The Hyuuga heir is chosen. (This fic exists in the same world as The Risk)
It was a good day to be inside, Naruto decided as he headed from his apartment to Neji's. It was chilly and drizzly again, and he'd been relieved when, after some long, uncomfortable drills the day before, Shikamaru had suggested replenishing their supply of exploding tags instead. The ones from central supplies were decent for the usual work, but for plans with more finicky details, the ones made with your own chakra were always best. So they were to meet at Neji's place to make them.
Neji's place was a good place to do it-it was bigger than Shikamaru's apartment and much, much cleaner than Naruto's. Actually, Naruto thought it was a great place to do anything. Neji had a television and lots of books and a big fridge, and he'd long ago begun keeping a stock of ramen in his kitchen cupboard for Naruto.
The overcast sky seemed oppressively low with all the cloud cover, and the damp made the chill worse. Naruto grumbled to himself as he shrugged deeper into his jacket. Fortunately, Neji's place was not far now.
Naruto was early-he'd hoped to be able to look through some of Neji's books before they got started. Naruto didn't buy much besides comics and technique guides, normally, but Neji had some interesting old books with myths and legends, and some histories too, which were full of great battles, but really dry, so Naruto had to look at them in small doses.
There was a note fixed to the door when he arrived, in Neji's flowing handwriting. 'Family business. I will be back by 12:30.' It was noon now. They had planned to meet at one o'clock, but Neji had evidently anticipated Naruto's early arrival. Naruto let himself in with his copy of the key, and settled down with one of the history books.
Twenty minutes later, he'd given up for the second time on the dense text, and was reading the photo captions again, when his waiting senses picked up someone approaching the apartment. There was a great deal more arrival noise outside than Naruto usually associated with his teammate, sparking immediate concern, and as he rose to his feet, he heard the door slam open, then shut. Naruto dropped the book and dashed round the corner to the entry way.
Neji was swaying slightly, steadying himself with one hand against the door, pale as a sheet and absolutely devoid of his usual poise and calmness. He was dressed in full Hyuuga regalia, fancy kimono and all, his hair loose, with a black bandana instead of his forehead protector. He shook slightly and his expression was a mixture of grief and horror, liberally edged with revulsion. Naruto opened his mouth to ask what had happened, but was cut off as a shudder ran through Neji's frame, and he bolted past Naruto to the bathroom.
Naruto followed, concern turning swiftly to deep worry as Neji buckled and emptied the contents of his stomach into the toilet.
"Neji!" Neji was shivering, and his skin shone with sweat. Naruto knelt beside him and pulled back some of the hair that had slid forward over his shoulders.
Neji heaved again, and Naruto held his shoulders and slapped down rising panic, drawing a complete blank as to what could have happened. Surely something like bad food could never have cause quite this extreme of a reaction. He kept an arm across Neji's shoulders, trying to gather all of his hair together with the other hand, deeply unsettled by the shivers coursing through him. Naruto held him through another massive heave.
"Neji, I'll get Sakura-chan-" he started, but Neji shook his head jerkily.
"No.. it's not..." He clenched his body around another heave, "...not... sick." Naruto begged to differ, but stayed put as Neji coughed something like a sob and gagged again.
When Neji seemed to have some control over himself at last, Naruto flushed the toilet and wetted a cloth in cool water for Neji to wipe his face.
"What happened? What's going on?" He demanded. Neji was struggling out of his kimono top, and Naruto pushed his hands gently away. He undid the waist tie and slid the garment down Neji's shoulders and freed his arms. He gave it a cursory fold and slung it over the bathtub rim, then pulled a towel down to wrap around Neji in its place. Neji sat passively as Naruto drew the edges of the towel together in front, just raising one hand to secure it closed.
"They... Hiashi-sama." Neji's eyes went wide again, his voice was hoarse now, anguished. "He called us all together... to announce..." Neji's fingers tightened around the towel's edge, "He chose a new heir."
The sinking feeling of realization made Naruto slowly bare his teeth in automatic and pointless denial. No matter how long it had been expected... still...
"Hanabi..." Neji said. "It's Hanabi." A shudder ran through him. Naruto winced. "We were all there. We had to witness it... He sealed Hinata-sama."
Naruto reached to hold Neji's shoulders. Neji sucked in his breath rapidly, and threw up again.
Naruto paced the living room, still trying to get a handle on his useless anger. That long-ago chuunin exam was forefront in his memory. The fight between Hinata and Neji. His own fight with Neji. The ruthless traditions of the Hyuugas revealed. Neji had told him a little about the aftermath, how his uncle had come to see him. That had been the day Neji had put aside his haughty, martyred anger, but there was still no love lost between the branch house prodigy and the main house leader.
For his shy cousin, though, Neji now had nothing but respect and affection, carefully cultivated over the years.
Naruto knew, everyone had always known, that one of the two Hyuuga daughters would inherit the main house, while the other was brushed aside like all the branch house members. He, and many others, including Hinata herself, had even been relatively certain that the outcome would be as it had played out today. But to have it happen this abruptly was an utter shock. Clearly it had been out of the blue for the branch family as well.
Neji had yet to come out of his bedroom, and finally Naruto filled a glass with water and tapped once on the door, prodding it open. Neji had changed out of his formal attire into some comfortable clothes, and he'd tied his hair again. His forehead was uncovered, the green lines of the seal starker than usual against his skin, and he was staring at his reflection in the mirror over his dresser.
He turned as Naruto stepped into the room, and smoothed lines of disgust his face to a weak approximation of his normal air. He was still visibly shaken, and sickly pale from the vomiting fit. He sat heavily on the bed as Naruto approached, and Naruto passed him the glass of water. He sipped it tentatively.
Naruto sat carefully down beside Neji. "How was Hinata?" Naruto was not really worried about the deceptively meek Hinata. She had been awaiting this, had in fact been seeing Inuzuka Kiba regularly for some time, someone who was not at all a consideration for the husband of the Hyuuga main house leader. Neji had even assured Kiba of his approval, though that meant nothing in terms of Hyuuga family support, Neji having broken from the Hyuuga family in his own way years ago, moving away from the family compound into his own apartment.
All that had been nearly settled. What had thrown Neji so badly today, Naruto was certain, was the act of sealing itself. The seal remained to this day something Neji always concealed, like a shameful secret. He uncovered his forehead willingly in front of very few people. Even if he had made some kind of peace with his uncle, and nurtured the relationship with his gentle cousin, the seal seemed to have remained a branded wound in the depths of his mind.
And he'd had to sit by and watch it be applied to someone else.
Naruto had long ago understood that it was part of the empathy he had for Neji. They both bore marks of separation from others, unchangeable, and in Neji's case, unalterably associated with subjugation and the constant threat of inescapable agony, and the death of his father. The reaction to it was all on the level of emotion, not reason.
"She was..." Neji's free hand tightened into a fist, "She was calm. Accepting. Kiba was waiting for her."
"I guess we expected that." Naruto replied, keeping his voice soft, and rested one hand on Neji's back.
Neji stayed perfectly still for a few seconds, then put his glass down on the floor at his feet, hand shaking. He leaned forward, running both hands into his hair until his fingers laced together behind his head, bowing him nearly far enough to touch his forehead to his knees. His breathing was measured, his shoulders stiff. He was desperately trying not to lose it, and it was painful to witness.
Naruto slid his arm over Neji's back, and leaned down himself until their sides were flush and Naruto could feel the shivers that still ran through his friend in waves. The short sleeves of Neji's shirt exposed bruises on his forearms, and disgusted anger burst through Naruto again. They'd had to hold Neji back during the sealing. It was a credit to his self-control that he'd let himself be restrained.
Naruto had to admit that whole event could hardly have gone differently, no matter when it had taken place. Neji would never have let Hinata be sealed alone. And he would likely have suffered the same reaction. But... if only they'd given warning, Naruto thought. The practices of the Hyuuga family infuriated him-that they existed and that they were maintained. Still, he couldn't bring himself to imagine the hidebound Hyuuga Hiashi had done this to torture his nephew, for all that he wanted to force the old man to abolish this hateful tradition. Naruto glared silently. These things would change, someday.
There was a sudden convulsive motion of Neji's back. "Do you need-" Naruto ducked his head to look at Neji's face, then cut himself off, and drew back to spare Neji further embarrassment. He wasn't going to be ill again. His face had been drawn into the grimace of a sob.
Reserve was one of Neji's most fundamental traits, but it was crumbling again. Naruto sat by him as Neji shook under his arm, even now silent except for his harsh, hitching breathing.
Eventually, it abated. The tension faded from the lines of his back, and Naruto let his arm slide down. Neji did his best to wipe his face and sniff unobtrusively, and Naruto pretended he didn't notice.
When Neji sat up straight at last, he met Naruto's eyes with solemn, unsaid thanks. Naruto nodded-no problem. Then he stood and got Neji's forehead protector from where it was neatly folded on the dresser, and held it out.
Neji took it. He closed his eyes and tilted his head forward, hands sliding beneath his hair to fasten the black bandana behind his head, securing the symbol of the village over the mark of the seal. When Neji looked up again, the metal plate shone dully in the cloud-filtered, drizzly daylight from the window.
Naruto regarded Neji where he sat, and then looked out at the weather, and grimaced with the same annoyance he'd had before. "Shitty day." He grumbled. "And I don't feel like making tags all afternoon, either." Unsaid was the fact that anyone who'd been repeatedly throwing up would have much too shaky a hand for the calligraphy and the chakra finesse involved. "Oh, hey, hey, Maybe we can just hang around and watch some movies?" he asked.
Somehow, Naruto didn't think Shikamaru would object when he arrived, especially if it was one of the epic adventure films he liked to sleep through while Neji nitpicked at the historical inaccuracies.
Neji was probably going to spare the film his wrath today, though. Naruto knew that his friend wasn't as even-keeled as he was now managing to look. And they had the time to put off those tags for a day or so. Better to keep Neji company and offer some easy distraction, whether for him to actually watch the film or to have a convenient cover to simply sit and work through his grief.
It took few moments before Neji answered. "...Maybe," he said. Naruto grinned a little.
Neji stood and left the bedroom, Naruto following. Neji knelt on the living room rug and methodically located and started a video, and then sank onto the couch. Naruto listened to the slow movements as he filled two water glasses and took a box of unsalted rice crackers from the cupboard. The tasteless things were no better than the box they came in, as far as he was concerned, but they weren't too demanding to digest.
Glancing out the kitchen window before he returned to the living room, Naruto made a face again at the early spring's damp discomfort. Well, never mind. It was warm enough in here.