Chapter 1: Quick Introduction
This story is based on one of my artworks:
HC AU where instead of dying, Neji gets transported to the modern world and has to deal with a 21st century Tenten and he only gives in to her antics because she resembles his teammate. pic.twitter.com/SgQBwqdcPB
— back to ur daily Team Gai (@vajallie) May 4, 2019
I'll try to illustrate one scene per chapter to make the story a little bit more fulfilling. I hope it'll send a clear idea as to how places look like since I'm not too sharp on detailed settings.
Now that that's out of the way, let's proceed!
Chapter 2: The Chase
Neji breaks out of his supposed coffin.
Meanwhile, Tenten, Kiba, and Shino scouts a tightly packed neighborhood far from the bustling city to apprehend their suspect: The White Killer.
As far as Neji knew, he is dead. And yet, here he is, thinking about how dead he is. Are the dead even capable of thinking? Neji takes in a full breath and expels them out in one slow breath. He tries to calm down. Neji feels for his body. His hands map the entirety of his chest. It is then that Neji gets a feel for his environment. He is surrounded by walls, four flat walls to be exact. They constrict his movement. He wonders what it is that he is contained in. Pounding on the walls seems to be the most sensible option. Neji feels for the tight walls that surround his body. The walls are smooth to touch and quite cold too. He wonders what container he is in. Neji is more curious than panicked in the situation that he is in. All that he sees in this boxed up environment that he is in is pitch blackness. He faintly recalls the last thing on his mind.
The memory most prominent in his mind is the image of his cousin staring back at him. Fuzzily, other shinobi are there too and it looks like he is in a despairing battleground. Neji quickly glides his fingers across the smooth walls and he trails them up where the walls meet. He’s found a corner not too high above his head’s height. His shoes hit the bottom corners as well. The container he is in is far too tiny for a body such as his’, well any human adult body to be exact. Fear then strikes his heart. “Oh god, I’m in a coffin.” There is not a doubt in his mind that this container is a coffin, although coffins are supposed to be round for shinobi. However, he cannot shake that thought away at all. Neji thought he died from the spikes but it looks like he’s somehow buried dead, but mistakenly alive. He squints at the ridiculous situation he’s in. “I might as well get out before I run it of air.”
Seeing as how he is standing with gravity pulling at his feet, Neji supposes that the only way out is to strike upwards. He hits the ceiling of the container awkwardly, jamming his knee forward into the wall in front of him. In doing so, a blaring light seeps into the container from the edges of the walls. Neji raises a brow at the peculiar light bleeding through the cracks. “That’s odd,” his intonation climbs up as his comment tapers off. Curiousness captures him and he begins to strike the wall in front of him instead. Neji hears a click but disregards it. He hits the wall one more time with both his fists and the walls breaks out. It clangs onto the ground. He is free. “Byakugan!”
The night sky crescendos and Shino signals to Kiba and Tenten two thumbs up. Kiba presses his back against a backyard wall of a house as he stares at the CCTV camera mounted high above the streetlight. He pauses and waits for a few seconds for anything to come from the earpiece in his right ear. He then steps closer to the corner of the backyard wall, making sure not to etch his shoes on the neighborhood pathway’s poorly paved concrete. Kiba gulps and stops when his shoulder nears the rounding of the corner. He listens to the earpiece intensively. There is nothing audible at all. “Shino what are you doing?” he whispers angrily to the camera.
“I gave you both a thumbs up,” Shino says as he stares onto the monitor screen in front of him. He rolls his chair over to the table behind him to grab an apple slice before returning to the monitor. “You’re both on sight.”
“Geez!” Kiba hisses as he feels for his gun holster, making sure he still has his weapon on him, “Could’ve said that earlier! You think we can see you from the cameras?” Kiba detached himself from the wall and straightens out his leather jacket.
Shino shoves the whole apple slice into his mouth and chews loudly just on purpose, “Tenten’s not complaining so I don’t see how it’s a problem-” in the monitor screen, he sees Kiba raising a middle finger to the camera in his feed before confidently assuming a casual posture and stepping out onto the intersecting pathway. “He flipped me off, Tenten.”
“Stop entertaining each other and focus on the job,” Tenten whispers calmly as she directs her eyes from the CCTV mounted on a streetlight three neighborhood blocks from Kiba. “Just make sure to keep your eyes on the target area. We’ll try to blend in as much as we can until we reach the house.” She shoves her hands into her puffy black jacket, feeling the bulge of her gun and gun holster on her hip. “It’s time to put an end to the White Killer.”
Shino glances upwards to the larger monitor with over twenty CCTV screen feeds in the display, “Yep, copy that.”
Kiba adjusts his cap and strolls to the right, “That is if he’s still in the house or in the area.”
“If not in the house, then he should be nearby,” Tenten clearly says as her pace fastens down the path. “Gosh, why can’t the neighborhood be flat.”
Shino spots Tenten cautiously makes her way down the back point of entry. “If it starts raining again, the both of you will be the odd ones for not carrying umbrellas,” he rolls himself to the back table again for another apple slice. “Why didn’t the two of you wear hoodies?”
“Because it’s not gonna rain?” Kiba retorts as a high schooler intersects his path. He quickly pulls out his phone and begins to press random buttons before putting the phone up to his ears. The high schooler just heard what he said. Kiba tries to play it cool, “Mom it’s not gonna rain is it?” He slyly looks over his shoulder and sees the high schooler snickering. He shoves the phone back into his pocket, “I hate this place.”
“Can we focus?” Tenten slows down and makes a left turn into a narrower pathway sandwiched between two houses.
Shino scoots to the screen, “I just lost you, Ten.”
Kiba lifts his nose high in the air, smelling street food nearby, “Hey, did I just miss my path?”
Shino directs his eyes to Kiba’s figure on the screen, “No, you’re on track.”
“Are you sure?” Kiba asks as he passes by a dark dead-end alleyway on his right. He pays no attention to it. “I swear I just smelled skewered sweet and sour pork.”
“You’re seven blocks from the nearest street vendor,” Shino tells him. He taps into the CCTV and brings up live footage of the same street food mentioned. “It’s located right next to a convenience store. Should we celebrate after apprehending this suspect?”
“If we can catch him,” Kiba points out as he descends down a steep path.
Tenten reappears in Shino’s monitors and he swipes the street vendor CCTV away. Shino leans back on his chair and stares at Kiba rounding the steep path. A dark blur moves in the dark dead-end alleyway that Kiba just passed by. He sits up immediately and brings his face to the screen while squinting. Shino immediately brightens up the screen and his eyes widen. “Kiba, don’t get excited but there’s a figure in the alleyway you just passed.” He sees Kiba giving him a thumbs up through the CCTV and then smacks his lips. “Tenten, did you hear that?”
“I heard, we’re all connected through the same line,” Tenten whispers. “I’m backtracking to you, Kiba.”
“Got it,” Kiba replies. He continues walking past the corner to act as if he did not just receive the intel. Kiba silently reaches for his gun and slowly turns around. He makes his way to the corner and flattens himself on the corner house’s gate walls. Carefully, Kiba sneaks around the corner and begins to cautiously take meticulous steps towards the alleyway he just passed. He sticks close to the gate wall. The steep hill path is making it harder to not make any noise. Against the wet asphalt, his running shoes squeak. Nonetheless, he keeps his eyes on the entrance to where the alleyway is.
“The figure stopped moving,” Shino details. His eyes dart to Tenten weaving through her section of the neighborhood. “Head straight and take a hard left when you reach the opening, Tenten. We can corner him there.” Without a second to waste, Tenten grabs for her gun. She can see the opening emitted by the streetlight ahead.
Kiba has no idea where Tenten is in proximity to him. He cannot even ask where she is in relation to him. If he speaks, the figure might just expose himself and flee. Kiba’s jaw tighten. He cannot allow that to happen especially when he is far down the steep path. Trying to run up the hill is not an option. “Damn it.”
“He’s moving!” Shino shouts. Kiba freezes as he tries to listen for Tenten’s footsteps. She may be agile but the cost comes with her heavy feet. Kiba hears nothing at all and decides to proceed to creep up on the alleyway. Shino draws back from the screen and switches his shades for his actual glasses. He plants his eyes to the screen and gasps, “Kiba!”
Tenten is sprinting now. She hurls over a potted plant and thumps her feet onto the ground. Kiba firmly holds his gun with both hands and he aims it toward the alleyway. His own name pierces through his ear and he winces. Right before his eyes, Kiba witnesses a dark figure with dark long hair flee from the entrance of the alleyway. Now he has to run up the hill. “Freeze!” he shouts. The man looks his way. Kiba is thrusting all of his might into his legs up the slippery path. His howl stuns the man and he buys himself two extra steps closer toward the man. If not for his chief specifically telling him and Tenten to catch him alive, he would have shot the man by now. The man is wearing a puffy winter vest. And under the darkness to which the street light cannot illuminate, Kiba believes that the man is wearing an ear warmer headband. The man tries to bolt. “I said freeze!”
The man throws a plastic bag at Kiba forcefully, causing Kiba to halt briefly. His aim lowers and when he draws his gun back up to shoot for a non-vital spot, the man is already lunging up the stairs. Kiba continues to power his legs but ends up short. He slips on the content that spilled out of the plastic bag and falls on his face. “I lost the chase!” Kiba snaps his head up to keep the man in his vision. He broke his nose on the fall.
“Shit!” Tenten angrily whispers as she finally nears the opening. A figure whizzes past her and she knows that this is the man they are supposedly going after. She slips out into the opening and begins to chase after the man up the stairs. Kiba witnesses Tenten’s hard fall as she makes a hard turn out of another alleyway higher up the steep hill. “I hate stairs!” she tries to match the man’s lunge. “Stop!” she yells to the man.
Meanwhile, Kiba coddles his nose as blood begins to seep out both his nostrils. He huffs through his mouth and stares at the contents on the asphalt pavement: it is a bag from a convenience store with the skewers he smelled with prepackaged food. Kiba raises a brow, “Onigiri and-” he squints at the item that made him slip, “tomatoes?” He winces at the pain at his nose bridge and picks his gun up. A tomato rolls down the steep path. Kiba reaches for the generous napkins the street vendor gave to the suspect for the skewers and begins to fold them before jamming it up to his nostrils. He stands up and begins to hobble towards the stairs. “I’m up! On my way!”
“Hurry up!” Shino’s voice screams into her earpiece.
Tenten tucks the gun back into her holster. She cannot aim well while running anyway. “Freeze! Stop running!” She clamors to the man far ahead in front of her. The chase takes over three long blocks of close-knitted concrete homes. Suddenly, the faint a loud bang on a metal sheet shoots into Tenten’s ears. Tenten notices that the man she is chasing also heard that sound. They both turned their heads toward the sound as the neighborhood land finally levels flatly. Tenten hurries for her gun again the moment the man slows. “Do not- run!” She slows down to a stop and takes aim. The man is nearly thirty feet from her. He looks straight at her before making a quick right. “Tch!” She runs toward where the man went and is met with a dark and narrow hallway caused by two building awnings meeting. Tenten breathes hard, trying to catch her breath as she cautiously steps towards the hallway, seeing a line of lockers. The sound that she heard earlier came from the moving locker.
“If you go there, I won’t be able to see you, Tenten,” Shino warns her.
“Did you see him come out at the other end?” she asks him.
“No, he’s there somewhere. What’s there?” Shino looks intently at the monitor screen. He brings it up to the main screen and overtakes the whole of the window.
Tenten carefully steps closer to the dark shadows with her gun pointed in front of her. A sweat bead traces down her temple and she clenches her jaw tightly. “There are a row of lockers, five of ‘em. A cage of some sort is next to it, chicken cage?”
“You’re telling me the guy hid in a chicken cage?” Shino’s brows furrow at the ludicrous thought. “What else?”
“The locker is making a lot of noise,” Tenten announces.
“He’s probably hiding in there!” Kiba yelps as he tiredly takes his time up the flight of stairs.
“I’m gonna check it.”
Kiba heaves and pauses in the middle of the stairs, “No, wait for me!”
“You’re breathing hot breaths in my ear, Kiba,” Tenten treads closer to the lockers and is engulfed in the shadows. At this point on, Shino can no longer see her. She sees the locker door jolting with every bang. “Someone’s hitting the locker door from the inside,” she whispers to them. She grips her own gun tighter than before. Her finger lightly settles on the trigger. With every step closer to the locker, the sound becomes amplified into her earpiece for her team members to hear. Tenten’s eyes twitch with every pang she hears. She is now in front of the locker, waiting for the man to break himself out. Tenten drowns out the noise and she takes in cool deep breaths. There are only a mere two or three feet between her and the locker.
Without warning, the locker door’s hinges break and it flies straight into her face. Tenten gets hit with the door and she falls to the ground. The sudden hit causes her to release her grip on the gun. It skids and stops at the edge of the shadow casted by the awnings. Tenten can feel her forehead throbbing and filling with blood. She’s got a nasty bruise. Tenten glances up and sees the man standing over her. She scurries and crawls to her gun before grasping it and turning around onto her butt. In front of her stands the man coming closer to her. “Freeze!” she shouts. Tenten aims her gun to the man’s chest. She tries to get up.
“Byakugan!” she hears him holler.
The dark shadows of the awnings made it impossible to see the details of the man. “Byakugan?” she thought. Tenten tries to stand up but ends up scooting herself out into the moonlight.
“Do not move!” Tenten shakily forces her arms to hold out her gun perfectly as she’s trained them. She finally makes it up to her feet just as the man begins to take a step towards her.
“Byakugan?” she ends up thinking about it again. Tenten’s eyes narrow. She is beginning to doubt if this man is the suspect they are looking for. “White eyes?” she mouths to herself. The man steps closer to her. “Do not move or I will shoot!” She absolutely did not want to shoot him. Tenten draws her aim to his abdomen instead. She can definitely for his legs but it looks bandaged. Tenten did not recall seeing any white bandages on the man’s leg she was chasing just a few minutes earlier. Or did she? She grips her gun tighter as the man begins to move.
The man continues to step forward and for a split second, she swears she heard something other than the words “white eyes” coming from his mouth. “Tenten-”
He is far too close to her. Tenten glances at the side of his stomach and he begins to weigh how her bullet will move through his body in that split second. She pulls the trigger the moment the word barely escapes his mouth. The man collapses onto the ground with a thud and Tenten immediately release the tension in her jaw. “Suspect down.” Kiba hears the gunshot crackle into the night along with Tenten’s commentary. He grits his teeth and hobbles to where the sound came from. Tenten uncovers her radio and pulls it to her lips, “Send an ambulance,” she turns around and finds Kiba limping towards her. He is out of breath. “Make that two.”
“What is your location?” the voice from the other end of the radio asks.
Tenten walks over to Kiba and lends a shoulder for him to hold onto, “I thought you guys are tracking us. Didn’t you plant bugs on us, Shino?”
Shino watches from the screen as Tenten helps Kiba to stand up, “I did. It’s just that you two are deep in the neighborhood maze. The main road is far from where you are.”
“I think I sprained my ankle,” Kiba tells Tenten.
“That’s why I said to stop dressing as if you’re going out to a date,” Tenten says to him. She looks around for a building address and finds one, “There’s a building number, 1142. Take it from here Shino.”
Kiba shines his mini flashlight at the body still in the hallway as Tenten leans him to sit on a wall out in the eyes of Shino’s CCTV. “Where did you shoot him?”
“Lower right quadrant,” Tenten replies as she rests next to him. “This is the man, right?”
“Definitely,” he replies. “Long hair, winter vest, and headband, definitely.”
Tenten blows a sigh and wipes away her perspiration before the weather freezes it. “Sweet and sour pork skewers sounds so good right now.”
Chapter 3: Secret
Neji gets interrogated by two officers.
Slightly introducing familial relationships/dynamics in this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Street food farther from the city is a niche. It takes more authentic than its counterparts in the city. Tenten scrunches her nose as she forces down a rubbery piece of meat down her throat. She truly hates working out later than usual and then having to deal with nighttime pedestrian traffic. Beside her is Kiba, struggling to hold his crutches as one of his hands is occupied with managing three separate skewers. And standing in front of her is Shino, who is shoving fish bread into his mouth instead of what Kiba is eating. Tenten supposes fish bread is better than the poorly made garbage meat she’s holding by the skewer right now. The corner of the sidewalk fills up instantly as they wait to cross the street to the other side. Kiba wanted to have a little drink to celebrate their case closure tonight.
It is almost tradition to eat at the tiny, family-run restaurant after successfully completing a case. Usually, Tenten will be the most enthusiastic about eating together since there’s no other time that will allow her to eat with other people at home. However, tonight is just not sitting right. While Kiba drank away and has Shino to keep him company, Tenten’s own mind is focused on something else. There is only one thing on her mind tonight and that is the whole situational exchange between her and the man she apprehended. Holding her chopsticks and picking at the air, her wrist rests at the edge of the table. She is deep in thought. And even though Kiba assured her the man they caught fits the description made by their profiler, she can’t seem to shake off the persisting incongruity of it all.
Speaking of their profiler, Tenten is beginning to doubt if Sai’s actually sick tonight. The man is paler than usual from the last sight of him that she recalled. However, he is on this case as well. In fact, he is the most adamant about catching The White Killer because one of the victims is his only brother. Tenten believes that Sai’s persistence probably drove him ill but it could have been the most beneficial to all of them if he was there at the scene to confirm the man’s identity. It will have also eased her mind for she won’t be sitting at a table full of food and not be able to eat any of them because she thinks she’s shot the wrong man. Kiba’s mind doesn’t operate as well as Sai’s. And though he is smart enough to become a detective, he isn’t a profiler nor is he quite a keen man when it comes to utilizing the profiles framed by Sai and matching them to their potential suspects. Nonetheless, it never escapes her mind of her doubts for what duration she’s in as she spaces out in the restaurant until Shino’s deafening snap sent a ringing sensation into her ear. Tenten jerks away from him, “Sorry, it’s just not adding up.”
Kiba stares at her in utter disbelief, halting the continuous probing of his meat cooking on the grill, “We just talked about this earlier, though?”
“I know,” she replies in devastation, “but I feel like it’s the wrong man.”
“You shot the wrong man,” Shino comments as he nudges his round glasses. “Are you scared that your job might be jeopardized if you did?”
Tenten shoots him a glare and ultimately decides to reach for a strip of meat from the grill. She knew that he knew how much she’s worked to reach the position she’s in to be the captain of their team. Losing her job all because of Kiba’s “take my word for it” attitude might as well be compared to stepping on dogshit. Needless to say, it is never smart to trust whatever Kiba says because it’ll either be 100% correct or 100% false. Kiba slides her a dipping sauce and swallows down his food hard before being offered a shot of the nation’s cheap alcohol, "sake". “Look, we’ve already detailed and made the report. The case is probably being tidied up and it’ll probably be finalized tomorrow. Your face will be everywhere tomorrow and I’d gain recognition for being on your team!”
“I can never trust you,” Tenten tells him. Kiba boasts a whole lot about many things that aren’t remotely factual. The only thing that comes to her mind whenever he talks big is about how he cannot get any dates because he simply is too busy running around with Shino, Sai, and her when in actuality, it’s his mighty personality that turns women a full 180 from him. “Maybe if it happens, I might just buy you the dog you wanted,” Tenten quickly dips the strip of meat into the sauce and places it into her mouth. The taste is far better than the rubber she swallowed earlier.
“Let’s bet on it,” Kiba stretches his hand out to her, seeming all too confident. Tenten is sure it’s just a ruse but she shakes on it, regardless. She’ll never buy him the dog because it’s already sold.
“You’re saying there’s no identification of him anywhere in our system?” Inoichi glances up from his desktop screen and pulls back from his desk. Asuma personally requested a private meeting to discuss the anomaly of the suspect his team apprehended earlier that night with him and here they are in his office.
“Our database shows no one with that type of fingerprint nor DNA. We can’t identify him, Chief,” Asuma replies as he comfortably sits back on the leather chair. His night was arduous and he should have gone home and been with his kid but here he was, working overtime again and breaking his promise to Kurenai to be punctual. “We checked the registry in the Social Security Bureau and even reached out to the military to see if he’s ever served but we came up short.” Inoichi joins him at the coffee table and sits at the opposite chair. “It’s as if he doesn’t even exist.”
Inoichi scratches his chin with his index finger and crosses his arm in confusion. “Isn’t that expected? You know, for a serial killer? Wouldn’t he be the most fitting to be one? He has no connections here, no digital traces— he even passed the background check.”
“That’s why it was so difficult to create a profile, Chief.”
“I see,” Inoichi replies rather uninterestingly, earning a scornful look from the latter. “Have you tried reaching overseas for their databases?”
It’s quite possible that the suspect Asuma’s team apprehended might’ve been born in another country but nothing in the case suggests that he’s of any other descent except Asian ancestry. “There is no need, our profiler deducts that our suspect might have a lock on his personal background files. We just need to get his name and send it to other countries’ bureaus.”
Inoichi squints and makes apparent his age from the wrinkles underneath his eyes. He stares at the younger man across from him and nods, “Then why don’t you do it?”
“You see, that’s the thing I’m here for.”
“What is it?”
Asuma gulps and reaches for the back of his neck to massage it, “My team is beat.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” Inoichi sounds, “is that a new lingo you younglings are using? Should I write this down?” He quickly reaches to the coffee table to grab a pen from the pencil holder and slides a half used pad of sticky note to the edge. Inoichi leans down and clicks on the pen, “I’m trying to reconnect with my daughter. She’s-” he tilts his hand right and left, “a little too grown since the last time I saw her.”
“That’s not even remotely related to my issue.”
Inoichi backs off immediately, “Fine, fine. But you have to tell me after this.” Asuma inclines and the latter ushers for him to speak, “Go on.”
“My team’s been staking out in that location for the last three nights,” it’s quite repulsive if Asuma were to imagine the whole situation with his team. He can’t even imagine staying cooped up in a car for three days and two nights and having to breathe in Kiba’s sweaty glands even in the coldest nights of Fall. Asuma mentally thanked Inoichi for dragging him back to the post with Shino or else he would have to deal with a stench trying to dominantly fight a male’s body spray in a car. Thinking of it now, he pitied Tenten. “They’re in no shape to conduct an extensive and professional interrogation.”
“I’ll have Shikaku’s men take care of it,” Inoichi spouts as he brings the notepad to his face. “Now, about the new lingo.”
Neji’s visions are limited to white flashes within the darkness of his own mind. He supposes that he is probably dreaming but even so, these dreams are quite different from those he used to have. Pulsatively, he will be shown an image of himself, the real image of himself in his coffin. It is the round coffin he’s come to learn and he’s just standing there, watching in the third person as a golden speck keeps entering his abdomen and ricocheting to all gaping holes in his dead body before lodging itself at the apex of his heart. He will black out, well, in this case, his visions will blacken and it will burst into whiteness before revealing to him unlikely golden vegetation growing and thriving harmoniously in the holes of his chest. Like parasites, those vine-like sprouts thread and weave throughout the empty spaces in his body, taking its place permanently there. Yellow flower buds and gilt leaves spill down to his collapsed feet and they spread anew unlike anything he’s seen in his life as a shinobi. He glows a radiant hue of gold, almost outshining the sun if he dares to compare. And then the image blacks out and it’ll repeat again and again. Upon the sixth or seventh repetition, Neji noticed that his visions are different. He tries to make out the new thing he’s seeing and it came to him that he’s in a room: a hospital room.
The outline of the room is quite different from what he imagined. He’s been in a hospital before, but this one isn’t sitting well with him. “Maybe, they renovated,” Neji surmises as he blinks to dissipate the blurriness. He hasn’t even tried to move a muscle except roaming his eyeballs to every corner of the room. A single light stemming from the ceiling cascades strongly throughout the room, blinding him. He can hear an eerie beeping noise coming from somewhere. The temperature is extremely low, much lower than he expected from Konohagakure’s hospital. It is even worth it to mention how cluttered and narrow room is? Neji suspects that the Hokage must have reduced the room dimensions in order to accommodate the countless injured shinobi but not even that can explain the clutter. He painstakingly leans his head slightly to the left and rests his eyes on odd blinking monitors. He’s seen something similar since hospitals aren’t something rare for him to visit but these “things” blaring noises back at him seem all too peculiar.
Neji attempts to sit up, but doing so requires his abdominal muscles to contract and he fails so miserably. He groans at the excruciating pain sitting at his stomach and feels it travel to his toes. Neji tries to support himself up no matter the agony and he hears a clink. He looks down to his hand, to his wrist, and finds a silver brace. It is two metallic circles, one encapsulating the bar of the rail attached to his bed and the other to his wrist. Now, Neji is unsure if he is in Konohagakure. In actuality, he’s unsure if he’s real at all. Surely, he believes that he died in the war. And for that faint memory of busting out of his coffin, well, he isn’t all too confident that that physically happened. He quickly looks out to the curtains hanging by the wall. There is not a single inkling of light permeating through it. Neji can’t even tell if it’s day or night or if he’s anywhere near Konohagakure. “Is this a bind of some sort?” he asks himself. Neji can’t answer that question at all.
By the will of fire, of the shinobi way, as Neji saw it, he musters and stomachs through the pain that radiates wider throughout his frame and manages to sit up with dignity but not without the difficulty of breathing. Neji takes in short pausal breaths and expels them in the same way. The silvery metal that binds him to the bed never leaves his mind. He reaches for the round metal with his other hand and feels it. By mistake, Neji squeezes on the object and hears a click, the handcuff tightens. He raises a brow, quite amused with the item. Neji tries to pull the handcuff off but he realizes it takes too much of his body to do so. The already growing war his body’s going through seem to spike whenever he seeks to exhaust just a tint of energy. Never has he felt so helpless in a hospital.
Neji supposes that getting thorned with spikes to protect Naruto and his cousin was the right thing to do at the time, but looking back now, and seeing how unattended his room is, he’s beginning to regret shouldering the fate of the world with his body. “The least they could do is leave some flowers for me,” he murmurs as he gently lays himself back onto the bed. The round bind on his wrists is the last thing he worried about while he is awake because of the pain that shoots up within his body. But as drowsiness sets in and his eyelids pull with ten times the force of his consciousness, the thought of the handcuffs brushes his mind again. He has no idea why he’s bound nor for what reason he’s being bound.
Neji eases awake a second time and finds that the curtains shielding the window is capable of bleeding in natural light into the room. He glances down to his wrist and rolls his eyes into oblivion. Sleeping off the oddity of being chained to the bed and trying to figure out a plausible reason as to why he’s in such a predicament isn’t nearly the most genius idea but there is nothing that Neji can do. He sighs and pries off the oxygen mask attached to his face just as the door slides open. Standing before him stands what he assumes to be a nurse but he doubts that that is true. Since when did they have these uniforms? She wears a two-piece uniform unlike the long white tunic and long pants that nurses used to wear. The woman looks frightened at him before stepping out of the room and closing the door. In just about ten minutes, just as Neji examined his own wounds, finding his whole torso and chest bandaged, the door slides open again. This time it reveals two middle-aged men with clothes all too familiar but otherworldly for him. He doesn’t say anything to them nor bats an eye. Neji wants to return home. He just wants to see the familiar faces that he knew.
“So, this is what he looks like?” one man speaks to the other as they both slide stools under their buttocks. “The White Killer,” the man expresses confidence and arrogance just from the smile on his face.
They must have not been referring to him, at least that is what Neji wanted to believe. He’s beginning to doubt the authenticity of this reality. This is Konohagakure, right? Neji stares back at the two of them without much interest. He has no clue as to why they’re here or what he’s done to receive such a nickname.
“Alright, let’s get started,” the other man says as he pulls out a notepad. Neji blinks onwards blankly. “I am Officer Ken and-”
“I am Officer Ji,” Neji eyes dart back to the man who first spoke. He notes where they sat: Officer Ken on the right of him and Officer Ji to the left of him.
Neji then draws an actual blank. Aren’t officers supposed to wear the shinobi vests? Wait, where is my uniform?
“Pay attention!” Neji’s eyes widen as he stares at the man to his right working up a louder tone to him. “Gosh, I don’t even want to be here-” his voice trails off in an abyss. He calms down and they meet eye contact again, “Let’s start over shall we?”
Officer Ji signals to Officer Ken with one mere finger before overtaking the interrogation. “We’re here to ask some questions. Whether you answer willingly or not, we will get an answer from you.”
Neji is barely listening. He is more occupied with how much pain he’s feeling in his body. He’s always someone who can stomach injuries well but it is as if he’s gone far too weak. Neji believes it might just be because of how long he’s been locked in his coffin but even he isn’t sure if that can explain how fragile his body is right now. In mentioning his coffin, he recalls the whole incident of breaking out of it. When he escaped from the coffin, it was dark but less dark than when he was inside the container. And then I just— I swear I saw Tenten.
“Hey,” The man to his right starts to snap his fingers in front of Neji’s face. Neji flicks his eyes up to look at the man. “Stop spacing out, we’re trying to not hurt you-”
“Even though we want to,” the man on the left adds. “Right, well, anyway-”
“You deserve to get shot,” Officer Ken blurts out in disgust as he stares at Neji. “If not for our senior putting a bullet straight through you I would’ve the moment I came in here.”
Officer Ji is appalled and he jumps right into the questions. If not for Officer Ken being older than him and is in need of constant seniority, he would have excused the man out. “Do you remember your name?”
Neji has no comprehension of what these two men are bickering about. He has no idea what a bullet is and no idea who or what The White Killer is or did. He is now sure that this isn’t his world and that this perhaps might just be a lucid dream or a purgatory of some sort. Neji then hears the man’s odd but simple question. He wonders if he should answer it or not. Maybe it’s a test? Neji has convinced himself to answer the question, “Hyuuga, Neji.” What transpires thereafter provokes curiosity from Neji.
Officer Ken stares at his partner in shock before turning his attention back to Neji, “You mean you’re a Hyuuga?” Neji nods. They both lift themselves from their stools and crouches towards the criminal patient in an eerie manner. Officer Ken squints and the corner of his eyes crinkle as if on cue. He focuses on Neji’s eyes, taking in the enchanting eyes only a Hyuuga can obtain. The irises are documented to have various colors within ranging from a violet lavender to variants of grays to pure white. From afar, any sane human will believe a beholder of the Hyuuga’s special eyes to be either blind or have faint gray tints under certain lighting. But no one and Officer Ken means it, no one in the Hyuuga name has never been issued eyeglasses, or in these days in age, contact lenses for the sake of “seeing better”. Officer Ken draws back and pulls his partner from smooching his face onto the potential Hyuuga associate. He gulps and drags Officer Ji out of the room.
“Is it possible for a Hyuuga to be a serial murderer?” Officer Ken asks frantically. “I mean I know the higher-ups have been having a whole lot of issues regarding who’s going to take over the Police Agency but-” he pauses and stares back at Neji’s patient room in fear, “can we even let the public know about this?”
Officer Ji shrugs and begins to dial for his captain, “If it’s true and the guy inside isn’t lying, then we’ll be in so much trouble.”
Officer Ken complies, “Right, right. Call Captain Shikaku.” He begins to pace around back and forth, “I think my brain is going to explode! I just told him I would’ve shot him!”
“I just threatened him!” Officer Ji exclaims as his line is picked up from the other end.
“Cap.! We have a problem,” Officer Ji replies.
“What is it?”
The man gulps and peeks in through the tiny rectangular window on the door. He meekly meets eyes with their supposed suspect, “He’s a Hyuuga. Hyuuga, Neji.”
Shikaku chokes on his evening water and sprays it all over his son’s face. He quickly excuses himself from the board game and heads out to the hallway. Shikaku cautiously is on the lookout for his wife. He promised not to bring in any work-related issues under his own home and he’s not about to receive a cold shoulder tonight. “Are you sure?” he whispers as he struggles to put on his coat. He makes his way to the entryway, a genkan, and quietly slips on his tennis shoes before grabbing for his keys. “Did you check his eyes?”
“There’s no mistaking it, Cap.!”
Shikaku quickly opens the door and carefully steps out. He gently clicks the door shut before panicking his way to his car. Today is supposed to be his day off, hence the reason why he sent officers instead of his team members to interrogate the city’s most wanted killer. “Do not let him out of your sight!” He throws his phone to his passenger seat and presses on the gas. “Please don’t let it be a Hyuuga, please!” He begs hard. “Shit! The Commander’s going to flip if the man’s really a Hyuuga!”
When the two men return, they bring with them several nurses of varying uniform colors to Neji’s side. “What is going on?” he is apprehensive, but rightly so.
“We’re moving you to a VIP room, sir,” a nurse tells him. Her answer suffices and he does not question any further. The move allows Neji to inspect the surroundings outside of his former room. He makes note of potential exit points, the lighting, the number of people on that floor, and for weapons that can easily handicap without much energy expended. They all come across two shiny metal doors with a flashing countdown above it. Neji wonders what it is, now that for the last minute, they’ve been standing there waiting. When the shiny metal doors slide open automatically, fear begins to build up within his aching body. He has no place to store it and there is no possibility that he’ll be able to jump out of his bed with his wrist still chained to the bed with wheels that he’s come to realize. He is rolled in and the door closes. Neji can see a disfigured reflection of himself on the shiny doors as he sees several buttons to the side. The nurse presses a button, the number eighteen. Before Neji knew it or can even imagine, the contents in his body, his organs, blood, muscles, everything, began to weigh at the lowest point of his entire being. It feels similar to thrusting himself into the sky, jumping high and far as adrenaline kicks in. But this time, the movement is impeccably slow and almost nauseating. Neji can’t stomach the fluttery feeling, well, he isn’t sure he even has a stomach to be thinking of such thing. The pressure and fear cap his entirety and he immediately black out. And when Neji comes to, he realizes he’s still in the moving contraption. He faints once more. Upon the second revival, he wakes up to the door opening. Silently, he lets his peripherals read the people standing beside his bed. They seem unaware of his embarrassing blackouts. If anyone were to see me like this, I’d never be able to live it down.
The new floor is surprisingly fitting for VIP patients according to Neji. In Konohagakure, there is no such thing as a hierarchical classification system that discriminates the important from the not-so-important. Again, he searches for alternative routes out of this floor. There has to be another way out. I’m not going through that thing again. Just the mere thought of it sent a chill down his spine. They push him and his bed into a larger room from before. It is spacious, containing a black leather couch, a short-legged glass table, a family dining table, and things he believes to be unnecessary. It looks like a functioning home with the exception of a full kitchen but Neji couldn’t care less. A place this big is far larger than the meager home he had in Konohagakure.
“Do you need any other services?” the nurse asks him. He declines the offer. As the door close, the two men remain.
“About what I said earlier, um,” Officer Ken stands at Neji’s bedside with a guilty face. Both officers’ shoulders hang low, even their heads cast downward. Their hands clasp one wrist as the other forms a fist. With legs pressed as closely as possible, he can only assume that, evidently, they are guilty of something. However, Neji is unsure what it is that they are guilty of or what he has to do with being a Hyuuga. “What I said earlier was a joke!” Officer Ken laughs nervously. “I’m sure they’ve caught the wrong guy ‘cuz obviously you can’t be the suspect! Haha,” his tailored chuckle at the end awkwardly descends into silence.
Neji supposes this is the best time to be the one pressing for answers. If it isn’t for the agonizing pain in his body, he would have escaped this place in a hitch. “Where exactly is this place?”
Both officers looked at each other and offer Neji a compensating smile, “We’re in the city’s hospital.”
“What city?” Neji asks. This is definitely purgatory. I’ve no idea what a “city” is.
“Did you mean the address of this hospital?” Officer Ken asks. Neji merely stares at the man. He has no real clue what an address is. Konohagakure doesn’t have “address”. Should I just stay mute? “30450 Pippotori, Ha-chiku, Konoha.”
Neji is more confused than ever. He doesn’t understand the numbers nor anything after that except the familiar word: Konoha. He shouldn’t feel dumb because this world, this place that he dropped into isn’t where he is supposed to be, but Neji can’t help feeling unintelligent. He wants to leave but his chained wrists prevent him from doing so. Neji isn’t even sure if his legs are capable of moving. He sits there and ponders if he can use this newfound elitism the officers bestowed to him. Neji stares at both of the men standing cowardly in front of him. With just a move of his wrist, he “accidentally” makes it known to the other two of his bondage to the bed. Immediately, Neji conjures the most confident and stuck up tone in his life that he’s lived, “Remove it,” he orders them.
Officer Ji jerks and hurries to the side of the rail, “Uh yes! Let me just remove these handcuffs from you, sir!” The man pulls out a key and jams it into a tiny hole. Neji is in awe the moment it snaps open. He feels for his wrists and it agitates his body. A splurge of pain crashes to his chest and he grunts. “Oh my god! Are you okay, sir? Should I get a nurse for you?”
Neji waves the man off and the tension rises again. This time, Neji notably comments on it. For seven straight minutes, both men stand at the foot of the bed, refusing to leave. If there is more that he wanted to ask, his mind just can’t muster up the mentality to ask. There is one thing that he’s curious about, “I want to see outside,” he states.
“Ah, yes!” Officer Ken swiftly reacts. He’s been sweating in a cold room much to Neji’s lack of concern. He opens the curtains just as the sun disappears from the sky.
Neji looks out to the little white specks that uniformly shoots up to the sky. The silhouette of these buildings scrapes high up, higher than where he currently is in. Never in his life has a world such as this cross his mind. It is a shame that he cannot simply stand up to look out the window. He wants to see what the ground looks like to prepare himself for when he does escape this place.
Shikaku thunders towards the VIP room as his phone vibrates in his pocket. He pulls it out and sees that it’s his wife. Gulping hard, he silences his phone and knocks on the door. The knock catches all three of the occupants’ attention. The door swings open and by the frame, Neji sees a second familiar face. “Shikaku-san!” He is eager to talk to someone he recognizes. And though the relationship between him and the older man is nonexistent, surely Shikaku must have heard about him, right?
Upon hearing his own name, Shikaku freezes. He has no idea as to how this man who popped out of nowhere know his name. Shikaku’s eyes examine the young man sitting on the bed and he musters up the courage to walk towards him. All that he pays his utmost attention to is the man’s unique eyes. Confirming for himself, Shikaku lets out a shuddering sigh and he shoos his officers out of the room. He turns to the disabled man and immediately bows low. “I do apologize, sir. If there’s any wrong we’ve made while handling you, let us know.”
Neji stares in utter disbelief at the top of Shikaku’s head. It seems to him that Shikaku knows who he is but not himself. Neji stutters to form any coherent words but fails at every turn.
“Our team must have mistaken you for our suspect and injured you. I— we will not let this incident go by easily!” Shikaku firms up.
“I don’t- even-”
“I must contact the CEO, I’ve no idea how you managed to come here without any traces from overseas, but your uncle must know,” Shikaku immediately bends back up and he turns around.
Neji perks up as he hears that his uncle is also here, “My uncle?”
“I will be right back!” Shikaku paces out the door and closes it. He turns to Ken and Ji, “Make sure he does not escape.” Both men nod once and Shikaku hurries down the hall to the elevator. He slides into the stairwell and pulls out his phone. He just missed three calls from his wife. Shikaku sighs and bites his lips. He calls Inoichi instead.
Neji is left alone again with this new information. His uncle is here, Shikaku is here, and Tenten is here. He wonders if everyone he knew from Konohagakure is here as well. Neji shifts in his bed. Although he’s disregarded the pain in his body for a while, it is never completely gone. Constantly, it reminds him of how incapacitated he is at this moment. Neji can barely move and if he did, he cannot swallow the pain. He cannot simply strut out of this place and expect to be fine. Neji understands that this world isn’t the one he lived in. He’s unsure of the differences atmospherically but he knows that no one here has any recollection of their lives back in Konohagakure. All of their names are kept, oddly enough. Neji wonders why he’s been put here. If he is able to get hurt in this world, surely, he’ll be able to die here. This place looks and feels real, it is real but Neji knows this is not the world he’s supposed to be in. There must be a reason why I’m here. So, what could it be? Usually, things that occur happen for a reason. There is something to be learned and to be gained from. It is much like going on missions that Gai-sensei used to give to all three of them, Lee, Tenten, and himself to find their teamwork. But without them here, Neji feels lost. He has no way to find them in this alien world. Neji concludes the night. His head is overloaded and he is far too exhausted to think of anything other than to let his body heal.
Inoichi’s mouth runs dry even as he gulps in a glass of water from his own kitchen. No matter how much he drinks, nothing is relieving the stress that is pressured against his neck. Shikaku just called him to inform that their Commander, their Agency’s CEO’s nephew just got shot and is mistaken to be a serial murderer. Inoichi rubs his temple as he sticks the sticky note from yesterday onto the fridge. He picks up the phone and dials a direct line to the CEO, to Hiashi and his foot begins to tap. Inoichi is far beyond nervous. If not for the CEO not revealing his nephew’s profile to the nation, the whole problem will not have been mishandled. Inoichi walks out of the kitchen and goes into the living room. He turns on the television as the phone rings and immediately, the news reports on the case of The White Killer drawing to a close. “The suspect is apprehended and is currently undergoing an intense examination as we speak. Let’s go to Miss Moegi-” Inoichi switches the channel and another version of the same news pops up. His heartbeat quickens and he shuts it off.
“This is the CEO’s assistant,” a sweet soft voice echoes from the other end.
Inoichi paces around his living room as a sweat bead trails down his temple, “Hinata, let me speak to your dad.”
“He’s not available right now,” Hinata stares at her father sitting right next to her in the backseat. They are returning from a restaurant and heading back to the hotel room after a tiresome day indulging in meetings.
“Tell him this is very important, please,” Inoichi begs. He knows Hiashi is most likely around her somewhere. In the background, he hears his front door keypad making noise. He groans, Inoichi forgot that his daughter is visiting him today. As rarely as she does visit after his divorce with her mother, he found it not to be a good time for her to arrive at all.
Ino opens the door and steps inside. “Dad, I’m here!” she scoots in slowly as she carries groceries with both hands. The heavy door closes itself and locks up automatically. She can see him on the phone and her bright expression immediately wipes off.
“Yep! I’ll be there!” Inoichi yells from the wide living room, “I just gotta handle this thing-” he walks and disappears into the hallway. Ino hears a door close and she sighs. She can see now why her mother couldn’t stand her father.
Inoichi flicks on the light to his office and whispers into his phone. This information is not supposed to be revealed to anyone, not even his own daughter, “It’s about your cousin, Hinata. Neji.”
Hinata removes the phone from her ear and she stares at it in disbelief before carefully handing it to her father. She is flabbergasted. Hinata hasn’t seen her cousin since she was five. She mentally begins to count the years he’s been sent overseas. It’s been twenty-three years. Her father glares at her, he does not want to speak to Inoichi, “It’s about brother Neji, dad.”
Hiashi’s eyes narrow and he reluctantly takes the phone from his daughter and presses it to his ear, “I am on a business trip for a reason, Inoichi. If you haven’t gotten the gist of it, I wanted to take a break from you-”
“Neji is here,” Inoichi whispers.
“Why are you whispering?”
“He is here, Hiashi-sama!”
Hiashi’s jaw tightens and his heart plummets. There is no possible way that his nephew should be here. He specifically banned his nephew from entering this country for his own good. “That’s impossible, he’s not even due to return here in three more years.”
Inoichi cannot reiterate it enough, “Hiashi-sama, your nephew is here and he just got shot.”
The car immediately pulls to the side far from its destination. Hinata scurries to get out of the car and she runs to her father’s car door to open it. Out came Hiashi fuming from his ears. He blesses the night for being breezy and cold because it is the only thing keeping him from blowing Inoichi’s ears off. “Who shot my nephew?!” Hinata closes the door as she follows her father up the curb and onto a deserted sidewalk in front of a closed business building.
“Brother Neji got shot?” she meekly asks as she tries to gain any insight from her father.
Inoichi flinches as he pulls his phone away from his ear, “Um, one of our police detectives, Sir.”
Hinata watches on as her aging father angrily yells into the phone, “Is he alive?!”
“A-alive and well, sir,” Inoichi stutters at the receiving end. From his door, he can hear his daughter making a whole lot of noise in the kitchen. He knows he has angered her for putting his work before her but his job is on the line.
“I’m coming back in two days and you better make sure he stays alive!” Hiashi grips the phone tightly in his hands before smashing it to the ground. For everything he’s done to keep his nephew safe, he feels as if he’s going to lose his mind. Hiashi grumpily stomps back into the car as the chauffeur patiently waits for them. Hinata bends down to collect the chip before entering the car.
Inoichi finally releases the tension in his lungs and sighs the longest sigh he’s ever had. He believes that it is done and that all will be well. He steps out calmly back into the living room to find his daughter flipping through the channels from the kitchen island, “There’s nothing but coverage on this, dad.” Every channel blares coverage on The White Killer. Inoichi’s eyes bulge and he stares at his phone in his hand. He needs to make sure no one finds out who the “suspect” is. If left unchecked, Hiashi will definitely make his life hell. Ino glares at her father and he stares back innocently. “Don’t you do it-”
“I’m sorry, honey,” Inoichi dashes back into his office and the door slams closed.
Ino huffs and turns around. She rolls her eyes and stares at the fridge. If not for her dad being such a workaholic, she would have had a brighter childhood. Looking at the peculiar sticky note, she plucks it off from the fridge and reads it. A smile comes to her face and she begins to pull out the groceries she bought earlier. Her father rarely gets to eat homemade food.
The car floors back into traffic and Hinata tenses up. She dislikes when her father becomes angry because it will usually end in him berating her for not being good enough to lead the Agency. She tucks the phone chip into her bag and clicks on her seat belt as the car halts at a red light. Staring at the red light reminds her of the rumors that linger around her father. She believes that it might be true but she doesn’t have the guts to ask him. She doesn’t even have the guts to ask why her cousin had to study overseas for exactly twenty-six years.
“Call Inoichi and make sure Neji’s identity isn’t revealed to anyone,” Hiashi commands Hinata.
“Yes,” she replies. Hinata pulls out her personal phone, seeing as how her business phone just got shattered into pieces a few blocks in the back.
Hiashi tries to calm down as best as he can but it couldn’t. The whole situation does not make sense. He personally made a travel ban for his nephew, barring him from ever entering Konoha for the duration of his father’s imprisonment just to spare him of any hatred for his father. Hiashi believes that if anyone should bear his nephew’s hatred, it should be him for putting his father, his own twin brother behind bars to save himself. Doing so strained his relationship with his nephew but it’s inevitable not to. The more that time passes, the less that he receives calls and letter from his beloved nephew. Not even a decent picture of the, then boy, has ever made it to him. Hiashi misses Neji and he hopes he did the right thing to hide his father’s disappearance from him. “Have them send me a photo of him.”
Hinata dials up Inoichi’s number, “Yes, dad.” At the other end of the phone line, she discovers that is it busy. She sends a text instead.
Shikaku sends Officer Ken and Officer Ji back and replaces them with some of the CEO’s personal bodyguards at Neji’s door. He finally unmutes his phone and continues to see his wife’s missed calls increase. Shikaku scrolls up the missed calls and spots a text from Inoichi. It asks him to take a picture of the man that he’s just been promoted to keep an eye on for the next two days and send it back to him. Shikaku looks up from his phone and uncomfortably walks toward the VIP’s door while the bodyguards stare and scrutinize his every move. He blows out a sigh and opens the door. He will not say that he’s intimidated by them, instead, he’s more on guard of himself now that they’re here. If he makes any wrong move, the bodyguards might just relay his mistakes straight to Hiashi and get him fired. “Or demoted,” Shikaku whispers as he enters and closes the door. He peeks at the patient on the bed and sees that the man is asleep. Quickly, before the man wakes up and starts to question him as to why he is trying to take a picture of him, Shikaku tiptoes as close as he can with his arms stretched out in front of him. In his hands, he holds his phone with the camera lens zoomed in to its maximum. “All I need is a decent clear picture,” he breathes out. He will not take an extra step if he does not have to. Shikaku snaps a picture and he dips from the room without a second to lose. He sends it to Inoichi. Now, all that he has to do is call his wife back.
“30450 Pippotori, Ha-chiku, Konoha.”
[30450 Pippo street, Leaf district, Konoha(Country)]
Chapter 4: Escape
Neji learns where Tenten is. He escapes the hospital to meet her.
Even in dreams, Neji cannot escape the persistent mental image of the golden speck piercing through his body. Every moment that he lets his mind rest, the vision manifests and takes over what he sees. And for that, he cannot stand it. Neji does not understand it. With the rays of the sun beaming through the window, he finally sits up and tries to stay awake. Though he does not understand what his dreams mean, he sure is beginning to understand how this world works. No one knows him the way he knows himself and he does not know the version of himself that they know. Neji does not wish to act as if he is the person they think he is but he feels as though he must. Something inside of him digs at his core and it warns him that he isn’t put here to charade a version of himself. Every part of his body can understand this eerie feeling. The feeling of uneasiness and continuous fear sits at every corner of this hospital room. It never goes away and he wants to leave. But leave to where? Neji knows only one place to go.
The image of Tenten under a moonlit night as she yells incoherently to him never fades from his mind. She is the only other person that he recognizes here. And if Neji is to choose between staying here with Shikaku or Tenten, he’d rather choose her any day. He only needs to find her and for what is to come, well, Neji doesn’t know what to do next. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see. The door knocks twice before it opens. Neji watches on as Shikaku returns again. This time, he comes with someone else. “I am so sorry about what happened yesterday, Sir,” the new blonde man apologizes to him. He recognizes this man, it is Ino’s father. “I am the chief of the Police Agency in Konoha, Yamanaka, Inoichi. You must not know me but I know your uncle very well-”
“What is the purpose of your visit today?” Neji asks rather dully. Of course, Ino’s father doesn’t know him. The old man probably doesn’t even know him in Konohagakure.
Inoichi tenses up and he gives a quick glance at Shikaku standing beside him, “Ah, well I came by to let it be known that you do not have to worry about anything. We’ve taken care of everything-”
“Yes,” Shikaku chimes in, “down to the media coverage and to our subordinate who shot you.”
Shikaku’s mention piques Neji’s interest. I was shot? A vortex emerges in his head and it begins to mix his dreams and the entirety of his wound to his predicament being stuck here together. He is shot, hence him being hospitalized here. But from what projectile? That golden speck? It’s so tiny though. Neji cannot believe that such a tiny pebble can cause such disastrous harm to his body. He has taken on things worse than a little round ball. The last thing he let his body take on killed him, well, Neji isn’t so sure about it now that he’s here. Who shot me? His thoughts melt onto his lips. Neji lets his question slip from his mouth, “Who shot me?” The memory of meeting Tenten replays in his mind over and over again. She’s yelling at me and I’m yelling back, trying to activate my eyes and then I see her face lit by the light of the moon and then I— I just- he just blacks out.
“One of our detectives, Sir,” Inoichi discloses. “She and her team were in the middle of a stakeout on one of our cases and during the chase with the suspect, she mistakenly shot you instead.”
Neji is dazed at the new information thrown at him. So that was real? I really did get shot? By Tenten? He stares at Inoichi in disbelief with an expression emanating that of a dumbfounded child. Despite being hurt by someone he knows or just someone who he is helplessly clinging onto for familiarity, Neji still wants to find her. After all, it wasn’t an accident. She shot me because she’s mistaken, not because of anything else. “Where is she?” he asks.
“Huh?” Shikaku sounds as Inoichi’s posture straightens. They both tense up as Neji gets off the bed as his palm clings onto his chest. Inoichi takes a step to the side to allow the injured man to move closer to the window.
“Ah-” Inoichi clumsily announces his arrival to Neji’s question, “our subordinate. She um— where is she?” He follows Neji to the window, standing behind the man a few steps, “You don’t have to worry about her. We’ve punished her for this incident.”
Mapping out the route to his getaway is the most important task to do while the sun is out. Neji looks downward to the ground and compartmentalizes the perfect blocks of buildings as he listens to Inoichi. “What is the punishment?” He turns around slowly and emulates a refined dignity that he assumes the “Neji” in this world would have. After all, these men and those officers regard him highly even though he is clearly younger than them. Come think about it, what happens to the “me” in this world? Overseas?
Inoichi feels his spine lock up whenever the young heir looks at him. He quickly bends his back forward a few degrees to offer the mightiest of his respect. If Inoichi ends up angering him, it might as well be as if he just pissed off Hiashi. “We’ve settled to send her to a quiet place to serve the country.”
“Why?” Neji asks. The man’s choice of words is quite vague and misleading. “You’re planning to kill her?”
“What? No!” Inoichi immediately corrects himself. “Forgive me for my poor words, sir. We’ve simply sent her to Ame Village. She’s a very valuable asset to our police force. You see-”
“No need to explain.” There is no doubt that Tenten is someone valuable in this world or in any other world that she exists in. Neji stumbles around back to the window and looks at the cityscape. He manages to hide a shy smile from the two older men in the room. “I’d like to be alone.”
“Right, of course,” Inoichi says as he begins to back away. Shikaku’s eyes dart back and forth between the two of them before heading for the door first.
When Inoichi skips out of the room and closes the door, he and Shikaku both huddle together at the opposing wall, “Isn’t he scary?”
Inoichi nods quickly, “I can't believe he’s here three years earlier than expected.”
“And the CEO says he’s coming today?”
“Yeah, tonight,” Inoichi replies. They both stare at the two bodyguards standing on guard at the door, “please keep watch of him until the CEO arrives.” The two men in crisp clean suits nod to them in unison.
Neji backs away from the door after eavesdropping on them. “I knew it, this place isn’t a good place to stay. I’m being held captive here.” Now that he knows where Tenten is going, he will just have to follow after her. Neji opens the door and surprises the two bodyguards. They both stare at him as he did the same thing to them. From their feet to their heads, Neji analyzes the level of difficulty it will take to bring the two of them down. “Bring me my clothes,” he tells them.
“I’m sorry Sir, did you mean the clothes you wore when you get shot?” one of the bodyguards asks him.
“I want them here before nightfall,” Neji states as he begins to close the door, “I’m tired of wearing this.” He makes sure to give some sort of tangible reason as to why he’s making such a request. Neji shuts the door closed and turns around. He hopes that the “him” in this world is a jerk.
“Ame Village?!” Tenten holds the summation paper in her hands as her team captain hands her a cardboard box. She discards the piece of paper and swipes the box from him. “It’s deserted over there!” The officers who haven’t left the police station yet all turn their heads to her. Tenten did not have a care in the world for them.
From the adjoined desk that she shares with her team members sits Kiba and Shino at their respective desks. Kiba lays his head low with an arm cradling the back of his neck. It is as if he’s protecting it from an angry Tenten. He painfully pretends to write nonimportant notes on his notepad, trying to steer his team member’s anger away from himself. In the sidelines, Shino carelessly types away on his keyboard.
“Look, I’m sorry, Tenten,” Asuma tries to calm her down as she throws the folded cardboard box to the ground. “I know you will do well over there-”
“Captain, it’s not about if I’m gonna do well there or not!” Tenten shouts. She kicks the box towards Kiba’s chair and he flinches. “I’m worried about everything I’ve built here! If they send me over there, I’m never gonna come back, ever!” Tenten knows exactly why the higher-ups refuse to fire her even when they know that she is the one who shot their precious person. She has no inkling of a clue as to who this person is or why he is important. She did not even get a good look at him at all. The media coverage is on par to what she knows and it is a shame that they both only know so much.
Asuma pouts and he crosses his arms. There is an absolute truth to what Tenten says. The higher-ups, the person who makes all the choices for them, the one person who decides to send his sharpshooter to Ame Village punishes her to a remote place far from the capital. “But look, Tenten, if you solve this case, you might just be able to return back here-”
“Captain, I’m serious!” Tenten yells as she stomps to Kiba’s side to retrieve the box. She grabs it from the ground, “You know why nobody wants to take on this cold case!” Kiba inches away from Tenten as she comes closer to him. For the past two days, he’s been boasting about how they caught The White Killer. “Kiba what did I tell you?! I told you there was something odd about this!”
“At least you weren’t fired,” Kiba meekly replies, earning a death glare from her.
“Tenten, I promise you. Just lay low over there for a couple of years until this incident calms down,” Asuma tries to bargain with her before she engages into a brawl with Kiba. He can already see a similar fight in his head already from the last time they’ve fought. “You’ve got plenty of time to solve this case. Three whole years!” He exclaims as he pulls her from breathing down Kiba’s back.
Tenten shakes her head in denial and takes in a deep breath. She allows Asuma to guide her back to her desk to pack her stuff to leave. She supposes she can just write a resignation letter to the higher-ups but doing so means that she’ll have to begin again from the bottom. Doing so will not look good either to the general public now that her face is definitely all over the news coverage of her failed attempt in catching The White Killer. “There is a reason why no one wants to work on cold cases, Captain, especially this one. Besides, if they wanted to ship me off to some prehistoric village to detach my name from their branch, they could’ve done so without attaching the damn case onto my butt.”
Asuma rubs his temples with both middle fingers before forcing a smile to his young ex-team member. “If you can solve this case, everything that has to do with your failure to catch our suspect and the person you shot will go away, Tenten. Here’s a chance to show them your potential and raise the morality of our people by bringing justice to these old cases.”
Tenten stares at him with hollowed eyes, “You’re the one to speak about justice when you ran back here instead of being out on the job with Kiba and me, Cap.” She sighs and rolls her eyes. There is nothing that she can do but to take on the cold case and win back her position. Tenten turns around to open the box. She begins to put her desk utilities inside, “Maybe then all of us could’ve tackled Ame Village together,” Tenten looks back to Asuma with her puppy eyes. She deems that her pitiful charms will entice them to join her but knowing how dull she is, and remembering the countless failures that came with using them, she immediately dropped her face. Her Captain will never pity her for being shipped hundreds of miles to the countryside, but he will surely miss her.
“I’ll take care of these two while you’re gone,” Asuma tells her.
She gives him a defeated smile and blows off steam. Tenten’s hands touch the case file assigned to her as it lies on her desk. She picks up the bulging Manila folder and throws it in the box. “I suppose I should get going before it gets dark.”
“Nope!” Asuma slouched his arm over Tenten’s shoulders and pulls her toward Kiba. “We’re gonna go and eat out for the last time as Team Asuma!”
“Nah, I don’t wanna go,” Tenten replies. “I have too much to pack.”
“We can help you pack.” Tenten and Asuma turn to Shino. Shino looks up and switches his glasses for his shades.
Tenten scoffs and she gives in to her team’s assertiveness. Whenever someone is offering food, they all will go along. “Fine,” she replies to him. She is also feeling a little hungry herself. “But we can’t stay out for too long though. I have to get home to pack my things.”
“Kiba, get up we’re going!” Asuma taps his chair.
Kiba sulks and stands up shamefully before Inoichi enters through the door, “Going where?”
Asuma immediately lifts his arm from Tenten and they all stand up to salute him, “We’re going out to eat together, Chief,” Asuma tells him.
“You can’t,” Kiba instantly plopped back down to his seat to scribble on his notepad. Inoichi stares at Kiba’s actions before shaking the thought off. He is here for a reason and getting sidetracked isn’t one of them, “I just received the go to merge your team with Shikaku’s,” his eyes land on Tenten standing closely next to Asuma, “well, the remainder of your team. Anyways, his team needs a debriefing on the current case. I gotta head out with Shikaku. I trust you’ll do fine?” Inoichi looks to Asuma for confirmation.
“Yeah,” Asuma replies.
“Good,” Inoichi slides past them right back out of the police station.
Tenten merely goes back to cleaning up her desk. Asuma sighs as he pats Tenten’s back, “Don’t fry your brains while you’re over there, kid.” She hardly gives him a reassuring nod as her team steps out from their desks and heads to the elevator.
There are plenty more that Tenten needed to do before moving her entire life to the countryside. She stares at the clock and hurries to throw her folders into the bin. The evening sun will set faster now that she has a list of things to do. Letting her downcast feelings malinger for not being able to eat out with her team for the last time is a childish thing to do. There have been plenty of times that things did not go her way. Tenten hoists up the bin to the table and begins to throw her belongings inside. She still needs to finalize whatever she has at home.
Neji has been sitting on the leather couch for the last hour. Both his elbows lean on his knees as he bites on one of his thumb’s nails. He is nervous for his breakout. It’s been two gruesome hours since he’s asked for his clothes and the sun is going down faster than he wanted it to. Just as it crosses his mind that he’ll have to run out into the world with his hospital gown, there is a knock on the door. Neji hopes that it is not the other person, the “CEO” that Inoichi and Shikaku talked about earlier on the other side of the door. “Come in.”
In comes a rack of clothes with a woman pushing it from behind. Neji believes he’s just about done with this place. “Good evening Sir, we are not able to obtain your measurements nor were able to retrieve your former clothes. However, here is the finest selection of our handmade apparel,” the woman begins to blabber. Neji stands up and walks to the rack. He begins to sift through all the black articles chosen out for him. “Based on the description given by the inquirer, we’ve hand-picked several styles of turtlenecks of varying woolen fabrics in order to accommodate the chilly nights.” Neji picks out a soft sweater resembling the one he wore when he came here. Seeing its familiarity reminds him of the Shinobi war. The stylist glances down to what he picked and immediately shifts focus, “That is a Fall collection-”
Neji zones out her non-stop chatter and sifts through the coat hangers for any trousers that will allow him to be agile. He settles for a stiffer fabric instead and pulls it out. “-extremely clingy but breathable— oh, cargo pants-” The woman shifts her dynamics and continues onward, “That is a Noir Fall-”
“Where are my shoes?” Neji urgently asks. The sun is expiring soon and he needs to change.
“S-shoes?” the woman asks. Her rehearsed description for the clothes she brought in derails as her client mentions shoes. “I-I’m sorry we— haven’t-”
“Just leave,” he rushes her out. “Thank you.” The woman, befuddled, retraces her steps back out and reaches for the door handle. Neji listens for the door to close before rushing into the bathroom. He lurches with every move to slip into his new clothes before kicking the hospital gown away. Neji opens the bathroom door to find the sunlight barely keeping awake. He takes in a deep breath and heads for the door.
Before opening the door, Neji tries to calm his nerves by taking a short meditation. He has never done any meditating while standing until now. It didn’t work. Neji blows out cool air from his lungs and pumps himself up with energy. He knows he’s not ready to leave tonight but he did not want to be held captive any longer.
With his hands grappling the door handle, Neji turns it downwards slowly and languidly pulled it inwards. He finds the most logical way to take down the two men guarding his door is to catch them off guard and attack them before they can react. Internally, Neji is in bliss. Everything seems to be going the way that he wanted it to. Even without any type of shoes to shield his soles from the freezing marble floor, he continues to bask in the imminent escape. Everything is going as planned until the door creaks. Neji has only opened the door a mere hand’s length. The bodyguards snap their heads at him.
Just as the two men begin to make their first move, Neji immediately flings the door open. The bigger man’s eyes widen as he steps towards Neji, realizing what is going to come next. He expected the door to slam on his face. He is only half correct. Neji slams the bigger bodyguard’s hands down from trying to apprehend him. He kicks the man in the stomach with a forward thrust and feels his torso rip with pain. Wincing, Neji follows after the man who is backing out into the empty hallway. The bodyguard grunts and holds his stomach, having the wind kicked out of him. Neji slams the door closed on his way to the man cradling his abdomen. He grabs the man’s coat and uses all of his energy to throw the man head first back into his door. With enough force, the bigger man’s head pierced through the door. The man falls flat immediately, taking down the entirety of the door with him. Neji huffs; he didn’t think it will actually work since he hasn’t stretched nor believed he had enough energy to pull it off. The other bodyguard catches his partner’s immediate takedown in his peripherals and immediately flinches before realizing that his partner will not get up anytime soon. He stares at the person he is supposed to protect and keep watch. Nothing in the bodyguard’s client’s description mentioned anything about him being able to fight.
Neji can feel the aching pain from his torso spread and taper at his midriff. He glares at the younger man in black staring right back at him. Judging from the younger man’s body language, it looks to Neji as though the man wanted to fight but less than he wanted to run. Fear is in the man’s eyes and Neji has no time to risk letting the man fetch for help. He quickly hits the younger man’s neck with the side of his hand, knocking him out. Carefully, Neji settles and lays him down to the ground before making his way from the hall back to where he remembered coming from. There’s no way I’m getting in that contraption. Neji passes by the elevator and suppresses an incoming cringe.
“Sir, you’re not supposed to be out-” one of the attending nurses at the front desk tells him.
“I know that,” he replies. The woman’s jaw drops and she reaches for the phone. Neji turns to look at her before noticing her hand inching closer to the phone. He glances up at her, meeting her intense gaze. With one simple raise of his brow, he stops her action. The woman is speechless, afraid for losing her job but is absolutely enchanted in Neji’s ethereal beauty. She has never seen a Hyuuga up close in her entire life. Captured in the moment, though it is only a split of a second, she retracts her hand from the phone and watches as he leaves her sight.
Seeing the plaque indicating a flight of stairs, Neji looks to the door. He sees no handles at all except for a unique bar sandwiched horizontally in the middle of the door. He has no idea how to open this type of door. Neji looks around, turning left and right to find anyone who might just be near a door with a design such as his’ in order to observe how to open it. He is on a limited amount of time. With the few too many seconds spared to find someone to look at, Neji believes he will just have to break the door.
“Kana, can you please call the front desk on-” in comes the doctor that has been visiting Neji through the door. Without a moment to waste, he pulls the man through the door and slips through it before it closes. The doctor stumbles to his knees before standing up to make sense of what just happened. The phone rings and both he and the nurse looks at it.
“Floor eighteen,” Kana hesitantly announces as she puts the phone to her ear.
The doctor looks at her, unsure of who the rude man that just left is. He gasps, realizing that the man that pulled him down earlier looked like his patient. “Oh no,” the doctor dashes to the hallway to find two lifeless bodies lying on the ground. He makes a dash for the front counter. Before he can say anything at all, Kana puts the phone down, “The CEO is coming up.”
“Right now?!” the doctor shrieks.
Kana nods, “Through the elevator.”
Blood rushes out of the doctor’s face and he feels lightheaded, “Oh god.”
Neji storms down the stairs as quickly as he can. With every movement that he makes, it agitates his wounds. In three separate accounts, he finds himself hunched over the railing as he clings onto his torso. Neji gasps for air. The closer he comes to the ground, the more his body wants to give up.
Ascending the elevator stands Hiashi, Hinata, and four bodyguards. They’ve not a single session of sleep except for catching meager light naps in the car on their way to the hospital from the airport. Hinata tries to stay awake with a cup of coffee from the first floor’s cafe but even that cannot suppress her constant yawn.
“I can’t believe he bypassed the airport check. Get someone fired,” Hiashi states as they neared the eighteenth floor. He cannot loop his mind around to how his nephew made it back to Konoha.
Hinata hands one of the bodyguards her half-empty cup of coffee and clears her throat, “Yes, father.”
The elevator door slides open to find the front desk unattended. Hiashi looks left and right and draws suspicion. “This is how they run the country’s most elite hospital?”
“I’ll have someone fired,” Hinata states as she pulls her phone up to put in a call to the director of the hospital.
All six of them pace through the floor and intrudes on a crowded hallway. Hiashi stops walking and looks on as one of the bodyguards steps up to peek at the situation. He glances over the doctor and several nurses and finds his companions completely knocked out on the ground. “What happened here?” he asks.
The doctor immediately backs away as the nurses lift one of the unconscious bodyguards up onto a gurney. “He escaped. If you will just let me explain it to-”
The bodyguard halts the doctor from moving past him. “Do what you’re taught to do,” he points back to his lifeless companions on the ground. The doctor gulps and he gives up on paying his respects to Hiashi. He turns around to roll out the first man before the second gurney enters the hallway from the other end. The bodyguard dashes back to his boss, “It seems as if a brawl occurred.” All bodyguards immediately step forward to surround and protect Hiashi and Hinata. “The door is completely off its hinges. He’s escaped.”
“Don’t assume anything,” Hiashi corrects him. “Search for him.”
“Yes, Sir,” The first bodyguard collects the other three and begins to direct them throughout the floor.
“Wait a minute,” Hinata’s eyes bulge from her sockets as she lowers the phone in her hand. She stares at the commotion further in the hallway and watches as both bodyguards are rolled out down to the back elevator, “Brother Neji did this?” She turns to her father, “He can fight?” Hinata’s brows furrow as she tries to make sense of it all. Her father did not answer her question. From inspecting her father’s critical expression, she comes to the conclusion that he also did not know that Neji can cause dangerous harm. “I’ll return to ground level and receive backups. Brother Neji won’t be far-”
“Let them do their job,” Hiashi tells her as his eyes focused on the scene ahead of them. Hinata’s jaw tightens and she restrains her complaints about her lethargy. “We’re going to the control room.”
If Neji paid attention to his surroundings instead of the angry agony in his torso, he will have seen that he’s past the first floor. He descends down to the hospital’s underground parking garage and busts through the door. Neji is in shock at what he sees. Laid out before him is an array of either black or white, sometimes colored shiny boxes with wheels. They are large and empty on the inside, to Neji’s description. Neji tries to catch his breath as he keeps his hand on his torso. He is beginning to feel dizzy now that the adrenaline has expired from his body. Neji saunters lumberly past these elongated shiny boxes towards the opening at the other end where he can feel a cold draft entering.
“Sir! Watch out for that car!” Neji looks onward at the exit and finds a man dressed in a blue long sleeve waving at him. He resembles the same officers that interrogated him a couple of days ago. The man comes out of a tiny post, a booth, as Neji saw it, from the middle of the wide exit and begins to walk and shout at him. “Hey!” The man yells before blowing a whistle. It echoes loudly. “Hey! Hey!”
Neji feels a light bump on his right side of the body and breaks out of his initial dizziness and lightheadedness and turns his head calmly to his right. One of the shiny boxes as bumped into him. The officer stomps over and begins to yell at the driver, “Do you not have a rear mirror, Ma'am?! You could’ve run over someone with your car!”
Car? Are these huge things “car”? Neji moves on forward, learning that the shiny boxes have a name to them. And they move too. He peeks back to see the window roll down with the officer still shouting at the driver. And it holds people as well?
“But did I run him over, officer?” Temari asks as she puts on a shade of red lipstick.
“No, but you could’ve-”
“You gotta move, I have a date to go to,” she smacks her lips and stares at the officer before her peripherals catch a glimpse of Neji’s back. She is more interested in his long hair rather than himself.
The officer shakes his head in dismay and lets her off. If not for her idiot brothers always at each other’s throats she wouldn’t even be here and he wouldn’t have to deal with her. Temari backs out her car and goes straight to the parking booth. The officer turns to watch her as she gets out of her car and reaches in through the window to press the button to lift the barrier gate arm. “That woman,” the officer walks back towards his booth as Temari drives off, “she’s getting too comfortable.”
Neji watches as Temari drives off. He is astonished by the moving mechanism but it is not enough to keep him baited to the hospital. She sort of looks like Temari. Neji cannot confirm for sure. The car’s windows are heavily tinted. As the barrier gate arm comes back down, the officer reaches his ticketing booth. He notices that Neji is not wearing any shoes at all and it raises suspicion.
“Sir, why aren’t you wearing shoes?” The officer gently places a hand over Neji’s shoulder from behind.
Acting upon instinct, Neji immediately apprehends the officer’s foreign touch on his right shoulder. He grabs the man’s wrist with his left hand and turns around. Swiftly, Neji trips the officer, swiping both of the man’s feet with his own leg. Before the officer can even hit the floor, Neji presses his right hand over the man’s neck and applies pressure to it. He shoves the man down to the floor and knocks him unconscious. Neji hurries out of the entrance of the parking garage and hears men yelling. “Over there!” Neji looks back and finds men in similar clothes to the bodyguards rushing out of the elevator doors. He quickens his pace and applies a considerable amount of pressure to his torso. Neji can tell he’s bleeding again.
Brushing past people on the sidewalk, Neji tries to blend into the night crowd. He squeezes through a corner filled with people standing idly still as if they’ve nothing better to do. Little did he know, they are waiting to cross the street. Neji wedges past all of them and without paying attention to his surroundings at all, he steps into the street. A vehicle buzzes right past him. Neji stumbles, making slight contact with the car as it blares its horn at him. The sudden flashes of lights from the headlights of the cars blind Neji as he staggers to recover from the first brush of contact with the moving vehicle.
A ringing noise permeates through his eardrums as he carelessly spins towards oncoming traffic. The sudden encounter with the car scares him. Neji cannot think as clearly as he should, as he has been trained to do so. This world has its own rules to abide by and Neji cannot understand how it works. He bumbles onwards, grasping only that he must get away from the men chasing after him. Just as Neji somehow manages to make it four more steps before reaching the other side of the road without a scratch, he is curbed, swept off his feet, and sent flying mid-air. He has been hit by a car.
Everything that transpires after does not exist for Neji. He feels as if he is dead because he cannot move any part of his body. He cannot move his eyes nor blink. When he is launched up into the air by the impact, he cannot feel anything. And when he falls hard onto the asphalt road, he cannot feel any type of pain. However, Neji is fully awake. He is fully taking in all of this visual feedback and is storing it in his memories. He can see blood dripping from his visual range. He can see it pooling and running out of his body in front of his eyes as he lies on the ground. I’m dead. He is dead, deceased right upon impact. Does this mean I can finally return home? I don’t like this place.
Neji isn’t going to have his question answered. Before he can make sense of what’s truly occurring, the blood pool that is his’ begins to shrink in size, as if it’s being pulled back into his body. Neji looks on as he witnesses the blood drops that dripped down the range of his vision earlier beginning to float back up. It is at that moment that he realizes that time is reversing. In that split second of comprehension, his body lifts up from the ground. Neji’s vision blurs as he’s being spun reversely. He can see the car that hit him being pulled back under him. Neji’s eyes widen and he sees a familiar face in the driver’s seat between the blurs. And then, as if nothing happened, as if he is never hit with the car, Neji stands idly in the middle of the street as time draws to a halt. In a few seconds, the world will be active again and time will resume again. Neji understands now that what just happened is a time altering move. Someone or something has turned back time for him. It is apparent now that he cannot die in this world.
Chapter 5: Crossing Paths
Tenten saves Neji from the bodyguards, causing her car to be wrecked. Due to his predicament, she lets him stay in her apartment for the night.
Driving from the police station back to her apartment, Tenten can’t help but feel an intense bitterness gnaw at her core. She’d lie if she says she’s over about being angry regarding her predicament. Tenten rolls down both her driver and passenger windows to let the breezy wind ice her face. She can already feel her ears become heated just as her mind brushes over the cold case. There’s already a Cold Case Unit forming up, why do I have to be stuck with the infamous one.
Her eyes seamlessly pay attention to the road, to her surroundings, and to the flow of traffic, but her head is clouded with the near future that she cannot see. She is remotely fearful of her own future if she is to stay in Ame Village for the next three years. I’m already twenty-nine. Spouseless. Charmless. Too crude… She will be thirty-two when the three years are up. If she’s lucky enough to be sent back to the city by then, she might just have a chance at dating again. However, being the pessimistic person that she is right now, she is sure that she will remain stuck in the countryside until her forties. I should’ve worked just as hard on chasing my soulmate too instead of chasing my suspect. She sighs and allows for her mind to take a break from overthinking. Tenten lets the wind blowing through her windows carry her worries far away from her current task. She rarely has time to breathe and take things slow. Her line of work does not allow it. And so when it does come, as it does now even though it is briefly, Tenten spaces out. She cautiously drives the speed limit and looks out to the bustling night city streets.
I’ll miss this place. She passes by the congested sidewalk and food stalls. This hour is the peak hour of commute. Everyone is scrambling home, ordering takeout and whatnot, and plenty more. Traffic gets hectic and drivers become agitated. However, Tenten still loves to live here. She hates crowds and she hates having her time be wasted but it is the charm of the inner city that keeps her here. Her home is extremely diverse and multicultural. Respect and admiration are traded at every corner. No one steps over the line. No one wants to offend anyone, well, except for the imbeciles . Tenten breathes in calmly and relaxes while she drives. She will probably never be able to come back here.
Loudly from behind her, Tenten hears several car horns honking at her. She perks up and stares at her rear view mirror before looking at her speedometer. She is going five miles below the speed limit. The driver flips her mood entirely and she floors on the gas. “Prick!” she curses. Just as she steps on the gas, the car in front of her immediately brakes. Red lights flashed before her eyes for a split second before the car zooms off. Even so, it makes her slam on her own brakes, causing the car behind her to honk at her even more. Tenten curses at the fleeing car in front of her, “What the hell are you breaking for?!” She grips the wheel in anger as the honking continues.
“Do you even know how to fucking drive?!” the man in the car behind her yells out from his window.
Tenten presses on the gas out of anger. Her wheels skid and she zooms forward fast. “I hate this city,” she loves this city, just not people like the driver behind her. Tenten looks back at her rearview mirror again to give the driver a glare he cannot see. From her peripherals, she swears she sees a woman in the middle of the street just a couple of feet in front of her. Tenten’s eyes dart back to the road and she shrieks. She has only just three or four feet to brake before she hits the woman. She can’t even swerve left nor right because she will either slam into the car next to her or run over pedestrians waiting at the corner of the street to cross. Tenten shuts her eyes closed and hits the brakes hard, locking them. She can hear a skid sound drill into her eardrums.
The car halts just a few yards from the point of impact. Tenten’s heartbeat skyrockets to oblivion. She peels one eye open and looks at her windshield. There are no cracks whatsoever. “Oh,” she is stunned. Surely she believed she must have collided with the woman but as she inspects her car, the only thing that looks damaged is her side mirror. It is bent. Tenten reaches for it and pushes the mirror back into place before stepping out of the car. The fault isn’t her’s if anyone is to blame her for vehicular manslaughter but she can’t help but be even angrier than before. Tenten almost could have killed someone after all. She slams her car door loudly and walks to the woman in black crouching on her knees on the ground. “Ma’am!” Tenten yells to her. She notices that the woman isn’t wearing any shoes. “Are you out of your mind?!” Tenten can hear the driver that honked at her press his button to roll the window up. She glares at him before standing over the woman on the ground. “Are you okay, ma’am?”
Ma’am? Neji gasps for air as he applies pressure to his torso. I am not a woman, Tenten. Neji stumbles up and he feels her help him up.
Tenten is surprised when she holds the woman up with her hands on the woman’s arms. Her frame is quite larger than the average woman’s and she is quite bulky as well. The moment the woman stands to her feet, Tenten begins to feel small. The woman towers over her small frame and she suddenly feels the urge to humble herself for fear of being overly aggressive. Tenten tilts her head forward as she continues to hold the woman up. She wants to establish eye contact, “Ma’am, are you okay?” The woman’s hair shields her face. Tenten guides her to the curb to sit.
Neji turns away from Tenten and instead keeps his eyes out for where the bodyguards are at. He wonders if his ruckus has stalled them from getting to him. His eyes scan above the bystanders’ heads and he spots a tall bald man. There’s no mistaking it that the tall man is one of the bodyguards chasing him.
Tenten stares at the woman’s odd behavior, “Ma’am,” she watches the woman’s profile for a split second. Tenten too begins to look around to where the woman is eyeing. “Are you being chased?”
The bodyguard immediately turns away and ducks down. In Neji’s peripherals, he can see that Tenten is mimicking his actions. He turns his head to her and so did she. For a split second, Neji swears he saw his teammate in this otherworldly woman. Every minutia of her expression that she makes to the way she looks at him, Neji swears that he almost mistakes her for “his” Tenten.
The bodyguard ducks and he pauses, refusing to move. Slowly, he raises his finger to his earpiece and presses on it, “Do not proceed.”
“What’s wrong?” the voice from the other end asks.
“The client cannot be contained. He’s in a police officer’s grasp,” the bodyguard assumes a casual walk away from the scene. He can feel his client’s eyes bearing holes at his head. If they are to apprehend the client now, the client’s identity will be exposed. “We’re heading back.”
The woman turns to Tenten in a snap, finally revealing her face to her. Or to him? The first thing that stands out to Tenten is the woman’s apparent protrusion at her neck. Or is it at his neck? Tenten instantly releases her tight grip on the person standing next to her as they both make eye contact, “You’re— a dude-” she is speechless.
“I’m a guy,” Neji tells her.
“With long hair,” Tenten spouts out. She cannot keep her eyes off of his own. The more her pupils linger on the ethereal man, the wider they become. She blinks and slowly inches away from him. She has never seen anyone, any guy being able to pull off long hair like the person standing before her. Tenten blinks again, letting it sink in the surreality of his eyes. They are a pure gray under the poorly dim light. Could he be a Hyuuga? Or is he just some weirdo? Tenten knows that gray eyes exist. She also knows that the Hyuuga’s eyes are documented to adopt several kinds of colors. However, she cannot confirm anything for now. With her mind fully back into professional mode, Tenten clears her throat, “I do apologize, sir. But are you alright? Are you being chased?” The driver that honked at her before begins to back up to move around her parked car in the middle of the road. Tenten notices him and pulls out her badge at him. She shakes her head “no” to the man. “Excuse me for a second,” she tells Neji. She is going to have a word with the man.
Neji watches as she walks over to the man. Still, he keeps pressure to his wound as he sees her knock on the man’s window. Neji wonders what Tenten does for a living in this world for her to be so belligerent and contentious. He has never forgotten how demanding she was when she yelled at him before shooting him a couple of nights ago. My teammate will never act like this. He takes a step closer toward her vicinity just so that the distance between him and the bodyguards remain established. He does not know why they stopped chasing after him but he believes that it might have to do with her, the woman whose appearance is identical to his teammate back in his world.
Tenten treads back to her unidentified person as she rests both hands on her hips, “So, are you hurt?” she asks him. She glances down to his torso and raises a brow, “Look, I need to move my car if-”
“I’m fine,” Neji breathily replies to her. For a spare moment, he is caught in her voice. Neji isn’t sure if he’s being too aware or if something else is affecting him but he clearly realizes how willingly attached he’s becoming to this world’s version of his teammate. He knows that this woman does not know who he is and he knows that she is not the reliable comrade he remembers, but he can’t help but want to stay near her. Even though this woman has shot him before, something within her still tells him that she has the nuanced personalities that his teammate uniquely has. Neji told himself earlier that he would rather choose to stand beside Tenten rather than Inoichi and Shikaku and he’s going to follow his words.
“Do you need to make a report?” Tenten asks him. She did see a group of scattered men in black suits dispersing earlier. Tenten is afraid that the man standing in front of her might be in trouble.
Neji stares at her in confusion. He is not following what she’s saying, “About?”
“About the men chasing after you,” she answers.
“I do,” Neji replies right away. He did not know why he said it so confidently. Never once has his eyes ever left her. He cannot lose sight of her.
Tenten steps back and stares at his bare feet. She feels pity for the daring man with ridiculously gorgeous hair. He has no right looking this good with such long hair. Her eyes fling back up to his gray eyes. “Well then, I might as well take you to the police though I’m off duty,” she offers to him.
Is she the police? Neji will never believe that Tenten of all people will want to work as a civil servant. Then again, shinobi are the same, aren’t they? He is lost in his own thoughts again.
Tenten turns around and stuffs her hands in her puffy jacket. She begins to walk away from him, expecting him to follow after but he did not. Tenten looks back to him, wondering why he will not accompany her, “Are you coming or not?” she asks. “Are you going to make the report?” He does not respond. Tenten slightly chuckles and veers back around to him as she pulls her index finger to rub her nostrils, “I can’t believe this.” She believes that he distrusts her validity of being a cop.
In truth, Neji just did not know what else to do. She is inviting him presumably into that contraption that has bulldozed him several times to death. Neji can’t believe it took him more than one death to time his impact to her car just at the right angle so that he’ll be able to live. Furthermore, retaining the same set of memories of being hit by her car over a dozen times isn’t the most pleasant.
Tenten walks right back up to him and pulls out her police badge wallet. “You know I’m quite famous,” she boasts, though she’s being known for her failure of catching The White Killer and for shooting the wrong suspect. Tenten raises the identification card to his face and points out the words on the plastic card. She can see his eyes moving from left to right before they land back to her. “Do you trust me now?” she asks. “I’m not some police imposter.”
Neji nods and sees her glance at his feet again. He mentally rolls his eyes and begins to follow after her now that she’s made her point apparent. Neji is still unsure if he’s physically and mentally prepared to get into the car. He keeps his eyes on her back until they begin to roam upwards to the loose twin buns on her head. He finds it fascinating that she still kept her distinct hairstyle even in this world. Neji’s eyes widen as he sees a cocky truck pull into the lane where her car is parked at the last second. It crashes into her vehicle. A deafening screech sounds from Tenten’s mouth, he is sure of it. Neji stands there un-flinched as the raucous collision makes Tenten belt out her horrendous howling.
“My car!” Tenten dashes over to the wreck and begins to rub the ball of her palms onto the sides of her forehead as her fingers grabbed at her fringes. Today is her most unlucky day. She got demoted, kicked out of her city, she almost killed a guy, and now, her most comfortable way of transportation just got ripped from her. She just bought her car a month ago. So much for my savings! “Oh my god!” Tenten rounds the truck to the driver’s side in a heated manner, “Dude! Get out of your car!”
Neji comes to the conclusion that he shouldn’t treat her as if she is his teammate. He decided early on that he mustn’t pretend to be the “Neji” that exists in this world, though he did use it to his advantage to leave the hospital somewhat. However, it becomes apparent in that second, in that one second where she turns her attention away from him to address the car behind her that Neji realizes that between her and him in this world, there is nothing that attaches himself to her. Their established relationship as friends and as teammates do not exist in this world. To her, they have met by pure coincidence. To her, she probably wouldn’t want to see him again. She probably doesn’t even know the countless times she’s killed me tonight. Nonetheless, Neji wants to stay beside her. She is the only familiarity that transcends his world to her’s. How can I make you let me stay beside you?
Hiashi stands over the police officer monitoring the hospital’s control room. The police officer replays the same clip again for the nth time. Hinata suppresses a yawn as she stands beside her father. She’s seen how her cousin broke out of the hospital for the seventh time and she’s beginning to lose her will to stand quiet. All that she wants is to return home back to her lovely bed and sleep the entire worth of her paid vacation. She did not need to be here. But despite it all, she needed to champion over her father.
“Send me a copy,” Hiashi demands from the officer. Hinata snaps awake at her father’s new instructions.
“Yes, Sir,” the officer replies.
Hiashi turns around to leave, prompting Hinata to open the door for him. He is deeply befuddled with the appearance of his nephew. Not one person has called him regarding how his nephew made it here and it only becomes stranger now that he’s seen the footage. Though it has been plenty of years that he’s lost contact with his nephew, he is still able to reach the people that he ordered to take care of him overseas. Hiashi made sure to have his nephew be given the finest education there is over there and made sure that no harm comes to him for the twenty-six years that he’s banned. It is for his own good. It's for his own good. Hiashi repeats the sentence in his mind like a mantra. Never has it cross his mind that he’s being too harsh on his nephew. His brother has personally asked him to spare his nephew the shame of bearing the name of a murder’s son and that is exactly what he’s done. “ If Neji does not know what happened, if he simply stays far away from all of this, he will be safe, Hiashi,” his brother’s words come to him again. Thinking of it again after several years of trying to bury the horrible memories, Hiashi is overcome with stress. He tries his best to keep his feet planted to the ground but his body plunders anyway.
“Father!” Hinata tries to keep her father up but his dead weight makes both of them falter. The officer stumbles out of the control room and immediately calls for help.
I've been trying to protect you from the truth, Neji. Hiashi’s eyelids flutter weakly as he wakes up to lights flashing above him. He is staring at the hospital’s ceiling lights. On his side is his daughter clinging onto the railing as she runs in pace with the nurses. Hiashi should be worrying for himself, but he’s petrified for his nephew instead. He fears that he will fail his brother’s request. “Hinata,” Hiashi calls to his daughter.
“Yes, Father,” she replies instantaneously.
“You have to find him and send him back.”
“Miss, you’ll have to stay here,” one of the nurses told Hinata.
Hinata lets go of the rail and offers the man a quick glance before slowing down to a complete stop. She blows a hair strand from her mouth and watches as her father is pushed into a separate room. She doesn't know whether she should panic or not because all that she feels is the lethargy eating at her body. In this moment, Hinata’s hatred for her father dispels. She worries for his well-being but at the same time, she couldn’t help but feel relieved that her father’s scrutiny on her is gone. Hinata proceeds to sit on one of the hospital hallway benches to catch her breath. She can fall asleep in this instant if she is offered a blanket. However, Hinata knows that innocent gestures such as being given meager items will never come her way. Being in this position is so lonely. The CEO’s assistant can never rest.
With her head hung low, Hinata closes her eyes to rest for a while. Yet, not even five minutes have passed and her phone rings. She sighs and digs for the phone in her pocket. “This is the CEO’s assistant.”
“Miss, please connect me with your father,” the bodyguard from earlier kindly asks her with a tint of urgency in his tone.
“My father isn’t available,” Hinata replies, “relay the message to me.”
The other end of the phone goes mute for a few seconds before she hears his voice again, “The client cannot be contained. By sheer luck, he’s made contact with the detective that shot him. Our men had to fall back in case the detective pursued us.”
Hinata stands up hastily and begins to walk back to the elevator, “She’ll be gone by tomorrow, why did you not catch him?” She calls for the elevator.
“There is a chance that our chase might be relayed to her superiors, Miss.”
“I am her superior,” Hinata’s voice thickens just as the elevator doors open. “Where is the client now?”
The bodyguard pauses and Hinata can hear the sound of a computer mouse wheel is scrolled. She enters the elevator and presses for the ground floor. She's going home alone. “We’ve left the scene but we’ve taken note of the detective’s plate number.”
“Track the car and bring the client back to me,” Hinata ends the call and shoves the phone back into her pocket. Her worry for her father is minuscule but she still needs to play her role flawlessly. After all, she will be the most viable person in line to take over her father’s company. Merely trying to accomplish what her father cannot do such as containing her cousin will put her in a better position to strengthen her worthiness over her own sister. Hinata’s hands' balls into fists as she thinks of what to do with her cousin. From the footage, Hinata knows that her cousin will not be an easy person to catch. She cocks her head as she descends the hospital floors. She is willing to settle on shedding blood if it means that her cousin will not have a chance to prove he’s a likable candidate to be the CEO of their company. Too many things have changed brother Neji. The world is too demanding from me. So please forgive me for our rude reunion.
The taxi car vrooms behind Neji as he stands beside Tenten with a large box in his hands. In front of them stands an apartment building several stories tall. In the backdrop of the night, the building seems shady to him. The white color of the building feels pasty, almost moldy and unbearable to look at. Neji never thought that Tenten would live in such a small building.
The entrance did not look like an apartment entrance at all. It is either a comfy bookstore or a tiny library wedged in the middle of a moderately quiet street. Down the pavement is a neighborhood convenience store, unlike the sprawling chains that overtake family-owned businesses. The area is far from being pretty. It’s architectural design trails far behind from the sleek modern penthouses and skyscrapers that exists just a few miles north. That is the area where Neji is first introduced to when he comes to this world. He didn’t really expect to see that even in the prosperity that is in this world, there are still places that aren’t up to par. Neji can only describe this place as- unusually homey.
Neji follows Tenten as she steps through the sliding doors of the bookstore, he has made his decision to call it so. The old yellow lights emitting above them invites them in but the cluttered disarray of books on the floor deters him. Looking at the messiness of the bookstore, Neji believes that if it is this unbearable for him, the customers must not exist.
“Oh, who is this, coming at this hour?” a familiar muffled voice boasts from behind the shelves.
Tenten squeezes past the stacks of books on her left and makes it to the back side of the store as Neji promptly follows after, “Not a customer, Kakashi. It’s just me,” Tenten sets down her box and turns to Neji. Neji stops walking as she halts. She takes the box from him and settled it on top of her’s. “Do you mind staying down here?” she asks him. He does not respond.
Kakashi rounds the shelf and walks towards them with a book in hand, “Why didn’t you take the actual entrance to my apartments?” His eyes immediately land on the tall person follow after his tenant, “Oh, who’s this fine lady you’ve brought over?”
Neji is not impressed with being constantly mistaken to be a woman. Tenten picks up both of her boxes and uses her foot to pry the sliding door open, “He’s a guy, Kakashi,” she turns to Neji, “anyways, stay here. I’ll be back.” She steps through the door, “Neji, this is my landlord, Kakashi. Kakashi, this is Neji. Don’t eat anything from him,” she gives a dead stare to Neji and he nods. Neji watches as his only lifeline disappears from his sight. Instinctively, he holds his torso again. The wound on his torso bleeds but he hasn’t felt the blood through his shirt yet.
“You’re Neji, huh?” Kakashi says to him.
Neji turns around to meet eyes with the man. He is surprised to see that even now, the former shinobi teacher still finds a way to cover his face. “Kakashi-sensei,” his tongue slips, adding the syllable mistakenly. Neji immediately shuts his jaw and he refuses to say any more. I can’t be mixing up these people too irrationally or else I won’t be able to cover my tracks.
“Hoh, I haven’t heard that name in years,” Kakashi states as he glances down to the peeking toes of his tenant’s guest. “You must’ve been one of my students.”
“I’m not,” Neji replies.
Kakashi suspiciously stares at the young man standing before him. He squints his eyes at Neji before pulling his opened book up to his nose, “Well then,” he begins, “I won’t question why you’re barefoot but I want to know-” Kakashi steps up close to Neji, leaving only a foot between the two of them, “-what makes you think you’re good enough for my number one tenant?”
“What?” Neji’s face scrunches up at Kakashi’s inappropriate question.
“Are you a beggar?”
Neji’s right brow twitches and he scrutinizes the old man. “No, I am not.”
“Is that odd?” Neji asks rather straightforwardly.
Kakashi is taken aback. He leans back and steps away from Neji, “Of course it’s odd. It’s quite cold and you don’t even have socks.”
“Socks,” Neji repeats after him.
“Nevermind that— Neji,” Kakashi returns to his comfortable chair behind the counter. He does not approve of Tenten’s new boyfriend at all, “You’re weird. I don’t actually believe my tenant thinks you’re worthy to sleep with her tonight-”
Neji is blown far beyond any dimension that he’s currently in at this moment. Is Kakashi insinuating that I am — that I’m Tenten’s boyfriend? That I’m here to sleep with her? Neji finds the entire ordeal to be repulsive. There’s no way I would ever think of her in this way. She’s my teammate — well, she’s - Tenten is not his teammate, not in this world at least. However, it does not negate the fact that Neji has not one single inkling of sexual attraction towards this woman who just so happens to resemble his friend. Neither way, he has never thought of Tenten, whichever one, to be forming romantic relationships with. “I’m not attracted to her,” Neji clarifies.
“Right,” Kakashi leans back on his chair and puts his feet onto the counter as he flips a page. He is listening half-heartedly to Neji’s “excuse”.. Kakashi is preoccupied with counting the number of times his tenant has brought over men to her home. Was it three? Four? He can’t seem to remember. Kakashi adjusts his face mask just so that the cold air will not irritate his lungs, “my tenant didn’t even invite you up to her home. It’s evident to me that you’re either too old for her or too weird.” Neji appears in front of him from the bookshelf and leans on the side of it. They both made another long stare. Kakashi notices his peculiar gray eyes under the yellow light and he raises a brow, “Clearly, you’re both.”
“I’m only seventeen,” Neji states to the older man.
The corner of Kakashi’s eyes crinkles as he takes another good look at the man. Taken aback, he begins to raise his book over the entirety of his face. I should just stop. Assuming things is a past time hobby for Kakashi. She knows what she’s doing. And yet, he keeps finding himself worrying for the woman. Living in a rundown bookstore that just happens to house apartments in the back isn’t the most appealing setting for a young woman like his tenant. Kakashi believes that this might be the most probable reason as to why the men never returned. “You’re seventeen?” he asks Neji.
“Yes,” Neji crosses his arms at the older man with a sour taste in his mouth.
He pouts under his mask, though Neji won’t see it because of the opened book hiding Kakashi’s face. “You don’t look seventeen.”
“He does not look seventeen,” Tenten punches in the code to her apartment before pulling the door open. Not at all. She carries the boxes inside as the door closes on itself and sets them to the side of the entrance hallway. Tenten hurries to her barren living room to transfer her clothes strewn about on the floor to throw into her bedroom. Ever since she has been assigned to The White Killer case, she has never had a chance to live and sleep normally. To her, the living room is closer than her bedroom. It is more convenient to crash down the moment she arrives home than to take the few extra steps to sleep in a separate room. “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this,” Tenten huffs as she shoves her wrinkled clothes into her bedroom with her foot. She still cannot believe she’s extending her house to a teenager.
It was just an hour ago that Tenten interrogated the teen after she called for a taxi after her car was towed. However mad she was, she couldn’t direct it to the boy whom she almost ran over. It wasn’t his fault and she couldn’t do anything more for him except to take him to the police station to make the report. And so with her two boxes jingling in the trunk of the taxi, she tried to break the awkward ice between the boy and her. In the beginning, Tenten did not know that he was seventeen. She did not know his name nor why he was being chased. Zilch. However, it wasn’t even her who spoke first. It was him.
“I don’t want to make the report,” he told her.
Tenten raised a brow at him as the taxi slowed to a stop on a red light. “Why is that?” she asked him, “You risked your life running away from them. What is the problem?” He did not reply to her and he couldn’t look her way at all. Tenten did not know what to do. She couldn’t force him to do anything he did not want to do. He was an adult, at least, that was what she believed at that time. “Then, what do you want to do?”
She noticed that his ears perked when she asked the question, however he remained mute for a couple more seconds. He looked out the window and the only way Tenten could see his expression was to watch his reflection from the glass. “I want to go to Ame Village.”
“Ame Village?” she confirmed with the boy. He gave her a slight nod. Tenten was astonished. “You’re from Ame Village? Or-” She did not expect him to turn his attention to her and at that time, she was still charmed by his inhuman looks. Tenten cleared her throat and bobbed her head back to stray away from his gaze. She instead peeked out of her own window. “If that’s the case then I should just drop you here,” she told him, “since you’re not going to the police station.”
“Why?” he rapidly asked her. Tenten snapped her head back to him and stared at his intense glare. Judging from his knitted brows, he seemed almost afraid and weary.
“Because,” Tenten began, “you’re a grown adult. Find your own way to Ame Village.”
“But I’m seventeen.”
Tenten recalls having her mind blown into pieces when the teenager made it known of his age. She remembers asking him for his name but she only receives his first name. Tenten flips her futon to the backside and threw her only blanket on it. She returns to her bedroom door and clicked it closed. The teenager has told her that he wants to return home and that he needs to go to Ame Village. And if Tenten is heartless as she described herself, she will have dropped the kid at the police station and be on her way. But she didn’t. Tenten made herself an obligation to take him to his home. Pacing back to her entrance door, Tenten steps out of her apartment to go and retrieve the teenager.
“You don’t look seventeen,” Tenten hears Kakashi giving a version of his interrogation to the poor teen.
“He’s seventeen, Kakashi,” she enters the back door and nudges Neji’s upper arm. “Did he give you a hard time?” she asked him.
Neji shakes his head no, “No, he just told that he used to be a teacher.”
“Yeah, it didn’t last,” Tenten tells him. “Everyone knows what happened-”
“I’m going to raise your rent if you tell him,” Kakashi lowers his legs from the counter and puts his book down. “Please don’t go there.”
Tenten gives her landlord a thin smile, empty of care for the old man’s reputation. “No need to, I’m getting relocated out of here so for the month’s notice, um, I guess I’ll just pay for that.” She nudges Neji again, “C’mon kid, let’s get going.”
“Are you really leaving, Tenten?” Kakashi asks her. “If you leave, I won’t be able to advertise my building with your infamous name anymore.”
“My rep’s not too good these days, Kakashi,” Tenten replies as she steps out of the bookstore, “don’t stay up too late and stop giving out overdue candies to kids when they pass by. I don’t want to get a complaint from some mom when I’m gone.” Neji cringes as he follows Tenten out the store. He never will have thought that in this world, this is how Kakashi is.
Kakashi gives a tiny salute, “Where are you moving to?”
Faint and muffled, he receives his answer, “Ame Village!”
Kakashi frowns and the answer stumps him. “Ame Village?” Immediately, he stands up to find a pen.
Ten or so minutes has gone by quietly. Tapping the end of the pen to the tip of his nose, Kakashi stares blankly at his binder paper. He doesn’t know what to write. It’s been such a long time since we’ve met, old friend. His hands begin to move and swirl, jotting down every word of his mind. Since you’ve gone, the bookstore became unkempt. I can’t really keep up with cleaning it all day. I am sorry. I still can’t move on from what happened. I could’ve done more to help you but it drove you far away. I hear that one of my students is doing well there. Please take care of her well. Kakashi’s hand freezes and he begins to tap on little dots to the last period. “What else?”
“Hey, Kakashi,” Kakashi looks up from his counter and sets the pen down. From the back door stands Tenten. “Do you have any old clothes I can give to the poor boy?”
“Huh?” Kakashi stands up and holds the paper in his hands. “Old clothes?”
“Yeah,” Tenten replies. She watches as the old man folds the binder paper neatly before tucking it in a yellow envelope. “The kid only has the clothes on his back.”
Kakashi walks up to Tenten and hands her the envelope, “We’ll make an exchange.”
“Okay,” she takes the envelope from him. “Who am I sending this to?”
“To my friend,” Kakashi paces back to the front of the bookstore to lock the door and flip the “open” sign, “he’s in Ame Village.”
“Oh wow,” Tenten comments as she looks at the plain envelope. “Is there an address?”
“The police station,” Kakashi shoos her out of the back door and proceeds to step out as well. “Just ask for Maito Gai.”
Tenten only has one towel and she willingly let Neji use it. Locking himself in her tiny bathroom, he is in a state of pain and confusion. Neji doesn’t know when either will end. He doesn’t know when he’ll start to understand how this world works, how her world works. The closest resemblance to the places he knew in Konohagakure is in her home. Neji is somewhat comforted that he can recognize familiar objects such as the brush on her sink counter, or the toothpaste, or the toothbrush she gave to him earlier. Her mirror is like any other, her shower is not too different from those back at home. Neji takes off his sweater to examine his wound. It has stopped bleeding a while ago but the blood has soaked through his bandages. He concludes that he cannot shower.
Neji knows that he’s creating a whole lot of stress for Tenten. However, he doesn’t know what else to do. He does not want her to worry about the things she shouldn’t have to. She does not need to know that he’s injured nor does he want to bother her to buy gauze and bandages for him. It isn’t necessary, he concludes. Neji ended up washing everything else other than his torso and chest. Doing so made him spend two entire hours inside her bathroom. When Neji steps out of the bathroom wearing a set of Kakashi’s old long sleeve and sweats, he finds her sitting on the living room floor with her elbow leaning on the only table she had. It is a short-legged table and sprawled on top of it are scattered white printed paper.
She glances at him while she’s on the phone, “Give me a second,” she speaks to the phone. Neji places the towel on the bathroom door hook and catches her pointing to her futon. “Sleep there for tonight, kid— yes, at 8 am tomorrow. Can you do that?” she returns to speak to the person on the phone.
Neji comes down to his knees and removes the blanket. Why is it so thin? The weather is harshly cold and yet her blanket is only an inch thick. Neji turns back to steal a glance at the clone of his teammate. She’s not cold at all . His eyes trail down her profile to her feet and then back up to her hands scribbling on something. It is then that he hears a low humming from the home. Well, of course, the heater must be on. I should rest, my mind is too tired. He begins to lean down to her pillow.
“Wait! Hold on!” he hears her holler to him. Neji looks at her once more. She is no longer on the phone and she is coming to him with a large item in her hands. “I don’t want you to wet my pillow.” Tenten hands him her hairdryer, “Dry your hair first.”
“What is that?” he asks blatantly. She just handed him an object he’s never seen before.
Tenten raises both brows in bewilderment, “A hairdryer,” she tells him, “do you know how to use it?”
“It’s my first time seeing this— hair dryer,” he responds.
“Oh,” Tenten sounds. How can anyone not know what a hairdryer is? Tenten kneels down behind him and turns the tool on, “Did you live under a rock or something?” Neji jumps slightly at the sound and turns his head back to her. He quickly then feels her index finger press against his cheekbone to turn his head back forward. “Use it like this,” she instructs. Neji can feel warm heat blowing against his scalp for a few seconds. Tenten turns the hair dry off and hands it to him, “Here. Try it out.”
With the hair dryer in his hand, he flicks the button upwards and feels the heat hit his face. It is unlike anything he’s ever experienced before. Immediately, he drops the tool to the ground to cover his face. “It feels just like fire,” he tells her. Before he can give a second try, she offers to do it for him. And just like that, he is reduced to a mindless child. Did I live under a rock? Would Konohagakure be considered a rock? I wish you’d know so you could tell me. Neji feels as if his heart is at an unease even with her but less than when he is alone at the hospital. I don’t even know myself.
“I’ll wake you up early tomorrow before the moving truck gets here, so get enough sleep kid,” her voice breaks his internal conflict.
“Oh, okay,” he responds just a tad slower. It feels weird to him to have someone so familiar to him tending to his hair. Neji has never allowed anyone to mess with his hair back in Konohagakure. No one has ever pulled on his hair as roughly as this “Tenten” has. Actually, no one has attempted to use hot air to dry his hair either. The closest thing Neji can think of in conjunction with the subject is when Tenten, my Tenten , asked to trim the ends of his hair. He recalls never giving her a response and she simply lets the subject drop. But now, just thinking about her and the memories of her in the presence of her “replicant”, he misses his comrade. Neji misses Tenten purely for the sake of missing her presence. The “Tenten” in this modern world may look and act like his comrade, but their presences are different. Neji misses Lee too. He misses his teacher and plenty of people in his life.
When the hot air ceases to fire, he is allowed to lay on her pillow. This Tenten’s scent evidently makes itself known. He has no choice but to breathe in the unusual aroma.
The eyes may close, but the ears cannot. Neji tries to sleep but he cannot. His heart keeps bickering with his brain. In addition to that, the woman is walking everywhere around him. Neji can tell that she’s cleaning her apartment. After all, she is taking him to Ame Village tomorrow and she is also moving out tomorrow. With the barest of the minimum items to make a home homey, she’s packing it all up around him. And when the commotion dies down, Neji believes that now would be the best time to sleep away from his worries. However, he cannot even do that. Silently and carefully, Neji sits up after a good hour has gone by without her walking about. He finds her asleep, her arms cushioning her face as she leans over the short-legged table. The hollowness that dwells within his body prompts him to move closer to her. It is then that he understands why he cannot sleep.
Neji soundlessly makes his way to her. He too leans his chin to the table as his arms cushion his face. At that moment, he lets the sound of the heater become the sound of the waterfall, of the rivers, of the training grounds where birds chirp, and in the cold season, he lets the sound of the heater be the swirling wind and the chiseling blades of grass. Neji feels his heart plunder. It is hurting more than the wound on his torso. He misses her.
In the serenity of her sleep, he begins to imagine her face, her hair, her clothes onto the sleeping person in front of him. Taking in the minutiae of the woman who is grown, Neji finds his mind traversing time. So this is how you’d look like when you’re old, Tenten. This person in front of me is twelve years older than you, but she still looks just like you. She breathes just like you. She sounds just like you. She acts just like you. For a moment there, I believed that she is you, but I know I’ll be a fool if I do believe in that. Calmly, slowly, his heart eases and his heartbeat rhythms a gentle drum. Neji keeps his gaze on the woman’s occasionally fluttery eyelashes. He does not know why looking at her is making him tiresome.
In this world, there is someone like you. I’m sure there is someone like me here. I don’t know why I’m here, but like this, keeping her close to me, though it makes me miss you, I feel as though this is why I’m here. This feeling, this undeniably comforting feeling that exudes from me whenever she’s here beside me, I feel as if this is the right path to find my reason for being put in this place. Neji wants to find that reason. He wants it badly because he doesn’t want to be here any longer. These people aren’t his people. This “Tenten” isn’t his Tenten. This world is a world that he cannot truly have. The old memories dominate over everything here. No matter how kind this sleeping person is, he cannot detach her from the memory of his teammate. Neji knows he does not belong here and he wants to return home. Even if I’m alive and well here, I can’t seem to let my memories of the past go. Neji’s vision of Tenten sleeping before him blurs as his eyes focus elsewhere. Even though I know that I’ve perished back home, it is where I want to be. Seeing people like you living well and breathing well, it hurts me that I cannot be there to do the same. He wants to leave, he wants to get out, yet he can’t even do that on his own will. Dying here means nothing. It brings me nowhere closer to home. If you were me, what would you do, Tenten? Neji cannot even imagine encountering his teacher or Lee. Doing so will hurt more than it is hurting him now. He doesn’t need to see anyone else. As long as this “Tenten” can bring him to his reason, he’ll tread on this path without needing to know that other significant people in his life are here. All I need is you.
“What. The. Fuck.”
Neji’s eyes refocus and he realizes that she’s staring right back at him. His eyes widen just as he feels the table lift up. She is flipping the table before he can even jolt. Neji straightens his back and feels his torso ache. His reflexes are a little too slow when he’s injured. Before he can even back away, she lunges at him. Neji cannot believe how agile Tenten is in this world. In the blink of an eye, she’s pinned him to the ground, her left foot stepping heavily on his right arm as his other arm is being held down by her right arm. Her left-hand wraps around his throat and all that he can see, that she wants him to see is her menacing face. Neji’s calm heart explodes into disarray as she speaks again.
“What the fuck are you doing.”
Chapter 6: Who Am I?
Neji's wound gets infected, causing Tenten to take him to the hospital. When Sakura confronts Tenten about Neji's wound, she recognizes him from the academy.
There has never been a moment in his life where Neji’s life is in Tenten’s hands, literally. To be more precise, he’s never been pinned to the ground and is having his life squeezed out by anyone, especially Tenten. Her question floats in his mind. He even sees her words drifting over her head as she hovers over him. But instead of answering it, Neji is more concerned about the amount of stress she’s putting on his wound. Nonetheless, he won’t be able to answer anyway while she’s choking him.
It is by chance that she felt a cold breath of air brush over her face. Tenten doubts that it is the heater crumbing above her blowing cold air to her. And so she opens her eyes to find that the new stranger she lets into her home is staring directly at her, invading her security bubble, and making her far beyond comfortable. It is why she is pinning him down to the ground now and it is why his face is turning red. Tenten surrenders her grasp on the teen. Perhaps she is being too harsh on the boy, but it did not negate the fact that he’s stunned her.
Neji coughs as both his hands caress his neck. He chokes and gasps and makes the effort to find his breath. All the while, she is kneeling, sitting on her feet as she waits for him to explain himself. Neji knows that. Yet, he can’t seem to find a plausible excuse. Neji struggles up to a sitting position as he steals a glance from the older woman. His eyes quickly avert and he mentally forces himself to stop holding his torso, fearing that she might catch on to his injury.
“You better give a good explanation or else I’m going to make you sleep out in the cold, kid,” Tenten threatens him. She needs to sleep in order to wake up early tomorrow for the moving truck.
Neji is never good at pouting, nor acting adorable and shameful at the same time when he’s done something wrong because, in reality, he is never wrong nor be caught in the act of doing something wrong. And when he is wrong, he won’t childishly pamper to others to receive a lesser punishment, he’d mutely accept the consequences. Neji does not want to sleep out in the cold, he’s not prepared to do so especially with these thin clothes. He wished he wasn’t so ignorant of Lee whenever Lee acts childish in the midst of accepting his wrongdoings. He wished he could have learned a few things about his comrade’s naivety before being put into this world. Doing so would have made it easier to fool this “Tenten” glaring back at him. He knows she has a weak heart for “kids”, though he definitely does not feel like one. I wish I could cry easily or just look— pitiful like Lee. Milking out sympathy isn’t one of Neji’s honed abilities. He truly wishes that even without looking heartbreaking pathetic, he will still be able to convince her to understand him. Therefore, without Lee’s charming piteous acts, Neji merely tells her the truth.
“I have a friend, she looks just like you,” he confesses a meaningless truth, “and I-” Neji meets with her gaze and it takes all of his breath away. It is merely the truth but why is it so difficult to say it? To say that I miss her.
“And you what?” he hears her hassle.
For the first time in his life, as it is now the first time with everything that he’s experienced while in this odd world, Neji stutters hard. Whenever he looks at Tenten, the woman in front of her, he cannot arguably say that he’s missing her right now because she’s there. She’s here right in front of him. She’s tangible to him and she’s the mirror of his teammate back at home. He shouldn’t have to miss her but he is. He is pining for what isn’t here in this woman, for the memories that his teammate should definitely have in this body of her’s. For all the familiarity that this woman exudes, no matter how safe he feels in her presence, nothing can compare to having the real person beside him. If there is a person who can recognize me as myself, as the genius Hyuuga Neji back in Konohagakure, I wouldn’t be feeling like this. Neji loses hope whenever he concludes that no one will know him as a shinobi. He is tired of being alive in a world that isn’t his’. He doesn’t want to think about having to miss those who are living. He doesn’t want to feel regret for sacrificing his life. If I return now, everything will stop. I’ll be in my coffin, dead, and senseless, and I won’t have to feel like this.
“And you what?” she repeats her question again.
Neji let’s the last of his breath from his lungs escape. He’s been holding it inside in the initial stump, “I miss her.” He misses her dearly. Seeing a mirrored version of his teammate right in front of him doesn’t make it any better. In fact, it makes him miss her even more. Saying it now aloud, Neji misses her more than ever. “Simply because you resemble her so much, I couldn’t help but look at you.”
Tenten is taken aback; she is flattered but not without suspicion. “Is that so?” she asks him. Tenten crosses her arms and scrutinizes the teen. He returns a shy nod before averting their eye contact. “Are you bullshitting me?”
“What? No,” Neji fixes his eye upon Tenten again, firming on his answer. “I’m not lying.”
“Is she even real?” Tenten speculates that his “friend” might just be fake.
“She’s real,” Neji tells her. “Not in this world, but far away.”
Tenten feels like a prick now that he’s said it. With the teen’s solemn expression and monotonous voice, she is hit figuratively in the guts. Tenten’s eyes roam candidly to reduce the tension between the teen and herself. Indeed, she’s too harsh on him. “I’m sorry I— I didn’t know that she’s passed.”
Neji’s brows furrow and he knits his thumbs together, he did not mean to misconstrue his words to her. But what can I do now? She believes that Tenten is dead and she’s empathizing with me. Is this a good thing? Do I let her continue to believe that Tenten is dead? Neji clasps his hands together tightly and gulps. It is a good thing. Only I know that Tenten isn’t dead, I’m sure she’s alive and doing well. All I need to do now is to keep my mistakes from this woman in front of me. Neji intends to keep the subject on his “deceased” friend rather than on himself. “No need to apologize, I just— it’s my fault for scaring you.”
“Oh no, no! It’s fine! I— look, kid, it’s okay,” Tenten tries to reassure him. She uncrosses her arms and runs her hands up her face and over her fringes. Tenten sighs and shakes her head in dismay at the situation. The day has been long and she’s too tired to talk with anyone anymore. “Alright, just go back to bed,” she tells him.
Neji watches as Tenten stands up. He does as he’s told to and crawls back to her futon. With the thin blanket over his body, he pretends to sleep. However, his torso still bothers him. Drifting into a light slumber is what he did since the pain never leaves.
Tenten peers over her shoulder back to the boy shifting on the futon as she opens her fridge. She releases all the adrenaline from her and shuts her eyes closed. Tenten bites her lower lip and looks at her fridge. It is barren of food with the exception of a two-day-old salad and an unopened can of soda. She closes the fridge and opts for a cup of water instead. Today’s got to be the worst day ever.
Feeling a nudge at his shoulders, Neji opens his eyes slightly to find Tenten kneeling beside him. “Get ready, Neji. The moving truck is here.” He closes his eyes briefly before opening them widely. It is then that he begins to see her room spin around. Neji props himself up, feeling his head become heavy and dizzy. He could make out her empty living room and even see all of her stuff be shoved to the entrance hallway. Neji grimaces, feeling nauseous as he stands up to go to her bathroom. When the door closes, Neji stumbles to her sink. He does not understand why he’s becoming feverous. Neji begins to unravel the bandages on his torso. He groans when he sees that the wound is infected. He frowns, not know what else to do. A knock sounds at the door and Neji listens, “Don’t be in there for too long. I’m going outside so wear the shoes I set out for you and come down to the truck when you’re done, kid.”
“Alright,” Neji manages to say. Even in this vulnerable state now, he cannot stop worrying about losing Tenten. He rushes bandaging his torso again and then cleanses his face. For everything that occurred after he steps out of the bathroom, Neji can barely remember the details well. At the end of it all, he finds himself sandwiched between the driver and her at the front seats of the moving truck. She closes the door loudly just as the driver turns the car on. If Neji isn’t sick at this moment, he would have been more apprehensive about getting into a new vehicle. The taxi that he sat in yesterday night is nothing compared to sitting in the truck now. Neji feels all the more nauseous with the windshield in front of him. He can see everything in front of him now that he’s sitting in the front. Neji closes his eyes in an attempt to shut out the moving images before him as the truck begins to move. He still hasn’t gotten used to being moved around by things. Traveling in any way other than his own two feet is quite weird for him. Seeing how slow they move in comparison to his own speed back in Konohagakure, Neji feels as though these cars are not useful at all. However, he has to settle on being transported because he obviously isn’t fit to move on his own. Contending to this Tenten’s lifestyle will make him seem less suspicious than he’s been to her from yesterday.
Neji wishes that he can stop thinking for just a minute. With his eyes closed, he leans his head back to the headrest. It is then that he feels her arm reach over his chest. Neji excuses her actions, letting her do whatever she pleases to him. He knows that she will not harm him again. More specifically, he just did not have the mental strength to do anything other than to bask in the darkness that comes with closing his eyelids. Neji even fears that if he’s to look around and move too much, he will surely vomit. He can feel her hand moving a strap to his lower waist, right over his torso before a click is heard. Neji lets out a groan. He realizes that he hasn’t put the seatbelt on himself. Then again, he’s only been in a vehicle once. He believes that he will not be bothered for the rest of the ride but he is wrong. After a few minutes of trying to keep his head still, his stomach growls loudly. Neji props his head up and opens his eyes, glaring at the scene in front of him. They are barely entering the busy city streets again.
“You must be hungry, kid,” Tenten hands him a rice cake. "I didn’t know when to ask you if you wanted food since you look grumpy but here.” Neji looks down to his hands as he feels the square block of rice cake placed into his opened palms. He holds onto it weakly, seeing that it is wrapped with clear “tape”. Tenten scavenges through her plastic bag of convenience food that she bought earlier and pulls out an onigiri. “I didn’t have time to stop by for actual food but these will keep you full for the ride.”
He takes the wrapped onigiri into his other palm before nausea escalates. Neji is hungry but he does not want to eat. He holds onto the two food items in his palm dumbly before parting his lips, “How long until we reach there?” He desperately needs to know how long he has to deal with being stuck in a moving car while being sick at the same time.
Tenten tilts her head at him as she munches on shrimp chips, “I don’t know, depends on traffic, kid.”
Neji did not like her answer at all. He stares blankly at the onigiri and rice cake in his hand before the smell of fried shrimps clouds his nose. Great, now I’ll have to stop breathing from my nose too. The pesky fragrance irritates him. Neji spaces out as his eyes stayed on the food in his hands. He does not know how long he can keep the contents in his stomach from coming out. Before he can even think about giving back the food to her, he sees her hand creep into his field of vision. Neji’s focus snaps back in and he sees her prying his fingers off from the rice cake.
Tenten takes the rice cake from Neji’s hands and peels off the plastic wrap, “These are my favorites.” She reveals a corner of the rice cake and places it back into his hand. A sweet smell combats the shrimpy aroma that pervades Neji’s senses. He’s surprised that he hasn’t vomited yet. “Try it,” she exclaims. Neji breathes in hard. Ever since he’s entered the truck, his chest hasn’t risen much. He raises the corner of the rice cake to his lips and takes in the delicate sugary smell. Neji bites into the piece, expecting it to be extremely sweet. However, it is barely sweet at all. “Chewy, isn’t it?” she asks him. Neji nods, almost letting out a tear from the struggles he’s leaping for her at that moment. He couldn’t even chew it, let alone swallow it. Rice cakes are the wrong type of food to eat when sick, and yet, here he is forcing down the initial bolus just so that she’d stop worrying for him. “Eat up!” Tenten resumes to her chips as she looks out of the window to her city.
When Neji manages to fight back the urge to vomit, he comes to the conclusion that he cannot take in anything into his body. With the dizziness persisting in his head, Neji clings onto the two items in his palms and leans his head back to the headrest. He closes his eyes and tries to sleep away the travel.
Tenten turns her head forward, watching as traffic jams ahead of them. She then glances down to the food that she gave to the teen. He is no longer holding onto it. Instead, it is merely sitting in his palms, jiggling and moving about carelessly to the rhythm of the vehicle. Tenten glances up to him and sees that he is asleep again. She frowns, realizing that the boy’s profile is too surreal to belong to a teen’s. This kid looks older than he claims now that he’s in natural light. She raises a brow at the almost nonexistent stubbles at his chin. He looks like he’s in his twenties. Before she can speculate further, his head begins to slip from the headrest. It is leaning down towards her shoulder. Tenten immediately removes her right hand from the bag of chips and slaps her palm onto his forehead, pinning his head onto the headrest. The slap is loud, earning a questionable glance from the driver. She disregards the older man’s look and instead focuses on the heat radiating onto her palm. Oh goodness, he’s having a fever. Tenten carefully adjusts Neji’s head onto her shoulder before looking at the food in his hands. He barely ate anything. Taking the rice cake and onigiri back and throwing them into the plastic bag, Tenten resumes on snacking on her chips.
“I didn’t know you were married,” the driver finally gets his comment off of his chest as the traffic continues onward.
Tenten flashes the driver a disapproving glare. “What? You think that we’re-” she gives a quick glance to the teen leaning on her, “that we’re married? Oh, come on, mister. Just look at him.”
The driver steps on the brake and looks at Neji. He returns a simple nod, “Yeah, and I see that he’s your husband. Boyfriend?” he asks.
She scoffs, “Does he not look like a kid to you?” The driver shakes his head “no”. Tenten scrunches up the top of her shrimp bag and throws it into the plastic bag, “He’s a teen, mister. And I’m-”
“I know who you are,” the driver announces. “You’re the detective that shot a civilian and lost The White Killer.”
“Isn’t that great,” she retorts.
“No, it’s not,” he responds. “I’m a big fan of yours.” Tenten cocks her head at him before looking forward. The driver grins widely, “I wish I can get an autograph of Detective Kiba but you’ll do. I can get an autograph from you, right?” Tenten sits miserably at the side of the front seat. She gives the man a defeated nod before remembering that she shouldn’t move as much. The kid’s giving me so much unnecessary trouble.
Hinata walks down the curved stairs with determination. She did not want to stay idle and wait for others to perform her duty. Just as she returned home yesterday night, she entrusted her personal bodyguard, Kō, to overtake the information the lower bodyguards obtained from the police detective and lead the operation to retrieve her cousin. For now, she’s waiting for a call. She paces across the foyer into the dining room where the housemaid is setting breakfast. Hanabi hears her sister’s footsteps and sets down her phone onto the table. She can see her sister rounding the corner of the table to sit across from her; it is her designated seat. Hanabi makes eye contact with Hinata just as the last dish is placed on the table. She offers no expression to her older sister and instead lets her eyes speak for themselves. The hostility is palpable with every second that they are in the same room.
“I thought today is your day off,” Hanabi comments as she picks up her chopsticks.
Hinata lowers her gaze, breaking both of their tensions, “I’m a busy person.”
“Right,” Hanabi stings right back as she brings the bowl of rice to her palm. “Pay a visit to father.”
“I’ve other things to do,” Hinata says as she takes the spoon and shoves a mouthful of rice into her mouth.
“You couldn’t even pretend to care for dad,” Hanabi reaches for a cluster of bean sprouts, “couldn’t even stay until he came out of the emergency room.”
Hinata swallows down the rice hard with a spoonful of clear vegetable soup to soften it up. She ignores her sister’s criticisms. “Do your job,” she replies, “if you really want to take over the company, you’ll have to try harder.”
Hinata’s phone vibrates and she immediately picks it up. She glances up to her sister averting her eyes away from the phone screen. Hinata stands up and leaves the table as she raises the phone to her ear, “Did you find her?”
Kō stands in front of the bookstore where the police detective supposedly lives, “She’s moved faster than predicted. If we’re lucky, she might still be in the city.”
Hinata takes a look at her watch on her wrist as she climbs up the stairs, “It’s not even ten yet.”
“Traffic is heavy at the moment, should I send men to locate and pursue them?”
Hinata stares back down to the foyer, looking to the direction of her sister, “No. Come pick me up in fifteen minutes. We’ll do this alone.” Hinata enters her room and closes the door. She walks into her closet and begins to sift through her clothes. It will be a good day. A good day for a reunion.
Serenity is all that Tenten pleads for, yet, she can’t even have that. It’s been three times now since the last hour that the teen leaning against her has been waking up. And every time that he’s done so, Tenten eyes his every move just to make sure that he won’t be vomiting anywhere near her. He complains that the ride is too bumpy, that it’s knocking his brains, his equilibrium off, that it’s simply a recipe for disaster. Tenten knows how he feels, she’s been there several times as a kid. At the end of it all, he’ll return to leaning his head on the headrest before slouching onto her shoulder.
The weather in the countryside isn’t faring better for him either. Tenten cracks open her window to let in the fresh air. For about a good twenty minutes, the mustiness within the car is filtered out until the sky begins to mist. She had to close the window in case it damages the driver’s interior. Tenten looks out of her window to the muddy untouched rice fields as they finally passed the welcome sign to Ame Village. Finally, after eight gruesome hours, she’s arrived at her impending doom.
The environment does not suit her at all. Back in the city, the sun is always out. Sometimes the sky will be blotchy and sometimes it will rain, but it is far better than what the village is offering her. It feels depressing here to Tenten and she hasn’t even stepped out onto the ground yet. She sighs as a light fog settles on their path. The rice fields become covered in a cloudy haze and the sunshine is no more. The narrow road that they are on becomes lonelier when Tenten glances out to the front of the car. She dislikes the fog because it impedes her sight. Many things are hidden in the vastness of the floating blanket and there is nothing in her body that can be wired to make out anything beyond what she sees. She’d rather prefer the dark, at least that way there would be light to illuminate what she cannot see. Tenten turns her head to her passenger window, shifting her shoulder just a tad, and causing the teen to let out a short groan. She rests her elbow on the side of the door and props up her chin as she looks out to the unchanging flatness of the countryside. There is no character in the landscape at all and it bored her to death.
Tenten spaces out as soon as her window becomes a gray mass. Fatigue is overtaking her eyelids. They droop once and then twice. Tenten’s eyes light up the moment she spots a figure standing just a few yards from the main road. Her eyes strain to identify whether the figure is a real person or not. And it is. Tenten’s spine hardens as a chill shoots up her vertebrae. Did it just wave at me? Driving slowly due to the thickening fog, she takes this chance to roll down her window completely. A massive blow of wet air swooshes inwards, causing the driver to adjust his jacket. Tenten is completely enthralled at the eerie person who has turned towards her after she passed it. She unbuckles the seatbelt and pokes out her entire upper half out the window. It is certainly a person with light hair.
“Hey detective, can you close the window please,” the driver calls out to her.
Tenten’s gaze lingers on the disappearing person before she sits back down. Well, she tries to but she couldn’t. Tenten turns her torso around to find the teen completely slumped over her seat. The moment she leaves the window, the driver closes it. Tenten completely forgot that he’s leaning on her just earlier. “Hey, kid,” she nudges his shoulder. He does not respond. Before the car hits any bumps, Tenten holds both of the teen’s shoulders and pushes him back up to his side of the seat. She tries to manage both him and putting her seat belt back on. When Tenten hears the click of her seat belt locking into place, she finally addresses the teen, holding his face in her palms, “Neji.” He did not even flinch when she thrusts his head back onto his headrest. Tenten feels her heart drop. With one of her hand holding his head to the headrest, her other index finger bends slightly. She raises her finger up to his nostrils. She is afraid that the fever might have killed the kid. Oh, thank goodness. Tenten retracts her finger and slowly lowers his head back down to her shoulder.
Neji’s head should have stayed on her shoulder, but it didn’t. Tenten did not expect for him to stray from resting on her shoulder. After all, he’s done so for the last eight hours. His upper body topples, his weight spills forward suddenly, and Tenten quickly tries to catch his fall. Of course, she knows that he will not fly anywhere because he is strapped securely, but it scared her. “Hey, Neji,” she calls to him again, “are you alright?” She gains nothing from him again. It is now that she realizes that his hands are contorted uncomfortably across his lap. Her breath hitches as she holds his upper body portion in midair. Calmly, Tenten lays him down to her lap. She purposefully raises her right leg just enough to cushion his head. Tenten tucks his long strands of hair back behind his ear as his side rests on her thighs. She feels his forehead again. The heat has worsened.
Recalling the number of times he’s kept his hand at his torso, Tenten contemplates whether it has any meaning. Thinking about it doesn’t do her any good as curiosity takes over her. She moves her left hand over his stomach, daintily pressing her fingers for where she remembers seeing him hold his torso. Her touch is nowhere near that area and she’s already felt a stiffness by the lasts of his ribcage. Tenten’s eyes stress and she ponders if it’s gauze that is bandaged around his torso. Quickly, she lifts up his shirt to reveal a lightly stained blotch of blood at his lower right quadrant. Tenten’s heart drops, “We need to go to the hospital.”
Tenten wonders if it’s just her luck that she is stuck here at the hospital. For over an hour, she has been sitting in the lobby couch with her boxes beside her as she waits for the conditions on the teenager. She has looked around the hospital from where she sat, confirming that it isn’t hectic nor busy at all. To be more honest, she is the only person who entered through the hospital doors ever since she came in. Instead, she is greeted with patients looming around as they pleased while the red-haired woman sitting behind the desk clicks away on her keyboard. Tenten crosses her arms before directing her eyes to the old round clock hanging on the pale yellow wall across from her. Time is passing by but if she is to judge it only from the scenery outside, she’d think that ten minutes as just passed by. The seconds tick by whilst the gloomy hospital lobby remains quiet. Tenten is brought back to her misery again.
It all started because of that dumb idiot busting out of the locker. Why was he even yelling “white eyes”? Tenten wants to cry. She did not even have a moment to herself alone to mourn for the wasted efforts she’s taken in order to get to where she is. And that dumb kid, too. Running around, lying that he’s not hurt. Getting me all worked up. Is he even a kid?! She did not believe that he is one. Even after being told from his own mouth, Tenten still did not accept his age. In her years running around apprehending delinquents, she has never met such a robust “teen”. She keeps addressing him as a kid but it doesn’t hurt her to hypothesize his real age. After all, everything about the “boy” is already too strange. Adding her suspicion to his age barely means anything.
Tenten looks up and is met with a young and pretty woman. The most striking attribute is her pink hair, “Yeah?” She stands up.
“Hi, I’m sorry about the wait,” she greets Tenten, “I’m Dr. Haruno.” She reaches out her hand.
Tenten promptly takes it and firmly shakes her hand, “Hi, doctor, I’m-”
“I know who you are,” she cuts in, “you’re the new face in town, our new detective.”
“I— am,” Tenten replies cautiously.
“We’ll get to know each other in the near future, but for now, I have some inquiries regarding the patient that you brought in. Please follow me,” she directs.
Tenten trails after the shorter woman as she’s being led to a room, “What seems to be the problem, doctor?” she asks. She steps inside the room as the doctor slides the door closed. It is an examination room.
“Call me Sakura,” Sakura pulls the clipboard from the countertop and hands it to Tenten. “Here.”
Tenten stares at what seems to be an assessment of Neji’s conditions. Does she expect me to know what is written on here? “What is this?”
“What is your relationship with the patient?”
Tenten is taken aback by the sudden question. “That’s quite invasive. Why do you need to know?”
“Because I believe that his wounds might have to do with you,” Sakura says. “Tell me, how are you related to him?”
“His wounds?” Tenten is flabbergasted, “he has more than one wound?”
“Wait, hold on!” Tenten throws the clipboard onto the chair and her eyes strain on the doctor, “Why do his wounds have to do with me?” She knows she hit him with her car but she doubts that is the reason why his torso is bandaged.
Sakura crosses her arms defensively and tries to remain calm, “He has a gunshot wound.” Tenten’s face contorts beyond prettiness. Sakura picks up the clipboard and shows the scan of the patient's chest, “Lower right quadrant. The bullet ricocheted all throughout his cavity before returning to the point of origin.” She sets the clipboard onto the counter. Sakura stares at the taller woman with contempt. “I don’t want to assume that you’ve shot him, but if you are carrying a gun right now, I’ll have to-”
“What kind of doctor are you?” Tenten questions her. “The law prohibits everyone except the police force and military from obtaining a gun. And as the law-abiding person as I am who also happens to serve the force,” she glares at the woman, “I conceded my gun to the Leaf Police District per protocol before coming here.”
“NO,” Tenten interrupts Sakura, “what kind of assumption was that? Is this how you people over here are?” Sakura returns the glare. She lets the worked up woman continue. “I just met this kid yesterday and he said he needed to come here and so I brought him here. That is it. That’s all there is,” Tenten crosses her arms as well mimicking Sakura, “the relationship between us?” Sakura nods, prompting her to answer the question. Tenten’s lips contort at the woman’s guts. Her left eye twitches. “We’re— strangers.” Yes, strangers. I don’t know him. And I shouldn’t.
Sakura pouts at the strange answer, “So you’re dropping some stranger all the way here in Ame Village just because he asked you to?”
Tenten concurs, “He’s a kid-”
“A kid?” Sakura asks for clarification. Tenten shakes her head, agreeing with the woman’s stunned appearance. “He does not look like a kid.”
“He’s seventeen,” Tenten eyes Sakura expression and soon those knitted brows she once had started to form on the doctor’s own face, “Oh my god, you don’t think so too right?”
Sakura shakes her head no, “He looks older.”
“That’s what I thought!” Tenten exclaims. “Assuming that he is a kid, a seventeen-year-old at that, I decided I might as well bring him here.”
“Because it’s convenient?”
“No, not just that,” Tenten tells her, “he looked homeless.”
Tenten believes she’s just lost the doctor’s attention. Sakura’s face turns into stone, her eyes blink blankly at Tenten, and she can barely comprehend what’s just said, “So, you brought him here because he’s homeless?”
“No, the entire point is that I brought him here because I pitied him, okay? He’s a kid— according to him,” Tenten rolls her eyes, “and I’d rather be the one to get him here than to let him hitchhike or whatever.” Sakura stares at her in disbelief. “Look, Dr. Sakura, you don’t have to believe in whatever I say.”
“Yeah, I’m not going to,” Sakura replies as she opens the door. “You’ve got his name right?” She will personally ask the patient instead.
Tenten nods as she follows her out of the examination room, “Yes, it’s Neji.”
Sakura turns her head over her shoulder and squints, doubting if the woman standing in front of her is lying or if the patient is the one misgiving information. “Are you sure it’s Neji?” The woman shrugs back at her.
“That’s what he said.”
“And you believe him?”
“Well yes, I almost ran him over with my car!” Tenten accompanies Sakura across the hall, “I already felt bad enough that I almost killed him and he just— he gives me the most straightforward look and tells me that he needs to come here. Why would I think that he’s lying?” Tenten walks through the door that Sakura opened, “Imagine this, you’re in a life or death situation and you need to get somewhere-” Tenten immediately loses all traces of her thoughts the moment her eyes lay upon the subject of her and Sakura’s discussion. Standing before her is the “teen” putting on his shirt.
Sakura nudges Tenten aside as she walks towards Neji, “You shouldn’t be up and about.”
Neji pulls his shirt down as Sakura helps him back to sit on the hospital bed. “I did not want to wear that curtain,” he tells her.
Tenten stares at the hospital gown and raises both brows. She can see why he called it a curtain. “Can I go now?” she announces to the both of them, earning a slight disapproving concerned expression from Neji. “The sun is going down and I need to get into town.”
Sakura frowns at her arrogance, “I’ll need you to stay here and fill out his papers if he is a minor.”
“But I’m not his guardian, though,” she replies. “My job here is done, doctor.”
“You’re responsible for him,” Sakura retorts right back.
All the while, Neji is sitting silently as the two women bicker back and forth. He did not recall either of them being this hostile towards one another in Konohagakure. Listening to their conversation and the context of it all did not bode well for him. He hears them discuss age and responsibilities and being the guardian and whatnot. To him, it is all gibberish. The most important thing on his mind is to keep himself beside Tenten. He’s said to himself that he’ll think of what to do when he reaches here, and now that he’s here, he is speechless. There is nothing strong enough between her and him to stand confidently next to the person he believes will lead him to find a way out of this world. I’ve already told her that she reminds me of my teammate. What else can I do to heighten our connection here? Neji glances up at Tenten standing over them as she speaks to Sakura. I need her to trust me.
“Well?” Sakura asks him. Neji blinks and darts his eyes to the pink haired doctor before looking back to Tenten. She is also staring him down too.
“What?” he inquires, assuming they’ve asked him a question while he was in a short zone of his own.
Tenten scowls at him now that her arms crossed, “Do you see that?” she speaks to Sakura.
Sakura leans in a bit and widens her eyes, “You’re right,” she replies. “Neji, let me examine your eyes.”
Neji doesn’t question further. Just from the few days here in this world, he’s learned that people are quite fascinated with his eyes.
Sakura shines the examination pen back and forth on Neji’s right eye as she pries his eyelids open. “Mmhm, there’s no doubt about it.”
“So he is a Hyuuga?” Tenten asks.
Neji glances at Tenten the moment Sakura removes her fingers from his eye. Sakura clicks the light pen off and tucks it back in her lab coat breast pocket, “Are you?” she asks him.
“He has the white eyes,” Tenten says as she steps back from the both of them, leaning her weight onto one of her legs. It is in that moment that she recalls the brief brush with the suspect that she shot just days earlier. Tenten’s stare intensifies at the teen, “You have white eyes.” I shot the suspect in the lower right quadrant too. Is he-?
“I’m Hyuuga, Neji,” he acknowledges.
Sakura steps back to where Tenten stands and she too judges the teen. “That name sounds familiar,” she says, “Hyuuga, Neji.”
Neji does not know why his heart felt lighter when Sakura mentions familiarity. If she somehow recognizes me as myself, wouldn’t it be better to stay here instead of struggling to find a way towards Tenten? Or is this just a ruse?
“What are you thinking?” Tenten asks Sakura.
“I feel like I’ve heard your name before, Neji,” she ponders, tapping an index finger to her chin, “Hyuuga, Neji— oh wait!” her sudden explosive voice makes Tenten jump. “You’re Neji, as in Hyuuga Neji right?” Sakura’s mind veers back to her childhood days. “The Hyuuga Neji back at the academy?”
What she says attracts Neji’s ears. Doubt in this world is beginning to erase itself because of her compelling words. Could it be? Does Sakura really recognize me? He gulps down hard.
“And your cousin! Um, her name is-”
“Hinata,” Neji eager completes her thoughts.
Sakura’s eyes light up, “Right! Hinata! Oh geez, it’s been a while since I’ve heard of her, but, she’s your cousin, right?” His eyes gleam with hope as she paces around the room with her hands on her head as if it is going to explode. “Of course she is! I can’t believe this!”
Tenten stares at the doctor’s absurd behavior. Hyuuga Hinata? As in my superior’s— our CEO’s daughter. Her eyes narrow at Neji. And he’s her cousin. This can’t be a coincidence. Tenten is unsure whether this injured person is the person she shot but everything seems to be laid out all too neatly for her. If he is the person I shot, then was this all an intricate set-up? The pent up anger of her untimely predicament makes an appearance, but only slightly. Suspicion is what overtakes her entire being. “How did you get hurt?” she asks Neji. I only need to confirm this. If he says the answer she anticipates, Tenten will walk out of this hospital in this instant. If it is true, she will no longer entertain the teen. I’ve already paid my dues. If he says it, then this will no longer be my problem.
“I was told that I was shot,” Neji tells her. He can see the expression on her face change. She has always been suspicious of him from the beginning, just from the look on her face. The way those orbs scrutinize him, how every muscle on her face tenses up and locks in place, where her brows knit together scornfully, that fear of being abandoned in a world such as this one erupts again and again. “I don’t know who shot me,” he lies. He feels compelled to lie because of her. Neji rarely lies if he recalled. He has always maintained a straightforward personality even to his teammates. But what can I do? A new world can surely change oneself. I’m merely adapting. If I let her know that she was the one to did this to me, would it be better?
Sakura interrupts the both of them. She is still overwhelmed with the confirmation that Neji is here. “Detective, do you know what this means?”
Tenten adopts an unchanging moue as she reluctantly turns towards Sakura. She is not in any mood to think beyond her own conflicts, but the status attaches to herself. Tenten is a detective. And though she isn’t ascribed to any cases, if this situation can even consider itself to be a case, she considers it as one because of Sakura. She takes in the doctor’s vague question and falls into a pondering pit.
Neji cannot keep his eyes from Tenten. Her expression worries him. He fears that she might have figured out without him telling her. Even here, you’re sharp as ever.
Tenten frowns, swearing that wrinkles will remain permanent on her face. She sighs through her nostrils, trying to push away her own assumptions regarding the entirety of the situation. She sets her eyes on the Hyuuga boy, trying to figure out what the doctor wants her to come to the conclusion at. Hyuuga, Neji. He doesn’t know who shot him. Surely, anyone will know, right? My face is all over the news and yet, he is here, clueless to it all. That is, if he is part of my theory. To get shot by me, he surely would have known. Someone should have told him. But he doesn't know and he doesn't sound like he's lying. Maybe I'm wrong? Their eyes lock on one another. Tenten is yet again, met with that undeniably unwavering look. That stern and cold look that he gives back to her makes every word that spews out of his mouth so genuine. You are Hyuuga, Neji.
The lore of the Hyuuga name is omnipresent in Konoha. Their connections are riddled all throughout the power sphere of the government. Everything that they do is covered on primetime news. Tenten knows about the Hyuuga all too well, even down to the meager scandals that are littered throughout the year. She’s practically lived her whole life within the soft power that the Hyuuga holds. Tenten recognizes that Konoha isn’t a dictatorship. However, it isn’t a democracy either. The socio-political economy does not work the way it is supposed to. Konoha boasts about efficiency, equality, and opportunity. And though it may reign true for some, it is more than difficult to attain for the likes of her. Maldistribution of influence of powerful clans such as the Hyuuga or the Akimichi over all three of the structures that make up Konoha creates interlocking directorates. It causes the balance of power to remain at one focal point, with few having the ability to manipulate the country’s wellness over the many that either suffers or thrives from it. With status as power comes pride and protection. It is why Tenten did not believe that there is a stupid Hyuuga teen running around carelessly in the bustling city when she literally ran into him.
The only thing about Neji that makes all of Tenten’s hypothesis derail is the fact that he was being chased when they unfortunately met. She has no plausible theories as to why he’d flee. If going by her own assumptions of everything being a set-up to throw her out, it will not follow the course. He is a Hyuuga, a nephew to a CEO, and he is hurt. He’s a nephew. He’s — Tenten’s eyes widen at her arrival. “You’re the CEO’s nephew!”
Neji’s whole body jerk as Tenten’s voice thunders into the room. He breathes out with a shudder. “The CEO?” he mutters under his breath. He recalls hearing that the CEO was supposed to visit him back at the hospital. Hiashi-sama? Was he going to come and meet me?
“You’re the kid that ran away after what your dad did!” Tenten exhausts her lungs.
“My dad?” Neji asks with a more flatter tone. “My dad is-" Is he alive?
His questions make him become more suspicious to Tenten. Wait a second-
“Do you not know?” Sakura’s head cocks to Neji.
“Do I not know what?” he replies back. “What did my father do?” Neji never would have believed that his father is here in this world.
“Wait a second,” Tenten chimes in just as he finished his question. “This whole thing doesn’t make sense.”
Sakura turns her head back to Tenten, “What do you mean? It makes sense.” She points to her patient, “He’s Hinata’s cousin, which makes him a nephew to the CEO of Taka Energy.” Sakura pauses, trying to conjure up more links for her patient, “wouldn’t that mean he’s a potential candidate for the CEO position coming up in the next three years?”
No, no,” Tenten pushes out everything that Sakura just told her. She is overwhelmed with the information. “You,” she points to Neji, causing his eyes to land on her index finger, “You were being chased weren’t you? Why?” He does not return an answer. “Why were you running away?” There's no doubt that he's Hiashi's nephew because he's just confirmed his relationship to Hinata. Tenten's mind is spiraling out of control. She does not know why he ran away and bumped into her. However, she is more than sure that he's being chased by the people who are instructed by her superiors. There's no way they'd let a Hyuuga run around mindlessly. It must've been why they were trying to catch him? Maybe that's why he was running away? Now, why is he running away?!
It all comes back to why he’s running away and the answer is always because he needed to find her. Neji did not know what to say. At every end of his potential answer to her question, there is always an assumption that he’s not supposed to be here. His lies that he needed to come to Ame Village is because of her. He continuously lies because of her. And now that Neji knows that the men chasing after him are under his uncle, he truly is beginning to reconsider his decision to keep himself close to Tenten. I would have been much safer if I didn't leave the hospital.
“Do you think the rumors are true?” Sakura asks Tenten. “That he was driven out by his uncle from Konoha because of what his dad did.” Tenten urges Sakura to finish her thoughts. “I mean look at it, detective. He has no idea about what happened to his dad. You said it yourself, didn’t you? He looked like a homeless person running away. What if they didn't want him here in Konoha. Maybe this is the reason why he's being chased?"
Tenten shakes her head “no”. For the teen that hasn’t given her an answer yet, she’s come to her own conclusion. “I thought he was a runaway teen.” She never would have thought that he’d be a Hyuuga. But now that she’s confirmed for herself, whether or not they were supposed to meet in the middle of the street, he is in her hands now. "But you're just a person who isn't supposed to be here," she tells Neji. Tenten turns to Sakura, "If we're going by your assumptions with that rumor, that is." Sakura gulps. Tenten stares back at Neji, "You shouldn't have come back. You're a murderer's son."
"I— what?" Neji is taken aback. What Tenten said to him is ridiculous. So much for that initial thought. Neji curses himself mentally. I'm not safe anywhere.
"I'm turning you in to my superiors," Tenten spouts. Trying to make sense of it all is hurting her brain. All that Tenten needs to know now is that he is a Hyuuga, a valuable Hyuuga whose reputation can surely taint the company for quite a few years. Tenten does not need to know why they were chasing him. In truth, she does not care for it one bit. He's her cousin. He's the kid that disappeared after that tragedy. Why should I feel sympathy for him? Feeling sympathy for him is just the same as feeling sympathy for his murderer father. And he lied to me about his age. This kid is supposed to be older than his cousin and everyone in this goddamn country knows she's well into her late- twenties. She will make an exchange with the higher-ups to get her job back. I have a Hyuuga that they possibly might want. She only wants her position back. Tenten steps towards Neji and grabs his arm, “You’re coming with me.”
“Detective,” Sakura tries to stop her, “He’s still a Hyuuga. If you-”
“I’m doing what I have to do to get my job back,” Tenten interrupts her as she yanks Neji up. She reluctantly pushes away everything he’s said to her from her mind. No matter how convincing everything he's said to her is, about him seeing her as his deceased friend, even if they are true, he’s going to jeopardize her if he stays with her. He has made her spin her heels trying to tend to him and Tenten does not want it to happen again. “Indeed, he’s a Hyuuga, doctor. They’re probably looking for him right now! Maybe those people chasing him were ordered from the Hyuuga to keep him from coming out! You and I both know we shouldn’t be meddling with figures larger than us, doctor-”
“He’s just a kid!” Sakura insists.
It is in this moment that Neji firmly grasps Tenten’s wrist, causing her to glare at him. Neji pries her hand off from his arm easily. He cannot believe how conniving this “Tenten” is in this world. In one moment he believed that he was safe in her hand and in the next, she’s switched around for her own gains. Is this how people are in this world? Looking out only for themselves? There is no greater cause for these people to fight for. After hearing everything that these two women exchanged, Neji does not want to stay. Tenten is hostile and so is going back to the city. If I really am a murderer's son, it must have been why I was locked away in that hospital. I can't even trust my uncle in this world.
“He’s not a kid,” Tenten glare directs to Sakura instead. She massages her wrist, “He’s Hinata’s cousin which, means he’s not seventeen! That pretty cousin of his' is well into her late twenties! He’s older than that!”
“You’re not wrong, detective,” a feminine voice echoes from the hallway. They never closed the door. All three of them snapped their heads towards the gaping door to see who the voice belongs to.
Neji tenses up as the heels of the mysterious woman comes closer to the door. He knows this voice all too well, “Hinata-sama.”
Chapter 7: Reunion
Neji meets with Hinata on top of the hospital roof. Their peculiar meeting prompts Tenten to sneak her phone into Neji's pocket.
The suspense broke the moment Tenten hears what Neji said. And just a few seconds after that, the woman summons from the gaping door. Tenten would have never thought that she would be able to see the potential next-in-line heiress of her father’s company in person. She can’t help but stare at the short-haired woman approaching her. She cannot believe that even with those creepy white looking eyes, all of them, and Tenten means all of them look stunning. The world is so unfair. Trailing behind the high-class superior is a man with short hair that Tenten has never seen before. He too bears the Hyuuga’s trademark white eyes. She blinks away, fully devastated by the number of unordinary people in the room. She steadies her posture and firmly plants her feet to the ground. Tenten locks eyes with her superior, “Just in time,” she walks forward and gives a bow, “Ma’am, I was just about to-”
“No need to explain,” Kō stops Tenten.
Hinata switches her focus from Tenten onto her cousin. It strikes her odd that he dons extremely long hair. “Follow me to the rooftop,” she tells her cousin.
Neji does not let his heart quake. It is too crowded and noisy in this room to be faltering. He trudges forward, eager to accompany his cousin to the rooftop. Just as he begins to follow her, Sakura halts him, “I’m sorry, Hinata, but he can’t go anywhere-”
“Please address her correctly, doctor,” Kō tells Sakura. Sakura raises a questionable brow. She is sure that Hinata and she are the same age. However, it is clear that they are both in different leagues with different statuses. She does not know how to address Hinata correctly. What do I say?
The conversation switches quickly that Tenten could not keep up. She disregards the rude way the man talked to her. She absolutely did not need to be treated like lesser of a human being like how the doctor is being treated right now. “If you’re both heading up, I’m going as well,” she demands. “I want to negotiate.”
“What rights do you have to negotiate?” Hinata asks back to Tenten. She never once left her eyes from Neji. “Lead the way,” she speaks to Kō.
Tenten is speechless at the woman’s sharp tongue. She is merely trying to get her job back but the haughty superior of her’s will not have it. Tenten does not know what to feel. She can see it up close now, the difference between her and the woman in front of her. The cold and callousness that radiates out from her mouth down to the way she dresses, she’s uninviting with a venomous tongue that no one, not even Tenten herself would ever want to hold a long conversation with.
Hinata turns around sharply, following after her bodyguard out of the room. Tenten sees that Neji is in pursuit of them. She bites her lower lip and dashes towards him. It’s already weird enough that only the two of them came all this way to get him back. Could there be more people outside? She reaches for Neji’s left wrist and grabs it, making him turn to her with a confused expression on his face. Tenten’s eyes meet with his’. She pulls out her phone and pulls the velcro pocket at his thigh before slipping her phone inside, “Do not remove it at all costs,” her serious tone threatens him. She receives nothing but a blank face from him before he swipes his wrist from her hold. Tenten then follows the three of them out to the hallway before heading back to the lobby.
“Detective,” Sakura calls to her. She paces towards Tenten as they both make it to the hospital’s automatic doors, “what was that for?” she asks. “The phone, I mean.”
Tenten walks out to survey the lot with Sakura by her side, “I don’t like that woman,” she says to Sakura. “Her attitude isn’t flattering, neither is her tone, but I got a feeling that if their conversation does not go well, something might go south.”
“You can tell just from her demeanor?”
Tenten shakes her head no, “Look around us,” she instructs Sakura. “I thought it was just the two of them who came here to take him back, but I wasn’t really sure. Now I can confirm it,” she concludes. “There is only one car here. They came alone.”
Sakura scratches her head in confusion, “And what’s wrong about that? Am I missing something here?”
Tenten turns to Sakura with an expression the pink-haired woman could not decipher. It is a look that only a detective can have, one filled with suspicion, determination, eagerness, and excitement all at the same time. “When Neji and I first met, he was being pursued by a handful of people. None of whom with the status of the CEO’s assistant. Surely, something’s changed with their motive.”
Neji didn’t think much about the rectangular black item that Tenten slipped into his pocket until he begins to walk. The items sway uncomfortably and it crosses his mind several times whether he should just disregard what she said and discard it. However, Neji didn’t. The majority of thoughts in his mind is focused on the woman he’s following after. Up to the stairs, one by one, he is reminded of her back. As it is one of the most recent memories Neji can recall of his cousin, he is stuck once more in the past. This time, it so vividly displays itself in his mind because it is one of the last few things he saw before he died. I admit it, it was stupid of me to jump in front of both of you. I didn’t even think it, of the countless other dangers to come when I died. I may have saved you at that moment, but I won’t be able to save you going forward. Neji can still remember his cousin’s tearful face. He was foolish to die. There were so many other lives counting on him, and I just let them all down. Neji could not cry then, in the last of his breath. But now, faced with his death and thinking about the repercussions that it must have had to his friends, Neji wants to stop. This is why I must leave here as soon as possible. He does not want to follow this version of his cousin anywhere anymore. I don’t want to think of anything anymore. I need to get out of here. Please, kami-sama, tell me how to get out of here.
The cold wind wakes every muscle from Neji’s body when Kō opened the access door to the rooftop. Kō holds the door open for Hinata and Neji to walk through. The moment he walks out onto the cement rooftop, all that he sees is whiteness. The fog thickens the higher he is from the ground. There is a lack of wind, but the pervading cold never leaves. Neji stands behind Hinata as she comes to a stop at the edge of the rooftop. Only a rail the height of his waist prevents him from jumping over. Then again, I can’t return home by dying.
Hinata turns to him with a stagnant movement. Her eyes bear no interest to him whatsoever. Neji is quite certain that the resemblance between his cousin and the woman standing in front of him is merely just based on appearance. The way that she talks to others condescendingly does not fit the personality of the cousin that he knows. Even just from peering into her eyes, he can already tell that their personalities are not the same.
“How did you come back here?” she is the first to speak.
Neji does not know what to say. It is already evident that there definitely is another version of him in this world. This “Neji” that he shares the name with is overseas. And judging from the information he obtained from Sakura and Tenten’s bickering in the room just earlier, Neji can only come to the conclusion that both versions of him aren’t supposed to be here. So what can I say? Do I reply as the cousin that she knows? Or as myself?
Hinata is not a person with much patience and to be stalled by her own cousin does not fare any better. “I’m surprised you still recognize me in the years we’ve grown apart.”
Surely, Neji wouldn’t be able to comment on that as well. He has no clue as to how many years they’ve parted. To him, it didn’t matter.
Hinata takes in a deep breath, walking a few steps past him to stand a step forward beside her bodyguard. Neji remains still, unmoving from the rails. She is beginning to feel irritated with her cousin’s silence. His muteness already makes it clear to her that he knew what happened to his father. Hinata formulates her own thoughts about Neji’s untimely arrival. She believes that her cousin knows about the switch-up between their fathers and she fears that he has returned against her father’s precautions. Hinata believes that Neji will press for another investigation against his father’s imprisonment. She will not stand to let her cousin have his way. “Your silence speaks volumes, Neji.”
His ears perks as his eyes draw to the corner of his sockets. Neji cannot see her, however, he is intent on hearing what she has to say.
“Tell me,” Hinata presses, “how much do you know?”
Her question prompts Neji to turn around in the same way that she did to him just a new minutes earlier. He has already discussed to himself to never explicitly display himself as the “Neji” in this world because he is not that person. Indeed, it will be easier to maneuver around but Neji has learned that there are too many dangers that riddle around that person. He returns her awful stare with a blank one, “About what?” he asks, “about you? About my father?” he says in a blasé tone. Her expression hardens and Neji forces a sigh. He really has no hostility towards any of these people, however, it cannot be the same for him. “I don’t care about such things. I’m not here for that,” he tells her.
“Then what is your reason for sneaking back into Konoha?” Hinata inquires. The thought of him overtaking her position and vying for the CEO title still persists in her mind. “Are you here to take over the company?”
Neji crosses his arms defensively for he has no clue as to what she’s blabbering about. The idea of taking over anything has never crossed Neji’s mind once. If he is to compare the company that his cousin is talking about, it would be the most comparable to the title of the heir or heiress of the Hyuuga clan. However, he has never once thought about usurping the title from anyone. He will answer it simply, “I don’t care for the company,” he answers her second question. “As for returning to Konoha,” Neji is brought back to the variant of the same question he has been asked numerous times before, “I am here because-”
Hinata raises her palm up to the height of her shoulder. It halts him from finishing his sentence. He stares at her odd gesture before directing his eyes back to her. She lowers her arm, “If you’re not here for the company nor for the investigation then why did you come all the way to Ame Village?” Hinata will not wait for him to ponder coming up with his reply to her any longer. “The fact that you had to think before answering already tells me you’re lying. I can do away with you in this instant with no repercussions, Neji,” she explains, “and I really don’t want to do that. But if you leave me with any doubts, I’ll have you tumbling down the side of this building.”
At first, Neji assumed that she wanted to speak in privacy, however, he was wrong. She intends on pushing me off this building, no wonder she chose this place. He really does not think that one person will be able to throw him like a ragdoll, even if that person is Kō. “I came here to get away from all of you,” he tells her, “from the company,” he tackles on the last bit. Hinata raises a brow, curious if Neji is telling the wholesome truth or not. “Isn’t that enough?”
“No,” she sounds, “that’s not enough.” Hinata begins to turn around to leave, “Kō,” she alerts him. “If you wanted to get away from the company, you should’ve stayed overseas.” The older man steps up and faces Neji.
Neji closes his eyes and returns his arms back to his sides. I ought to try and activate my byakugan, but I still cannot palpate any chakra within my body. Trying to summon the byakugan at this moment is futile. Neji knows he cannot conjure it in his state. He opens his eyes, ready to engage in combat with Kō. Neji is then reminded of his wound. This is already the second time that I’ve been tended to, but it’s not healing as fast I know. Is it because I’m too old? Neji doubts it is because of that. However, if he were to make the calculation of his age in this world, he is definitely not seventeen. Tenten said that Hinata is in her late-twenties, which can only mean that I’m older than her. Memories of looking at himself in the mirror in this world did not display any significant changes to his appearance. Hinata still looks like the teen that I remembered. So is Sakura. And Tenten, she looks the same, even though she’s twenty-nine. Neji concludes that he is Tenten’s age. He can only accept that that is his age. Tenten is older than me by just a couple of months. Surely, I’ll be her age. It is not because Neji is old. He understands that this world’s way of healing isn’t through the use of chakra because if it is done so by it, he wouldn’t be bleeding. Then, is it because I’m weird? Kakashi immediately swells up in Neji’s mind.
Kō swings a simple jab towards Neji, but it is neutralized simply by capturing the man’s fist. Neji then uses the same force transferred from the older man to thrust him back with an open palm hit to Kō’s neck. I still haven’t lost my fighting style, at least it’s still effective without any chakra. Kō grunts, choking and suffering as he feels for the area that Neji struck. Hearing Kō’s struggle made Hinata turn around with furiousness.
Neji does not care for either of them. He has just come up with a new plausible excuse as to why he came all the way to Ame Village. Thank you, Kakashi-sensei. Well, the excuse is still the same. Neji holds his torso as the pain begins to make itself apparent. With the cold weather, it feels like a radiating heat pooling at his side. “I came here because of the detective,” he tells Hinata.
“Why?” Hinata asks just as Kō stabilizes to his feet.
“I want to find a reason to live,” he tells her. He is not lying. Even though Tenten has just tried to sell him off to her superiors, who happens to be his own cousin who wants him dead, Neji still believes that his best bet is to stay close to his identical teammate. After all , she cautioned me with the item inside my pocket. There might be some good in her.
Hinata’s expression becomes that of a naive child. “You mean with that-” Could he possibly be attracted to her? “You have feelings for her?”
Neji is brought back to Kakashi’s ridiculous assumption of him being with Tenten yesterday night because he wanted to sleep with her. However, he believes that this is the perfect excuse to part ways with Hinata. If she has any sympathy for me, any at all, she’d let me stay here alive. “I like her,” Neji lies.
Hinata becomes distressed. She couldn’t comprehend whether or not this is the truth. Somehow, his confession seems solemn and it makes her core falter. The likes of us, cousin, we are never meant to ever know love in this world. She pities herself now that she makes a comparison between him and herself. Important figures such as herself will never know what it is like to feel loved because they will never receive it. In a world such as her’s, secluded from all aspects of what it means to be human: to be loved, to feel kindness, and to be cared for, her’s is a grim reality filled with the greed of power. Hinata will never know what her cousin is feeling at this moment and she believes she never will. To chase someone to the outskirts of the country, to sneak back into the one place where you want nothing to do with, you must really like her, brother Neji.
“Bring me the detective,” Hinata tells Kō. Swiftly, he leaves. “I will spare you, simply because I pity your worthlessness,” she scorns Neji. He does not say anything. “You are a failure to our family name.”
She sounds just like me . Neji is brought back to his younger days. His hatred for the main branch is long gone, but it erupts as she jogged his memory. Even in this world, it looks like the underlinings haven’t changed. “I don’t expect to see you from this point on, Hinata,” Neji says to her. “We’ve nothing more to be attached.”
“You shall remain here even after your father is released, do you understand?” Neji nods. He has no reason to visit someone who is already dead in his own world. Hinata takes in a deep breath through her nostrils, feeling the icy air enter her lungs. “I will help you, cousin. As this is the first and last of our reunion, I’ll give you a gift to help you with that brash detective.”
Neji raises a brow, unsure if there is any animosity from her, “I won’t need it.”
“Oh you will,” Hinata insists. “You will need it since it’s from me.”
“Milady,” Kō sounds from the door. Both Neji and Hinata look back to the door as Kō holds it for Tenten.
“Perfect timing,” Hinata recounts what Tenten said when they first met.
Tenten stares at Neji strangely before keeping her eye on her superior, “Um- I’m not sure why-”
“You wanted to negotiate, right?” Hinata conjures.
Tenten immediately brightens up, “Yes, Miss— I- I’m not really sure how to address you-”
“No need,” Hinata cuts her off. “We won’t be meeting again after this.”
“O-oh,” Tenten stutters as her head lowers with the woman’s gaze on her. “I want my job back,” she says. “I want to have my position back in the Leaf District.”
“Okay,” Hinata tells Tenten, “only on the condition that you accommodate my cousin for his stay here. I will have you reinstated after you solve the case assigned to you.”
Tenten’s eyes roam the ground around the woman’s high-end heels. She wonders how it feels to be walking around on needles. “Certainly,” Tenten replies, “I’ll find a place suitable-”
“What?” Tenten looks at her superior in disbelief, “with me?”
Hinata gives a nod, “My cousin will be staying with you. I can trust you, can’t I?”
Tenten is stumped with the question, “Of course you can trust me. You can trust me to find him a place to stay-”
“In your home. I want your eyes on him at all times,” Hinata states. “Do not make me repeat it again.”
“I— ffu- well-”
Hinata walks past a stuttering Tenten towards Kō, “Good evening to you both.”
Tenten veers her utter glare toward the snobbish woman and feels the urge to barf. My home? With Neji? Is she freaking crazy?! She turns back to Neji, who has been standing silently near the rails. “You’re not going to even object?”
“I would’ve,” Neji reaches into his pocket and fishes out the item Tenten sneaked into his being, “but I find it convenient to be stuck with you.”
Tenten hurries over to him and snatches her phone from him. Neji watches as she toils with the item. She will not let him see what she’s tapping. “Why’d you wanna be stuck with someone who wants to get rid of you?”
She seems too preoccupied with the tiny item in her hand. Neji shrugs but she probably didn’t see anyway, “Because you seem to care about me,” he tells her. Tenten’s eyes glance up to him and Neji merely return the gaze back down to the item in her hands. He can see that her ears have peaked, suggesting that she must have understood what he meant with his subtle glance.
“Your cousin isn’t all round,” she says to him. Tenten stops the recording and saves it before putting the phone into her pocket. She then looks at him. A sigh escapes her mouth. What am I going to do with this guy? Do I want my job back or not? She definitely wants her job back. Okay, then how fast can I solve the case? That, well, Tenten isn’t sure. Everything surrounding Neji racks her brains. She frowns at him, dissatisfied with her predicament yet again. Tenten flips around and reaches for the door. Looks like I’m stuck with this weirdo.
“Let me just put it out there that I’ve no intention to harm you,” Neji says as he follows her down the stairs. He earns quite a scary glare from her, however, it does not deter him. “Therefore, you shouldn’t hold any animosity towards me.”
Tenten casually descends the stairs with him trailing behind her. For someone who is asking for no animosity in return, she expected him to be walking beside her, not behind her. “Then tell me, Hyuuga,” her voice echoes within the long chamber, “what in the hell are your intentions?”
Neji can’t simply let her escape from his eyes. His mind is more at ease when he can easily see her in front of him. And then came her audible question tact on with her fleeting 180-turn towards him. Neji did not expect her to approach him with more ferocity than before. Even when she ran to him, calling him “ma’am” and shouting at her, it isn’t half as scary as it is now. Neji admits he’s never been the subject of Tenten’s raised voice. To her question, well, Neji isn’t sure how to answer it. Many people have been asking him questions and he’s been half-heartedly answering it. However, Neji doesn’t even know if he can trust this person standing in front of him. He still does not know if she is an ally to him or not. Neji can’t even solidify any confidence in her to turn his back from her. Yet, just because of her weariness towards him, the way she demandedly shoved that sleek item into his pockets, the way she looked at him with those eyes, he couldn't help but have a little faith that she’ll be as good of a person “his” Tenten. “My intentions,” he begins. It isn’t a hard question to answer if he is to answer it flat out. “I’m here to leave. As simple as that may sound, it isn’t hard to achieve. And so I solely depend on you to guide me to find my way out.” At the bottom of all the half-truths and half-lies, this is the most earnest thing Neji has said to her.
“Huh?” Tenten is stifled at his vaguely creepy answer. If taken at its bluntness, Tenten believes there might be nothing towards it. But the lying undertones are what she specializes at, even at its most mundane and discreet. “Why would you depend on me? We’ve just met, dude.” Every word that escapes the man’s mouth makes her spine creak and diminish. He comes off more like a dirty stalker than a Hyuuga.
The uneasiness in her shaky eyes says it all. Neji knows he’s made her uncomfortable. “I should have worded that better,” he will not apologize for a tiny mishap. “I’m not from here,” Neji confesses. Even if he were to tell her the whole truth without skipping any details, she will not understand. She will never understand and he feels as if she will probably make it harder for him if she’s misjudged him. Evidently, Neji is not too good in formulating the right words to say to her. He wonders if he is like this back at home as well. “But because you look like someone I know, someone I trust, there is no other option for me but to give that trust to you-”
“I don’t really care about that person, man. I don’t even know if she’s real or not,” Tenten hushes him with the pitch of her own. She rolls her eyes and turns back to descending the stairs, “I asked a simple question, just answer it basically as anyone should. I know you have problems, dude, but you’re not even acting your age. Running around lying about being seventeen,” her voice softens and trails to silence. It beckons Neji to follow after her. “I can’t believe I let a grown man sleep over in my home.” And I’m really just about to extend my home to him for my job.
“I did not mean to lie,” Neji tries to support his claim. He truly did not know he had his own age in this world. “I really believed I was seventeen.” Neji expects her to flip around again as his eyes speculate the tenseness in both her shoulders, but she did not. The sound of her shoes clacking on the cement stairs as changed. They’ve become daintier.
Tenten cannot weave Neji’s oddity into a coherent storyline and it deeply bothers her. If she cannot even solve a living person’s strangeness, how can she solve a cold case at that? Nothing about him adds up in her mind. It is as if he’s been dropped into her world from a time capsule. Or maybe realistically, he’s been deprived of world interactions? “Believe in whatever you want, but you’re baggage to me. An old man baggage,” she tells him. Tenten feels as if she’s just jabbed herself with her last comment. She quickly brushes that aside, “Do you even know your own age?”
Neji can only assume that he’s twenty-nine because he and Tenten shared the same birth year back at home. He quickly answers back, “I might be your age, but I’m not sure. My friend and I, she and I were born in the same year.”
They both reach the ground floor, much to Tenten’s relief. She has been stiffening her back the entirety of her way down the stairs because of him walking behind after her. She can contest that losing a friend and trying to let them go is hard but never has Tenten once obsessed over anyone who reminds her of them, though she’s never met anyone who will cause her to act in such ways. However, Tenten is more than sure that she will never act like Neji. “For a man like you, strange and creepy as you are, to have my job rest in your well-being, it better be worth it, Hyuuga Neji.”
Neji watches over Tenten’s boxes as she makes an inquiry with the desk woman sporting extravagant red hair. He doesn’t intend on listening in to her conversation and is instead, plotting his next calculative move. Neji does not want to stay passive in this world. Even when he’s made the decision to run to Tenten, he still felt being pushed around. In the end, the final decision wasn’t made by me. It was by Hinata that grounded Tenten to me. From this point on, he wants to control himself. He wants to do venture and find that sole reason as to why he’s here. The first thing that he settles on is to learn about this world. Neji doesn’t think that it’ll be hard.
The gray light of the fog begins to dim more with the setting sun. Tenten’s eyes widen at the yearbook picture in front of her. She peers back to Neji whose eyes are keenly on her belongings. She glances back down to the photo and points to the chubby-cheeked first grader, whose white eyes make themselves apparent, “That’s really him,” she sighs.
Karin closes the yearbook and slides it away from the detective’s face. “I’ll have to return this to Sakura now before she discovers that it’s missing. Here, detective,” she sticks a single yellow sticky note onto the counter, “the police station is rarely busy. They’ll pick you up.”
Tenten gives the woman a cheeky grin. The moment that woman turns her back on her, her smile melts away. Her eyes are beginning to grow tired of the paleness that the village as to offer. At the end of it all, she finds herself sitting at the far end of the bench, far from where her boxes are due to the unlikable man occupying her rightful place. If anyone is to see them, they’d believe that those boxes belonged to him. Even with the stamp on the boxes indicating that they belong to the police force, it would still fit him better than her. Of course, a Hyuuga will be more apt in police work than an aging woman who refuses to discard her childish twinned buns.
Calling the number, Tenten did not expect a flamboyant voice at the other end. She cannot really hear his name, because the reception is at best, fair if she is to describe it. However, all that matters is that she’s gotten her words through. What ensues is an awkward silence between her and Neji. Tenten is not quite sure of how to undergo letting the grown man live in her house. She’s just confirmed that he is indeed twenty-nine, but it does not negate all the other unknown things about him. She could ask, but Tenten is not interested in him, even if it is for her own safety. After all, he is an esteemed Hyuuga whose cluelessness goes beyond her own realm. Just try and do something, Hyuuga, I will not hesitate to harm you. Self-defense is her go-to excuse just like when she almost broke Kiba’s nose. I should set some ground rules.
Driving on high beams in the dense fog is never the smartest idea, but Kō does so anyway. The sound of the radio is static in Ame Village and Hinata turns it off for her own sanity. She cannot believe that she let her cousin off. Sympathizing with someone is not something she does naturally but it hurts her when her cousin told her he wanted to find a reason to live. Hinata supposes her immediate family has been harsh on him, isolating him at the age of six, barring him from his father, though the prospect of seeing Hizashi in prison is highly unlikely, and disconnecting communications beyond the next twenty years that he’s been overseas. She didn’t think she’d have any sympathy for someone who has been out of her life for so long even though they were as close as siblings when they were young. Reminiscing about a blurry past gives her a migraine. Even when we’re separated, we still want the same thing. Hinata’s reason to live is to surpass her father in every way possible, she’s been conditioned to do so. And though it has put a strain on her relationship with her own blood sister, there is no going back on her decision. The timid girl who cannot even look up to her own inspiration has become the foreboding fear. And it is this fear instilled in her glare, her posture, and her tone that derails any type of bond between her and a man.
Hinata sighs and keeps her eyes out to the blaring white clouds in front of her. They cannot even drive the speed limit because of how thick the fog is. The drive will become longer and she will have to dwell on these thoughts until it dissipates.
Seven failed relationships and one chopped engagement have made her lose all hopes in settling down to have a family. Hinata has thought everything through down to the last detail. She needs a progeny as soon as possible with her partner to strengthen her position to gain the title from her father but there is always something that she’s missing. Hinata believes there is a flaw in herself that stops her from ever reaching the stage where she ties the knot. She does not know whether it is because of her or her significant other and she does not want to know.
“Is something bothering you? Lady Hinata?” Kō asks as he slows, rounding a winding road.
Hinata intends not to answer, for it is all that she’s learned to do. “Am I weak?” she replies with an entirely different question.
“Milady, you are not weak for keeping your cousin alive because of what he said,” he tells her. “I of all people know you better.” Their conversation is stopped short when the shape of a large truck enters their view. The truck is a mover's truck laying on its side. “Should I stop, Milady?”
“Do we look like a charity?” she scowls at him. “Continue on.” Without protest, Kō swiftly passes by the truck. Hinata shakes her head minutely in consternation. She closes her eyes to rest. Briefly and unyieldingly, Kō slams on the brakes, jolting her awake. Her seat belt locks, pulling a big portion of her breath out of her body. Hinata snaps her head to Kō furiously, “You must not want your job anymore, Kō.” Instead of explaining for himself, his terrified expression is all that she needs to see. His eyes stare out of the windshield and it prompts her to do so as well. Hinata looks out of the windshield, at first, filled with a discernable amount of fear. But when a familiar face is gleaming back at her, that fear begins to reside. His grin is still wide and inviting as usual. His hairstyle hasn’t changed. He looks disheveled with the way that he dressed. It is as if he was hasty when he put them on. The only thing that stands out is the amount of blood on his hands and his clothes. Hinata let out a breath. She remembers that uncanny face.
The man waves back to her childishly with a tint of eerieness to him, “Hinata-chan! Remember me?” he calls out to her. If their radio was on, they wouldn’t be able to hear him.
Kō gulps, his eyes stay on the man, never once turning away, “Milady, should I remove him?”
Hinata is struck with a distasteful nostalgia in her mouth. A longstanding crush so minute, she shouldn’t be shaken by his reappearance in her life. However, Neji’s recurring words stay fresh in her mind. A reason to live, I shall rekindle that dead fire pit.
“-I made a sharp turn and then my truck fell over! The glass cut through my hand and everything but I’m fine!”
Inside the car, she hears his barely audible explanation. He’s still goofy as usual, and dumb. The man outside begins to mimic the downfall of his demise with his hands. The left palm is poorly bandaged as it assumes the role of the truck falling flat on its side. “Let him in,” she tells Kō.
“Milady, we are not a charity-”
“He’s the mover for that detective, correct?” Hinata asks.
“I can’t confirm-”
“I can,” Hinata interjects. “Motion him in.” Kō complies and gestures an inviting palm toward the man standing in front of their car. The man approaches his side and opens the back seat of the car door and enters with a backpack. He rocks the balance of the car and slams the door closed.
“Thank you, Hinata-chan.”
Hinata has never blinked once ever since she laid her eyes on him. Her pale face summons a pink color to her cheeks as the rushing memories fade into her mind. Hinata turns around and greets him, “Hello, Naruto-kun.”
Chapter 8: Past the Spoken Words
Neji and Tenten wait for their ride to arrive. And when it does come, they discover that they must share one seat while the rest are occupied by her boxes.
The last few chapters have been about the plot. Here's one to dive into Neji and Tenten's internal feelings about one another.
Standing outside of the hospital in the chilly weather together, Neji waits along the curb of the street with Tenten. Under a lamppost with her boxes neatly stacked beside her left, he occupies her right. Arms crossed and eyes locked on the foggy nothingness in front of him as the night falls, Neji is drowned in a dilemma of his own. Next to him, she stands with her hands and eyes glued to the sleek rectangular item in her hand. There is not a spoken word between them for the next ten or so minutes.
I can be more than reckless here. Neji believes the presumption isn’t all too bad of an idea. He’s technically died more than he can count in this world and he is still here, breathing, living, and overall, fine. The infinite possibilities of redoing his wrongs in this world may just bring him closer to finding that damn reason for why he’s here. And in thinking of being reckless, Neji wants to attempt to do whatever he pleases. To be more exact, he simply does not want to be bound by the traditions of his clan in his former world. Ingrained in his body, his brain, that dignified and seclusive egotism, he wants to shed it off. If being bold means that he’ll reach that reasoning for being put in this alien world, Neji will take it.
In this vast place, where the reality is shielded by a lingering heavy mist, Neji believes it is almost an allegory to how blind he’s become in her world. Standing under the hazy yellow light of the lamppost with her, it is almost surreal at how tangible this moment can be for him and his true comrade. In this silence, filled with a black slate where even the moon cannot show itself, Neji feels lost. If he is to steal a glance of the odd woman standing next to him and disregard their unusual attire, Neji believes he might just be content in experiencing this moment with her. Despite never having a fleeting moment like this with “Tenten” back in Konohagakure, Neji believes that one day, he will come to this conclusion between them if he were to live. This quaking heartbeat that rises with the thought of never seeing her again, it makes him regretful of his sacrifice. I just want to return to the dead, so thinking of what could’ve happened wouldn’t exist. The “ifs” and “ands” that constantly argue over him make themselves apparent again. Still, Neji does not let it show on his face. That struggle to keep his problems as his’ becomes more overbearing the more he lives with every passing day here.
For the first time since he’s arrived, Neji discreetly steals a glance of the woman standing beside him. He did it because it is becoming unbearable not to. The only familiarity of their connected worlds is only her. Neji wonders if it is only for that one reason that he’s keeping himself closer and closer to her.
“Do you mind not staring at me like that?”
Neji is taken aback at her sudden tone. He swiftly turns his head back to the empty landscape he cannot see, “I’m sorry.” His breath hitches. Did I just— apologize? Admitting his wrongs with the weak words is never something he’d do because he believes that it’ll solve nothing, but they slipped out of his mouth without warning and it stiffened him up. Neji is afraid that he’s losing himself to the likes of this world. This is not what I mean by being reckless.
Tenten stops the timer on her phone when the number runs down to zero. She’s been calculating their ride’s time of arrival and even then, she’s got it all wrong. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Seven? Her entire body wants to break down, even if it is just for a bit. She wants to let out all of her frustration in this instant. Because this atmosphere makes her lonely, because it excludes all other visual surroundings, because all that she sees is the disgusting yellow light above her, Tenten finds that it would be the best place to break her composure. However, she cannot do as she pleases because of the only other person standing next to her. This person keeps her guard up and never lets it down. And when she can feel his gaze on her, Tenten begins to wonder if the Hyuuga people’s highly acclaimed respect for others would pertain to him. She tilts her head his way to scrutinize his actions, but even then, she cannot be mad at him.
In the darkness of the night, it isn’t her who is shining. It is this man standing beside her. Tenten looks at him with hateful eyes, but she knows better than anyone that he is someone she should try to understand. Because he is the young son of a murderer, because he’s been outcasted by his own family, perhaps maybe even deprived of a normal childhood, he should be someone she must help. As much as Tenten wants to yell at him for making her life harder, between the two of them, their coincidental meeting is merely a blemish to her. She does not want to dwell on it much, but the thought that Neji is sticking close to her because of his deceased friend makes her uncomfortable and relieved at the same time. She’s expressed before that it comes off as an obsession. Yet, he doesn’t push it. It is as if he’s clinging onto me for the sake of seeing me as his friend. Maybe they were truly just friends. Maybe there’s nothing more than a friendship between them. It is why she’s relieved because they are only just friends.
But in capturing this person’s profile in her eyes, this person who is illuminated by an ugly yellow light, her heart and mind are deceived by his name. The low cadence that he speaks with, the mere meaningless words of his apology, although lacking sincerity, she wonders why it is only now that he’s striking her dead heartstrings without even knowing it. Tenten does not want to jump to any conclusions, she does not want to be brash about it. However, that is how her heart is. Falling in a mindless love comes to her so easily and it crumbles so easily, but it pricks her heart and stays for longer than it should. Her heart is small and there is so little space to hold for someone special to her. And so when she decides she’ll love, she will have already been in love for a long time. It begins like this, capturing the moment the chords are strung but denying it until it becomes unbearable to ignore. Tenten thinks that her fancy for the Hyuuga man standing next to her is a fluke. And as it is unlikely an occurrence, it will go away. Her glare on him hardens and she turns away to look at the scenery that they can only imagine. Her heart wavers, even if it is only for a slight second. Why do I not want us to only be friends? Stupid! Don’t think like that!
“At least ask if you’re going to stare, Hyuuga,” Tenten replies to his apology. “I don’t know if I’ll break your nose the next time I catch you.”
“I understand,” he returns flatly.
Tenten sighs, letting out a breath to mingle with the fog. The sound of his voice is seeping into her skin. That bothersome thought breeches her mind again and Tenten decides to let it out of her mouth, “Say, were you two really just friends?” She can feel an unsettling awkwardness dwell at the soles of their feet. It is as if the ground might just electrocute her for inquiring more on someone she will never meet.
“Who?” Neji asks her as he shoves his hands into his pant pockets. His eyes keep straight at a floating point in front of him.
“That friend,” Tenten dumbly clarifies, “the one who resembles me.”
Neji blinks as if doing so will clear the distortion of her and Tenten. He does it slowly, revealing the same blank foggy mist back into vision. “We’re just friends,” he tells her.
“Just friends?” Tenten asks. “To the point where you’d want to live with me because I look like your friend?”
“I’ll be co-inhabiting with you,” Neji explains. “You’re a convenience to me and a familiar face. That is all.”
Neji is reminded of all the things he’s done with Tenten. He wonders if they’ll consider themselves friends or something more. With the woman standing beside him uttering a single syllable, Neji is afraid that his answer isn’t enough. “She and I,” he begins, “we’re inseparable when we’re together.” In the fog of the night, there is no light to cast the silhouettes, but somehow, Neji makes it work within his mind. In the far distance, he can see Tenten and him on missions they were assigned to together. “We work well together, we know each other’s weaknesses. There is no one who understands me better than her,” Neji winces. She probably understood why I did what I did, but she’ll never forgive me. He ceases to speak, realizing how devastated Tenten must have felt when he sacrificed himself.
Tenten feels her entire body sizzling with current when she’s listening to him. She understands now that they were more than just friends. It is evident in what the man says. She grips her phone tightly in her hand and forces herself to keep her eyes forward.
It seems to him that the woman standing beside him is also looking at the images he’s mentally projecting in front of them. Neji knows they both can’t see it, but it feels as if they both can. “I can attest that I miss her,” he confides to the woman next to him.
“When you saw me, did you feel as if you were more at ease?” Tenten asks him with her stiffened lips.
Neji nods, remembering the initial feeling of relief on that fateful night, “I did.”
“You must’ve loved her a whole lot.”
I didn’t love her. Neji could not reply to the woman. You’ve got it all wrong. Tenten is his comrade, a true friend that he’d keep for as long as he lived, though he didn’t even live that long.
Tenten's peripherals see him remove his hands from his pockets to cross his arms. She knows now that he’s defensively putting a barrier between her and himself. Tenten understands that his friend is dead, and now it’s become clear to her that their bond isn’t just a friendship. “Well, it’s a good thing I’m not her then,” Tenten projects, “I wouldn’t want you to start thinking she’s me and do something stupid.”
Neji turns a shoulder towards Tenten and frowns, “There’s a clear difference between the two of you and I know better than to confuse the both of you.” What she assumed about Tenten and him is incorrect. However, Neji did not feel the need to clarify whether he did love Tenten or not. He knows he did not love his comrade. He cannot even think of any reason to love her, willingly. But if there is any chance that the “Tenten” in this world is thinking of harboring any kind of affection for him, Neji believes he can use her assumption to fend for himself. To lie that he did love his comrade in order to evade this person’s potential desire for him, even if it is unlikely, he knows it will not hurt him for it is a harmless lie. “If you’re insinuating that I might just throw myself onto you, you don’t have to worry because I don’t have any affection of that sort towards you.”
“Thanks for defining the line where we stand,” Tenten tells him. “We’re co-inhabiting. Each for a gain.” She also turns to him and offers a hand to shake. “You can guarantee that my feelings for you are mutual, Neji. We are two different people put in an inescapable predicament. The least we can do is try to understand each other.” Neji stares at her hand extended out to him. He has no idea what she wanted from him. “Well?” Tenten asks, “are we in an agreement?”
“Agreement for what?”
“Mutual feelings for each other,” she replies, “mutual respect and understanding.”
Neji nods, “I agree.”
“Then let’s shake on it.”
“I’m not shaking anything.”
The corners of Tenten’s eyes crinkle as she attempts to make sense of his lack of her gesture. “Give me your hand,” she demands. Neji reluctantly raises his right hand and extends it out to her. Quickly, he feels her right hand come to wrap around his own tightly. Instinctively, he holds onto her’s as well before she shakes it twice. “There. Transaction complete. Now, I was thinking about our living conditions-”
Her hands are icy. Neji turns back to face the empty street with a heavy thumping in his heart. It is as if he’s grown a second heart the moment their hands voluntarily touched. Her grip is strong, much stronger than he believed. Neji wonders if that iciness and the smaller feel of her hands are exclusive to her. If I were to hold Tenten’s hands, would it be just like her’s? Would it feel like holding onto fragile glass? Would it feel like soft snow even when it holds a weapon? Neji is reminded of the feel of Tenten’s wrist when he yanked her grasp off of him in the hospital. How tiny it feels in the palm of his hands, Neji cannot help but compare its likeliness to his comrade. Because holding hands, exchanging willful holds of one’s hands aren’t something to be done in Konohagakure, Neji will never know how his comrade’s hands feel like in his own hand. He does not know why he thought so deeply about a touch that lasted less than three seconds. It never crossed my mind how much warmth it brings to me with such a simple hold of the hands. But regardless, I’ll never know, will I? How your hands fit with mine or the other way around.
“Oops, hold on-” Tenten is stopped midway of her proposal of their living conditions when her phone rang. Neji breaks from his daydreaming at the sound of her ringtone. The moment he sees her raising sleek item to her ear, he concludes that it is a phone. If he were to pay attention earlier, he would have seen her use her phone to call the police station. “Hey, Sai.”
“I come back to work and I’m met with your disappearance. What did you do?”
Tenten walks away from Neji towards her boxes and even farther from that for a bit of privacy, “Did you not see the goddamn news? I shot the wrong dude!” In that very moment, dim headlights appear. It pulls up to the entrance of the hospital, prompting Tenten’s face to light up with glee. “My ride's here!”
Sai pulls his phone away from his ear and connects it to his car instead, “I’m coming to you right now.”
“Sorry, what?” Tenten asks him as the connection starts to fail. “Hey, I’m going to have to call you later. I’m in the middle of nowhere right now. Get back to ya when I hit the town-”
“You what?” Sai questions. He is met with dead silence. The call has ended. “Tch, how can you leave without even letting me know?” You know how much I worry for you, you idiot. Sai steps on the gas and exits the Leaf District’s police station. It is already night but he is determined to see her.
A cheeky bowl-haired man in a tacky cerulean police uniform exits from the driver’s seat. Neji’s heart is blown into disarray when his eyes settle on the man. “Lee,” he murmurs lowly. Thankfully, the man did not hear his name being called. If he did, he might just question why Neji knows his name. Neji searches for a nametag in the case that he is questioned, but he did not need to.
“Hey, I’m Officer Lee,” he greets Neji with the same grin of that of his teammate and rival. His hair is unrivaled, even in this world, it shines like gold. The only apparent difference is the lack of grease and sweat coming from this man. Lee also looks paler than before.
Tenten smiles to Lee just as she finished speaking to Sai, “Bye,” she bids farewell to the other person on the line. Lee eyes Neji before turning his attention to Tenten. “Sorry about that,” she reaches out her hand to Lee, “Detective Tenten, here.”
“Yes!” Lee exclaims, “We’ve been waiting for your arrival!” He peers to Neji again as she shakes Tenten’s hand. Tenten walks forward to the driver’s side to unlock the trunk. Meanwhile, Lee eyes Neji again. “Who’s he?”
“That’s my profiler,” Tenten says as she rounds the car to pick up her boxes. She assumes that he’s talking about the person she was talking to on the phone. “Neji, help me,” she says.
With hardened eyes staring right back to Lee, Neji offers an extended hand out to him just as Tenten did. He supposes he should do what people do when they meet one another in this world, “Hyuuga, Neji,” he greets.
There is a glint in the round eyes of the other man. His demeanor changes and he immediately returns the handshake, “Hyuuga? Oh my— I didn’t think someone like you would be in our humble town!” Lee shakes Neji’s hand ferociously unlike Tenten. “And you’re a profiler too?”
Neji has no idea what a profiler is and can only give a nervous smile. Lee, even in this world, you still haven’t lost your enthusiasm. He glances towards Tenten who is mindlessly focusing onto hoisting up the second box into the trunk of the car. He releases his grasp on Lee’s hand and goes to the remaining two boxes.
“Indeed, I should have helped you earlier, Detective Tenten,” Lee grabs one of the boxes as he walks to the car. Tenten slams the trunk closed and opens the back seat door for him to put the box in. Neji follows after just steps behind.
“Call me Tenten,” she replies.
Lee sets the box onto the seat and backs away, “We didn’t think we’d receive a valuable detective like you, Tenten. You see, there’s not much here in Ame Village.”
“Oh, I know,” Tenten assures him.
“Lieutenant says you’re here to solve our village’s mystery case, I didn’t know you brought your own profi-”
“There’s not enough space,” Neji announces. Both Tenten and Lee peer at him holding his box. Neji turns to them with a blank expression, “If I put my box in the remaining seat, there won’t be enough space for the both of us.” He looks at Tenten.
Tenten puckers her lips and judges the situation. If the car was a newer model, we definitely won’t even be discussing about space.
“Why not just share a seat then?” Lee suggests.
Tenten scowls at Lee’s poor judgment. “I don’t mean to be a downer, but this car is too small. One seat will only fit me and maybe half of his torso.”
Lee strokes his nonexistent beard before turning to Tenten, “Well, our station does have a van. I can return for it.”
“No,” Tenten stops him. “I’m not waiting any longer in this weather. I need to get my house key before midnight.” She sighs in despair as the image of her sitting on Neji’s lap taints her mind. She will definitely not be sitting in the passenger seat and have the officer witness such an embarrassing situation. “Put the box in the passenger seat. We’re sitting in the back, you and I,” Tenten stares at Neji briefly before the image overwhelms her. She slams the backseat door closed and opens the passenger door.
“Here,” Lee ushers Neji to give him the box, “I can take that. The weather isn’t that nice around here. With that you’re wearing, you might as well be sick for the next three weeks!” Lee laughs, taking the box from him.
Neji still cannot wrap his mind around the idea of sharing a seat with Tenten. He does not know how their wide bodies will be able to be squeezed into a single section. In the brief moment of meeting Lee, Neji realizes that coincidentally, they are here together as Team Gai. No matter how much he dislikes Lee’s childish antics, he is beginning to miss him as well. If I’m to miss Tenten this much, will I be able to keep my composure with Lee around?
“Hey!” Neji snaps out of one of his deep thoughts as tenten yells at him. “I know you don’t want to do it, but I’m not letting you sit on me. Get over here.”
Neji is forced to enter the car to occupy the only space there is in the car. He still cannot believe that she does not understand that there is not enough space for the both of them, “Like I said, there’s-” His eyes widen, his breath is held, and his hands are in midair trying to make sense of what just happened. Neji feels the entire car shake when Tenten slammed the door closed. She is voluntarily sitting on top of him, such ludicrous of an act, he cannot make sense of her actions. Neji can feel Lee’s weight adding onto the car when he entered the driver’s seat. However, he cannot think about anything else other than how invasive Tenten is being to him right now. He can see her tug for the seat belt but to no avail. The car hasn’t even started up yet and the embarrassing awkwardness is already fuming in the back seat. Never has Neji ever let anyone invade his personal space unless he willingly allows them to. He has never let anyone sit on his lap nor ever thought about having anyone sit on his lap. His body is his own and there is always an unsaid barrier that every shinobi has. The closest anyone has ever breached this personal space was when his hand was held unwillingly by a jinchuuriki during his second chuunin exams. To have someone like Tenten, someone whom he considers to have an extensive background with encroach in his personal space, Neji feels that it is in violation of his personal rights. However, there is nothing that he can do. He knows that she does not want to be in this situation too.
Her weight does not crush him, it does not hurt him at all. If Neji is to excuse her rude imprudence, he might have found that having her sit on his lap isn’t as bad as it all seemed. Although it does come with an inherent amount of awkward shame and thin silence between him and her, he can’t say that he dislikes it. In the vicinity of her body, his shuddering breath escapes to the side of her back. Neji’s heart is not sitting well, it is as if a third heart has sprouted as well. This nervousness does not reside. Before long, he has found himself blushing redder than the color itself. From his cheeks to his ears, he can feel the heat radiating continuously. Because this is Tenten, a woman he dearly misses, because she is a remembrance of someone he’s decided to lie as a lover just earlier, Neji blushes heavily. If he had a mirror, his head might as well be red entirely. Imagining Tenten as anything other than a friend has never crossed his mind until now. With every second passing, Neji finds himself faltering. Would this ever be possible with you and me? Would holding your hands, even platonically, would it ever be possible if I were to be alive? He knows he does not love Tenten in any way. But the more this world’s Tenten is putting him through, Neji is beginning to have doubts as to whether it could be possible to love her, to love his comrade. I will never know, will I? Because the dead will never come back alive. When this world is over and I’ve found my reason for being here, my skirmish will end. All these regrets will be gone and I won’t want to think of holding your hand, or how yours fit in mine, or if I could have loved someone like you. But for now, all these regrets dwell within his consciousness. It makes him angry for dying so stupidly. It makes him angry at the woman sitting on top of his lap for putting him through this even though she wouldn’t know what she’s doing to him. Neji balls his fists at the sides of his thighs. I’m sorry, but I want to love you.
Tenten holds onto Lee’s seat just so that she won’t lean back whenever the man brakes or accelerate. She cannot even fathom to think about the possibilities of falling in love with a stranger right now, right as she’s in his lap. Tenten rummages through her box situated on the seat next to her whilst trying to avoid eye contact with the Hyuuga elite before pulling out one of her several earphones. Plugging in the cord to her phone, she tries to take her mind away from their embarrassing situation by listening to the recording she took earlier that evening.
It is a long series of footsteps and the clacking of Hinata’s heels that Tenten hears. After a while, a voice finally appears. Muffled but still audible, Tenten hears Hinata’s voice. “How did you come back here? I’m surprised you still recognize me in the years we’ve grown apart… Tell me, how much do you know?” Her questions are calculative, Tenten notes in her mind. How much does he know? She wonders about what the Hyuuga woman meant with that question.
“About you? About my father?... I’m not here for that.” Tenten hears Neji’s voice clearly. It is at that moment that she realizes how idiotic she is, trying to ignore his presence in the car with the recording, only to be listening to his voice anyway.
Tenten is about to turn off the recording, “Then what is your reason for sneaking back into Konoha? Are you here to take over the company?” Hinata’s voice spouts curious questions that piqued Tenten’s ears. Sneaking? Taking over the company? She recalls Sakura’s little comment about Neji’s eligibility to be the heir of the Hyuuga company. Is this what it’s all about? “I can do away with you in this instant with no repercussions, Neji… I’ll have you tumbling down the side of this building.” Tenten’s back tenses up when she discovers that she was right about her suspicions. Neji could’ve died up there. Why is there this much animosity between the two of them? Wait a second, what was the question that she asked? She rewinds the recording, “If you’re not here for the company nor for the investigation then why did you come all the way to Ame Village?”
“I came here to get away from all of you… isn’t that enough?”
“No, that’s not enough… you should’ve stayed overseas.” What proceeds afterward, Tenten can only assume that there was a little skirmish. She can hear someone grunt and stumble but that is all that there is for her to analyze.
“I came here because of the detective.” Tenten can feel her entire stomach convulse. Her eyes widen like a deer in headlights. Because he said I looked like his friend, that must be why.
“Why?” she hears Hinata ask him.
“I want to find a reason to live.” And in living, Tenten supposes she is his lifeline. Because his lover is gone, right? There is a pause in the recording, allowing Tenten to formulate her own speculations. Neji probably needs to resolve his issues with his deceased lover. Might be why he’s using me, sticking close to me to get over that person?
“You mean with that,” there is a hitch in Hinata’s tone. Tenten listens attentively, “You have feelings for her?”
Tenten feels as if her mind is going to lose plenty of brain cells. What idiot thinks that? Neji has told her he does not hold any affection for her. As far as she knows, their feelings are mutual. We’ve just shaken hands on it, silly- “I like her.”
The ambiance that pursues after resembles that of the noise in Tenten’s brain. She pauses the recording and releases her hold of Lee’s seat. Tenten is devastated. I did not just hear that. She will not believe his words at all. Even with herself being dumbfounded at that moment, she will not accept it. Lee accelerates, pressing his foot on the gas pedal, thrusting her back to Neji. She holds onto the seat again, but even then, with what occurs next, every cell within her body is telling her that she should believe in it.
Wrapped around her waist are his hands. Butterflies explode in Tenten’s stomach. Let go of me. I don’t want to believe in it. She begs in internally, pleading that his words are lies. However, his hands remain on her waist, possessing it as his own. Tenten’s heartbeat skyrockets to new lengths. She does not have the courage to turn around to look at him. Blood rushes to her ears first and then to her cheeks. Thankfully, he will never know because of the darkness of the night. Tenten looks down to her phone again and her thumb shakily rewinds the recording. Now, all that she needs to do is to press the play button. Keeping conscience of his soft clutch on her, she brings the phone up to her face to nibble on her thumb as her other hand holds onto the seat. She does not want to believe in his words. After a considerable amount of bickering with herself, Tenten presses the button. The grunts and the stumbles enter her ears again. She anticipates his soothing voice. “I like her.” Tenten loses her composure but manages to hold back a sigh. She leans her head onto the back of the headrest of Lee’s seat filled with defeat. Tenten rewinds it again, “I like her.” She closes her eyes in denial. Do I choose to believe that you like me? Or that you hold no affection for me? So far, she’s only experienced one thing that may constitute affection from him and that was when she caught him looking at her on the night that she lets him stay in her home for the night. Could he be lying to me then? But he hasn’t tried to indicate directly that he likes me. Except, with this, she opens her eyes to stare at his hands still caressing her waist. He should have removed it long ago after her initial falter but he did not. Conflicted, Tenten foregoes her foolish breakdown. She understands now that Neji is more of a complicated person than she believed. He lies and does it so evidently well. She chooses to accept what he told her than to who she’s heard from her recordings. However, Tenten knows that she will never throw away his confession to Hinata.
Could this be considered as being bold? The thought flashes past his mind more than ten times since he’s decided to keep his hands on her waist. Neji will never have the audacity to hold Tenten in this way ever back in Konohagakure simply because he respects her too much. However, that does not mean that he does not respect this “Tenten” sitting in his lap. The sudden touch is an attempt to stabilize her body from hitting his face, but the act of keeping them there is solely out of his own choice. Neji knows that he is better than that to take advantage of the situation for his own gain. But temporarily, he only wants to hold her as he is. I must be insane, I’m not myself anymore. That instance is gone, the time is up. The brevity of his touch is over. Hesitantly, Neji removes his hands from her waist. He has no right to do this to her or to put her under pressure. If I were to hold Tenten like this, I would have been impaled. Then again, I wouldn’t know. Neji returns his hands back to his side to look out of the window. He is met with a dim reflection of himself. And not wanting to look at himself, he turns his attention to the sweater on her back. Neji wonders if the scar marks from her back are here on this “Tenten’s” back. He has only seen it once by chance. The blade of the fan is faint but he remembers it clearly.
“How much longer until we arrive, Lee?” Tenten musters her weak voice out to him.
Lee ponders that question, “Hm, I’m not sure. The fog thickens at night, maybe in about thirty minutes?”
Lee’s time is not exact, but Neji takes it as it is. To distract himself, he counts the seconds and minutes until he reaches the time given.
When the car stops, the door immediately flies open. Neji is relieved of the tension of being stuck with her for forty-five minutes. He steps out of the car after her and wipes the nonexistent sweat from his forehead before proceeding to take out her belongings from the police car.
From the moment they entered the car up to when she opened the door to her new house, they have never exchanged any type of words nor acknowledgments. The first thing she tells him when he followed after her through the door of her home is, “Uh, I guess you can shower first.” Instead of doing so, he helps her unpack the bits that she owned until she handed him her towel. She avoided his eyes, which is to be expected, “I suppose I’ll take you shopping tomorrow for your necessities, Neji.”
Neji takes the towel from her hands and searches for the pieces of clothes she got from Kakashi, “Sure.” Brief and final, he heads for the bathroom.
When the bathroom door closes, Tenten sighs and facepalms. What am I going to do? There is a man of the elite class stuck to her ribs. He may be weird and dim-witted towards the daily basics, but that is his only flaw. I can already feel it. That denial of falling in love with this idiot of a guy. It is bothering her this much, to the point where she’s putting the cold case second to her conundrum. Should I just ask him? Do I just confront him and ask him? Tenten bites her lower lip hard and flips open the case files in an attempt to draw her mind back to why she is here.
The bathroom vent fan works poorly compared to the one back in the city. As Neji clothed his lower portion, he wipes the narrow mirror with his hand to reveal a reflection of himself. He will need to change the gauze on his wound, but it is not what’s on his mind at the moment. In the reflection, Neji finally takes in the trivial details of his body. Upon a closer look, he realizes that it is his own aged body. He is not occupying someone else’s own body and life. He is here as himself but he has aged. The marks of his battle with Kidomaru is still on his body. It is the only blemish that he recalls being marked with. Everything else is the same, he is still toned from head to toe. Coming closer to the mirror, instead of focusing on the absence of his curse mark, Neji takes in the new wrinkles on his face. It is faint, almost nonexistent if being stared at from a short distance. The stubble on his chin is making themselves apparent as well, though barely. So this is what I’d look like if I was alive. It fascinates him. Maybe I’m just put here to come to the realization that I’m regretful of what could’ve been. But I’ve already felt that. He concludes that this is not the reason why he’s here because if he was, he would have been gone a long time ago.
Neji steps out of the bathroom with a bare torso whilst drying his hair. His eyes lock with Tenten standing in the middle of the living room who is holding a comb and the same hairdryer in her hands. He can see a pink tint arise on her cheeks. It is then that Neji realizes that his entire chest is exposed. However, it does not faze him much.
“U-uh,” Tenten gulps and takes a tiny step towards him, “can I have my towel?” That is not the question she wanted to ask. Neji reluctantly hands her the towel, not wanting to use the hairdryer to dry his own hair. Tenten exchanges the items in her hands for her towel, avoiding his entire being by looking behind him. It is now or never, Tenten, ask him. Her inner voice beckons her to say it. Tenten pushes through and walks past him. Her lips press thinly as she reaches the bathroom door. “Hey,” Tenten turns around to him.
Neji returns the same demeanor, “What?” Both of them are apprehensive.
“I know it sounds stupid but I just need to confirm,” Tenten finally reaches his gazes, “do you like me?”
“Alright. Good,” she states. Clumsily, Tenten rushes back to get her clothes on the kitchen counter before returning to the bathroom. Okay, you’ve got your answer now. So stop your heart from quivering and focus on the mission. Get the case solved and get your job back, Tenten. She presses her back against the door and lets out a slow deep breath. Tenten knows she will give in.
Her question escapes his mind completely, not that it isn’t meaningful, but because they’ve already discussed this before. He sits down to dry his hair. Neji points the hairdryer away from his face towards a pile of papers Tenten left lying about. He did not think about it much and turns the tool on. The hot air blows, fluttering a stray piece of paper from its original place. Neji points the tool to his hair, letting it dry his hair as he peers over to the fallen paper. It is a paper of a printed picture. Upon closer inspection, he discovers the unmistakable marks on the person’s cheeks. Neji picks up the paper with his free hand and holds it to the light of the living room. “Ah, it’s a picture of-” he squints at the person in the image. Neji’s heart is shaken. It is a picture of a deceased, a woman, not too young or old. On her face marks the familiar three streaks of lines on each cheek. Riddled with blood oozing from the fresh cuts on her face, Neji stares at the dead’s half-opened eyes. It is the jinchuuriki who shook his hand in his second chuunin exams.
Chapter 9: Murder on the Road
The first night sleeping next to Tenten didn't go as well as Neji thought. It did not help that he got punched the morning after either. At least he knows that Naruto is here as well after examining the incident on the road.
The picture is in color and few of the others are in black and white. Neji is not someone who will look into places that are not his’, but he never would have done so so conspicuously if not for the fact that he cannot activate his byakugan in this world. Come to think of it, Neji isn’t even sure if he can summon enough chakra to walk on walls or on water. He hasn’t tried to sprint yet and it just crossed his mind that he hasn’t tried attempting them. My body is not in the condition to try them at all. It’s as if I’m far weaker here than back home. He believes that it is this pain that prevents him from summoning chakra to use as he pleases. Not now, there are matters more pressing than my pain. Neji dries his hair first before sifting through her papers.
Drying his hair her way makes his hair frizzy. He must have done it incorrectly because this knappy type of hair did not occur when Tenten was the one who dried his hair. Regardless, Neji manages to comb his hair thoroughly. He slips on one of Kakashi’s loose long sleeve blouse.
In searching for more pictures of what he believes to be a report of a series of related crimes, he finds seven photos. All of them had a victim, accounting the identical three scarred marks on both cheeks. The bodies are bloodied, slashed in the stomach region below the right ribcage. The cut is clean and the swirl mark on their abdomens are written in their blood. The gruesome gore did not perturb him for he has seen worse. Neji lays out all seven photos onto the kitchen counter under the blare of the light to examine their similarities. The marks on their cheeks remind me of Naruto. And her, why is she murdered like this? Neji does not know much about the other jinchuurikis because he’s already had his hands full with Naruto. However, he does know that Gaara is one of them but he is not here in these series of photos. Naruto is not here either. The only thing he can come up with that connects all of these people together is that they are simply, “Jinchuuriki.”
Neji jerks, not expecting her to shower so quickly. She always somehow manages to sneak up on him, and for that, Neji does not like it. She dons a two-piece pajama, reminiscent of what Tenten always wear to bed in Konohagakure. “What exactly are these?” he asks her.
Tenten ambles towards him with her damp towel hung over her shoulders. Her hair looks dry, but not quite. Neji tries not to let his mind stray from the topic at hand, but the aspect of her unusual aura always occupies a majority of his concentration. Consequently, he takes a small step to the side as she enters his proximity. He knows they’ve agreed on mutuality, and he’d like to keep it that way, but that does not mean he’ll suggest otherwise, especially when she’s making herself all too comfortable around him. Stationed to the side, he directs his eyes to her and back to the photos on the counter, reflecting the crisis in his head.
“Victims,” she tells him. “I know you haven’t been in Konoha since you were a child, but have you heard of the Ame Serial Murders?”
“I haven’t,” he replies. Neji draws back from the counter, taking in the coiled length of her damp curls.
Tenten collects all of the photos into her palm and proceeds to return them to the file folder accordingly, “All you need to know is that you can’t touch these things. It’s my job to solve this case and ship myself a one-way ticket back home.” She turns to him after closing the folder, “What did you say earlier?”
Neji raises a brow to her, “What are you talking about?”
“The chinchura thing you said.”
“Jinchuuriki?” Tenten repeats after him, “what does human sacrifice have to do with anything?”
“I don’t know what it has to do with your case either,” Neji retorts. “Just an assumption.”
Tenten furrows her brows and ends up making her own suspicions following his “assumption”. “You’re stupid.”
Neji scoffs while walking past her to the futon laid out in the living room. He has never disliked her this much. To be more exact, Neji finds her to be more difficult to like than the Tenten he knows. At least, Tenten was willing to respect his space and privacy. As for this woman, she’d cross over all aspects of personal distances and spout nonsensical things as if they’re facts. “Why is that?”
“Because there’s no correlation. The ties to human sacrifice regarding this case are only theoretical. We’ve all been there thinking all sorts of possibilities,” Tenten leans down to find the documents that she read earlier, “the liver being the only organ missing from all of these victims. The same marks on their faces, the swirl print on their abdomen from their own blood-” she takes out a stapled stack of papers and holds it up for him to see. Meanwhile, Neji merely lays down to sleep. “It might’ve been a religious thing or a cult, but that’s why I’m here.”
Neji pulls the covers to his ears, laying on his side to face her, “You talk a lot.”
Tenten shrugs, “I talk because that’s how I network and solve cases, stupid. And this is how I am. Deal with it.”
“I don’t mind,” Neji replies softly. “You’re quiet when you have to. It’s all that matters.”
Tenten is stumped. For the first time in a while, she cannot have the last word. By default, Tenten informally turns away from his sleepy gaze. She coughs and clears her throat, trying not to let his outlandish praise get to her. He is mean and blunt. If not for his stupidly handsome face I would’ve broken his pretty bridged nose. She pouts, thinking of a jab worthy to hurt his self-esteem. After a few seconds, Tenten swings around and lands an index finger at his face, “Your hair is frizzy!”
Neji stares at her with discontent. He is reminded of how Tenten always acts whenever she berates Lee. And here, her doppelganger is berating him instead. He’s never been the victim of her crude criticisms and to experience them here, it feels refreshingly reminiscent. “Are you jealous?” he asks her. He knows that "his" Tenten has indirectly complimented his hair before behind his back. She does it discreetly whenever he’s not around but it always somehow comes back to his ears.
“I’m not jealous,” Tenten lies. Her execution isn’t as flawless as his’. Curse you.
It’s evident that she is indeed jealous, maybe even envious of his locks. Quite a few people in Konohagakure has told him before how healthy his hair is. And so to see how transparent and open she is in front of him, Neji cannot help but be drawn to her witty personality. “Then go to sleep,” he tells her off. Neji turns around, facing away from her. If he is to keep her within his gaze for longer, he might just convince himself that this is the real Tenten.
She gives up. Bickering with someone who she’s trying to avoid liking will only make things worse. Tenten takes note of the cold draft in her home from the outside weather seeping in through the poorly hinged front door. She looks for the thermostat. After pacing about like an idiot, not wanting to be anywhere near the supposedly sleeping man, Tenten catches a glimpse of what she believes to be the thermostat mounted to the living room wall. She curses herself. The thermostat is situated across from her with him on the ground laid so conveniently to block her from reaching her destination. Tenten frowns at him for being too tall that when he lays down, he has made it so that the only way she’d reach the thermostat is to walk over him. She also curses the higher-ups for choosing such a shabby and quaint home for her. Her new home is nothing but a studio, an old traditional apartment with a minuscule kitchen, fair bathroom, and a room wide enough for her to lay herself to sleep. Tenten seethes and slowly tiptoes her way to his side.
There she is, standing over him at his back, peering down to see if he’s asleep already in order to conduct her rude leap over his body. Tenten carefully watches as his eyelashes flutter. It is not before long that she begins to bask in this ethereal enigma in front of her. Even with his frizzy hair, probably due to the humidity in the air, she finds herself locked on the abnormality of him and how they’ve come to this point. Time and time again, though she’s caught herself and stopped herself from pursuing the thought any further, Tenten is enamored of him. What are the chances that someone like you would come tumbling down to me? I find it so unlikely. Even after promising on our mutuality, I’m still wishing for more than this. The cold bites her skin, shivering her awake from the second-too-long trance she’s placed upon herself.
Tenten snaps up and straightens her back. He’s asleep. Confirming for herself, she lifts her left foot and drags it over his body like a crane, all the while, keeping an eye on him to make sure his eyes stay closed. As both her feet planed the wood floors, she takes one last glance at him before focusing on the old thermostat. Are thermostats supposed to have a knob?
The floor isn’t as stable as it should be. Whenever weight is put on it, Neji can feel its distribution easily. And so when he pretended to be asleep, he can feel her weight shifting from where she stood as she strode over him. He opens his eyes and finds her bare soles a foot from him. She really thinks I’m an idiot. Rising his gaze up, Neji notices that she is fiddling with what he believes to be a thermostat. All that for this? He closes his eyes and returns to sleep. For a good minute or two, Neji is blessed with silence. He nudges the thin blanket that she had closer to his face to combat the cold. He only hopes that she’ll step over him without waking him up. That did not happen. Neji can hear her become agitated. She grumbles and shivers, her teeth chatters consequently. Neji cracks his eyes open and glowers. “I’m trying to sleep-”
“AH!” Tenten lurches, stabbing her finger straight into a live electric current as she’s taking out the old thermostat. Her entire body jolts as the electric energy vibrate throughout her limbs. His sudden voice has scared her. Neji springs up to a sitting position just as the short shock ended. He manages to shoulder her fall onto the ground. She lands with her entire upper body splayed on his lap. Tenten has no idea what just happened. She has never been electrocuted before and she believes this might just be it. Tenten stares at the light bulb of the living room before they stray to the ceiling. “I’m dead.”
Neji blinks blankly, staring at her dramatic pose as he holds her from crushing his thighs, “No, you’re not.” He can feel a mild pain coming from his wound but it does not worry him.
Tenten’s eyes flash towards Neji, she hasn’t the time to be embarrassed about being held in his arms, “I think I’m done for today.”
“I told you to go to sleep.”
She pouts, lifting herself from him before securing the towel over her shoulders. Neji eyes her carefully as she makes her way across the living room to turn the light switch off. She then collects her phone on the countertop before making her way back to her futon. Tenten sets an alarm for the early morning and plops on the hardwood floor next to him. Her hair is barely dry but she reckons it’ll matter in the morning since she does not have her pillow. “You know, I’ll let you keep the futon and pillow and blanket. I’m gonna buy new ones for myself tomorrow.” She lays down on the floor with her back facing him. She folds her towel to use as a makeshift pillow.
Neji huffs, retorting to what she said. There is no way he’s going to let her sleep in that condition. “We can share the futon and blanket for tonight.”
“Fine,” he has offered and that is her answer. Neji lays back flatly onto her futon and takes one last look at her. She’s unwilling to budge. He closes his eyes and returns to sleep.
Tenten lifts her phone up to see the time. Thirty-seven minutes has passed by. Geez, how am I gonna sleep? She’s been bearing the freezing temperature in those minutes harshly. He can’t even offer up one more time? Tenten slowly faces him. Oh how tempting it is to yank my blanket back. Tenten reaches out to touch the hem of her blanket. She misses it dearly even though they’ve parted for less than a day. Without warning, his hand protrudes from the blanket to smack her tug on the blanket. Tenten coils her arm back immediately, frowning at him, “The f-”
Neji slowly opens his eyes before angling his head to her, “Do you want to share the futon and blanket for tonight?” he asks her once more.
Those gray eyes stare back at her while his silky voice caves into her ears. Tenten’s expression softens and she nods. “Just for tonight.” Without replying, he scoots to the edge of the futon, allowing her to join the other opposite side of the bed. Tenten takes the pillow and sandwiches it between them. With half of her futon and blanket owned, she falls into a heavy sleep.
Neji hasn’t dreamed once in this world until tonight. His dream is almost that of an escapade from this alien world, almost, in that it really isn’t anything between this world and his world. In the dream, it is pitch black and he cannot move. It is almost as if he is in sleep paralysis. But instead of being able to see his surroundings when he opens his eyes, to see Tenten’s new home and to see her sleeping next to him, all that there is, is blackness. For a long time, Neji is stuck in that darkness. He cannot hear anything at all until the sound of faint footsteps treading short grasses enters his ears. The footsteps come closer to him. It sounds as if it is above him when it stopped. Neji listens attentively, waiting to see if the person above him will speak. There is an unspeakable silence that pervades his space. For a split second, he believes that what he heard must have been a delusion. And then, without any warning, without caution for him to prepare himself, Neji hears her voice. Clearly, almost tangible, as if she’s speaking to him from a barrier, perhaps from behind a glass, Neji hears Tenten’s shaking voice.
“Hyuuga, Neji.” Her voice echoes to him, it ripples to him like a wave of water. He’s longed to hear her say his name so much. With that tone, a slight cadence followed by a breathy short intake, as if saying his name takes so much effort to conjure, he knows that it is Tenten, "his" Tenten. Only she can wholeheartedly bring his attention to her with just her voice. “Sorry for not coming sooner. I’ve been quite thoughtless these past few days.”
He couldn’t say anything back to her, no matter how hard he tries. His mouth wouldn't move, it cannot move. In fact, it is as if he's a hollow body taking space in a barrier. Is this all that I can do? Listen to you? I want to see you. In this dream, he can’t even will himself to wake up.
“Has it been five days? Six? Well, at least I’m here now, right?” The harsh blow of wind rustles the leaves of trees. Her voice takes a break. It pauses, it shatters itself. She is crying, Neji can hear the pressure of her chords trying to hold it back. Tenten is crying but he’ll never be able to see it. He hears a thud right above him. Her cries have become louder, closer even to him. The sudden burst of her silent wailings stops him from breathing. It is not a cry like all the other times he’s witnessed her. Her breaths are filled with sorrow with every take, with every exhale, as if the pain is both stripped and forcefully put back into every short hyperventilation. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I could’ve helped you, I could’ve saved you from being here.” Her shudders, her hurtful sniffs, he’s never heard of these cries before. With every hitch of her breath, he is in pain with her. “From all the times I’ve watched your back, I couldn’t protect it when you needed it the most, I’m sorry.” Her voice trails off into a lonely silence, coupled with her snuffles sprinkled across that dead plane. Her footsteps have never left. Neji knows she’s still here. Between them, there is a muteness that seems to stay for longer than it should. “I wish I could say that I don’t miss you so I won’t be here for so long,” In that long breathing space, she has become calmer. But to him, the resurgence of her voice makes his heart wrench. “Please visit me in my dreams here and there. Don’t be too greedy with Lee, come to me too.” It seems as if their blind meeting is coming to an end. “I’ll be back again soon.”
The sound of her footsteps lowers with every step. Neji couldn’t even breathe when all that accompanies him is the same darkness again. With the stillness of lonely silence, he replays her words to him in his head. Before long, Neji is thrust awake. He opens his eyes to the dark ceiling of Tenten’s new home. Neji’s heart pangs, he is wrong, believing that he had crossed back to his world. Neji is sure that the person talking to him is his comrade. There is not a single change in her voice or in the way that she said it. Turning his head towards the woman sleeping beside him, the tears that have unknowingly welled up in his eyes fall with sorrow. Slow, and speckled with a glint of the night’s gray light, it blemishes his cheekbone, crossing over the bridge of his nose like a wave that must be overcome. Neji gazes into the familiar sleeping face facing him. Please visit me in my dreams… come to me too, he imagines those words coming from her lips. Gracelessly, he wipes his tears with his thumb and fingers, meshing the salty tears across his cheeks. It has been years since he’s cried. His heart is shaking violently. The image of her is tangibly in his face, and yet, it is not truly her he is looking at.
Despite waking from the dream, the unpleasant heartache still rests in his chest. Only because you’re here reminding me so much of her, it is why I’m like this. Neji’s lips part and he inhales a thin breath through his teeth. A nostalgic feeling spreads throughout his mind. Even though I’m like this, I still want to stay. Because of you. Gentle fingers reach out to the person sleeping away in front of him. Quietly and softly, as not to disturb her sleep, he brushes her curls away lovingly. His hand rests lightly on her neck, caressing her kindly within his mind. Neji hallucinates his comrade onto the woman resting peacefully. As if on cue, heavy teardrops escape his eyes. Neji feels a tight lump at his throat and instinctively brings his other hand to cover his mouth. Tears blurry his vision of his sight of her and he blinks. He does not want to lose the image of her. Neji has realized it now how much he regrets dying. Will I ever be this bold with you, Tenten? Will I ever have the courage to touch you like this? I realized my mistake now, but I’ll never be able to come back. The woman stirs, evaporating that still image of his comrade. Neji retracts his hand, wondering if she will open her eyes but she never did. Releasing the tension in his lungs, he exhales slowly, dispelling the lump in his throat. Frozen in place as he is, all that Neji wants to do is to keep her in his sight. Even if it hurts, he still wants to behold her in his vision. This will be the only place where I’ll ever be able to see someone like you. And because the realization of my longing for you isn’t the reason why I’m here, I will keep this person close to me until I return. His hands smear his tears across the plane of his cheeks once more. Neji places both his hands to his chest, holding his heart, trying to keep it quiet, I’m sorry for loving you so late.
Mutuality. The word gleams on her face as the light outside announces that morning has come. Neji could not sleep after that dream. He didn’t think much about the woman sleeping in front of him. He is stuck reminiscing the distant memories of Tenten with him in battles. Across plains and forests, in the loose memories of them alone from the piercing eyes of others, the various angles of her profile, of her posture, her sturdy body several feet away from him, always behind him, watching his back, Neji can only imagine himself being the one to watch her because he couldn’t do them when he was alive. If I found that you were my purpose for living and thriving on forward, I would have never jumped in front of anyone. You must be alive, right? You spoke to me as if you’ve been doing fine. As long as you’re well, I’m happy. Neji sits up, giving what’s left of the woman’s blanket to her. He will have to move on with this world until he can return home to the dead.
Neji rummages through one of her half-empty boxes where he last saw his gauze and bandages that Sakura gave to him before entering the bathroom. Meeting the reflection of himself, he is disgusted with himself. He hates himself for being so blind. With just two fateful days stuck in the presence of his comrade’s alternate version, he’s realized that he has loved his comrade. If it was so easy to find these feelings for you here, why couldn’t I find it while I was alive? Neji turns on the faucet, preparing to cleanse his face. “I’ll never be able to love you.”
Putting on the finishing touches to his bandages, Neji hears the doorbell ring. He tucks the end of the bandage in and grabs his shirt before opening the door. Out into the hallway with a clear view of the front door and the futon, Neji notices that she has been awakened by the noise. She yawns with an angry face, “Can you get that?” she asks him while reaching for her phone. Neji nods, reverting back to the self that she knows. He puts on his shirt as he makes his way to the door. Tenten looks at the time on her phone. It’s barely 5:26, I’ve got a whole thirty minutes left before my alarm. "Who the hell is here at this hour?”
Neji opens the door widely just as he pulls down the hem of his shirt to reveal an extremely familiar face. Sai? “Uh-”
“Who the hell are you?” Sai asks him rudely.
“Who’s that?” Neji hears Tenten’s voice from behind. He moves to the side of the door so that she can see who the person is.
Sai’s eyes widen the moment he sees Tenten laying on the futon. Reminded of the last seconds of the weird man fixing his shirt as he was in the middle of opening the door, his heart drops. Who is this man? Sai glares at Neji, meeting his pale white eyes. Don’t tell me, a Hyuuga? His breath hitches. Despite the man being of the elite class, Sai cannot contain his anger. His fists shake and he lands a punch onto Neji’s face.
“What the hell!” Tenten screams, stumbling up as fast as she can to hold Sai back from hitting her co-inhabitant. If he hits Neji anywhere near his abdomen, she will not forgive him. Tenten grabs Sai’s leather jacket and tries to push him back from pummeling the already injured man, “Sai, stop!”
“How could you?!” Sai yells at her. “You know how much I worry for you!”
Neji, who has fallen to the ground, uses the wall to support himself up as he sees Tenten trying to stop the man from pursuing him. He did not think that Sai would hit him, at least, not that hard. Neji brushes a thumb onto the blood oozing from the side of his lower lip. He bites his lower lip, sucking on the cut as he stands up.
Tenten manages to thrust Sai out from her doorway and out onto the pathway. It is only then that she releases her grasp on his jacket. “Shut up!” she howls to him. Sai huffs, regaining his balance from Tenten’s forceful thrust. He stands up straight and adjusts his jacket. Tenten catches her breath and places her hands on her hips as Neji stands quietly by the doorway. “Why did you do that?”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were seeing someone else? A Hyuuga at that?” Sai bursts. “If you told me sooner, I wouldn’t be chasing you like-”
“What are you talking about?” Tenten cuts him off. From Sai’s confession, she understands now that he has misunderstood her relationship with Neji. But with how rash he’s acting, Tenten believes she needs to make it clear to him, “You’re not my boyfriend. Why would I-”
“I’ve made it clear on many occasions, Tenten. How many times have I told you I like you? How many times have I come running to you-”
“You misunderstood, Sai. None of that matters. I don’t like you. I’ve told you I don’t date coworkers. Everything you’ve said is everything we’ve done as good companions only.”
“Tell me I’ve got it wrong, that he’s not your boyfriend. That you both did not sleep together,” Sai demands.
Neji stares at Tenten’s back, disregarding how her hair looks when it’s down. He wonders what she’s going to say.
Tenten scrutinizes her former profiler. You just won’t let it rest, won’t you? “We slept together,” she tells him. “He’s-” she stutters, “he’s my boyfriend.” The shock on Sai’s face is reflected back onto Neji’s as well. “You’re not supposed to be here. You’ve wasted your time, Sai. Go back home.” Tenten flips around towards Neji and shoves him to the side, “Move.” Sai watches as she enters her home before she slams the door closed. He sighs, filled with uneasiness and irritation.
Even though it is a lie, her meaningless lie means a bit too much for Neji. He takes a glance at her glowered expression, “Are you okay?”
“I should be the one to ask you, damn it,” Tenten replies. She turns to him with an open chest, her eyes resting on the red cut on his bottom lip, “don’t mind what I said.”
“I won’t,” he tells her.
Tenten directs her pupils to meet his’, “I mean it.”
They both can lie however much they want, Neji makes note of their similarities. As long as you don’t know, everything will be fine.
Tenten bites her inner cheek as the red cut on his lips becomes more daring to her eyes. It reminds her constantly that it is her fault for it being there. Whether I did shoot you or not, it looks like it’s my bad luck for you constantly getting hurt. She resists the urge to touch the cut. It is becoming easier to want to reach for him whenever he stands so still, waiting for her to act. It is as if it is an invitation to test their mutuality. Tenten steps towards the bathroom, breaking their eye contact, “Watch those eyes of yours, I’ll poke them out if you don’t stop staring at me.” She paces to the bathroom and closes the door. I'm too mean, too foul-mouthed. But it’s for my own good, right? Tenten knows she’s compensating her weak mind. She believes that speaking illy to him will make herself detach from the pesky feelings she knows is sprouting for him. If not for his calm demeanor, or his silky voice, or this unexplainable attraction that’s drawing her to him, Tenten would have thrown her affection down the shoot. I don’t even like how he looks. His hair is stupid. He’s stupid. His clothes are stupid. His voice is stupid. Why is everything about him beckoning me to store all of it in my heart? Am I stupid?
When Tenten exits the bathroom the second time with a fitting outfit for the chilly weather, she finds Neji folding her blanket neatly and clearing the living room. She breathes in just as her stomach growls loudly. “Oh god,” she exhales, “I haven’t eaten anything since the move.” Neji walks to her with her phone in his hand. He gives it to her. “You must be hungry.”
“I can manage,” he tells her.
“You better,” she replies, “you have no job.” Neji frowns at her.
At that exact moment, there is a series of knocks at her door. Tenten snaps her head to the door and she wonders why the person did not use her doorbell. She and Neji approach the door cautiously, unsure if Sai had left because only ten minutes have passed. Tenten pulls the door open slowly, revealing Lee on the other side. “Lee?” she and Neji simultaneously say.
Lee greets them both with a cheeky grin. “There’s this stylish car over there,” he points to the end of the pathway leading to her home, “I was wondering if it belonged to you but there’s already a man inside. This is the most visitors I’ve seen coming to Ame Village since I came here.”
“Is there a summon for me?” Tenten asks. “I still have one more day to settle down here before starting work.”
“Oh, I know,” Lee states, “I suppose your profiler is close to you,” he glances up to Neji and they both make eye contact. “Are you two like a formidable team?”
Tenten squints, crinkling the corners of her eyes. She believes he’s speaking about Sai, “I guess?”
Lee smiles widely and takes in a big breath through his nostrils, “That’s great then! It’ll be easier to contact both of you since you two live under the same roof.”
“Wait, what?” Tenten tilts her head to Neji, “Profiler?” she asks the white-eyed man, “you?” Neji shrugs.
“I actually came here to ask if you’d like to take a look at the incident at the rice field road,” Lee tells her. “I think it’s best that you come with me right now, Detective.”
Tenten gives Lee a puzzled look before nodding, “Neji, I’ll be back with breakfast-”
“He’s coming as well,” Lee interrupts her. He gives a reassuring stare to Neji.
“He’s right,” Neji adds in. Tenten shifts her confused gaze to her co-inhabitant with her mouth agape. “I should come along, I’m a profiler.”
Tenten is flabbergasted, “No you’re not.”
“I’d love to learn more about the both of you but my superior is awaiting your arrival,” Lee cuts in. His kind smile stops their mild argument, “I can order food for when we head back to the police station since you both haven’t had breakfast. Can you wait just a bit longer?”
“Definitely,” Neji replies. He slightly nudges Tenten to the side and slips on the pair of shoes she had him wear yesterday. With time wasting away, Tenten does not bother to question Neji’s sudden credentials. She follows both of them, but not before grabbing her lucky jacket, her badge, wallet, phone, and Kakashi’s letter. He said we’re going to the police station. I might as well bring it.
It is obvious that Sai is pursuing their car. However, no one, not even Lee minds him. In front of them, as the fog is thinning, Tenten can make out a large truck tumbled over down the three feet or so edge of compounded dirt that has been erected for the road. The closer they reach the incident, the clearer the truck appears. “It’s the moving truck.” She can see a group of farmers speaking to a taller man by another police car as an officer secures the scene. Lee stops the car and turns it off, allowing all three of them to dismount. Tenten approaches the man speaking with the farmers, “Hello, I’m-”
“Detective!” The man turns to her with an ecstatic grin, “thank you, Mrs. Han, you too Mr. Tata,” he excuses them, “we’re still on for karaoke night tomorrow right?” Tenten watches as he points a thumbs up at the old farmer. “Haha,” the man chuckles before giving her his attention. He sighs with satisfaction, his arms rest on his hips, “Detective, it is my pleasure to be working with you. I’m Captain Maito Gai!” It is at that moment that Tenten feels Neji standing behind her right shoulder, he is now in her peripherals. “But you can call me Captain Gai for short if you want— who are you?” he asks Neji.
Tenten tilts her head to Neji. Confidently, Neji extends his arm out to the man who looks like his teacher, “Hyuuga Neji,” he greets the older man, staring right back at Tenten, “profiler.” She rolls her eyes at him.
“Hyuuga? Really?” Gai is astonished, “I didn’t get any word of a prestigious higher-up coming to our village. Are you sure you’re not mistaken?”
Neji shakes his hand, “I’m not supposed to be here, you see-”
“Ah, so like, you're here as an undercover thing?” Lee jumps in.
“May I see the crime scene?” Tenten stops the conversation.
“Well, of course!” Gai interjects, “the incident is related to your case, after all.”
Tenten pulls out the letter and hands it to Gai, “From Hatake, Kakashi.” She glares at Neji, tugging on his thin shirt, “Come with me.” Loudly from behind, she and Neji turn around to see Sai pacing past them towards the yellow tape. “Sai-”
“Who is that?” Gai asked as he holds the letter close to his chest.
“I think he knows our detective, Cap.,” Lee clarifies. “I saw him waiting for them at her new home.”
Tenten releases her minor hold of Neji and pursues Sai past the yellow tape. Neji follows after them. “Sai, you can’t just barge in, it’s not your case-”
“I thought you said you don’t date co-workers,” Sai retorts. He jumps down the three feet edge of the road onto the icy dirt and rounds the fallen truck, “and he’s a profiler too.”
“What’s the deal?” Tenten jumps down after him, “he’s not even supposed to be here. We’re not co-workers, he’s not even a profiler.”
Sai takes gloves from the officer standing by the truck and begins to put them on, “And I’m not your co-worker anymore. Can we talk about this later? I’m trying to investig-”
“If you’re not my co-worker anymore you don’t butt into my investigation and claim it as yours,” Tenten grabs a pair of gloves before dashing to Sai. She grabs him on the sleeve and yanks him back violently. “This is why I don’t like you. When you’re angry, you do what you want. You never listen to anyone.”
In their own frenzy, Neji slides past them, snapping on the gloves towards the crime scene. He disregards their childish antics, not wanting to engage in something he did not care about.
“Look at you, driving all the way over here, and for what? To see if I’m fine?” Tenten releases her hold of his sleeve, “You’re crazy.”
“And you’re not?” Sai bites back. “You just slept with someone. Did you think he’s going to give you a better job when you get back to the city? Because he’s someone with connections? Is that why you did it?”
Tenten slaps Sai hard. To be degraded by someone she considers a friend hurts more than she expected. “I don’t cheat my way up,” she seethed, “don’t tell me that all of my hard work getting here is shit when all you did to get your job is by fucking the Chief’s daughter and then dumping her a month later. You think I won’t tell Inoichi your dirty secret?” Tenten turns away from him. “If you’re going to help, be professional about it.” She walks past the truck to find Neji standing at the scene. What the— when did he- “Neji.”
“Shh,” he sounds. Neji is trying to make sense of what he’s seeing. He walks past Tenten towards the head of the truck and examines the shards of glass. He returns to Tenten, sludging mud on his way to her. “There was a scuffle.”
“No shit, Neji,” Tenten sighs. “The mud says it all. Move out of the way.” She nudges him aside to look at the body.
“There’s no need to check,” Neji states. “The way that he’s killed, it’s different from what I saw in the pictures.”
He’s right. Tenten comments in her mind as she takes one look at the victim. There’s too much blood. It’s too messy. And his clothes are gone too. However, the three streaks on either cheek are still there, same as the swirl on his stomach. “There’s too many stab wounds and it looks like whoever did it didn’t even take out the organ.”
Sai trudges towards them, “It might be a copycat,” he announces. Tenten turns as ear as he comes to stand next to her. “I’ll be professional about it, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up on you.”
While Tenten and Sai examine the state of the body, Neji is looking elsewhere. His stomach is churning. There is a bad feeling erupting from his core. Everything about that body reminds me of Naruto. Is he in this world as well? Far out from the crime scene, disregarding the skid marks, as he does not know what it means or where it comes from, he spots a bloodied shard of glass. Surprised to see it so far from its point of origin, he alerts both Tenten and Sai.
“Food!” Tenten blows a chef’s kiss to the trays of food that Lee carried in.
Neji judges her, “Why did you do that?”
“Clear the table! It’s heavy!” Lee yells. Sai immediately shoves the mounds of paperwork on one of the tables to the side. Even with the lack of petty crimes in Ame, the desk tells a different story.
“This?” Tenten turns to Neji and does the chef’s kiss again.
He nods, “Why did you kiss your fingers and throw them up in the air?”
Instead of receiving an adequate answer, all that he receives is a discontent expression from her instead, “You’re such a mood killer.” Tenten moves to the cleared table just as Lee passes them. Her eyes catch a glimpse of the food, “Beef stew! It’s been ages!”
“Please don’t drop the bowls, I had to convince Aunt Hana to let me take them out of her restaurant,” Lee cautions them, “I don’t want to pay her back.”
A hot stew invites his soul into this world. Neji hasn’t had such a warm meal ever since he arrived. Although beef stew isn’t something he had much in Konohagakure, it is something he wouldn’t deny eating. It is also his first informal meal with Tenten, both versions of them actually. Neji can remember the countless times she’s invited him to eat with her in the absence of Lee when he was alive. He regrets agreeing to so few of them now that all that he can see is her. Sitting across from her, his indefinite gaze keeps the woman within his vision. It’s becoming harder not to look at you.
“Okay, let’s map out the incident,” he hears her tell Sai.
Sai wipes his lips with a napkin and stands from the table, “Roger.” Neji realizes that they both are done eating. He feels pressured to finish his meal as well but disregards it. He will enjoy this meal. Sai pulls a whiteboard partition panel to their table as if he’s presenting his theory to Neji. He opens a marker and begins to draw the incident. “Seeing the truck’s indentation when it fell into the mud, I believe it’s traveling around five to ten miles her hour.” He brackets the point of the chaotic footprints and labels it as the origin. “The skirmish probably started here,” he circles the origin. “The muddy shoe prints on the carpet of the truck belonged to the suspect 'cause it doesn't match the victim's. He might’ve hijacked the truck and brought it here,” Sai draws a long line to the middle point, where the incident occurs and where the body is found. He draws a box to symbolize the truck before circling it, “It falls into the rice fields. Another fight occurs, only this time, it is fatal.” Sai taps the circled box on the whiteboard, “And you said the victim was wearing his company’s mover’s jacket?”
Tenten nods, “It’s stripped from his body, I’m sure. And what about the tire skid marks? Add that in.”
Sai makes two parallel wiggly marks past the point of incident and then places a “W”. “Weapon found. I’ll have to take this back with me to the Forensics since there’s none here.”
“Who says you’re taking my evidence?” Tenten chimes in. “The suspect’s muddy prints stopped there. And it looks like he was picked up without any further mishaps from that point on. I’ll be the one to take the evidence to the Forensics.”
“I’m trying to help, Tenten,” Sai tells her. “Plus, you don’t even have a car.” Tenten frowns and crosses her arm. She knows he’s correct, but he’s extending his involvement into the investigation more than he should. “The tire marks are too small to match the truck. Meaning someone else has arrived and left Ame.”
Tenten glances at Neji, to which Sai does as well. Neji is barely finishing his meal, “Do you think your cousin has any involvement in this?” she asks.
“Maybe,” Neji replies, pushing his empty bowl toward the center of the table.
“Detective!” Lee barges in, jolting Gai from reading Kakashi’s letter. “I’ve got new information!”
“What is it?” she asks.
Lee tears out his notepad paper and hands it to her, “I’ve just been informed that one of our long-time visitors is missing.”
“Who?” Sai asks. Neji turns around to face Lee.
“Uzumaki, Naruto,” Lee panics. “I’ve only seen him once or twice since he’s mostly at the hospital, but if you saw him in a crowd, you wouldn’t miss him.”
“Why is that?” Sai asks again.
Lee points to his hair, “He’s the only blonde here.”
“Then,” Tenten halts speaking. She recalls seeing that eerie person standing in the middle of the field yesterday. She makes sure to note his light hair, “I think I’ve seen him.” Neji furrows his brows upon her comments. “At the rice fields, he was waving at me while I was coming here.”
“He’s a weird person,” Lee admits.
“Do you have a photo of him?” Tenten asks.
Lee shakes his head, “No. Should I?”
“You should’ve,” Tenten stands up, “show me where he lives,” she demands from Lee.
“He doesn’t live anywhere, Detective. He’s just a visitor.”
“Can you give a description of him?” Sai asks instead.
“I can’t, really. Last time I saw him was a year ago while driving my neighbor to the hospital,” Lee says. “That Naruto guy doesn’t stay within the village for long but he’ll pop back in here and there.”
“He has three distinct lines on both of his cheek," Neji barges in. All three of them look at him. Gai, who is sitting behind Neji also turns around in his chair. Naruto is here. Neji stares at the faces looking back at him. These faces were not there when he sacrificed himself for Naruto. These people wouldn't know how much Naruto meant to him. And now, in this world, the friend he sacrificed himself for just killed a man. He's with Hinata. Would he kill the woman who loves him? As far as Neji know, Hinata's obsessive love for the man may have existed in his world but not here. Naruto would never kill an innocent person. Neji understands that Naruto is not himself in this world. He knows that Hinata is not herself either. He shouldn't confuse the two. Neji meets eyes with Sai, he's made the decision to pursue this case with Tenten. "He has blue eyes and the same swirl, a seal on his abdomen."
Chapter 10: Small World
The gang dives into who Naruto is and what he's doing in Ame Village. They drag in Sakura into the interrogation, prompting her to mention Sasuke. In doing so, it reveals a fraction of "Neji's" background.
“H-how did you know Naruto has the lines on his cheeks?” Lee’s eyes boggled.
Tenten sits back down and tilts her head to Sai, “What exactly is this dude Naruto?” She ponders on the question for a bit. “Sai, earlier you said it might’ve been done by a copycat, right?” The man nods. “So he cut his cheeks?”
Lee shakes his head no, “I think he draws them on,” An astounding aura of foolishness erupts and sits in the air but no one dares to laugh. Lee confronts the table where Neji sat, “How do you know Naruto has the same swirl on his stomach? You’re a newcomer here.”
“I— just know,” Neji replies.
Tenten sits still and her eyes roll towards the man she’s given a new nickname to. He is her boyfriend according to Sai. He is her teammate according to Lee. But to her, she doesn’t know how to categorize him. The more words come out from his mouth, the more incoherent he becomes to her. To call him an enigma wouldn’t be enough. He just— didn’t belong here in her world. “Well, is there anyone at the hospital that he knows? If he doesn’t live anywhere, there’s gotta be someone causing him to frequent there.”
Lee scrunches up his thick brows and glances to Gai. The older man gives him a concurring nod. Lee then gulps, turning his attention back to the detective, “Well, there’s this doctor,” a pink blush begins to appear on his cheeks, “there’s this doctor-”
Neji sighs and rolls his eyes. I can’t believe you’re crushing on her even in this world. “Sakura. Haruno, Sakura,” he says. Neji needs to get to familiarize himself with this “Naruto” as quickly as possible. He does not know whether the man will actually have the audacity to harm his cousin in accordance to how this world works, but if it does happen, he wants to stop it. After all , I died to protect both of them, didn’t I? I sacrificed myself for them. My happiness that has been neglected for them, if this world reflects mine, would my death be a complete waste? “Go get the doctor.”
It has been a couple of years since Sakura has visited the police station and she did not expect to be pulled from the hospital to be interrogated. She sits on a chair that Lee sets out for her in the back of the entrance and can only stare at the three new faces judging right back at her. She crosses her arms and leans back onto the chair, “I’m serious, I don’t even know him that well.”
“Just tell us what you know,” Sai responds monotonously.
“Please don’t be so harsh on her,” Lee meekly whispers from behind the three of them.
Tenten glares back at Lee with a sneering expression. She turns back to Sakura, “We need to know your relationship with Uzumaki Naruto in order to conclude whether or not you’re both colluding.”
“Colluding?” Sakura asks.
Tenten nods, “You’ve heard the news, didn’t you? I’m sure words travel fast in this small village.”
“I did, and I can assure you that I have nothing to do with this.” Sakura is met with the same dull stare from them. She lets out a sigh before her eyes catch on to Neji. “You should know,” she directs to the long-haired man, “your cousin crushed on Naruto for the entirety of her elementary school.
Neji pressed his lips thinly, “Was I supposed to care?”
“Yeah,” Sakura answers, “you threatened him to stay away from her.”
Sai’s brow twitches and both he and Tenten scrutinize the Hyuuga. Neji merely shrugs, “I don’t remember.” Just play it naturally.
“Naruto and I, we were in the same homeroom for a couple of years. When I came to Ame Village a couple of years back, I started seeing him around after three or four years here,” Sakura tells them.
“Did you ask why he was here when you both met?” Tenten asks her.
Sakura nods her head, “He said he came to catch up with Gaara.”
“Gaara?” Neji, Sai, and Tenten all ask in unison. Tenten shoots a wary glance at Neji, wondering if the man knows who Gaara is. However, the name does not spark anything from him, well, she did not see anything strange from him. Hm, seems like he doesn’t know who Gaara is either. Neji meets Tenten’s unusual gaze before keeping his focus on Sakura.
“Gaara,” Lee chimes in. “Ah, I miss that guy.” All three of them open the table for Lee to join the conversation. “Gaara and I were best friends! He came here with his siblings in second grade.”
“I remembered Gaara frequenting the hospital,” Sakura adds in, “he always had a hard time breathing.”
“Gaara told me he has really weak lungs and fine dust was really rampant around where he lived,” Lee clarified.
Sai raises a brow to Lee, “And when was this?”
“I don’t know,” Lee replies, “but he said he left Suna and came to Konoha to get fresher air but it didn’t fare any better. That’s why he ended up staying here until a couple of years ago.”
“Did Uzumaki Naruto cross paths with Gaara?” Tenten puts the question on the table.
Sakura shakes her head no, “As far as I know, no. Gaara was discharged by me from the hospital. Naruto showed up a couple of months later with those marks on his cheeks.”
“He drew them on,” Sai repeats.
“A copycat,” Tenten groans, “we’re back at the beginning again.” She massages her temples, gaining an unwanted genial gaze from Neji. Why is he looking at me like that?
Why am I looking at her like this? Neji knows why, her frustrated look reminds him so much of “his” Tenten. If this is what being bold and reckless is, I’ll really need to stop.
Tenten clears her throat and averts their short glances, “Why would Naruto do that? Walking around with the marks of victims of this case. Is his mind loosely screwed in?”
Sakura looks down to her hands clasped on her lap. They tighten. “I think Naruto might’ve gone crazy after losing Sasuke for the second time,” she admits, “when I first met Naruto here, he wasn’t himself.” Her expression turns solemn, “He used to be a bright and talkative person. After everything happened and after I met him, he’s become so secretive and secluded.”
“The second time?” Neji inquires, “what about the first time?”
“Who’s Sasuke?” Sai asks.
Sakura and Sai make eye contact shortly, “A friend. He was Naruto’s childhood friend. As for your question, Neji, have you heard of the Konoha Academy Kidnapping?”
Neji has no idea what that is. He shakes his head no. “It’s what my landlord told me not to tell you, Neji. Do you remember?”
“Kakashi?” Neji affirms. Tenten nods. She turns her attention to Gai who has been sitting quietly behind them. “Do you want me to tell them, or do you want to do it yourself, Captain?” Tenten knows that the case had to do with him. “Afterall, you were the one in charge of the case.”
Gai crossed his arms in defense. The memory of that case is still fresh in his mind. He did not think that it would ever come back in a place far away from where it occurred. “I was never originally on the case, detective,” Gai explains, “I begged for it. Dipped my entire body into the case because my one and only friend asked me to.” He can still remember the exact same tone that Kakashi used when he helplessly asked him for help. The pain appears on Gai’s face. The memory itself is agonizing. “Kakashi told me that Naruto witnessed everything that happened to Sasuke. He saw them take his friend.”
“Naruto, he came up to me and there was so much fear in his eyes, Gai. I can’t even bear to explain it myself. Whatever happened to him and Sasuke, it was enough to make him faint in my arms. I was so helpless. I didn’t know what to do. Please help me find this kid, Gai.”
“I put my life on the line. I was able to lead the investigation to find the kid. And when I finally found the man that took Sasuke, I couldn’t shoot him,” Gai closes his eyes as the memory overwhelms him. “I don’t know why I couldn’t shoot him, I still don’t know to this day. But everyone saw what happened. I couldn’t save the kid. It's why I was thrown here.” Gai opens his eyes but he only stares at the ground, “I don’t even know if the kid’s alive.”
“He is,” Sakura interjects, “well, was. I’m not really sure myself. I remembered seeing Sasuke in high school but because we weren’t in the same homeroom anymore, I didn’t really know much after that. Same with Naruto too.” Sakura bites her lower lip and bends her head down, her chin meets her chest. “And then one day, Sasuke just left. And Naruto went mad." She looks up to Lee, to Sai, and Neji, "Would you break your family for that one friend?”
Lee roams his eyes around the room, trying to figure out the pros and cons of answer that question. “Is that what Naruto did?” Sai asks her.
Sakura meets his unusual eyes, “That’s what he did. Before high school was over, another victim of Ame’s serial murders appeared.”
“And which one is that?” Tenten asks her, “We need to establish a particular point in time from this case to our suspect.”
“Awadachi, Utakata,” Sakura replies. “He looked a lot like Sasuke. I think that’s why Naruto went crazy, running around like a victim of the serial murders.”
“You’ve any idea where Sasuke might be?” Sai inquires.
“Isn’t that your job to find out?” Sakura retorts, “I haven’t been to the Leaf District ever since I landed my feet here.” Sai frowns.
Neji is still caught in what Gai told them. He couldn’t comprehend why Naruto wasn’t kidnapped as well. “Gai-sensei— Captain,” he corrects himself. The older man lifts his head up to him. “You said Naruto witnessed everything that happened with Sasuke. If he was there, why wasn’t he taken as well? Why take only one kid and leave the other behind? Naruto probably saw their faces, why would they risk their identity being exposed?”
Gai does not have an answer for that. When Naruto awoke from his collapse, he could not remember their faces. Gai refuses to answer his question.
“Because Naruto has influential parents,” Sakura answers Neji’s question for him. “I may not know about the nature of crimes, but I do know the statistics. Kidnappings in a bustling city like Konoha happen mostly to unwanted children and orphans. There’s plenty of neglected homeless children roaming around the city itself. The people are too absorbed in the good of their thriving and prospering city that they ignore the ugly side of it.”
Sasuke is an orphan in this world too? Neji didn’t think that their worlds are this similar. “So you’re saying Sasuke is an orphan?”
Sakura is cut short from answer Neji’s follow-up question when Tenten interrupts her, “Well duh, Neji. Your dad killed them.”
“Oh right, you were literally plucked out of school after that incident,” Tenten comments as she tucks a stray hair behind her ear. “He ran a red light and smashed into their car.”
Gai and Sai’s faces harden. “You’re the son of Hizashi?” Gai asks.
“Yes,” Neji replies. He is the son of the man who carries his father’s name in this world. And evidently, he finds the incident ridiculous to the ear.
“Hiashi’s nephew?” Neji nods to the question. Gai leans back into his chair in defeat, “Wow, what a small world I’m in.”
“Well, I should get going, I’ve been here for long enough,” Sai tells them. “Captain Gai, please relay to the Leaf District of the incident. We'll take it from here to find Naruto.”
Neji stands up readily, “I’m going as well.” He has never lost sight of his goal to find Naruto and keep his cousin safe.
"Why?" Tenten asks him.
"Assuming that my cousin did pick him up to Konoha, I need to confirm that she is safe," he replies.
Tenten's brows furrow at him. She remembers how vile she was to him at the hospital rooftop, and now he's willing to travel back to the city for her safety. Tenten erupts from her chair as well, “We’re tagging along, Sai.”
“No, there’s no need,” Sai halts them.
Tenten’s eyes narrow on him, "The evidence is in my hands, do you not remember?" she asks him. "I'm willing to hand over this case with you and wrap it up on my part. The least you can do is drive us back." The man sighs and sets the marker down onto the table. He groans and drags his feet out of the police station. "I'll hand the evidence to you when we get there!" she tells him as he opens the door. "C'mon Neji, let's go."
Neji is unfazed by her childlike behavior. He bids both his teammate and teacher a farewell. Neji does not know when he will be able to see them again. He hurries out along with her. I don’t know when I’ll see both of you again. I hope it won’t be soon. I don’t want to start missing you two as much as I am regretting my decision to die.
There is a bridge that welcomes visitors to the Leaf District. This is where Naruto wants to dismount from Hinata’s car. Pulled over to the side, Hinata exits the car with Naruto just as the sun strongly rises. It has been raining since she’s left yesterday, but the sky has gone clearer now. Hinata takes a glance at Naruto’s wound on his hand as they both spend a short amount of time leaning against the railing of the bridge, looking over the rising sun. There is a moment of clarity that Hinata hasn’t felt before. Standing next to him made her remember all of those days and nights she spent writing letters to him. Though she has thrown them all away by now, what remains is the fondness that is stuck to her when she wrote them. She wouldn’t mind rekindling those strong affections for the man, even now. “I could’ve taken you straight to the hospital.”
Naruto disagrees, “You shouldn’t be seen with someone like me. I’ll walk from here to the hospital, Hinata.” He leaves the railing and turns to her, prompting her to do the same, “Sorry for letting you see me like this. And thanks for lending me a ride back home.”
Hinata catches a glimpse of the nametag on the mover’s vest. It’s not his name at all. Hinata blinks quickly and offers him a strained and forced smile, “If you ever need help, you can always come to me.” There are many possibilities as to why the vest might not belong to him. It doesn’t matter to me. “Do you have a phone?” He shakes his head no. Hinata takes a couple of strides from Naruto to reach into the car to get a business card. She then hands it to him. “Never call these two numbers,” she points to the two phone numbers on the card. “Switch the last two digits of this bottom one and you’ll reach me directly. Understand?”
“I got it,” Naruto replies with a tender smile, “thank you, Hinata.”
The tiny scratches on his face are more apparent now that Hinata is standing closer to him. The fading line marks is noticed by her as well. She breathes in calmly, unsure if she should say goodbye to him. She has never given a proper one before. As the minutes expire, although there is no time limit to their shared moment here on the bridge, Hinata promptly turns around and opens the passenger car door. She leaves without a proper goodbye.
Naruto watches as her car drives off. He waves to her with a grin until he can no longer see her vehicle. It is only then that he drops the facade from his face. His wave slows and his arm drops to his side. The grin is wiped off from his face in slow second. Naruto stares at her business card, engraving the number into his mind. He scoffs and smirks at her gesture. Naruto crumples the business card in his fist and throws it away. You people love to pretend to be nice so much, what a joke. Naruto fastens his drip on the bag slung over his shoulder. “Just you wait until I find you, Sasuke.”
“Should I relay your decision regarding your cousin to the CEO, Miss?” Kō asks Hinata.
Hinata’s eyes lift from the side mirror as soon as she could no longer see Naruto. She stares forward, “No. You need to go home and rest. So do I. We will both go and visit my father in the evening.”
Sai steals a glance of Neji sitting in the backseat as he pumps gas into his car. The man’s window is down. Sai takes a quick look at the entrance of the tiny gas station to see if Tenten is still inside, she was. He then clears his throat and takes in a deep breath. He never would have believed Tenten if she said she’s dating a Hyuuga. Commoners like them have no chance of ever dating someone in the elite class nor will they ever have a chance to see one up close. But somehow, the woman he has come to harbor feelings for, for quite a long time has somehow managed to catch this man’s attention, this man who is sitting in the back of his car. I always knew how bright she shined to me. I just didn’t know that someone else would see it too. Sai admits that he will not give up on her so easily. There have been many boyfriends she’s slept with and even then, it did not matter to him. With time, after this Hyuuga has become one of her statistics, there will always be me in the end. “Hey, um,” Sai lowly draws attention from Neji, “sorry for hitting you earlier. I was-”
“It doesn’t matter. What’s done is done,” Neji replies. “I don’t hold any animosity for you.”
Sai is flabbergasted. He didn’t really expect that sort of answer from a Hyuuga, “U-uh, well okay.”
The bell at the gas station door rings and both men are drawn to it. Tenten exits the store with a tiny paper bag in her hands. There is a smile on her face to which Sai does not know what for. She’s always a light bursting even in the sun. Sai finds Tenten the most beautiful when after she completes a case, she is the happiest in that shining moment. This image of her carrying a brown bag filled with convenience store goods in her hands as her twinned buns bounce around almost makes up for the fact that he could not join Kiba, Shino, and her in their celebration after The White Killer case. Her smile is so contagious to him but he knows that she’s not smiling for him. Sai lowers his gaze back to Neji. He realizes that they both are sharing this view of a woman they both love. But instead of seeing the same feelings of his own reflected onto the eyes of the Hyuuga, Sai sees hesitance instead. The man’s eyelids would flutter and avert his gaze from the woman coming towards them and it would look at her again. Sai wonders what their relationship is. It seems so unstable, their relationship that is. It’s as if there’s a naive crush in his eyes- the gas pump stops and breaks him out of his analyzation. It takes his attention away from Tenten as she occupies the back seat with him when earlier, she was in his passenger seat. What’s made her change her mind?
Sai did not need to express his hostility with such a stare to Neji. Tenten knows how uncomfortable it is when someone is staring at her. He wasn’t lying when he said he’s not going to give up on me, is he? Tenten makes the decision to sit in the back with Neji. At least between Neji and I, I know he’ll never like me. But even with that claim, she isn't as sure as she wants to be. Tenten pries the car door open and sets the brown paper bag in the middle seat between them as Sai closes the gas cap. She completely ignores Sai’s lingering eyes as he enters the car. “Guess how much these costs?” she asks Neji.
“I don’t know,” Neji replies. “Why are you sitting-”
“They’re homemade! And they’re cheap!” she exclaims as Sai starts the car up. “Onigiri, rice crackers— the rice cakes were sold out.” Tenten takes out two Onigiri and hands them to Sai, “Here, the drive will be long.”
Sai accepts the food but drops them carelessly onto the passenger seat, “Thanks.”
Tenten disregards his rudeness and offers Neji a slightly tired smile, “Well then, just take anything when you’re hungry,” she tells him. He nods back to her before looking out the side of his window.
The hours pass by silently. The radio has begun to pick up signal, allowing Sai to mute the silence with music. It is then that he begins to let his mind run loosely to what he thought about earlier, about Neji. Periodically, Sai looks at his rear mirror to peek at the man sitting in the back. He finds the couple’s silence strange. To sit at opposite ends as well, is this a farce? Tenten is always unusually shameless when it comes to showing affection. Even when she was dating someone else, she’d do whatever she pleases in my presence. Are they lying to me?
Tenten knows Sai cannot see her area from the rear mirror but she can see his eyes flickering up. Gosh, you’re so obvious. She knows Sai all too well. That brain of his' can sometimes be too typical. Tenten pulls out her phone and begins to type away. Afterward, she grabs the paper bag between them and unbuckles her seatbelt. Doing so catches Neji’s attention. “What are you doing?” he asks her.
Tenten switches place with the bag of food and puts her seatbelt on, “It’s too cold back here,” she lies to him.
“I can turn on the heater,” Sai tells her.
“No need,” Tenten stares right back at Sai through the rear mirror. Neji straightens up the moment he feels her leans her head onto his shoulder, “Are you cold?” she asks him. Before he knows of her intentions, Tenten snakes her hand under his own and interlocks their fingers, “You’re wearing only a thin shirt.” Neji tilts his head to her, to where her head his leaning on his shoulder just as she lifts her head to meet his confused eyes. She offers him a smile before a twitch comes at the corner of her mouth. The sensation of being so close to the person he misses can only be described as an unwelcomed warmth. Neji cannot deny how much his heart is yearning to keep this memory of “this” Tenten forever. Suddenly, a cold slick rectangular item slides into his palm. Neji looks down to find her phone in his hand. “Read it,” she mouthed.
Neji takes the phone from her hand and brings it closer to his face, “Our mutual relationship is exclusive. It’s not going to be compromised. So please help me fool this guy so he’ll stop bothering me. You don’t have to do anything. Stay still and let me lean on you for the rest of the ride.” Neji stares at her proposition blankly. He forces out a simper and hands the phone back to her. He will play along even though he knows his heart won’t be able to take it. As for his answer to her scheme, Neji returns her grasp on his hand, strengthening their bond to one another. To keep the feelings at bay, he returns to looking out of the window once more. The things you make me do for you, I’m scared that whatever we’ve agreed on is getting compromised right now, Tenten.
It would be wrong to love this version of you? It's not truly you that I’m loving, Tenten. Neji thinks as the fog that pervades the road dissipates, allowing a bit of the sun to shine through. She’s not the same woman that has gone through the depths of hell with me. She’s not the same woman that would train with me regardless of what time I ask from her. To me, Tenten, there is only you in my eyes. So why is it so difficult to resist her? With the sun up, Neji is met with her reflection through the glass. The woman’s hand is rested on my shoulder, her chin is propped on it, and she is looking out of the same window as I am. Tenten, I’m afraid to lose these feelings for you. If I give them to her, will I ever be able to give them to you? Her eyes stare out of the window lazily. But even like that, Neji is enamored in her gaze. She isn’t worried. She isn’t fazed by being next to me. Is this how you would’ve been like if she were you? Would you love me without a care in the world? Despite the low class of my clan, against the wishes of anyone we meet, would you come to me like her? At that very moment, Neji realizes how one-sided he has become. He isn’t even sure that his teammate holds any feelings for him. I may love you now, however late it is. But what about you? Do you feel the same way? Do you love me?
It is unsettling to him how possessive he’s become of his teammate. He is dead in his world and yet this yearn for her never ceases. His comrade has never explicitly expressed any kind of feelings of that intention towards him. And yet, he’s acting as if their feelings are the same. Between her and him, the most secretive was always her. Neji has no way of knowing whether his comrade loved him or not. You probably didn’t feel the same way, did you? Doubt transpires in his mind. If he’s already dead, there’s no more need to hold onto someone who he could no longer reach for. However, Neji knows that pursuing a life here isn’t realistic as well. He knows that there is a version of himself in this world. No matter how much he may love “this” Tenten, in the end, he will have to return to the dead. As for the reason he could not find yet, Neji is sure that falling in love with this woman isn’t it either. Everything will end when I return to the dead. And on his way to finding that answer, even if his feelings for her blossoms beyond his control, he will have to leave it. This is how it will end as it should be. Neji turns his head to the woman leaning on him. She draws back, giving him the same set of uncertain eyes reflecting in his own. His gaze lowers to her lips. A new heartbeat pulsates from his core. In looking at the woman staring back at him, he never wants to look back. He can feel her small breaths tickling his skin. She is real to him. She is looking right back at him. The scales tip between what he knows is right and wrong. It leans heavily towards her. Neji can feel his eyes becoming heavy with tears. He is losing this battle with himself. I will want to hold you more than this. I will want to love you. I — I’m — Neji’s eyes never left her lips, his heart is skipping too quickly to restrain. Tenten, I’m really falling in love with you.
Tenten squeezes Neji’s hands the moment his eyes stayed on her lips for a bit too long. His eyes are gleaming, they are filled with stars everywhere she looked. She breaks their tension and their eye contact by leaning her head on his shoulder, looking away from him completely. Tenten cannot stop biting her lips. His entirety is gnawing at the apex of her heart. Tenten may not have that good of insight like Sai, but she knows that whatever between them is shattering. With every minute passing by, she’s becoming more complacent in riding with this change between him and her. The mutual agreement that they’ve shaken hands on might hold up if they're changing at the same pace. And to Tenten, she knows that they’re running at the exact tempo. It is frightening how fast it’s going. Tenten wants to hold her uneasy heart and prevent it from falling helplessly in love with someone she knows but knows not enough of. His past, his lineage, and his relationship to her as her higher-ups if not for these circumstances all tell her to stop pining for him. He is a murderer’s son. Isn’t that enough? The implications of falling in love with someone like him will prevent her from attaining her dream. Tenten knows that she must remain strong. She’s prevailed many times before in resisting lingering crushes with men. And he will just be like them, but I can't stop it.
It is impossible not to fall in love with you, Neji. You’re someone whom I have so little expectations for. And yet, at the end of the day, you continue to pull me towards you. It is this unexplainable mysteriousness coming from him that draws her to him. Tenten stares at his hands sandwiching her own. The way he holds them securely without ever letting go in the two hours they’ve stuck to one another, she might as well give in but she doesn’t. Tenten understands it now. Her curiosity of trivial things, as it is natural for someone like her in her line of work, it has transpired and enveloped the whole being of this person she’s leaning on. I know nothing about you. I don’t know what you like, what you don’t like, how you came here, or how you found me. It does not help that he’s clueless to the commodities that everyone should know. You’re like an alien, someone who isn’t supposed to be here. I can’t even find your scent while I’m this close to you. I can’t even feel your pulse while I’m holding your hand right now. If you were an alien, or perhaps someone dropped into my world, I wouldn’t know what I’d do. Where would these feelings for you go? No matter how tiny they are, they are still feelings too, you know? Do you know? Tenten sighs. She does not want to believe that he might just be a paradox.
Curious as she is about him, Tenten does not want to know more. There is a little speck of dread that sits at her core. It is collecting all of the doubts about him, all of the inconsistencies about him, and is storing them to reach a conclusion. And day by day, it is growing to uncertain lengths, tightening her stomach to great lengths. It is uncomfortable to even give it a sparing thought. If you were truly the paradox I’ve decided to give to you, then what would I do with you? I’ve already grown attached to you.
He is a quiet person, someone with little to say. But when he does say something to her, it is always the correct things that would tug at her heartstrings. Did you not think I wouldn’t know? That I felt everything you did to me yesterday. I was afraid that you’d be like everyone else, that you’d hurt me. But you never did. His touch was so impeccably light, the stroke of his thumb barely traced her skin yesterday night. Tenten wasn’t sure if she’s imagining him caressing her until it became clear that it was indeed real and that it was— it was tender-hearted. It was ardent. I felt it so. If she did not stir and flip around, he would have seen her blush a radiant red. Even though I couldn’t see it, I knew you were crying. You were hurting for her, weren’t you? I can see it now how much you loved her. But despite it all, I can’t help but be like this. Treading around back and forth between whether to let go of all the restraints I’ve put up to keep you from me.
Tenten relaxes her clutch on his hand just as she feels his gaze upon her return to the boring scenery outside their window. She does not want to be hurt. Tenten slowly gazes to out the window. There, she steals multiple glances of the man she’s leaning on. It is becoming harder not to look at you and think that we’ve nothing more to gain than friends. Tenten focuses on the landscape swiftly passing them. It is as if she’s running with time speeding past her at every turn ever since he’s come into her life. Or am I running against it? Against you?
“Alright, get out,” Sai instructs his passengers.
Tenten unbuckles both Neji and her belts and opens the door. They both exit his car, “Here,” she hands him the shard of glass, “as promised.” Sai snatches the evidence from her and speeds off. Tenten pouts, watching him drive off recklessly. “He didn’t even signal.” Neji turns to look at the tall building in front of him. “Well?” Tenten asks him.
“Are you sure this is the building?” he replies with a question.
“The CEO and his daughter don’t occupy the Police Agency, Chief Inoichi does,” Tenten explains to him, “that’s what happens when your father drives recklessly. His governance over the Agency is passed on to someone else. Now stop being overly apprehensive and lead the way into your people’s building.”
The time reads 4:25 pm on the city’s clock. They are in the business section of the Leaf District. With Neji’s uncanny look donning the Hyuuga’s white eyes, people are beginning to notice them. Tenten nudges Neji’s shoulder blade and urges him to enter.
Neji walks towards the automatic revolving doors with heavy footsteps. He has seen multiple people walk through it but the closer he comes to it, the more intimidating it is. Tenten can feel him not wanting to pull through. She, who is standing beside him, holds both sides of his arms and forces him to walk through with her. “This was your plan, wasn’t it? To search for Hinata? Don’t you back out on me, Neji. We have to do this.”
Tenten is right. But before Neji can prepare himself to be eaten by the revolving glass doors, she pushes him into one of them. Neji holds his breath and slowly walk according to its pace. He peers back, seeing her grinning mischievously behind him in the other section of the revolving door. Neji turns around, holding a simper to himself.
When they both enter the first floor together, she points to a series of panels where people are scanning their cards, “There, the access control system. We have to get through that to get to the elevator.”
Elevator? He ponders that word for a bit. I’ve no idea what that is. Nonetheless, they both approach the panels.
“Excuse me,” a man with jet-black hair halts them with a hand. He dons a nametag with the word 'security' largely printed on it, “Who exactly are you two?”
Tenten clears her throat and stands up straight beside Neji. She waits for a bit before realizing that Neji will not introduce himself to be one of them. Tenten nudges his side with her elbow, “Tell him.”
“Tell him what?” Neji asks. He earns a spiteful expression from her.
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to escort both of you out of here if you don’t leave.”
Tenten smacks the man’s hand from gesturing their way out, causing Neji to look at her with confusion. Did she really just do that? She then brings the man’s attention to Neji’s face and makes a circular motion, “Does his face not look familiar to you?”
“No, Ma’am. But yours does.”
“Of course,” Tenten replies. “The White Killer?” he nods. Tenten agrees with him, “understandable.”
“But you should still leave before I use force,” the man warns them.
“But wait!” Tenten shouts, “ask him what his name is.” She tugs Neji towards the security man’s direction. Neji refuses to speak. He’s promised not to use the privilege the “Neji” in this world has for his own gain but Tenten is really intent on it.
“I do not have to,” the man says back just as he notices the white eyes from Neji. He begins to push them out.
“Hyuuga Neji!” Tenten yells. “You’re disallowing the CEO’s nephew from his own place?”
Neji sternly catches Tenten’s attention, “Stop it.”
She disagrees, “No.”
“Ma’am, lower your voice-”
Tenten grabs the security man’s hand and holds it tightly, “Are you mishandling THE CEO’S NEPHEW?!” Neji’s entire expression scorns her actions. She has caught the attention of the people inside. “Call the CEO! His nephew is being mistreated! Hyuuga Neji is being-”
“Alright!” the security man hisses. “I’ll call to confirm, just— keep your voice down.”
Immediately, Tenten calms down from her uproar. She and Neji both watch as the man instructs a woman behind the desk to pick up the phone.
The sun has disappeared again. Hinata can tell that it is going to rain tonight. She knocks on her father’s office door before entering. “Father.”
Hiashi rises from his chair and walks around the desk, “Did you send him off?”
Hinata closes the door and walks in to join her father at the leather couches. Her father sits down and begins to pour a cup of tea for himself. She, however, refuses to sit, “I did not.”
“Why are you such a difficult child?” Hiashi sets the teapot down and raises the cup to his lips, “Such a simple task and you could not do it.” He takes a sip of the drink before letting out a satisfied sigh and setting the cup down. “If you can’t even prove yourself worthy to me, how can you satisfactorily manage both the company and agency when I’m gone?”
Hinata steadies her stance on the marble floor. She tries not to let his words hurt her. However, anger eludes in her fists. Hinata silently takes in a breath to calm herself, “It’s not because I couldn’t do it, father. I chose not to.”
“It’s the same thing,” Hiashi points his finger back and forth, “re-wording the sentence doesn’t mean anything when the final result is the same. You failed to send your cousin back abroad. That does not change.”
“Neji is in Ame Village,” Hinata lets out. “He promised me he’ll stay there. He told me he will not interfere with the company-”
“You’ve no foresight,” Hiashi complains. “It’s best for him to be far from Konoha until the three years are up. Do you not understand?”
“Why don’t you want him here?” Hinata finally breaks her composure. Her fists are now shaking. The fear of opposing her father is apparent in her trembling body. Hinata shuts her eyes closed. She can no longer stand to be criticized hatefully. “Is there something you’re hiding? Are the rumors true that Uncle Hizashi’s accident was your doing?!” she raises her voice at her own father.
“You insolent-” the ring of the phone blares, cutting off Hiashi. He points a menacing finger at her just as she opens her eyes. Hiashi stands up and stomps loudly to the phone on the desk. He puts the phone into his ear.
“Sir, there is a woman in the lobby claiming that the man she brought is your nephew. The name is Hyuuga Neji, Sir.”
Hiashi’s piercing glare hits Hinata’s own shaken ones. “Send him up.”
“Right away, Sir.”
Hiashi settles the phone down with a “clack”, never once breaking eye contact with his daughter. “Because of your incompetent self, your cousin has come here.”
Hinata’s eyes widen. “B-but he-” her lips quiver. She has been lied to. The pity she initially felt for her cousin erases completely. Hinata has tried to guard her back as well as she could, yet she could not believe that in the one time she felt compassion for someone who is begging to live, she would be backstabbed relentlessly. You couldn’t even keep the agreement for a day, Neji. You are a liar. Hinata is approached by her father. He places a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“You indulge yourself with meaningless rumors over the potential threat of your cousin?” Hiashi insults her.
In an instant, she drops to her knees. Such a lowly thing to do, Hinata is begging for another chance at redemption again. Her face is stone cold. All of the anger dissipates as easily as they were conjured. “I was wrong, father. I will follow your orders without fail from here on out.”
Hiashi drops his hand and returns to the leather couches, “You’ve disappointed me far enough, Hinata. I never want to hear any mention of that rumor from your mouth again.”
It is a shame that she wore a pencil skirt instead of the slacks intended for her blazer. There will definitely be bruises on her knees when she walks out of her father’s office.
“He said that?” the security man asks the desk woman. She nods. The man’s eyes widen as he stares at the ground. “I’m so gonna be fired. Thanks Mina.”
“Don’t mention it,” she replies, “Good luck man.”
The security man walks away, “Yeah.”
Tenten smirks the moment she spots the man’s lour expression on his face. “We got in,” she slaps Neji across the chest and beelines towards the access control system. He follows after her.
The man meets them at the panels and pulls out his card and scanned all three of them in. He leads them to an elevator farther from the common ones to which Tenten believes is a personal one. The man presses for it to open and when it does, Neji freezes in place. “Please,” the man ushers them in.
Fear is erupting like fire at every pore of Neji’s skin. “I can’t— go in there.” The last time he was in there, he fainted twice. Neji will not put himself in that position again.
“What?” Tenten finds him ridiculous. “Just get in there-”
Meanwhile, the security man is standing behind them, perturbed with their childish squabble.
“Get in there,” The menacing tone of her voice threatens him. She grabs his arm, much to the security man’s surprise and tries to drag Neji inside. Godammit, we are so close to reaching the epitome of your troubles, man!
Neji grabs her hand holding him, “No, Tenten.”
“Neji,” her tone changes. She is becoming angry and irritated with him. “Get inside.” Tenten pulls him into the elevator just before the door closes. As it is shut closed, she glances at the buttons. “Well,” she says, “I suppose it’s the damn star.” She presses it before glancing at Neji. “So what’s the problem with you?” Tenten is met with him pressed against the corner of the elevator. Both his hands are holding onto the bars for dear life. His hair that cast themselves down the side of his face hides his appearance. He worries her. “Neji?”
The elevator makes its first move, lifting off from the ground, lurching the contents in his body in the same way it first did at the hospital. Only now, because he’s standing, it feels much worse. Neji shuts his eyes closed and grips the bars as tightly as he could. He can hear her call out to him but he cannot speak. If Neji is to part his lips, he fears it might just be the way to faint. Eyes closed shut with no knowledge of his surroundings nor her proximity to him, Neji believes that what he is doing to combat the eerie feeling in his knees is working. That is until she breaks it. The sensation of her hands gently holding his shoulders jolts him from his concentration. She breaks his already fragile composure. Neji’s lungs blow out. He is hyperventilating. His entire body is going numb. He is going to faint.
Chapter 11: The Filthy Rich
Hiashi thinks Neji is chronically ill. Tenten inquires Hinata come to the police station to give a statement, she does. They squat by the convenience store drinking hot cocoa. A car pulls up and hands Neji a card. They go to a hotel.
The sharp sound of heels hit the marble floor followed by an indistinctive pair of designer dress shoes. To the heavy desk, heavy for not its load of work, Hinata follows her father to the desktop screen. Hiashi plops onto his leather chair, one custom made for him, and pulls up the CCTV in the VIP elevator. Hinata stands quietly behind her father’s chair and observes the video feed. There on the dustless screen, the elevator door opens. A hand protrudes to hold the door open. At the entrance, there stand two pairs of legs. None seem to move inside. Instead, it looks like it’s leaving instead. Hinata believes there is a dispute to which it is unclear to her what they are arguing about. For approximately twenty seconds, the elevator remains empty. And in that time, Hinata begins to be aware of how loud she’s breathing. When the elevator is occupied, she squints upon the other person entering the lift with her cousin. She easily recognizes those twinned buns. “Why is the detective here?”
“Detective?” Hiashi asks. His hands clasp together as he leans forward towards the desk. His forearms rest on the surface and his eyes crinkle. “She’s the one who shot Neji?”
“Yes, father,” Hinata replies. “However, brother Neji intends on staying with her,” she spills the confession. Her eyes peer to her father who remains silent. In the eleven years she’s been taken under the wings of the company, his silence at this moment is easy to decipher. It is a nonverbal signal to continue and so she does, “Brother Neji wants to find a reason to live. I believe he loves her.”
“From the screen, they witness the door close. Immediately, the oddities begin. Their kin beelines for a corner of the elevator. He’s stuck himself there as the detective presses the button. Hiashi presses a button, enabling live audio in the elevator. “He wants to find a reason to live?”
“Yes, father,” she replies promptly.
Hiashi is forced to ponder on that statement. An unsettling feeling is building in his stomach. Is he sick? It has been a while since Neji’s been walking around as a full-fledged adult overseas, a reason as to why Hiashi hasn’t received calculative detailed descriptions as to what his nephew has been up to. Therefore, the thought of his nephew contracting an illness amidst his diluted received information doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Hiashi fears that his assumption might be true in concordance to the creepy behavior of his nephew in the video feed. His eyes strain, twitching at the detective and her rising concern for his nephew.
“Neji?” he hears her call his name. It snakes into his ears and when Neji realizes that his concentration is failing with her interrupting his attempt to remain calm, it is too late to compose himself. His eyes open wide and he could already feel his legs go weak. Before admitting defeat to this contraption lifting him off the ground, he pulls in his safety net. Despite not wanting to nor having any clear motive to, regardless of how vulnerable his mind is, Neji pulls in Tenten as a last effort to remain sane. It is a split-second decision to believe that she might be able to save him, if not from regaining his consciousness, then maybe from injuring himself on the fall downwards.
The moment his hands embrace her body, Neji loses consciousness. Tenten’s inner self is freaking out beyond any of her imagination. She summons her tired strength to uphold his weight, but it is not enough. With his chin hooked on her shoulder and arms dangling about like ribbons, Tenten stumbles backward until she hits the elevator wall. She begins to slide down, careful to make sure his pretty face isn’t bruised. It is at that moment that she remembers that they are heading straight towards the CEO, her boss, his uncle— their doom. Shit. When her butt plants onto the ground, Tenten rolls Neji over down flat. She hates when he throws curveballs at her. Right now, Tenten wonders why she’s even holding feelings for someone who’s making her life so difficult. She stares at him, checks his pulse, and lifts his eyelid. “I can’t believe you,” she whispers as the blood drains from his face.
Tenten checks her phone, making sure to time how long Neji passes out for. Her eyes alternate between her screen and the man’s eyelids until about thirty seconds have passed. It is then that she sees him open his eyes. He looks dazed and completely paler than before, “Neji, are you okay? You just fainted.” He attempts to prop himself up, “I think you should stay down-” Tenten extends her arm out to gently push him back down. He hasn’t said a single word.
Just from his quickly roaming eyes, Tenten knows he’s going to faint again. Instantly, he plunders but not before she could catch him, forearm hooking the nape of his neck. Her phone in her other hand flings towards his face, there is nothing she can do but let him take on the object. With him in her arm, literally, Tenten his met with his most vulnerable state. The cut on the corner of his lower lip becomes more apparent and the red mark the phone caused is throbbing. The ring to their destination makes its entrance. They’ve arrived. “Oh god,” she mouths, “Neji wake up.”
The door slides open and Tenten peers left and right to see if anyone is around. There is no one, even the front desk is empty. She hurries and drags him out of the elevator. “Wake up please,” she whispers, remaining alert for anyone who might happen to pass by. There is no one. “Neji,” she checks his pulse again, “Neji.”
Neji believes he’s in a dream again. She swears he’s going to meet Tenten again. However, the cadence of her voice isn’t that same. And a few moments later, he realizes he’s too wishful to be thinking it’ll be that easy to hear Tenten again. Neji comes to with that woman looking at him, shaking him softly, and calling him to consciousness. His dulled visions clear upon blinking several times and he sits up, taking in the fact that they are no longer in that contraption. “I apo-”
Before he could continue, the one pair of doors in that room open widely. Neji clasps his head, feeling a cold sweat flare up as he turns towards the door. “Get up,” he hears her whisper. And in doing so, though slowly, Neji finally meets with his uncle. Standing beside his uncle is his cousin who is safe and sound. He is relieved that she is unharmed. But what to do next? He has come all this way for her safety and now that he’s confirmed for himself, what else could he do?
“Neji,” his uncle’s familiar voice erupts, somehow making the situation more stressful than it already is.
To be more exact, Neji has never really heard his name from his uncle in any other way except for contempt. Although his uncle has mentioned him in light of the war under different circumstances, the former is more prominent in his mind. Neji takes in the new look of his uncle. Gone are the long traditional hair and kimono that is worn by the Hyuuga. His uncle dons very similar clothes to the people in this building. His hair has become gray and purposefully cut. All that remains reminiscent of his uncle back home is the voice.
“What an informal greeting,” Hiashi continues. Tenten tries not to be too obvious at staring at the elite man behind her job. What he says did not sound well to her. Do all Hyuuga talk like this? It’s as if there’s always an underlying threat behind each word. Hiashi’s eyes roll over to Tenten to which she hasn’t noticed, “Detective, what brings you here with my nephew?”
Tenten wants to shiver away all of the bad vibes from her body but she cannot. She gulps in preparation to answer the question, “Sir, I’m here to inform you that there has been an incident in Ame and I require the Miss’ cooperation.”
Hiashi turns a shoulder to his daughter with a raised brow in his face, “Oh really?”
“Yes, Sir,” Tenten replies. In Hinata’s face, there is an emotionless expression.
“Well then, go ahead,” he prompts his daughter to follow the detective out. Tenten didn’t think it would be this easy. She knows it’s too easy, in fact. “I’d like to have a word with you, Neji.”
Ah, there it is. Tenten seeks for Neji’s decision but she receives no audible answer. Instead, she and Hinata watch as he is led into the other room. Tenten clears her throat, taking note of how thirsty she’s become after the ride.
“It’s quite informal of you to come all the way here,” Hinata spouts as they both stare at the door.
“I should’ve brought a summon but we’re going against time. I do apologize for my rude actions,” Tenten tells her.
Hinata turns her head towards Tenten. Their eyes are on the same level despite her wearing heels. She quickly glances at the woman her cousin likes, finding no redeeming qualities in her whatsoever. What is so great about a commoner? The only thing that makes her stand out is her hairstyle. Hinata turns her head back as the image of Naruto stepping out onto the foggy road on the way out of Ame enters her mind. She is reminded of the name on the coat that Naruto was wearing. Hinata takes in a deep breath, piecing the irregularities of their encounter. She is afraid that Naruto might have caused trouble. “Detective, I have work to do. I give you my word that after it is finished, I will come to the police station on my own two feet and we will meet there.” If she is to be interrogated, Hinata would rather be interrogated by anyone but Tenten.
Tenten whips her head at Hinata’s direction, speechless and utterly stunned as she watches the woman walk to the elevator. “I— well-” the door opens and closes hastily to which Tenten couldn’t even give a proper rebuttal, “okay?” She sighs, being left alone as the sun continues to descend. Tenten walks over to the window to look down on the busy city. What exactly am I doing here?
Hiashi strides to the couch in a calm manner. However, his heart is the exact opposite. He is never too good in expressing care for anyone, much less to his own children, but Hiashi knows he’s failed the most towards his brother’s only treasure. Hiashi sits down, offering a seat across from him for his nephew but the grown man did not heed his gesture. Instead, he stands by the side of the couch and merely returns the gaze. Hiashi’s heart wrenches, knowing that this physical and emotional distance between them is all because of his doing. He presses his lips thinly, discontent in his kind gesture being rejected. Hiashi pours Neji a cup of tea to which he denies as well. They leave it at that.
“Why did you come here?” Hiashi asks him. “Why did you come with the detective?”
Neji backtracks to what Tenten told his uncle earlier, “I’m here to confirm of Hinata’s safety. The detective came with me to-”
“I understand that part,” Hiashi cuts him off, “she’s always careless whenever I’m not supervising her,” he mutters under his breath in regards to Hinata. Hiashi puts the cup down and leans back onto the couch. He has resumed his cold nature again, “Now,” he says in a low dark tone, “why did you sneak back into Konoha?”
“Sneak?” Neji asks.
“Oh,” Hiashi is astonished, “you did not?”
Neji shakes his head no, “I did not.”
“You did not,” Hiashi repeats his words with a speculative undertone. “You’re quite bold, walking into this place knowing that you’re not supposed to be here Neji.” He looks at Neji’s unfazed expression. His nephew has grown taller than him. Even with his unusual hairstyle, Hiashi finds it fitting for the man. The only thing out of place are the clothing he is wearing right now. It somehow reminds him not of commoners, but of the notion that all Hyuuga men should present themselves luxurious as their name have it. He knows that Neji is far better than that. But with their estranged relationship, Hiashi believes it might just be a way for him to ridicule the Hyuuga name. “You have to return abroad.”
“I can’t,” Neji replies quickly. “There is a reason why I’m here, Hiashi-sama. I cannot leave.”
Hiashi-sama? The term is out of date in a setting such as this. The last time Hiashi has heard of his name being said in this way was when he was a child. He recalls it clearly when his twin brother has been conditioned to call him that way. The sympathy breaks again for the adult man standing in his office.
Hiashi hasn’t reviewed what his thoughts are regarding his nephew’s sudden unconsciousness in the elevator and he believes he won’t have the strength to confront him about it. For a bad person like me, do I deserve to know? Hiashi is willing to spare himself of any guilt to his nephew because he knows that if his assumption is true about any illnesses that his nephew might have, he will never be able to forgive himself for being so ignorant. If he does not know about it, if he ignores it, he believes it will hurt less. That is his final take on the issue. However, that does not mean that he will not care for Neji. As cold as his heart is, he still loves his nephew dearly.
“I cannot go abroad,” Neji breaks his uncle’s inner thoughts. If Neji is to leave, there will only be more problems to come. What if I’m to meet my other self? It is that possibility and the loss of the woman he’s falling for as well. In this place, his teammates and teacher are here. Why would I go anywhere but here?
The definitive look in his nephew’s eyes is a new sight to Hiashi. He understands that his nephew is determined to stay. Stopping him from doing as he chooses might just cause more trouble for Hiashi. The CCTV video that he obtained from the Konoha hospital freshly reels in his mind. “How can you guarantee me that you will not bring attention to yourself while you’re here?” Hiashi asks him. “You know how much our reputation means to the company and agency. Anything that you do down to the way you present yourself is a reflection of us. Hinata told me you will not interfere with the company, but I have doubts that you’ll stay away from your father.”
Neji will not comment on that. He will not say anything regarding his father.
“How can you assure me that you will not seek your father?”
Neji only has one simple thing to say, “He’s dead to me.” Literally. But everyone here acts as if he’s alive. To me, he’s gone. There is no grave that Neji can visit except for his mother’s. As much as he wants to believe that his father is alive in this world, he will treat it the same. “Why would I seek someone who hasn’t been in my life for this long?”
His nephew’s words come out harsh, but this is the result of the past. Hiashi winces, trying to see if Neji will break. He does not. And for that comment, Hiashi makes up his mind to let his nephew stay in Konoha despite the three more years that is needed to close the final investigation for his brother’s incident. “Tell me, when did you come to Konoha?” Hiashi doesn’t even know when his nephew entered his home city. It may have been years. It may have been the moment his nephew became a legal adult. And if it is when he was an adult, Hiashi needs to pry out of him what he has been doing between those years up to now.
There is no need to hide the truth, “Not too long ago,” Neji states, “just a couple of days.”
Neji’s answer concerns him. “What are your living conditions?” Hiashi asks. If his nephew is to live here, it is only befitting that it is up to the Hyuuga’s standards.
“My living conditions?” Neji repeats, “my living conditions, I believe you do not need to know that, Hiashi-sama.” The question itself is unfitting for a conversation. If his uncle knows that he’s stuck himself to a woman who he’s content with loving, he knows that it will not be up to the Hyuuga’s “standards” in this world. He’s said it himself. People carrying the Hyuuga name present themselves luxuriously. If I were to tell him about Tenten, he’d rip me from her or the other way around. Another possibility would to completely outcast him, but Neji knows it will not be a viable option because of how coveted the Hyuuga are to the people in this world. To have a surname like his’, one would be treated to indulgence as seen by the hospital staff moving him to the VIP floor or how the officers’ attitude towards him changed immediately after finding out who he was. He cannot forget how discriminative the people here are.
Hiashi finds Neji’s reply to be suspicious. However, he leaves it at that. “The conversation has gone for too long,” Hiashi tells Neji, “see yourself out.”
In a beat, his nephew is gone. The door clicks closed and what is left is a hollow shell of a man pretending to be strong. Hiashi cannot disregard how Neji replied to his last question. Hiashi believes that he is perhaps, thinking too much, but he cannot help but do so. He must be broke. The way his nephew dressed in linkage with his potential illness makes Hiashi uneasy. He makes a call to the hospital where Neji was kept.
Once again, they find themselves descending stairs. This time, however, it is over fifty flight of stairs. Neji confessed to her that he fears the “contraption”. A simple explanation answers her thoughts about why he fell into her arms. Tenten made the choice to walk down the stairs with him.
With Neji walking beside her, Tenten’s mind flies away to a faraway place. She came all the way back home to find this “Naruto” guy, but instead of doing so, she is here with him instead. She has never been so side-tracked in her duty before. Tenten believes that it is because this is related to the cold case that is draining all of her passion for justice. As far as she knows, there is no such thing as justice for unsolved cases, cold ones at that. And it’s a serial one too. With every new body that appears, the results remained the same for the past thirty-five years. How will I be able to solve this and return home? Tenten knows she should be working hard to keep her promise with Hinata for her job back. However, she is here, taking step after step with a man she knows she’s falling for instead of doing her job correctly. I should be at the police station right now instead of here. We would’ve been outside walking there by now.
At some point down the flight of stairs, Tenten begins to loathe the man quietly walking in unison with her. He makes her life so complicated and she knows she does not need him. She did not search for him but he came anyway. She blames herself for not refusing him when she should have. I know these feelings won’t stop coming the more I spend time with you. In fact, you’re all that I’m seeing these past few days. If you continue to be like this, I won’t be able to hold them back. It is hard to accept that she cannot escape him even though he’s not binding her at all. To be more exact, Tenten knows that she’s binding her emotions to him without any reciprocation back. From those fluttery touches to the unwavering gazes that he gives, although she knows that they are meant for the person he has lost, she can’t help but think that they are for herself. I’ll continue to see where this goes, you and I. Silently, like a sleeping passenger, I guess I’ll just keep you in my heart.
The walk down becomes a chore. The sun is already more than halfway down the horizon when they reached the bottom. Tenten dials Asuma’s number, already feeling her feet becoming sore by just standing by the curb of the business street. She is in no shape and has no energy to speak with Hinata. She hopes to have her old team take a hit for her. “Cap!”
“Tenten?” Asuma exclaims as he heads out of the station, “what’s going on?”
“Did the station receive info from Ame?”
“Yes, we did.”
“Well, did they include that Hyuuga Hinata will-”
Asuma runs over to the van and opens the door. Inside are Kiba and Shino along with Shikaku’s team waiting for him, “Yeah it’s mentioned that she might’ve picked him up. Look, Ten, we’re heading out right now so I’ll call you back later. The officers are competent enough, they’ll do a thorough interrogation-”
“Who’s that?” Kiba asks in the background.
“Is that Kiba?” Tenten asks. “Wait, the officers? Are you saying she’s there right now?”
Asuma closes the door and straps on the seatbelt, “Yep! Have trust in us, you know how all of us roll! Gotta go! Bye!”
Neji stares at Tenten with his arms crossed. She is utterly speechless. “What’s wrong?” he asks her.
“Are you kidding me?!” she yells into her phone. “Oh god, how far is the police station from here?” Tenten slaps a hand to her forehead and keeps it there. She frantically looks around for a taxi but realizes that the inner city streets are always busy. And if she is to run on foot, it’ll be a couple of miles and it will take her more than twenty minutes to dash there. “Ugh!”
“Tenten,” Neji calls to her.
She turns to him with worry plastered all over her face. Dear god you guys better not play nice with her. Tenten mentally sends out an open-ended message to the officers receiving Hinata. “That sly woman,” she hisses. Tenten starts to walk down the slopey business section of the city. She does not want to even talk about the police station nor Hinata nor anything regarding her job.
“Where are we going?” he asks her.
“To get a drink!”
Tenten finds herself counting her change in her wallet at the front of the counter. In the quiet and empty convenience store, she stands with Neji peering down at her as their two hot cups of cocoa are being held in his hands. Tenten bites her lip and her ears turn red. It’s been a while since she’s experienced being broke again. Geez, I shouldn’t have bought so much in Ame even though it was cheap. She drops the coins and wrinkled bills into the hands of the man behind the counter. The man gives her a sly stare before opening the register. He then hands her the receipt to which she shoves it into her pocket and drags Neji out to the other side of the semi-deserted street. There are few passersby and few cars moving in and out of the road. Seemingly quiet, as if it’s on its way to sleep, the street makes a low hum.
They stand outside in the cold as the night takes its course. The glow of the light from the convenience store emits their faces while the street light flashes above them. Neji hands her drink to her to which she snatches it from him. He looks at her while she stares forward. Here, there is no fog to mask whatever she’s looking at. And here, he doesn’t need anything to mask how he feels about her. Neji turns his head back to the convenience store and takes a sip. The impeccably sweet taste overwhelms his taste buds. It causes his jaw to tingle as the sensation overloads his salivary gland. Neji doesn’t quite remember the last time he drank something this sweet. He swallows the content politely, feeling the icy weather begin to nibble his skin.
Neji wonders if he’s asking for too much from her. In noticing her scramble for change in her wallet, he truly wonders if he’s an inconsiderate person for forcing her to stay with him. Her comment about him not having a job, a real job at that, becomes a sore. Neji doesn’t know what he can do in this world with his skill set. He also lost his weapons and shinobi clothes when he was unconscious and he knows he’s not going to find them again. “If I knew you were short on money, I wouldn’t have asked so much.”
This causes Tenten to squat down. She is embarrassed about her financial situation. He stares down to her before doing the same. Tenten sighs and holds the cup. The hot content from within keeps her hands from going stiff, “It’s not your fault,” she speaks mindlessly and then catches herself upon that error, “well it is your fault, but not really. If it weren’t for my life’s savings getting junked when I met you, I think I would’ve been a couple of hundred dollars richer.” Nothing is going right for her. At every turn, she has to jump over a hurdle. And Neji, he’s strapped himself onto one of her legs just so that she’ll have to make the effort to leap over a foot high hurdle.
He watches as she brings the cup to her lips. She does not tilt it. Neji nods to her explanation, a bit disappointed that she hasn’t tasted the drink, “I see.”
His uncaring reply incites her to stare at him. Her eyes land on his arm, noting such a thin piece of fabric trying but failing to keep him warm. Tenten can feel the cold and she can feel the urge to shiver, but not him. She looks away, her eyes are drawn to the ground. Melancholy drapes over her shoulders, wedging a pang in between her entangled feelings for him. She’s forgotten to mention the bugging feelings for this man. Tenten does not know what to feel or how to feel. Optimism describes her, but with everything being thrown at her, the future, probably the next few hours ahead seems so bleak. The inner struggle to be subtly happy, mildly angry, utterly upset, or absently tired is beating her down. She needs time alone, even from him.
Though Neji is human, Tenten can’t help but see him as a wild man. At this point, she believes anything in the “weird” spectrum is a probability. Never once has she heard him complain about anything. He probably has, maybe under his breath, but not to her ears. He should be asking where they should go next, or how freezing it is, or question why they’re just squatting here on the sidewalk— but he doesn’t. This type of weather sits between Fall and Winter and Winter to Spring. It’s chilly, a mild brisk that increases in intensity as the sun goes down. It’ll hit its coldest peak, but one that is bearable to the body if jogging in the night. It’ll cool and wake the body. But if one is to do nothing, it’ll clamp on every muscle and refuse to let go. And here, they are doing nothing and he’s not complaining at all.
Tenten finally lifts the cocoa to her mouth. The taste of it can only be described as extremely sweet with enough sugar to surpass three day’s worth of daily percentage intake. She forces it down, sucking in air through her gritted teeth. Neji watches her every expression. He finds it amusing and giggles, “I was wondering when you’ll taste it.”
She chortles and allows herself to willingly smile as she returns her gaze to him, “Sorry for making it so sweet.” He doesn’t reply and only takes another sip. Her voice is lethargic itself. Tenten speaks with a lackluster tone and a weak smile to add to it, “You don’t have to drink it,” her eyes roam candidly onto him. His giggle has turned into a tiny simper. It is the first time she’s seen him smile. It is pleasant, and it lifts her spirits just one notch, “Unless you like sweets.”
“I don’t,” Neji twirls his cup gently, careful not to spill her money’s worth, “but since you bought it for me, it’ll be rude not to drink it.”
“Not even a little bit?” Tenten asks him.
“In moderation,” his eyes lay lowly to the ground.
In moderation, Tenten notes it down in her memory. “What type of food do you like?” Even though the environment is inconvenient and they have nowhere to go, at least, she believed they should familiarize themselves with each other. Tenten has been inconsiderate to his tastes and it did cross her mind once that she does not want to know more about him, but would it matter at this point? I’ve already decided to like you.
Neji thinks about her harmless question. From the rise of his cup, he answers it, “Herring buckwheat noodles, a bit mild in sweetness.” He takes another sip.
“Fish,” she replies. “Is that all that you like?”
Her eyes seem to attract more white specks the more Neji looks into them. “I like a lot of things.”
“Huh,” Tenten huffs, turning away to set her cup to the ground, “so what don’t you like?”
At that answer, a feeble smile escapes her lips. “That’s good to know.” Tenten plays with her cup, adding life into the inanimate object as if it is a person skipping on about on the pavement. It catches Neji’s eyes. She wonders where they’ll go after this.
This moment is theirs, his’ to keep. He can’t seem to find any memory of Tenten doing the kind of things this woman is doing right now, maybe because he is deliberately choosing not to think about his comrade. In fact, Neji knows he doesn’t want to think about her. We will never be together. But here, I can at least let myself love you, this instance of you even in hiding. He is thinking of her again. Drawn in by his own volition, he projects the fond image of his comrade onto the woman playing with the cup. It seems so real to him and it makes him lost in the artificial illustration of them. Neji has found one memory of “his” Tenten that he wants to keep, it is the one he made.
“Do you want to know my favorite food?” Tenten asks him.
Neji retracts from his momentary thoughts, catching her glistening eyes on him, “Sesame dumplings,” he answers for her. He immediately holds his breath, wary that he’s becoming too front with her. Her stunned eyes reflect that of his own.
Tenten lets out a short sigh, “How did you know that?”
He looks away, sipping his cocoa for the last time, “My friend, her favorites are— were sesame dumplings.” Even without doing anything, she somehow stirs him to find his comrade within the labyrinth of his mind. Neji wisps it all away, not wanting to endure the negative aspect of himself whenever she’s on his mind. “She loves Chinese cuisine, but there are only so few places she could get them.”
How could this be a coincidence, Neji?
“I’m not trying to say that you are her,” Neji tells her. Admittedly, he is ashamed that he did not catch himself before uttering those words. “I’m not going back on my words about the two of you because there are differences between her and you. I was just— not thinking clearly.”
Tenten examines his downcast explanation. She steers the topic instead, “Aren’t you cold?” She receives a direct glance from him, “anyone wearing what you’re wearing would drop dead right now.”
Neji shakes his head no, “I’ve managed in worse conditions.”
Her eyes squint in disbelief, “Really?” She receives no gesture from him. “Like what?”
“You wore something as thin as this in the snow?” Tenten pinches the fabric on his arm, catching him off guard. He nods, remembering how unprepared he was on that particular mission. Tenten lets out a sigh of disbelief. “Well, that’s just not right. Maybe we can find an hour or two tomorrow to fix you up?” Neji raises a peculiar brow, she notes that it is always his left brow. “My home still needs to accommodate you. I don’t want to keep sharing what I have.”
“I thought you’ve no means to even buy these drinks,” Neji comments.
Tenten nods her head in a slow rhythm and her lips pucker as she bites the inner of her bottom lip. “I know, but that’s what savings are for. We should go somewhere warm before you get a fever again.” She offers him a charming smile to which Neji’s heart races. He turns his head away and steers his eyes back onto the convenience store across from them. Hearing her words made him warm enough, flustered is the word he finds afterward.
A vibration tickles the side of Tenten’s stomach. She pulls her phone out and reads her chief’s name. Tenten stands up, cueing one of her knees to pop. She groans as Neji follows suit, “It’s my boss,” she tells him, “give me a minute.” Neji watches her back as she walks up the sloped street. She is not too far from him.
“Look Tenten, I know you’re passionate about the cold case, but you shouldn’t be meddling beyond your jurisdiction.”
“I can’t have you causing a scene in Konoha. There’s a reason why you were relocated. Stay low, don’t-”
“How did you know I’m back here?” she asks him.
Inoichi deadpans onto oblivion, “Are you seriously asking me that right now? You went to my superior and had the audacity to bring his secretary to the police station.”
“Well she walked in there by herself, I don’t know why you’re not even questioning how she is-”
“I don’t care about what happened,” Inoichi cuts off her sentence. In just one day, he’s forgotten how cunning his underling is. “You need to head back to Ame by tomorrow. Do not come back here unless you’re dying or if you’ve a personal business. Good night.”
Tenten lowers the phone and takes in a bitter breath of air through her nostrils. She slides her phone into her pocket, keeping both hands warm inside her coat, and broods at her demise. She returns to Neji. Her furrowed brows ease up, resuming its uniformed lines. Tenten draws a deceiving smile to attempt to mask her tiresome face. She stops within a considerable distance from him, about the width of his leg, “Well, I guess we have the entire day to do some shopping tomorrow.”
Neji crosses his arms with his cup still in his hand, “We have better things to do tomorrow. Naruto is-”
“We can’t,” Tenten interrupts him, “I can’t work here. It’s out of my district.”
“I can find Naruto,” Neji replies. He consciously raises his fingers to touch his cheekbone. He will have to try to use his byakugan to do so. “We can’t leave-”
“Neji, it’s not that easy to work under this city’s noses,” she sighs and kicks her drink across the street. She is irritated mainly for the fact that she’s partially barred from doing her job, but also because he has no clue as to why it’s impossible to defy the jurisdiction. “I don’t want to jeopardize losing my job, not even for you and maybe even if it’s the right thing to do. Neji, I’m no one special to people like you. I don’t have some big name to back me up. People like us work harder than people like you to get to where we are, to where I am. And I lost it all because I made one mistake. It’s not the same as the elite people like you.”
He listens to her address. It is an insight Neji’s willing to accept. She is distressed and rightly so. The resemblance of her situation regarding their differences is uncanny. These words fit so well between his clan nobility and the commoners. As far as Neji knows, “his” Tenten is no more than a commoner. He wonders if his comrade feels the same about him as does the woman speaking to him in this instance.
“-I’m not going to even ask how you know so much about our suspect. Let’s not even go there before I get even more weirded out,” Tenten finalizes her reasoning to him. “So can we leave now?”
Neji did not realize that her eyes have gotten watery. And in looking into her eyes, his cold shell vividly breaks. His shoulders relax. The tonal intensity that he has always spoken to her sheds away. “Okay.” Neji realizes at that moment that he has hurt her. If there ever was a moment like this with his comrade, he could only think of one: his dream a night ago. But with that, he isn’t even sure if it counts. “Let’s leave,” his delicate voice glosses over to her.
Before they can take a step, a fancy black car pulls up beside them. Tenten eyes the tinted window as it rolls down. What reveals from the driver’s seat, only Neji can tell. Tenten leans in towards Neji and looks at the man inside. “Who are you?” she asks him.
The man acts as if she is invisible. He has been driving across the city to locate them for the last three or so hours. He reaches over to the passenger seat and grabs a tiny box the size of his palm. Handing it to Neji, he clears his throat, “Mr. Hyuuga has prepared a gift for you. Please use it as you please.”
Neji takes the box, recognizing that it is from one of his uncle’s underlings. The man then offers Tenten a subtle nod before the window ascends. They both watch as the car leaves before Tenten taps the tiny box. “Open it,” she tells him.
Tenten narrows in on the box as Neji sandwiches the cup in between his ribs and forearm as he lifts the lid. The present is one of the oddest gifts he’s received. He picks up the piece of metal and flips it to the other side, “What is this?”
“A card,” she replies. Tenten relaxes her eyes and looks at Neji, “May I have a look?” He hands it to her in an instant. Tenten thumbs the credit card as she turns to the light from the streetlight to read the name, “It’s— your card.”
“My card?” he looks over her shoulder and reads the golden letters. He hears a hard gasp from her and spins her around to him from a hand to her shoulder, “What is it?”
Tenten stares at the metallic card. She puts a tiny amount of pressure on it. “Neji,” Tenten covers her mouth lightly with her fingers and looks up to him, “it’s a Black Diamond card.”
“It’s just a card,” Neji states. What she tells him is nonsense.
“No, it’s not just a card!” she beams with the widest smile he’s seen from her. This is one of the greatest things that happened today for them. Tenten smacks the cup from his hand, grabbing both of his hands into hers as she begins to laugh, “Oh man, the things you can buy with this!”
“That’s not money,” Neji is quite taken aback by her sudden intimacy.
“You must’ve gotten your head stuck in a hole, genius, this is a credit card!” Tenten hugs Neji out of pure excitement. Her heart is racing and her body is ecstatic. She is more than relieved, knowing she won’t be spending a single dime on his wardrobe tomorrow. Deviousness also makes itself apparent as well. However, Tenten forces it down. She finds it impeccably enticing to abuse his limitless card but she knows she shouldn’t. Neji stares at his spilled drink, having her rock and sway him to her heart’s content. Her embrace is a shock to him but one that is welcomed. Tenten pulls away as the buzz dies and her energy is spent. She hands him back his card and smacks her lips, “Man, I really thought we’d be sleeping at a bathhouse tonight.”
Neji stares at the slightly heavy card in between his fingers with a blank expression. There’s money in here? How did it get in there? Neji finds it to be most safe with Tenten. He has no clue as to how it can be used. Directly, he hands it back to her.
Tenten shakes her head and denies it, “It’s yours.”
“I’ve no idea how to-”
“So, do you want to stay at a cheap hotel or a mid-tier or an expensive one?” Tenten asks as she trots past him.
Neji quickly ambles after her like a child, “Tenten, I’ve no clue as to how to use this thing.”
“You hand it to them and then they’ll give it back. What’s so difficult about that?” They reach the corner of the street and wait to cross. “So which is it? I’m getting tired.”
“I don’t know,” Neji admits. “You can choose.”
Tenten’s ears perk up, “I can choose?”
She snaps her head to him and stars in her eyes. Neji is amused but not without suspicion. Tenten grins, one filled with a dazzling complexity he cannot decipher. “We’re going to one fit for a Hyuuga.”
Hinata stomps through the foyer in a fit of anger as their housemaid closes the front door. She moves into the living room to find her sister and father looking over some documents splayed on the coffee table. Her loud heels announce her arrival to them. Hinata receives a disinterested glance from both of her family members before the papers begin moving around. She’s being ignored again but it is to be expected.
“Why did you have to go and do that, father,” Hinata asks him.
Hiashi adjusts his glasses and pulls a piece of document up closer to his face, never once offering another glance to his daughter, “You shouldn’t have stepped into unknown territory. I may be affiliated with the Police Agency, but that does not give you the right to be reckless. Your reputation reflects on the company.” Hinata scowls at her father as he hands the document in his hand to Hanabi. “Do what you’re supposed to do and stay within the line like your sister.”
Hanabi tilts her head toward Hinata with a smirk on her lips. “Why would you confront dad about what he does when he hasn’t the slightest interest in what you were doing at the police station? I told you to visit dad and instead of letting others do your work, you taint the family name.”
“Enough, Hanabi,” Hiashi stops her. He pinches his temples, tired of their childish bickering. Hiashi stands up, announcing his departure, but not before answering his daughter’s initial question, “I did what is right for my nephew.”
Hiashi’s knees buckle the moment he raises his foot to climb the stairs. His heart constricts and he suppresses a breath. Hizashi, I’ve failed you. Trudging up the stairs, he recalls the conversation with the doctor who assessed his nephew. “Everything is normal, Sir. However, there was a strange matter found when operating on him. We did take samples of it but it’s as if the piece itself evaporated... The matter no longer showed up in his cavity after further testing. I cannot confirm it but it might be can-” Hiashi’s recollection of the conversation is cut short when their housemaid approaches him with a phone. He presses it to his ear, “What.”
“The task has been completed, Boss.” From the side of the intersecting street, the man stares at his rear view mirror to keep an eye on Neji and Tenten waiting at the crosswalk. “The card has been transferred.”
The doorman standing outside of the Royal Hotel gives her a sneer as she leads Neji into the building. Tenten chooses to ignore him, pulling the tall glass door for Neji and when he does so, she follows after. Neji’s eyes scan the magnificent interior reeking with gold everywhere. It is a place unlike he’s visited before. “C’mon,” she tells him. Neji stays close to her heels but his eyes stray far to the wasteful utilization of space of the building. The ceiling is a bit too high for him, it is a bit too bright for him, too spacious and at the same time, too crowded with people.
When Tenten reaches the front desk, she is greeted with the disdained expression of the women on the other side. Neji’s awe and lack of awareness cause him to stumble onto Tenten, earning a faint scornful look from the rise of the receptionist’s brow. Tenten clears her throat and rests her forearms onto the high counter as Neji stands beside her. The receptionist hasn’t even glanced his way yet. Tenten taps her fingers on the surface and smiles to the woman, “Can I book two rooms please?”
Tenten is met with a mute pair of lips. The woman, obviously judgmental of the infamous detective and her status in how she presents herself, types away on the computer aimlessly. She has no intention of letting a commoner stay in their hotel. “I’m sorry, but there’s no-”
“One room,” Neji interrupts her. He pulls his eyes away from the hideous design of the lobby and meets eyes with the receptionist. The receptionist’s eyes widen, realizing that he is a man upon hearing his low voice. She gulps, scrutinizing his eyes until she lands on the prospect that he might just belong to the elite.
“No,” Tenten corrects him. She stares at him, prompting him to return a gaze, “two rooms.”
“One is fine,” Neji finalizes. He flips out the metal card and bargains on how to use the card as Tenten described to him. He hands the card to the receptionist and she receives it immediately.
Tenten’s brows furrow and she nudges at his arm with her knuckles as his attention is momentarily taken from her. “Neji, what are you doing?” she whispers.
“We do not take that much space in a room. Having two is a waste. We can’t afford two rooms.”
The receptionist overhears their conversation as she reads the name on the card. Neji Hyuuga? As in Hyuuga, HYUUGA? The receptionist almost drops the black card when Neji turns to her, “One room. That is final.”
The receptionist’s throat suddenly becomes dry as she forces the widest and most natural smile in her life to compensate for her rude attitude just seconds earlier. “Yes, Sir.” Tenten stares at her in horror. She did not expect the woman to turn around this easily. “Would a double be fine?”
Neji shrugs, “I guess.”
“Neji,” Tenten stops him.
“How long would you be staying?” the receptionist asks.
“Until tomorrow,” Neji replies.
Tenten pouts as the finalization is made. He is racking her brains. She hopes to have a solitary room to herself but it won’t be tonight. Tenten crosses her arms and frowns at him as he receives his card back. Right at this moment, her heart rattles. She only needs one night for herself. Placing a short distance between him and her will give her the silence she needs to think clearly and fully come into terms with her dilemma.
The receptionist hands him a pair of access cards. Neji’s face contorts as he takes the cards dumbly into his hands. “Your room will be on the fifty-first floor, Sir. Enjoy your stay at the Royal Hotel.”
Neji retreats from the counter as he continues to stare at the flimsy cards she gave him. He closes the gap between him and Tenten as she purposefully leads him towards the elevator, a destination he does not know about yet. “Are these credit cards as well?” he asks her.
Tenten snatches the cards from his hand, “They’re our room key, stupid.”
“Are you upset with me?” Neji asks rather plainly.
Tenten stops walking and glares at him. He stops as well and engages in an intense stare with her. She knows deep down that she’s being unfair to him, but the scales have been tipping into his favor all too much. The audacity to ask me, “Yes. It’s all because of you.” Her brows furrow and everything within her is going to break. It is now, not just about her situation. Her life now has him. And with his blank stare at her, she feels as if she’s going to crumble with the weight of him expanding in her world. Endearment shines through from the subtlety of his expression back onto her and Tenten knows she doesn’t deserve it from him. She turns away continues walking forward toward the elevator. Keep up the madness.
Eyes drawn to her, Neji is briefly lost in thought. He has heard those words before. He hurries to her, never once missing a heartbeat. Neji doesn’t know when that phrase stuck itself to him, but it comes to him strongly, strong enough for his mind to linger on it. And in reaching Tenten, Neji is yet again faced with the deadly contraption he’s been trying to avoid. The door slides open, almost like a mouth trying to devour him. Neji grabs Tenten’s arm sleeve and pulls her from the elevator.
“Tenten, I can’t go in there again,” Neji drags her towards the stairs.
Being handled without her consent irks her more than being stared down, especially when she’s angry. Tenten yanks back hard. A ripping sound spins Neji’s head down her to sleeve. His eyes are bewildered. The said piece of article has shredded. She gasps while he is mortified. Tenten glowers at him in disbelief, her mouth slack-jawed. Before the elevator door closes, she seizes his wrist and pulls him into the already filled lift. “Get out!” She shouts at the innocents standing in the elevator. “He’s a fucking Hyuuga! Get the fuck out!” Her blood is boiling beyond her control. One by one, the occupants exit the elevator until what remains is the both of them.
Neji finds Tenten comparable to the devil when she’s like this. He, however, does not put up a fight because this accident might just be the final straw that detaches her from him. Neji supposes he might as well fake a faint while pummels him, at least, that is what he believes she’s going to do. She depresses all the buttons the former occupants had pressed and jams her finger onto the fifty-first-floor button. Neji has ripped her lucky coat, the only article that she’s received from her grandmother before her passing. She refuses to release his wrist.
Click. The door closes. The receptionist snickers as she steps out of the decorative support column. She hurries back to the front desk and skims through her line of contacts for a certain reporter.
“What do you want, Sumire?”
“Ino, you will not believe what I have for you.”
Chapter 12: What Love Does
The next morning after spending a night at the hotel, Neji and Tenten ventures out into the city to grab the necessities Tenten wanted to buy to accommodate him in her home back in Ame Village. Neither of them know that Ino, press/publisher of Yamanaka Daily has been told by the Hyuuga elite to release the pictures the receptionist secretly took. And on the exact day, Naruto is pondering how to find Sasuke now that he's back in the city after accomplishing what Sasuke set out for him to do.
Hands scrunched on his chest, pulling and ravishing his shirt; voice seething with anger, tears daring to escape those eyes; it is a dreamy illusion to witness such emotion from the tiny toned body Neji has grown used to. The feel of the elevator lifting him up the ground, his insides grows accustomed to the very subject that makes him faint. Neji slowly lets himself drown in the rightful tantrum of the woman clawing his very skin. His mind is filled with her rough and painful touches; it does not want to shut itself off. Is it because I’m staring at you now that my eyes refuse to close? That my body will not fall over. Or that my knees will not shake?
The shape of her lips as it moves, cursing him, berating him, and somehow capturing all his might; storing all his strength in his eyes, it is those lips that keeps him grounded tall to the floor. He has never once thought that he’d want to touch those vile lips. Like standing in a vacuum, those words that come from her mouth speaks inaudibly. Angry words, questions, venomous curses, Neji has drowned out her voice. Without the sound, it is relatively easier to focus on her. Everything blurs and blackens except for those lips. Slowly, his heart beats. And he counts them in his head from one, seconds transpire from one thump to the next. It’s obvious, I’ve loved you the moment I found you.
Twinned buns swaying, head shaking, nails digging deeper into his skin, the feelings cannot be shaken off. Neji draws her like a dream coming true. Teeth gritting tightly, her tears that have yet to fall, he takes in the batter, unmoved and still lost in a confession that has yet to be shared. Holding himself back because it is the right thing to do, because loving in secret is something new, and because she is someone he cannot truly have, his eyes can only remain on those lips. It is a feeble restraint because just one flicker of his pupils will truly mean the end of him. I will lose myself if I do.
Time passes like a recurring dream; they are going nowhere in the elevator. It has stopped. The door opens and prospective occupants arrive. But like this, her hands never move from him. Instead, it grips his shirt tighter, her voice plunders the elevator for themselves. The door closes without any new addition inside. She will not rest and Neji will not either. Nothing is lost. The lift flies up again and this time, he does not feel the pressure to cave into unconsciousness.
Fists clenching his wrinkled shirt, a single heavy tug flies him closer to her. Those lips become larger, his wants to seal himself to her thickens. The things he’s yet to tell her, if she were to know: those lips, if kissed, the memory will become a bittersweet one. His hands are trembling. The sound in his chest is exploding, incoherently calling to pull the person who is making him so irrational. If you pull me closer to you, you’ll regret it. Time feels as if it’s crawling to a standstill. Settled on a forbidden kiss, even if it will be more bitter than sweet, he proposes a one-sided agreement.
Lips spouting in muteness, never once resting, those fists grow impatient for an answer, for anything from him. Neji’s head is spinning on an invisible cloud, clearly wishing for another pull. Reasonably, a slight tug will do. This close to the only person who chews his heart into disarray, stepping and holding back would be a waste. Jumping past all the walls hastily put up, from all of the excuses made with a thoughtful mind, that expressing this longing would be wrong, just one slight tug from her will vanish them all. Neji feels his insides pull to the pit of his stomach again. Lips still in the hues of his eyes, he silently begs her to move him, forward or backward, it doesn’t matter now. It is an unsaid agreement that only he knows between them. Move him slightly and the blame will be her’s. For whatever happens next, he will have done so because of her. You’ll break this condition only if your hands leave me. Nothing comes next. Nothing but the relaxation of her clenched fists, the slow release of his shirt makes him breathe. Did you hear me? As if she’s become aware of their agreement, as if her eyes have read his complex mind that has turned simple, she’s truly crumbling these walls.
Hands will part and this will end. Neji moves his pupils upwards slightly, the one thing he tells himself not to do, no, it is something he wants to do. In that half-second, his world is in her eyes. Those persistent tears haven’t left her orbs, he is staring into a reflection of himself. The all-too-mature person, that seventeen-year-old prodigy is staring back at him and he is staring back from a stretched amount of time passing by, as a twelve-years-older man. Neji is drawn to reality, pulled from the vastness of his mind. The inaudible silence disappears and the sound of her flaring breaths escapes from her tightly gritted teeth, “I hate you.”
Those hands are millimeters from leaving his chest. She is intent on leaving him on the verge of confessing. His inexperienced and trembling hands rise, dropping on top of her own hands like a diving bird. A blazing touch filled with more meaning than from all the other’s preceding, Neji keeps her hands placed on his chest. He curls her fingers onto his shirt. If you’re listening, can you feel it? My heart is compelled to love you. Confusion plasters on her face; he brushes his thumb tenderly over her slender fingers, “Did you hear me?” his dry lips part and a low desperate voice escapes from his mouth. Move me if you dare.
Those lips are slightly agape. Dumbfounded for a split second, that expression is replaced with simmering scrutiny. Her hands clench his shirt on their own. Her brows make a dive, the anger erupts again, and her mouth spews, “That’s all you say?! After everything I’ve said?! Did you even hear me?! Huh?!”
A tight intended shove filled with resentment makes up the only movement he considers eligible to enact their agreement. Enough with holding back, Neji holds onto her hands strongly. It isn’t enough. He regains balance effortlessly. Orbs locked onto those vile lips, his hands release hers, now bringing his confession closer to her. His fingers found the nape of her neck. Such an intimate touch filled with roughness, he dips to her, erasing the empty space between them. Neji brings his fervent kiss to her, refusing to let her part from him. Eyes shut closed tightly, eliminating the sight of her face running several different wells of emotions. Neji can feel how painful it is her fists and knuckles are, digging into his skin, trying its best to put distance from them, trying to push him from expressing the sky’s worth of his longing for her. The sound of her struggles, the muffles, the whimpers, the breaths that stopped short, he hears them all. In the stiffness of her head jerking, he peeks, holding her, keeping her lips controlled to his’: her eyes are tightly shut.
And the blows come. They are warranted, those punches, those strikes to his chest. If it hurts now, if he pulls away, it will all be for nothing. His lips eagerly press on her tiny pair, moving accordingly to instinct, never once waning.
When did he press her to the cold metallic wall? When did he make the stride? All that he feels is the taste of her lips. It is bitter more than it is sweet just like he imagined. Her lips pressed thinly, refusing here and there, where the sweetness is, he can only feel it from her inner lips. Neji’s impassioned kisses ebb, it loses traction. Her lips are too bitter. With one hand relaxing the nape of her neck, the other lower to trace itself against her body for the eyes cannot see. Feeling her from the protrusion of her collarbone lightly down to her arm, he pleads to hold her hand while his kiss dies.
Unexpectedly, those swings and strikes have given up. His heart is far beyond his realm now. The sound of her breath changes. It accompanies the feel of her hands coveting his’, suggesting a stalemate between two ravaging heart. Her hand, it hurries, snaking to his back. Her lips relax and willingly part. Before he knew it, she’s pulled him into her kiss. And before this shared intimacy is lost, blurred within the fire she blew onto his chest, she engages in the kiss. Heads moving in rhythm, she has become the one to guide the meshing of their all-too-emotional kiss, the sweetness that he hasn’t tasted all-too-well battles out the bitterness he received. Neji’s heart and mind conclusively boggle down. The ferocity his lips gave now moves in a pair of waves to her’s. Moving both hands to her face, his thumb brushes her cheekbone in the only loving way he knows. Filled with her scent, lost in her soul, he finally feels his body flush, lighting up with a million stars. The inexperienced “him” who has betrayed his comrade for this woman cannot find any regret from within.
The kisses slow, the deep initiation of it all becomes shallow until all that’s left is a chaste one followed by an unsettling series of heavy breaths and gasps. Neji opens his eyelids as his pupils settle lowly, looking at her eyes drawn not to his orbs, but to his chest. The bell dings, announcing their arrival to their floor just as he rests his forehead against her’s. She doesn’t move, she doesn’t react. She doesn’t say a word. They’ve arrived. The door opens but he does not want to move. Could there be more than this? The moment either of them steps out of this lift, the undoubted fear of leaving behind whatever happened here crosses his mind. With seconds to make a choice to stay or to go, the upward tilt of her face nudges the tip of her nose closer to his’. Her breath shudders. A brief moment is spared for clarity of the aftermath.
Even after a strenuous kiss, he still finds the line between them insecure. He understands it now, her feelings for him. She’s still unsure. But before he could step away to let her go, she slips from him. Neji considers staying behind to be an option but he does not want it to end, this new journey that they’ve yet to explore. The way that she parts from him out of the elevator makes him weary. He will have to explain himself.
The moment the card slides through the reader and the jingle sounds, the moment she opens the door and steps inside, Neji captures her who has put a considerable amount of distance between them. He wants to close it all back up, it can’t possibly end silently like this for him. The heavy door loudly slams. He’s pinned her against it although there is no need to, she didn’t resist, she didn’t even try. Neji finds that they are now standing on opposite ends of this emotional spectrum. In looking at her pinned to the door, if he is to take one step back, she’d willingly stand there without moving a muscle. She isn’t saying anything either. Despite it all, he draws in, breaths becoming shallow and soft the closer his lips got to her’s. But before they can meet, the breath of his name touches his lips, “Neji.” It is crisp to his ears, a whisper filled with so much emotion, yet not one of them is happiness. He pulls back from her, gazing into her partially moonlit face in the dark suite. “Are you sure?”
It’s never easy to quell the neverending butterflies in her stomach, especially when they are alone now, privately secluded from other peering eyes. Tenten’s still trying to figure out the meaning of his kiss. She could ask, but she’s found a better reason. If it were to shut her up, he could have kissed her the moment she lashed out. If he was tired of hearing her yell at him, he would have roughed and reddened her lips from the beginning. Instead, he didn’t move at all and waited until she was done.
Palms flatly resting against the door, she can still feel the way he thumbed her fingers. In that initial instant, the moment she gave in and let her inner feelings for him overtake her anger, she had lost herself. Her head spun drunk. At that moment, all that she was content with was him. Gone were the problems that she has been struggling with. From her torn sleeve to his appearance in her life, from her downfall and need to have time for herself, she erased it all and settled for lust. She labels it as lust, but Tenten does not know whether what she feels for him is that all along because to her, she’s only begun to like him. To say that it was because of love that she returned the kisses wouldn’t be wholly correct. There wasn’t enough time to call it love, but it doesn’t feel right to call it lust either. Infatuation? Will it ever become a consummate love? She doesn’t know. There wasn’t enough time to know before he kissed her.
“Neji, are you sure?” Tenten whispers softly to him. She asks because she’s completely capable of sleeping with him in this instant. There is only a fear that she might not leave strings unattached after tonight if they are to go through with it. And more than that, she’s afraid that these kisses might not even be for her. After all, he’s keeping me close because of her, right? Thinking about the scenario now makes her heart shatter piece by piece. “Why did you kiss me,” her head drops and she bends the plastic access cards in her hand. She should have never kept him in her home the night she woke up to him staring at her. Like this, her heart wouldn’t be melting into a puddle when she felt his hand caressing her the night after. She wouldn’t have to lean onto him in the car and pretend that everything is platonic because, from the beginning, it was never that easy to keep it mutual. “Why did you have to go and do that to me.”
“Because I don’t want to keep it to myself anymore, I’m falling for you,” he whispers back, still pressing her to the door. He is a straightforward person. And as his whispers touch her lips, she doesn’t know whether she can trust his words. Her lips are still lost in the way he kissed her and her mind is dizzying itself around him.
Tenten blindly feels for the light switch. She cannot trust just his voice. Because he lies so well, because she would believe any word coming from his mouth, she seeks to let her other sense decipher him. Pressing the light on, she’s met with those onyx hues swimming in his eyes. She finds herself sucked into the integrity in his orbs. She cannot tell the difference. “How can I trust you? I’m her to you,” Tenten bats her eyes from his own and pivots to the side to find her way out of his entrapment, “I think you mixed us up.”
“I didn’t,” Neji replies. His hands drop on her shoulders, vying for her to return her gaze to him, “everything that happened was for you.” His brows knit, searching for a conclusion from her that they’d both agree to, “I’m being honest to you right now. It was always you.”
“Then did you lie to me about her?” she asks, still unable to meet his eyes. “That she was a real person, that she died. Was everything about her a lie so that you could get to me?” Uncalm as her heart is, the questions must be asked. Tenten digs the grooves of her teeth into her lower lip.
Neji cups both her cheeks as earnestly as he can and tilts her face to him, “I never lied,” again she’s making him think of an unattainable person right now. “She was real and I-” it wretches his heart to say it, “I loved her too late.” He rests his eyes and pain swells from his core. It is killing him to know that he cannot love the real “her”. “You cannot replace the memories of her, for they’ll always stay with me. But I know that these feelings of mine belong to you. There’s no mistaking it, Tenten.” Neji slowly opens his eyes and brushes away her nappy bangs from her forehead. She is now looking back at him, “I can’t risk showing you how I feel later than now.”
Tenten can’t shake off her unnerved heart of him. Two days have passed by, filled only with good memories of him. But to him, it is as if he’s known much more about her than she did to him. Perhaps the idea that men fall in love easier then women must be true. He’s held her with a greater distance than before and she knows she’s the one who put them there. “When did you find these feelings for me?” she asks him. “I’ve only started to like you but it seems you’re lightyears ahead of me. Do you love that easily?”
With that, his hands drop but not without brushing those cheeks. He detaches himself from her. Gone is the internal build-up, the constant yearning for her, the conversation has strayed back to “his” Tenten and she didn’t even know it. Neji walks from the mini hall opening to the wide sleeping area. Instead of opting to rest, to sit on the futon or either of the beds, he trudges straight to the all-encompassing window walls. Once again, the night sky is littered with lights. The stars take a backseat while the moon is partially hidden by a building far from them. Neji crosses his arms, lost in deep thought. Somehow, she has come to stand by him with a considerable distance between them. Neji closes his eyes as an instinct. He hasn’t meditated once when he arrived here. He hasn’t tried meditating while standing either, but a short one will do. And so, lost in his mind, Neji wonders if he really does love that easily.
He was a young person who had dreams to reach for. Constantly striving to be the best, the most powerful, or whatever he thought about before he died, none of them laid on the prospect of love. So when was love so prevalent in his mind? When did he begin to harbor unknown feelings for his comrade? When did it start? And when did it malform? Where did it go wrong? Neji cannot find a definitive answer for her yet. He flutters his eyes open and turns to her, “You must be tired. I won’t keep you waiting for an answer I haven’t found yet.” He knows she’s disappointed but he needs to be alone.
With nothing further to say, Tenten spins around and beelines for the bathroom. She closes the door with a lump in her throat. The bright vanity lights emit her current state as she stares into the wide mirror by the sink. Without receiving an answer, her affection for him only grows. If he loves easily, he’d be just like her. And would that be so wrong? I’ve fronted my desire for him, but it has deformed into a crush, a childish love, lust? Love? Tenten looks down to her ripped sleeve at her wrist. Her fingers pull on the seam. Twelve years had passed since her grandmother gave her his jacket as a present for completing the detective academy. Tenten breaks down, finding life exhausting.
Faintly, the suffocating cries from the bathroom make its way to Neji’s ears. His entire body stiffens up, reminded of his dream of her wails through a barrier. Neji turns around to face the bathroom door, it’s the same. There’s no difference I can find. Their identical sobs scare him. It sends a powerful shiver down his spine. He pulls the glass slide door open, stepping out into the cold. Neji closes it, muting her weeping as he finds the perfect place to ponder for an answer.
The wind blows stronger above the ground. It is much colder up here as well. Neji steps towards the balcony onto the glass rails and holds the icy metal bars. He finally sighs as the weather begins to prick his skin. At once, he relinquishes his sight towards his mind, searching through his memories of Tenten and him in the vastness of Konohagakure, of all the places they’ve gone together, spent together, maybe even eaten together. There are so many memories of you I’ve kept.
He respected her, not only because she was the only competent kunoichi from their academy graduating batch, but because she began their friendship never once conjuring the horrible side of him. There was always this distance she puts in between them: they were close enough to drop the formalities but still so far from one another to truly know about one another. That is until he confided in her. And when did he confide in her? Neji doesn’t know. He opens his eyes, realizing there was never once a session when he personally asked her to share herself to him as he’s shared to her. He grips the bar tighter, his knuckles whiten and his skin becomes red from the nibbling cold. He knows so little about her outside from their line of work. Sesame dumplings? He only knew because Lee suggested it as a gift for her birthday present. Maybe it’s because I never strayed from the principles that I failed to see how much you mean to me, Tenten. He bends over the rails, looking down to the ground. Thinking about her is tearing him apart from both worlds. Because the unusual circumstances that happened here would never happen to us, maybe that’s why I didn’t realize it sooner. It was so easy to miss you and touch a version of you, have my fill of you, that I fell in love so easily with her instead of you.
“After spending five or six years with you, I can’t even tell what you’re thinking just by looking into your eyes,” Neji speaks in a low tone. With just one night missing his comrade, he’s realized that he’s been in love for a long time. But if I were to survive the war, I don’t think I’ll ever find these feelings this fast. I think I’ve taken you for granted. Seeing you almost every day, being close enough to you, it never crossed my mind how much I depended on your presence until I’ve lost everything. “I’m too selfish. I don’t even deserve you.” Neji let out a breath, bringing his thumb and middle finger to pinch his temples. His head is troubled on what to do. He still wants to love that woman but he can’t even answer her simple question.
Neji realized he has looked into that woman’s eyes more than he ever did with Tenten. He believes it might be because this world doesn’t work like his’; his clan’s principles aren’t drilled into him on the daily here. Perhaps this is why he can boldly hold such a long gaze at the woman who’s been plucking his heartstrings so loudly. But with Tenten, he almost always subtly tell her he enjoys her company if not by agreeing to what she wants to do, then maybe by the mild offer of his unusual smile. And for the gazes, the looks that cemented his feelings for this world’s version of her, Neji wonders if he’d be able to do the same to Tenten even when his clan’s principles aren’t there. I can’t, because I am too cowardly to look at you. “Look at me, I don’t even want to part from her in this world. If I loved you Tenten, I’d never rest if you leave me even for a day.”
Tenten stares at her clothes on the sink counter with tired and puffy eyes. She’s completely ruined herself more with that man standing outside than her previous affairs. He has torn away everything physical she attained. But somehow, her heart is mending and grabbing for him without her approval. Tenten drops her towel and reaches for her undergarment. Her mouth is slightly agape, she knows that she wants him. Whatever comes from your mouth, I’ll believe it. Just give me an answer. Lie if you have to. I’m tired of fighting even you. I don’t even want to question you. She juggles the doorknob, unsure of where he’ll be. With one determinant push, she steps out only to find him on the balcony. Tenten steps towards the door directly in line with him. His back is towards her. She cases him within her vision, heart bountiful of him. If she is to lose him now, she’ll never forgive herself for asking too much.
Body warmth begins to collect in her blanket. Tenten found no comb anywhere and ended up letting her tangled hair sprawl on the pillow. There sits a large flat screen TV; she is uninterested in it. Her phone has died, baiting her to listening to him shower from the beginning to the end. And when he comes out, she seeks the ceiling to point her attention. The unspeakable silence between them even makes the whistling wind outside hush. I guess we won’t speak of this again, and probably everything that happened in the elevator too. She lets out an inaudible sigh from her parted lips and turns to her side, facing away from his bed.
“May I borrow one of your hair-tie?”
Tenten snaps her upper body up and turns to him. Hair-tie? Hair-tie. She removes one from her wrist and stretches out her arm to give to him. She will not budge from the bed. He strides to her in the same wrinkled shirt that she caused. She expected him to take it and leave, but he sits on the side of her bed, back towards her as he fixes his hair to a coiled low-tail. Tenten’s eyes stray from his back, from where her hands touched earlier. In thinking about things like this, she’s surprised that her cheeks will not flare up. We’ve grown so used to each other before we even went any further. Everything has been done backward and she does not know where to go from this.
His hands rest on his knees, he doesn’t face her, and he sits still for a while until her name falls from his lips, “Tenten,” he calls to her. Her heart thumps loudly. His jaw moves, he is speaking to her, “I suppose I had help falling for you in the short amount of time we spent together,” his low tone stirs her eardrums. Her eyes stare at whatever she could see of his face. “She helped me find you. She led me to you.” Neji finally twists his torso, turning to her just enough so that his healing wound will not hurt him. Her round dark orbs stare back to him. “To answer your question, Tenten, I don’t fall in love as easily as you think. The only person I know I will always love is her, and because she led me to you, I’m inclined to give you all that I have.” His jaw tightens and his brows knit, there is still more to clarify. “That kiss, if it means nothing to you, then discard it,” hands on his knees, he pushes himself to stand up, “it was my first anyway.”
Tenten leans back down and pulls the covers to her chin. She leans to her side again, away from his bed. Your first kiss was— me? As he enters her frame to turn the lights off, she keenly keeps her eyes on him. Never once has he looked at her. Tenten takes in a deep breath as the sound of him slipping into his bed echoes in her ear. The decision is now her’s to make. For him, she’ll trust in his every word. These feelings for him won’t go away that easily. And because she stopped him from advancing, it looks like he won’t do it again tonight. She closes her eyes, shutting him from one of her senses. But peskily, his voice rings in her head, “I like her,” that phrase comes to her mind again. If her phone was working, she’d listen to it again. Tenten flashes her eyes open and she switches sides to face him. She can feel her heart beginning to beat in rhythm to his’ and this distance between them won’t suffice; he is too far from her. Aren’t you going to invite me in like yesterday night? She waits, giving him time to correct his mistake. But isn’t it mine? With minutes passing by and his mountainous shoulders never once buckling to her, she concludes that it is indeed her mistake.
Loudly, Tenten kicks her blanket off and takes two strides towards his bed. She lifts his blanket and her weight dips the bed. She knows that she startled him from the peek from his shoulder. However, that is all she receives. Tenten settles in, pressing herself onto his wide back. Her heart is calm now that they’re close. There is no more need to doubt their mutuality. “Will you give me time to love you as you loved her?” Tenten whispers to the nape of his neck. She receives nothing from him for a few seconds.
Neji flips around, saying nothing to her yet. Instead, he loses himself in her. No matter how many times he’s slept beside her, it is never enough to make up for a love lost to time. He caresses her cheek just as he’s done the night before. “Yes, all the time I have ( in this world with you) .” He pulls her in close, no longer dividing himself between either version of her. Sure of himself, he swears to keep this woman, this “Tenten” as close as he can to himself. Struggling to love two halves of the same person is tearing his soul and he gives up on the person he can no longer be alive for. Neji covets Tenten, pressing a peck on her forehead as her fragrance takes over his senses. He feels her arm slung over his torso. For once, he’s never felt safer in her arms. Neji closes his eyes, knowing there is a hollow part of him panging to be filled with the memories of his long lost teammate. He grips onto the body holding him close, he does not want to dream about her tonight.
As granted, Neji did indeed not dream of his comrade. And for that, he is thankful because for once, he is able to think clearly about what he truly wants and what he wants to have is the woman he’s caressed all night. Neji lifts his eyes up, finding the brightest of the sun showering its rays through his window. It hurts his eyes as to how blinding the light is. But like this, he glances down to find the rays’ uses astonishing. He can see her resting face clearly. In this way, there is no ravaging need to feel for the contours of her face just to see her. There is no need to imagine every curve of her facial features. The byakugan, perhaps might not even compare to the sight of you right now. A sour taste appears on his tongue. He grimaces, averting his attention to a single point on the ceiling, making note to not bring to mind of anything related to his world. Her sharp breath intake announces her awake. Neji shifts, wiggling back just a bit so that he can see her face fully. Her eyes flutter open, locking onto his own before a weak smile crawls onto her lips. With an index finger, Neji feels her rim the shape of his lips lightly. She does so endlessly until he removes her touch to speak, “What are you doing?”
Tenten cannot explain why she did it to him. For begging for a kiss wouldn't summarize all of the thoughts put into asking for one. There is an uneasy feeling that dwelled inside her all night. When he pulled her close and drew in her into his chest, she was merely conflicted: both safe and frightened. Safe in his arms, safe in his confession, but she could not hear his heartbeat the entire night. And as they shifted positions slightly here and there while the night passes, she momentarily awoke to confirm her suspicions that she was wrong to assume he wasn’t human, because, to her, he definitely was human. His touch is no different than anyone who’s touched her before, his kisses were as demanding, if not, more passionate than any other, his breaths, his warmth, his everything; he is human. But as she rested her ear onto his chest yesterday night, though only briefly because she remembered that he is human, that he bleeds, that he can get hurt and get sick, she hears no heartbeat. His pulse is felt everywhere she checked, from his wrist and to under his jaw as he slept. He is human but he is not. His chest rises and declines, he breathes when he sleeps, and she confesses it has put her to sleep once or twice, but she finds it haunting that he does not have a heartbeat. Maybe I’m disillusioned.
“Will you kiss me (and erase all these thoughts of you)?” Tenten pleads. It’s not too late to erase them all, Neji. I’ll forgo all my doubts for you if you’d just kiss me. She has done this before, turning a blind eye to all the red flags warning her. It is the exact thing she's done that led her to be demoted. But somehow, because of him, being blind isn’t so bad when it comes to him. Without question, his soft lips fall upon her’s, moving radiantly like morning dew capturing the first rays of the sunrise. She fears that she won’t respond again, that this time her doubts will stop her from falling deeper into him. It didn’t happen. She’s too absorbed in him and she couldn’t help not wanting to. However, before she can call it satisfaction, he stops. Her heart has only just begun to heighten. “Neji-”
“I don’t want to be here any longer,” Neji interrupts her. He licks his lower lip and a simper appears, “let’s get what you need and return home.”
He nods, “You wanted to leave, didn’t you? You said you couldn’t work here.”
Tenten sits up, causing him to do so for he hovered over her, “Honestly, it looked like you weren’t listening to me when I told you that.” She peers to him and frowns, “You know, you have a bad habit of zoning out.”
“Only because of you,” Neji replies. “I’m usually never like this.”
She scoots out of the bed and grants him his wish to leave. All those doubts whisk themselves away. Tenten stretches just as he slides to the edge of the bed. She looks at him, witnessing his torso exposed just as he adjusts his shirt. “Neji,” she calls to him, “why didn’t you touch me yesterday?” There was never a night where she’d just candidly sleep with a man for the sake of purely sleeping. She doesn’t expect Hyuuga men to be different, for they are still men, not different breeds, but he definitely is an oddity. Tenten did not mind either way, whether he touched her or not, she’s only curious.
“Because,” he begins, “I don’t want us to regret anything.” Neji stands up, never once offering her a reassuring glance. He heads to the bathroom, too afraid to say what he meant to say, I don’t want to regret doing so. I’m still thinking of myself as the young me who died. It’s too soon to do anything. Being in the body of a late-twenty-year-old does not change the chemicals in his brain. Neji closes the door and sighs. He needs time to accept himself as the person this world wants him to be.
Tenten reaches for her coat just as Neji fits on his shoes. After he answered her question, he didn’t speak to her again. She didn’t think he’d give her the cold shoulder for asking a simple question, and she doesn’t know why she’s not speaking to him either. But before she can cast any more doubts to their shared bed, he takes her hand into his’. Tenten snaps her head to him, stunned but somewhat relieved. “I’d like to walk to all the places we need to go,” he places a hand onto his torso where the bandaged wound is, catching Tenten’s attention, “but I’d rather not suffer for longer than I should.”
She smiled, “We’ll take a taxi-”
“How much for a car?”
“What?” Tenten is in disbelief. “A car’s too expensi-”
Neji tugs her toward the door, “You said I can buy things with this,” he pulls the card out.
“I did, but you can’t-”
“It’s my card,” Neji opens the door and she follows behind whilst holding her hand.
They approach the elevator, much to Tenten’s surprise, “Are you sure about this?” she asks him.
“Yes,” he replies, “I’ll use it as I please for you.”
“No,” Tenten corrects him, “I mean using the elevator.”
Neji stiffens up like a pillar before squeezing her hand, “Of course,” he turns to look at her, “I did fine yesterday.” A smile crawls onto his lips, causing her to grin.
There isn’t any care for whatever lies in the city for them. Whatever they did, it was outlandish and absurd, yes, but Neji did not mind. Tenten had brought him to a hairdresser after he forced her to purchase a car, one similar to the one he saw being collided on the day he met her again in the middle of the road. She had driven him to the salon, arguing that he needed a haircut. And for that, he was afraid because he had never cut his hair before. It would be wrong to slay his hair in Konohagakure, then again this place isn’t his world. Therefore, Neji complied, but only on the condition that he keep a certain length. Thoroughly washed, and trimmed as she waited, watching the news, he returns to her with slightly thinner hair, bound to the nape of his neck by a band. It is simple, clean, and it still retained a part of him.
“Do you like it?” she asks, ripping her eyes from the news. He nods. “Then let’s go get clothes suited for a Hyuuga.” Tenten lends a hand to him to which is easily took.
The salon door swings closed and the hairdresser’s mouth ran agape, “A Hyuuga? In my humble barbershop?” He turns to his wife who is standing, her head tilted to the screen mounted on their wall.
His wife points to the news, “Honey,” her tone is filled with disbelief.
“Breaking news!” The anchor interrupts the flow of the cast, “Hyuuga Neji, as reported by Yamanaka Daily, was seen checking into the Royal Hotel with a mystery woman-”
Neji clicks on his seatbelt just as Tenten turns on the engine, “Well, where to?”
“Hm,” Tenten backs out from the neighborhood barbershop and makes a right. “What do rich people like you wear?” she asks him.
“I— don’t have a definitive answer for that,” he replies. Perhaps in this world, the Hyuuga may be rich, but in his world, he hadn’t seen any wealth because he belonged to the Branch house. Everyone in the Branch house either were shinobi or servants and he chose the former. At least, that was what Neji believed. Along the way, I ended up doing both anyway.
“I guess we can head directly to a boutique,” she answers, “I think that’s what a Hyuuga would do.” And that is exactly what they did.
After they sharing an authentic meal and buying food for the trip back, it was already two in the afternoon. Driving back to Ame isn’t as daunting as Neji initially thought. Sitting in the front doesn’t make him dizzy anymore. He supposes he’s finally fitting into her world. When she holds out her hand to him, he takes it without thinking. Interlocking fingers, Neji looks out to the scenery outside of the city. The world he once saw as bleak is shining so beautifully. He believes he finally belongs somewhere, and that place is here next to her, alive in her world while he is dead in his’.
Yamanaka Daily . Ino rims the title board of her own establishment before walking several loud steps, thanks to her blocky heels, towards the third-floor window where her press office resides. From the squeaky clean glass, she seeks to admire the evening sky first because below, the scenes will be too jarring to compare. She doesn’t quite remember the last time she’s looked into the blocked horizon from her office window, mostly because the city skyscraper hinders its strange beauty. But today, as this evening has called upon her to do so, Ino peers out of the office window, windows lined to the midline of the wall spanning across it from each end. She isn’t necessarily paying attention to the colors of the sky, critiquing it like how her ex-boyfriend taught her to, ugh, why am I thinking about him now? No, Ino is looking out of the window to see some of the city’s screens hinged up on tall buildings displaying the breaking news she put out this morning around the clock.
This is not the first scandal Ino has involved herself into in regards to the elite. When Sumire first contacted her, she immediately jumped on the board, eager to strike big with her tiny label and reporter badge. However, foresight beats her to press the “publish” button. Ino did not want to reveal the contents that Sumire shared. Sure, she had paid a hefty amount in obtaining the photos taken by the receptionist, but in publishing this news, not only will she be impacted, her father will as well. She couldn’t even imagine standing in her father’s place as the Chief of the Police hearing that her daughter jeopardized his job because she went for his superior’s relatives. She didn’t imagine it further. She did not publish it after staying overtime to scoop the details together. It is only then, several hours after refusing to release the scandal did she receive a call.
A direct call from the one and only Hyuuga, Hanabi. “We’d like for you to release the scandal, Miss Yamanaka.”
Ino recalled erupting from her chair, alerting the rest of her employees as they typed away on their busy desks. She knew exactly what the potential heiress was talking about and feigning ignorance against the elite will not display well on her part. “No repercussions to my father?”
“No repercussions, whatsoever,”
The woman on the other line spoke with a smile, Ino was sure of it. However, no deals would ever be made through phone without some improvisations. “I’d like to record our conversation,” and so Ino did. She recorded everything, made the important woman repeat her inquiry and everything proceeding after that.”
Ino stares at the tiny thumb drive in her fists before pressing her forehead to the glass to look down to the mass of people camping down at her building. She knows she is no celebrity and that those people hadn’t taken her scandal post too lightly. They’re probably paid for as usual but that’s quite a number. I should probably work overtime again tonight. A knock on the door spooks Ino. She turns around and sees the particular blonde colleague who works just a floor below her. “Temari, don’t do that.”
“I knew you’d still be up here,” Temari says as she crosses her arms and leans on the agape door. “Your friend texted me, saying he’s worried that you haven’t called back.”
Ino removed herself from the window and proceeds to her desk to grab her phone, “My phone is off.” She pulls the drawer open and throws the thumb drive inside, locking it with a key before stationing the said key into her purse. “And don’t say that, your boyfriend has a name.”
“C’mon,” Temari waves to her. “I’ll lead you out of here.”
“Oh will you?” Ino replies as she picks up her coat and purse. She hurries along to Temari.
Temari slings an arm over the younger woman’s shoulder, “I can. Things went well for our first date. I can practically use his name to round those gangs up downstairs.” She roughens up Ino’s shoulder before chuckling. Ino doesn’t know why she hasn’t thought about doing what Temari said.
“That’s what’s good about having a prosecutor for a boyfriend,” Ino comments as they descend the short flight of stairs, “but when it comes to dating, he won’t lift a finger. So please, Temari, liven up his life.”
“Will do, but not tonight,” Temari states. Ino tilts her head to her with curiosity in mind. “My little brother wants to visit some place.”
“Right, right, you’ve been going nuts about his health doing better.”
Temari grins. It is as if a fresh beam of light is shone on her. “I feel like my life’s getting better too.” A soft simper grazes her lips. It has been a lifetime of a struggle trying to see when the good things will come, and now it finally has.
“I’ll come to you, Naruto. Wait just a bit longer,” the other end of the phone line goes dead. Naruto hangs up the telephone and exits the phone booth. How long will it be? He kicks a fallen leaf, walking along a paved path near the park where he and Sasuke used to frequent before their relationship strained. The evening sky without the clouds reminds him of his favorite color, something he cannot wear for fear of attracting attention. A sky canvas washed in colors of pink, violet, red, white, and mostly orange, Naruto takes a pause to look at it. A day has passed by since he’s returned to Konoha and twice already, Sasuke still hasn’t given an exact place and time for them to finally meet. Where will I sleep tonight? I’ve already spent what’s left at the bathhouse yesterday.
Naruto stops walking the moment he reaches the river he and Sasuke used to sit beside at. Back then, this place was filled with grass. The ground was soft and messy, the trees sprouted without a cage and they’d be able to reach down and play in the water. A sad smile appears on his lips as nostalgia rushes over him. The memories here fills him in on the things they both lost while growing up. He remembers two children playing here from the back of his mind. They were always cheerful here. He remembers the secrets shared here by the edge of the river, the moment the world closed and folded against them, Naruto remembers it all too clearly. But now, those memories are buried under concrete and mosaic stones. The night lights schedules on with the sun going down. This isn’t how I remembered it, Sasuke. A prickly needle hinges at the apex of his heart, hurting him just enough to grab at his chest, are you still the same?
The old cheeky grin from him is what Naruto wants to see the most. He misses that smile, one that illuminates his world brighter than the sun. Naruto continues on his path, leaving behind the unfamiliar image of his childhood. The last time he’s seen that unforgettable face, it was ten years ago. Naruto shoves his hands down his pocket, unsure if he can even trust what Sasuke said through the phone. It was because of you that I prevailed. You promised to see me again if I did this. He sighs, watching the fading image of Sasuke’s tender and warm-hearted grin become enveloped in the depths of his mind. Naruto drops his chin and stares at his toes moving along a cement path, not knowing where it will take him. It feels like a dead-end to be back in his hometown. It is his city, but so much has changed since he’s gone. Nothing is as easily recognizable anymore. And if the city has changed, Naruto believes Sasuke might have had done so too.
A low baritone voice calls his name. Naruto snaps his head up, immediately shutting down all the internal struggles and thoughts away. His eyes catch a flicker of red hair in the distance not too far from him. The red-haired man jumps off from the swing set and walks towards him. Naruto does not recognize the man nor remember anyone in his life sporting such a bright red hue. His orbs migrate to the fuller of the three people near the playground set, landing on the two persons sitting by the bench propping themselves up to approach him as well. Eyes widen upon realizing who they are. A well of emotions overwhelms Naruto’s body and his feet begs to dash towards them. “Guys! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you all!”