"Three… four…" Hyuuga Neji paused slightly when he heard a sound that seemed off from the expected flutter of wings. It was a sound of bouncy, light footsteps—a child's, he decided—approaching him at three o'clock position.
Soon enough, he heard a high-pitched "Uncle Nejiiiii!" shatter the forest's stillness, sending the frightened flock of birds away.
He let out a sigh before fixing the sternest expression he could muster. It was a role only he in the whole Hyuuga clan could play convincingly: that of an unimpressed, unflappable bad cop to the good cops that were the rest of his relatives.
"Himawari-sama, what did I tell you about heading to the forest on your own?" he rattled off before his ever-sunny niece could leap into his arms.
She freely did so anyway, and pounced on him like a kitten wrestling its favorite toy on the ground. He had no choice but to drop his walking cane just so he could cushion her tiny body with both hands.
(But for the record, the suspicious twitching on his mouth absolutely did NOT mean that he approved of this rambunctious, unladylike behavior.)
"Well, Himawari-sama?" he pressed, not willing to let her off easily.
"Um… to never, ever do it until I graduate from the Academy?" She looked up at him, eyes wide in innocence.
"That is correct." He coolly eyed her up and down— the miniature mishmash of genes of Konoha's most powerful and most elite. "And that is set to happen only five years from now. So, pray tell, why are you here in the forest on your own?" He could not sense the aura of either of the child's parents nearby.
"The twin bun lady!" cried his little niece breathlessly, cheeks flushed. "Uncle Neji, the twin bun lady in the picture came back!"
A/N: I turn a year older this week, so I thought I'd celebrate with my favorite Naruto couple in set in a similar but much happier universe. I blame old age for my mushy escapism. :D
The picture Himawari was referring to was that of Team Gai during their genin days. Maito Gai beaming at the camera while proudly clasping both of his boys on each shoulder. Rock Lee reluctantly taking a break from his daily 25-kilometer warm-up run long enough to get a photo with his beloved team. Him looking at the photographer with an expression that says, "Get this over quickly. I have unfettered sighting of your most critical chakra points, you know."
And the only rose among the thorns. But boy, was it a thorny rose. The bright and high-spirited Tenten, both hands pumped, as she gave a gaping, open-mouthed smile for the camera, uncaring of the photographer's pleading to 'act like a girl more'.
He recalled how Tenten's almond brown eyes flared up when she first heard the photographer's appeal for more feminine restraint.
"You're a guy! Why would you know more about how to act like a girl than I do?! Now watch me do a wrestler victory pose! Harrrr!"
And he, who till that moment had rarely taken interest of other people outside his clan, couldn't help but silently follow the exchange. Until that moment, all the girls he knew bowed their heads and smiled and followed whatever the adults tell them to do.
But not this girl.
And as years passed, he would come to learn that she was actually different from most other people, too— men and women alike, as she would forcefully insist whenever less-discerning folks would try to look down on her elite shinobi skills.
It had been two decades since that picture was taken. And until now, it was the only photo decorating his spartan-like room. It was probably for that same reason that his little niece had taken a world of interest at the spunky girl who seemed to not be much older than her in that picture.
"She looks strong! Is she really strong, Uncle Neji?"
"No one in Konoha can beat her long-range precision," he would honestly answer. "And no one can surpass her knowledge of weaponry and tools."
"Is she brave, Uncle Neji?"
"She has twin buns for her hair, too! So cute! Don't you think so, too, Uncle Neji?"
"Then you should marry her— oh no, Uncle Neji! Why did you blow hot tea out of your nose? Grandpa, Grandpa! Look at the neat trick Uncle Neji showed me! Nose fountains!"
Himawari's palm waved up and down his face, sparing him from a further embarrassing walk down the memory lane. "So… let's go see her?"
"The twin bun lady. Let's go see her!" She effortlessly untangled herself from his hold, handed him back his cane, and proceeded to pull his hand towards the direction of the forest edge.
Like a puppy sheepishly trailing its owner, he clumsily followed her lead. "Are you certain it is her? She hasn't been in town for many years."
The little girl let out a distinct sigh of impatience not many would try with the great Hyuuga prodigy. "I know what I saw, Uncle Neji! Mama and I were bringing Papa's lunch to the office when we saw her chatting with Papa and Uncle Shikamaru." Her free hand grabbed the protruding upper tuft of her hair into a makeshift pigtail. "Her brown hair's on braided twin buns. She was wearing tassel earrings and a long, pretty white dress…"
Against his better judgment, he found himself greedily taking in the descriptions as his mind weaved together an image of his niece's alleged twin buns lady.
"...and she was talking about the weapons on the table so happily!"
Bingo. It was her. He didn't know anyone else who had the capacity to talk about weaponry with the pride and affection a mother held for her firstborn.
"What was her name again?" Little wrinkles of concentration formed on the child's face. "Mama already said it when she greeted her. It's like a repeated syllable, um…"
"Tenten. Her name is Tenten," he finally answered, to the little girl's delight.
"Yes, yes, Tenten! That's twin bun lady!"
"I may have ruined things for us forever, but doing this… don't you think this is a bit too much, Neji? Don't you think this is a bit too cruel?"
The memory of her words halted him in his tracks, startling Himawari who until then found ease in making her grown uncle do as she pleased. She turned to him, puzzled. "What's wrong, Uncle Neji? Is your back bothering you again?"
"I… should probably greet her tomorrow instead," he finished lamely, avoiding her curious gaze. "I do need to rest as well."
Himawari looked slightly disappointed, but her concern for her favorite uncle won over. "Okay. I'll walk you home, Uncle Neji." She marched by his side, as if guarding his unreliable hips from giving out beneath him.
"Thank you, Himawari. We'll come see her tomorrow instead." Neji made a mental note to give Rock Lee a ring so he and his son could accompany them. He knew the father-and-son' tandem's outrageously high-level energy would make things less awkward for him and his former teammate.
"I'm sure Tenten must be in bed right now and resting, too."
"Yep, with him."
His neck whipped hard towards his niece. "HIM?! Him, who?!"
"Oh, you know. The short man with black hair that makes him look like whole garlic head? Wears red glasses? He was with her when she paid Papa a visit and they're going to stay together in her old apartment…" Himawari's voice trailed off when she saw her uncle frown worriedly, as if not liking what he just heard. "What's wrong, Uncle Neji?"
"It's nothing." But her uncle was wearing a rare troubled look on his handsome face. "If you will excuse me, Himawari-sama. I need to speak to your father."
Wow, I guess Uncle's injuries aren't bothering him as much as before, thought the little girl as she watched her uncle briskly make his way towards the village center.
"Hokage-sama, this is NOT the time for your jokes. WHY DID YOU PUT AN UNMARRIED WOMAN AND A MAN UNDER ONE ROOF, YOU IMMORAL SICK MAN?"
The thin walls of the Hokage office were barely enough to suppress the infuriated, demanding voice of the legendary Hyuuga clan prodigy that marched unceremoniously into the building just a few minutes earlier.
Thirty-two year old Uzumaki Naruto, esteemed head of the village, glanced at his quietly amused wife knowingly, then feigned a somber look when he turned back to the visibly heated Hyuuga before him.
"I thought you would be happier, now that you know Tenten's still single."
"HOKAGE-SAMA, for the love of—"
"Neji nii-san, please."
The soft, pleading words of his cousin and former clan heiress made him check himself, but he still threw a deathly glare at Naruto.
"Tenten offered to put themselves up in her old apartment," continued the village leader calmly. "She said she can work better when she's in some place more familiar."
"Then you should have offered the Garli— the gentleman with her— a separate place to stay."
"He is her colleague," replied Naruto with a shrug. "So they need a highly collaborative space."
"They could collaborate right here. In the Hokage's office. Surrounded by the public." Neji was beside himself with ire.
"The thing is, she said she had to finish everything by today and leave early tomorrow, so I allowed Tenten to set the working conditions as she pleases."
His brows furrowed. "She's leaving so soon?" That was unusually fast for a usual A-level shinobi village mission.
"She says she can't close down her weapons shop for more than a couple of days. It's bad for business perception." Naruto then unclasped his hands and eyed him slyly, not unlike the fearsome fox sleeping within him. "But methinks she just doesn't want to announce her presence to a certain someone in the village."
"Don't be ridiculous. Tenten is a consummate professional and she respects her work too much to behave that way." Right?
Naruto's hokage cap bobbed up and down at him in approval. "Good, that's good to hear. Even after all these years, you still think the world of her. So you shouldn't worry too much about him, okay, Tenten?"
Neji shot the village leader an even darker stare as he heard the side door slide open, revealing his teammate, a smirking Nara Shikamaru, and a glaring shorter guy at the back.
Oh, that's the Garlic head, his mind shot disdainfully. The said man did not back down at their little staring contest, even drawing an inch closer to the woman as if declaring his territory.
He shifted his eyes to Tenten when he heard her begin to speak.
"It's really good to see you again, Neji." She offered him that same, familiar warm smile that he had come to become fond of. "You look well."
"Likewise." Tenten looked every inch as lovely as he imagined her to grow up to be. The lily-white white cheongsam embraced her every curve and swell in place, and it seems she had finally learned to put on the lightest of make-up. There was a hint of color on her lips and cheeks, although he reckoned the latter was perhaps more due to the commotion she had heard earlier.
Her younger, teary-eyed face flashed in his mind, overcoming him with guilt. He immediately looked away.
Tenten then spotted the cane supporting him. Her smile shook a bit, but she quickly recovered. Motioning to the person behind her, she continued, "This is my colleague, Shouseki. Neji, Hokage-sama, you've met him when we traveled to Iou-sama's research lab, remember?"
"Yep." The blond male nodded. "The wacky weapon inventor guy who made those powerful yet ultimately useless tools."
"Filter, Hokage-sama," reminded Nara Shikamaru, rolling his eyes.
Tenten grinned. "Well, he's not wrong. Anyway, Iou-sama has decided to finally enjoy his retirement and merged his research lab with mine. The apprentice came along with the merger, so here he is, forced to work with someone less-mentored than him."
"Heh heh." Shouseki stood even straighter, obviously pleased by the introduction he had received. "Tenten-san, don't downplay yourself too much. You make an excellent partner."
Neji's eyebrow shot up. "That she does," he replied more curtly than he had wanted. "As her first partner, I can attest to that."
A low whistle came out from what suspiciously was the Nanadaime's direction.
Hinata, who had sensed the increased tension in the room, spoke up with the kind of motherly firm gentleness that can induce a truce even between the most belligerent of warring clans. "We're having hot pot for tonight's dinner, so if you are all available, we would love for you to join our family."
Shikamaru apologetically waved his hand. "My son has a fever, so I'll take a rain check."
"Of course! I hope Shikadai feels better soon. Was it because Boruto dragged him off to go fishing yesterday when it was raining? It must be. I apologize for my son's irresponsibility, and I'll make sure he apologizes to you and your family as well."
Shikamaru sweatdropped as he studied the outwardly calm, too-zen-for-comfort countenance of the family matron. Oh boy, the kid's so dead.
Tenten, on the other hand, raised hers. "Shouseki and I would love to drop by! Hokage-sama hasn't paid us in advance yet, so we'll take all the free food we can get."
"Oh, gimme some slack, Tenten! It's not my fault the council's asking us to jump through so many hoops before loosening the hold on our village purse strings!" sulked the village head.
"I'm coming, too," announced Neji in what he hoped was a nonchalant tone. It did little to stop the people around him from giving him strange, startled looks.
"What, you need the free food, too?" asked Naruto, the corner of his mouth twitching.
"I have something to discuss with my niece."
"Sounds pretty important. And sudden." The Hokage let out a snicker.
"Hinata-sama, I really wish you'd let me try my upgraded eight trigram palm technique at your husband just once. Ideally, right at this moment. Even just 32 strikes will do, really."
"Waaah! The twin bun lady came by to eat hot pot with us!" Uzumaki Himawari was positively beaming with joy as she energetically leapt up and down her feet. She was in the foyer, sitting quietly on the foot of the staircase as she eagerly awaited her parents' return, but was ecstatic to see additional guests— even more so when she recognized who one of them was.
Hinata offered Tenten an apologetic smile, then sternly turned to her daughter. "Himawari, our guest has a name. Ask her what it is and address her with the same respect you give me and your father."
The lass nodded, and then politely bowed. "Nice to meet you, Auntie! Uncle Neji has already told me your name, but I keep on forgetting, sorry."
To which the kunoichi chuckled. "It's alright. You can call me Tenten. In exchange, may I call you Himawari?"
From behind, Shouseki cleared his throat. "I, too, want to call you Himawari. You may call me Uncle Shouseki—"
"Of course, Auntie Tenten!" Bypassing the preening bespectacled male, her blue eyes scanned the room. "Where's Uncle Neji?"
"He had to drop by the pharmacy to get his medicines, but he'll be heading straight here," replied her mother reassuringly.
"Yeah, okay!" Excitedly, the girl tugged on Tenten's hand. "Come with me, I have so many questions to ask you! Like, about the time you summoned the rising twin dragons in your first Chuunin exam match— Uncle Neji said you were really cool back there."
"H-He did?" She genuinely did not expect that. "Did he tell you I lost that fight?"
"Yup! He said that given your opponent, there was only one end result. But that didn't stop you from trying your best. He said you were fearless!" chirped the little girl merrily as she pulled the kunoichi's arm and started guiding her away.
Her mother immediately noticed what she was doing. "Sweetie, where are you taking Aunt Tenten?"
"We'll just be in the veranda, Mama! Call us when it's time to eat, okay?"
"A-Alright," the matriarch reluctantly nodded. "And where's your big brother?"
"He and Sarada-neechan visited Shikadai-niisan after school. He said they'll probably stay over for dinner as well. Call me and Auntie Tenten when we're gonna start eating, okay?" After a final energetic wave over her shoulder, the dark-haired girl pulled her newfound best friend out of the house.
Hinata scratched her cheek, and then turned to the embarrassed man left behind. "Would you like to join me and my husband in the kitchen?"
"O-Of course! Thank you, Ma'am!" Grateful for the graceful recovery, Shouseki eagerly followed the couple into the main living and kitchen area of the house.
"... and so, because the Treasured Tools were far too powerful, they had to be kept safe. And I was entrusted with protecting the Sage's weapons," narrated Tenten to her keenly attuned lone audience. "That's why I try not to leave my shop for too long, in case stupid people get stupid ideas and stupidly try to steal those tools that would zap their chakra faster than your dad can slurp down a whole bowl of Ichiraku ramen."
"Waaaah! So cool!"
Wait, is this even something that's okay to say to a girl who's barely ten? The weapons mistress groaned inwardly. She had never been really good with kids, and as a result knew next to none about dealing with them.
But for some unfathomable reason, the little girl before her seemed to had been really, really into her even before they've met at the house.
I wonder if it's because Neji told this girl a fictional rockstar version of me, she mused as she took a sip of the oolong tea Hinata had kindly prepared for her.
"Um, Aunt Tenten?"
"Why didn't Uncle Neji marry you?"
Tea exploded out of her mouth, sending her in teary, repeated coughing. The little girl, on the other hand, patted her back with a sigh.
"What is it with adults spitting drinks out randomly in conversations? So strange."
It was at that moment when Hyuuga Neji walked into the front yard, clutching a single brown paper bag and a bottle of sake. His pale eyes immediately flickered towards the two figures seated on the veranda.
"Himawari-sama? And the person choking… Tenten?!" In a flash, Neji was by the kunoichi's side. He assisted her to lurch over the platform low enough for her head to hang between her knees. "Breath, Tenten. Take deep ones. Himawari-sama, no need to pound on her back, she will be alright."
The little girl sprang up her feet. "I'll just get Auntie Tenten some towels then."
Tenten's head weakly tried to follow the dark-haired lass' direction, but she felt something warm cup her chin.
"Focus on your breathing," he instructed her firmly, bringing his face closer to hers. "Expel the liquid out of your throat."
Their unexpected proximity was just the boost she needed to finally cough out the last of the oolong tea that went down the wrong pipe. She tried to wipe her mouth with the back of her arm, but Neji was quicker to react. He produced a crisp, white handkerchief and proceeded to dab it on her face carefully.
"Are you okay now?'
"You think I can lean you back now?"
Her eyes automatically flew to her teammate's back. "N-No, I can do it on my own."
"I can do this much, you know."
She felt the razor-like edge of his testy tone. "I-I'm sorry," she mumbled, forcing herself to look away.
"I do not need your pity."
"You already told me that before." But unlike that time, Neji didn't sound angry anymore. Now he just sounded worn-out, resigned, and sad.
She heard him mutter a few choice expletives under his breath, and then mechanically, he pulled her back up until she was sitting on the balls of her feet again with her spine straight.
"T-Thank you, Neji." The familiar woody scent filled her head with so much memories that she willed herself to physically move away from him, as if he was a live wire that threatened her every fiber.
Neji observed her awkward reaction, sighed, and then said, "Stay put. I'll go." He prepared to get up from his kneeling position. But then...
He turned towards her, eyes guarded as always.
"I know you specifically told me back then never to show my face here again," she continued, eyes set on her lap. "But I thought if it will just be a quick overnight trip here, then you and I wouldn't get a chance to meet."
Neji took a deep breath, and then settled down in a seat beside her, to her astonishment.
"It has been ten years since then, huh," he began, eyes cast towards the distance.
The night when doctors told Neji he will probably never walk again in this lifetime. Tenten's heart wrenched as she recalled the memory as if it just happened last night.
She could clearly recall the pain, despair, and anger in Neji's face. To be bedridden at the prime of his life, when he held so much promise as the once-in-a-lifetime prodigy of the village's most prominent clan…
Neji's memories were rushing to the surface, as well. And they were just as unpleasant as when he first lived through them a decade ago.
It was a noble sacrifice to make, willingly putting his body on the line to protect the future Hokage and the former clan heiress at the climax of the Fourth Shinobi War. The earth-like projectiles brutally pierced his body, but uncannily, missed all his vital blood vessels and organs as they ended up following his spine instead. Prompt medical attention arrived, saving his life.
It had been hailed as a miracle many times over. His family, friends, and the entire nation would forever be grateful and indebted to him, he knew as much.
But the aftermath he had to deal with: being bedridden due to the grave spinal injuries that the impalement caused, the loss of certain paths of personal advancement owing to his disabilities, and the terrifying reality that he might end up dragging down his team with him— they all threatened to destroy him to the core.
The latter he only truly realized when one fateful night, he overheard Tenten's calm, firm voice outside his hospital ward. He heard protestations— Gai's, Lee's, Hatake Kakashi's, Hanabi and Hiashi-sama's— so worrying for his teammate, he strained to listen.
"I refuse. I will not accept the Sand Village's mission offer."
"Tenten, this is the best opportunity for you to scale up the ranks," reasoned Kakashi. "Not many shinobi have the expertise that you have."
"The assignment will require me to stay there for months. I want to be with Neji as he makes his recovery."
"We can hire round-the-clock nurses for him. He'll be in good hands." Hyuuga Hiashi tried to sound as reassuring as possible.
"Neji needs all the support he can get. I want to be there for him."
He shut his eyes tight, his curse seal worsening the pain inside his head.
Tenten's guilt had shackled her into an inescapable burden of responsibility towards him. And the kind, compassionate girl she was, he knew she would be led into the same type of life he presently has under the cursed seal mark.
That was something he would never permit to happen. Not to Tenten. Not to the girl he had watched over all his life.
"It was a really, really solid rejection, huh."
Tenten's voice, which despite its best attempt to sound lighthearted still sounded flustered, returned him to the present.
Neji glanced at his teammate, and then back at the full moon that had since risen in the sky. "I wanted to make sure I get my message across to you with no space for any misunderstanding."
"You told me to accept the Sand Village's offer to become their weapon mistress in-residence immediately," she recounted. "And when I tried to decline, you asked me why I was so stubborn about staying in Konoha."
"You said it was because you love me."
Tenten's cheeks turned flushed. And it was no longer because of all the coughing she did earlier.
"Y-Yes. And I remember your answer was that you see me as an excellent long-ranged support, and nothing more." She swallowed uncomfortably before resuming her story. "That you didn't need or want to hear my feelings because they unnecessarily complicate our simple ties as teammates."
He unconsciously clenched his fists, especially when he recalled second-by-second how his words broke his good friend's heart.
"The following day, I learned that your clan took care of the finances and had me re-assigned to Suna." Tenten tucked a stray wisp of auburn hair behind an ear. "Till that moment, I've never felt so cheap in my whole life, Hyuuga Neji. I was no different from a mistress being paid off to leave her lover's family alone."
He knew she would feel that way. Fully well, in fact. It was exactly what he hoped for. It was all for the best. Her best.
Yet hearing her words right now carved fresh wounds deeper than what most of his foes managed to inflict on him in this lifetime.
Tenten continued to speak, like a long-overfilled dam that finally found its first opened gates. "I didn't want to take your words at face value, because I felt the man who said those hurtful words to me wasn't Hyuuga Neji, but a shell playing a villainous role poorly to scare me away.
"But you also didn't trust me enough to decide for myself. My life, my personhood, my choices, Neji," she admonished him. "I don't need you to make executive decisions on my behalf."
He exhaled sharply. "You were about to make the biggest mistake of your life, Tenten. You at your prime, being shackled to a disabled leftover of the war like me?"
"If it was a mistake, then you should have allowed me to make it, Neji," she shot back. "You should have allowed me to learn from it. Grow from it. Or maybe, it wouldn't even be a mistake after all. Maybe it would have led to something great!" Her voice rose along with her anger. "But now we'll never know because at the root of it all, you didn't trust me enough!"
He let out a dry, humorless laugh. "You were blinded by your idealism and your feelings back then. At this rate, shouldn't you be thanking me instead? You're the continent's most renowned weaponry expert today. Books are written about you and your impact in the field. Any country will be more than glad to be called your home."
She mockingly bobbed her head. "Ahhh, so you were actually following my career from afar. And you really think I owe them all to your meddling. Wonders do never cease."
His eyes turned darker, more embittered. "Tell me then. If you stayed with me, what can I offer you, Tenten?" He dragged his finger to his heart. "What kind of future can a washed-up, broken mess like me give to someone as brilliant as you?"
"The future that I wanted! A future, with my best friend and the man I loved in it," she shot back, her voice finally cracking. " But after all these years I've waited, it seems it's still too much to ask that of you, huh?"
She mumbled an 'excuse me' and marched back into the house, leaving the still shell-shocked Neji seated outside on the veranda.
As she trudged back inside, she dried the telltale streaks of tears on her cheeks, not wanting to worry Himawari and everyone else.
After a couple of deep exhales, she pushed the door open, plastering a fake, cheery smile on her face. "I was wondering why the towels have never arrived…"
"Tenten, you got a package from Konoha!" Shouseki called from the receiving area of the research lab.
"Coming!" she called back, putting down the hilt she was decorating with synthetic jewels. She headed to the lab facade, holding her signature stamp in one hand.
I wonder if it's from the Hokage-sama. A new mission assignment? If it was, then she would have to decline.
After their hot pot, she and Shouseki didn't stay too long in the Uzumaki residence. She mentioned wanting to turn in for the night after a long day of traveling and working.
All the while, she deliberately refused to meet Neji's eyes, which seemed to follow her every move. After practically confessing to him that she spent all these years frozen in time, she felt too embarrassed to speak with him again.
Once she and Shouseki got to her apartment, they spent the entire night finishing up their weapons recommendations. Then as the first few rays of Konoha sun peeked out from behind the Hokage monument, they personally delivered the documents to the still half-asleep, pajamas-clad Nanadaime before leaving without fanfare.
It had been a couple of days since then. A literal pile of mission requests from other countries were waiting for her on her desk— enough to keep the lights on the research lab up and running, and then some. She didn't need to return to Konoha.
Outside, she spotted the patiently waiting postman in uniform and cap seated underneath the shade. She bowed and thanked him for waiting, then took the envelope from his hand.
On the front of the letter envelope was scrawled, "To the Twin Buns Lady". Beneath it was a cleaner, more adult-like handwriting. Perhaps Hinata helping her daughter out to make sure it reaches her.
She carefully tore open the envelope and out came a long sheet of paper with a child's shaky, awkward handwriting. Her eyes crinkled in a smile as she read Himawari's letter.
Dear Twin Buns Lady-neesan,
How are you? It's too bad that we didn't get to say goodbye before you left. Papa and Mama said you had to go because you have so much work to do in your lab.
I had a great time listening to your stories. I wish you can tell me even more exciting ones next time. Someday, I'll grow up to be just like you! You're my idol, Onee-san!
Your biggest fan,
Tenten chuckled when she saw a stick figure with two buns at either side of its head, along with a shorter figure with smaller pigtails. It kind of reminded her of her own fangirling for Tsunade-sama in a way.
"Hmm, what's this?" Beneath the sketch, she noticed there was a hastily scribbled note.
P.S. After you left, Onii-chan and I would often spy on Uncle Neji looking at your picture in his room. He used to do that before, but now he looked sad while doing it. I hope you two make up!
P.P.S. I sent you a package!
Tenten lifted her eyes from the letter, embarrassed that the postman had been waiting for her all this time while she was reading. "Oh, sorry! Where do I sign?"
The man handed her a clipboard and pointed to the dotted lines which she immediately stamped her name on.
"So, where is the package?" She looked around, wondering where the man parked his delivery bike.
"Right here." The postman shook off his cap, revealing the unmistakable handsome features of Hyuuga Neji.
Her mouth dropped, unable to contain her shock. "N-Neji… why are you… what are you doing here?"
"I heard it from the Hokage-sama that your reason for leaving at the crack of dawn was you had a mountain of work waiting for you in the lab," he replied, reaching for his cane that was leaning against the tree. "So my niece suggested that I apply as your assistant."
"What?" She blinked, then waved her hands. "No, no. I'm fine with Shouseki. We can manage." Seeing the protest form on his face, she added, "Don't tell me. You think a man and a woman should not be alone under one roof?" she intoned, mimicking what she overheard him say in the Hokage office.
He crossed his arms in front of his chest. "The walking garlic head has a crush on you."
"Wha—" She could feel heat creeping up her face, especially when she saw her coworker's figure slink away in the shadows. "I-If that were even true, why would you care?" she snapped.
"I care because it's you," he answered firmly as he pulled himself up with the cane's help. "Since I was young, I have never held much interest in anything else in this world outside my clan. However, to my utter vexation, I have always found myself becoming involved whenever it's about you."
She instinctively took a step back as he drew nearer. "W-Well, you don't have to. I can look after myself very well, thank you very much."
"I agree. You are the most skilled shinobi I know, considering that you don't have inherited clan abilities."
She took a bigger step back as he continued to pursue her, and she thought that sans context, the scene might have looked comical to other people— a person with a walking cane intimidating a fully grown woman with impeccable use of her feet.
"S-So you do know that. Then why are you still here?" she retorted.
"Because I want to ask if there's any chance that I can still be part of your future... even in the smallest, most insignificant of ways." He finally stopped walking. She noticed him grip his cane tighter and his face crunch up in pain.
"M-Maybe you should take a seat first-" She tried to reach out to help him, but his other hand intercepted her.
"I hurt you terribly." His fingers laced through hers as he spoke softly. "I pushed you away. I thought I was protecting you, but all I did was belittle the very same things I loved about you: your courage, your strength, your agency."
"But I wanted you to know one thing: that every single day I dealt with excruciating pain while trying to walk again, all I saw in my mind was my dream of finally getting up on my feet. Just so I can finally catch up with you."
She felt a lump forming in her throat. The genius I've always been trying to run after… telling me he'll run after me, too.
He gestured to his cane. "I was getting there, too, but you had to throw a wrench into my plan and appear before me when I wasn't ready yet."
Tenten could only shake her head in disbelief. "Ten years, Neji. So much could have changed in that amount of time. What if I ended up marrying Shouseki in that timeframe?"
He grimaced at the thought, but replied anyway. "If doing so had made you happy, then I would have learned to live with it. It was a consequence of what I chose, after all.
"But that night at Naruto's house, when you told me you were still waiting for me after all… you had no idea how incredibly blessed I felt I was. I thought it was fate." His voice grew huskier with rarely-shown emotion. "But the next day, you were gone. It felt like all earth moved under me when Hinata told me that. There and then, I decided I will go to you. My niece and I prayed to the highest heavens that you will still have me… or at least take pity on a person with a disability and not kick him out in the streets."
A gentle breeze blew by, and Tenten's heart suddenly felt the lightest it had ever been. "Our conversation that night didn't end in the best way, but I'm glad I did come." She beamed at him through her tears. "I was so happy to see you walking again, Neji. Cane or no cane."
"The reason that I am alive and well… is all thanks to you." He bowed slightly and gingerly planted his lips on the back of her palm. "So… hire me as your new assistant?"
She burst into laughter. "I can't afford to pay someone of your caliber, Hyuuga Neji."
"I'm okay with potential personal advancement in your field," he replied in a no-nonsense tone, making her laugh harder.
Himawari and Boruto were putting together a jigsaw puzzle when a smiling Hinata entered the room, carrying an envelope. "Himawari, it's a letter from your Aunt Tenten."
The little girl positively shone in happiness. "She answered my letter, yipee!" Excitedly accepting the letter from her mother, she burrowed herself in her mom's embrace and mumbled the words under her breath.
"So, what does it say?" asked Boruto impatiently.
In response, Himawari let out a piercing shriek and dashed out of the room. "We have to see Grandpa! We have to see Grandpa! Uncle Neji and Auntie Tenten are finally getting married! Papaaaaa!"