Seeking Comfort

Joint project of BullyKilla and neonate
Rating: PG-13
Characters: Neji, Sakura, Shino, Chouji
Summary: This summer in Konoha… Neji jokes, Sakura flirts, Shino gossips, and Chouji eats.

Disclaimer: Alas! We are denied the copyright of Naruto once again. Truly we do not understand why. He sent the package back along with a warning letter. I think he got some trouble with the Health Department there… Tch, food hazard.

Akimichi Chouji found his target sitting casually on a branch of a very tall tree, just outside the village. He had been looking for the Hyuuga prodigy since the little incident that morning. It was hours ago and fortunately for Neji, the Akimichi boy had had lunch.

"Neji!" Chouji hollered to the older boy.

The prodigy cast his eyes downward to eye the chubby Genin and let out a wary sigh, "Yes?"

"We need to talk about what happened this morning!" Chouji cried. He didn't understand why Neji felt the need to be way up there. "Come down!"

"If this is about that photo, I swear…." Neji growled. Honestly, he'd had enough. Neji thought he could do without random strangers snapping their camera at him or snickering behind his back. To make it worse, his Uncle Hiashi had been livid when he had seen the paper. Neji had never thought that a human could make such a noise, but apparently he was proven wrong. His ears were still ringing until now.

"What photo? You knocked my ice cream to the ground, Hyuuga!"

Neji blinked. "Pardon?"

"Deluxe Vanilla, ring a bell?" Chouji persisted.

Neji frowned, he didn't remember anything about vanilla ice cream. Chouji probably gets the wrong person, he thought. Oh, great. Another thing he was to blame for. What's next? The platinum dye in Uncle's shampoo? Uh, wait…nevermind.

"Are you sure it was me? How did it happen?" Neji asked.

"You and your mad stampede! I recognized your chakra, so don't you dare—"

"Wait, this morning?" Maybe Neji did remember something.



- - - - - -

The owner of Ichiraku Ramen House had never seen a more unlikely pair patronizing his establishment. He recognized the fat one as Akimichi Chouji, the only person that could beat Uzumaki Naruto at a ramen eating contest. He had thought that it was a good day for business before his sight fell on Chouji's companion. Instantly he recognized who that kid was.

"You! I saw your picture on the newspaper!" the owner said delightedly. He was wrong. It wasn't just a good day, it was a super lucky day! Maybe he could get a signed photograph or something and paste it to the wall.

Neji didn't bother to deign that statement with a reaction. He silently occupied the farthest seat on the counter, trying to distance himself as much as possible from the gaping Ramen Guy. Following his lead, Chouji sat next to him. When Neji suggested that they should talk over lunch, Chouji couldn't agree more (despite the fact that he'd already had lunch, but hey... he was a growing boy). In troubled times, ramen seemed to be the obvious choice of comfort food.

Chouji was ready to order when suddenly Neji interrupted, "It's my treat. I knocked your breakfast to the ground, so I'll buy you lunch."

Right at that moment, Chouji was ready to promote the Hyuuga boy into his best friends list. Neji had no idea how much that little gesture meant to Chouji. Of course, he also had no idea how much it was going to cost him.

Chouji beamed appreciatively and fired his order, "Ossan! Two shrimp, one miso, and one beef ramen, please. Extra large." He knew exactly what he wanted because that was the way of the Akimichi clan. Never hesitate.

"Chouji," Neji whispered in a low voice, "You're planning to eat all of them?"

The question was replied with an enthusiastic nod and Neji felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. He might not survive the day after all.

"Ossan," the gloomy Hyuuga boy finally said, "I'll have a glass of water."

- - - - - -

Haruno Sakura looked forlornly at the two identical boxes she was carrying inside her backpack. Her mother had taken the liberty of preparing lunch bento for two, complete with matching chopsticks. While she was frying the tempura, the elder Haruno sniffled and mumbled, "My daughter is growing up."

Sakura didn't have to ask whom the extra bento set was meant for. The problem was, how was she going to tell her mother if it came back untouched? What if Neji didn't want to have anything to do with her after that photo? Sakura suppressed a sigh. He would surely be angry.

So much for your love life, isn't it? the little voice quipped.

She was thinking of giving the extra bento to Naruto, before remembering that he had gone training with Jiraiya-sama. There was no way that she could eat both of them and wasting food was not her habit. What about Lee?

Are you suicidal? the voice asked.

Hardly, though at this point that seemed like a good option. The black lacquered boxes felt heavy on her. She needed to find somebody to share lunch with her. Ino?

You are suicidal.

Running out of options, Sakura wandered around the streets of Konoha hoping to catch somebody she knew. Finally when she thought her day couldn't be any worse, Sakura spotted one person who probably could help her.

"Shino!" she cried his name happily.

She saw the Aburame boy stiffen visibly before turning his back on her. The next thing she knew he was running away as if she was the plague. Hoping to talk to him, Sakura chased the reticent Genin while still carrying the bento. She wasn't sure, but she thought she had seen something akin to alarm flash across his face.

No, Sakura corrected herself, not alarm.

It was hard to tell because his face was hidden by the collar. As far as Shino was concerned, he had no expression whatsoever. However, she did see something there. What was it? He looked as if he was caught doing something that he wasn't supposed to do.


- - - - - -

"So," Chouji waved his wooden chopsticks near Neji's face, "you got scolded by your uncle just because of one stupid picture?"

"Yes," Neji answered. Sipping his ice cold water, he thought that 'scolded' was an understatement. It was probably closer to being yelled at while the whole household listened outside the thin fusuma. The words were still fresh on his mind. Public display of affection unfitting of a Hyuuga male! Sacrilege!

"You're really in a fix, but that's not the whole story, isn't it?" Chouji said while slurping two strands of ramen.

"What do you mean?" Neji asked, close to whispering. He had caught the Ichiraku owner bending forward nearer than appropriate and hoping to get a sound portion of the conversation. Neji was sure that he had seen the owner take out his pen and newspaper sometime ago between Chouji's first and third bowl of ramen.


Neji's grip on the glass tightened. "What about her?"

"She's on your mind."

"Don't believe that article, there's nothi—"

"You said that, but you're still thinking of her. Even as we speak," the Akimichi retorted.

Neji fell silent; there was nothing to be gain from being stubborn when Chouji could read his thoughts clearly. What ever happened to his poker face?

"She's going to hate me," Neji finally said. He didn't know why but her opinion of him suddenly mattered.

"Oh, yeah. Absolutely, then you can kiss and make up."


A chorus of "Wonderful!" filled the shop. Neji turned around only to see the other patrons (since when did the Ichiraku get crowded?) tuning in to their supposedly private conversation. The waitress, Ayame, even clapped happily. In return, only a Hyuuga patented glare that promised slow, painful deaths could make them return to their ramen.

"Neji," Chouji sighed, as if he couldn't believe how dense the Hyuuga prodigy was, "Sakura's a girl. Her mood is bound to change quickly. All you need to do is talk to her when she's happy."

"Really?" Neji couldn't help feeling a bit awed at Chouji's wisdom.

"Yeah. You'll be together again in no time," Chouji answered casually.

"I told you—"

"Listen to my advice. It'll do you good," Chouji muttered in between sipping the remaining soup. "Talk to her."

Neji thought about this for a while before deciding that Chouji was probably right. He would talk to Sakura. Oh, not because of reasons Chouji or other people thought. He didn't like her that way, did he?

Did he?

Snap out of it, Hyuuga. You'll thank her, apologize for the trouble, and leave. Easy.

But somehow he felt that it wasn't that simple.

Neji sighed, "Chouji, how do you know so much about this?"

The boy in question grinned. "Buy me another bowl and I'll tell you."

- - - - - -

The afternoon found one distressed kunoichi munching a soggy fried tempura under a big tree. She was half done obliterating the food in the first bento and there was still another box to go. Her attempt to catch Shino and share the lunch with him had failed miserably and after that she was just too tired to go and search for another familiar face. If she gained another pound because of this, she knew who to blame. Funny though, why did Shino run?

Sakura pondered this for a while. She was now pretty sure that it was guilt she saw on his face.

She sighed and reached for the newspaper she had been carrying. Sakura was certain that before this whole photo fiasco Shino had not acted that strangely. Was he told not to talk to her ever again because she was a bad influence? Probably, but he didn't have to look so panicky, did he?

"Summer of Love in Konoha by Ardent Shinobi," she read out loud, bored. "That's a nice name, Ardent Shinobi…."

Wait, shinobi? This person is a shinobi? That would explain why I didn't realize his presence yesterday. Of course, my attention was completely focused on Neji. He was sick after all.

She squinted at the article, re-reading it for the tenth time that day, and got nothing except a swirling headache. Her love life was practically in shambles thanks to this article (Love life? What love life? Girl, you barely know this Hyuuga boy!). Furthermore, Shino's behavior confused her to no end. In short, Sakura was not happy.

"Argh! Damn you Ardent Shinobi! Damn you Shino! Both of you can go to-"

Wait, Shino? Shino-bi?


Sakura's eyes were now wide open and she stopped munching altogether. Her headache gone.

No, no. I have to be sure. Shinobi's a common term. But his initials, A. S…

Aburame Shino?!

With a crack, the chopsticks she was holding broke into two. Sakura had never wanted to taste blood as bad as she did then. Oh, if she were right, Aburame Shino would have a LOT to explain.

When finally Sakura had calmed down (a pair of broken chopsticks and one torn newspaper later), she felt like crying. So she did. First, it was just a sniffle or two. Soon it grew into sobs and fat droplets of tears fell freely from her eyes. Sakura made no move of wiping them off.

"A ninja should not cry, you know," said a voice startling her. Sakura turned around abruptly to find the Hyuuga prodigy leaning against the tree trunk. She had been so flustered she could not sense his close presence.

"Neji," she said with disbelief.

"What happened?"

"No-nothing," she lied, hiding her wet face from his gaze.

"Is it about the photo?"

She shrugged, not answering. An awkward silence befell them before Neji's traitorous stomach unexpectedly let out a growl. Sakura blinked, Neji blushed. A giggle escaped her and he tried his best to silence the grumblings.

"Have you had lunch?" she finally asked, secretly relieved. The other bento might've gone to the right person after all. Before he said anything, Sakura had unpacked the lunch box. While removing the chopsticks from the pouch, she said, "I have an extra bento I cannot finish," and held the box to him, "if you want it."

He paused for a moment before accepting the proffered bento. "Thank you."

"No problem, my mom made too much and I hate to see wasted food."

He nodded at the explanation and started attacking his lunch. Sakura was glad to see his healthy appetite. One would easily assume that Neji eat with the same cold, indifferent disposition he showed when doing everything else. It was amusing to see this rare eagerness from him, but at the rate he was gulping the food down he would have choked soon. Without being asked she handed him a thermos of cold water, which was acknowledged gratefully.

"Slow down," she chided good-naturedly.

"Can't, I'm on a roll," he answered, flashing the rolled egg he had trapped between the chopsticks.

"Oh! You're such a silly clown," Sakura said with a smile.

"I prefer being called clever and dangerous," he replied and bit the egg.

She snorted, "Dangerous for my mental health, maybe."

"I didn't know I have that kind of effect on you," he smirked.

"There's nobody else with that kind of toxic personality, Hyuuga," she quickly retorted.

"See? I'm unique that way."

"And it's a good thing there's only one you," she shuddered, "the world doesn't need two Hyuuga comedians."

"Correction, two delightful Hyuuga comedians. I'm sure we'll be a great team," he said, ignoring the look of horror on Sakura's face, and planted a succulent bit of unagi into his mouth.

"You know what scares me the most?" she finally asked.

"No, despite my absolutely phenomenal abilities, I don't read minds. What?"

"That I don't know whether you were joking or not when you said that," Sakura grimly told him.

"Why can't you tell?"

"Because you're supposed to be serious all the time," she answered.

"Is that how you see me?"

"Well, unless the heatstroke has a permanent effect, I can't imagine Hyuuga Neji as a jester."

"Then you don't know me well enough, Haruno," he sighed.

"You're right, I don't," Sakura said, drawing her knees together, and added, "but I want to."

Neji stopped eating. "Do you?"

"I guess."

"Then you're not angry with me?"

"What for?" she asked, bewildered.

"The picture, the article, and all this mess," he began. When he saw her shrugging he persisted, "I saw you cry, kunoichi. Don't tell me you're not affected by them."

Sakura thought for a while and shook her head.

"It's not your fault, Neji. Besides, I gave you lunch, didn't I?"

At that he had no reply and he blurted the first thing that came to his mind, "Are your parents angry?"

"Oh, no. They have some questions for me, but other than that they're pretty okay with everything." She couldn't tell him that her father and mother had subjected her to a two-hour talk of flower and bees straight from hell.

Neji was relieved. "That's good." His thought went back to his uncle whose angry eyes were filled with such disappointment. If only Uncle Hiashi can be as laid back as Sakura's parents are. But her next statement caught him off guard.

"Of course, Mom won't stop pestering me about bringing my boyfriend over."

"Bring who?!" Neji was not prepared for that.

She buried her flaming face in her hands and mumbled in a little voice, "They assumed that you're my… you know, and I couldn't say anything. Mom would kill me if she found out otherwise."

"Why would she kill you for that?"

"For Hokage's sake, Hyuuga. Have you seen the picture? Don't you know what people think when they see it?" Sakura said, exasperated.

"Ah," he said when the understanding finally dawned on him. "I see. Er, your mom—"

"—will gladly flay me alive if she thinks that I've been too friendly with a boy who isn't my boyfriend."

"Right, but—"

"—and my father will happily hunt that boy down and use him to wipe the ground," she finished.

Neji gulped. The prospect of having an older, stronger man using him as a rag was not very appealing at the moment. Still…

"Why don't you tell your parents that we're not actually, uh, dating, and you're just helping me—"

Before he could say anything further, Sakura cut him, "What? Do you want to explain to everyone why you were shirtless in the first place?"

"That is—"

"You fainted, Hyuuga. I had to remove your shirt to cool you down, remember?"

"A Hyuuga doesn't faint!" he cried indignantly. Neji suddenly realized where the conversation was going. If anyone, especially his uncle, knew that he passed out because of a stupid heatstroke, he would never be able to show his face in Konoha again. The shame!

As if she knew what he was thinking, Sakura spoke softly, "Now you see why I cannot tell my parents the whole truth. I'm sorry that it turns out this way, Neji."

He didn't answer; his mind was focused solely on one fact. Sakura didn't tell anyone that I fainted, not even her parents. She was protecting me.

"I understand," she continued, "if you don't want to talk to me again. I …."

Neji was still not replying because he was thinking. Hard.

Sakura took his silence as a sign that he was, indeed, furious. "I … I'll be going then. Thanks for finishing the lunch." She had expected him to be angry, but it still hurt. He might've been a good friend, or possibly something more, if it weren't for this unpleasant incident. Too late for that, Sakura thought.

She took the empty bento and chopsticks from his side and began packing. Neji noticed that her hands were trembling and she was avoiding his gaze. Sakura wanted no more than to just leave quickly before the tears fell down again.

Idiot, there's nothing to cry over, her little voice said.

She stood up and slung over her burden on one shoulder. Her back still facing him, she said, "Goodbye, Neji."

He gritted his teeth. He had decided. There was no way in hell that he would let a girl protect his good name without him doing anything. The least he could do was to go along with her cover story

Is that the only reason, Hyuuga? Are you sure there's nothing more?

He shook his head to silence that teasing voice. When Hyuuga Neji had made a decision, there was nothing in the world that could change his mind. He rose to his feet and snatched her backpack. Sakura let out a yelp of surprise before she realized that it was him.

Neji held out his hand to her. "Come on, Haruno. It's getting dark."

He was right; the sky had already been adorned in red and violet hues, and the sun had set over the horizon.

"Neji?" Her voice was filled questions.

"I'm not giving your parents a reason to murder me. I'll take you home before it's late," he said, still extending his hand.


"Because it's what they do, isn't it?"

"Who? I don't understand." She shook her head.

He heaved a sigh. "That boyfriend and girlfriend thing. I thought we can go along with your story for a while."

"You mean—"

He grabbed her hand and pulled her along. "Hurry, I don't want to end up a dishrag in your kitchen."

"But-but, are you sure? You were angry before." She stumbled trying to catch up with him.

"No, I wasn't. I was thinking. After all, it won't be good for me if the village finds out what really happened," he said calmly.

"Then what?" she asked.

He smirked. "Until I decide to dump you, Haruno, we'll pretend that we're dating."

At that she huffed crossly. "Wrong, Hyuuga. Until I decide to dump you."

"Based on what? I'm the perfect boyfriend material."

"Ooh, you're not! You don't even know my first name!" she stated.

He stopped on his tracks. "Says who? I do."

She glared at him and scoffed, "Then call me by my first name, Neji."

"Big Forehead."

Sakura gaped at him for a second before throwing herself at the grinning boy. Her swung fist was caught by his larger hand, and with a graceful ease she was pulledto him. She immediately blushed at the contact of their bodies.

"Tsk, you still need a lot of practice, kunoichi, before you can take me one-on-one," he reproached.

"There you go again," she muttered under her breath, "clown wannabe."

"Is that how you talk to your boyfriend?"

"Is that how you call your girlfriend?"

"You got me there," Neji smiled genuinely for the first time that day, "Sakura."

Hearing her name coming out from his lips, Sakura felt a wave of warm feelings that rush to her cheeks. In return she gave him a beaming smile which sent his heart tap-dancing. Gently he laced his fingers with hers and they began walking in amiable silence. Her hand felt right enclosed in his calloused palm, Neji couldn't help thinking. He might get used to it, even if it was just pretending.

Then he remembered something very important.



"You do realize that Lee's gonna kill me for this, don't you?"


Esteemed ladies and gentlemen,

(1). Happy New Year 2005! However, with this joyous occasion we also like to extend our heartfelt condolences for those who are affected, in many ways, by the Tsunami disaster in South Asia. Be strong. Our thoughts are with you.

(2). Dear readers,
Are you curious about Rock Lee and others' reaction? Are you asking yourself why Sakura is not telling Neji about Shino? Are you thinking that a kiss should happen?

Do you wish for a sequel to this story? Let us know your answer.

(3). Survey time! Which one do you prefer?
a. Short chapters ( less than 1500 words).
b. Medium-length chapters (1500-2500 words).
c. Long chapters ( more than 2500 words).

(4). Random-Japanese-words-we-threw-in-to-make-us-look-cool:
-Ossan -- old man
-Fusuma -- sliding doors that separate rooms and hallways.
-Unagi -- eel meat.

(5). Feedback, concrits, and comments are always appreciated. You know that.

(6). At last but not least, as this part comes to an end, BullyKilla, Ranier, and neonate thank all of the readers and reviewers who have been the source of endless inspiration and encouragement. We've subjected you all to our crack humor and you've been more than gracious. Thank you.