The forest was deadly calm, a perfect picture of harmonious, lush nature in total balance with the local wildlife. A deer jumped over the shrubs and a few birds chirped and flew away; a squirrel made its way over to a higher branch. The sun wasn’t too hot, the sky was blue, and the road was easy accesible; no mud, just plain sand and dust.
It was so perfect that it made him sick. Sick to his stomach, to see no flaws, no blood, no corpses, no destruction. Green leaves everywhere, vibrant colors and warmth - that strange, kind warmth, a sense of familiarity, a sense of comfort, that had eluded him for so long. It was still eluding him, because warmth wasn’t something that Uchiha Sasuke connected to himself; he’d been cold ever since that dark night that he had left Konoha.
He was wandering around aimlessly. It had been days - ages - since he had left everything behind…again. This time, he didn’t leave Konoha. When he left the village, he thought he had broken his bonds, had cut out every feeling and emotion, had ended his youth. Now that his brother was dead, he felt like he had left everything. Just everything. He was wandering around, but he was hollow. His legs were moving, his feet were moving, but he wasn’t aware of it. Hollow. A shell. A vessel.
Itachi. Had he not been satisfied being a vessel? A shinobi was the tool of the village he or she grew up in. He’d been a shinobi, he’d been a vessel. The instrument of revenge, from his early years on. He hadn’t known any better. Itachi had been the one haunting him, hunting him…and now that it was over, there was nothing left but the vessel. For so long, he had focused on everything his brother had told him to do: hate him, detest him, and survive in any way possible. He’d even been ready to give his body to Orochimaru, if only to defeat Itachi - and now that his brother was dead, there was nothing but perfect beauty around him, a sunny sky and pretty flowers, while all he was seeing and wanted to see was death and destruction.
Silly brother. An instrument his entire life, and now that he was free, he didn’t know what to do. Free? If he knew how to do it, he would’ve snorted and laughed out loud. But nothing rose up in his throat but some bile, and he swallowed heavily. A vessel, not Uchiha Sasuke. He hadn’t even made one decision of his own. Everything that had brought him to this place, at this very moment, had been fabricated, orchestrated by people and circumstances he could never influence. Even his decision to leave Konoha had been planned; all in the name of revenge.
He hadn’t seen through Itachi’s illusion. He hadn’t seen through the great scheme of all things. All he had seen, was his brother’s smile. His body responded to that image with a sudden urge of pain; it was almost crippling, and he clenched his teeth. Itachi was dead. He had died with a smile on his face, happy to see his younger brother for the last time. Happy? Happy?
Did he truly see the birds and the trees for the first time? Why was nature so calm and peaceful, when his heart was thundering, screaming? Why was he feeling pain, why was he seeing blood and destruction, when he was surrounded by a calm breeze, whispering nothing but the modest tune of a bird singing? I am an avenger. But what am I if I have nothing left to avenge?
His hand swiftly dropped to his lower back, as if he wanted to casually smoothe the wrinkles out of his shirt.
“You already know that I’m here.”
His fingers wrapped themselves around the handle of his chokutō, ready to run a chidori along it, if necessary. He recognizes that voice, calm, low and with little intonation. A voice from a long, long time ago. A voice from his youth.
The silly thing is, that his first thought had been on Naruto. Extremely silly, because Naruto would’ve already jumped at him, loud and obnoxious, and with at least three kage bunshins to get the message across. He picked this presence up fairly quickly, as if the other didn’t bother to hide it - but bothered enough to not surprise him out of the blue.
“You wanted to be seen,” his voice calm and collected, “you wanted to be noticed.”
A presence behind him, but Sasuke didn’t turn around immediately. The handle of his chokutō already made that typical ‘click’ sound; it’s loose, and he can wield it faster than the other can blink. Sharingan is the only way to see through one another’s attack. The voice sounded fairly familiar, but not familiar enough to tie a name or a person to it - his foot stepped aside, as he’s turning around, it’s just a matter of seconds…
…but his body stopped before his mind can give its final order to attack. The young man in the middle of the road is holding his hands up in a way that he would’ve recognized from a million miles away. The technique of the Gentle Fist.
“Hyuga.” Sasuke barely moved his own hand, but his fingers are slowly relaxing into his grip. Leaving Konoha meant that he was automatically branded with the rank of missing-nin; any jounin would feel compelled to bring him back.
“Neji,” the other said, without any hint of humor. “I assumed you’d forget my first name, Uchiha Sasuke.”
He brusquely shrugged. His mind provided him with the appropriate memories, as far as he had them of this Hyuga Neji: a prodigy, despite being born into one of the clan’s lower houses, wielder of the Byakugan. He looked different than he remembered him, obviously; more than three years have passed.
Silence. Nothing but the birds chirping again. Strange that he noticed the birds chirping and Neji’s presence, but not…how his situation has changed. Without Orochimaru, without his brother…he has just become a missing-nin, interesting for potential retrieval and a bounty. If this Neji has come here to take him back…
“You know this road leads to Konoha… eventually.” Neji said, not changing his stance, but not showing open aggression either. He was ready to defend himself, just like Sasuske was ready to attack him. With the same distinctive click, Sasuke pushed the chokutō back and showed his free hand. Hyuga Neji is nothing to him. Just someone from his old village. No match for his Sharingan, let alone for his chidori.
“I know,” he snarled. “What are you, a talking map?”
Neji seemed to be amused and dropped his stance after the words leave Sasuke’s mouth. He even showed a hint of a smile.
“After all these years, you still haven’t learned any manners.”
“What does it matter to you?”
“To me, not much. To others, it might.”
Silence again, and this time Sasuke realized he has bitten his lip for no apparent reason. With an annoyed, yet soft grunt he licked his lips, washing the small droplet of blood away. It couldn’t be that any mention of Konoha, of his former ‘friends’, could still make him emotional. Sentimental. Foolish. He’s seen Naruto, Sakura and a few others fairly recently - hasn’t he? When they discovered the hideout, and that pale, white kid blocked correctly his attack. How can I become Hokage when I can’t even help my own friend? Wasn’t that what Naruto had said? It was something he would say…
“I’m not interested.”
“Of course you aren’t.” His matter-of-fact voice is grating on Sasuke’s nerves. Who does this Neji think he is, anyway? He’s standing tall, confident, a young man in the prime of his life, disposing over powers and skills that he knows to use well. He’s different, yes, very different…not a kid anymore, his clothes stressing his physical build. Jounin-level, without a doubt.
“I don’t belong there anymore. Why should I return?”
“People would love for you to return.” Another fact.
Naruto. Sakura. “I don’t want to talk about them.”
“They’re strong.” Neji tilted his head while he was speaking, long, chestnut strands of hair slipping over his shoulder. “They’ll find you on their own.”
“I don’t want them to find me.”
“Why are you heading this way, then?”
“I don’t owe you any explanations.”
“True. It’s getting dark soon, and we better get some fire going.”
“Yes,” Neji said. “Can you use one of your fire jutsus? That would save us a lot of work.”
If he’s impressed by Sasuke’s scowl, Neji didn’t show it and disappeared as soon as he had spoken, to search for wood and kindling. Tempted to move along on his own, Sasuke turned around again, only to realize that yes, it was getting dark soon, and he had no shelter, food or water on him. He’d only been wandering without really knowing where to go to. His feet had brought him on this doomed way to his hometown…and now a jounin was on his tail, suggesting they should set up camp together. What was the other’s purpose?
He didn’t know why, but Sasuke sat down on a large rock and uses his technique to start a fire as soon as Neji returned. Despite the earlier warm sun, the falling evening cooled the temperature rapidly, and his body temperature already had been low. Before he realized it, his hands are above the fire, absorbing the warmth.
Neji unhooked his backpack, opened it and pulled out a loaf of bread, and to Sasuke’s greater surprise, he also had fish with him to grill over the open fire. He wanted to ask what the other was sharing with him, what he was trying to do or to accomplish with it…but he knew his body needed the food, the energy, and he remained silent about it. Silence, even the birds had stopped singing.
“I can’t tell you that I know what you’re going through,” Neji’s voice still sounded calm and collected. “I know similar feelings, though. After the chuunin exam, when I had lost to Naruto, I felt completely…well, lost. I didn’t know what to do. The whole house had seen how I was defeated, and I feared I would always be caged by the traditions, by the curse of being born into a lower branch.”
“Are you still lost?” Sasuke asked, his eyes darting over Neji. He didn’t really want to know the other’s background and sob story. He didn’t care for Hyuga Neji. Why would he? Why would I try to survive now that I’m nothing but an empty vessel and vengeance is…gone? Should I live on to get more revenge, or should I live on to be more than just a vessel?
As Neji offered him some of the fish, he ate a small piece of it; it tasted bland, but it was hot and filling. Another slice of the bread completed the meal. He wished for something to drink, and as if Neji read his mind, a water bottle came his way.
“…but Naruto taught me that I could take my fate in my own hands, instead of allowing it to happen to me.” He watched Sasuke sipping the water. “Fate is something that you make yourself, instead of fate making something for you. Life is not a pre-destined road.”
“Heh,” Sasuke wiped his mouth cruelly with the back of his hand, “that’s exactly the kind of crap he would say, yes.”
“You took your fate in your own hand, too.”
“I left the village to become stronger and then killed my brother. How much of that was my own choice?”
Taking the water bottle back, Neji sipped the cool liquid before answering.
“It was still your own choice. You might’ve been driven by the circumstances, but it was still your own choice.”
“I don’t believe it.” Sasuke wasn’t in the mood to discuss or philosophy matters with Neji, someone he hadn’t seen in years and even before that, barely interacted with. What did his words matter, what was it to him? Everything about him radiated some kind of…acceptance, a calmness without defeat, without failure. Even his movements were calm and controlled, an ease and a comfort enveloping every gesture.
“What road to take?” Neji asked. He moved the backpack next to his feet. “What fate to take in your own hands, what choice to make?”
His long hair, hold loosely together with that small tie at the back, seemed to have come undone. His pupil-less eyes have been focusing on him the entire time. Sasuke didn’t feel any fear or unease, and his hands haven’t touched the chokutō since ‘dinner’ started.
“Look at us,” his voice calm, soothing, “Byakugan, Sharingan. The strongest eye techniques in the world, and all they have done was to blind us.”
It didn’t matter who started. It didn’t matter who closed the distance between them, fire, fish and water forgotten. He thought it was Neji, but he was the first one to part his lips invitingly. Was he? Wasn’t he…talking? Wasn’t he eating? No, he had finished his bread, and why would he care? A hand on his neck, warm fingers. His Mangekyo Sharingan suddenly flared, a defense, a wall, and he pushed at Neji, who pushed immediately back. He was strong, but not as strong as Sasuke. Chidori…
“No.” Neji put his hand on his, uncaring if he’s already building up the chakra for his technique or not. A sting in his muscles, a tight grip on his wrist…another pain, another ache, but it wasn’t Itachi poking him, his fingertips sharply dabbing his forehead, it was Neji who slid him off the large rock he’s been sitting on and he landed on the forest floor.
“Don’t do this,” Sasuke warned him, but his voice lacked anger or vehemence. Blind. Future. Vessel. Jounin. Neji.
“Are you afraid?” Neji asked, but he stopped moving.
“I did everything I could to survive,” Sasuke barked, and now the anger flowed back into his words, “I’m not afraid of anything!”
Despite the anger, the last word is smothered. Lips on lips, and then a sharp bite. Sasuke tasted blood again, his tongue once more running past his lip, and Neji was fast, so fast that there wasn’t any blood to lick off, the other claiming his lips again and again. Hands, long and slender fingers touching his chest, his wide open shirt provided easily access. In a reaction, he lifted up his legs as to kick Neji off of him, but another hand pushed his legs down, at the knees, exposing the chokutō at the hip.
“Get off of me.”
“What happened to you?”
“I wasn’t on my way to Konoha.”
Words, only words. His body was doing all the talking, showing the signs of excitement, a warmth spreading through him that he had never felt before. Living underground, training with Orochimaru, those fucking cold damn snakes…
“Fucking cold,” Neji repeated, with that same, almost infuriating calm and amused tone in his voice. Sasuke knew he talked out loud and frowned and grimaced at the same time. There were no words of condemnation or judgment. No laughs, no pity, no tears, no compassion. The evening had fallen, the camp fire was their only source of light… but were they not blind anyway? Sasuke didn’t know what Neji is blind to, but Neji apparently knew what he is blind to. His brother? Naruto? The village?
He didn’t fight back when Neji undressed him. His eyes didn’t show the Mangekyo Sharingan when Neji undressed himself. Long, chestnut strands of hair, the warmth of the fire, the blind eyes open, no more powers, no more jutsus, no more… what were they seeing? What were they doing? Were they really seeing now? What else was there to see but two naked bodies?
“I don’t want to be blind,” he murmured, seconds before Neji ultimately claimed his body. There were no screams, no cries of pain. No tears, no dramatics. Kisses, touches, lacking the gentleness of experienced lovers, but who would made love to a vessel? He was just a body, consumed by Orochimaru if things had gone differently…but there had been his brother, again, and there had been fate, again, and now there had been Hyuga Neji, who covered his body with that impractical long hair of his, showing a few scars, who told him he was blind and that there were other roads to take.
Maybe there were. Maybe there weren’t. It was his road to take, though. As he was lying on the forest floor, his lips parted and his body slightly sweaty, he couldn’t care less at the moment. Maybe he was an avenger, and would he be a vessel for the rest of his life. Maybe he had been living in a dream, caught in another illusion, and he would wake up back at his family compound in Konoha.
He arched his back, eyes closed and head tilted, he had no idea why he surrendered to Neji. His clothes were just a few inches away, his weapon too…he just had to open his eyes if he wanted to trap the other in a nightmare of his own. Why…why would the other make him feel something that his supposedly best friends couldn’t make him feel? Regret…sadness…a little bit of hope? The slightest bit of hope, stirring in his heart. How… how?
Arms around him, it was Neji who almost lifted him up from the floor, bodies squirming and writhing, rocking and bucking, legs entangled and warmth, so much warmth flooding him, possessing him, until it was too hot to hold onto and finally there was a scream, torn from his throat as he surprised himself. A twisted scream of pleasure and agony as his body trembled violently, his legs cramping, chest heaving for the last bit of breath he’s fighting to draw.
Neji didn’t move away. His hand caressed Sasuke’s cheek, when he opened his eyes again. Silence, silence around them but his own, harsh breathing. Neji’s lips were slightly parted in an almost-knowing smile. His other hand was firmly lodged in Sasuke’s hair, stroking the strands.
Dark. Evening. The fire hadn’t gone out, surprisingly, and he moved his head towards it, as if he could absorb the warmth from here. It felt better than he had imagined. The warmth. The physical warmth. The small flicker of warmth in his heart. Bringing up his hand, he mimicked Neji’s gesture and tangled his fingers in the long strands. He had never even touched Sakura’s hair, or any other girl’s hair, for that matter. His first ‘kiss’ had been with Naruto… sort of. How could he have forgotten?
“There’s a long road ahead of us.” Neji spoke, leaning into Sasuke, focusing on his eyes. No Sharingan. “A long and difficult road.”
“I know,” was all that he said. He felt tired, relieved and burdened all into one.
“Go to sleep.” It’s not a command, but rather a matter-of-fact suggestion. The night had fallen, they couldn’t have travelled anymore even if they wanted to.
He closed his eyes. Neji made no movement to get off of him, and he felt the other’s lips on his skin again. His hand tugged at his hair, almost teasingly. Go to sleep.
Tomorrow he would wake up to a bright day.