AN: This chapter gave me no end of headaches. I rewrote it atleast 4 times with no success which is why I have not updated for so long. It's like my plot bunny river dried up, or froze. Inspiration has just not been hitting. And then Indigo yamanaka reviewed and said such nice things. Her review and some awesome Florence and the machine revived my plot bunnies enough to try to tinker with the chapter. And ladies and gentlemen lighting struck. It was like the dam broke and I got this.
I am quite content with it and its far superior to the other four worthless endings I had chunks written of. I have loved preference, every twist and turn, and loved writing for the Neji Ino community. Hopefully the plot bunnies will give me more success in the future. Review and tell me what you think.
Special thanks to Nukumi for being a fill in beta.
Music of the Update: "Can't hold us down" Macklemore "Sweet Nothing" Calvin Harris ft Florence
The aura radiating off of Hiashi's frame echoed louder than words could but he would not spare them this time. The tension started at his neck, fury contained tightly in his shoulders, and coiled in his frame waiting to strike. The tightness around his eyes, the dark stains from disdain and hierarchy were etched on his face, the pressure was clear. Brows furrowed even deeper than usual, for Hiashi always had a seriousness about him, but this went beyond his normal countenance. Neji who had weathered many a storm amongst the Hyuuga clan head, found his motives in question.
"Tell me Nephew why you thought it such a good idea to publicly shame the Hyuuga clan?" Hiashi demanded.
The lines of hatred and tension weighed his entire face down. How deep did those lines run? Neji wondered. Deeper than blood, his thoughts answered as he thought of his father.
He swallowed as he took in the words, the pit in his stomach dropping. "I did not think-"
"No, of course you did not." Hiashi interrupted, pearlescent eyes hard and accusing. "Your efforts to embarrass the Hyuuga clan have been long documented nephew, first at the chuunin exams. I had thought you had outgrown such pettiness, but this. This is betrayal."
Those words drew blood as Neji flinched.
"This is absurd. This matter could have been settled privately, but you practically paraded your carelessness in front of every clan in the village. And what do you suppose they will say of the Hyuuga clan after this debacle?" Hiashi demanded.
The color drained from Neji's face.
"Did you even think that far? And all for some half rate ninja and a pretty face-"
It was this statement that gave Neji the courage to speak.
"No. You've misunderstood!" Neji insisted. "This isn't about the clan. It isn't about her." Neji replied, fists clenched.
Haughty eyes told him otherwise.
"How could it not be?" Hiashi retorted. "You practically claimed as much in the council meeting. Is she pregnant? Have you fathered some bastard child? Is that your excuse for this outrageous display-"
"No!" Neji exclaimed, horrified."How could you think I would do something so shameful?"
Hiashi stared at him in contempt."How could I think that? Do you honestly have to ask such an insolent question at your actions?You have sullied the Hyuuga name, even if it is only the Branch house, and for what? To defend a man who needed to be punished for his poor decisions, and to spare the hurt feelings of some little tart-"
Neji saw red in that moment. "You will not speak of her like that ever again, in my presence, uncle. She had nothing to do with this. It was my fault." Neji replied through clenched teeth. He stepped forward, getting into his uncle's face.
"Yes, nephew. You have said as much to everyone and anyone that would hear you." Hiashi replied scathingly.
"Are we not a clan of honor? It was my mistake. I was taught to take responsibility for my faults." Neji threw the insult at Hiashi like a kunai as he turned from him.
Pearlescent eyes widened and narrowed.
"And yet you did not consider how your faults would reflect on your own clan. Just like your father!" Hiashi yelled.
"Then I too will bear the weight of my decisions." Neji replied, crossing his arms.
"Yes Neji, you will bear the full weight of this decision, nephew. It will be on your own, without the support of the clan. You will learn that you cannot act so selfishly without consequence. You will learn that your fate is tied to that of others in this clan, whether you like it, or not." Hiashi's words hung in the air like an ill omen. "And I am afraid, nephew, that it will be a rather painful lesson for you." Hiashi threatened, walking away in disgust and anger.
Hinata's eyes met Neji's own from across the courtyard, as a bird flew from the trees as Hiashi stormed away from Neji. Excusing herself, she left Kiba and Shino's side and walked towards him. It did not take long for Hiashi's long strides to reach her. He exchanged harsh words with her from the looks of it. Hinata shook her head, and whatever she had said only irritated him further. Hiashi left, Hanabi trailing behind him, confused as her father grabbed her hand, forcing her along.
Neji scowled, his fist slamming into the trunk of a tree. He hated that Hiashi could rile him. Would his father have been proud of him, or ashamed of him in this moment? Neji could not know. Years of trying to become a genius, to be more than just a Branch member of the Hyuuga weighed on him. It seemed that no matter what he accomplished, Neji would never be free. Whatever Hiashi meant to do would be a blow to him personally. Which would be much worse than the curse.
"Neji Nii-san." Hinata greeted. She looked lovely today, lavender kimono matching her hair which had been put up elegantly.
"Hinata sama" Neji replied distracted.
Neji took a deep cleansing breathe and recognized the feeling for what it was deep within. Guilt. And if there was guilt then it meant there was some truth to the poison Hiashi had spread. He had not considered the Hyuuga clan in his reckless declaration. He should not have been so hasty. But Ino couldn't even defend herself. Perhaps Naruto had been right. He had thrown himself, but also the clan's name under the bus with his impetuousness.
"I-I am sorry." Hinata confessed, biting her lip as she placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
Neji looked up, startled. "Why? You did nothing wrong, Hinata sama." What did she have to even be sorry for?
"I-I should have said more." Hinata replied feeling the shame. He was her cousin. Neji had been far more of a family member to her than her own. She owed him so much already.
"It's not your fault. It's mine. This is mine to bear" Neji replied.
Hinata gave him a sad smile. "You w-were very brave, Nii- san. What's done in love will not be in vain. Father will come around, and She will see that in the end." She encouraged.
Leave it to Hinata to try and think positively over this. The girl made positive thinking an art form. Then again with someone like Hiashi as her father, she had to. How someone so gentle had come from a man so cold, Neji would never understand. He watched as Hinata walked back over to a grumbling Kiba, scratching the ears of Akamaru and consoling the irate Inuzuka. She really was kind. The bell rang to summon them back in.
Ino fumed as she paced, restless. A million things were swirling through her head, mostly centered on one hard ass Hyuuga captain. Why would he do something like that? What mental gaskets had he blown to make him say what he did? Though tempted to read his thoughts, she didn't dare use her family jutsu here. Ino scowled. She wasn't that desperate was she? Of course not. She didn't think he was prone to acts of bipolar fashion, but in this case what else was she to think? What kind of a game was he playing?
"Stop fretting." Shikamaru told her, hand steady as he lit up. Ino promptly plucked it from his mouth and ground it maliciously beneath her boot, in indignant contempt.
"We're not five anymore. Don't tell me what to do, Shika. None of this makes sense. What could that asshole be up to?" She practically growled.
Shikamaru rolled his eyes as she continued to pace, and reached for another cigarette. She quirked steel blue eyes at him, and he sighed, the package disappearing into his pocket. Raking a frustrated hand through black spiky hair, he looked back at her. She still limped a bit, the physical therapy would start after the hearing hopefully helping her to repair some of that damage. He could tell the tenderness in her ribs as she moved. She might always have those wounds, or at least phantom symptoms. She would be able to feel a storm coming with her extensive injuries. Why couldn't she sense it now? For someone with such incredible feminine intuition, and an intimate knowledge of the human mind, she was acting like an idiot.
"Maybe he isn't up to anything." Chouji offered. Shikamaru had never appreciated his teammate more. If anyone could talk some sense into her, it would be the gentle Akimichi.
"You don't know him" Ino retorted.
"And you do?" Shikamaru asked. He was startled by the amount of animosity in the blonde's tone.
"I thought I did" She muttered, not quiet enough, as he could hear her.
"Listen Ino, I talked to Neji yesterday. He said he was sorry." Shikamaru shrugged.
"How lovely that he came to you to apologize. Sorry doesn't cut it, Shika-" Ino began, ready to go off on one of her rants against the universe. Shikamaru would have none of it.
"-Stop being a pain in the ass and listen." Shikamaru ordered.
The blonde stopped in her tracks, the look she gave him foreign. Ino was not used to him being authoritative. She was right. They weren't five anymore. "Neji actually said to me that there were no words to say how sorry he was,but that he would prove it. I didn't understand it then, but then you saw what he did today." Shikamaru said.
Ino stopped in her well treaded path. "Why didn't you mention this?!" She demanded, grabbing his jacket and shaking him. Shikamaru grabbed her hand, removing it from his jacket. When they were younger she could get away with bossing Chouji and him around. No longer.
"Oye. It didn't come up. I wasn't sure what he meant then." Shikamaru replied, scratching his neck.
"It doesn't matter. He's trying something. We'll have to be on our guard for what comes next" Ino returned to her pacing.
"Ino, give it a rest already." Chouji told her. Ino snarled in reply, as she paced on.
"The world isn't out to get you, you know? The least you could do is summon a little gratitude. Neji just gave himself up, for you. Don't you think you're being a little too critical?" Shikamaru replied surprising himself by defending the Hyuuga captain. It irritated him that she was being this dense.
"Ugh. Who's side are you on Shika?" Ino exclaimed.
"I'm not on any side. There are no sides when it comes to the village or the clans" He replied as if the fact should have been obvious.
"We both know that's not true." Ino snapped back. Black eyes showed the hurt he tried to hide.
"This is so troublesome. Do you always have to be such a pain in the ass, Ino? It wouldn't hurt you to be a little grateful is all I'm saying. You know, tell him thank you. He did risk his life to save you, you know?" Shikamaru retorted.
Ino sighed. Yeah okay maybe she was being a little childish about it, maybe a little paranoid too. But what else could he have meant by that kind of display? What else was she to conclude? In truth she felt a little bit vulnerable, and it made her edgy which made her double her guard. She had to plan for the worst. Because to assume otherwise would mean something else entirely. And she wasn't ready to hear that. Not from him. Not from anyone. Because it wasn't true. Because he'd already made it pretty damn clear that wasn't what he wanted. Not from her. Not from anyone it seemed.
"Whatever" Ino scowled, storming off towards the hall. Her eyes caught Neji's form, as he heard the summons.
Those eyes were clouded, anger apparent as he made his way back into the building and the tension in his frame. Ino scowled, ignoring him, head held high, as she made her way back inside.
"This council will come to order." Komura stated. "We have heard the testimonies by given witnesses in the field and the village and Godaime Hokage have reached a verdict."
Ino and Neji both held their breath, anxious.
"We have found Shikamaru Nara, Innocent of dereliction of duty in the case of the mission to Iwagakure."
Cheers errupted in the room as Ino squeezed his hand.
"There will be order in this hearing! The council has no other choice but to open a new case against one anbu captain, Hyuuga Neji"
"What?" Ino demanded and clapped a hand over her mouth. The momentary lapse was overlooked as the crowd murmured. Shikamaru did not miss it. Ino sat, torn by the conclusions. Her hands did not move, but her calves tensed beneath the table.
"We find Hyuuga Neji guilty of falsification of mission documents by his own admonition, an offense against the village of Konoha. He will be forth rite stripped of his Anbu captain rank and pay. He will still take part anbu missions, but it is the council's will that he be transferred to a different squadron under supervision and submit regular reports."
Neji flinched, His body rippled, as the words overtook him. Stripped of Anbu captain rank. He had worked his entire life to prove that he was more than just a branch member, more than just a slave or a second rank ninja. He stood still as stone as they ripped the captain's armband from him and took away his life's accomplishment. Feathers fell as the sparrow hit the ground. Neji swallowed, the hard pit in his throat, making it''s way deep into his core. Could they do any less for what he had confessed to? He took a harrowing breathe and accepted his punishment in stoic silence.
Ino watched as his eyes changed from their bright intensity, to a dull purple, like someone had pulled the covers over them. Like the light within him burned, withered and died. Ashes and smoke were all that was left in that sinking look. Her heart clenched. Why was he doing this? It was clear it was killing him. And as sadistic as Ino was and could be, she found it surprising that she did not enjoy watching him suffer. Ino felt her frustration mount. Though she was angry as hell at him for the words he had said, and the way he had treated her, she still hated to see him in pain. And if she said anything now it could overturn the sentence of her teammate. She didn't understand this.
"The council hearing is concluded. Dismissed." Tsunade's voice rang out above the murmurs. Neji nodded and stiffly made for the door. Ino wanted to go after him. But she stood frozen.
Ino bit her lip, hands clenched across her arms as his form disappeared from her sight. She let him go. Ino felt her ribs, painful even after her healing sessions.
Shikamaru sighed. Stubborn as her namesake. There was no pushing Ino when it came to these sort of things. She might realize her mistake too late to change things. So troublesome...
She floated by, a vision in a white summer dress that fell to her knees. Long golden hair was up in it's typical ponytail her bangs against the side of her face with her barrettes. She passed him with no look, or recognition periwinkle eyes clam and serene. She didn't even acknowledge him. It bothered him. At her scent of flowers; gardenia, Neji turned, just a fraction, to watch her go by the words stuck as she vanished before he could tell her to wait. The sky grew dark. The smell of smoke and ash. Iwagakure ninja descended and suddenly she was bleeding out in his hands.
Neji awoke, eyes wide, pupils contracting in the light of the sun. He had fallen asleep during meditation. He would add it to his list of shames.
Neji rose from his meditation, rubbing his eyes as he opened the scroll, containing his mission objectives. He read through them one last time to be clear. Clenching the scroll he put the seal back on and tucked it into his pack. He pulled his pack on, strapping the remaining weaponry on his person. An embarrassing week of failure, inflicted by Hyuuga and leaf nin alike left him with nothing but a bad taste in his mouth. He had heard nothing from Ino, but given her silence there was nothing else to assume. He could not tolerate being in Konoha any longer. It was fortunate that the Hokage had readily agreed with his decision.
"You will be sent to Sand. Gaara will see to it that you are put to good use on their borders, and give you more ample opportunity to redeem yourself. Hiashi will come around. You'll see." Tsunade had clasped his shoulder and Neji had nodded.
It was time to let go. Of everything. Neji released it.
The universe took it all.
And Neji took a deep cleansing breathe. Rising to his feet, he summoned his chakra, flash stepping out of the Hyuuga compound. Sweet freedom. It tasted good. Trees blurred in his vision, the light wind felt good at his back. Neji moving and weaving between the trees mechanically. He was close to the gate, when he decided to pause, taken by the beauty around him. There was a lake along the way to the gate. The water.
It dawned on him that this was it. This would be his last opportunity to enjoy the lake and the trees before he would be surrounded by rock and sand. He was early, and had enough time for such an indulgence, since it was his last. Would he pass by this opportunity to enjoy what he had known of his home here in Konoha? No.
He had nothing left to keep him here, but he loved the fire country, the lush forests and cool waters that surrounded his home. Pearlescent eyes closed as he took in the sounds of wildlife and the water. Bird chirped, and squirrels chattered above him. It was the sound of wings fluttering, and the wind through the trees that he would miss the most. This did not make him open his eyes. It was that telltale twitch that he felt, that presence. Her presence. Pearlescent eyes opened.
"Hyuuga Neji." That voice. Her voice. It was amazing the nuances that he could tell from her tone. Suspicion and surprise were foremost. She wore her typical purple outfit, midrift tantalizing as he tried not to stare. His eyes returned to her face after his inspection. He had released this. Why did it hurt so much then?
"Yamanaka san." Neji kept his tone nuetral as she passed him on the path her eyes staring at the water.
Neji walked by her. Though she did not wear a white dress, it was the same as his vision. And his stomach clenched. No. He did not want it to end this way. He did not want her to leave without her acknowledging him. He was no coward to run away from her. He would prove it here and now.
"So is this how we leave it?" Neji tossed over his shoulder.
Ino stiffened, stopped and turned. "Leave what, Neji? What did we have, that I'm leaving?" Her tone was nuetral, but the words hurt all the same. Neji nodded. He would give her what she needed to hear, to clear his slate.
"You were right" Neji told her. "Just so you know."
"What?!" Ino exclaimed.
Clearly these were not the words she was expecting from the look on her face. The lines of distrust that had formed from her eyes, and brow disappeared, replaced by iris blue eyes that sparkled even in their confusion. He wanted to remember her like this. "About what?" She demanded.
"I am leaving for sand. I just wanted you to hear it from me before I go." Neji told her.
"Sand? Why?" Ino asked, taking a pace towards him. Genuine shock and curiosity met his eyes, and so he decided to tell her as he summoned his courage.
"Because I can't pretend that I'm alright watching you love him." Neji told her. "He's your teammate. It was only natural the bonds you formed. I want to honor your wishes. You give everything for the ones you love and I truly respect that. Please know that I only ever wanted your happiness. I had just hoped it would be me." Neji confessed.
The relief of speaking those words washed over him as if he had dove into the lake. Head high, he resumed his course of action.
Ino choked as he walked away from her. "S-stop" as her legs took off after him.
"What is this about Neji? I don't understand." Ino exclaimed.
Neji stopped, startled. "I just told you."
"Bullshit!You go out of your way, throwing yourself into a mission that wasn't even assigned. You put yourself at risk, traveled miles across the border to save my life. I barely even know you. How you managed it I have no idea, but you found me and what's more got me back across the border. You waited days in the hospital until I'm better, unless forehead lied about that... then you say horrible, terrible things to me. And just when I've written you off, thinking you are exactly like every other clan prodigy I've ever known, you go and take back everything you said, and throw yourself under the bus to save Shikamaru."
Pearlescent eyes widened at the words she spoke to him.
"and you want to know the best part?" Ino declared, as her lip trembled only slightly. "then after it all. These great acts of courage and kindness, and compassion. Then nothing. I don't hear from you. Not a damn word. And now, now that you're leaving, you choose to tell me this?! So you'll have to excuse me, if I'm a little confused about your angle. I'm not the girl to be strung along!" She exclaimed.
Neji's eyes widened. It was rare that his Byakugan did not see what was clearly in front of him.
"Strung along? Is that what you think I did? How did you not know? How could you possibly not know how I felt about you? After everything that I did. I made it clear, in every action, every word to you. Forgive me, except for the words in the garden. I should not have said those things to you when you came to visit me, and I apologize for that, but you did not make it easy on me. I-I thought you were mocking me."
"Was I supposed to mock you? What was I supposed to do, Neji? You had put me against my teammate. Had it been Lee or TenTen you would have fought tooth and nail, just the same to clear their name. And then you went and got yourself demoted after saying such awful things to me. I didn't-" Ino paused to catch her breathe. "I didn't know what to do. To say."
"Well I know why you did it." Neji replied. "You love him."
"Ugh, would you stop putting words in my mouth?! Of course I love Shikamaru"
Neji swallowed those painful words, but Ino continued "Neji! He's my best friend and my teammate, same as Chouji. But I don't want to be with Shikamaru, or Chouji, though they are both loveable idiots and my brothers, all the same." Ino replied.
"But then why did you do it? Decide to give up your life for him?" Neji exclaimed. This was too much to take in all at once.
"For him? It had nothing to do with Shikamaru, though he and Chouji are my teammates. It had everything to do with those children. I did not want a single one to have to live the kind of life that clan prodigies live. They had experienced enough tragedy in their lives. They deserved their freedom, even if it cost me my own." Ino replied. "I wanted a better life for them."
Neji was shocked. This was what Naruto had told him to do. To ask her why she had done what she had done. And the answer surprised him, though it shouldn't have. Ino had always held such a depth for those she cared for. Her selflessness was not paraded about like other women he knew. She did not make a martyr of herself. She hid her soft sides thinking them weaknesses and her good deeds, she kept close so as not to brag about them or get credit for them. In truth, it was her strength of character, of conviction, that made her so beautiful to him. She was a blossom, unfolding before his eyes.
"Of course. The connection with Sasuke. You saw the product of clan prodigies and did not wish that for anyone else." Neji replied. He was surprised he had not seen the connection before now.
Ino's eyes flared in anger. Angry blonde eyebrows furrowed in intent fury. She stalked right up to him and grabbed the flowy Hyuuga by his Hakama, pulling him harshly to her face.
"News flash, Neji. I didn't do it for Sasuke. He's a traitor. I gave that up long ago. I learned that loving a traitor was nothing but toxic for me. I did it because I knew that many of my friends had been abused by the system, Naruto and the other rookie nine. But most of all, you had been abused by the system. And it made me angry. It's always made me angry the way you were treated." Ino's periwinkle eyes softened. Neji was rendered speechless.
She coughed, composing herself. "I didn't want those children to have to experience that." Ino confessed. "For someone who's so damn intuitive, Byakugan and all, you can't even see what's in front of you"
Neji's breathe caught as she pulled him harshly to her. She kissed him senseless before he even knew what was happening. The feel of those soft lips against his, woke up every tingling sense he had and threw it into over drive. Byakugan veins flared to life as he memorized the contours of her coral lips, the taste and feel of her lipgloss embedded with glitter. He didn't even care that it was probably on him as her tongue prodded the seam of his lips. Upon entrance she took charge and found purchase against his, massaging sensually. She certainly knew what she was doing.
He breathed in her floral scent, her taste as he brought up his hand to cradle her cheek and pull her closer to him. Lips drank in her beauty. Writhing, she pressed against him, and his other hand snaked around her waist to pull her even closer to him. She burned, blazing into life before him as he kissed her back with fervor. Every thing ached, the drive, the hunger, the need to have her as close to him as physically possible and the buzzing sensation as she kissed him making him, the master of self discipline and control, giddy. He trembled and felt her own shiver of desire. She broke off the kiss, cheeks flushed, blonde eyebrows still held a touch of their fury as she stared up at him in contempt.
Neji chuckled, tucking a strand of spun gold behind her ears. "You are adorable when you are mad,Yamanaka."
"Almighty Byakugan. Chee." She said, snuggling closer to him. Such a lovely contradiction.
His lips kissed her forehead, just basking in the feel of her close to him. His hand touched her wrist, her pulse beating rapidly, bringing a smile to his face. She quirked an eyebrow at him and he shook his head, lips kissing her brow.
Ino's eyebrow arched. "Well that was melodramatic. Now what?"
Neji felt the wind leave him, as if he had been punched. Lost in the moment he realized he had to go.
"There you two are. I was wondering if you were going to work things out on your own. It makes my news that much better." Shikamaru's voice came out of the brush.
Neji's grip on Ino tightened as he pulled her to him. Realizing it was Shikamaru made his grip relaxed, but he still held the blonde closely. Ino would have laughed if not for the shadow users words.
Instead, she stiffened. "Maru" she growled, not leaving Neji's arms, poking her head from out behind him. She was clearly unhappy with the pinneapple haired genius intrusion. "How long have you been snooping, you nosy creeper!" She snarled, waving a fist.
"Long enough to make sure this news wouldn't be unwelcome. Team Ten has been assigned to the borders of Sand on anbu patrol along with one Hyuuga Neji." He replied.
"W-What?" Ino exclaimed.
"It is our duty to monitor and report on the progress of one Hyuuga Neji to determine if and when he will be fit for retaking the captain exams. We are to return at that time for the tests to be re-administered." Shikamaru read from the scroll.
Neji's eyes widened.
"I don't get it. Why would the old hag let us be the ones to decide that?" Ino asked.
"It's a political move. Since he formed the claim against us, it's only right, that the clan afflicted would be a part of removing the sentence." Shikamaru's black eyes gleamed as he lit up a cigarette and took a drag.
"You smug bastard." Ino grinned. "Was this all your doing?"
"I was merely a shougi piece in the game. You can thank Shikaku, the Akimichi clan and your father. They were a part of the delegation tasked by the Hokage. I merely represented the wishes of the other Nara clan members with my father. I will be present on this mission, representing the delegation for the Nara clan as we have other business to attend to. There are ….alliances to make with that of Sand."
Ino grinned. "And one sexy sand shinobi to woo." She quipped.
Shikamaru turned red. "She's too troublesome."
"Exactly. She's just your type" Ino grinned. She turned to Neji, radiant smile gleaming from ear to ear. "Heard that? Guess it means you're stuck with me." She flirted, taking his hand and threading it through her own.
Neji felt his own smile crack, growing wider as he pulled her closer.
"That is my preference." He replied, kissing her for good measure.
"Enough of that. She's late as it is, and has to pack her gear." Shikamaru snickered.
Obscenities spilling in the air, Ino's hand threaded through Neji's tugged him, and dragged him along with her to her house to pack for sand.