, this," he touched the center of his forehead. "This is the worst, but at least I'm not one of you monsters who do this to other people." He plowed on even though Hiashi's jaw had clenched and his hands had fisted at his sides, visibly shaking with sheer willpower not to lash out. "You assume too much," Neji repeated quietly. "I want no children."

The shaking stopped. Hiashi was beyond surprised. It was in his stance, his face, his voice. "What?"

"I want no children. That's what I would choose for myself if I were free to decide. I wouldn't do this to them, I could never cause my own flesh and blood suffering." It wasn't quite an afterthought when he added, "I would never curse any child with the name Hyuuga. It is nothing to be proud of."

"Said the one with the most talent?" Hiashi challenged.

White eyes met white. "Says the one," Neji affirmed without hesitation.

There was silence and Hiashi was the first to look away. "So you've decided on . . ."

"What decision was there!" His wrapped hand immediately clamped over his mouth; Neji was appalled. Was he stupid? Had he just seriously interrupted the head of the clan, raised his voice even? Courage could be defined as doing something you're afraid to do regardless of the consequences but at what point did courage and idiocy merge? Neji removed his hand. If he was going to spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state for this then so be it. He was tired of living in fear; he was tired of being ignored. At least he would be able to speak a little of what he'd been dying to say for years now. "You tell me there's a choice between two things that I don't want to do anyway. That is not a choice. I don't want to marry, whether into a Head family or a Branch is of little consequence, I wouldn't do it. I'm a human being too you know. I have my own dreams, and I have some one to dream about and that isn't something I'm willing to let you take away from me too. And everyday that passes I have just that much more time to dream . . ." he paused.

Hyuuga Hiashi's hands were peacefully at his sides, his white eyes filled with sudden comprehension, understanding, and even compassion.

"You're in love," The Hyuuga stated.

Shit. Neji blinked. It wasn't often that he was utterly baffled or caught off guard, or said things that he didn't remember saying. It wasn't often that his emotions leaked through enough for the unimpressive likes of The Hyuuga to be able to so easily discern them. Just what had his fear had him admitting to? This turn of events was not inspiring.

"Who is she?"

The Head family really did assume a lot. Hadn't he just said that he would do nothing to encourage reproduction of more Hyuuga? And he'd never said he liked girls. Well, Tenten was alright as far as they went, Neji allowed. She threw deadly objects at him and was more interested in strength than the opposite sex unlike other girls; Haruno and Yamanaka came to mind. But no, that was a large inaccurate assumption on Hiashi's part. Neji felt no need to correct him. Young white eyes would not meet older. "What does it matter who this person is?" he answered, because for all his insolence of late, a Souke member had asked him a question and he had to answer.

"It could," Hiashi replied. "Is she one of us?"

"Of course not," Neji snapped. He was beyond caring about his tone of voice. If Hiashi hadn't Locked him at this point it was just a possibility without a high probability.

The Hyuuga was thinking. He spoke after a time. "If you could have one wish what would it be?"

"I'm a bit too old for useless fantasies like that," Neji scoffed.

"Answer anyway. If you have imagination enough to consider a non-Hyuuga lover then I know you've considered it."

For the first time in his entire life he wanted to be Locked, the Door noticed. A few countless hours of untold torture would still his tongue or at least put it to better use cursing the Souke or screaming in agony. "One wish, huh?"

The Hyuuga nodded.

"I wish my father was here to put his hand on my shoulder and look me in the eyes, and tell me everything is going to be alright."

The Hyuuga's face fell.

Neji shrugged. "I told you it was useless."

"Is that all you would ask for?"

"And now you assume too little. What else would I of all people ask for? I don't believe in destiny anymore, but I do still live in reality. No matter what I dream there are still people like you who make up my mind for me. I think I got used to not having to think on my own, and started calling that fate." The boy decided to bend a little. If someone like Hiashi had managed to see his secret even he could allow himself to be a tad impressed. That was worth some cooperation. "If I could wish for anything else though, it would be for freedom from the Hyuuga to choose my own destiny."

"And that's all?"

Neji nodded. What more was there? He'd been pecking away at his Cage for years and still hadn't figured a way out.

"Then you have it."

Something had gone wrong within the space of a second, Neji thought. He hadn't read Hiashi correctly, that was the last thing he'd expected The Hyuuga to say. What did it imply? "Sir?"

"You have it," Hiashi repeated. "Not without conditions of course, but you have it."

"Why?" suspicion adorned Neji's voice now.

However, the Hyuuga Head only lowered his eyes, his face taking on a faraway look as a bittersweet smile graced his mouth. "Because you sound just like your father, those were the last words he ever said to me." And it was then that Neji knew that Hyuuga Hiashi missed his brother, his twin - a man that had died for him because of who he was and not what he represented - on a level the boy would never experience.

This was his apology, he realized. It was worth more than the Head of the Hyuuga Clan prostrating himself, as the name Hyuuga meant nothing to Neji. But this, his one wish answered in life instead of death. It was priceless.

"What about The Elders?"

"I'll worry about The Elders," Hiashi answered.

"And the conditions?"

"Nothing you didn't already want." The Hyuuga turned his back and headed for the door. "Do as you will, Neji."

The ends of Neji's lips tilted upward briefly. It wasn't often that he was so completely wrong about a person.

Hyuuga Hiashi . . . that was damned impressive.