We all know how long it takes Naruto to get a clue. (Naruto/Neji yaoi, takes place in the same continuity established by The Risk, immediately following Taking Care)
It was a muffled cough that roused Neji in the morning. By the light through the front windows it was still before seven, he gauged, and sat up on the futon. The cough hadn't come from Akemi's room, but rather the kitchen, and Neji threw back the blanket to go meet the early riser.
Akemi, stuffed cat under one arm and clad in mismatched green and yellow-striped pajamas, was yanking the door of the refrigerator open when he entered the room, and she turned when she heard his steps on the tile floor.
"Neji-san!" she grinned.
"Good morning, Akemi-chan." He greeted in return, happy to see her awake, and relieved to see she seemed at normal energy levels. She must have beaten the worst of the cold overnight, he thought. Her eyes were bright now, even if her breathing was a little wheezy, but the most telling sign, she was up on her own.
"Did you have a dangerous mission?" She carefully lifted the orange juice down from the refrigerator's middle shelf and walked over to the table, kicking the door shut behind her with one bare foot.
Neji opened one of cupboards below the counter to take out one of Akemi's plastic mugs, and put in on the table. He leaned against the counter as she kneeled on a chair and poured herself the juice.
"Somewhat." He answered her. Both she and Makoto were used to not finding out the details of what their father and his friends did, but still often came up with questions they could ask. They were also used to his speech style. He'd never quite seen the point of talking down to children, so he spoke to them as he did to everyone. He tended to have to explain a lot of his vocabulary, but that wasn't a bother. Not to mention he rather enjoyed it when Naruto proudly recounted how Akemi or Makoto used "big words."
"Didja get hurt?" she asked interestedly over the top rim of the mug. Neji shook his head.
"No. Just dirty."
"Aw, that's boring." Akemi was unimpressed. She downed the rest of the juice in one long drink, and wiped her mouth. She coughed, the sound full of mucus, but it was reassuringly brief.
"And how are you?" Neji asked, "Naruto said you weren't feeling well."
Akemi put her toy on the table in front of her and leaned her chin on its furry back. "I hadda cold." She coughed on purpose, and sniffed deeply, to mark her point, grinning at her production of interesting sounds. "Lotsa kids got it. Mako only got it a little bit. I feel better now, though."
"So I see. I'm glad." Neji moved around the kitchen, putting the juice away after pouring Akemi another mugful, and pulling out the best prospect for breakfast, some leftover fried rice. He cast a questioning glance at Akemi, and she nodded, so he scooped some into two bowls, and heated them in the microwave.
Akemi was idly handling her toy cat, running it through a series of battle poses across the table's edge. The poor creature was awkwardly decked out as a ninja, with a miniature leaf-marked headband, cloth bindings on its right limbs, and a green vest vaguely resembling the chuunin flak jacket.
"Kage bunshin no jutsu!" She declared, making decently-formed, if random, half-seals under her own chin with one hand, and had the cat leap to attack an invisible foe behind her juice mug, from various angles.
Neji pulled the food from the microwave just before the timer beeped, and set the bowls on the table. Akemi got up from her seat to fetch two pairs of chopsticks from a drawer, and they began to eat.
Akemi was absorbed with her breakfast, wolfing down the food at a speed that rivaled her father's, and talking the whole time, when she grinned, remembering something. She swallowed her mouthful of rice. "Neji-san," she began, "Tou-chan said-" and then she stopped, as if struck by a sudden thought, her expression suddenly drained of excitement.
"Yes?" Neji answered, surprised and worried at the sudden change.
"You know... when you and Tou-chan had a fight?" Akemi was staring at him with intense nervousness, voice disturbingly cautious. Her forehead creased with a worried look that held more than a touch of fear. Not fear of him, but... what was the matter?
"What do you mean?" Neji asked carefully, uncertain what kind of fight she was referring to.
She reached for her cat, and pulled it into her lap, staring down at it. She said, "Yesterday Tou-chan was telling me stories. He told me that you and him fought one time."
"Ah." 'One time.' That fight. "Yes, we did." He said, keeping his tone gentle. "Did he tell you it was during a tournament?" Was she thinking they'd met as true enemies?
"Yeah... He told me 'bout the fight, and how you blocked all his chakra but then he got it back, and then he dug underground and then he won." She recited quickly, and then looked scared. "'Cept that he said... you were really mad at each other too, 'cause you hated him."
Neji stopped himself from frowning-that wouldn't help, even if the expression wasn't directed at her-and settled for pushing his bowl out of the way and putting his hands clasped loosely before him on the table. Keeping his face and tone calm, trying for reassuring, he asked, "Did he say what happened afterwards?"
She shrugged. "He just won at the end." She looked up at him again, fearful of.. what? "Are you... still mad?" she whispered. "Do you hate us?"
Neji stifled a sigh of relief. A misunderstanding. That was it. Obviously Naruto had left a few details out of the story that Akemi had found very crucial.
"Akemi-chan," he began seriously, and felt a stab of pain when she hiccupped the beginning of a sob. "Come here, Akemi-chan." He pushed his chair back from the table a few inches to make enough space for a hug, and gathered her onto his lap. This was something he hadn't done before the children had come along, and he was reminded each time how the two children held as much of his heart as Naruto.
Akemi sucked in a deep sniff, and wrapped her arms around his neck. Neji rubbed her back gently. "That was a very long time ago." He began quietly. "We were both still genin, and I was angry because I thought that my life was already decided for me. I thought your father was stupid because he kept telling me to fight back." Neji still remembered vividly how they'd traded words and blows at the same time, the challenge in Naruto's wild eyes daring him to break the bonds he'd hated, and yet simply accepted.
Neji reached back and gently detached Akemi's arms from his neck, sitting her back slightly on his knees so he could see her face. She was biting her lower lip, solemn. "His perseverance kept him going when he was fighting with me, and it made me hear what he was telling me. After he won, I thought about it and realized he was right. And I wasn't angry afterward," He added, to make sure it was clear.
"It was a long time ago?" Akemi asked, still subdued. "Last year?"
Neji smiled slightly. "Longer than that. It was fourteen years ago."
Akemi's expression was priceless as she tried to process that number into a length of time she could grasp. Then she looked at him with a serious expression again. "You weren't mad after, you didn't hate him?"
"No, I didn't." He repeated. "Remember, I was with your father on a team for many years as well."
"Oh, yeah." Akemi smiled. In her worry it seemed she'd forgotten that. "You were... 'comrades-in-arms'" she said proudly, carefully repeating back to him a term he'd used once.
"Yes." He felt his smile widen.
"So... you still love Tou-chan now, because the fight happened a long, long, long time ago, right?" she asked. Neji blinked It was an innocent, if serious, question, using a word that any young child used in regard to close friends and family, and inquired in ignorance of the surge of bittersweet emotion that it triggered in Neji.
On the heels of Akemi's question, the sound of a footfall from the kitchen door signaled the entrance of Naruto into the kitchen. When Neji looked up over Akemi's head to meet Naruto's eyes, he caught the heels of a minor wince, as Naruto realized what the question had been triggered by. The grimace was quickly replaced by a grin of amusement, however, as their eyes met.
A flood of sadness swept over him, stronger than usual in this moment caught off-guard. Neji suppressed it with the ease of long practice, and smiled mildly back.
"Right?" Akemi repeated, pulling at Neji's shirt, ignoring the arrival of her father. "You hafta say it." She ordered, repeating the rule Naruto used when getting squabbling children to apologize to each other.
Neji was somewhat numb as he raised one hand to absently caress Akemi's hair. The words came smoothly, his tone automatically comforting for Akemi's sake, but the meaning of the statement was more honest than either she or her father could realize.
"Yes, I love him." Neji said.
And there it was. After all this time he'd said it aloud, and to Naruto, Neji knew, the words were safely devoid of what they really signified.
Still serious-faced, Akemi slid off Neji's lap, and walked to her father, leaning against him for a final assurance, and looked up. "Tou-chan still loves Neji-san, right?"
Naruto looked down at his daughter's solemn face, then back up at Neji, the familiar affection in his eyes accented by a strangely searching look that unsettled Neji greatly, and he willed Naruto to shrug off whatever he'd noticed.
"Yeah," Naruto said easily. "I do, Akemi-chan. He's my best friend in the world." He swung her up in a hug. "And you're my best daughter in the world."
Akemi giggled and sighed happily. All was clearly right with the world again. She beamed at Neji, and Neji felt the brightness of her soothe him. He was privileged with her and Makoto, at least. There was no need to conceal his feelings for those two.
But, after Naruto put Akemi down, and she parked herself back at her rice bowl, Neji felt somewhat unbalanced from the anticlimax. He'd spoken the truth to deaf ears, so nothing had changed, and yet he remained uneasy that the owner of those ears would suddenly begin to hear what he really meant.
Luckily he was provided with a distraction. Makoto appeared in the kitchen. He greeted Neji happily, and showed off a new cut he had gotten while Neji had been away. Neji made the appropriate noises of awe (there were two stitches!). Then Makoto got himself a cup of milk, and Naruto started preparing two more bowls of rice.
Neji readjusted his chair, and got back to his own breakfast. Naruto sat next to him as usual, but Neji was hyperaware of the nearness. Naruto started inhaling his rice and chuckled around the mouthfuls as the two children peppered Neji with questions about his mission.
It was all so incredibly normal suddenly that Neji decided that he would take it at face value. He was still here, all was well, and his precious rapport with these three people was safe.
Neji was starting to fold away the bedclothes, waiting to use the shower after Naruto, when there was a businesslike rap on the door. Akemi, now dressed for the day, skidded past the living room entrance and on down the hall to answer it.
Neji's ears pricked at the familiar voice of Izumo, one of the Hokage's assistants, but didn't bother to listen further after he heard his own name, glumly aware of the meaning of this visit. He finished folding up the top cover just as Akemi reappeared at the living room archway.
"It's for you," she said, looking sulky. "It's Izumo-san. You have to go away again." Neji knew Izumo hadn't dropped so much as a word about what why he was here, but Akemi was right about the meaning of his presence.
He rounded the corner and met Izumo in the entry, quashing his frustration at the sudden new assignment, not even twelve hours after he'd returned home.
But his irritation faded as Izumo spoke urgently. The setup Konoha's intelligence had spent months on was in place sooner than expected, and now was the best possible time to move on it.
Izumo handed him his sealed orders. "You have two hours to get ready."
Neji pocketed the orders. He already knew the outline of this operation, these were the details. Time to go, again.
Naruto turned off the shower spray, pensive. Neji's reaction from before had been so odd. At first, Naruto had almost thought it was the typical male embarrassment at publicly professing affection for your male friends, but that weird sort of... alertness had stayed about Neji throughout breakfast.
Naruto figured Neji thought he was flying under the radar with this, and Naruto knew he tended to miss stuff unless he was paying attention, but that strange, brief, caught-in-the-act expression Neji had had as Naruto turned the corner into the kitchen had triggered his heightened observation. And he had paid attention. There was a not-quite-normal smile. There was suppressed antsyness over breakfast, and at the same time a barely perceptible subdued quality, even though Neji had answered Akemi and Makoto's questions as he always did.
Well, Naruto, reflected as he toweled off, Neji was a really reserved guy. He didn't go around professing his love for his friends like, say, Lee would. Maybe he really was just self-conscious.
But still... there'd been something about the way he'd said it. "I love him." Kind of... sad. Why would he be sad?
Akemi pushed the bathroom door open, face pulled into a pout. "Neji-san is going now."
"Izumo-san came." She leaned on the doorjamb and kicked sullenly at it with her heel. "I wanted him to stay today."
Naruto frowned in agreement. He pulled on his clothes, ignoring how they clung at the wet spots on him, and ran the short distance to the entry, where Neji was ready to leave. Makoto was already clinging to the sleeve of Neji's kimono.
"I wanted to show you how far I can jump." Mako was disappointed too. "I don't wanna wait forever."
"It's two weeks, not forever." Neji replied gently. "And I know you'll be jumping even farther then." He embraced Makoto.
Akemi came past Naruto to hug Neji goodbye as well. Neji returned it, and then stood up and slung his pack over his shoulder. "See you soon." He said. Naruto frowned again, unhappy.
"Yeah. Good luck," he said, extending his hand. Neji's grip was as firm as usual on his wrist. Then he started to let go, and Naruto tightened his grip and tugged Neji towards him, until they were just inches apart, and searched his startled white eyes. Neji's fingers were light against the skin of his arm now. Beneath Neji's surprise, Naruto spotted a few flashes more of whatever it was.
There was more of that strange melancholy, which caused an echo of perplexed worry in Naruto. Then, he saw something almost like panic as Neji watched Naruto watch him.
"You..." Naruto started, not sure what he really wanted to ask, but Neji's jaw clenched uncomfortably, and his eyes blinked too wide for an instant. Naruto shut his mouth and loosened his grip. The kids were right there. This wasn't the way to do it, there wasn't enough time.
Neji pulled away gently. Naruto reached out again and gripped his shoulder briefly. "You get back on time."
Neji nodded, ducking Naruto's intent gaze, and stepped outside. With a leap he was above the house, and then away.
Neji's expression before he left remained prominent in Naruto's mind for the rest of the day, but he was somewhat reluctant to speculate. The less data you had to analyze a situation, the less likely you were to succeed at your mission. But in this case, he didn't think he was likely to get any more details unless he pressed for them when Neji got back. And he hated waiting.
That night, Akemi and Makoto in tow, he paid Shikamaru a visit.
Karin answered the door, her small stature and wide eyes belying her chuunin rank and her sharp wit. It had taken that wit to catch Shikamaru, Naruto always reflected with amusement.
"Come in," she invited, waving an ink-stained hand in the direction of the back balcony. "He's napping in the back, watching Keiko. I'm right in the middle of something, so you'll have to excuse me." She smiled down at the two children. "Be quiet for the baby, all right?" Karin worked in the archives at the Hokage's office, and Naruto was pretty sure that she knew everything about everything. Now, smelling of old dust, she was heading back to her study, probably tracing old maps to restore, or something.
Shikamaru sat up as Naruto went through the door to the balcony. "Yo." He waved at the two children as they ran past Shikamaru to find his daughter.
"Hey." Naruto sat down next to him, and looked up. Shikamaru's house had, of course, a very good view of the sky.
"Something in particular?" Shikamaru cocked an eyebrow at him. Naruto propped his hand on his chin and chewed on the inside of his cheek for a few moments. Shikamaru waited, patient. On the lawn, Akemi and Makoto were starting some kind of running game with Keiko, Makoto guiding her by one hand.
"Neji was acting funny at my house today," Naruto said, and did his best to detail what he'd seen. "I don't know if he was embarrassed or what. It seemed like... he was thinking that I don't know he cares about me, or something." Naruto felt silly talking so explicitly about that stuff, but that had been his conclusion.
At that, Shikamaru's response was mildly surprised. "That's what it seems like?"
"Yeah, I guess." He looked at Shikamaru, who was looking back with an actual expression of interest. "What?"
"...Nothing. So, that couldn't be it?"
Naruto grimaced in disbelief. "I don't see how it could." Neji was his best friend, if it wasn't too childish to say that, and practically one of his family. He spent as much time at Naruto's house as at his own, and Akemi and Makoto loved him too. Not to mention they'd been close for years before the children had come along.
"Well, you'll have to ask him." Shikamaru shrugged. Naruto shook his head in frustration. Shikamaru always knew more than he bothered to tell anyone, and only bothered sharing what he thought was important, unless he wanted you to figure it out yourself. Naruto suspected that this time it might be the latter, in which case there was no use asking about it any more.
They ended up talking for awhile while they watched the stars come out, though not about Neji, until Naruto realized it was time for certain young people to be in bed.
At home, after both children were asleep, Naruto made himself a cup of ramen and took it into the living room to eat. Neji's guest bed was still in there, Neji had left too quickly to completely pack it away as he usually did, and Naruto hadn't bothered to do it himself yet. The sight of the spread-out, empty futon in the living room made the room seem suddenly, acutely empty.
Naruto sat in a chair, one leg thrown over the arm, and the ramen balanced on his chest, and stared at the wall as memories of his and Neji's years of friendship drifted in and out. It was a unique one, but Naruto had discovered, soon after understanding what having a friend was like, that each relationship was unique. The camaraderie he had with Lee wasn't quite the same as the vaguely competitive friendship he had with Kiba, or the deep nostalgic affection he shared with Sakura or the protective fondness he had for Hinata. Each was a different reason to fight and die for.
And Neji, well, Neji was the best of all. He'd been first an opponent, then a comrade, and then a partner. Their friendship had developed over the years from a basis of mutual understanding and respect. And as it stood now, if Hinata or Sakura were the closest Akemi and Makoto would get to a mother, Neji was almost another father.
Naruto's gaze drifted to Neji's futon again. Once, some months back, he'd woken up one morning to find Neji still sound asleep, despite it being well past sunrise. He didn't see Neji sleeping much in these post-Anbu days, and it had been unexpectedly touching to see firsthand that Neji's comfort level in Naruto's home allowed him to get all the rest he needed, that this place was familiar enough to Neji that his combat reflexes fully relaxed.
But the bed was empty now and the room was dim with evening, not bright with morning, and Naruto suddenly missed Neji greatly.
His mind returned to their exchange during Neji's departure, replaying Neji's strange expressions over again in his mind. Sadness... but not exactly. Maybe wistfulness was more accurate, and the muted franticness of someone trying to not look frantic as they realized someone was onto them. Well, when he got back, Naruto would ask straight out why Neji had looked like he'd been trying to hide a secret crush.
Naruto sat up straight, his ramen cup forgotten in his hand.
He was accustomed to understanding suddenly manifesting in his head. It was how he pulled off many of his best combat moves; things managed to fall into place all at once, unlike Shikamaru's far more methodical (and reliable) way of logical reasoning and prediction. Half the time Naruto wasn't sure how he'd reached given conclusions, but he'd come to know they were usually right.
But the elements of this result seemed to be a hell of a lot more far-fetched than usual.
Neji having romantic feelings... towards him. Neji-Naruto made himself think it-in love with him. His eyes widened, and he felt his cheeks warm.
Neji couldn't possibly... The idea was just weird... They were friends!
Then again... what had Naruto said to Shikamaru? "It seemed like... he was thinking that I don't know he cares about me."
"That couldn't be it?" Shikamaru had asked
"That's crazy." Naruto muttered aloud to his memory. Then he thought for a while. There was no avalanche of sudden remembered evidence... but there were small things, almost unnoticeable. Neji's way of watching him, sometimes. The minutely pained way he dismissed Naruto's occasional lewd encouragements to get laid. The way Neji actually touched Naruto sometimes, on the arm or shoulder, when Neji never really touched anyone else, aside from the kids, or during sparring. Expressions, shades of reaction, slight movements that he'd thought were a little odd at the time but always dismissed... things no one who didn't know would see. And he hadn't. For however long this had been going on.
Naruto stared down into his ramen cup like it could explain all this, then shook himself and put it on the table.
Neji had slept in Naruto's house. He'd sat near him and spoken and smiled and played with the kids, sometimes laughed and sometimes argued and never let on a thing until he'd had to say the words out loud. Even Neji's composure couldn't handle everything, apparently.
Naruto realized his hands were clenching and unclenching. Realization was supposed to be followed by action, and now all he could do was wait.
Naruto went through the next couple of days feeling slightly detached from everything. He kept up appearances for Makoto and Akemi while he kept swinging back and forth between "This is insane and I've got it completely wrong" and "This is insane but it makes perfect sense."
The third day, he walked into the living room and realized the futon was still there, set up for Neji. He took a step towards it and came to an abrupt halt when his mind supplied him with, "If I put it away, he could sleep with me when he gets back." That months-old image of Neji's comfortable sprawl came up again, and Naruto sighed a little. They hadn't shared a bed since... years ago. Since Akemi and Makoto had come to Konoha. Before that, it had convenient if Neji was staying over-they'd shared closer and less comfortable quarters as Anbu too often to be awkward about sleeping next to each other in a real bed. It certainly beat the hell out of the crook of a tree or a hole in the ground.
But after the children... Neji had decided to sleep out here when he visited.
For propriety, Neji had said, and Naruto had shrugged and accommodated him-no big deal. But in light of what he'd figured out, a sudden suspicion arose. Neji's sense of propriety extended to politeness, honor, and his own dignity and integrity. It didn't extend to what anyone else thought, not since Neji had cut off his bonds to the Hyuuga family.
It wouldn't have stopped him from sleeping in a perfectly serviceable, large, comfortable bed.
So what had stopped him was... the difficulty of sleeping next to someone he was attracted to..? Naruto felt the flush in his cheeks that kept manifesting these past days whenever Neji being attracted to him crossed his mind, but his annoyance at the adolescent reaction was swept away as he suddenly realized another important detail.
This meant that Neji's feelings had been this way for four years. And that he assumed Naruto's disinterest or opposition to the idea, but was still content to be as close as he could get-
"Tou-chaaan! Is it there?" Akemi bellowed from the kitchen, and Naruto snapped back to here and now. He cast about for what he'd actually come in for, and reached for Akemi's favorite headband where it had been flung over a chair arm.
"Yeah, found it." He turned and went back to the kitchen.
That night, getting ready to sleep, Naruto detoured to the living room and squinted at the futon. He grabbed Neji's pillow and returned to his room, dropping the pillow on the right side of the bed, where Neji had slept a few times, what seemed like ages ago now.
It didn't look out of place, he decided. And if Neji..?
The impressions that had been rising unbidden in his mind for days had gradually become more involved. The feel and strength of Neji's body was something he was intimately familiar with from years of sparring, so his imagination had plenty of fodder with which to run wild. He knew his friend's strength, his long, firm shape, and how that shape felt pressed up his own body. The only thing inhibiting him was that his concept of Neji had for so long been in the "friend" category that it was difficult to picture him acting any other way.
But that distinction was blurring as he kept thinking about it.
And now he was thinking of this whole idea in the concrete rather than the abstract. It wasn't such a great leap, he was coming to realize; He already loved Neji, loved his skill, his dignity, his steadfast friendship. That they might become a couple had simply never even occurred to him.
They lived in a hidden village. It was simply assumed that once a individual reached a certain age, they would find an appropriate mate and raise a few children. You could sleep with whoever you wanted up till then-there was no judgment of right or wrong in this, like Naruto had seen in some of the civilian villages and cities towards those who preferred their own sex rather than the opposite. In Konoha, as in any hidden village, it was just the simple, sacred need to keep the population going and the paramount necessity of maintaining the varied talents of the various clans throughout the generations.
Neither of which applied here.
Naruto had no Bloodline Limit to pass on, and the demon he held prevented him from risking a child of his own blood. Neji's family talent was already well provided for by the myriad other Hyuugas and their offspring. And, apparently, his interests lay elsewhere...
Naruto's liaisons over the years had been few. Those strange, rare encounters with Gaara-two demon kids fumbling in the dark. And then, a few times, he'd taken advantage of the no-strings-attached nature of inter-ninja relations for practice and pleasure, but never anything more. Then they'd all grown past it.
Naruto had watched his friends marry and have children, knowing with utter certainty he would never be able to do the same. Then had come the mission to Wind Country and two orphaned infants, and he suddenly had a family, beyond all his impossible dreams.
And Neji had been content all this time to be alone, because he was in love with his best friend. But 'alone' wasn't accurate, Naruto corrected himself, Neji was still his best friend. He was practically part of the family.
One week after Neji's departure on his mission, Naruto was given one of his own. It was really rather simple, but high-profile enough-some nobleman's problem-to require Konoha's most well-known powerhouse. Naruto was glad for the distraction, since the mission would take six days, and when he was back, Neji should be as well.
It was midmorning on the day of his return when he finished the uneventful mission debrief for the uneventful mission, and it was with some relief that Naruto came to the Hyuuga-Inuzuka household after he was done. He was on the step, hand raised to press the doorbell, when the door was yanked open and Hyuuga Hizashi hooted in triumph. The raised veins around his white eyes smoothed as he released the Byakugan, and he bellowed back into the house.
"He's heeeeeeeeere." Then he grinned, and ducked politely at Naruto. "I knew it was you, Naruto-san. I saw you!" The kid looked like Naruto imagined Neji had at that age, but the slight fangs betrayed the other half of his parentage, not to mention the rough-and-tumble personality.
"That's great, Hizashi," Naruto ruffled the boy's smooth hair. The green lines of the branch house curse seal were hidden under a red cloth bandana. "Just remember not to cheat at hide-and-seek."
"Makes it more fun." Hizashi said smugly.
A minor stampede occurred then as Akemi and Makoto hurtled around the hall corner, followed by Kiba at a more sedate pace. After hugs and kisses of greeting, Naruto sent them back inside with Hizashi to gather their things.
"I'm glad you're back. These two have been great, but Hinata was sent out yesterday and Akamaru is still recovering from the last time we were out." Kiba had one-year-old Hige on his hip as she drank from a sipper cup and stared at Naruto with interest, and her twin brother Hazuki asleep in a carrier on his back. Unlike her elder and twin brothers, who had the Hyuuga eyes and thus taken the name, the little girl bore the fang-shaped facial tattoos of her father, along with the Inuzuka family name. Her eyes were sharp and black as Kiba's, though her hair was blue-black and smooth as her mother's. Hazuki was like an inverted mirror of his twin, with thick, wild, brown hair and white Hyuuga eyes.
"Sorry." Naruto apologized. Kiba waved it off.
"Don't be. Glad to see you back in one piece." Akemi and Makoto returned, lugging their bags, and Hizashi trailing glumly behind. Kiba dispensed farewell hugs, and finally they were headed home.
"Tou-chan, Neji-san's supposed to come back today too. I counted." Makoto informed him expectantly.
"You counted right. He's supposed to be back." Naruto had discovered at the Hokage's office that Neji hadn't yet reported in "I'm sure he'll be here soon."
That evening, Neji still hadn't returned, and Naruto had to put a couple of disappointed and cranky children to bed.
His pang of worry for Neji's lateness was minor-it wasn't uncommon for a ninja to get home a day or three behind schedule. His pang of longing for his friend was less minor. No one had ever accused him of being patient, and now it had been two weeks since their brief reunion after Neji's previous mission.
He took a shower, washing the morning's travel dust off himself, and cleaning the few minor cuts he'd incurred from the outing. The water was soothing, and he sighed and leaned against the tile wall, back to the spray, and ran one hand down his belly to curl his fingers around himself, calling up his favorite experiences, his best-remembered sensations.
Somewhere, during the composite memory of Gaara's smooth fingers on him, and Shikamaru's lean hips up between his thighs, he stopped guiding his fantasy and let things go. And then it was Neji he straddled, Neji's long fingers gripping his hips and then closing around his own hands.
He came harder than he'd expected, and as the feeling of the cool tile against his arm and side filtered back, he stayed there a few moments still, feeling the speed of his heart.
That... had been... good. It seemed as though this paradigm shift was going on deep enough to catch up to him even like this.
He finished up in the shower and wandered to bed. The sight of Neji's pillow sent another pang of worry through him, and Naruto slid under the covers with a slight sigh, glad he was tired enough to doze off quickly, and hoping that he'd be awoken during the night by Neji's return.
The sun through the window woke him the following morning.
It was now nearly a week after Neji's scheduled return, and the only sign of his whereabouts had been a message left with a contact near his target location. He'd had to pursue someone longer than expected. That was four days old, though, and the flashes of anxious worry were getting harder to avoid, but still, four days was nothing to be worried about. Naruto had been overdue often enough himself. What really affected his mood was the building need to speak to Neji. Akemi and Makoto's growing impatience was giving all three of them a short fuse. Naruto empathized even as he struggled with his fraying temper. "Maybe tomorrow" wasn't an answer for anyone; he knew exactly how they felt.
Mercifully, Iruka-sensei was visiting today, distracting the two very effectively, and Naruto had wandered to the living room, where Neji's futon had long since been stowed. He leaned against the archway that joined the room to the hall, feeling the ache from Neji's absence grow stronger in his chest, and bared his teeth silently. He positively loathed waiting.
He raised his head suddenly as he sensed a presence.
There was an urgent knock on the door.
"Naruto!" it was Shikamaru. Naruto pulled the door open. "He's back."
Everything was so vague. Neji felt almost nothing, and marshalling his thoughts was difficult. There was stillness, though, and he was free of the agony of the previous days, but he wasn't quite sure where or how. He opened his eyes, slowly, to the darkened room, and slowly his mind supplied the meaning behind the tubes in his arm and the smell of the air.
His recall was fuzzy just now. He'd finally found the last target, two days after the rest. He'd killed the man with only a little difficulty, and... the powder that had exploded in the target's hand at the last moment... poison, ah, yes... And then... pain, with every step towards home, until he'd let himself pass out at a well-frequented training area.
Things were just a little clearer now. He felt like he could hardly move, except to breathe, and there was only the slightest feeling in most of his body. After the excruciating muscle pain and never-ending nausea, though, it was still more a relief than anything else.
A familiar shade of night-darkened blond caught his attention. With a massive effort, he turned his head to the left. Naruto was asleep in the chair next to the bed, leaning forward, propped on the edge of the mattress. His head was pillowed on his arms and his face was turned to Neji.
That sight was as potent as the painkiller drip Neji knew he must be getting, for sheer comfort. He wanted to move, and touch Naruto's arm, but he couldn't summon the energy, so he just watched for a while before sleep overtook him again.
He awoke intermittently. People were there sometimes. Lee, Sakura, Gai, TenTen. Hinata, Kiba, Shikamaru, and once he half-woke to Naruto tying a soft cloth around his head, and he silently thanked him as he listened to Naruto explain solemnly to some fussing orderly that Neji preferred to cover the mark on his forehead.
Staying awake became a little easier as time passed. He was eventually informed his chakra had been partly suppressed to prevent one of the components of the drug from continuing to act while it left his body. Most of the weakness was actually from the lack of food intake over the six days he'd been poisoned, though, for which he was on intravenous nutrition until they were sure the effects on his digestive system had faded.
The barriers on his chakra were released on the morning of his third day in the hospital. Now only the severe weakness remained. The damage the poison had done to his system was nearly mended. He'd been lucky it had been a torture cocktail rather than a combat mix.
Visiting hours were beginning, and after Naruto's semi-constant presence and repeated (if against the rules) nighttime visits, Neji was unsurprised to see Naruto standing warily in the doorway. "Is Tomoko-sensei here?" He looked around the room and back up and down the hall for the middle-aged med-nin who was overseeing Neji's care. "I got an earful from her for sneaking in here the other night. No respect for the future Hokage, that old lady."
Neji smiled slightly. "No... she's gone." Whatever the doctor said, Neji inevitably felt better when Naruto was around. Being half asleep all the time had its benefits, namely not having to partition away the contentment he felt near Naruto. When it came to that, Neji felt it was almost a pity he was recovering so quickly.
"Good." Naruto entered, unzipping his vest and dropping it on the visitors' chair. He fiddled with it for a moment or two, and Neji could feel tension suddenly tighten the small room's atmosphere. Naruto looked up, his eyes sharpened, and Neji felt his breath catch at the searching gaze. Worry welled at the back of his mind, unchecked by his still-exhausted mental barriers.
Naruto took a few steps, then halted at the end of the bed, and Neji laboriously pushed himself into a sitting position. Naruto looked at him across the length of his blanket-covered legs, gaze a mixture of curiosity, assessment and nervousness, and Neji suddenly felt like he was completely transparent.
Naruto ran a hand through the hair on one side of his head, and looked briefly away and then back, as though preparing himself. Then he spoke. "Someone told me one time, think it was Lee, sounds like him, that if you do something for twenty-one days, it turns into a familiar thing."
Naruto wasn't just looking at him, Neji felt, he was watching him carefully, waiting for a reaction "And the longer you do something the more habit it is 'til you can't even think of another way to do it."
Neji's hands tightened on the covers in his lap and he did his best to compose his face, at least, over the sensation of the foundation beneath him suddenly vanishing.
Naruto knew about his feelings. He'd figured it out, somehow.
Friends too long for more, he was saying. This was a very gentle let-down, incredibly carefully phrased for someone as direct as Naruto, Neji thought, trying to keep his breathing even. Had to give Naruto credit. This must be hard for him as well. "That's true," he managed, but it seemed he wasn't controlling himself that well after all, because Naruto's eyes widened with dismay.
"No!" Naruto shook his head violently. "/No!/ Not that!! Listen." He began. He pinned Neji with a deadly earnest look. "It still only takes about twenty-one days to change something."
Neji was held in Naruto's blue gaze as the other man took the few steps from the end of the bed to Neji's side. Neji said nothing. He didn't even dare to think.
"I don't know how right that is about everything, the amount of time, or whatever..." Naruto trailed off, groaned and rested his forehead on his fingertips for a second. "Never mind, look, forget all that stupid stuff I just said." Naruto continued, sounding a little frustrated with himself. Neji only stared, highly aware of his proximity and unbalanced enough for it to be overwhelming. Naruto met his eyes again, and the earnest look was back. "Listen. Three weeks, four years, however long, if I realize there's something... or some situation... that I can change so it's better, I want to try."
Naruto reached out and touched his fingertips to Neji's cheek. The soft, careful contact broke Neji's mental freeze and he couldn't bear to deny the sudden tentative understanding that overtook his tired mind. He forced his hands to let go of the blanket and he raised one to close instead around the front of Naruto's shirt.
Still held fast by the intent blue gaze, he saw the way Naruto's eyes widened slightly, the way his lips parted and curved upward in a wide, surprisingly shy smile. The same affection Neji was used to seeing, altered only with anticipation, shone from Naruto.
Neji felt his foundation solidify again. The love in Naruto's eyes was the same as it had always been, except now the quality of the awareness was different, and there was a clear spark of desire before Naruto leaned in to brush his lips up against Neji's.
Neji leaned forward enough to complete the motion, and the hand on his face caressed down his jaw and came to rest with fingers threading through the hair at the back of his neck. Naruto's mouth moved softly against his, curving into a smile when Neji responded in kind. Naruto deepened the kiss just slightly, like a promise, before drawing back.
Neji was swaying slightly. For all that he wanted more than anything to continue, he wasn't even going to be able to even keep sitting up much longer. He did his best to tighten his grip on Naruto's shirt and support himself. Naruto's smile was something out of a dream, and Neji realized he was smiling just as widely.
"Welcome back." Naruto said, "I missed you." He slid his arm down around Neji's back, and leaned forward when Neji's strength ebbed completely, laying him back against the mattress.
Hitching on knee up onto the bed, Naruto leaned down over Neji, supporting himself on both elbows. He kissed him again, just lightly, and Neji hardly had the power to keep his eyes open suddenly, though his heart was pounding. He raised his arms to rest against Naruto's sides, hardly an embrace but the best he could summon. Naruto got the message, and tightened his arms, pulling Neji against his chest in a warm, tight hug.
It was good to be home.
"This is the last one I made." Akemi handed Neji her fourth get-well-soon card and shifted back into a sitting position on the bed. She and Makoto had been exiled, after a brief reunion with him, to Sakura and Lee's house during Neji's first day and night out of the hospital. It was just as well, since he'd slept during almost all of it. They had been busy the whole time away, it appeared.
"Thank you Akemi-chan." He properly admired the endearing stick figure that lay across something like a bed with an uneven "Welcome home" inscribed below.
Makoto waited until Neji had put aside Akemi's last objet d'art before handing over his own. There was just the one, and it featured a rather detailed and painstakingly coloured scene of a figure with long black hair flying behind him, arms extended towards a second dark figure among some trees.
"That's you, and that's a bad guy." Makoto explained helpfully. "Before you catch him."
"So I see."
"You forgot his forehead protector is on a black cloth!" Akemi poked at the smear of blue on the Neji-figure. "Dummy."
"You're a dummy! You used all the black." Makoto returned with a glare.
"Well, Mako-chan, you can change it later if you feel you have to, but I like it as it is," Neji said.
"Will you put it on the wall?" Makoto asked.
"I will," Neji assured him. "All of them," he added to Akemi. He gathered up his gifts and set them safely aside on the bed side table, making sure that Akemi's pile was next to and not on top of Makoto's picture.
He lay back against the pillows again, annoyed at how quickly his energy kept being sapped. But his stomach was still rebelled against most kinds of food, so he was limited to some rather bland soups for the time being.
"All right, my little ninjas, time to let Neji rest." Naruto came in, drying his hands on a dish towel. "There's pork ramen for your lunch ready, too. Come on." He flicked the towel at them, and they flinched and giggled and headed to their meal.
"Hungry at all?" Naruto asked. Neji shook his head tiredly.
"Not really. But I think I could manage some plain broth with a few noodles in an hour or so."
"With noodles? Great!" Naruto nodded authoritatively. "Ramen; it does the body good." He proclaimed.
"The meal of future jounin." Neji agreed, looking in the direction of the kitchen.
"The evidence stands before you." Naruto drew himself up in a dignified manner, but the effect was spoiled by the dish towel over his arm. Nonetheless, Neji took full advantage of the opportunity to really look, something he was still getting used to having the freedom to do. Naruto's solid, muscular figure under his somewhat threadbare house-only clothing was as alluring as ever, and Neji smiled slightly at the self-conscious reddening of Naruto's cheeks.
The blush transformed to a fox-eyed leer as Naruto rather predatorily closed the distance between them to sit on the edge of the bed. He braced one arm against the mattress so he could lean in for a kiss. It started light-Naruto's approaches all began this way, in apparent deference to Neji's current state-but Neji curled his fingers around the neckline of Naruto's shirt, tugging him down. Neji could feel Naruto's body heat radiating against his fingers, and he extended one finger to brush what skin he could reach. Naruto leaned in further, the kiss deepening, and he slid one hand with restrained suggestiveness down Neji's chest.
One of the future jounin at the kitchen table proved his latent abilities by coming back down the hall so quietly that the first thing they heard was his gasp of surprise. Naruto jerked back. Neji froze and felt Naruto do the same, both of them staring at Makoto.
"Eeeeeew." Makoto looked revolted and tickled at once. "You're KISSING." He made a gagging sound, and giggled. "Akemi!! Tou-chan and Neji-san are KISSING!" he bellowed.
"Eeeeeew!" Akemi bellowed back, and she joined Makoto at the bedroom door. She frowned. "Liar. They're just sitting."
"They WERE kissing." Makoto maintained. "Bleargh." He giggled again at Neji and Naruto, "That was so GROSS," then he blinked. "Hey, Tou-chan, where's the hot sauce? We can't find it."
"Uh... It's finished, Mako-chan, we need to buy more." Naruto replied, relaxing somewhat.
"Ah... crud." Makoto frowned. Both children headed back to the kitchen.
And then, "They were kissing." Makoto's voice traveled back down the hall, mirthfully. "Just like Lee-sensei and Sakura-ba-chan yesterday."
"Ew!" Akemi exclaimed. "Grown-ups do such gross things."
Neji released his breath and Naruto sagged forward and covered his eyes with his hands. "Tell the Hokage and have me retired." He groaned. "That was terrible. Aware of my surroundings, my ass."
Neji laid a hand on Naruto's back in chagrined agreement. On the other hand, if he wasn't completely mistaken, that had been nothing more than the average child's reaction to two adults kissing, and not a unilateral condemnation of the implications of it.
Naruto sat up again and stared off towards the kitchen. "They don't seem very fazed, though, do they?"
An outraged shriek resounded, and both of them stiffened again. "Tou-chan!! Mako's putting MUSTARD in his ramen!"
Neji smiled, and gently pushed Naruto towards the door. Naruto's laugh lasted all the way down the hall.
Neji was asleep again. Naruto sat and watched him for a while, the relief of having him safely back surging in him again. The quiet sounds of paper and crayons from the kitchen were equally comforting, and the way everything was so idyllic in this moment struck him hard enough to make his heart ache.
Giving in to his urge to stretch out next to Neji, he arranged himself carefully on top of the covers, close enough to rest his arm against Neji's side, and closed his eyes. The way things had changed and the way they hadn't kept giving him moments of disbelief. Neji was sleeping in his bed, and it was amazing just knowing what his presence meant-how had he never thought of this himself?-but everything else was as comfortable as it had always been.
They still knew each other and interacted as before, for the most part. There was just this new sense of freedom, of discovery, now between them. They were both still wading into the shallows of it, really, but Naruto had already found out he loved touching Neji so freely and intimately, from being able to run fingers through his hair to the still-deepening kisses to the too-brief, exhaustion-curtailed contact under the covers the night before.
Naruto sighed in minor frustration at that train of thought. He wasn't exactly being good at keeping his hands to himself. Not that Neji was holding back either, despite his temporary weakness. But Naruto knew he ought to do his best to let it be, if only for the fact that Neji couldn't even sit up straight for more than ten minutes at a time yet.
Well, he'd heard somewhere that sex was healthy. Maybe a little therapeutic groping would actually help. He grinned.
A loud clatter from the kitchen made him open his eyes and focus his hearing. Something had been pushed off the table, but it was being picked up without any fuss, and he closed his eyes again.
Those two... what were they really thinking? Neither had seemed particularly concerned or surprised earlier, beyond the giggly, exaggerated sounds of disgust at "grown-up" stuff. Naruto turned his head to look at Neji. The other man slept easily, flat on his back with one hand loosely curled around the edge of the covers, face relaxed from his customary near-frown of seriousness.
This time Naruto caught the approaching footsteps, and sat up quietly as Makoto appeared at the half-closed door clutching a sheet of paper.
Naruto put one finger to his lips in reminder, and Makoto nodded, stepping into the room and moving silently across the floor. Makoto handed him the picture, and Naruto had to grin. It wasn't a new subject-there had been similar pictures in various configurations before, but just now it seemed reassuring. Four familiar figures, mostly distinguishable by height differences and hair colour and style, stood in a row, all holding hands.
Six days out of the hospital, and Neji had managed to stay awake all day for three days running. His appetite had also begun to return, at last.
Today Neji had come with Naruto and the children on a visit to the nearest training area. It was slow going on the way over, but Neji was glad to be outside for a while, and despite spending his time at the training ground leaning against a tree to recover from the walk, he'd enjoyed watching the session. Makoto and Akemi worked harder than usual to show off for him, and he was honestly impressed with their progress. A month made so much difference at this age.
Naruto joined Neji to sit and watch as the two children sparred and drilled their hand-to-hand katas. After a few seconds, Neji felt Naruto's attention turn inward for a moment, and then the blue eyes were on him.
"Hey, hey... us together," he said. He was leaning back, with his legs straight out in front of him, braced upright by his arms. Neji looked back at him, but before he could say anything, Naruto went on. "I like it." His matter-of-fact voice turned forceful, matching the deeply serious, sincere emotion in his eyes. "I love it." Naruto sat up, crossing his legs, and turned boyishly shy eyes on Neji. "I love you," he said. "I want you to stay with me. With us."
It was sudden. It was direct. It was, despite the hospital-room words and their physical interaction afterwards, a surprise. It was... Naruto.
So, "Of course." Neji replied.
Naruto laughed. "Good! Now we can visit the city and shock the disapproving old people." His laugh melted into a wide, joyful grin. "Good."
Naruto had expected the day to have worn Neji out, so it was with mild surprise that he re-entered the bedroom after his shower to see Neji still lying awake on his back, eyes half lidded, following Naruto as he moved about the room. His tiredness was evident, but when Naruto got under the covers slide in next to him, Neji slid his hand up Naruto's arm, under the short sleeve of his shirt, stroking lightly at the soft skin on the underside. The slow touch lit off a heat in him, and as Neji's hand slipped back down his arm he caught it with his own and leaned down.
The kiss was soft at first, then deeper, with the languidness from Neji's weakness banking Naruto's own fires to a manageable level. Neji's mouth opened under his, warm lips and soft tongue and a hint of spearmint toothpaste. Naruto flattened his free hand on Neji's chest, feeling his warmth through the thin shirt fabric, and curled his fingers under the neck hem to trace the line of Neji's collarbone. Supported on his elbow, he shifted himself to bring the lines of their bodies against each other, and slid his hand down until he could get under the night shirt to Neji's skin. Neji made a low noise of encouragement, and his other hand came to rest on the back of Naruto's where it moved on his chest. He stroked his fingers over one of Neji's nipples, then farther down to the skin of his stomach, and the dip of his navel. He rucked the shirt up enough to be able to lean down and lightly kissed the little hollow, exhaling and watching goosebumps rise as his breath contrasted with the room's ambient temperature.
Naruto had learned Neji's body a little better each night since he'd left the hospital, but they had both been holding back in necessary deference to Neji's fatigue, stopping before things went anywhere serious.
This time Naruto slid one thumb under the waistband of Neji's loose pants while he kissed him, fingers resting above the cloth on the ridge of Neji's hipbone. When he paused, Neji slid one hand along his arm to nudge at him, and with that their movements shifted from that now-familiar reined-in desire to genuine foreplay.
Still, it was all slow and intent, kissing and touching and sliding clothing over skin and off, until Naruto was curled around Neji as they lay on their sides. Neji was mostly still, letting Naruto's hands move where they would, sometimes guiding him with deep murmurs and the movements of his body. The speed of his pulse belied his tired stillness.
Naruto let his mouth explore its more limited range, kissing and tasting the skin on Neji's shoulders and neck. The loose part of Neji's bound hair was fanned across the pillow above his head, shining dully in the darkness, baring the nape of his neck and the soft short hairs there, which Naruto discovered was an erogenous zone for Neji, when breathed on. A good place to whisper into, he decided.
Neji's back shifted and pressed against Naruto's chest with each breath and quiet gasp, and finally he slid one arm back to rest his hand on Naruto's hip, pressing his warm fingertips into Naruto's skin, directing him forward. He rocked himself gently but firmly back against Naruto in emphasis.
The simple, clear signal sent a flare of desire through Naruto, kindled from what had been pooling hot inside him so far. He didn't stop his arms from tightening around Neji's torso, his hand from tightening further where it had been stroking Neji's silky-hard arousal.
"Sure?" Naruto asked softly, pressing his forehead to the back of Neji's shoulder.
"Yes..." Neji sighed.
Naruto unwrapped himself from Neji to fumble one-handed in the drawer of the bedside table, then curled around him once again with a growling noise of want.
He took his time with the preparation. Neji's passiveness here was not frailty, only lack of energy, but even so Naruto realized it kept his actions gentler and slower than they might otherwise have been, something which he was finding unexpectedly arousing. At last, he laced his fingers through Neji's to let him squeeze his hand against the stretch of entry, and then for some moments he was still, pressing his lips softly against the line of Neji's spine, over the ridges of scars that marked the pale expanse of his back, and gently curling both their fingers around Neji's cock, diffusing the minor discomfort with a little distraction.
When he moved, he did it carefully, drawing back and pushing in just enough to slowly acquaint Neji's body to the penetration, all the while angling slightly until Neji sucked in a slight gasp. That was the spot.
Everything was warm and smooth and Naruto luxuriated in every second, firmly reining in his intensifying arousal. He maintained his careful rhythm until Neji made a faint sound of urging, and then he let himself slowly give in to the motion. When Neji's hand clutched at his again, and his back stiffened, he made a sound that Naruto had never heard before, one that Naruto instantly knew he wanted to hear again, and often.
His own voice, a little later, was muffled against Neji's back.
Neji was smiling, eyes closed, as he rolled onto his back when Naruto finally moved away. He opened them halfway, their white color turned to a shade of purple in the dark, and Naruto remembered how, back when they were still genin, he'd found them so hard to read.
"Next time, I want to see your face," Naruto whispered, and was delighted to see Neji's smile turn just a little bashful at that statement.
After the cleanup, Naruto propped himself up on an elbow to watch Neji fall asleep. It didn't take long, but before Neji let himself succumb, he raised his hand and ran one finger down Naruto's cheek, perpendicular across the marks there, and smiled.
"What would you two think if Neji stayed here from now on?" Neji overheard from the kitchen a week or so later, as he dried his hair after a morning shower. His hand kept drawing the brush through, but the rest of his attention shifted completely.
"For always ?" Makoto's voice, surprised.
"Yeah." Naruto was grinning, Neji could hear it. "Me and him decided we loved each other so much we want to live together. But I have to talk to you about it too, see what you both think."
"Neji-san's gonna stay here now?" Akemi's voice, thrilled.
"That's what we want to do. But I need to ask you both first. Because if he stays here now, he's gonna be like another tou-chan for you guys."
"No way!" Makoto said emphatically, and Neji felt a chill down his whole body and his breath caught, but Makoto went on. "YOU are Tou-chan."
Neji exhaled heavily, shaking his head at the intensity of his own reaction.
"Yeah. We can't call him that." Akemi was thinking about it.
"You don't have to." Naruto reassured her. "But you do have to listen to him the way you listen to me."
There was a pause, and then a giggle from Akemi.
"Better than you listen to me." Naruto amended, sounding mildly disgruntled.
"Then... Like how we listen to him now." Makoto said.
"Well, yeah." Naruto replied, audibly nonplussed. "Uh... keep it up." There was the scrape of a spatula against a pan as he served them.
"So, guys, you never said what you think." Naruto prompted.
"It's good!" Akemi declared. "Now he'll always be here when he's home."
Makoto made a noise of agreement, and said "'Cause it'll be his home. And he'll live with us." The boy sounded happy, and Neji closed his eyes with relief.
"Then, Tou-chan," Makoto added thoughtfully, "our family is bigger now."
The park sounded packed with children. The day was bright and warm without being hot, and it was a weekend day, after all. Not a bad day to get back from a successful mission.
Neji walked towards the noise of children playing, looking and listening, picking Makoto and Akemi, and other recognizable individuals out of the crowd. Naruto was sitting on a bench with Lee, watching the children and talking.
Akemi was at the top of the slide, blocking the other children trying to get up, and scanning her surroundings, apparently for him, because she waved wildly when her gaze landed on him, and she sucked in a lungful of air.
"Papa!!" She bellowed, and took a flying leap that landed in a respectably safe tumble and ended with her rising smoothly from the second somersault and running straight for him. Movement beyond the swings was Makoto turning around. He leap-frogged over Hyuuga Hizashi and pelted after his sister.
Neji also saw Naruto look up and grin, as he caught Makoto and Akemi. He hugged them tightly for a long moment, then released them, and leaned over to wrap one arm around each of their waists so that when he stood, they ended up hanging upside down.
They shrieked in delight and laughed and Neji continued on towards the park as though he wasn't carrying two squirming six-year-olds under his arms.
Naruto met him halfway. "I think you found something of mine," he said with a grin.
"Oh, I thought these were mine." Neji replied, smiling slightly. he bounced his arms slightly, eliciting more squeals. "They sound like mine."
"They sound like mine too." Naruto answered, eyes sparkling.
"We are BOTH!" Makoto giggled, and slapped at Neji's arm. He locked his hands around Neji's wrist, and Neji held his arm out for the boy to swing down. Akemi followed suit, and they both continued to hold his hands, leaning against him as though he'd been gone a month instead of a week.
"I guess we need to share." Naruto said, stepping a little closer, and gently mussing both children's hair. They both ducked, and then Akemi grabbed her brother and hauled him back towards the playground to flee what was coming next.
Neji felt his smile widen Naruto reached up and wrapped his hand in the lock of hair that hung down on the left side of Neji's face, pulling him firmly down for a kiss. "Welcome back."
(A/N: To see a quick sketch of the family, paste this link into your browser: