Chapter: 25

Within a short amount of time, everything seemed to return to normal in the Leaf Village. Lee was training like he always did, no matter the time or place. Kiba seemed to be back on speaking terms with Neji and Akamaru seemed to bear no grudge. Naruto wasn't around when Kiba and Neji met up to chat, but Kiba told him everything. All was forgiven and everyone was happy to have Neji back in human form. Gai even tackled him in a massive hug when he heard the news and, according to Kiba, Neji tried to breath fire on him to get his Sensei off. Of course the fire never came and Neji felt a little embarrassed for trying.

"He's still adjusting," Kiba had mentioned. "He told me that he crawled on all fours when he got up this morning and ate right from the plate before he remembered his chopsticks. Can't eat spicy things again. He told me that, so I'm guessing he tried and failed painfully."

He seemed to be doing much better since then. Naruto felt disappointed he wasn't around when Neji was up and about. He wanted to throw Neji a huge party in celebration of his lifted curse. He had planned on getting everyone together for barbeque, but Neji wasn't around. Neither was Hinata, nor any other Huyga for that matter. According to Sakura and Tenten, all the Hyuga had gathered at the estate for a big party. Naruto had a good chance of finding him there so he ran off in that direction. As soon as he approached the gate, he remembered that Neji had mentioned a party with his uncle the day before and wondered if this was the party they were talking about. If so, no non-Hyuga was permitted to enter. Still, Naruto wanted to see how Neji was doing with his own eyes.

He sneaked over to where he heard music and voices, figuring that this was where the party was being held. It was the large courtyard they used mostly for training. It was certainly large enough to host a party. Being extremely careful, Naruto started to climb the wall.

"What are you doing?"

Naruto flinched, figuring he was caught by someone in the clan. It turned out to be Shikamaru standing behind him with his hands in his pockets looking rather bored. "Don't do that! Can't you see I'm sneaking?"

"Yes, I can see that. You know this party is for Hyuga members only, don't you? You're not allowed in."

"I know that. I'm not trying to get in. I just want to peek over the wall and see if Neji's in there."

"Being a Hyuga, I'd say his chances are good." Shikamaru watched as Naruto climbed up the wall and peered over the edge into the yard.

For a noble family, this party seemed rather subdued in Naruto's opinion. He was expecting a lot of laughing and balloons and fireworks and games. He thought the Hyuga would throw a party much like Seji's, where the entire village was strung up in lights and everything was bursting with color and the thick smell of food.

Well, there was food, but it wasn't very strong smelling and the portions were small in comparison. There were tables of food to one side of the yard where people could come and take the food they wanted. There was music playing near the back wall and the middle of the yard and been cleared away for people to dance. However, few people were. Most of the Hyuga were just standing around talking. Some danced, but it was more of a waltz than what Naruto could call 'dancing'. Hiashi was dancing with his youngest daughter in the center of the dance floor. Naruto guessed that was Hanabi, Hinata's little sister and birthday girl. He had never met her officially either; at least not that he could remember. He wasn't always the best when it came to remembering faces. Some were better than others.

Naruto looked around for Neji, knowing he had to be close by. "That Neji couldn't even take a break for two minutes before running off to report to his uncle. The fact that his uncle is here must mean Neji is, too."

"Of course he's there," said Shikamaru. "This is his house."

"Shh! I'm sneaking here."

"You're the one who's talking. And you're the one on the wall."

Naruto ignored him and continued to look for Neji. He found someone with long hair by the wall, but it wasn't Neji. It was Hinata. She was standing by herself watching the other people dance. She seemed to be looking at her father dancing with Hanabi. Every time a male Hyuga passed by, she looked up, hopeful, then slumped in disappointment as they passed by. She wanted to dance, too, but didn't have a partner. She stood with her back against the wall playing with her sleeves.

That's when Naruto spotted Neji walking across the yard from the porch. Neji seemed to be able to walk again without a problem. Naruto watched as he moved to where Hinata was standing.

Neji had been watching his cousin wait for a dance partner for several long minutes. It seemed that she was invisible to the Hyuga's eyes even though she was the head of the clan's first daughter. Unable to take it anymore, Neji walked swiftly over to her and stood in front of her with his hand extended forward. Hinata looked up and flinched when she saw that it was Neji. It wasn't out of fear, but surprise. She never expected him to offer his hand to her.

"Would you like to dance, Lady Hinata?"

She looked at the hand a second time then at her cousin's face. "I... But, you..."

He held his hand a little closer. "I will dance with you if I have your permission."

Without stuttering, she answered, "But you hate to dance. I've never seen you do it before."

"That's fine." Neji gave her a soft smile. "I've never thought of myself as a very good dancer which is why I never dance. I don't want to embarrass myself."

"I- it's ok, Neji," she told him nervously. "I- I'm not a very good dancer either. I'm terrible."

"Then it should be alright if I am your partner. You can blame it on me and you won't have to be embarrassed." He offered her his hand again. "Please? You shouldn't be standing here by yourself like a wallflower. You should enjoy yourself."

She didn't want to embarrass herself in front of the whole clan, but if Neji insisted, claiming he wasn't a good dancer either, then it should be alright. Keeping her eyes down, she shyly took his hand and allowed him to pull her toward the dance floor. Rather than head into the crowd of people, Neji escorted her to the side where they would be close enough to the music and people but not among the crowd just in case Hinata couldn't handle it.

Neji and Hinata stood facing each other. They looked at the dancers, trying to follow what they were doing. Neji tried to mimic them, knowing it was a disaster. He tried to lead Hinata in the dance but it didn't seem to be working out. He seemed to be pulling too hard and stepping too close. She kept stepping on his feet and her chin would bump into his chest. Even though it was his fault, she apologized. After only a few seconds of this, Neji was tired of it. He abandoned this dance in favor of another one.

He took her hands in his and tried something different. He started to swing her arms from side to side as if preparing to toss a heavy load over a fence. Hinata looked at the crowd and then at what they were doing. "Um, Neji... This isn't the dance everyone else is doing."

"I know," he told her. "It's different." He bent his elbows and straightened them, pulling and pushing her arms, making up a new dance.

Hinata looked worried. Everyone else was doing something different from what they were doing. It was better to join in and do what everyone else was doing or they might think they were strange and give them disappointing looks. She was afriad of what everyone else would think.

Neji suddenly spun her around and then himself. That gained her attention and a slight smile. That was fun. Neji grinned and spun her again. Her smile grew a little bigger. But she still looked a little concerned. "The main point of a party, Lady Hinata, is to enjoy oneself. It's pointless if you are not happy. You deserve to have fun as well."

She didn't look convinced. This was one of the things she and her cousin had in common. They were both worried about what other people thought of them, particularly Hiashi. Neither one wished to bring shame to the clan.

Suddenly Neji stood very close to Hinata, so close their chests touched, and he straightened their arms out to one side as if they were tangoing. Even though the music was slow, Neji was doing a slightly faster dance, making moves up as they went along. He bent his spine backwards while holding onto Hinata so it looked like she had dipped him and sprang back up. He had just performed a move intended for the female partner. Hinata started to giggle. Encouraged by her laugh, Neji did it again and then dipped her down. Now she was laughing. This was what he wanted from her. His silly actions were making her laugh. Even if he felt a little embarrassed by doing this, it wasn't so bad since she was doing it, too. Besides, she didn't seem to think any less of him for it. Today, he would enjoy himself. He could be serious later. Right now it was a party and they needed it to feel like one.

"You see?" Neji said with a smile. "Not everything has to be so serious. It's easy to have fun. Enjoying yourself isn't so difficult."

Hinata wasn't worried anymore. She was too busy dancing with her cousin to care. This was very enjoyable.

The music had ended and the dancers took a break. Hanabi looked over at her sister who was laughing. She hadn't seen Hinata laugh like that in a while. Certinly not around the Hyuga clan, that was for sure. Curious, Hanabi walked away from her father to see what they were doing. Hinata and Neji were dancing their own dance with no music. At first she thought it was strange, but then she saw how much they seemed to be enjoying themselves and wanted to join in. She pushed her way between them and asked if she could join them in their made up dance. Neji and Hinata took Hanabi's hands and started to swing their arms forward and back. Then Hinata tried adding her own moves. Now they were dancing in a circle, rotating one way and then the other. Now Hanabi was laughing with them. This was better than dancing that boring waltz with their father. This was much more fun.

Hiashi noticed that Hanabi had gone missing and went looking for her. He spotted her with Hinata and Neji. The three of them appeared to be dancing together to no music. It certainly didn't look like any dance he had seen before. It was clearly made up. He chose not to put a stop to it. Not when he saw all three of them laughing together having a great time. Neji was always so serious and obedient, it was nice to see him relax every now and then. He hadn't heard either of his daughters laugh like that in a long time. He had almost forgotten how cute their laughs were. It was a heartwarming relief. It was nice to see all three of them doing well. Hiashi began to smile as well.

"That's weird," Naruto said quietly. "Neji's laughing and dancing."

Now that Shikamaru wanted to see but climbing the wall seemed like too much work so he stayed put.

"I didn't know he could dance. Or laugh. Well, actually, I guess that's not completely true. He just doesn't do it that often." Naruto rested his chin on the top of the wall. "I kind of figured he wouldn't do it in front of people from his clan."

"Why, because they make him miserable?" Shikamaru asked behind him. "Naruto, I told you before... He has an image to up hold. It's not that he's miserable. That's just how he is. He may come across as aloof, but he's not as bad as you think."

"I never said that exactly. I just meant that..." Naruto didn't know what he meant. "I guess I sort of thought that they made him unhappy. I mean, remember the other day when he changed back? I really thought for a minute there that he would decide to stay a dragon. I thought he'd be happier like that. Or maybe I thought that he thought he would be."

"And like I told you, being human didn't make him miserable. It's all about appearances." Shikamaru folded his arms behind his head and looked at the sky. "But maybe it's that he realized that things weren't as bad as he thought. It's like you told me before. You two helped each other."

"We did."

"Yeah, but I mean more in the long term than... you know what? Never mind. Either you get it or you don't." He watched the clouds with a sigh. "That was one hell of an adventure, I'll give you that."

"Yeah, it was pretty awesome," Naruto beamed. "I wonder how Gaara's doing? I hope he's doing better than he was."

"Lady Tsunade said she got a message from the Sand Village this morning. It said that Gaara's able to move again and he's back to controlling sand like before. They had to help him walk for a little bit but now he's able to do it on his own and he's going to get back to paper work tomorrow. He said he could handle it now but they told him not to push himself. Sounds like a few people really know what happened to him. It was Temari who wrote the message and sent it to us. She said they weren't going to broadcast Gaara being a dragon and getting chased out of the village. Suits me fine. I'd think it would make everyone feel bad about running out the Kazekage the way they did. Lady Tsunade still has the note if you want to read it later. It was meant for you to read as well."

"Yeah, maybe later." Naruto was still watching Neji dance with his cousins. He smiled seeing Neji behave like this. "He seems so happy."

"You said the same thing about being a dragon. Maybe it has nothing to do with his form that makes him happy."

Nothing to do with form. Naruto had seen Neji laugh as a dragon and as a human. He had seen him have fun and play as a dragon and now as a human. Maybe Shikamaru was right and it had nothing to do with Neji's form, be it dragon or human. It was him. Naruto knew it was Neji all along, but he had a tiny bit of doubt whenever he saw Neji behave differently, wondering if it was dragon instinct or something else. Maybe it was Neji being himself without fear of being judged. Or maybe it was a combination of the two.

Naruto climbed down from the wall before he could get caught and followed Shikamaru away from the Hyuga estate. "Let them have their party," he said. "I'll bug Neji about our party later. He seems to be having a nice time with them and who knows how long that will last. Before they get all serious again, I mean. We'll throw him a big party later."

Shikamaru nodded and took Naruto down the street to read the later Tsunade was holding onto for them.

On the other side of the wall, Neji and Hinata took turns spinning Hanabi back and forth between them. Now it was less of a dance and more of a game. It was nice to put aside appearances once in a while and just play around, even if one looked foolish doing so. As long as they were doing it together, who cared how they must have looked? Even Neji no longer cared. At least not as much. It was nice to act a little silly once in a while and it was nice to play. It was nice not having to stand perfectly still and watch as everyone else had fun, worried about overstepping or making a mistake. It was wonderful to let his spirit fly. Fly like a dragon.

It was true. He did contemplate changing back or not. He thought about all the things he would be giving up as a dragon, the very same way he was on giving up everything he could do as a human. But it was worth it. He appreciated it even more. He was never miserable being a human or being a dragon. All the things that made him unhappy were normal things everyone and everything had to go through. It had nothing to do with form. He was happy to be human and missed it. What had him happy as a dragon wasn't being a dragon. Or flying or breathing fire or the power. It was being with someone else. Sharing it with someone. Even if he could still fly, it was pointless if he was doing it alone. He didn't want to be alone. He wanted someone there with him to share in everything, the good and the bad. That's what made him happy. Being with people who cared about him and caring about them in return. Now he knew how important it was. And now he knew he was important as well. He really did matter. He was surrounded by people who cared about him and his worth was not lessened by branch or by skill.

When Neji had thanked Naruto the other day for everything, it included what he was doing at this very moment. Without Naruto around to act like a complete fool and take an interest in playing around rather than be serious, Neji would never have had the courage to do the same. He wanted to thank Naruto for showing him how to let go and have some fun. Being free had more than one meaning. It also allowed him to be spontaneous and have fun. He could act silly and joke around. If it hadn't been for Naruto and being turned into a dragon, Neji would never have started dancing in front of all the Hyuga. Seeing Hinata and her sister laugh together was a priceless treasure in and of itself. They deserved to be happy and enjoy themselves, too.

Being with Naruto and spending all that time together and meeting all those people had showed him just how important it was to smile and laugh. To do what made you happy and not care about what other people thought. To enjoy life and live it to the fullest. After all, a ninja could die at any time. Even if this would not last forever, he wanted to enjoy it. It was his choice. He had a say in what he wanted. His fate was in his hands more than he thought and he would live it the way he saw fit. He wanted to live and have no regrets. And he had none. Not about being human, or their adventure or the curse of the Dragon's Pearl.


End!

It's finished!

That was a lot of fun to write. Part of me wanted to make it longer and add in a few things, but this seems good ^-^

Neji always believed in Naruto and trusted him. And thanks to Naruto he learned how to have fun. At least once in a while.

Thanks so much for reading it. It's different from the other stories I've written but I wanted to try something new and challenge myself. So I hope you all liked it and enjoyed it.

And since I cannot respond to 'guest' reviews, I'll just let you know here. Yes, I am planning on writing another story like this one. I have an idea in mind and I'll start writing it as soon as I can. So keep an eye out. If you liked this one, you may like the next one. Until that one is written and posted, you are free to entertain yourselves with the other stories I've written. I'll be writing others, too. I'm not out of ideas yet. More stories! Yay!

So thanks a bunch! Please review and keep an eye out for the next one ^-^