The memory of Ino's funeral takes some effort to remember but the more Neji thinks about it, the more details trickle back to him in bits and pieces. It had seemed so mundane at the time, almost unncessary. Yes, a revered Konoha shinobi had fallen, but was a full funeral really needed when the body couldn't even be recovered? She had been the third member of the Konoha Eleven to lose their life and yet there had been no grandiose memorial service for Rock Lee or the former ROOT member known as Sai. Neither had been given the honor of an overwhelming sea of flowers; the floral scent so pungent in the air that Neji was sure you could smell Konoha half a mile away. The ground had been littered with pure white petals the breeze had plucked from the arrangements and scattered across the village. Although many had shown up to pay their respects to Ino few had stood to speak about her - most of the people in attendance had lost touch with her over time - but many cried. Naruto had freely let the tears roll down his cheeks, the vivacious enthusiasm of his youth slowly slipping away with each comrade he lost. Shikamaru had wept quietly from the front row, fists tightly balled at his sides. Chouji had saved his tears, instead lending a shoulder for Sakura to weep on. Many whispered condolences to Yamanaka Inoichi in passing, but the old blonde resolutely kept his eyes dry and trained on his daughter's picture.
But there had been someone even more interesting than Yamanaka Inoichi to watch.
Neji remembers, it was the first time he'd taken notice of the fair-haired child with the pallid eyes clutching tightly at Inoichi's side. There'd been rumors of a bastard Hyuuga running around, but it had never crossed his mind that such a child would have been hers. After some minutes he'd come to the conclusion that the child was the product of some Hyuuga branch member, the result of a fling, and thought little else of him. Hinata had given him the oddest look after the service, her eyes seeming to ask What will you do? and something in him said that he should do something, but all of the Whats and Whys tangled and twisted until Neji wasn't sure he understood the question anymore. With his pregnant wife at his side and Nana holding his hand, he could only muster a distant sense of pity for the boy with no mother or father.
Even after regaining his memories the answer remained far from clear. Though his world had forever changed, Neji struggled with the concept of whether or not it was okay to suddenly intrude on the lives that had carried on without him. He couldn't just swoop in and claim the boy as his son, not after twelve years of ignorant negligence. Nor could he simply put his marriage on the line a second time, to overturn the lives of his wife and daughter for his own selfish need to know the boy. He needed an in; a person or event to give him the opprotunity to get close. To finally build a relationship with a son who quite likely despised the Hyuuga clan.
And to do so without unwanted attention.
He got his chance not long after the exams - which neither Hiroto nor Nana had passed - when he lucked across Hanabi and Hiroto in one of the old training grounds. Hinata was bogged down with running the clan and Hanabi had just told Hiroto she'd been assigned a long -term mission. Hiroto would need someone to train him in the meanwhile. The week Hanabi left Neji awoke at the crack of dawn, dressed, and headed for the training grounds where he knew Hanabi and Hiroto practiced. There, he waited. If the child was any son of his, the absence of his tutor would be no excuse to miss training. The first three days passed in vain as Neji showed only to wait in an empty stretch of forest, but on the fourth day Hiroto showed, his surprise over finding somebody already there clear in the way his steps abruptly halted and his eyes widened.
There was an ironic sense of humor to be found in the fact that after three days of waiting and hours spent pondering exactly how to introduce himself, in the critical moment all it boiled down to was a simple
and they go from there. They begin with meditation - separately, each man in his own stretch of space contemplating the other. And when enough time has passed, they both move on to basic kata movements. Separately. Somwhere between block lower right flank and tornado kick left, Hiroto stops and cautiously turns to face him, distrust shimmering in his eyes.
"You know, you're the first one to...be here...like this. Other than-" he catches himself from speaking the names of his aunts, lest he give away something secret. Something sacred. He regroups quickly. "What're you doing here? If this is about that match with Nana-"
Neji raises one hand in signal to stop there, not wanting to go where those words may take them. He isn't here for that - and he is - but now is neither the time nor place and if they start off on the wrong foot, Neji may never get this chance again.
"It isn't. I am only here to observe. And to help, if you wish it."
Hiroto's eyes narrow slightly, his guard still firmly in place in every sense.
"You've come to spy for the Hyuuga clan, then."
"No, I've come on my own."
He is ignored again after that, mindful of how the boy is carelful to never turn his back to him, and watches as the boy moves through skillset after skillset. When Hiroto begins to practice with the Byakugan, Neji is taken aback. Hiroto's Jyuuken is far from that of a prodigy; he lacks the latent talent that came naturally to Neji - much like Hinata, Neji notes mentally - and for that doubles his effort. If anyone had told Neji he'd have a son nearly as untalented as Lee, he'd have beaten them to a pulp for daring to do so. But Hiroto asks nothing of him, and Neji keeps his silence, unwilling to wreck the fragile toleration Hiroto has shown him.
Neji shows up again the next day, and the next after that, and the next after that. He watches closely, storing away little details like which hand the boy favors and the frustrated glint in his eyes when he can't do something right, keeping them for later reflection. A full month passes before Hiroto stops guarding his blindspot and slowly, grudgingly, starts requesting pointers. By default, Neji is quasi-accepted as Hiroto's trainer, but a more personal surrender takes longer. Hanabi returns to find her role usurped and watches from a distance for several sessions, until she is sure that what she is witnessing is more than coincidence.
Neji eases in lessons on Hyuuga customs and traditions which Hiroto is none too thrill about, but listens to all the same. Their hours of training grow, and Hanabi is not the only one to notice Neji's sudden interest in the boy and the extra time they invest. Tenten asks him where it is he goes - a first in their relationship - and Neji answers her honestly.
...if not with some omissions. Tenten has it in mind that Hiroto is a half-breed distant cousin and Neji makes no point to correct her. He remembers the unhappiness she suffered at his infidelity, even if she does not, and to put her through it all again would be sheer cruelty. Nana can barely hide her distaste for his involvement with her chosen mortal enemy, and it takes several long discussions with her on the topics of family honor and unity before she simmers down from insecure jealousy to grudging acceptance. Gradually, Neji weaves Hiroto deeper and deeper into his life and his clan. If Inoichi or the remaining members of Team Ten have any objections, they don't show it.
One day in the middle of an evasion exercise, Hiroto asks him if he really knew his mother. If he'd really worked with her as her partner.
Neji immediately ceases his attack and Hiroto drops his defensive position. The air is still, silent but for the noises of the insects, and Neji brushes sweat and hair out of his face. It's such a simple question - an easy Yes or No - and yet it's so much more than that.
"Yes." , he answers softly. Carefully. Waiting to see if a barrage of questions follow. Debating with himself how much to reveal.
But Hiroto's face breaks into a grin and his shoulders relax just a little and Neji can see that he is pleased even with only that.
Little by little, Neji sets aside time in their training to share with him some of the adventures he and Ino had in the line of duty. Censored versions, of course. Hiroto devours each tale with fervor and five more questions for every one Neji answers.
By the time Hiroto is fourteen he is tall and his face has slimmed down. The ends of his hair brush past his collar bones and he keeps the sides of it back in a low ponytail. His resemblence to Neji, particularly when they are beside each other, becomes a point of attention and whispered hearsay. By the time Hiroto is fourteen, he is comfortable enough to open up to Neji about his darkest thoughts. He curses the absence of his unidentified father and the lack of explanation. He curses the man's abandonment of his mother. He rants about how such a heartless lowlife could not even be bothered to show up for his mother's memorial service-
And Neji knows that he has to tell him. He takes Hiroto out for a walk and ends up in the Forest of Death, almost in the same area where Ino had sat beside him as he mourned Gai, and Neji tells Hiroto everything.
For a while, his son is estatic. Not only does he know who his father is but he actually knows his father. He sees Hinata, who he'd always looked to as a mother-figure, in a whole new light and trains with renewed vigor. Hiroto works hard to get acquainted with his sisters but when one day Nana tags along on their training, looks closely and realizes, she declares war anew and more fiercely than ever except now her father is on her blacklist as well. Inevitably, after a few months Hiroto begins to ask around and after getting the facts from his Uncle Shika and Kurenai-san, a grudge takes root in his heart and begins to grow with time.
By seventeen Hiroto has dived head-first into a rebellious stage. He is old enough to understand the full impact of losing his mother so early and the scandal of his parents' love. He is old enough to understand that he is a 'half-breed' and that being half of each is equal to less than both. He is old enough to understand that shinobi are supposed to be selfless. There's a need burning in his chest to belong somewhere, a need to find his place in the world, and pacifying words from Shikamaru mean little to him. Neji's words mean even less. Neji almost has a heart attack the day he hears that Hiroto is actually considering being sworn into ROOT. Old man Danzou had outlived Tsunade, is nearing ninety, and yet remains very much a threat. Neji decides to pay him a visit.
As he enters the headquarters of Danzou's supposedly defunct division, the faint memory of his confrontation with Sai comes to mind. It's not surprising really, most of the members of ROOT wear a near identical outfit Sai wore until the day he died. Rather, it is because of Sai's passing - pre-dating Ino's - that the memory is drudged up. Neji had never taken the time to bother to learn if the boy's affections had been real. If they had, would it have made any difference? Would he have been able to let that man have Ino? Would Ino not have languished like she did, would she have been stronger if she'd had somebody beside her those years she spent alone? Maybe Hiroto could have had his mother for longer, maybe he could have had a father in those early years. Maybe Neji wouldn't be walking into ROOT to make a deal with the devil right now.
Fifteen paces in, he is met a pair of Danzou's favorites dutifully blocking his path. They neither bow nor show any sign of salute despite being years his junior. The one on the left, blue haired and small in stature, addresses him in informal terms.
"This sector is off limits. You may not proceed."
Neji's steps do not falter. "I have business with Danzou."
"Lord Danzou-sama has no business with you." The other answers, and the punk has the nerve to finger the tanto on his back in warning. They are strong and overly sure of themselves; perhaps due to having one or two Hyuugas in their division. They are trained to fight rogue-nin and various manner of kekkei genkai, trained to subdue and overpower opponents far beyond the skill of ordinary shinobi. To them, Neji pales against the tales of Uchiha Sasuke and his exceptional team.
Neji makes sure it is a mistake they will not soon forget.
He enters what he assumes to be Danzou's War Room and stalks up to the wrinkled prune of a man behind the desk. Age has robbed him of an intimidating appearence but his chakra remains as rigid as ever - tense as the gaze of a crocodile from the water. The elder sits with one hand on the desk and one on his cane and nothing of him showing any hint of surprise. Danzou is a man of good memory and patience and one way or another, he has always waited for the day another Hyuuga would seek him out. Danzou is seldom wrong.
"You know why I have come."
Danzou leans back into his chair, taking his time with his response. "There's a waste of breath. There isn't a thing about you that I don't know."
Neji nods, believes. "I won't allow him to fall into your hands."
Danzou grunts, shifting in his chair with an unchanging expression. "And how exactly do you propose to stop him from entering a division that doesn't exist?" the old man rumbled, knowing Konoha's laws like the back of his decrepit hand. ROOT was still very much a well-kept secret to those below a certain pay grade, and there were advantages to heading a branch of shinobi that was technically nonexistant. It was why he was granted the pick of the litter when it came to orphans. It was why there was no age restriction on entry. It was why his underlings were impervious to many of the rules taught in the academy.
Neji's face darkened, his lips pressed thin. He'd been asking himself the same thing for days. Even gennin were considered adults when it came to career-related decisions, there was nothing Neji could do to stop Hiroto from attempting to join ROOT...but that didn't mean there weren't things he could do to stop ROOT from accepting him.
"The division known as ROOT, defunct as of three decades ago, currently has a roster of approximately one hundred twenty-seven shinobi. Fifteen of which are in preliminary training, twenty-nine with bloodline abilities, and more than forty who have knowledge of forbidden jutsu. A division that operates in the shadows even more so than the rest of the shinobi population; that carries out missions so clandestine that even the Hokage has little information on their movements."
Neji paused suspensefully; Ino would've been proud.
"How effective would such an organization be if the entirety of the force were to have all of their tenketsu sealed, permanently?"
Now the corners of the ROOT commander's mouth dipped down sourly at the palpable threat. It was no bluff, he knew.
"Ah, but if one hundred twenty-seven men could be sealed by one man, they would be of no use to me. Do not mistake my members for those frail little pieces of shit that call themselves ninja these days. You may thin the herd, but I will not lose a hundred and twenty-seven to one!"
At this, Neji inclined his chin, composed and confident.
"No, not one. Four." Inoichi was up in years and Hinata couldn't be involved, but there was still Chouji, Shikamaru, and Sakura who would back him up in an instant and a Hokage who would look the other way. Who could protest the elimination of long-dead division? By the time Neji's feet left ROOT territory, his shoulders were lighter with the knowledge that his son was safe at last from Danzou.
Hiroto spends the next full year not speaking to him out of fury.
The day that Nonoka finally makes chuunin at the ripe age of sixteen, Neji starts to think about retiring. Money has never been a concern with him belonging to a prosperous clan, and he has long since reached the limits of his strength and advancement in rank. After years of his children eagerly awaiting his return home, it is now his turn to patiently wait and greet them when their missions end. It is an odd thing, at first, to become accustomed to sharing the house with Tenten on a regular basis instead of every now and then. She has her own routine, and he does his best to stay out of her way.
As a second year without communication with Hiroto begins, word reaches Neji that Yamanaka Inoichi has passed. A brain tumor, they say, hereditary in their clan. He looks for his son but can find him neither in the cemetary nor at the memorial stone or training grounds. For the first time, Neji knocks on the door to his son's apartment. When nobody answers, he enters. He finds Hiroto curled into a ball on the bedroom floor, eyes bloodshot and hair unkempt. Neji does not know if it has been hours or days since the demise of the Yamanaka clan leader, but he suspects Hiroto hasn't left his apartment since. He stays for the day, doing what he can to comfort him and unsure if he is succeeding. Somewhere depths of loneliness and grief, Hiroto finally forgives him. A cousin assumes leadership of the clan of mindwalkers and the flowershop closes it's doors for good. Once in a while, father and son sit in the abandoned garden behind it.
Neji's heart swells with pride when, at his eldest daughter's wedding, she and Hiroto finally find a kind of truce. They are older than their father was when Hiroto was conceived and each has seen the world and made their share of mistakes. Neji's first grandchild comes surprisingly not from Nana, but from Hiroto, and he cries when the Akimichi girl bears his son a daughter with sparkling blue eyes. Genetics, Sakura mumbles humorously outside the delivery room. Chouji is furious; Akimichi Chousami is barely seventeen.
Tenten passes one night quietly in her sleep, in the bed adjacent to Neji's. Although none of the original people to know the details of the couple's early years remain alive to tell the tale, no one is surprised when he mourns her death much like a close friend rather than a wife. She goes to her grave remembering nothing of the year she and her husband parted and never learning to truth about Hiroto.
Neji's time comes three years later. His body has grown frail and he has been bed-ridden for more than a season when everyone starts to accept the reality that he isn't going to get better. Neji doesn't particularly mind. On his sickbed, he is surrounded by his daughters, son, grandchildren, cousins, and friends. At last, he feels the peace he spent his life searching for; a peace he'd only known once in his life. It's been a long time coming - nearing forty years - but finally his sightless eyes see the blue ones he missed so much and he basks once again in the warmth of her smile.
They find him the next morning in the old Yamanaka garden. Nobody makes a protest when they bury him there.