Neji's eyes crinkled as he scanned the whole place that was currently bathed in glaring Konoha sunlight. Streams of people passed around him, cheerfully engrossed with their idle chatters. Peddlers were hawking their respective merchandise, with some determinedly negotiating a sweet price that would give them a jackpot of a profit. Kids ran by in circles, their giggling and laughing adding to the cacophony of noises that the town plaza was good-naturedly known for.
Common townsfolk were often the target of his ambivalence; a scornful stab of feeling at their weakness—at how they needed to be protected by stronger people so they could live-- but within him was a pang of jealousy too. These people lived a sheltered life, wherein their biggest worry was the increase of the price of potatoes and the right brand of fabric conditioner for their clothes. They were clueless about snake ninjas, secret organizations, or threats of invasions. The only time he remembered fear in their eyes was when he and Tenten, on their way back to the Hyuuga compound after his failed match with Naruto, saw them being lined up for evacuation. It was then the height of the Sand invasion.
His teammate commented about it too—something about people confronting the dreadful face of death for the first time since the Kyuubi's attack many years ago. He remembered telling her that it was the fault of the higher-ups, who didn't teach these people vigilance and readiness for situations like this. To avoid any more scenarios like this one, he said, all the children should already be trained early on combats.
To which, she pointed out dryly, "The Hokage-sama might want the future to be one that promises hope and peace, not more wars."
He was silenced by that.
Perhaps because, in his heart of hearts, he believed that Tenten was right. As he had always did whenever she would point out something to him. The woman had that power to make even his immovable principles crumble whenever she shed her own light to his viewpoints.
Once more, something wrenched his heart upon remembering her. His mind returned to that fateful day he saw her leave the compound, this time, without the colorful wigs and horrendous clothes. He knew she saw him see her. He saw that hopeful smile that was ready to blossom anytime if he would just encourage her.
And he didn't. Angered pride decided for him at that moment. He turned away. And just when he realized how foolish he was—that this might be the last time they could actually see each other—he turned to her again, only to find her gone.
The feeling of emptiness returned to him like a long-lost traveling Muse.
"Step aside!" yelled a teenager, who was riding his bike like a crazed maniac. In the nick of time, Neji stepped back to save his toenails from getting smashed by the wheels.
"Sorry, old man!" yelled the lad, glancing towards him briefly with a snicker. "Ancient dork."
A short exhale released itself from him. On second thought, maybe training kids should be put under his clan's supervision. He must discuss the therapeutic benefits of that possibility soon with Hyuuga Hiashi.
I dedicate this chapter to the people who waited. And believed I could finish this story. And mostly, didn't curse me for hibernating so long just to end it.
This is for Ate Deanette who I can never thank enough for the sympathy she expressed at a very difficult time of my working girl life. For telling me that I am not alone in this situation, thanks and I very much heart you.
Finally, Neji arrived at his destination. And even without his bloodline ability, finding the person he was going to meet wouldn't take him long to do. After all, he only had to look at one specific direction.
Which was what he did.
And standing beneath the makeshift roof of a small ramen shack he was looking at was Uzumaki Naruto. Hands pocketed into his black and orange jacket and towering in masculine grace over passersby, he was the object of curious, admiring gazes from people who happened to pass by him.
But the thing that attracted the Hyuuga's attention was the blissful serenity in his face. He was worth a thousand words of happiness and peace of mind. A far cry, indeed, from how he last saw him months ago in a village ceremony.
Sensing his steady gaze, Naruto's blue eyes met his scrutiny. And with an unmistakable twinkle of glee, his cerulean eyes lit up.
"Neji!" the Rokudaime called out, waving his arm excitedly as he ran towards him.
He stepped back, momentarily afraid that Naruto would jump on him, as an eager dog would pounce on its master. But Naruto slowed down, finally coming into a stop when he was in front of him already.
"Neji, you're here! For a while there, I thought you weren't going to come," said the mature version of the hyperactive blond ninja he knew since youth.
"Heh." If only Naruto knew how long and painful his deliberation was…
"You're not as snobbish as Kakashi-sensei and I think, after all!"
A vein popped on his head. Apparently, he should have thought about this a little bit longer.
"Sending a scroll to meet you in a ramen stall is unbecoming of a Hokage," he muttered as they waited for their order to be served. "And so is asking me to treat you to two bowls of noodles."
Naruto grinned sheepishly. "I just spent my last paycheck on baby food."
Had someone else said that, he could have pounded that person in glorious violence for mocking him by mentioning his much-missed nephew. But Uzumaki Naruto had a way of saying things that sounded wrong but would still seem right, given its sincerity and candidness.
"Iji doesn't each that much," he said, frowning.
"Oh well," shrugged Naruto helplessly. "Chouji asked me to try the banana-wheat flavor. And it was really good!"
"A bowl of dynamic chicken noodles and a bowl of beef broth!" announced the chef, placing their order in front of them.
"Thank you!" said Naruto cheerfully. "Let's eat!"
Neji watched the man beside him gobble up the large bowl of steaming noodles with much gusto. Ah, if there was one thing that would be astronomically impossible to change in Uzumaki Naruto, it must be his appetite for ramen.
However, he wasn't a big fan of noodles, as well as of anticipation. He placed down his chopsticks, deciding that he might as well get over with this.
"What is it that we came here for?" he began, making Naruto glance at him, surprised.
"Well, we'll do what people usually come here for—eat." With that, Naruto went back to his meal heartily.
Silence followed. At last, the Hokage glanced back at him.
"You're not eating." Naruto sighed. "Such a waste of good food. Here, let me help you finish that—"
"We both know that we didn't just come here for the food."
The Rokudaime smiled. "Eat up, Neji. We'll be spending the whole afternoon doing what good estranged cousins-in-law should. We still have a lot of catching up to do, ne?"
Knowing that pursuing the argument would just be a waste of energy, Neji obliged and picked up his chopsticks too.
Wordless minutes went by, with both of them blissfully engaged in their meal. Neji couldn't help but wonder how anti-climactic the scene was—he had lived for years loathing the Rokudaime for his cousin's untimely demise, and perhaps, hating himself even more for not being able to do anything for his beloved cousin when she needed him the most. But now, here they were, seated side by side and eating noodles like ordinary friends out on an ordinary day.
And surprisingly, he felt no trace of hostility or discomfort in the situation, which he earlier feared he would feel after he finally resolved to rendezvous with Naruto.
He glanced at the Hokage, who had set aside his chopsticks. Clearly, the yellow-haired man now wanted to talk. Silently, he wondered how the conversation would transpire—with so much for both of them to discuss, and yet with so little appropriate words at dispense.
"Did you like the ramen?"
It took him awhile before he was able to digest the question. Needless to say, the relevance was lost to him. "Y-Yes." He didn't know much about noodle cuisines, but he was fairly certain that they were supposed to be warm, which would make his serving passable by likable ramen standards.
"Great!" Naruto grinned at him. "I have always known that all people who love Ichiraku ramen are good people. Why didn't I just think of this, instead of having Tenten find out for me?"
Neji mumbled, something about "Let's change the topic, or I'll shove this shaker into your nostrils." Naruto smiled. Men wince where they hurt, indeed.
They finished the meal and paid, then sauntered out of the stall. Naruto kept quiet most of the time, although Neji could feel what was going on in the Hokage's mind.
Uzumaki Naruto wanted to talk about Hyuuga Hinata.
His chest constricted. He felt he wasn't ready for a confrontation yet. With Iji and Tenten gone, he felt more lost than ever. Yet he knew losing them paved the way for him to finally look at the road he had long ignored.
He glanced at Naruto. "Come with me."
The man nodded, albeit confused as to why they were heading for a flower shop.
As Neji had grown accustomed to do, he placed a bouquet of immaculate white lily flowers in front of his cousin's grave, stepped back, and quietly greeted the clan heiress with the reverence accorded to someone with such an important position as her.
And yet, it was different from before —gone were his avowals of avenging her unjust death and his consuming hatred for Uzumaki Naruto, replaced by a peaceful, restful feeling he hadn't experienced for the longest time.
And this time also, he wasn't alone; beside him stood Hinata's lover himself, whose sad blue orbs gazed at the lonely patch of mud and grass. The little space was Hinata's only tangible memory left in this world. After her death, he had her remains cremated, and then spread all over the little hut she lived in. He would rather have her ashes on the Hyuuga grounds, her true home, but he couldn't risk Hiashi knowing about Hinata. He couldn't break the man's heart—he only knew too much how excruciating the pain of loss really was.
Maybe one day, he would tell his uncle—once they were both ready.
Naruto kneeled down, tracing the dirt with his trembling fingers. "I-I've been looking for this place for a long time… and she was just here all the while…"
"You've been here?" he asked evenly.
"She guided me back here," explained Naruto softly.
A story that seemed long and curious was written on his eyes. Neji didn't ask anymore. Not now, though. He had a more important question in mind that he needed the blond to answer.
"Tell me," he began, clenching his fist, "is it really possible to forget a person you love?"
Naruto didn't even pause to think of his answer. His immediate reply was a shake of his head. "Once you've loved a person, she'll be a lingering permanence in your life forever. Even if she leaves you for her own path, you'll never get back your old self. You are changed, and there's nothing you can do about that."
"What about your accident? And Hinata-sama?" he pressed.
Naruto smiled crookedly. "I don't know if you will believe me, Neji, but I never forgot her. Never." He looked up at the skies overhead, a faraway look in his eyes. "My amnesia withheld from me her name, her face, and her distinguishing features. But somehow, I was still reminded of her. She would appear in my dreams as how I most fondly remember her. I would look at the forests and the rivers, and when I close my eyes, I would feel myself transported back to a place and time when everything felt so right in the world."
"Then why were you engaged to your assistant?" Neji asked, in a tone bereft of anger and accusation. He simply wanted to know.
Naruto turned his eyes back at the Hyuuga, smiling a little. "It is just one of the many office rumors that got accepted as fact in the village. I didn't bother to correct that one because it flatters Sakura-chan a lot." He then turned staid. "Granny Tsunade knew I liked her since boyhood, and so, she asked Sakura-chan to consider that option. However, by that time, I was in love with a ghost—the memories of an unknown woman which kept coming back to me. I decided to suspend my decisions until I find out the identity of that mysterious woman. I left Konoha to find that person, but what I got were reminiscences."
"Hinata-sama was dead," Neji replied quietly.
The Rokudaime nodded. "Learning about that nearly took away my will to live. But I still have a son to look for, and so I mustered whatever strength I was left with, and returned to Konoha."
"You didn't pursue the offered matrimony when you returned to the village?" asked the Hyuuga. "You were free to do so, with Hinata-sama's demise. And even then, it was legal, for you were still technically unmarried."
Naruto smiled sadly. "I didn't want to be unfair to Sakura-chan. I know I can never love her the way I loved Hinata. I guess I'm one of those romantic fools Sakura-chan said she once was, because I believe that there is such thing as one true great love in life. Once you meet that person, you can never love anyone else in the same way you loved her.
"Knowing Hinata was like knowing forever. And after forever comes what? Like a circle, it's just a path that brings me back to her," finished the blue-eyed man softly. "To love a dear friend like Sakura less than what I was capable of offering and even lesser than what she deserves is unthinkable. After her painful acceptance of Sasuke's decision to never return, I vowed to protect her from further pain, including those that I could give. So no marriage took place."
"And you have no regrets, knowing you'll live with only Iji for the rest of your life?" Neji asked after a momentary pause.
To which, Naruto replied with a smile, "Iji is now my life, Neji."
They both knelt down at Hinata's grave silently for awhile, eyes closed in prayer for her soul. When Neji finished, he opened his eyes and turned to Naruto.
The Hokage's face was wet with freshly-sprung tears, his shoulders shaking slightly as he wept quietly. Neji let him be for awhile, and he would have allowed the Hokage even more private moments with his cousin, but Naruto already broke the silence.
"Thank you for bringing me here, Neji." His voice was now calmer, more controlled. "Finding her final resting place at last after many years of fruitless search… the feeling is even more overwhelming than I had imagined."
The Hyuuga exhaled perceptibly. "I feel I had stood between you and Hinata-sama long enough."
"No," said the blond, turning towards him. "You just have a weird way of protecting a cousin."
"Heh." An irrepressible smile formed on his face. " Are you trying to make me feel better, Hokage-sama?"
"Isn't that Tenten's job?"
Neji paused. "Is it my imagination or have you been mentioning my teammate more frequently?"
"Surely you jest!"
He and the Naruto parted ways in front of the Hyuuga compound, but not without making the latter promise that he would take Iji to them every other day for a visit. Naruto shook hands with him solemnly and said it would be good for Iji to meet the other side of his family—it'll be better for him to have someone to split the milk formulation expenses with anyway.
He headed straight for his room to get some rest and perhaps, a moment of contemplation on today's events. He was just about to lie down on his bed when his eye fell upon the bare table near him.
His eyes widened, and as if electrocuted, he perked up, just as the housemaid knocked on his door.
"W-What do you mean the kunai is missing!" Neji's voice rose in a fearsome octave, startling the maid before him. "It was right on my table—nothing that could be swept along with the dust. It has been there for a couple of decades, and it had never been misplaced by any of the previous cleaning ladies! And now you're telling me that you must have thrown it away along with the garbage?"
The young woman looked near to tears. "N-Neji-sama, I-I'm so sorry… I could explain…b-but I…" She silently cursed herself and the coincidences. Why did she have to decide to change the sheets of his bed at this certain part of the day? Why oh why?
"Had the garbage been collected?" he wanted to know.
"U-Um…I-I… y-yes," she stammered. "B-But Neji-sama, you can't go after it. T-The collector was here the other day and h-he had taken it already…"
His face darkened. "Where does the collector live?"
The maid's eyes widened. "N-Neji-sama, y-you're going after the garbage collector?"
"Yes, and if you don't tell me where he lives, I will personally talk to your father and tell him that the garbage collector is your secret admirer," he said, crossing his arms.
"N-Neji-sama, p-please don't do that!" The maid looked like she was truly going to panic. "W-What if Midori finds out about that?"
"The night-shift guard of the fourth cell?" Had he been in a jollier mood, he would have been amused with the girl's concern for her boyfriend's displeasure rather than her father's ire.
"N-Neji-sama, I-I beg you… I am in a most difficult situation and—"
"Neji." Hiashi entered the hallway, looking puzzled. "What is the meaning of this?"
Both he and the maid bowed down before the clan head. The girl spoke first. "H-Hiashi-sama, Neji-sama is looking for the kunai—"
"She had accidentally disposed of a very important possession, and now, I am asking for her cooperation in finding it, since it was her fault that she lost it," said Neji politely. Too politely, it seemed for the old man. Ah, his nephew was furious, indeed.
"Is that all?"
"You forgot to mention something about blackmails," said Hiashi, his mouth twitching.
Neji sighed inwardly. So the old man heard the entire conversation. Left with no pride to spare, he said dryly, "The missing kunai is something very important to me."
"Important enough to drive a poor girl out of her wits' end?"
He grimaced. "Unfortunately, Hiashi-sama."
"I had her take it," replied the clan head simply.
"I-I'm sorry?" Neji wasn't sure that he heard it right.
"I asked her to give the toy to me in complete secrecy," repeated the old man in clearer words. He turned to the young woman, who smiled gratefully at her savior. "I think the dining room needs a little more dusting."
"Y-Yes, Hiashi-sama!" She bowed down hurriedly at both Neji and the clan head before departing from the room.
When they were left alone once more, Neji turned to his uncle in confusion. "Why did you take my kunai?"
"Must I explain my actions to my nephew?" asked Hiashi, humor shining in his pale eyes.
Neji sighed again. "Hiashi-sama, it is a highly important keepsake for me. May I please have it back?"
"It isn't with me."
The younger Hyuuga's eyes widened. "Where is it then?" He was starting to believe that his uncle was starting to regress into his second childhood in a fast-forward mode.
Hiashi turned his back at his bewildered favorite nephew just in time to conceal his mischievous smile. "If it is that valuable, then you ought to get it back yourself from her."
"Her?" Neji knew only one woman whom Hiashi would have interacted with that much, but he wanted to be sure.
I really kinda miss the Hyuuga servants who prepare those grand Lauriat stuff for snacks, though Tenten, shaking her head miserably as she carefully poured hot water into a cup of instant noodles. I never go hungry in that place.
She sat down and stirred her noodles with her chopsticks as she once again settled into the deep river of her now familiar questions. Who's feeding Iji? Does the new nanny know that Iji likes his milk with a hint of honey? Is she singing Iji to sleep? Does Iji even remember I existed once upon a time?
Her eyes fell on the toy kunai that Hiashi had handed over to her the last time. It was now a permanent fixture on her countertop, for the lack of knowing what she would do with it.
With a sigh, she began to eat. She was peacefully scorching her tongue when her gaze fell upon her noodles.
Upon seeing a piece of white vegetable bob up the surface of her meal, her reactions were automatic—she furiously stabbed it with her chopsticks, all the while imagining it was Hyuuga Neji's handsome brooding face.
"Take this! And this! And this!" she hissed. The poor punctured vegetable went down the broth. "You're not getting away from me, Neji!" She captured the drowned vegetable with her chopsticks and then proceeded to whack it repeatedly on the tabletop. "This is for Hinata-chan! And this one's for Hokage-sama! And this one's for Iji! For Lee! For Gai-sensei! Jerk! Jerk!" Her arm paused in mid-air as she concentrated on the last slam of the now smashed vegetable. This one… this one's for breaking my heart all over again.
"So this is how Jounins train themselves for battle."
The voice was unmistakable. However, she couldn't find it in her heart to believe it. Impossible! Eyes wide, she looked up.
Neji was standing by the kitchen door of her apartment, hand still on the knob. He was probably just letting himself in when he witnessed her glorious display of food violence.
Her cheeks turned hot, to her disdain. "To each his own." Trying to look unruffled, she dropped the mutilated vegetable out of the window. "What are you doing here, Neji?" she asked, looking at him with feigned nonchalance.
For a second, she thought she saw uncertainty flash in his pale eyes. That surprised her. Neji, nervous?
He cleared his throat. "I-I came here… I came here to recover what is mine." He started to walk towards her.
Despite herself, Tenten's heartbeat raced. And yes, despite herself, she found herself thinking about those mushy sequences in Sakura's soaps. Her mind orchestrated one such scene…
Chibi Neji's fists clenched. "I came here to recover what is mine."
"W-What do you mean?" A chibi version of herself asked, eyes shaking.
He crossed the distance separating them in a few quick strides. "You, Tenten. I am such a fool for letting you go…"
Her eyes glistened. "Yes, Neji. You are such an idiot for doing that, not to mention a moronic heartless jerk. But let's discuss that for later, along with our strategy as to how we can keep that fact from influencing our children's genes."
"I love you, Tenten…" His head bent down to meet hers.
Tenten gasped when she opened her eyes and saw that, indeed, Neji's face was bent down towards her!
"H-Hey!" she cried, just as Neji's shoulder passed her. His hand was aiming for the toy kunai beside her instant noodles cup. Acting quickly, she slammed her chopsticks on his hand. His momentary shock allowed her to grab the toy kunai and place it on the other side of her noodles cup.
"Give that back! That's mine!" yelled Neji.
"Look, Neji. Finders keepers. Now go away before I decide to stab you with my chopsticks," she threatened. He came all the way here after weeks of non-speaking terms just to take his toy kunai? Jerk!
"I'm not leaving without my kunai," said the Hyuuga, sitting across her.
"Do what you want. I don't care." She turned her attention back to her meal.
"I'll have you arrested," he said furiously. "Stealing is a crime."
"Not when Hiashi-sama gave it to me."
"It's not even Hiashi-sama's for him to give!"
"He's your clan leader. He can give what he wants to give."
"Not my kunai!"
"Why so mad about it?" she asked, eyebrow arched. "It's just a toy I made. It's made of cheap wood that'll break if you smash it against a marshmallow. Its edge is even rounded, for Pete's sake!"
"I don't care!" bellowed Neji furiously. "That is my kunai—my very first toy!"
Tenten blinked, momentarily pausing from her meal. Neji stepped back, slightly embarrassed by his uncharacteristic outburst. Both of them remained wordlessly staring at each other until the Hyuuga marched towards the table and seized the kunai. He then got up and headed for the door, but then seemed to have changed his mind. He turned back to her.
"It's something important to me," he said quietly. "It's the first and last gift from someone which I allowed myself to accept without hesitation. It's something that made me smile when I was a child."
She felt the all-too familiar cold touch on her heart—something that always happens when Neji opens a little part of him to her whenever they're together. Though she already knew the things he revealed from Hiashi-sama previously, it was still entirely different hearing it straight from her teammate. Hyuuga Neji, the muted man who speaks volumes. She then found herself voicing out a question.
He looked at her, just as she turned towards him. "A-Are you… d-do you… do you still hate me?" she wanted to know.
"You're stubborn, feisty and too damn self-sufficient. You deceived me into handing over my nephew to his father. You have the most disturbing taste in matching outfits among the people I know. And you like yellow sponges and pink starfishes." To her surprise, his features softened. A tender version of Hyuuga Neji that no one but her knew. "But I can never hate you. I will never do, no matter how angry or foolish-looking you make me."
To this, Tenten had to smile. "You can make me commit all sorts of horrible abuses to vegetables that resemble your complexion, but I guess I can't hate you, too."
He hesitated, and then smiled uncomfortably. "Thank you, Tenten. And I apologize for all the reasons that made you do that to the radish."
"Oh, think nothing of it," she said, shrugging dismissively.
"Oh yeah, I guess I am. She smiled sweetly. "You have a lot of things to make up for, Neji."
"I don't mind." A smile crossed his face. He then turned his back on her and headed out of the kitchen, leaving her alone with the exact replica of his grin on her face.
Tenten found the formal attire she was wearing most prickly, but she was helpless. The long heavy gown weighed her whole little figure down, reducing her motor skills to smiling with painstaking efforts and exerting Herculean efforts to walk around because her outfit could only consent delicate baby steps.
Beside her, Neji stood silently, a strikingly dark-clad handsome figure that could have served as the focal point of the whole venue which was dressed luxuriously in white silk and roses.
If she were only a writer, she would have placed 'The End' at this very scene to imply a fairy tale happy ending for those who may read her tale.
But she was not a writer, and the celebration was not about her and Neji. She eyed Iji, who was dressed in matching white robes that his proud father wore. The Rokudaime was smugly showing everyone what the chip off this old block could do.
"Hey everyone, you know what? Iji can finish ten baby food jars in one sitting! Even Granny Tsunade could not explain the possible size of my son's stomach. My son is going to grow up a big healthy man!" Naruto rocked the giggling baby—now a two-year-old toddler in his arms.
"Really now, should the Hokage-sama say such things in public?" Neji whispered furiously to her.
She rolled her eyes. "What's wrong with telling everyone about Iji-chan's appetite?"
"It's something that should be kept private," said Neji with a sniff. "Like personal hygiene."
"I discuss the merits of doing my toenails in public," she grinned.
He sighed. "I am hoping that Iji will not become a female version of you. Can you just imagine how difficult he would be for his future wife?"
She frowned. "Am I difficult?"
She crossed her arms with a huff. "You'll eat your words once I find a husband for myself, Neji."
A sharp breath intake from him. "That will never happen."
"That you will eat your words?"
"That I will meet your husband." He glared at her. "I'll make sure you'll never marry anyone other than myself."
"You never proposed marriage to me," she pointed out.
He exhaled audibly, as if he was talking to a two-year-old youngster and not a fully grown woman of late twenties. "You rejected it."
"Which one, your invitation for us to train together in the mountains? Does that even count as a marriage offer?" she demanded.
"The one after that."
"That afternoon when you were offering to give me the Hyuuga family name? Why, I thought you were thinking of adopting me as a sister!"
His forehead creased. "I couldn't think of anything nobler than making an honest, surnamed woman out of you."
"Touched," she said sarcastically.
"Still arguing?" Haruno Sakura was carrying two wine glasses on both hands. Tenten had to admire how effortless her movements was, despite the fact that she was wearing an identical gown as hers. She had to give credit where it's due—the pink-haired woman's got class.
"We're not arguing," she replied, "we're playfully tearing each other's guts apart through an intellectual exercise of words."
"I should have known," said Sakura, laughing. She handed them both the wine glasses. "I say you call a truce. It's Iji's christening day and he shouldn't see his uncle and aunts bickering."
Uzumaki Iji was formally christened this day, and the doting father had declared it to be a village-wide holiday. The town center was dressed in white—Hyuuga Hinata's color, as Naruto affectionately puts it—for the occasion. Iji, being the cheerful outgoing child he was, loved the attention.
In the loving presence of his Hokage father and the affection of the oldest grandest clan in the Leaf village, Iji grew up to be smart and vivacious, perpetually curious about the world around him. Already, he was showing signs of being quite capable in visual logic and arithmetic. She heard that the Godaime and Sakura were very determined in rearing the child to be his father's own wise adviser.
Iji was named so to represent what he was then—an orphan. Now that he found his family again, Naruto didn't think of changing his name anymore. He said the child represented the irony of his name—and would probably carry this happily all his life. An orphan loved dearly by the world.
To Tenten's surprise, Iji caught her glance. He cooed delightedly and tugged urgently at his father's hair. "Coo'eeh!"
Naruto turned to them, smiling brightly. "Neji! Tenten!"
"You'll always be Cookie to him," said Neji as the two approached them. "You'll always be his first best friend."
"I figured as much." Her eyes twinkled as she took Iji eagerly into her arms.
Neji looked at Naruto. "Your mind hasn't changed yet?"
"Regarding what?" asked the Hokage.
The Hyuuga glanced at Sakura, who was graciously smiling and mingling with the crowd.
Naruto grinned. "I don't need to marry my best friend. She's already willing to be with me for as long as we live."
"See?" Tenten smiled teasingly at Neji. "You don't need to marry me, too, Neji. I'll be your best friend for as long as you want."
"And how, pray tell, will we continue the Hyuuga bloodline by being merely the best of friends?" asked Neji wearily.
"Interesting," said Naruto, grinning. He took Iji from her. "Mind if I take my kid away from such explicit talks? I don't just want him to be exposed to that yet."
"Tell that to Kakashi-sensei," said Tenten, chuckling. "Neji?"
"Naruto really loves your cousin. I hope you believe him now," she said, looking at him.
"I guess I've known that a long time ago. It just took me an equally long time to acknowledge that fact." He pocketed his hands into his trousers' sides. "I guess it's a lot like how I feel for you."
She fought the goofy grin threatening to form on her face, as she reminded herself repeatedly that it was Hyuuga Neji, the great balloon-bursting anti-climax to even the mushiest love stories an author can pen. "Neji, is this another sad attempt at getting me to marry you again?"
"No," he smiled uncertainly, boyishly. "It's another of my pitiful attempts to tell you that you're the most important person in my life and I love you—and that I just couldn't say it outright without worrying that you'll hate me or laugh at me." He grimaced at the last thought.
Her heart ceased its beat. Abruptly, she faced him, ashen-faced. "W-What did you say?"
"I…" He scowled. "I love you, okay?"
She burst into laughter, to his dismay. "Why did it take you this long, dummy?" she asked, wiping the corner of her eyes.
"Because…" he sighed defeatedly. "Because you… do you have to ask me that?"
"I guess not." And right there and then in the middle of the celebration, she tiptoed and kissed him. Cheers, teasing, and laughter filled the place, with Iji's clapping buoyed by Naruto's applause and perhaps Hinata's approving smile from the heavens, but the world had stopped its motion for both Neji and Tenten.
For a moment, the world was theirs alone.