For as long as he had known his cousin, he had always seen her as meek, reserved, and gentle-mannered even in the face of his uncle's worst show of derision towards her. Always calm and steady, like the quiet, incessant flow of a forest spring.
So why am I seeing a wild-maned, flushing, and giddy Hyuuga Hinata-sama dragging me down the escalator? Yet even as he pondered this bewildering situation at hand, Hyuuga Neji dutifully allowed the heiress of the city's oldest, richest, and most prominent clan to unceremoniously yank him through the labyrinth of smartly-dressed employees working for the famed Hyuuga Complex.
"Jump!" yelled Hinata suddenly, gracefully overtaking the last few steps of the moving stairs. He did the same, and landed with the same smooth, precise movement—a product of long hours of martial arts training that the Hyuuga family had traditionally instilled among all its name-bearers.
He knew he and Hinata were making quite a spectacle, judging from the mix of curious, withering, pitying, and silently mocking looks they (well, mostly him) were receiving. Understandable, he thought—nearly everyone knew him as the company president's no-nonsense and notoriously strict lapdog, and he was now being towed around by the Hyuuga Heiress for what seemed like a juvenile game of chase.
But he didn't mind—he may be a very proud man to a fault, but indulging Hinata and her sister, Hanabi, would never hurt his pride.
"P-Please hurry, Neji-niisan!" begged Hinata in between harsh gasps of breath, "The fortuneteller might be leaving soon!"
Years of negotiating deals and pitching before disinterested executives had groomed him to the point that he could carefully suppress his disapproval with ease. "Why the sudden interest in one, Hinata-sama?" he asked instead. Listen, find the weak point, exploit.
"Everyone's talking about her on the company chatroom – they say she's great!" his cousin gushed, eyes twinkling in excitement. "I would like to hear what she has to say about our company's luck in the coming fiscal year!"
He blinked. "Hinata-sama, won't it be easier for you to review the projections made in the previous meeting rather than to ask someone in such an arbitrary fashion?" He couldn't remember the last time he voluntarily read his horoscope, but he was pretty sure it didn't mention which stocks to pick for his zodiac sign.
Hinata smiled, unbothered by his slight expression of censure. "Economic projections, investments, weather forecasts, fortunetelling—they are all just attempts to foresee and control the future, aren't they? At least, fortunetelling is interesting and unpretentious."
He did a double take when his cousin suddenly stopped in front of him and pressed her hands together over her bowed head. "Won't you at least take a listen, Neji-niisan?" she pleaded breathlessly, her cheeks still flushed from their running.
Damn it. Apparently, his Hinata-sama was a step ahead of him and knew his weak point well enough to exploit it at will.
In his eyes, seeing Hinata and Hanabi happy has always taken precedence over nearly all his priorities. It was something that his late father drilled into him way back, when he was tasked to be his cousin's protectors.
Those girls… the responsibilities they bear over the lives of thousands of our employees all but seal their fates. They are caged birds, Neji, so you must do your best to protect even the little happiness they can find in their predestined lives.
So, if it takes consulting a wandering diviner about P&L statements and fundraising rounds to make his little cousin happy, then he sure as hell would go through it.
"As you wish, Hinata-sama," he finally conceded, offering her a small, gentlemanly bow.
His forehead creased when he saw a tacky-looking black tent draped in purple shawls and fake crystals sitting right across the street. A printed sign was taped next to the flap, which read, "CLOSED", with the operating hours of the booth and a website address at the bottom for clients who wished to consult online. In bolder text, it stated her rate per 30-minute session.
The audacity of that scammer! He may not believe in fortunetelling, but he expected that it was something that should at least be practiced in-person, and not over a soulless channel like the Internet.
"We missed her!" Hinata looked crestfallen. "And I was so excited to meet her, too—eh?! Neji-niisan!" She tried to hold her cousin back when she saw what he intended to do, but he slipped loose from her grasp and managed to enter the tent. "Neji-niisan, please wait!"
He quickly caught himself before he stumbled over a bench. Certainly he was not expecting the shack to be roomy, but to find a piece of furniture littered right after the entrance? Really?
"Neji-niisan, we're trespassing, aren't we?" whispered Hinata, who had followed him in reluctantly.
Before he could respond, a female voice replied, "She's right, you know."
The light from outside helped him make out the figure behind the table. A slender woman was seated behind a crystal ball, her hands holding up a pair of chopsticks poised in the air.
"The fortuneteller, I presume?" he asked politely.
"No, sorry. I'm actually an exotic animal breeder, but do come in, I'll tell your fortune using the fresh crocodile carcass I'm feeding on," she replied dryly.
He smiled through gritted teeth. "I truly apologize, Fortuneteller-san. We are aware that you have business hours to keep, but my mistress is very excited to meet you. I hope you can accommodate her." He brought out a checkbook and quickly jotted down an amount worth 24 hours of her session rate. After signing, he tore it off and slipped it towards her on the table.
"Hmm?" The woman flicked on a switch, and the dark interior was immediately illuminated by running Christmas lights overhead. To his consternation, Jingle Bells played as the colorful lights flickered merrily.
"Oops, sorry! Pressed the wrong switch." The woman toyed with the controls again, and this time, all of the lights dimmed to soft yellow, the holiday tune mercifully gone. "I just recycled the lights from a discount store, so it wonks out every now and then," explained the fortuneteller, as if hoping to appease her stunned guests.
She picked up the check that Neji signed, sighed audibly, and then returned it to him. "My rate is posted on the entrance. I only take cash or food vouchers. The dumplings guy I buy from only takes those anyway."
He double-checked the figure he wrote, and then turned the same scrutinizing gaze towards the strange woman. "I'm giving you more than your rate."
"And that is not agreeable to you?"
"I can't see why it should be."
He paused, unsure if he heard her right.
"In everything I do, I only take what I need. Otherwise, I'll end up owing the other party a favor," she reasoned pragmatically. "And I dislike favors: they're weighed down by expectations to be repaid, sometimes in greater value than what it would have warranted in currency."
Touché. Neji took back the check without further protest. "I don't usually carry cash with me, but I can get you that in five minutes or less. During that time, can you kindly accommodate Hinata-sama?"
She tapped her chopsticks impatiently against her plate. "I thought you said you guys know my business hours? Come back tomorrow, I'm off the clock now."
"We can pay an overtime rate," he offered quickly.
"I don't do overtime—don't you know that a poor little kitten dies for every hour you overwork someone? Now go away, my dumplings are getting cold," she said, shooing them away dismissively.
Dumplings? He had negotiated plenty of several deals in his twenty years of lifetime, but this had got to be the strangest case yet. But if it would get Hinata-sama what she wants… Besides, he had never lost any negotiation he had handled. He was not about to let this odd woman break his record.
"What if I get you a fresh plate of dumplings?" he tried again. "A free dinner for the week starting tonight?"
She shook her head. "You don't get it, do you? I want to eat my dumplings NOW, not later, not tomorrow, not on the next full moon—"
Hinata tugged at his arm. "Neji-niisan, we're becoming a nuisance. Let's just come back tomorrow, ne?"
"But you were really looking forward to this, weren't you, Hinata-sama?" At the corner of his eye, he saw the fortuneteller's brow shot up in interest.
As expected of women. Appeal to their emotions, he thought with smug satisfaction. "I know that Hinata-sama is quite lonely, dealing with the stress of learning the family business while juggling her omiai," he lamented, referring to her arranged marriage prospect dates. "If this simple activity can make my poor cousin smile even for a bit, then I would like to do my best with making her wish happen." He eyed the fortuneteller discreetly, waiting for her reaction.
The woman pursed her lips. "Creepy."
"I heard about cousin complexes in manga," the fortuneteller continued, resuming her meal, "but they're actually scarier to hear in live action."
"Cousin complex?" echoed Hinata innocently, as his face darkened in mortification. "Neji-niisan, what is a 'cousin complex'?"
It took him all his reserves of self-control to force a nonchalant smile. "Don't worry about it, Hinata-sama. Actually, I think we should just book an appointment for tomorrow with Fortuneteller-san, since Hiashi-sama expects you to be home by now anyway."
"Aww, raising a white flag too soon? Aren't businessmen supposed to be very persistent until they make their sale?"
Ah, she knows how to hit where it hurts. A vein popped up anew in his face as he valiantly struggled to keep his cordial tone for the sake of his worried cousin. "I can reschedule your meeting with the Kazekage heir for a dinner instead so you can make it to the tent before five. Will that be alright for you, Hinata-sama?"
"Thank you, Neji-niisan, that sounds perfect." Hinata turned to the fortuneteller and bowed apologetically. "We apologize for the intrusion, and I look forward to talking to you tomorrow."
"Aaw, so classy and cute! No matter what universe you are in, you truly ARE a princess, Hinata-chan!" the fortuneteller gushed.
Hinata's head cocked sideways in puzzlement, while Neji frowned at the cryptic statement.
"What's with those faces?" the seer demanded. "You're just drawing in negative energy here! Go home, and I'll see you both tomorrow. Be punctual, or else I'll curse you with ten months of bad luck in dating."
Like a jack-in-the-box, Hinata hurriedly pounced up her seat, while he automatically got up as well to escort his lady. However, he couldn't resist looking back at the strange woman one more time. She met his gaze unflinchingly, as if she had no intention to back down from the challenge.
"Your name?" he finally asked.
"Fortunetellers don't need one," she answered with a shrug. "In order to peek into the future, we exist in a wholly different plane of time and space—"
"Not even for branding and PR?"
"Good point." She saluted him with her chopsticks. "I'm Tenten. And you're Neji," she added before he could speak. "Please tell all your rich, gullible friends about my business!"
He was startled to hear his first name spoken so irreverently by a virtual stranger.
"So, you're wondering how I knew your name, huh?" The seer shrugged casually. "Well, I know because I can actually see your past life. You came from a family of cars."
He frowned uncomprehendingly.
"Neji-niisan, is everything okay?" Hinata asked timidly from outside the tent.
Oh. He glowered at Tenten, and she grinned back.
"My last name is Hyuuga. Hyuuga Neji," he replied gruffly. "Can you kindly jot that name down for tomorrow's appointment?"
She did exactly none of his request. "If it's fate for us to meet, then it shall happen, Hyuuga Neji."
"Welcome!" greeted Tenten the Fortuneteller the next afternoon as he escorted Hinata into the now-familiar tent.
With more light in the cramped space, he was able to inspect her better. Her sitting posture suggests good understanding of neutral body positioning and balance, though he wondered what kind of training regimen do gypsies like her follow to achieve such. She was wearing a cape like yesterday, but he now noticed that the teal hood was held together by a brooch that had a scroll-like design shaped into a leaf. It shone brightly against her collar bone, and for a moment, he wondered what kind of power it held.
"I'm so sorry that I couldn't offer a more majestic cleavage for your viewing pleasure, Hyuuga Neji," the fortuneteller said in a sing-song voice. "You aren't the first man I've offended with my non-existent rack,"
"T-That's disgusting!" he sputtered, blushing furiously despite knowing he didn't do anything wrong.
"Come now, don't be too hard on yourself, Hyuuga Neji!" she purred, and then turned to the hopelessly confused female beside him. "Princess, what would you like to know?"
"A-Anou…" The young woman bowed towards the fortuneteller again. "I would like to introduce myself properly today. I am Hyuuga Hinata, and I have come to ask you…" She paused, wondering how to best voice out her quandary.
Hinata-sama. He gazed at her, feeling a surge of pity for his cousin.
"Go on," prompted Tenten kindly.
Hinata nodded. "I am to inherit a family business that has been passed down from generation to generation and has supported the livelihood of many people for so long. Can you please recommend the most compatible animal sign for someone born on December 27th? I am hoping to marry someone who can continue to look after our business and make it prosperous."
The seer tipped her chin. "Hmm. Any sign will do, as long as this person gets out of your way and lets you run the business as you should."
Hinata's eyes widened.
"OY!" He slammed his palms down the table, rattling the crystal ball. "What kind of prediction was that?!"
"A sensible one," answered the seer matter-of-factly. "Heiresses are typically trained since birth to take over the role, so no one knows the ropes of the business better than her. What's more, she is aware of how many families are relying on her for economic support. So, naturally, Hinata-chan is the person with the strongest motivation to make the business successful, no matter what!"
"Y-You didn't even use your crystal ball!" he complained.
"Oh, this?" Tenten tapped the object he was pointing at. "It's a USB-powered plasma ball I bought online. Customers like this sort of street cred, you know?"
He glared at her accusingly. "So, you're not a real fortuneteller after all!"
"I am, too!" She stuck her tongue at him. "Though it's not my fault that you think fortunetelling is done through those silly props."
"It's okay, Neji-niisan," said Hinata softly, drawing the two's argument to a close. "I found the answer I need." She bowed towards Tenten gratefully. "Thank you, Fortuneteller-san! You have put my mind to ease today."
Tenten waved her hand cheerfully. "Happy to help!"
"By the way, why did you call me that yesterday?" the dark-haired woman asked curiously.
The seer scratched her head.
"Princess. You called me 'Princess'," reminded Hinata gently.
He saw the brown-haired woman hesitate momentarily, and then as if making a decision, broke into a reassuring smile. "Because you simply are," she spoke warmly. "And I hope that in this lifetime, you'll meet an idiotic prince with hair the color of sunflower and eyes the color of the sky."
Tenten gave them a smile brimming with nostalgia. "A close friend of mine did, and she told me that all the pain she and this person had gone through in life became worth it—because it was all a way for them to properly meet and come together."
A kind of happiness that makes you grateful for pain, eh?
As she spoke, he could not understand why he could not—for the life of him—draw his eyes away from her as she spoke like an old soul who had seen all the world pass by.
The heiress' eyes shook. "Now I'm feeling envious, Fortuneteller-san. I… want to know that kind of happiness, too."
"Don't we all?" agreed Tenten.
He watched her eyes change into a forlorn, faraway look, as if remembering, no, yearning for something that was already beyond her feeble reach.
"Don't we all?" he heard her murmur again, more softly this time.
"Did Hinata-chan forget something?" asked Tenten as he made his way into the tent, just ten minutes after he and Hinata bade her goodbye.
Without warning, he reached out to her to grab her hand. And before she could protest, she caught the familiar color of a dumpling store coupon on her palm.
"Ah, my bad! I forgot to ask for your payment. Thank you for being so honest and filthy rich that you can't be bothered to cheat people, " She tried to withdraw her hand from his grip, but he still wouldn't let go. Confused, she looked up at him. "Do you need some kind of a receipt or something—WHOA!"
In one quick motion, he tugged at her hand and briskly led her out of the cramped tent. Heads turned their way—it wasn't everyday that one would see a primly dressed man in suit dragging a gypsy like it was nothing.
"Hey, hey! Hyuuga Neji, where are you taking me?" she yelled, practically stumbling to a step behind him. "Is this abduction? Is it because you are dissatisfied with the advice I gave Hinata-chan? I-If so, I can TOTALLY offer a money-back guarantee, as long as you promise I won't end up as fertilizer for Hiashi-sama's garden—"
He whirled around to face her, startled. "Y-You know Hiashi-sama?" He dropped her hand and stopped walking.
"O-Oh, do I!" she replied brightly, happy for the respite. "One time when I was 12, I accidentally destroyed one of the sliding doors in his house while training with my friend. I really thought I was a goner for sure! But Hiashi-sama gave me tea, and guess what? It wasn't poisoned as strongly as I thought!" She nodded to herself. "Yup! I'm pretty sure that's when we became close buddies!"
"T-That doesn't make sense!" he murmured. But the candidness in her gesture and tone spoke with such truth that he wasn't sure what to think.
"I know, right? He let me off the hook ALIVE!" Then she sighed loudly. "Well, come to think of it, sparing my life is probably more out of consideration for him."
"My friend." She shook her head. "No. My most precious friend."
It was then that he realized that with the somber colors of the late afternoon sky freely streaming around them, it was the first time that he was able to fully see the smart-alecky fortuneteller without the tent's poorly-illuminated sheath.
Her hood was now swathed around her slender shoulders, allowing the loose auburn tresses from her messy odango-styled hair to dance freely in the afternoon breeze. She looked not a day older than him, especially with those coffee-colored eyes that twinkled in quiet mischief. Her skin was a shade darker than his—perhaps, due to the nomadic nature of her peculiar job. Her teal coat and purple gown ensured her visibility even in the most crowded train stations in the country.
Within the sterile glass partitions and marble tiles of the Hyuuga Complex which was the only place he knew all his life, he was sure that he had never seen anyone like her. He imagined her sticking out in the lobby like a gaudy piece of discount store furniture.
How annoying. Not so much because of the fortuneteller, but because for all her garishness, he still found her…
"I'm interesting?" He watched as her lips curve into a teasing smile. "Why, much appreciated!"
Did he just voice out his thoughts aloud? He embarrassedly cleared his throat. "I-I meant that it's interesting for you to say that you know Hiashi-sama so well. I've lived by his side for many years, and I'm quite certain that I have never met you or your friend before." He would have remembered her for sure: she was someone who'd easily make a lasting impression on anyone.
He saw her eyes look troubled for a moment, and instinctively, he raised his hand from his side. For what purpose, he was not sure— he didn't have time to think it through anymore, as the fortuneteller had dodged him sideways and proceeded to walk ahead of him. He turned to follow her.
"The dumplings store should be right around the corner," she said, sounding cheerful again. Her back was still turned on him, and he suddenly felt the urge to run up ahead of her to ascertain if her tone matched her expressions.
His mouth formed the words before he could reconsider. "I believe you."
She halted her steps, likely not expecting his words.
"I-I mean, I am not privy to all of Hiashi-sama's affairs, so it's possible… that I…" What am I doing?
She faced him, and to his relief, the troubled look on her eyes was gone. "Thank you for cheering me up, Neji."
He was unsure whether it was the ringing sincerity in her voice or the fact that she had called him by his first name with such familiarity. All he knew was he had lost the battle of wills and that he needed to retreat from the scene—fast.
He mumbled something about her being wrong and that he was most definitely NOT cheering her up before walking briskly ahead of her. He heard her laughter in response before her light footsteps followed his.
"Old man!" chirped Tenten as she took her customary seat in the outermost table of the stall.
"Well now, if it isn't our fortuneteller!" The spiky-haired man with red lines on his cheeks peered at him inquisitively. "And you got yourself an assistant, it seems. If your business is doing so well, you should start ordering my premium dumplings, too!"
She waved her hand flippantly. "I can't afford him. He works right across my spot—the huge glass tower with a parking lot that looks like a luxury car show."
"Oh?" The vendor looked intrigued. "What's a fancy-schmancy employee of the Hyuuga Complex doing here in my humble store?"
He wordlessly handed the owner a food voucher, which he had ask one of his employees to secure for him earlier that day.
"This man's loaded. He looks like one of those folks who can't be bothered to carry cash with them," remarked the ash-headed male while accepting the coupon.
"Chive and pork dumplings for me, please!" said the fortuneteller, waving her own voucher happily. "And anything but spicy-flavored dumplings for this gentleman!"
"Roger that!" The old man then disappeared into his kitchen to prepare the orders.
His forehead creased. How did she know about my food preference? He wanted to ask, but recalling the pensive expression on her face earlier, his mouth clamped shut. However, the wheels in his mind were furiously spinning.
Tenten turned to him. "You're suddenly quiet, Hyuuga Neji. Are you that hungry?"
So we're back to full name basis, huh? He leaned his cheek against a folded hand, scrutinizing the fortuneteller. "I'm thinking."
"Don't," she replied automatically. "If they were here, the dumplings will feel offended if you regard them as you would your spreadsheets."
"Spreadsheets, huh? Fair point."
She grinned once more and then closed her eyes, humming.
"How old are you?"
"You never ask a woman her age, unless you're her doctor."
"I was preparing to follow my father's footsteps and become a neurologist before I got looped into working for my uncle's business. Does that count?"
"Is that so?" She seemed like she appreciated the new information she got from him. "I'm twenty."
"The same age, huh?" He looked up at the ceiling. "I suddenly feel nostalgic. Since you like dumplings so much, you would have participated in that national dumpling event back in middle school, right?"
"That one where students were required to cook dumplings and offer them to the temples for good luck. "
"Oh, that." She dipped her food in soy sauce and vinegar.
"It was televised nationwide, too," he supplied helpfully.
"Y-Yes, I remember now," she nodded after a momentary pause.
"Hinata-sama made shrimp dumplings. What did you make back then, Tenten?" he wanted to know.
"Umm, naturally, pork dumplings!" she replied quickly, as the old man brought their orders to them finally. "Thank you for the food!"
"And did you bring it yourself to the temple?" he asked as the owner left.
"Sure did! It was a lot of fun doing it with everyone!" she chirped.
He eyed her intently for a few minutes, and then looked down at his plate. "I lied. That dumplings contest never happened."
She turned to him, wide-eyed.
"I don't understand why you need to lie about some of your memories, but be so candid about others, like that one about Hiashi-sama," he commented casually in between bites. "And it seems you lie more when we discuss things of the recent past. I hope you can tell me why."
She placed her chopsticks down. "I-I think I should go. It's getting late, and no one's looking after my tent."
"It has been handled," he replied evenly, not budging from his seat. "I asked for security detail from the Hyuuga Complex earlier this afternoon. They'll be guarding your place until we arrive."
"How can you expect me to believe that when you just lied to me a few minutes ago?" she retorted.
He shrugged. "You can check for yourself—I'll walk you back. But it would make me feel better if you can just trust my words, Tenten."
It seemed calling her by name did the trick. She groaned and laid her head on the table, right next to her unfinished plate. "Fine," she grumbled, shutting her eyelids in resignation.
Don't make that troubled face again. He took his handkerchief out and wiped the smudge of dumpling sauce on her cheek. As his fingers moved, he heard her whisper softly.
He did not understand how that one word can suddenly cause such tightness in his chest. Funny that, when he wasn't even sure if that was meant for him. She sounded far away, as if she was half-dreaming and conversing with someone other than him.
"Don't worry about it," he answered anyway, putting away his handkerchief.
He bent closer to inspect her face and see if he missed a spot, right at the moment she opened her eyes. She let out a small gasp of surprise, not expecting him at such ridiculous proximity.
On the other hand, he pulled back, doing his best to put up a semblance of nonchalance. "Do you drink?" He suddenly felt an intense urge for alcohol that evening.
"Only when I'm happy. Or sad. Or in between." She still looked a little dazed from what happened.
"Good enough for me."
They were seated on a park bench, each holding a can of beer. He had loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves when he noticed that the woman beside her was now free of her teal coat. He observed how well-toned her arms were, and he knew at once that they had been used for purposes beyond what normal people tend to do.
"So hot!" She fanned herself by waving the front part of her gown to simulate a small breeze. "The summer evenings are so much warmer here."
"Compared to what?" He dutifully averted her gaze from her exposed neckline.
She grinned at him. "Sharp. Have you figured my identity out at this point?"
He took a sip of his drink. "I don't know. Maybe after I finish four more of this."
"I want to know what you're thinking of right now, Hyuuga Neji. Give it your best shot."
"Alright." He leaned back against the bench. "You're not from this world."
"You're not from this time, either," he continued. "You were trained to become an assassin and were sent to this period to dispose of someone to change the course of history for your world. That person might be working in our company, hence you set up shop close to where you can monitor your prey."
He laced his hands together as he continued voicing out his deductions. "The reason you know our technology today is that you've studied them carefully, but you didn't know about events that happened five years ago because given the time constraint, you prioritized studying things that will be most likely scrutinized during your interaction." He looked at her from the corner of his eye. "That's as far as I can guess."
"Not bad!" She clapped her hands delightedly. "Not bad at all! I can't wait to hear your next guess after you've had your fifth can!"
He took another gulp. "So how much of what I said was grossly and wildly inaccurate?"
To his surprise, she replied, "Just one." He watched her play with her brooch, perhaps deciding how to start.
"Like what you said, I am not from this time and world," she said slowly. "I was trained as a soldier for my country, and the person I am looking for is working at your place. That's also the reason I wanted to keep him under my scope. But…"
She tucked her knees underneath her chin, unwittingly making herself look more child-like in his watchful eyes. "But I have no intention to kill that person… in fact, the reason I am here is to see him alive and well."
"Ah." Something clicked in his brain. "Your precious friend."
She nodded. "In our world, he passed away right in front of my eyes, and I couldn't do anything… couldn't say anything. I-I even got mad at him for leaving me alone." Her eyes shook in freshly-welled pain. "I was such an idiot."
"Sorry to hear that," he said quietly.
"Time moved for everyone but me. I did my best, keeping myself busy with my weapons shop, teaching at the Academy, and accepting top-ranked missions. But when night comes, I only recall my biggest failure." She wrapped her arms around herself, strangely shivering despite the humid evening. "I can't even bring myself to visit his grave. He was my sparring partner. He was my pillar of sanity in my team that's too excitable and off-the-charts for me. He has rescued me so many times without ever making me feel helpless, because he knows how I feel about boys and girls being equally strong.
"For the many good things he has done for me, I… I could only let him down," she finished, her voice finally breaking.
"He sounded like a good person, though."
"H-He is!" she agreed, sniffling, but not without pride.
"Were you able to see him?"
She wiped her tears happily with her fingers. "I did. He's almost exactly the way I remembered, but gentler. Probably because there were no shinobi wars or much clan drama to deal with."
He wrestled with the thought of giving her his handkerchief once more, but recalling how she said the fortuneteller's precious friend treated her, he held off from his plan. "So how did you end up here?" he asked instead.
She scratched her cheek. "I'm not sure if your world has an equivalent of what I used. Genjutsu?"
He shook his head.
"Thought so." She looked up at the moon pensively. "It' supposed to be an illusion technique that distorts senses, time and space based on what the heart wishes. It isn't my forte, but it still managed to bring me here."
"Ah. An alternate world with magic, huh?"
"Yeah. It's a little hard to believe, huh?"
"Well, it's something that people here thought about at least." He brushed his hair back from his eyes with his hand, looking thoughtfully out at the distance. "According to them, reality actually consists of multiple universes branching out into various timelines to cover all possible outcomes of a person's life."
She chuckled sadly. "Oh, my friend wouldn't like that. That guy..." Fondness was evident on her face. "He used to believe that everything is controlled by fate, and that one should only accept the inevitable. But after meeting Naruto, he realized that he *could* fight against destiny."
He took another gulp of his beer silently, carefully listening to her.
"Dying by his own choice was his final act of subversion, that idiot." She clenched her fists in frustration. "And the thing is, I can understand why he did it. But I still hoped he didn't. I wish there was another way. He suffered so much since he was young, and he didn't even have that much chance to enjoy life. It's too unfair!"
He glanced at her furtively. "If what those scientists say is true, then in another timeline, he did choose to live. He lived a long, happy, and fulfilled existence that he deserved. Maybe he even did so in my timeline, which is why your Genjutsu brought you here."
Her eyes, shaken at his comforting words, met his in gratefulness. "I hope that's true. It would make me so happy if it were."
The sudden rush of emotions upon seeing her expression left him a little more unnerved than he thought. Quickly, he averted his gaze from her.
"It's kinda cool, though, imagining other versions of ourselves being thrust in the same situations, but making a different decision each time," she wondered aloud. "Having taken all the possible paths, at least you could pass on without regrets and what-ifs."
"It is reassuring, yes," he agreed. "Not having to fret whether you made the right choice or not, because another version of you took the other route anyway. So the only thing left for you is to live by the choice you made in your timeline."
Hushed silence followed as the fortuneteller nursed her drink while he continued to regard her discreetly.
"You desperately wanted to save him. Did he know?" he asked all of a sudden.
"W-WHAT?!" she sputtered, choking on her beer.
"Your intentions… they aren't particularly difficult to read, you know," he mumbled, turning to reach for another can of beer in order to hide his smile.
"Even if we've just met?" she asked incredulously.
"I'm a businessman. I read people's wishes for a living." Although, he wondered about that, too. In the barely two days he had met her, he felt that he knew her more now than the other people at the Hyuuga Complex who he had been working with for years.
"W-Well, he couldn't have known." She shrugged in what seemed to him was poorly-feigned carefreeness. "He's bad at noticing things like that. Maybe in another timeline, he did."
"Or maybe he did notice, but he never got the chance to tell you."
He fought back the urge to laugh when he saw her face redden. "Impossible!" she exclaimed, perhaps a little too quickly.
"In a many worlds scenario, nothing is impossible because everything has already happened. All paths taken, remember?"
"Right." She closed her eyes and leaned back against the bench, a satisfied smile on her lips. Perhaps it was the coaxing of the spirits, or because it was a beautiful moonlit night, but he was finding it harder and harder to ignore her.
During the whole course of their conversation, he had judiciously maintained his distance from her, as he wanted to talk to her to set things straight. But at that moment, he was perilously and senselessly drawn to her—the strange, interesting woman from another timeline who was in love with another man who had passed away.
"Don't fall asleep on me." He meant to say it in a commanding tone, but to his ears it came out as pleading.
"I won't," she promised, but her eyes were still shut.
Why can't you take this more seriously, damn it! It was nearly taking all his willpower not to reach out and touch her to his heart's content.
"Thank you, Neji."
He was at once relieved and disappointed that she spoke up, distracting him from his unwieldy hormones. "For what?"
"That's pretty vague."
"Nah, I'd say it pretty much covers what you've done for me, then and now." She chuckled. "I mean, all my lives. Many worlds, yes?" Before he could reply, she spoke again. "And as my way of expressing gratitude, I'll tell you my secret in fortunetelling."
"You're not even a real fortuneteller."
She ignored him pointedly. "It's asking. Unless I ask people questions, I will not be able to understand them. Then the tarot cards and crystal balls will lose their meaning as tools." She tipped her chin with her fingers. "Although knowing how to ask good general questions and narrowing them down to things they specifically want to hear doesn't hurt either."
"That's EXACTLY what I mean," he grumbled.
"But yesterday with Hinata-chan, my advice came from knowing what she's like in a parallel world," she added. "So, her fortune is really special, so to say."
He looked thoughtful. "Then that means you can tell me my fortune, too, based on what I am in your world, right?"
"No, I can't."
A vein popped in his head. "And why the hell not-" He froze when her hand reached out and touched his. Her grip felt cold and weak, and it now finally hit him why she wouldn't open her eyes.
"But if you see the me in this timeline, will you please befriend her?" A wistful smile crossed her face. "A pre-determined, course-correcting Universe means I will never get the chance to meet her, but knowing myself, I'm sure she will be a great friend and ally to you."
"Tenten—" He saw her hand was starting to grown translucent.
"Ah, this sucks. I wanted to stay a little longer." She pressed her hands together in apology. "Sorry, Neji. But Genjutsu breaks down when the caster has grown too weak to carry it on. And since I'm bad at it in the first place, I knew it was only a matter of time—"
He suddenly reached out and pulled her to his arms. "Stay still," he ordered, wrapping his arms around her shoulders in an embrace. "I promise I'll find the you that exists in this world, no matter how long it takes. Knowing now how interesting you are, I'm sure she won't disappoint!"
"I'm… counting on you then," she whispered, burying her head on his chest.
He could feel her body getting lighter in his arms, even when he frantically struggled to hold on to her. "And… and if I were that precious person of yours, I would have already known long ago how you feel. And I would have appreciated it so much! I would have been grateful to be remembered and loved so dearly by someone even when I have long passed on."
"There's one thing I forgot to tell you about the multiverse theory." His mind was racing, but all he knew was he wanted to keep talking. "Do you want to hear?"
He felt her head move in a weak nod.
"Because of the infinite number of multiverse timelines in the universe, everything has already happened. But what's more, everything that happened… can happen again. That's why I'm sure you'll meet that precious person again, Tenten." He smoothed her hair with his hand. "So please, let go of your regrets."
"Then and now, you have always been the kindest and dearest to me, Neji," she murmured, raising her face to meet his. "So should things go as you say, I will gladly fall in love with you again. Again and again, till the end of infinity."
The last thing he recalled was the gentle touch of her lips on his. And just like that, Tenten the Fortuneteller was gone.
"Where are you now, Onee-san?" Hyuuga Hanabi whined from the other end of the line. "Father is about to throw a fit because you missed another omiai!"
Hinata sighed as she balanced her mobile phone in between her chin and arched shoulder. "I'm nearby. I'm just trying to gather more info about Neji-niisan's whereabouts." She pushed the doorbell of a small bungalow and waited.
"Onee-san, Neji-niisan has already explained himself during the board meeting, hasn't he?" Her younger sister's impatience was unmistakable. "He's gone for a year of sabbatical to rest, and Father has approved it."
Her forehead creased delicately. "But that didn't explain anything. Why did he need to rest? Why a whole year? Why does he look so melancholic these past few days? I wish the fortuneteller was still around so I can ask her."
"She's a fraud, Onee-san."
"Imouto-chan, I know fortunetelling is not an exact science. However, I meant to ask Tenten for an advice, not a fortune. She's a sensible person." Her eyes lit up in excitement when she heard the gates opening. "I have to go. "
"Count yourself fortunate that your marriage prospect for today skipped out on you, too—"
Hinata pressed the 'End' button and bowed respectfully at the house owner. "G-Good afternoon! I would like to ask if the dumplings store owner is available for a quick chat?"
"Alright," a male voice responded breezily. "Hey, old man! An ojou-sama wants to talk to you."
It's not the landlord? She shyly lifted her eyes from the ground and was met by the sight of a tall, yellow-haired man. He turned back to her at the same moment, and she noticed his ocean blue eyes and scratched cheeks. She also observed that he was the most good-looking man she had ever laid her eyes on—and it was the first time she was able to acknowledge such fact so readily, too.
"Are you here to file a sexual harassment case against him?" he asked, pointing his thumb at the direction of the house. "Let me know, and I can beat him up for you. That old frog still owes me money for the thousands he blew on an onsen."
"HEY! That was for research!" An older male with spiky, waist-length white hair appeared beside the younger blond. He was garbed in olive short skirt kimono and matching pants, as well as a traditional pair of wooden sandals. "Oh, an ojou-sama indeed!" He held up a hand in a friendly wave. "Good afternoon! I'm sorry you had to meet my poor excuse of a ward first. He must have given you the sorriest impression of me."
"I can't come up with worse descriptions than what you actually already are, perverted hermit!" retorted the handsome stranger.
"I told you not to call me that in front of beautiful, unassuming women!" The dumplings store owner turned to her again. "So you want to talk to me, Ojou-sama? Please come in."
"P-Pardon the intrusion!" She bowed and followed the eccentric male.
"Oi, why are you following us, Naruto?" asked the old man through narrowed eyes. "Didn't you say you were going to leave because it's a waste of time collecting debt from someone as pathetic as I am?"
"Are you kidding? No way am I going to leave that girl with you!" snapped Naruto, placing a protective arm around her shoulders.
T-Too close! Her face suddenly turned hot at his proximity.
Then to her utter surprise, the blond bent closer to her face and whispered conspiratorially into her ear. "Listen up, I don't think you really know who you're dealing with. This guy happens to be the most notorious pervert in town. He runs a dumplings store by day and writes erotic novels at night. His fanclub consists of under-17 virgins, and he doesn't see anything wrong with that."
Too close, too close, too close! Her heart was practically bursting at its seams now.
"That's Jiraiya, a sorry-ass, perverted old man," Naruto finished his introductions solemnly, pulling back from her at last.
"And he's my godson, Uzumaki Naruto," Jiraiya was quick to add. "And he idolizes me, but he's just too shy to admit it!"
"SHUT UP, perverted hermit!"
The white-haired man peered at her closely. "Your eyes remind me of someone, Ojou-sama." He tipped her chin up with his finger to inspect her more closely. "Yes, yes. That fancy suit-wearing guy the other day. He ate dumplings with the fortuneteller."
Her face lit up at that. "Y-You remember Neji-niisan!"
"I sure do! They ordered the cheapest dumplings on the menu and paid with food coupons," the store owner replied cheerfully. "So how can I be of service to you, young miss?"
She excitedly clasped Jiraiya's hands. "M-My cousin, Neji-niisan, left the company without telling us where he intends to go. I-I thought I should start looking for him by asking the people who had last seen him."
"It's not a big deal," shrugged Naruto, gently easing off her hands from his godfather's thrilled grasp. "My dad does that every once in a while, and my mom says to let him be. He'll come back when he's hungry."
"I wish it were the same case for Neji-niisan," she said softly, "but he has looked so sad for the past few days. I was hoping there's something I can do to make him feel better. And the fortuneteller suddenly disappeared, too, which is a shame because I think Neji-niisan likes her."
"Maybe they eloped?" offered the store owner. "They looked lovey-dovey to me that evening."
Neji-niisan? Lovey-dovey? She felt her face blush at the thought of her straight-laced cousin looking so.
Naruto crossed his arms over his chest as he assessed the situation. "Did you try to check the things he left behind for clues? Travel itineraries? Circled dates on the calendar? Bus tickets?"
The old man winked at her. "I told you he was trained well at this."
"Do you recall him saying anything in particular that he doesn't typically say?" the blond male continued to ask.
She sadly shook her head. "N-Nothing, really. Just that he needed a year off. Neji-niisan is very organized with his things, so I didn't find anything on his table."
"Hmm." His blue eyes grew thoughtful. "The old pervert is sharp when it comes to observing people, so if he says those two are acting lovey-dovey, then it's possible that your cousin is trying to come after the missing fortuneteller."
"So there you go, Oujo-sama. No need to worry about your cousin. He's just out there, chasing after a woman," chirped Jiraiya. "And now, you ought to go back to your mansion, or your parents will worry. What's your name, by the way?"
"Don't give your name out just like that, you idiot!" Naruto clamped his hand over her mouth, annoyed. "If you really are an ojou-sama, then people will target you more if they know your family name!"
She nodded mutely, face flushed.
"Good." He removed his hand. "Now go home. Will a driver pick you up?"
She nodded, despite not having notified her bodyguard yet.
"Don't lie, Ojou-sama. You're terrible at it." Naruto turned to his godfather. 'I'm seeing her off. Please don't follow us. That includes scouting us from anywhere closer than one mile, attaching GPS trackers on either me or her, or sending my dad to me as a decoy."
Jiraiya did his best to look offended. "Meanie." He then waved at her. "Bye, bye, little miss! I hope your cousin comes home soon! Drop by my store one of these days—the dumplings are on the house."
She bowed courteously at him. "Thank you, Jiraiya-san. I appreciate the time you spent with us today."
"So classy and cute!" swooned the store owner.
"Don't worry, I'll protect you from the likes of that old guy," said Naruto smilingly as they walked out of the gates. "I've always wanted a little sister, but my parents stopped with me because they said I was already worth the ruckus of five kids."
Her eyes shook. A little sister, huh? She halted walking, startling the male. It was a pathetic display of defiance, but it was the best that she could muster at the moment.
"You didn't like what I said?" he asked gently.
She nodded in response, cheeks flushed.
"Ah, I apologize. I should have thought that you have a sibling of your own, too." He placed his arms behind his head. "It must be fun being part of a big household, huh?"
Kami-sama! But she was saved from further conversation when her cellphone rang. It was Hanabi, demanding her to come home at this instant and that the driver would pick her up in a street not too far from where they were.
After saying goodbye to her sister, she turned to Naruto, who was looking at her expectantly.
"Do you have a driver coming for you now, for real?"
She nodded, smiling penitently. And as if reiterating what she said, a black limo pulled up right beside her. Her chauffeur emerged instantly from the side, bowing politely.
"Well then, I guess this is where we part." He gave her a small bow. "Take care on your way home, Ojou-sama."
W-Wait! Her mouth dropped open, but no voice came out. There were too many things she wanted to say, but too little words at her disposal at that moment.
I wasn't even able to tell him goodbye! She thought as she watched him turn his back on her and walk away. She couldn't move, horrified at her cursed reticence.
But to her surprise, Naruto raised a hand above his head. He didn't turn to face her, but he knew that the small wave he did was meant for her.
At the same time, the fortuneteller's words reverberated in her mind.
… you'll meet an idiotic prince with hair the color of sunflower and eyes the color of the sky.
Aa huge smile spread on her face. "Naruto-kun, it's a pleasure to finally meet you."
TO BE CONTINUED
A/N: So I wrote this chapter after seeing an Episode 428 meme, as I am still trying to reconcile the canon ending with the fate of my favorite series OTP. This was supposed to be a oneshot, but I am writing one more chapter for NaruHina (and a bit of NejiTen resolution), no thanks to my sudden shoujo manga junkie phase.
Thank you for reading!