Lip biting. Sensual, come-hither looks. Showcases of skin in varying degrees of modesty. Shoseki noticed these all, but alas, they weren't for him. It was for the man seated beside him, patiently waiting on the street curb while reading on his tablet.

But to Hyuuga Neji, these women might as well have been trees in the backdrop. His eyes were focused on news articles which appeared to be in English, accompanied by fancy graphs and arrows and numbers.

The only time his gaze moved away from the screen was to check on his wristwatch, waiting for the arms on its analog face to strike 5. No such luck— it was still a full three hours before the end of her shift.

Shoseki was torn between grudging admiration and incredulity at his acquaintance's lack of affectation for anything else but the literature before him. One of his fangirls had earlier come up to him and tried to start a conversation— his polite yet cool disinterest awkwardly ended the conversation in two turns.

Curiously, the Shimanto native turned to the oblivious fellow. "Hey, are you aware that the woman you talked to earlier was the Mayor's only daughter?"

"I see."

"And she' seems to have the hots for you."

"I am honored." The exasperatingly good-looking man from Tokyo sounded anything but that.

"Do you see that tall lady by the light post?" continued Shoseki, pointing towards the statuesque raven-haired woman wearing clothes that seemed to have been made for petite women in mind.

"Mmm-hmm."

"She's been the council muse and tourism board beauty for the past few years, and word on the street is— YOU'RE NOT EVEN LOOKING!" Outraged, the male leaped to his feet and pointed an accusing finger at Neji. "Do you have anything against our town's lasses? What's wrong with you?! What makes those… those scattered dots so interesting anyway? Geez!"

Neji's forehead scrunched. "Ah, this? The P/E ratio and equities trends intrigue me because it proves that even unpredictable valuations can become reliable when viewed over a longer time horizon. It helps me refine my investing strategy."

"...That was a rhetorical question but what the heck." A facepalming Shoseki collapsed beside the male, who had returned to his stupid charts again. "What a waste of perfectly good genes. Why do the deities bestow these blessings to people who cannot appreciate their divine generosity anyway?"

A few minutes of glum silence ensued before Shoseki spoke up again. "Oh, Tenten's here."

"She is?" Immediately, Neji looked up with alert eyes and put his device away. "Where?"

The bespectacled boy gaped at him, mouth hung wide open for a second or two, before sighing and reaching over to knock on the Hyuuga's temple. "Right here."

"Huh?"

"Admit it, she's taken over your brain bits," posited Shoseki as he shrank back to his seat. "How else would you have been watching the clock the whole time and yet forget that it's only three in the afternoon?"

"OH." Neji cleared his throat self-consciously. "I… I thought she left work early. Well then." He brought out the tablet again and returned to the articles he was viewing.

Snickering, Shoseki pushed the bridges of his glasses back up his nose. "I take it back, Kami-sama. I may not be an ikemen like this guy, but at least I'm not slow on the uptake."


Chapter 10

For nairl-daeris, who I hope will still read this after eight long months


After nearly two hours of sharing a wordless car ride, Uchiha Obito was led by the Zetsu pair to a ramshackle cabin at the edge of the densely-covered Aokigahara Forest— the famed suicide forest located at the base of the sacred Mount Fuji itself.

"After you, Obito-sama." The White Zetsu held the creaking door open for him.

Normally, Obito would have never permitted himself to be in a vulnerable spot where his attackers can make an attempt at him from behind. But right now, he was past the point of caring. Losing Rin robbed him of any impetus for self-preservation.

The minute he stepped in, a decrepit smell wafted into his nostrils. The interior was barely visible in the inky darkness of the room, even after his eyes had adjusted to the surroundings. Meanwhile, the Zetsu pair seemed to have no trouble navigating the darkness, as they grabbed and lit a lamp with consummate ease.

The tiny light source soon revealed a bed in the corner, where an old man was seated upright. He seemed to have been watching them silently the moment they stepped into the shack. The idea of having been put under this stranger's lens like some form of specimen made Obito's palms sweat nervously.

"Come closer." The soft croak that beckoned him reeked of otherworldly eeriness, as if haunting him from the ancient past. "Let me look at you."

He received a gentle push from the White Zetsu, sending him to the old man's bedside. He tried not to blink as the old man's eyes rove around him, scrutinizing him closely, his eyes aglow in satisfaction.

"You… I've been waiting for you for a long time." The age lines etched on his face deepened. "The one to inherit my will."

Obito drew back, unnerved by the intensity on the old man's face. "Listen here, old man. I will inherit nobody's will! I only came here to see with my own eyes who'd dare make a fool of me." His eyes blazed in contempt. "Uchiha Madara has been dead for a hundred and fifty years!"

"Ah, has it only been that long?" Rather than the panic he expected to see in the old man's face, it was disappointment which filled the old man's raggedly bony face. "Not enough. It was not long enough…"

Beads of sweat formed on his head. Oi, oi. This old man can't mean to tell me that he really is Uchiha Madara.

Said to be the strongest and most trusted adviser of the last shogun of Japan, the renowned Uchiha supposedly died on the 3rd day of the 1st month in the fourth year of Keiō era, at the Battle of Toba–Fushimi. No one saw it coming— his shocking betrayal and failed assassination of Tokugawa Yoshinobu at the Satsuma and Chōshū-overrun Kyoto.

A hundred and fifty years ago...

Prior to this moment, he would have quickly dismissed this situation as an impossibility. Yet looking at the elder before him and seeing the measured composure, loftiness, and boredom that could only be ascribed to a man who had seen far too much ugliness in his extended lifetime…

… suddenly, he was not so sure of the boundaries of plausibility anymore.

"Even with the White Snake's body modifications, it seems our client's body has reached its absolute limit." White Zetsu clicked his tongue in pity.

The aged man looked at his withered appearance in disgust. "What a useless shell." He then turned his eyes greedily back at the youthful male. "But you… you have so many years ahead of you. You shall inherit my will, Uchiha Obito, and continue my dream."

For the life of him, Obito could not protest anymore this time. "W-What dream?"

Madara's eyes glistened. "To restore the purity of this nation." He seemed like he wanted to add more, but just as he was about to do so, he burst into a fit of painful coughs. Blood trickled down his mouth

As White Zetsu busied himself with tending after the sickly man, Obito quietly slipped out of the shack.

"Shall I have him followed?" asked the white-clad man as he helped Madara lie back down.

To which, the man croaked, "No need. He is a lost man— he has nowhere else to go. He will come back... to me."

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Danzo Shimura tapped his chin with a finger, humming to himself. Before him was a large chessboard that nearly covered the entire table. Chess pieces made of colored glass were scattered in mid-battle. The white side had eight more pieces than the black one, but it didn't bother him. Casualties to him were inevitable and insignificant, compared to the bigger stakes of winning.

Besides, he still had a trick up his sleeve. Just because he was playing alone and against himself doesn't mean he would be less competitive.

Behind him, one of his personal bodyguards suddenly stiffened. A second later, the highly-trained guard dropped unconsciously to the floor.

The other bodyguard raised his gun in alarm, but the councillor spoke.

"At ease." The politician barely raised his eyes from the chessboard on his table. "That man is my guest."

The guard didn't look too appeased by the fact that the intruder was someone known to his boss. "But Councillor—"

"The quality of the henchmen you're recruiting has gone shockingly down, Councillor Danzo." The man in the shadows made a tsk-ing sound.

"I agree. That is exactly why I want soldiers like you back," replied the older male as the latter stepped into the light. "Sai."

"Councillor." His former top agent tipped an invisible hat towards him. "I was hoping back then that our next meeting would be at your funeral, but it seems that your sick and twisted personality has managed to successfully repel even the Grim Reaper."

The government official chuckled. "Basing from those hateful words, I trust my note has reached you without problems."

"Yes. You mentioned something about a favor I must grant you at all costs." Sai drew closer to him. "The last time we chatted, you said that was the last and that you want me to disappear from the face of the earth."

"Indeed. But I think an aging old man is entitled to little whims like changing his mind," A wily smile formed on his face. "Don't you agree?"

"And this is why I hate dealing with politicians. There's no end to these so-called little whims of you scums." Sai said these all with a honeyed smile.

"As luck would have it, your next assignment is a scum like me." He tossed one of the captured black pieces— a knight— over his shoulder. "Uzumaki Kushina. I've tried to keep her alive for as long as I could, but she's getting too… unwieldy nowadays."

He thought that the death of Nohara Rin would take the fight out of the woman. Yet after a day of seemingly inconsolable grief, the Red-Hot Habanero returned to her office with renewed determination and vigor.

At her recent interview with the imperial palace press, the Princess Regent did not comment about gossips regarding a death among her staff. She did mention, however, that her team unearthed a curious alliance between an important member of the House of Councillors and a foreign nation. She didn't say it explicitly, but she cleverly allowed the thought to hang in the press members' thoughts and permeate into their editorial pieces.

Treason.

"For her to drive your back against the wall so much that you'd panic and have her taken away prematurely from your game board..." The spy smirked. "It seems only Root is holding you up nowadays."

"Not in the slightest." Danzo moved another white piece forward.

"Shall we prove how weak you are without your toy soldiers?" With one quick swish of his arm, a blade hit the other bodyguard, sending him to the ground bleeding and unconscious.

"Heh. I see that becoming a rich brat's babysitter hasn't dulled your skills as much as I feared." The old man laced his fingers under his chin. "Yet for all your strength, you are actually the easiest piece to deal with."

"That's right," said the politician as Sai's gaze fell on the lone piece that stood squares away from the rest. "Because you insist on doing things on your own, you've made yourself into an isolated pawn. With nothing to protect you, you can't protect anything else either."

"I, on the other hand, may be weak, but as the king and the most important figure in this game, I surround myself with pieces to protect me and sacrifice for me." He smirked at the spy. "Therein lies our difference. And that's why you can never touch me, boy."

"Rest assured I hold no fervent desire to touch you at any point in time, old man. Besides..." Sai cocked a gun at the back of the man's head. "You are no king. And you'll never be one except in your mind's twisted little world."

Danzo remained unfazed. "Oh, do be careful with that, my boy! Might I remind you that the minute you pull that trigger, the girl's father will die? You don't want to see the little princess left alone in this world again, do you?"

The agent's eyes glinted for a second, but just as quickly, they dulled back into hollow affability. "Good lord, you certainly make for a campy villain, Councillor. You don't need to hold anyone hostage so I'd accept the job. Even the most desperate of HR personnel don't do that… yet. Maybe."

"Like I said in my note, it's my insurance... to make sure my favorite talent does not betray me." The elder broke into a chortle."I can easily go directly to the girl and crush her, you know? Yet I chose to spare her life."

"Because you think that your hold on her will keep me leashed to you for as long as possible?"

"Indeed. I would not have maximized her utility if I did away with her so soon," agreed the councillor breezily, as if they were merely discussing an appliance's shelf life.

Sai let out an exaggerated sigh. "Oh dear. This is cringe-worthy soap opera-level of drama even for you, Councillor! And I can't— how does my mistress oh-so-elegantly put it?— I can't even." He locked gazes with the man before him. "Can't we just not make this thing between the two of us and leave that nice family alone?"

"Afraid not." Danzo made a gesture of waving an imaginary rod with a bait. "She's the carrot to my favorite errand horse, so she, along with the people she loves, will continue to live as long as the horse continues to work satisfactorily for its master."

"Man, you're a stubborn old oaf. So not cute."

"See, this is exactly why I wanted my soldiers to do away with unnecessary distractions like feelings." The politician got up, squarely facing the gun muzzle that was still aimed at him. "It complicates things, doesn't it?"

Despite receiving no answer, Danzo continued to speak. "If not for her, then you could have easily shot me before I would have even opened my mouth. Then you would have earned your lifelong dream of freedom at last." The quiet, aged voice barely concealed the malice in it. "Do you understand? She's nothing but a burden to you... just like your brother."

The politician watched in delight as the former Root member struggled valiantly to keep the impassive expression on his face, but ultimately fail to conceal it in his eyes.

Ah. The Yamanaka spoiled brat had certainly done a number on one of his best-skilled pawns.

"I don't really understand the need to dig up ancient history, but fine, my body's all yours, Councillor." Sai finally put his gun down. "Do what you will, but please be gentle."

Danzo cocked his head back and roared in laughter. "I truly miss that impertinence of yours, Sai. Welcome back to the Root."

"Oh, don't bother with the welcome party on my account, Councillor. I'm sure you're super darn busy, what with all the scheming and plotting against the imperial royal family." The dark pool of eyes grew sharp. "But I do need you to call off your hounds that are trailing the Yamanaka family."

"Certainly, certainly, my boy! I'll give them a call today! No, I'll do it right now." Without even giving a glance at his bodyguards' bodies on the floor, the statesman headed for the door. "It'll be a shame if anything happens to that feisty little thing of loveliness. What if she gets a little fussy? What if she—"

"Councillor."

"Hmm?" The elder didn't turn his way either, but he troubled himself to pause.

"The moment you so much as harm a hair on the mistress and her family's heads, I'll make you pay." Sai's voice was suddenly low, somber, and dangerous. Gone was the comical facade; it was a cornered wild beast promising to pounce and shred his enemy to pieces should he be careless enough to commit one little misstep. "I swear I'll hunt you down, Danzo. And not even the devil can hide you away from me."

The old man's only response was a gleeful hum as he finally exited the room and triumphantly shut the door behind him.

The brief silence was broken by the wounded bodyguard at Sai's feet. "You… are an idiot."

"That I am," agreed Sai, ruffling his own hair with a weary sigh. "Negotiations unsuccessful. Commencing Plan B: Think of a Plan C."

"A-And… you were doing so well, too…. Why did'ya… have to break… your character?"

"Rude. If you've been awake long enough to secretly listen in to our conversion like a suspecting mommy, then you should radio for first-aid right now before you tragically bleed to death together like a fujoshi's dream Romeo and Julius."

The man stared at him as if he grew another head.

"Sorry. My mistress has this most adorable thing for 2D men with an enormous surplus of heaving and blushing … uh, you know what? I doubt this is the last thing you want to hear as you lay dying so…" He tossed a pack of tissues on the floor. "Here."

"W-What…"

"Wet wipes. Proven and tested in a recent medical emergency by Japan's prettiest doctor." Sai grinned sweetly. "But don't get any ideas, boys. She's spoken for."

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"So I heard you had quite the board meeting."

Hyuuga Hinata lifted her eyes from the term sheets she had been reviewing for the past few hours and was surprised to see her father in front of her. Hastily, she got up and bowed reverently at him. "Good afternoon, Father."

In response, the clan head gestured for her to take her seat as he did the same. He then continued, "You managed to win them over to your side— just as what I asked of you when I agreed to let you take over a number of my duties." It was one of the rare times she recalled he conversed with her pleasantly, almost genial even.

She kept her head hung humbly. "I am fortunate to have the support of my relatives who have had proven experience in the industry. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from them so I can properly lead the company—"

"You don't need to." Hyuuga Hiashi's speech abruptly cut hers. "As I've told you before, this is all a temporary setup. The end goal remains to be marrying you to someone who will lead our company."

Hinata bit her lip but said nothing.

Save for some funding she raised, she had no solid achievements in the company to speak of. Money would not impress her father. She had to quantify her worth in his eyes through execution— whether it be completing their dream upgrade or expansion of their product lines.

Hiashi eyed his daughter intently. "I heard that Otsutsuki Toneri was in the boardroom as well."

Father certainly has many ears planted on the ground. Even in his physical absence, the man was still on top of what's happening in the company.

"Yes, Father," she answered politely. "He was invited by the rest of the board as a prospective new member." It was a sanitized version of what transpired, but the real issue was water under the bridge and she intended to keep things that way.

He nodded slowly, then asked point-blank, "Is the young man courting you?"

Hinata felt herself practically turn red from the roots of her hair to the tips of her toes, especially when she recalled her last conversation by the car with Toneri. "F-Father, I…"

"Because if he is, then I have no qualms about it," said the patriarch approvingly. "He comes from a good family and has excellent business acumen. He is the best person to lead our company to greater heights."

She was growing uneasy over the direction of the conversation. "I-I'm most certain he is, Father. B-But at the moment, I would really like to focus on our company—"

"Nonsense," said Hiashi dismissively. "When you get married to him, he will take care of the company. All you need to do is become his support, nothing less and nothing more."

Panic rose within her when she finally heard him say it. "F-Father, I feel it's too early to consider marriage at this time."

Her father, unused to protests from his usually meek eldest child, turned grim. "No, it is not. I only have a few years ahead, and succession planning takes time. The company and our employees need to be reassured that we are looking ahead to a future with a strong, reliable leader at its helm."

"I…" She swallowed a bit, then resolutely looked up and met her father's gaze directly. "I can be that strong, reliable leader for our company, Father. Even without a husband by my side."

For a moment, the old man could only gape at her disbelievingly. Then he laughed— a bitter, mocking sound that echoed through her heart.

"So you rallied a few investors to your side," he spoke sharply. "That doesn't mean you can suddenly run a company as huge and established as ours. Only distance can prove a horse's strength."

"Father, I acknowledge my inexperience," she answered softly. "I have so much to learn. But I am willing to pour my heart and soul into becoming the leader that our business needs me to be!"

"If only good intentions are enough to produce good results." Hiashi got up, signaling the end of the conversation. "My decision is final— I will reach out to Otsutsuki Toneri and arrange for a marriage meeting."

"F-Father!" Hinata's face turned crestfallen as her father left the room without so much a glance.

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"Purity… of this nation…"

Uchiha Obito sat on the rundown porch of the shack as he recalled what his relatives had to say about their supposedly deceased ancestor who remained the clan's most polarizing source of pride.

Uchiha Madara was born in the era when Japan's agricultural economy and traditional arts flourished. Growing up under the rigorous bushido code and learning the best swordsmanship under the tutelage of the Shogun's best men, Madara dreamed of maintaining the isolationist, societal status quo that he believed had preserved the unspoiled beauty of his nation. In turn, he was touted by the bakufu as the strongest vassal of the Tokugawa family.

However…

Cracks began to form on the lens he viewed the world with when the shogunate exposed its weaknesses to the foreign forces, humiliating the Emperor with compromises that allowed foreigners to disrupt trade, take residences in the nation's biggest centers, and enjoy exemption from Japanese laws.

Uchiha Madara hated the Westerners, but he hated the shogunate more for failing to carry out the imperial will. Their clan elders recounted how Madara bitterly fought for the national seclusion policy of the country but to no avail. Families close to the Tokugawa worried about his loyalties potentially shifting in the name of his personal convictions, so they tried to send assassins his way. But no one had ever come back alive from these attempts.

Then at the Boshin War, he finally made his statement. He attempted to kill the last shogun, but was stopped by the person he least expected.

His childhood friend Hashirama Senju, a laidback scholar who would eventually become an instrumental part of the Meiji Restoration and modernization of Japan.

Meanwhile, no one had ever seen or heard of Madara again… till now.

The Uchiha sensed the presence of two people from behind immediately and turned to them. "Has the old man finally kicked the bucket?"

"Sorry to disappoint you, Obito-sama, but his remaining lung is still functioning at 30% capacity."

"Remaining lung?!"

"His other lung had to be removed fifty years ago due to cancer."

"WHAT?!"

Black Zetsu let out a grunt. "Told him to put away the hookah, but the old man was too addicted to it."

"He eventually did, didn't he?" his partner reminded him. "But then, vaping was invented and he got into that next. He thought it was a healthier alternative— said it was just juice."

"Then he got lung cancer. Again." The black-clad man snorted derisively. "And the White Snake said his lung had been doing such a good job expanding and compensating for the lost lung, too!"

Obito raised a palm up. "So, that geezer you claim to be Uchiha Madara who's supposed to have died over a century ago but literally just coughed old man blood spit on me minutes ago and is apparently existing with only one lung in dangerously low capacity because of vaping… well, he's still alive?"

"Indeed," nodded White Zetsu. "Our client also asks for your understanding regarding the unhygienic accident earlier. After being bedridden for so long and suddenly doing all these hasty movements without waiting for his blood to rebalance, coughing blood and fainting are its unfortunate consequences."

"That isn't really the issue here, but hell, I'm out." Obito headed for the car. "No way will I want to get mixed up with all this shit."

"OI!" The black-clad Zetsu reached for his weapon but his partner stopped him. Instead, the latter called out, "Obito-sama, our client's will is to bring down the blue-eyed emperor and his family."

The spiky-haired man froze dead in his tracks.

"We're not mistaken in thinking that there may be… convergences in your plans and ours, are we?" the said Zetsu pressed.

An intense shot of anger rose in Obito as he spun around to face them. "You're insane! Madara and I are different. I don't care about politics! I don't give a damn who's crowned next emperor!"

"But you care about finding her killers, right?" interrupted the Black Zetsu.

That was a direct hit. A tight pain coiled at the pits of his stomach and throbbed all over him, threatening to devour him whole.

"Nohara Rin's killers," continued the dark Zetsu mercilessly, "are in the imperial royal family. If not for them, she didn't have to die, Obito"

Of course, I know that. And painfully too well, too. How many times had that unpleasant thought dawned on him?

But each time he struggled to push it to the farthest back of his mind. He—who was beholden to now-hazy happy memories he shared with Minato-sensei, Kushina, Naruto, Kakashi, and Rin—would be a scum to entertain such notion even for a second.

And Rin…

Rin's dearest wish.

The promise Rin gave her life for.

He shut his eyes tight, remembering how her brown eyes would shine in hope every time she spoke of her envisioned future.

Those eyes he loved won't shine for anyone and anything anymore.

"Our client wants to set things right again," said the pale-skinned Zetsu, recognizing the wavering look in the man's eyes. "Restore the true empress of Japan that will unify the country so no one would have to die again due to petty power-grabbing."

A world… where no one has to die the way Rin did…

"And to do that, we need you, Obito-sama." White Zetsu's tone was tranquil and soft, but it still sent icy chills down his spine. "Won't you join us?"

A heavy silence hung in the air.

"I… I can't," he snapped after a moment's hesitation. "I promised Rin that we will protect Sensei and his family together."

"YOU—" Black Zetsu was once more checked by his comrade.

"You don't have to decide right now, Obito-sama." White Zetsu's voice was smooth as silk. "After all, it is an important promise that Obito-sama made with Nohara-san."

Behind them, the branches of the trees swayed rhythmically, as if coaxing Obito to let down his guard and listen.

"But if it were a different person who would seek justice for her… someone who isn't Obito-sama but cherishes Nohara-san equally…"

Kakashi…?

His teeth clenched. No. The Hatake Kakashi at the diner, unaffected and unfeeling even right to her moment of death, could not be entrusted with this very important task.

But if Kakashi couldn't do it, who could?

It had to be him. No one else.

The white-clad Zetsu's face broke into a comforting smile when he saw the newfound resolution on the man's face. "Won't you stay for a bit more, Obito-sama? We have lots of interesting things to share with you."

He didn't need to be invited twice.

Hours ago, he felt like a dead man walking. But now he found his purpose again.

No matter what kind of path I have to take, even if it leads me to a point of no return...

if it's for her, I will gladly walk even the path to hell.

There was a light spring to his feet as he took those steps back to his newfound allies two at a time.

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"Onee-san?" Hyuuga Hanabi's head peeked into the room, where her elder sister sat in pensive silence. Her shoulders and back, usually straight and elegant, were sagged in defeat.

The office documents lay forgotten on the desk— an unusual sight, as her sister had been diligently poring through them for the past few weeks in an effort to learn the ropes of the business as quickly as she can.

All of these could only mean one thing: their father had set his foot down once and for all regarding her sister's need— nay, duty—to be married off.

"Father said the limo is being prepared for you to attend a VIP private dinner," she said gently. "He said you should get ready."

The woman before her nodded slowly but did not turn her way.

Onee-san… Hanabi's eyes clouded in pity. More than anyone in this family, she knew how hard her sister worked to meet their father's exacting expectations. And to be told that all of these was for naught, she could only imagine how disappointed her elder sister was.

"Actually I think you still have some time to take a walk." She offered Hinata a warm, sympathetic smile. "Go on, Onee-san. I'll give you a call once the hairdresser gets here."

Her sister offered a wan but grateful smile, but that was a start, at least.

Minutes later, she watched her sister from the window as the latter strolled outside. Shortly after, the door slid open behind her and in came the panicking maid. "H-Hanabi-sama! The hairdresser has been waiting in the bedroom for fifteen minutes! Where's Hinata-sama?!"

"She'll be there in a bit," promised Hanabi sweetly. "I'll see to it."

"Thank you so much!" The servant bowed, and then closed the door. Once again, Hanabi was left alone in the room.

Now then. Hanabi reached for the stationary drawer beneath the paper-littered desk and pulled out a pair of craft scissors. Let's how well one can trick the eye of a blind man!

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Tenten's brown eyes softened when she spotted the now-familiar figure waiting for her nearby. Hyuuga Neji and his omnipresent reading tablet weren't particularly hard to find; his aura lent elegance to the surroundings, making passersby feel as if they were gathered in a traditional tea ceremony house instead of a dirty street-side curb.

She saw Shoseki, who amusingly had been his most constant companion these past few days, nudge the male with his elbow. "Hey, Tenten's here."

"I'm not going to fall for that anymore," said Neji, refusing to look up from his material. "Don't you think that after the sixth time you pulled that trick, I would probably draw the line somewhere?"

Grinning, she joined the two on the curbside. "Well, you guys seem to be fast approaching the BFFs phase."

Neji blinked, then sighed. "I know it's irrational, but I really want to blame you, Tenten, for not coming here sooner to help me keep my pride intact."

Dusting his knees, Shoseki got up and gave them a wave. "I'm heading back to check on the old man."

"Thanks for keeping Neji company!" she called after his retreating figure.

"I'm only doing it to bask in his cool guy image and lure girls in by extension!"

Tenten turned to him, an eyebrow arched perfectly. "You're Shimanto's hottest matinee idol right now, huh?" Her peripheral view showed girls staring daggers at her, as if asking how dare she approached their prince so casually.

"I am a thing of novelty to your townmates, but no doubt it'll come to pass soon," he answered simply, gracefully rising from his seat. He then turned to offer her his hand. "Come."

She accepted his hand, and he readily pulled her up back to her feet. She could sense the rage from the distance grow darker and hotter. "Somehow, I think you're underestimating your fangirls, Neji."

His answer couldn't even be more off-tangent. "Please take your workshop breaks more frequently, Tenten."

"H-Huh?" She frowned, not sure if she just missed a part of the conversation. "What are you talking about?"

He held up her hand, which was still entwined with his. "Your grip is very weak. I'm not surprised if you can't even feel my touch."

"I-I get it, I get it! Geez!" She snatched her hand away from him, her cheeks burning.

"This is rather common among laborers who handle heavy materials for eight to ten hours every day," he continued, not noticing the ruckus he had caused her now-wildly hammering heart. "And chances of accidents greatly increase if your hand grows numb and fails to provide crucial tactile information to your brain."

"It's still delivering messages to my heart, though," she muttered.

He eyed her anxiously. "Do you experience unusual heart activities, too? Studies show that certain neural signals coming from the heart can impair cognitive skills as well."

Now that explains why I can't think straight when he does stupid little things like this. She slapped him soundly on his back. "I'm fine, I'm fine! More importantly, I just finished folding the metal for the letter opener. It was soooo cool! Here's what Io-sama and I did…"

.

.

.

Oh, it's starting to rain. Hinata absent-mindedly turned to search for an umbrella in her shoulder bag, but recalled she brought neither with her when she slipped out of the Hyuuga compound that late afternoon at her sister's behest.

She didn't bring a chauffeur and service along— she reasoned that she was just going to a nearby park anyway to get some fresh air. Who knew Mother Nature's whims well enough that the clear skies would shortly give way to rain?

Left with no choice, she hurried to the nearest gazebo to wait it out. It was only a quarter past five, but the place was deserted. It usually had students and young couples around this time, but those people likely had more common sense than her and actually brought umbrellas with them so they could go home despite the weather.

No, I'm being too hard on myself. I am mimicking Father. She flicked a wet strand off her eyes.

The conversation she had with her father this afternoon hung heavily in her mind. Prior to that meeting, she had been secretly anticipating that moment when they would discuss the board meeting, hoping that she would finally receive a positive acknowledgment of her hard work from her father. She wanted him to be proud of her.

But it seemed the only thing that would earn his approval was if she would fulfill her fate of bringing in the family's successor— a responsibility she had to carry the moment she came into this world as an inferior gender in the family's eyes.

Perhaps, Neji-niisan was right. Each person had a role in the world to fulfill. Like her Uncle Hizashi whom her father could not save even with their wealth, she, too, could not fight against her destined fate. And Otsutsuki Toneri would not only look after her but also the people and their families who relied on the strength of the Hyuuga's future.

Uzumaki Naruto's grinning face entered her mind. Before she knew it, tears were streaming down her cheeks. She hastily wiped them away with the back of her wrists. It's not like he's even mine to lose in the first place. Why am I even crying?

RING!

"Must be Hanabi," she murmured as she slid the mobile phone of her pocket. She glanced quickly at the screen to confirm who was calling.

The number was showing up as unregistered.

Strange. As the heiress of the illustrious Hyuuga clan, her number was supposed to be kept confidential even to her suitors and friends. The few contacts on her phone had been all carefully screened by her family caretakers.

Probably just a prank call. It's not that odd if people will accidentally chance upon my phone number combination, right?

But she was wary about answering the phone call, similarly to how she and Hanabi were weaned never to go with strangers no matter how harmless they may appear.

Suddenly, the rain was no longer a detriment to going home. She'd take getting drenched over this uneasy feeling anytime.

I should call our driver. Her eyes looked at the screen depicting an animated phone insistently ringing. She swiped the red End button to end it, but in a flash, the call came through and was ringing incessantly again

She gritted her teeth, turned off her phone to suppress the ringing, and scampered out of the gazebo.

.

.

.

"MINATO! How dare those two bastards be late for my Rin-chan's thirtieth birthday celebration!" Uzumaki Kushina banged her wine glass on the Formica table of the corner booth they reserved in a little-known restaurant on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Ever the diplomat, Namikaze Minato raised his hands in a conciliatory manner while speaking soothingly to his incensed wife. "Now, now, Dear. Rin might not want to announce something as personal as that to everyone here."

This did little to soothe the blazing beast. "AND WHAT IS WRONG WITH WOMEN GETTING OLDER?! My Rin-chan is SOOOOO much cuter than women ten years younger than her!"

"Pft."

In the car, Hatake Kakashi had barely kept himself from cracking up. The furious voice of the esteemed minister could be heard through the earbuds of his listening device even if they were drooping down from his ear. Earlier, their co-conspirator Sensei had attached the bug to the restaurant's table intercom, so the microphone could easily capture the entire glorious exchange.

On the other screen, Uchiha Obito's face appeared. "What? Is it my cue now?" He self-consciously tugged on the bow of his waiter's uniform. He was hiding in the staff room, along with a large bouquet of exactly thirty white roses and a birthday cake.

"Not yet," replied Kakashi. "Rin's still Rin."

Obito let out a sigh. "Grah, dammit. Even with Sensei deliberately getting the both of them drunk, Rin still hasn't faltered, huh?"

"You and your bright ideas." For Rin's birthday this year, Obito had proposed to prank the always prim and proper executive assistant of Minister Uzumaki and get her drunk. They would not come in until she had become inebriated enough to be weepy or irate about them not showing up. And that's when he and Obito will make their appearance. Minato-sensei agreed to record everything on camera.

"I'm getting hungry," complained Kakashi. "Let's just go and surprise her anyway by showing up at the same time for once."

"BUT I WANT HER REACTION VIDEO!"

"Alright, alright! Now pipe down or else she'll overhear."

"With Kushina yelling like a drunk uncle? Fat chance!"

Indeed, Kushina's berserk mode was unstoppable. Kakashi offered a silent prayer of thanks that he was in the safety cocoon of his car, unlike Sensei who was in direct line of fire. Thanks for taking one for the team, soldier, he thought with a smirk.

"I-It's okay, Minister. R-Really, it is." Nohara Rin's soft-spoken tone was unmistakable, despite the many years it had been since he last heard it. This was but one of the few things she had hurriedly outgrown in order to protect her no-nonsense professional image in the field. "I'm sure they're both dealing with something really important right now that they can't squirm out of."

"RIN-CHAN!" The aghast expression on the feared politician's voice was vintage.

"Otherwise, they'll be here," she continued good-naturedly. "Because men can't say no to free food and booze!"

"Oh, Rin-chan, my precious baby girl!" Then in contrast to her sweet, affectionate tone with the birthday celebrant, Kushina turned to her husband in a dangerously menacing manner. "Minato, I don't care how you do it, but be sure to bring those two idiots here. Or else, I'll make them wish they've never been born." Cracking fists could be heard over the line, definitely for emphasis but it might as well have been a terror threat to this spy listening in on them.

"R-Right. I'm going then. I'll be back as soon as I can." Minato's light retreating footsteps sounded off and then disappeared.

Kakashi picked up the other mic. "Obito, Sensei got chased away by Kushina."

"For real?! What a loser—OUCH! Sensei, you'll mess up my hair gel!"

"Don't worry about your hair. The roses are in way worse condition!"

"WAAAH!"

With a groan, the white-haired male was about to retry coaxing them all into making an appearance already when he caught what seemed like a hushed conversation. Is Rin getting emo yet? Damn right It's about time, I'm starved, he thought as he put the earbuds into place so he could listen in more closely.

"—not interested in him, either," He could hear the quiet sound of glass being placed back on the table.

"Why not?" Incredibly, Kushina had already calmed down. It seemed Rin had managed to tame the beast through the promise of rare personal gossips about her love life. "Are you in love with someone else?"

The spirits might have really overtaken the birthday girl at that point, as she readily answered that with utmost sincerity.

"I am. I've loved him since I was nine."

He sucked his breath in.

"Kakashi?" asked Obito, puzzled by the lack of pointed sighing and acerbic putdowns in the background. "Have you really died of hunger back there?"

Wordlessly, he placed the other device on mute and turned back to the bugged stream to continue listening in.

"—because he is a genius, but I have learned to grow fond of his other aspects, too."

"Does he know how you feel?"

Rin chuckled. "Probably. When I was sixteen, he caught me placing a Valentine chocolate in his bag. A friend actually asked me to give it to him in her stead, but I just couldn't muster the courage to hand it to him. I didn't want things to turn out awkward."

However, it only turned out even MORE awkward for us. Of course, he remembered that incident. Back then, Rin had turned red practically from head to toe. She may not have been the original gifter, but she sure had the same sentiment.

"I tried to tell him it wasn't mine," she narrated. "But the way I reacted back there, I wouldn't be surprised if he thought I was lying,"

"So how did he respond to that?"

"Uhm. he just told me to return it to my friend."

No, that was hardly just it. Kakashi knew exactly what he told her fourteen years ago.

"Tell your friend that I am not interested in romance. The family I have now is more important than anything else in this world."

He didn't need to look in order to know that he had hurt her because of that. Badly.

But he also knew perfectly well that the delicate ties linking the three of them would shatter if he dared upset the status quo. Obito who loved Rin who loved him who loved the both of them like his own family.

The next day, she proceeded to talk to him as if nothing happened. He was relieved— he didn't have to lose her after all.

And then as years went on, he noticed how her hero worship of his early-stage prodigy gave way to a more familial, comforting, sibling-like exasperation with him.

He had always assumed it was due to her feelings for him fading as childhood infatuation always did. However...

"Do you still feel the same way about him?" the drunk minister wanted to know.

Instinctively, he brought the earbud even closer to his ear.

"I do," she slowly admitted. "Then, now… for always."

Kakashi had heard enough. Throwing down his earbuds, he bent down to undo his seatbelt…

and right across him on the passenger side was Rin herself.

She smiled warmly— the legendary coveted smile as per the ministry staff but something he and Obito knew she was only too capable of.

"Take care and be safe, Kakashi."

To his ear, it had always sounded like a little sister sending him off to work. But tonight, it felt like a lover bidding her last farewell.

His shaking hands reached out to touch her face, but when his fingers were just inches away, her whole body burst into flames.

.

.

.

Kakashi wasn't sure initially what woke him up.

For the past few nights, his dreams had always been about Rin. The regrets and self-loathing he had to push away during his waking hours in order to effectively conduct a manhunt would return to his subconscious at nights and terrorize him, reminding him of the woman he failed to save.

Groaning, he sat up, noticing that he still had on yesterday's clothes. Working almost twenty hours a day, he had little energy and time at the end of the day to practice even the most basic of hygiene conventions.

Then he heard it again— the distinctive sound of email notification from Rin's inbox. It was the very same account that received the fateful message that led her out into the streets, and left her vulnerable and defenseless. He was hoping that the killer would get careless and interact again— gloat, leave incriminating messages… whatever footprint he could use as a starting point.

Immediately he reached for his laptop. This device never went to sleep— it did the sleuthing and large-scale data analysis for him while his frail human body did its poor best to recover for next day's inevitable abuse.

He had recently chatted with Minato and Kushina about his quest to find Rin's killers himself. However, he would need help from them to up the political pressure, too. He was sure that whoever killed her did it under the auspices of the imperial royal family's enemies.

The Crown Prince later thanked him in secret for helping his wife to regain her spirit and get back up her feet. Nohara Rin was the daughter and the little sister Kushina always wanted to have, and losing her this way because of their notoriety had positively broken her heart.

His eyes turned sharp when he saw an unread email that came in just an hour ago. It simply stated, "If you're seeking answers about Rin, find me."

A quick look at the email headers show that the message came from one of the many freely available disposable emails on the Web, but the tacked x-originating-ip did not show up in public VPN and proxy lists. There were other more technologically complex possibilities, of course, but rationally, he felt that the bigger possibility was that this person wanted to be found only by the right people with the particular skills to find him or her.

.Fine. Let's play your game. He took note of the geolocation results.

.

.

.

The plan didn't go as well as Hyuuga Hanabi imagined it the first time.

After slicing her bangs to mimic her sister's, she confidently strode towards the hairdresser, only to cause the woman and all the other maids to collectively freak out.

"Hanabi-sama, we beg of you to stop playing pranks! Where is Hinata-sama?!"

She grimaced. "You knew?"

"A nineteen-year-old's body is different from a fourteen-year-old's!"

The red-faced Hyuuga clutched her flat chest sadly.

"W-We didn't mean that, Hanabi-sama! W-We meant your height difference!"

Hanabi flipped her hair over her shoulders. "Oh well, Onee-san's not here and Hyuuga Hinata cannot be late for her meeting. Guess I'll have to do."

"But they'll instantly know it's not Hinata-sama!"

She placed her hands on her hips defiantly. "BO-RING! You guys are so pessimistic! We're talking about a blind guy here. How would he know the difference?"

One maid timidly raised her hand. "Well, there's that difference in the way you speak…"

"I'll wear a flu mask and pretend to be sick so I'll only answer in monosyllables."

"What if he tries to ask you about things he and Hinata-sama had discussed in the past meeting?"

Hanabi coughed flashily before softening her tone the way she remembered her elder sister was inclined to do. "Yes. Indeed. True. Right. WORD."

A collective sigh escaped from the attendants. Even sheltered ladies like them knew there was something off about the last word.

"B-But they're to be married… so… so…" No one in the room could say it out loud that the sweatdropping girl felt she had no choice but to do it for them.

"You mean he might do *BEEP* on me?"

The room exploded into scandalized screams. "HANABI-SAMA!"

"My smelling salts! Someone get me my smelling salts!"

"Dear God, she's only fourteen years old! Fourteen!"

Hinata waved her hand dismissively. "Chill out. With Neji-niisan's training in self-defense, I'm pretty sure I can handle a blind man getting frisky."

And despite the pleadings and hysterics, in the end, she prevailed on her attendants. She wore a black kimono with lavender flower patterns to make her look older and more sophisticated. Shunning the formal zori, they opted to put her on a very high pair of geta to compensate for the height difference. Then with meticulous makeup and elegantly done hair, she completed her transformation into Hyuuga Hinata for the evening.

"Hanabi-sama! You really look like Hinata-sama after all!" One maid couldn't help but gush.

"Are you stupid?! Of course, she should! They're sisters after all!"

Indeed, she thought, nodding solemnly to herself. Onee-san is my only sister in this world, so I'll do my best to protect her.

"Hinata-sama, the driver awaits," announced the hairdresser, smiling reassuringly at the adorned young mistress.

Hanabi posed her best demure Hyuuga Hinata smile. "Yes."

"Hinata-sama?"

Hanabi blinked, then realized that Otsutsuki Toneri's bodyguard was looking at her expectantly. They were standing before the double doors of the grand private suite, which had been opened for her.

"Y-Yes. Indeed. True. Right. WORD." Hanabi nearly smacked herself with her palm. It came out much smoother when I rehearsed it earlier!

But it seemed the bodyguard barely paid heed. Instead, he led her to the lone table in the middle of the room, where a tall, brooding silver-haired man was waiting quietly.

Ah, so this is Onee-san's husband-to-be. He's a little younger than I imagined him to be.

Sitting across him was another man that she would never mistake for someone else even if she herself went blind.

Oh my goodness, I forgot about Father!

.

.

.

Hinata was on the verge of tears when she spotted the familiar roof of the Hyuuga compound. The two-kilometer distance never seemed as far as it was now, with the surroundings apparently deserted but with an unshakeable feeling that numerous pairs of eyes were watching her maliciously.

But her joy was short-lived. For standing in front of their gates was a tall person holding an umbrella with his back facing her.

So halting her tracks, she hid behind a neighbor's gated wall and fearfully turned on her phone to try and call anyone in the Hyuuga household.

She was greeted by a notification of thirty missed calls, all from the same number. As she skimmed through the call logs, she noticed that the intervals between each call seemed only between 30 to 60 seconds. That wasn't something normal people did.

Then as if it were a sentient being sensing her presence, it rang into life once more. The loud sound kept going as she had trouble swiping on the now-wet phone screen. It was only a couple of minutes after frantic swiping that she recalled the readily accessible volume buttons on the device' side panel. Only then did the horrible sound go away.

But she could hear something else that terrified her more. Footsteps. Some humming of an old nursery song. A leisurely pace that seemed to say he had all the time in the world to get to her.

Even without peeking, she knew it was the umbrella man. He knew where she was hiding, no thanks to her phone giving away her location.

She was about to dash towards the opposite direction when she heard someone call out her name.

Just several feet away and walking towards her worriedly was Uzumaki Naruto. His golden-colored bangs peeked through the rims of his orange and black beanie and he wore a nondescript black coat in order not to stand out while walking in public. He easily clutched a big navy blue umbrella on one hand.

"Hinata, you're soaked to the skin! Why didn't you bring any protective gear with you if you were going out?"

Relief flooded through her upon seeing a friendly face, especially when she heard the terrifying footsteps retreat and scurry away. She was safe at last.

Naruto hurried towards the paler-than-usual Hinata, who seemed to have been relying on the wall to remain upright. He immediately took her under the shade of the umbrella, his hand worriedly brushing the wet masses of hair off her face. "You're cold."

"A-A little bit."

Naruto's jaw tightened at the sight of the woman's small, shivering figure. "Hold this." Planting the umbrella handle on her hand, he slid off his coat.

"Isn't Obito-san with you today?" she asked, noticing the absence of the comical driver by his side.

"We had a little fight." He draped the outercoat firmly around her shoulders. "Better?"

"Very much so, thank you." Concern was etched on her lovely face. "Are you alright?"

"I should be the one asking you that."

She shook her head firmly. "I'm fine, really. You're here now—" Her hand flew to her mouth in embarrassment.

His grin widened. "I should be the one saying that." In a slow, gentle motion, he gathered her entire body into an embrace.

"N-Naruto-kun, y-you'll get wet!" The umbrella had tilted towards her side, leaving the most of him unsheltered.

"It's fine," he murmured against her ears, holding her tighter. "Everything feels much better now."

"Naruto-kun?"

"Maybe… maybe I understand him a little better now."

Obito-san and Naruto-kun must have had a huge disagreement, she thought silently to herself.

"It must have felt like hell to not be able to be there for the person he cares for when she needed him most," he posited quietly. "And every day it never ends, because every day without her reminds him of his greatest failure in life."

Alarm bells rang in Hinata's head. "R-Rin… san… something happened to Rin-san?"

"They got to her, Hinata. Our family's enemies got to her." His shoulders trembled in pain. "We didn't manage to save Rin." His voice trailed off as his face finally crumpled.

"Oh, Naruto-kun!" Letting go of the umbrella, it was her turn to pull the man down towards her arms and stroke the back of his head comfortingly. "I'm so sorry for your loss, Naruto-kun. I am so, so sorry…"

They stood like this for some time, unmoving and unspeaking. At the back of her mind, Hinata recalled that she had to leave for an arranged marriage meeting with Toneri, and if she failed to show up, her father would definitely be unhappy about that.

However, Naruto needed her at the moment. He must have specifically sought her out because he felt that she was one of the few people who could empathize with how he felt… as an individual, and not as an heir to the empire.

I can't go. He needs me.

Once again, she felt the familiar feeling of helplessness. It was just like during her Uncle Hizashi funeral. Her Neji-niisan embraced his father's photo, but his stony face refused to express even a modicum of sadness. Many harsh whispers resulted from that.

Without the voice of a grownup, they could not properly defend their cousin from these cruel-hearted people. So she and Hanabi clung to Neji's side instead, and only then did they sense his guard drop. He closed his eyes in mourning, and the three of them sat together like that for a long time as relatives and associates streamed past them.

But unlike the young Neji, Naruto openly wept. And she allowed him to cry, with the fervent hope that after this it would have lessened the heaviness in his heart even just for a tiny bit.

From a distance, a camera phone swiftly took shots of the couple.

.

.

.

"Good evening, Father. Good evening, Otsutsuki-san."

The old man gave her a curt nod, and she slid down to her own seat.

"Was it raining hard outside?" asked her sister's marriage partner.

"Eh?"

"Because it's unusual to hear the sound of geta in formal places like this—"

Oh no! He noticed even THAT?!

"—so I assume it's to keep the kimono safe from muddy puddles," he concluded affably.

Hanabi blinked, and then bowed. "Indeed." Okay, crisis averted!

Hyuuga Hiashi cleared his throat and spoke. "Otsutsuki-san, let me start by apologizing for not being here the first time that you met my daughter. I was bedridden at that time."

"Ah, then I hope you are feeling much better now, Hyuuga-shachou. The company needs you." Otsutsuki Toneri sounded crisp yet friendly, and Hanabi could see how her father was being won over by his demeanor.

"Thank you for the kind words. But sadly, times are changing. The world demands more and more of us businessmen, and I think those needs can only be met by the younger, more dynamic members of the population."

Hanabi glanced at Toneri again. Even with his eyes closed, he was an image of an apt, respectful listener hanging on the other person's every word. No wonder Father brought out his politician-on-a-campaign-trail persona.

"So I am hoping that I can entrust the future of my company, and more importantly, one of my two daughters to your capable hands."

There goes the sales pitch.

"Oh? You have two daughters?"

She nearly spat out the fish she was nibbling on.

Hiashi glared at her disapprovingly and then turned to his prospective son-in-law with a huge smile. "Yes. Hinata here is my eldest, while Hanabi is my youngest. If you visit our home to play blindfold shogi with an old fool like me, you'll have the opportunity to meet her, too."

Toneri smiled warmly. "The patriarch of the Hyuuga Complex an old fool? Then, pray tell, what should greenhorn novices like us be called? It will be my honor to play the Generals' Game with you, Shachou."

The topic of the conversation shifted to other company honchos who play shogi, and then settled on the state of these people's lines of businesses and companies. To Hanabi's relief, the meeting turned out to be more of a father-in-law gauging his daughter's husband prospect than the couple assessing each other's compatibility.

When dinner ended, Hiashi looked positively pleased. Triumphantly, he announced that he would be waiting for Hinata at the car so the two could have a brief moment to themselves. Hanabi tried to protest but her irresponsible father seemed to have his heart set on leaving his beautiful daughter in the hands of a smooth-talking, blindfold shogi-playing stranger.

Soon enough, it was just the two of them in the table, with a guard standing some distance away from them to guard the doors.

Now what? Despite her earlier bravado, Hanabi suddenly recalled her maids' fear regarding the man before her attempting to, well, *beep* her. Hanabi-sama, you're just fourteen years old! FOURTEEN!

"So, how old are you again?"

"Fourteen…" Her eyes grew wide when she just realized what she had stupidly divulged to the man. "I-I mean, f-for teens and young women, that is considered an evil question, Otsutsuki-san! Ohohoho!" Wait, does my sister even laugh like that?

Toneri's mouth twitched. "I see. So she sent her fourteen-year-old middle-schooler sister to try and deceive me."

A vein popped on her head. After all her hard work, she couldn't believe that a blind man would spoil everything.

The businessman leaned back, rubbing his chin. "What a shame that my future wife thinks so little of me."

Her gaze sharpened. "Hey, Onee-san had no idea I did this."

His brows raised. "Oh?"

"Onee-san is a good woman who only wants to make the people around her happy. She looked unhappy earlier, so I sent her away to rest," she explained through gritted teeth.

A smirk formed on his face. "What a nice little sister you are."

"I'M NOT!" she snapped, causing the guard to turn their way alertly.

In response, the man raised a hand. "It's okay. The Hyuuga women are prone to outbursts, it seems."

Her eyes trembled. "I-I'm not… because if I were, I should have stood up for her sooner. I should have told Father to not be too hard on her because Onee-san is trying her hardest on her own." She started to sniffle.

"...would you like a lollipop?" he offered out of not knowing what to say a teary-eyed kid.

"f you want me to stab you in the nose with that then go ahead and give me one," she retorted, wiping her tears away with her clenched knuckles.

Toneri laughed out loud. "Amazing… you and she couldn't be any more different people, but somehow you two still feel the same."

"You learn that in school. It's called biology. We're sisters, you know." Hanabi got up in a huff, but forgetting that she was wearing a geta, she wobbled and fell on the floor.

The guard immediately headed their way to assist her in getting back on her feet while the horrible boss contented himself with laughing heartily at the scene.

"That was one of the most ungraceful sounds I've ever heard to come from a woman," remarked Toneri.

She was about to glare at him when she realized what he had just called her. For a second, she felt her heart pound loudly in her ear.

"Oh? No cutting comebacks, Ojou-san?" He suddenly clamped his mouth shut when she quietly covered the back of her neck peeking from the kimono, mortified by the blush spreading across her body like a wildfire.

"I-I… I need to go. You stay away, lying jerk." Without waiting for his response, she abruptly fled the room.

The guard looked stunned at what he had just witnessed. "Was that really Hinata-sama? She seemed a little… different."

"But terribly amusing nonetheless." He couldn't help but feel impressed by how sharp her perception was. The reason she covered her nape was that she sensed he was gazing at it— and certainly not with the eyes of a completely blind man.

It was definitely his fault. With the limited vision his eyes offered, he was still taken in by her adult-like, carefully put-together appearance that nearly mirrored Hyuuga Hinata.

And for a moment, he forgot that he was speaking with a child ten years his junior.

Ah, she's going to be a handful when she grows up.

.

.

.

The next morning, the Internet was abuzz. An anonymous poster on a global message board just broke the news of Nohara Rin's death. It chronicled, in astonishingly accurate details, the cover-up by the Imperial Household Agency itself, given Rin's proximity to the Crown Princess,

It also claimed that Rin had to be disposed of because she learned too much about the secrets of the Chrysanthemum throne. In truth. the blue-eyed emperor had less claim to the throne than the true noble blood of the former Princess Kaguya.

Later on, the user posted a photo, this time showing the son of the Crown Prince in a passionate embrace with a raven-haired woman. Her back was facing the camera, so the user invited the whole site to make their guesses.

Overnight, he became the talk of the town, beating all leading news outlets in breaking the story. When asked, he simply provided a single name.

Tobi.


To be continued