Disclaimer: 'Naruto' is owned by Masashi Kishimoto
Cover art: "Hide and Seek_2" by rozene on Deviantart. Used with permission.
Two Caged Birds – Part 1:2 Duty Bound
"Winner, Neji Hyuga."
He knew he shouldn't blame Hinata, but he did. She should not have gotten kidnapped, that, or she should not have been found. Still, with all his hate for her, he remembered what his father had said. "Your duty is to protect Lady Hinata."
So, Neji found himself, once again, following the five year old heiress around town. Nin had come from all over for the Chunin exams. Shopkeepers and tradesmen were making the very best of the season. It reminded him of a fair.
"Look Neji!" Hinata cried, pointing a thin arm towards a store. Bright metal cages hung in the window, birds of all sorts and sizes were being sold and traded.
"Look how pretty Neji!"
"Ya. Come on Hinata-sama" He tugged on her hand to get her moving again.
"Can we look please?"
"I don't want to."
She looked down, ready to cry, So Neji took the spoiled child into the store. He stood by the door as she oohed and awed over senseless things, then took her out again as soon as he could. Even then, they were still late for dinner.
"What took you so long?" Hinata's father demanded. Neji shrugged, trying to come up with an answer under the man's intense stare. Hinata blushed. "It wasn't Neji's fault Daddy. He took me to the store."
"Yes, Daddy, and you should have seen it!" She ran across the dining room in padded slippers and climbed onto her father's lap. He let her do so by herself, but held his hand secretly behind her back in case she should fall.
"There were birds, and they were so pretty. Can. . . Can I have one Daddy? I will take very good care of it."
Lord Hiashi shook his head. "You do not have time for a pet Hinata. You have training, and you have not been doing well. You are of the main branch, and must practice very hard to become strong."
"Oh. . ." She looked down, eyes growing moist"What. . . What if I work really hard Daddy, and . . . And train everyday?"
"We will see." He finally said. "Now eat your dinner." He set her down and nodded for Neji to leave. He did so without a word.
"Neji! Neji! Look!" Hinata ran up to him, her face shining, her eyes alight. She carried a large copper barred bird cage, nearly as big as herself. Neji set down the wood strips he had been sorting and stared at the cage. The bird was a young, dull looking thing, with murky brown feathers and a narrow beak. It sat on it's perch, looking at the world outside, eyes large in fright.
"She's mine now!" Hinata said, grinning form ear to ear "Isn't she pretty? And I can feed her, and give her water, and. . . What's wrong Neji?"
"Nothing," he snapped, turning back to his chore. "Just be quiet. You're giving me a headache." Even without looking at her he could tell she was wearing a sad frown. She always loved to share her excitement.
"O. . . Okay Neji. . ." She walked slowly towards her bedroom, and he turned and watched her retreating back disappear up the stairs. He glanced sideways and found Lord Hiashi watching him. Neji looked away quickly. He had to be nice to Hinata. He didn't want to get in trouble. But still, it was her fault.
Neji was impressed. He had expected Hinata to loose interest in her new pet in a matter of a week or so. The only time she forget to care for the bird was when she came to bed so tired from training she sometimes forgot to change clothing. Unfortunately, that happened quite often. Neji threw a blanket over her and let her be. Soon, she would be old enough to have lady servants; for now, he had to clean up after the little monster. He shoved the clothing and toys under the bed. How she managed to train all day, and still make a mess of her room was beyond him. Walking to the dark cage, Neji filled the ugly bird's dish with food and checked it's water container. Hinata had put the cage near the window. It would be easy for Neji to simply open the door and let the pathetic thing go. But, then Hinata would cry, and he'd get blamed. Still, it was tempting, and except for Hinata's feelings, he didn't think that Lord Hiashi would care. He might actually be pleased that the creature was gone and out of the way. Neji reached carefully up to the bars, the little latch that held the tiny gate in place. Hinata turned in her sleep, mumbling something about Kunai's and teddy bears. Honestly, few people knew, but the little heiress could be really creepy sometimes. Neji let his hand fall. He couldn't steal the bird. He would have to convince Hinata first.
"Take it." Neji handed Hinata a small glass cup. She took it and drained the whole thing, handing it it back for more. Neji again filled the cup with water. "How's your bird?" he asked carefully.
"Good." Hinata replied, grabbing the cup and spilling water down her shirt because Neji had accidentally filled it too full. He gritted his teeth and grabbed a towel to dry her off.
"But Neji, He doesn't sing. I thought birds sang songs."
"Maybe he doesn't feel like singing. Maybe only wild birds sing." Neji said, hoping she would get the point and let the poor creature go before she accidentally killed it. Hinata thought it over, tilting her head from side to side. "No. I think she is just tired when I come home. Maybe she sings when I'm gone."
Neji growled in annoyance, "Your the one who said something was wrong!" Hinata's face went blank at his yelling. She looked down, lips trembling. Neji looked around the kitchen nervously. "Stop crying Hinata, I didn't mean it!"
She nodded, "I don't like it when you're unhappy."
"Well, just ignore it then." She shook her head. Neji sighed, taking her cup and helping her from the high kitchen stool. He was getting pretty strong, always having to help her do everything. Keeping Hinata happy was a class 'A' chore. "Come on Hinata, lets get you your lunch."
"Why don't you ever eat with us Neji?"
They were walking across the lawn to the training room. He was still searching for a way to make her let the bird go, so he didn't think much of her question. "Because I'm not supposed to."
"Because. . ." He looked at her and glared. Her large eyes shown brightly.
"I. . . I just don't like to." He finally stuttered, not wanting to have to explain that he wasn't allowed to eat with the head household.
"Must you ask questions all the time?"
She paused, poking her fingers together nervously. "I. . . I guess I do."
"Stop stuttering, you'll make a habit."
"S. . . Sorry."
Neji helped Hinata sit at the table, then waited to be excused to go have dinner himself. Lord Haishi was about to do just that when Hinata looked up from her plate and blurted, "Can Neji eat with us tonight Daddy?"
The four Hyuga's in the room, along with a few other important guests all became deathly silent. Neji felt his whole face heat up. He carefully started backing out of the room.
"I didn't excuse you." Lord Haishi said.
"Take the chair at the end of the table and sit down." The room was silent as Neji did so. Lord Haishi looked at his daughter "Eat and be quiet." He then restarted the conversation among the adults. Hinata looked down at her food, not understanding what was being said. Neji sat also, staring at the table where no place had been set for him. He didn't understand either. He didn't understand why fate was so cruel. He let his mind go blank, waiting for the meal to be over. Only one tear escaped and hit the dark wood table. He wiped it away with a finger. He hadn't cried in front of others since his fathers death, he wasn't going to start now.
He threw a blanket over her whinny head and shoved the clothing and toys under the bedside table. Hinata whimpered, pulling the blanket from her eyes and watching him with half her face hidden.
"I'm sorry. . . "
She hid under her quilt.
Neji stomped to the window and pulled the birds dish away, filling the container with fresh water from the bathroom. When he came back into the room Hinata was watching silently. He filled the dish with food, blowing the chaff from the old seeds onto the carpet. Walking to the door he flipped of the light.
"Neji. . . "
He stopped. If she wanted another drink before bed he was going to scream.
"I. . . I think my bird doesn't sing because. . . Because he's sad."
"I don't care. Go to bed Hinata."
Author note: Well, there we go. Part one of two. I hope you enjoyed it and please tell me what you thought. I appreciate well rounded comments; tell me what worked for you and what didn't. Special thanks to Fishmom and Captainflye for their editing and proofreading, and AuthorSwimmerPoet for keeping me writing instead of throwing things out windows.