A/N: Follows on from my other one-shot 'Bird in a Cage' though you don't have to have read it to understand this but it makes things clearer. All you need to know is that Neji and Sasuke are in a relationship that Neji previously broke off because of his clan's 'laws' against homosexuality. Sasuke left Konoha and Shikamaru and Neji went after him. Now they return, with Sasuke, to face the consequences of Neji's defiance. Stuff in italics are memories. Thanks for reading.

..~..

He looked so peaceful in sleep. Perhaps it was because his eyes were closed. The intense emotion that fuelled everything he did was safely hidden behind a thin layer of skin and dark eyelashes. Neji almost reached out to brush his fingers across them, but held back. His skin was pale in the drifting moonlight, almost luminescent. It contrasted so starkly with the shadows; it brought his features into sharp definition. His hands were curled into light fists as if he were holding onto something tightly, perhaps in his dreams. His lips were tilted ever so slightly downwards. Neji tore his eyes away and glanced around. The clearing was empty but for himself, and the man sleeping beside him. Shikamaru had offered to go ahead of them to give them time both to 'reacquaint' themselves (accompanied by a lewd wink) and also to work out what they were going to do. As far as Neji was concerned, there wasn't much they could do. Sasuke, however, had other ideas. Neji turned his gaze back upon the man beside him and stared at the defined planes of his face. Sometimes the things Sasuke said scared him. Terrified him, even. He knew there were certain events in the man's past that had scarred him, perhaps irreparably, but he had never stopped to consider just how deeply those wounds ran. Nor had he thought to check how well they'd been stitched up. Sometimes he would see flashes of a man that he simply could not reconcile with the Sasuke he thought he knew. Certain things he would say that stopped him cold.

I know how to free you.

Neji shuddered. Sasuke's so-called 'solution' was something he could never consider. What frightened him – him, a seasoned Shinobi – was that Sasuke had.

..~..

'How about I go on ahead?' Shikamaru suggested. 'You two can…reacquaint yourselves.' He winked lewdly. They were about a day's run from Konoha and both Neji and Sasuke were dragging their feet.

'I thought you didn't want to deal with the Hokage's wrath?' Neji teased, though he was touched by the Nara's suggestion.

Shikamaru shrugged, shoving his hands in his pockets. 'Not much she can do.'

'She could suspend you,' Neji pointed out.

'Is that supposed to be a punishment?' Shikamaru raised a brow. 'Seems more like a reward, if you ask me.'

'How did you become a Shinobi, exactly?' Neji asked incredulously.

'Seems like the question should be 'why'?' Sasuke interjected wryly.

'Questions; how troublesome.' Shikamaru turned to leave, 'try not to be too late.' He vanished with a speed that belied his laziness.

'Unusual for him to be in a hurry,' Neji remarked idly. With Shikamaru's disappearance he had come to the realization that they were completely, and utterly, alone. The thought unnerved him even as it thrilled him. His traitorous heart had picked up on his anticipation and was drumming relentlessly in his chest.

'Hn.' Sasuke made a neutral response, his dark gaze fixed on Neji's face.

'You should thank him, you know he-'

'Let's not talk about Shikamaru,' Sasuke suggested. He moved in closer, his gaze positively predatory. 'Let's not talk at all.'

Neji was fine with that. He met Sasuke half-way as the other man lunged towards him. They crashed together in a tangle of lips and limbs; their hands grasping as they kissed desperately. It almost felt like a good-bye, though Neji refused to dwell upon that morbid thought. The Uchiha gained the upper hand and soon Neji felt his back press against a nearby tree. Sasuke slipped his hands behind Neji's neck and released his hair from its bind. It was a habit, a fascination of his, that didn't bother Neji in the slightest. His next move however, did. He reached for Neji's forehead protector and began to untie it.

'No,' Neji curled his fingers around the other's wrist.

Sasuke gazed at him knowingly, 'you don't have to hide it, anymore.'

Neji hesitated, and then released his wrist. Sasuke slid the protector off of his forehead and let it drop to the ground. He brushed his fingers across the revealed curse seal, whispering the words as he did so.

'Bird in a Cage.' He dropped his hand to caress Neji's face and leaned in close. His hot breath ghosted over Neji's ear, sending shivers down his spine. 'No longer – I know how to free you.'

'…how?' Neji breathed. It couldn't be possible. He had looked for a solution, had searched for years. How had the Uchiha come up with one in a couple of days?

'Removal of the head branch,' Sasuke said without hesitation. 'All of them.'

Neji couldn't quite hide the shock. His eyes widened. He pushed Sasuke away, though the other Shinobi only moved an inch.

'That is not funny,' he hissed.

'I wasn't joking,' Sasuke looked completely unrepentant. In fact, he looked deadly serious. He stepped back and folded his arms when Neji made as if to push him away completely.

'What are you saying?' Neji couldn't believe his ears, he refused to. 'How could you even suggest that?'

'Do you want to be free, Neji?' Sasuke seemed unruffled, unaffected by his words.

'Listen to yourself,' Neji felt hot anger course through his veins. How dare he suggest that? How dare he act like it wasn't murder he was advocating? 'You're suggesting we murder innocent people – my family – in cold blood.'

'You don't have to be a part of it.' Sasuke was acting like Neji was the insane one.

'You are insane,' Neji said incredulously. 'I could hardly sit idly by while you slaughtered my family.' What was going on? He didn't know this person standing before him. It wasn't Sasuke, how could it be?

'Family?' Sasuke scoffed, though his voice was low with controlled anger. 'It was your family who branded you when you were a child. It is your family who use it to hurt you. Family,' his voice was growing louder, 'shoulder never hurt one another.'

Suddenly, Neji understood.

'I am not Itachi,' he said softly, 'and neither are you.' He reached out to the distraught man and pulled him into an embrace. He held him as he buried his head in the crook of his neck, his shoulders shaking. He should have seen it sooner. He was a fool, so focused on his own problems.

'I won't lose you,' Sasuke whispered. 'I can't.'

He had driven him to this state. He hadn't considered the ramifications of abandoning the Uchiha, hadn't considered how it might affect him. Damn him, he had known that Sasuke had a fear of loss. He had known how hard it was for him to open himself up, to make himself vulnerable, to another person. Yet when Hiashi had ordered him to break it off, he hadn't even given that a thought. His only thought had been himself, his potential loss. He hadn't even listened when Shikamaru had told him that it was killing Sasuke. He was a fool, and a selfish one at that.

'You're the only thing holding me together,' Sasuke lifted his head from Neji's neck, and met his eyes. The depth of the emotion in his eyes was frightening. Had had done so much harm, and he hadn't even realised it.

..~..

Guilt engulfed him. It was his fault, not Sasuke's. He glanced again at the man sleeping beside him, then away. It was all his fault. How could he have been so blind?

'Are you going to stay awake all night?' Sasuke's eyes flickered open and he sat up slightly, resting his weight on his elbows. 'I can feel you fretting.' He answered Neji's unasked question.

'Someone should stand watch,' Neji lied. He was well aware that both of them were quite capable of sleeping, while still maintaining their guard. He just hoped Sasuke wouldn't call him on it.

'If you're going to lie, you could at least be convincing.' Sasuke sighed at his silence, and then sat up properly. 'Go to sleep, Neji. I'll stand watch.'

Neji just looked at him. He watched the way the moonlight caught his hair and disappeared within it. He watched the way he set his chin stubbornly, ready to take on the world at the slightest provocation. He saw that passion burning in his eyes, and the hurt that it concealed. He noticed the way that Sasuke held his gaze unwaveringly, and then quirked an eyebrow as his mouth twitched upwards.

'Like what you see?'

He was still the same, he was still Sasuke.

'Would you really do it?' Neji watched him carefully; unaware that he was holding his breath.

'Yes,' Sasuke answered without hesitation, 'if they threatened your life. If they took it…I would rip them to shreds.' He seemed to realise it was not the answer Neji was hoping for, though he remained unapologetic. 'I won't lose you again.'

Guilt speared him and he looked away. It was his fault. He had done this. Sasuke sighed and pulled him close until his head was resting on the other man's chest. He began to card his fingers through his hair as he had done many times before – though it seemed eons ago since they'd been that blissfully unaware of the world. 'You saved me,' he said unexpectedly. 'When I was so hell-bent on killing Itachi – it was you who stopped me.'

'Naruto stopped you,' Neji reminded him.

'Physically, perhaps.' Sasuke allowed, 'but it was your words that made me realise what I would lose.'

..~..

It was raining, of course. Neji privately wondered if Sasuke had chosen that day in particular because it was so delightfully clichéd. He was standing, drenched, in a field of mud and sodden grass as the relentless rain continued to beat down upon him. He was in his traditional fighting stance, feeling the damp seep up his pant legs and watching the silvery haze swirl around his opponent. He had one arm stretched out to the side, as if blocking the way though he couldn't physically. The field was far too wide. His Byakugan was activated, the veins pulling at his eyes, and he scanned the surrounding area for Naruto who had rushed off for help. It had taken a lot of convincing to get the blonde Shinobi to go; usually he would've insisted on being the one to fight Sasuke. Either something in Neji's eyes had convinced him, or he had realised that he didn't stand a chance in keeping Sasuke from where he wanted to go. Neji was the only one who did, though it wasn't due to superior skills. Even he had to admit that, if matched up against the Uchiha, he would probably lose. He'd long come to terms with that, having lost many a friendly spar to him in the past. He didn't think he would fare much differently in a real battle, though he would not be holding back. Then again, neither would the Uchiha.

'Stand aside,' Sasuke was simply standing in front of him, his hands lowered by his sides. Neji knew, however, that it would take mere microseconds for him to move into position. How did it come to this? How did it happen that he had to fight his lover in order to prevent him from betraying his village to chase after, and kill, his murderous brother?

'You know me better than that,' Neji watched as the rain sluiced down and dripped off of his hair, streaking across his cheeks. His dark eyes burned with anger, and sadness, and resignation.

'I do.' Sasuke disappeared. Neji tracked him with his Byakugan, intercepting him as he attempted to sneak past to the left.

'You won't get by without fighting me.' Neji informed the air, though he knew Sasuke was listening. 'I can see your every move. If you won't engage, you might as well give up.'

'Damn it, Neji.' Sasuke reappeared twenty metres to the right. Neji spun and leapt to face him almost before he materialized. 'I don't want to hurt you.'

'You can't avoid that,' Neji said coldly. How Sasuke thought he could just pick up and leave without hurting him, was a complete mystery to him. Especially since he was betraying his village in the process. If Sasuke left, there were only two possible outcomes. He would either kill his brother, or be killed by him. Neji was prepared to accept neither without a fight.

'If you succeed in killing Itachi,' he wondered if maybe he could stall Sasuke until Naruto managed to get back with reinforcements. An all-out fight would most likely end in his loss, and probably quickly. Talking could be the longer option. 'What will you achieve?'

'He'll be dead.'

'Will that make you feel better?" He demanded, 'will it take the pain away?'

'He'll get what he deserves.' Sasuke deflected the question.

'While you will have killed your own brother,' He kept his voice light, he didn't want to anger Sasuke after all – just stall him.

'It's why he left me alive,' Sasuke's tone was darkening, his fists twitching.

'So you'll do exactly as he told you?' Neji accused, and then wondered if he might have gone too far.

'No.' Sasuke's voice was frosty, his dark gaze chilling. Neji realised he was skating on thin, thin, ice but he couldn't help himself. He wasn't perfect, after all.

'Well that's exactly what you're doing.'

'NO!' Sasuke's speed was blinding. Even Neji couldn't have prepared for it. One second he was standing before him, and the next Neji had been slammed up against a tree. He had definitely gone too far. 'Shut UP.' He'd never heard Sasuke so incensed, never witnessed him lose that control so absolutely. At least, not in anger. There was no trace of warmth in his furious eyes; they had simmered to the boiling point. He hurriedly switched tactics.

'Think of what you're sacrificing for the sake of revenge,' he didn't bother to struggle. Naruto's chakra signature had just registered on the outskirts of his Byakugan range. He would be there in minutes with reinforcements. For now, he just had to keep Sasuke distracted enough that he wouldn't leave. 'Think of your friends. Think of me.'

'I have to do this,' Sasuke growled, his face close enough to suggest intimacy. But there was nothing intimate about his hold. The hands that had once held him so tenderly, now threated to cut off his air supply. 'It's my fate– you of all people should understand that.'

'How can I when it means betraying the people who love you?' He could feel Sasuke's hands shaking, the arm that held him to the tree slipping ever so slightly. Naruto was almost there.

'So you only believe in destiny when it suits you?' Sasuke demanded, outraged. 'Hypocrite.'

'Naruto helped me see the error of my ways,' Neji told him, spotting the approaching Shinobi, 'let me help you see yours.'

Sasuke stiffened suddenly and then released him. He had sensed the others. He spun, turning to vanish into thin air.

Neji played his final hand.

'Sasuke, if you leave now,' he said desperately, 'you'll be dead to me.'

Sasuke hesitated. It was enough.

..~..

Later, when they were dragging him back to Konoha, Sasuke had looked at him with such betrayal in his eyes. It didn't matter that he had later forgiven him, that he had even apologised himself and thanked him for preventing him. It didn't matter, because he couldn't shake that expression from his mind. Naruto had noticed something – for once. He'd come up to Neji and point blank asked him and then demanded an answer to a question of his own.

'What did you mean by that bit at the end, Neji?' With his wide blue eyes, and innocence that just seemed to radiate from every irritating orifice.

'Exactly what I said,' Neji had snapped.

There had been something akin to knowing in Naruto's eyes and Neji wondered now if he really did know. It seemed a lot more people were aware than they had thought. Shikamaru for one, Hiashi for another.

'Most girls would find it 'hot' you know.' Sasuke said suddenly, completely out of the blue. What he had hoped to achieve with that comment, Neji couldn't begin to fathom. He supposed it was an attempt at a joke. He didn't appreciate it.

'Then go find yourself one,' he snapped. He resisted the urge to childishly tug his hair from the other man's grasp.

Sasuke sighed, 'come on, Neji. I'm at least not going to do it tonight. You should get some sleep.'

'Please don't joke about it,' Neji said icily, crossing his arms.

'I'm sorry,' Sasuke slid his hands up and down his arms, his fingertips tickling. 'I never wanted to hurt you.'

'Me either,' Neji said softly. 'I guess we just can't help ourselves.'

He did manage to fall asleep, eventually. There was something comforting about feeling the Uchiha's heartbeat thudding in time with his own.

..~..

Neji rushed towards the Hyuuga compound. He didn't know how long he'd been running for, nor why he was running. He just had the overwhelming feeling that something was wrong. Seriously wrong. He felt sick. Fear was curling in his stomach. He broke through the gates and paused to catch his breath, bracing his hands on his knees. A sudden sense of vertigo swamped him and he stumbled, but caught himself at the last second. Something was very, very, wrong. Dread pooled in his chest, of what he wasn't sure. All he knew was where it was leading him. The door to the main house was ajar, the wind buffeting it gently. Nothing else moved, no trees swayed and no leaves swirled to the ground. It was eerily silent; the only sound the creaking of the door in the wind. He moved towards it and grasped the handle, pulling it open wider and stepping inside. His eyes roamed the main hall, searching for any abnormalities but there was nothing there. It was then that he spotted a shadow drifting towards him. Peering into the darkness, he could just make out the form. It was Sasuke. He felt instantly relieved and moved towards him.

'Sasuke…' he began only to stop abruptly.

'Neji,' Sasuke's eyes were strangely unfamiliar, 'it is done.' He reached out to caress Neji's cheek, 'you are free.'

The other man's hands were warm against his cheek…almost too warm. He recoiled suddenly as the metallic tang of…blood, filled his nose. He reached up to touch his cheek, it was wet. He examined his hand and was horrified to find a smudge of red adorning his palm. He looked up at Sasuke who watched him serenely. There was a fanatical gleam in his eyes, and his hands dripped with the red liquid. His clothes were stained with it, too. Suddenly he was surrounded by bodies and Sasuke was laughing. It was maniacal and loud and so unlike him, and when Neji looked closer he finally realised what was wrong with his eyes – they were red.

..~..

Neji awoke in a cold sweat, his eyes panicked and unfocused. When he felt arms encase him he fought blindly, shoving his elbow backwards and springing forwards out of the hold. He spun and landed instantly in his fighting stance, still caught up in the dream. Sasuke was standing before him, just as he had dreamt; only he wasn't laughing and his eyes were dark. Instead he was holding one hand out in an attempt to calm Neji, and was approaching him as if he were a wild animal. There was a bruise beginning to form where Neji had elbowed him in the face.

'Neji?' He looked slightly confused and just a little indignant.

Neji struggled to reconcile him with the man in his dream and found he couldn't. They simply weren't the same person. They couldn't be. Sasuke might talk about it, but there was no way he'd actually do it. At least, that was what he was going to tell himself. Because he couldn't believe that he would be capable of it. He had a justified reason for wanting to kill his brother, however misguided Neji still thought it. He couldn't overlook the fact that he, himself, had almost killed his own cousin over something much more trivial than the Uchiha massacre. He hadn't planned it, but it had almost happened none the less. If the jonin present hadn't stopped him…well, he wasn't sure what would have happened. All he knew was that in that moment, he hadn't been thinking reasonably. He'd let anger direct him, fuel him. He'd surrendered to his rage, and even to this day he regretted it. Hinata hadn't deserved it, though she was stronger now because of it. Itachi might deserve to die, but he personally believed that Sasuke shouldn't be the one to do it. It would haunt him for the rest of his life, knowing that he had killed his brother. It didn't matter if he was right to do it or not, he would torture himself none the less.

'Neji?' Sasuke was close enough, now, to touch him. He was still watching him warily however, unsure if whatever had taken hold of him had passed.

'It was just a bad dream,' he said finally, shaking himself out of the last vestiges of its hold on him.

'Was I in it?' Sasuke asked perceptively.

Neji briefly wondered if he should lie.

'No.' He resisted the urge to look away, an action that would completely betray him. 'It was just me, alone in the darkness.'

'Hn.' Sasuke looked unconvinced, but he dropped the subject. 'We should head back,' he said instead.

'Yes,' Neji agreed.

Neither of them moved, however. They both knew what awaited them upon their return. Neji turned to Sasuke and could see an argument brewing in his eyes. Sooner or later they would have that fight, but for now other things were more important. Such as feeling Sasuke's lips upon his own, and his long fingers tangling in his hair. The other man seemed to agree with him, and with no words exchanged they crashed together once again. It was as desperate as the last time. Both were aware that trouble loomed on the horizon, a trouble they likely wouldn't make it through unscathed. Still, within that desperation there was a gentle tenderness in some of the gestures. Hands lingered, memorising the smooth and coarse planes of each other's bodies. Lips tasted flesh again as if for the first time, aware that it may very well be the last. When they were done they lay together for some time, entangled within each other. Neji's head was resting against Sasuke's bare chest, Sasuke's folded on top of his and his face buried in his hair. It was bittersweet and seemed to last forever even as the moments ticked by faster than they could hold on to them. Neji listened to the steady beat of Sasuke's heart, felt the whoosh of breath against his scalp, and thought that despite the circumstances he was content. It couldn't last, though. Too soon they were disentangling themselves and searching for the clothing flung carelessly in the midst of their passion. Neji found he was missing his hair tie, but couldn't bring himself to care. He would simply wear it out, then. He knew Sasuke liked it that way, and it would especially annoy the elders to boot. He was rewarded with the crooked smile he had long deemed his alone as Sasuke once again pulled his fingers through the front strands.

'You should grow your own out, since you like it so much.' He quipped. Humour, he decided, was necessary. Otherwise he would be tempted to fall into a depression.

'I just like yours,' Sasuke tugged it to prove his point.

'We should go,' Neji said reluctantly. The roles were now reversed.

'Yes,' Sasuke parroted his response from earlier.

Again, neither of them moved. Dark bored into light, black into white. Sasuke was the one to break the silence.

'Neji.' So he wanted to have the promised fight there, in the midst of the woods. Neji supposed there was nowhere better for it. He didn't want to have it, but he knew better then to think that Sasuke would simply drop it. 'We don't have to go back.'

'It wouldn't matter,' Neji sighed, resigned. 'This,' he motioned towards his covered seal, 'can be activated anywhere. I will never be free of it, no matter how far I run.'

'Don't play the fucking martyr, Neji.' Sasuke growled, his eyes flashing. 'If you go back there to die, your death will be meaningless.'

'There isn't always meaning in death, Sasuke.' Neji watched his anger brewing with sadness, 'Sometimes it just…happens.'

'I won't let it.' His fists were clenched, his body language challenging.

'You can't stop the world from turning.'

'Spare me the destiny crap,' Sasuke spat, 'we both know you don't believe it anymore. This will happen because you allow it, not because the universe wills it.'

'I'm sorry,' Neji said softly. 'There is no other way.'

'Yes, there is.' Sasuke said darkly.

'I could never live with that, and you know it.' Neji moved forward and grasped the other man's arm. 'Despite what you believe, I don't think you could either.'

Sasuke looked away for the first time, his gaze distant and introspective. When he caught Neji's eyes once again, there was a determined and somewhat desperate gleam within them.

'I could live with anything that would guarantee your safety.'

'Well I could not.' Neji wondered once again how it had come to this.

'What if it were me, in your place?' Sasuke demanded, 'would you let me die?'

'Of course not!' Neji didn't even stop to consider, 'I would-'

'Fight it?' Sasuke cut him off, 'then why shackle me? Why force me to watch you die? I won't do it.'

'It is my choice, not yours.' Neji was losing this argument, and badly. He was failing completely to convince Sasuke, and what was more he was losing his own conviction.

'Exactly,' Sasuke said triumphantly, 'your choice.'

'Stop twisting my words.' It was his turn to get angry.

'You're losing this argument, because you're wrong.' Sasuke reached out for him and wrapped him in his arms. Neji almost pulled away, but didn't. 'Don't do this, Neji.' He whispered, 'we can hide again.'

'It's too late for that,' Neji said softly.

'Why?' Sasuke demanded, 'just tell them you broke it off.'

'I don't want to belittle this by lying about it again.' Neji said, though it wasn't the whole reason. Truth was, Hiashi probably wouldn't believe him. No matter what story Shikamaru could come up with, Neji had all but sealed his fate by going after the Uchiha - though he would never tell Sasuke that.

'What does it matter?' Sasuke asked, frustrated. 'If you don't, you'll die. What good is that?' His eyes narrowed, 'why does it seem to me that you want to die? Do you think it's heroic?'

'Of course I don't,' Neji was affronted.

'Then why?' Sasuke truly didn't understand. Neji couldn't give him true understanding, but he could him a realisation that had occurred to him.

'Because while we're right for one another,' he caressed his cheek, 'we're also wrong for one another. We hurt each other, so much more than anyone else could.'

'Fine.' Sasuke pulled away. 'Go and die, if that's what you want. But understand this; I will never stop fighting it. I will find a way.'

'Sasuke…'

'I told you I would never let you leave me again and I intend to keep that promise. One way or another.' With one last, lingering, glance he vanished into the trees. Neji watched the place where he had disappeared. His eyes ran over the indents left by his sandals, the only mark that proved he had once been standing there.

..~..

Neji groaned as Sasuke trailed heated kisses down his neck. He was flushed red though it was due equally to their activities, and to his embarrassment concerning them. He never made sounds like that, never. Yet the Uchiha was so skilled at shredding his control to pieces. He liked to think he had the same effect on the other man, but he couldn't be sure. Sasuke never seemed as embarrassed as he felt. He stifled a moan as lips settled at the base of his throat and sucked, suffusing heat through his body. It had been two months since they had first succumbed to the attraction that had been brewing between them. They had met maybe five times since then, and always ended up doing the same thing. Not that Neji minded, it was practically sinful it felt so good. He just had doubts that, coupled with his natural insecurity when it came to relationships, meant that he had just about convinced himself that sex was all the other was after. It was good, sure, but Neji felt he wanted more. He wanted to know what Sasuke thought, but he didn't really know how to go about asking.

'What do you want from me?' He blurted. No time like the present. He blamed his newfound lack of mental acuity and control on the other man's ministrations. They were distracting, to say the least.

'What do you mean?' Sasuke paused, lifting his head meet his eyes.

'Is this just…you know.' Neji made a series of gestures that, even to him, looked absolutely nothing like what he was trying to describe.

'No, I don't.' Sasuke looked amused.

'…you know.' Neji tried again, making another ambivalent gesture.

'Try using words,' Sasuke suggested. He was definitely enjoying himself, his mouth turned up just that tiny bit.

Neji sighed, frustrated at himself. 'Is it just…sex, for you?' There, he'd said it. The ball was in the Uchiha's court now.

Sasuke brought a hand up to his face. Neji felt positive it was to hide a smirk. He wasn't sure what that meant.

'Is it for you?' Sasuke asked in lieu of an answer. 'Does it feel like sex is all I want?' Unlike Neji, Sasuke appeared to have no reservations with the word.

'No,' Neji admitted. He didn't know how to explain that he was simply naturally doubtful. It seemed he didn't need to.

'Then why ask such a stupid question?' Sasuke shook his head as if in amused disbelief and then returned to his previous actions with a tad more vigour. Neji should have felt embarrassed, ridiculed, but he didn't. He just felt…warmed.

..~..

There it was, looming in the distance – the gates of Konoha. As he passed through them he expected to receive strange, knowing, glances. He didn't. No one knew what was going on, aside from those affected by it. The Shinobi by the gate eyed him curiously, as if wondering which mission he might be returning from. The streets were strangely absent of people that he knew. Usually, he would find some, or all, of the Konoha 11 running rampant through them. None of them, he knew, were on missions so where were they? He had hoped to have a few last words with them – Tenten, Lee, and even Shikamaru, especially. Of course the day he actually wanted to run into them, they were nowhere to be found. It seemed the universe loved to deal him the losing hand. He gave up his search and turned to head towards the Hyuuga compound. He walked slowly to his destination, he was in no hurry after all, and took in the world around him. He listened to conversations as he passed them, and tracked laughing children with his eyes. All too soon he was halting in front of the smaller gates that separated the Hyuuga's from the rest of Konoha. They were manned by a branch member that he considered slightly more than an acquaintance, though not quite a friend. He often exchanged words with him, usually about goings on in the village and the clan. As he passed through the gates, the man glanced at him with saddened eyes. So he knew, then. They had spread the word, to the clan at least.

'Neji?' He said quietly.

Neji paused briefly and inclined his head.

'You don't deserve this.'

'Thank you,' He offered the man a small half-smile, it was all he could muster.

'I knew you would come back,' the man said as Neji made to leave, 'some of the head members thought you would run.' He scoffed, 'they don't know you at all.'

He continued on, up to the main house where he knew they were waiting for him. He stepped inside and slid out of his sandals, then turned to face them.

'So you have returned,' Hiashi raised a brow, his face otherwise expressionless.

'So it would seem,' Neji said coldly. He was done with respect, it couldn't help him now.

Hiashi's lip curled ever so slightly, 'you can wait in here until the council has convened.' He gestured to a room to his left.

Neji walked in without another word. He sat himself down in the middle of the room and began to meditate. There was one guard, standing by the door, but it was for ceremonial purposes only. Escape was impossible, even if he wanted to try. The council would simply activate his curse seal and, no matter where he had made it to, he would still suffer its effects. He would die; just as if he were here, only then he would die in dishonour. He would be damned if he was going to let the head branch take his dignity, too. For now, though, he was here physically but he didn't have to be mentally. He calmed his mind, feeling the gaze of the guard on his face, and slipped into memories.

..~..

'Hey, Neji!' Neji cringed and narrowly resisted the urge to flee. He doubted his dignity could handle it.

'Naruto,' he replied as civilly as he could manage considering it was 8am in the morning, and he had just returned from a particularly tasking mission. His greeting turned out to be a little more hostile than he'd thought. Not that he minded. Not that Naruto even noticed.

'Are you free tonight?' He bounced over, his typical shit-eating grin plastered across his face. 'You have to be, we're going on a double date!'

'A double date?' Neji repeated incredulously. His instincts screamed 'trouble'.

'Yeah!' Naruto said enthusiastically, 'Me and Hinata, you and…I dunno Tenten?'

'Why?' Neji didn't even bother to tell Naruto what he thought about taking Tenten. Suffice to say, he wouldn't touch her with a ten foot pole when it came to dating. Besides he was, rather possessively, spoken for.

''Cause it's fun,' Naruto said in a tone that implied; duh, stupid.

Neji raised an eyebrow. 'Why would I want to be anywhere near you and my cousin while you made out?'

'Ah Neji,' Naruto flushed, 'we wouldn't do that…besides, Sasuke said he'd only come if you agreed.' Now that was interesting.

'He did?' Neji tried to seem unaffected. He managed, of course.

'Uh huh,' Naruto seemed slightly confused, 'he said he needed someone sane to 'weather the crazy' or some crap…whatever that means. So you'll come right?' He brightened.

'Would that not make it a triple date?' Neji wondered, 'who is he bringing?' He tried to convince himself that the flare of jealousy he felt when he thought about the Uchiha with someone else had been his imagination.

'Sakura,' Naruto mused thoughtfully, 'though anyone can tell he doesn't even like her.' He looked around and then leant in close as if to impart a secret. 'I don't even think he likes girls.'

Neji had to stifle a laugh. He would have much fun teasing Sasuke about that one later.

'Is that so?'

'Uh huh, hey!' Naruto seemed to consider something. 'Maybe you two could, like, go together.'

'What?' Neji asked, incredulous. Surely Naruto didn't…no, of course not.

'Yeah, that's like the best idea! I mean, neither of you are even interested in girls, so like – Neji? Hey, Neji, where are you going? Are you coming tonight? Neji? I only meant as friends!'

He'd hightailed it out of there, pride be damned.

..~..

'Neji?' Hinata's soft voice penetrated his thoughts, 'there's someone at the door for you.'

He looked up in surprise, his eyes snapping open.

'Who is it?' He surveyed his cousin, she was dressed up. She wore a pretty dark blue kimono that accented her hair, and illuminated her eyes. He recalled that Naruto had said he was taking Hinata on that date he'd tried to rope Neji into. He scowled.

'S-someone,' she stuttered, but instead of looking frightened she looked…amused. Just what was going on?

He rose from his meditation position and stretched his muscles briefly. He then headed to the front door to find out the identity of his mystery guest.

'Sasuke?' He looked around incredulously, and then it hit him. Naruto. 'I never agreed to this.'

'Hn.' Sasuke shoved his hands further in his pockets, the very picture of disinterest. His eyes, however, told a completely different story. They were smouldering.

'Just as friends,' Naruto promised, emerging from where he'd hidden just in case Neji had suddenly erupted or tried to kill him.

Neji glared at him for good measure, but sighed in resignation. Secretly, he would admit to being a tiny bit intrigued by the whole idea.

'Hey, Hinata,' Naruto greeted as his cousin came up behind him, 'you look…wow!'

'So it begins,' Neji muttered, moving out of the way. He wasn't sure he approved of the two of them, though he knew Naruto to be an honourable man. He was just so, so…

'Insane,' Sasuke supplied, as if reading his thoughts.

'Loud,' Neji said drily. 'Loud and insane, and potentially dead by the end of tonight.'

'I'll help you hide the body,' Sasuke offered helpfully. He brushed their fingers together, looking unruffled when Neji shot him a look of warning.

'Hey you two,' Naruto called, startling Neji. 'Let's go already.'

'Jumpy,' Sasuke remarked.

'Wary,' Neji corrected, 'of being caught.'

'Would that be so bad?' Sasuke asked mildly, his tone suggesting he thought not.

'You know-' Neji began, only to be interrupted. Usually he hated that; the Uchiha he would forgive – this time.

'Let's just enjoy tonight,' Sasuke suggested, 'it promises to be amusing.'

'Disgusting, you mean.' Neji snorted, his eyes drifting to where Naruto and Hinata were walking far too close together. He had half a mind to go over there and insist they observe the proper distance. Which was fifteen meters, he decided. It was a good distance - far enough that there couldn't be any funny business, yet close enough that they could still hear each other if they spoke loudly. Which, luckily, was a few notches below Naruto's usual volume. He was immersed in thought when Sasuke casually grabbed his hand and entwined their fingers. He looked over in shock, but the other man wasn't even paying any attention to him. It was as if it hadn't happened. Yet it had. Neji could feel the coarse palm against his own, the heat seeping between them.

'Sasuke,' he hissed, looking around and attempting to tug his hand from the other man's grasp.

'Yes?' Sasuke turned his head slightly, his eyes mischievous.

'What are you doing?' He couldn't pull his hand free without resorting to drastic measures that would no doubt get them noticed. As it stood, no one was even looking their way. 'Let go.'

'Of what?' Sasuke had an impressively straight face. 'Neji,' he abandoned the façade, sensing the other was truly uncertain. 'No one is watching. You take risks every day as a Shinobi, just think of this as a mission'

'A mission,' Neji repeated, slightly disbelieving.

'Exactly,' Sasuke nodded, 'one in which the objective is to do this,' he brushed their lips together so quickly Neji had absolutely no time to avoid it, 'without getting caught.'

He looked around, panicking just a tad.

'Anyone could have seen that,' he accused. His heart was thumping a mile per minute; he was so sure what Sasuke had just done would be the end of them.

'They didn't,' Sasuke said confidently. 'Give me some credit,' he had the nerve to scoff, 'I am a Shinobi, after all.'

'Hey,' Naruto yelled back, not even bothering to turn his head. 'What are you guys doing back there, holding hands or something?'

Neji flinched and instantly there was about a meter of space between him and Sasuke.

'He was just teasing,' Sasuke reassured. Neji swore he heard laughter.

'He sure knows how to hit a nerve,' Neji muttered.

'Well he had to have some kind of talent,' Sasuke still looked amused.

They reached the restaurant without any further drama and the waiter led them to the table Naruto had, with an unusual amount of foresight, managed to book. Neji sat next to Sasuke, and across from Hinata. Soon the waiter requested their orders. Naruto, predictably, ordered Ramen and insisted on ordering it for Hinata as well. Neji took a quick glance and ascertained that she didn't seem to mind; in fact she seemed to be blushing. Sasuke ordered some other kind of noodle dish, and Neji simply ordered a small bowl of rice. When the waiter left, Naruto beamed at them.

'Isn't this great?' He asked enthusiastically, 'I have the best ideas ever!'

'Hn.' Sasuke made his typical response when he was disinterested.

Hinata made a noise of agreement, and Neji simply raised a brow. Suddenly he was distracted by a bump against his foot. He resisted the urge to look down, figuring it must have been an accident. A few seconds later he was proven wrong. Something bumped once again into his foot, and then slid along it. What the hell? He looked around the table; no one seemed to have noticed. Naruto and Hinata were talking, and Sasuke was apparently watching them. He had his chin resting on his fist and looked extremely bored. Neji tried to peer under the table without looking as if that was what he was doing, and waited. Nothing happened. He decided it must simply have been another accident and returned his attention to the conversation. Five seconds later something was nudging incessantly against his foot. He was getting fed up. He kicked violently out at whatever it was and must have missed because the next thing he heard was a howl of pain.

'Ah, who did that?' Naruto hopped up from the table, 'someone kicked me!'

Neji inwardly blanched. Outwardly he pulled out his blank face and pretended as if nothing had happened. Beside him, Sasuke sniggered. Of course, he was responsible. Now he was playing footsie under the table.

'Was it you, Sasuke bastard?' Naruto accused, sitting back down once he realised he'd disturbed just about everyone else in the restaurant.

'No,' Sasuke scoffed, 'why would I bother?' He couldn't quite hide his amusement, though, or at least not from Neji. Apparently Naruto knew him well enough to see it, too.

'You so did!' He seemed wounded, 'I thought you were having fun!'

The meals came in time to distract Naruto from following up on the unexpected kick. A huge grin split his face and he dug into the ramen placed before him.

'Oh boy,' he licked his lips, 'this place has awesome ramen. You gotta try yours, Hinata!'

'I will,' she smiled, picking up her chopsticks.

Neji watched them thoughtfully. It seemed his cousin really did like the blonde loudmouth, and vice versa. He supposed she could do worse. He picked up his own chopsticks in order to eat his rice. About half-way though the meal he felt a slight pressure on his foot that disappeared as quickly as it had come. He refused to respond. He wasn't playing that game. He should have realised that his response would only fuel the other man to try something else. The foot hooked around his own in a strange embrace. He glanced at Sasuke, fully prepared to admonish the other but stopped short. He was smiling, and not just that little half-smile he sometimes wore. It was a real smile, one that he was trying to hide behind his fist but couldn't completely. Neji sighed internally and just let the other man play with his foot. Besides, he might have been slightly enjoying it. That was, until a hand slipped ever so lightly onto his thigh. That was the last straw. Really, they were in a restaurant! He would have admonished Naruto and Hinata had they done the same (little did he know.)

He turned to Sasuke, 'Out. Now.' He left, expecting the other man to follow him. Really, at this point he didn't even care what story Naruto would make up to explain it. It probably wouldn't be as strange as the truth; Sasuke Uchiha and Neji Hyuuga (however reluctantly) playing footsie at a restaurant. He snorted. He went out the back entrance, past the toilets, which opened onto a nicely secluded alley. Excellent, he could yell at him in private then. His mischievous companion had other ideas. The moment the door had swung shut behind them; Sasuke was pushing him into the wall. It was rough and aggressive, and Neji was supposed to be angry so he resisted.

'I'm angry at you,' he dodged the other man's attempt to claim his lips.

'Are you?' Sasuke didn't seem concerned. He simply trailed them down his neck instead. One hand was against the wall just beside Neji's head, and the other had slipped under his shirt while he was distracted. His own hands were working hard to betray his resolve; they were busy slipping themselves under the Uchiha's as well. Sasuke grinned into his neck and moved up to whisper against his jawline.

'How about now?'

'Still.' Neji managed to say without any hint of a stutter.

Sasuke chuckled, his dark eyes unguarded. His hand moved from the wall to gently brush stray hairs from Neji's face. Slowly, he leaned in.

'…and now?' He whispered against Neji's lips.

'Maybe less so,' Neji allowed.

Sasuke stiffened, 'incoming,' he sighed. He broke away and straightened his shirt. Neji straightened his and stepped away from the wall.

'Guys?' Naruto burst through the door, 'oh there you are. Hey what do you guys think about going for desert?'

They exchanged glances.

'Sure.'

'Hn.'

'Great! Hinata's waiting out front.' Naruto disappeared back inside and then suddenly reappeared, 'what was that about anyway?'

'Che, like you need to know idiot.' Sasuke pushed Naruto back through the door and then shoved his hands in his pockets. Neji followed just behind him. When they finally made it out front (after Neji had paid the bill – he was feeling particularly charitable) Hinata beamed at him. He briefly wondered if it had been a mistake leaving the two of them at the table on their own, but then decided that he didn't want to know. He fell into step beside Sasuke, just behind Naruto and Hinata, as they head towards whatever dessert place Naruto had in mind. It was dark, and there weren't many lights or people along the streets. Neji casually slipped his hand into Sasuke's, smiling when the other man squeezed it. They were both looking anywhere save each other, but it still felt like a date.

It had been their only real date, and Naruto had given it to them – however obliviously.

..~..

'Why am I always the one pressed up against things?' Neji had his back pressed up against a tree somewhere on the outskirts of Konoha.

Sasuke eyed him as if the answer should have been obvious.

'Because I'm more aggressive.'

'I can be aggressive,' Neji argued. His words were somewhat undermined by the groan that followed them.

'Prove it.' Sasuke smirked.

Neji considered it briefly and then launched himself forwards in a tackle. Sasuke felt the ground press into his back, the grass tickling his arms. Neji settled his weight on top of the other man and smirked down at him.

'Aggressive enough?'

'Hn.'

..~..

'Neji?'

Neji flicked his eyes open. The remnants of the memories were still fresh in his mind, and he didn't bother to hide the slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. It would serve to unnerve the council.

'Yes?' He met the gaze of his guard, who looked away.

'It is time.'

Neji got to his feet gracefully and followed the man out the door and into the main hall, where the council of elders had congregated. They were all seated on chairs at the front of the room, higher up than any of the other occupants. Hiashi sat in the centre. Towards the back were rows of chairs that held the rest of the clan; branch members and children alike. It seemed he was to receive a very public 'trial'. He was led to the front and told to stand in the centre. He noticed that the chair usually occupied by the heir was empty. Where was Hinata? It didn't matter, he supposed. He was just glad she wouldn't have to witness it. He lifted his gaze and met Hiashi's head on.

'Hyuuga Neji,' Hiashi began formally, his voice glacial. 'You have been accused of practicing homosexuality. How do you plead?'

'Guilty.' He refused to bow his head, refused to look away. When Hiashi passed judgement upon him, he wanted him to look him in the eyes. He wanted him to see, and know, exactly what he was doing. Behind him he could hear shocked whispers reverberating around the hall.

'You have been asked to sever all ties with the boy. Have you done this?'

Neji looked away briefly to meet the gaze of every council member seated in front of him. He stared them all down, and then returned to Hiashi.

'I have not, and will not, sever ties with him.'

Again, whispers sounded behind him. He ignored them.

'Neji,' Something in Hiashi's eyes changed. 'Will you not reconsider? Think of your family.'

Neji recalled Sasuke's impassioned words. Family should never hurt one another.

'I see none here,' he said coldly.

He could see his response angered Hiashi for his eyes hardened.

'Then the judgement placed upon you by this council; is death.' He turned to address the council members, 'who will activate the juinjutsu?'

Neji braced himself for the pain, though he knew no amount of preparation could help him. All he could do was remain strong, and stand tall, and accept his death with dignity and honour.

'Hyuuga Hiashi,' a voice rang out, though from where Neji wasn't entirely sure. 'By order of the fourth Hokage, Lady Tsunade, you are ordered to stand down and desist in your actions.' A Shinobi appeared just in front of Neji, dressed in the traditional garb of the Uchiha clan. It was Sasuke, though he was virtually unrecognisable. What exactly was he doing?

'What is the meaning of this?' Hiashi demanded, 'We are able to carry out clan law as we see fit - you are interfering in private business. I demand that you leave immediately.'

'By order of the Hokage,' Sasuke said again, 'you may see the scroll.'

Hiashi perused it with a scowl and then flung it to the ground.

'How dare she presume to interrupt our affairs,' he spat, 'you can tell her that this will mean civil war.'

'You can tell me yourself,' Tsunade stormed in, flanked by Shizune, Gai, and the rest of the Konoha 11. 'My apologies, Uchiha,' she nodded at Sasuke, 'I was held up.'

Sasuke inclined his head and stepped aside, allowing Tsunade to take point. Gai walked straight up to Neji and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.

'I have here,' she announced, 'a list of clans within Konoha that will support me, should you choose to incite rebellion. It is by no means exhaustive,' she flicked a glance at Sasuke, 'simply all we could round up at short notice.'

Sasuke pulled out a scroll and handed it to her. As she read out each clan, a representative stepped forward.

'The Aburame clan; represented by Aburame, Shino. The Inuzuka clan; represented by Inuzuka, Kiba. The Akimiri clan; represented by Akimiri, Choji. The Nara clan; represented by Nara, Shikamaru. The Yamanaka clan; represented by Yamanaka, Ino. The Uchiha clan; represented by Uchiha, Sasuke. Finally, the Hyuuga clan; represented by Hyuuga, Hinata.'

So that's where Hinata had been, Neji realised with a slight sense of gratitude. Hiashi, however, looked thunderous.

'She cannot speak for the Hyuuga clan,' he sent a fierce glare in her direction, though she didn't flinch. 'I am the clan head.'

'For now,' Tsuande reminded him scornfully. 'Hinata assures us that if you do start a civil war, she will happily end it when she takes control. I figure we can hold you off for the few years you have left.' Her tone was mocking, as if she doubted Hiashi would prove challenging in the slightest.

'You dare,' Hiashi growled. A vein throbbed in his temple. Neji briefly wondered if he would actually attack the Hokage.

'I will not tolerate bigotry in this village,' Tsuande's voice rang clearly through the awed silence. She truly was a sight to behold when angry. 'No matter how old or powerful the clan. You have a choice, Hiashi. If you choose war, then you and your clan will be banished from Konoha until such a time as a wiser, more appropriate, leader is appointed. Choose wisely.'

'He is free to go,' Hiashi said through clenched teeth. Behind him the council members shifted, their faces as cold as stone. 'However, he is banished from the clan, and can no longer bear the name Hyuuga.' He turned to fix Neji with his gaze, 'never return here, you are no longer welcome.'

Neji felt his heart sink to his stomach. Never return to the only home he had ever known? Gai squeezed his shoulder, for once silent. Neji didn't even bother to pretend he didn't need it. He leaned into the touch and drew strength from his teacher's unwavering presence. His eyes searched for Sasuke, but he had moved and he couldn't find him amongst the sea of people.

'Now all of you get out.' Hiashi commanded.

'Remember Hiashi,' Tsuande warned, 'if his curse seal is activated at all, for any reason, it will be regarded as an act of war.' With those final words she spun on her heel and marched back out the door. The rest of the Shinobi followed her silently, all of them deep in thought. Gai moved to leave, but Neji was frozen. Was this the last time he would stand in his home?

'Neji,' Gai placed another hand on his other shoulder, 'you may not have a home here, anymore. But you have many, in the hearts of those who love you.' He smiled his typical wide and dazzling grin. For once, Neji didn't cringe away. Instead he allowed himself to be led out of the room and out the compound. His mind was in turmoil, his thoughts uncharacteristically disorganised. He kept replaying the event over and over again. Slowly, he began to realise what it all meant. He wasn't dead. Instead, he was free. Free from his clan, from his seal – free from his cage. It had come with a price, but what didn't? It was steep but he was prepared to pay it. Gai deposited him amongst his friends, squeezing his shoulder once more as he let. Neji decided he owed each of them gratitude and months – if not years – of civil behaviour. He noticed that Sasuke was not among them, and looked past them to see if he could spot the Uchiha. He seemed to have vanished however, so Neji turned his mind briefly to the task of thanking his friends. He spoke to Hinata first.

'Hinata,' he hesitated and then embraced her. 'Thank you,' he whispered.

'You're like my brother,' Hinata held him tightly.

'No,' Neji shook his head, 'you are my sister, in every way that counts. I'm sorry it took me so long to realise that.'

'I knew you would eventually,' she grinned at him.

He was dragged away by his old teammates who began to berate him.

'Why didn't you tell me, you arrogant prick?' Tenten poked him in the chest. 'I had to find out from Uchiha! Uchiha!' She threw her hands in the air, and then sighed. 'Look, I'm just glad you're safe but don't you ever do that again. You hear me? Ever.'

He nodded, 'I am sorry.'

'We are glad that you have finally discovered the flaming passion of youth,' Lee added.

'About time,' Tenten agreed, a wicked smile on her face. 'I think the two of you are so cute.'

'Cute?' Neji echoed, completely stumped. That was not a reaction he had expected.

'…and hot.' She smirked. 'I've got to go, though – late for a mission. Catch you later.' She winked lewdly and then left. Lee left, also, to find Gai and discuss something 'youthful' with him. Neji was again searching the crowd for Sasuke, when Naruto bumped into him.

'Neji!' He was his usual exuberant self, 'guess what I just realised!'

'What?' Neji hoped he wouldn't regret humouring him.

'We can totally go on a double date for real this time!'

'I would like that,' Neji smiled.

Naruto blinked in shock and then grinned even wider than Neji thought was possible.

'You're good for each other,' he said seriously. 'I've never seen him so happy. Most people can't tell with him, but I can. He tries to hide it.' He grinned again, 'he totally gave it away today though.'

'What do you mean?' Neji asked curiously.

'It was scary, man.' Kiba, passing by, chose to butt into their conversation. 'Seriously, I had no idea. I thought he was going to tear us apart if we didn't agree to help. Not that we wouldn't anyway, but…' he shuddered. 'There's somethin' real intense about those eyes, man, even when they aren't red.'

'What did he do?'

'I don't' know the whole story,' Kiba obliged, 'but I know he stormed right up to Tsunade and started yelling at her – I've never seen him so riled up. Hell, I've never seen him show emotion.' He shrugged, 'after he finished yelling, she just stood up – she wasn't mad or anything – and was like 'you're right'. That's all I know – but I gotta run, man. Glad you're okay, though.' He left, with Akamaru at his heels.

'I didn't get to see that,' Naruto pouted, 'that would have been hilarious.'

'It sure was interesting,' Shikamaru abled over, his hands in his pockets and looking thoroughly bored. 'Troublesome Uchiha messed up the cover story I had for our little jaunt in the forest.'

'What did he say exactly?' Neji was slowly beginning to think that he didn't deserve the other man.

Shikamaru shrugged, 'I fell asleep in the middle – it was long.' He defended, 'the gist of it went along the lines of 'you're a pathetic excuse for a Hokage if you can stand by and just watch this injustice take place.' Then he ranted some more until Tsunade told him he was right, and we all set about getting support from the clans. You know the rest.' He dragged a hand through his hair, and then winked. 'Now I'm done with you troublesome bastards.'

'Thank you, Shikamaru.' Neji bowed his head, 'for everything you've done.'

The Nara nodded and then raised a hand in a lazy wave before heading off.

'I'm gonna go say hi to Hinata,' Naruto clapped him on the shoulder and sped off in the direction of his cousin.

Neji watched him engulf her in an exuberant hug, then proceed to drag the laughing girl towards, he assumed, his favourite Ramen store. He was feeling lighter than he had in months, as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. All his fears and worries were behind him, he was free to do as he wished. Free to be with whomever he chose. He scanned the slowly depleting crowd once again. It took a while, but eventually he spotted him. He was leaning against a wall with his hands in his pockets. Neji walked towards him, though it was practically a jog he was moving so fast. Sasuke's dark eyes were upon him, the corner of his mouth crinkling ever so slightly. Despite this, Neji detected hesitance in his gaze. He would fix that. He didn't check to see if anyone was watching. He didn't care if his dignity suffered an irreparable blow. He kissed him with all the force and emotion he could muster. He could feel the other relax and the tension seep from his body. Neji broke the kiss and rested his forehead against the Uchiha's. Their breath mingled as they stood there, holding each other as if to let go would be to lose. Sasuke ran his hands through Neji's still unbound hair, his eyes hooded beneath his lashes.

'I'm only going to keep hurting you,' Neji warned him softly. It was unavoidable. They were so alike, yet so different.

'No more than I'll hurt you,' Sasuke countered.

'We must be masochists,' Neji mused out loud.

'Without a doubt.'

..~..

Love is brutal

Love is ugly

And it is not always right

It doesn't care for race or gender

And it never gives respite

It can hurt more than it helps

It's both a pleasure and a pain

But ask the fool and he will tell you

That there's something there to gain