"Is that really you?"
Hinata and Tenten had just finished having dinner at her apartment. Tenten had brought out a small newspaper when they had set the empty plates aside.
"I'd like to think so," Hinata answered amusedly while looking at a small snapshot of her lagging behind Sasuke as they entered a four-star restaurant. Fortunately, the photograph was grainy and washed out at its best, the size of it too small to discern her features. As if that weren't enough to prevent people from identifying the woman Sasuke was escorting, a black bar covering her eyes (even if she clearly remembered she had been sporting sunglasses) censored any form of recognition.
"I thought you said something about him not being news material… anymore?" Tenten added the last word as an afterthought.
"Well, Neji did. Apparently going out with 'a woman with no sense for high fashion' after months of not doing so is newsworthy enough for page six in the tabloids," she explained with raised brows. "But after looking at the byline…"
"Ooh, female, with very sharp talons." Tenten raised her fingers, curling them in imitation of the paw of a female tiger.
But what the short article made them out to be—an average woman finally digging her claws into Sasuke—wasn't as scintillating as the truth (taking the writer's jab on her femininity and dignity aside).
It had been six weeks since she agreed to go out with Sasuke. However, the turning-point in their relationship felt oddly anticlimactic because she barely ever saw him. Sure, he gave her a thorough tour of his awe-inspiring museum-turned-office (with heavy kissing and petting whenever there were chances of them being alone—all at his instigation, of course). But after that, UGC had literally taken over his time. If she would sum up all the time she spent with him, it would barely equal a week.
So much for thinking up strategies on keeping him (and his libido) at bay.
Neji had been okay with him (after introducing himself for the second time), but he wasn't that enthusiastic either. It was not in his character to interfere without concrete cause. She was in her mid-twenties. That she was capable of taking care of herself was what he believed. Tenten's reaction had been an entirely different matter, but if Neji had been okay with it, so would she.
"Hey you, you're spacing out on me again!"
"Oh gosh, I'm sorry. Did you say something?"
"Of course I did." She took the newspaper out of Hinata's grasp. "I'm taking this. I'm going in to Neji's apartment to clean out some of his stuff. That way I can take mine out of his living room and into some place less conspicuous."
"Do you need help?" she asked as she too stood up from the table.
"Nah, I need the workout. And, you know, I wanna treat this as my peace offering to Neji," she answered with a big grin.
Tenten was pushing through with her plans on reopening Lee's martial arts school. Hinata had been there when her friend had forwarded her plans to Neji during dinner more than a month ago. It had pained her that time when she noticed Neji turn pale at her news, probably remembering that the school was situated out of the country. She, of course, covered for her cousin's inability to speak the moment Tenten opened the topic. Tenten had rambled on without noticing anything amiss.
"And I actually found the perfect spot for the school! You know that large mall beside Konoha Institute? There's this small two-floor building that used to be a gym. And guess what, it's vacant!"
"Konoha…Institute?" Neji couldn't contain the surprise in his voice.
"Hey isn't that close by?" Hinata asked excitedly.
"Yep!" she grinned sheepishly. "Which is why I wanted to ask you guys if I could crash at your place in the meantime. It's only for a short while since I'm planning on renovating the upper floor into my room. Lee's—I mean my lease is ending in a few weeks but I have no plans on extending it."
Hinata didn't know why but her cousin had suddenly turned cold, his eyes dark with something she couldn't identify.
"You already bought it?" he questioned harshly.
"Yes," Tenten answered quickly, taken aback by the bite in his words.
"Why didn't I know about any of this?"
"Well… I've been giving this some thought for months and I didn't want to tell you about a half-baked idea that may never see the light of day."
"You knew about this?" he accused Hinata.
Hinata reddened guiltily. "I—"
"Neji, don't be harsh on Hinata. It's not your problem in the first place."
"So it isn't," he answered, derisively tilting his mouth. "My apologies."
"I have a headache. You guys can leave after you finish. I'm going to my room."
"Hi—na—taa! Can't you wait for me to go before you space out again?"
"S-Sorry!" she said while knocking her head playfully.
"I'm going, okay? See you!"
She sighed. Tenten had been hyper ever since the temporary move. Although Tenten had most of her belongings inside Neji's apartment, she slept here in her apartment. She could have put her things here, but her painting gear and finished works were scattered throughout the apartment and Tenten had been adamant in refusing because she didn't want to 'squish' any of Hinata's stuff.
Hinata plopped onto her couch and was just about to take a nap when her phone rang. Lazily, she extended her arm towards the end table beside the couch, grabbed the unit, and laid it down on her lap.
However, her hand stopped midair, hesitating on picking up the receiver when the caller ID read 'Hanabi Hyuuga'. For the last six years, her younger sister had never phoned her. But, she was aware that she made calls, though very rarely, to her cousin. Convincing herself that it must be something important for Hanabi to call her, she answered it.
"I'm sorry were you trying to call Neji? I know he can't answer his phone right now."
"I called you, didn't I?"
Her lips compressed. "…Is something wrong?"
"Father wants to speak with you."
"Huh? What for? Hello…?"
"Father?!" She spluttered, springing up from her laid down position.
"I expect a little more respect than that, Hinata."
She was at a loss as for what to say in the first few seconds. "You lost that the moment you took over my life, Father," she bristled, her dislike for her father taking over. "Look, if you called to argue with—"
"That is exactly why I called. Concerning your going out with the Uchiha…"
"Oh, for the love of—" she broke off. It wouldn't do any good if she lost her cool. She took a deep, calming breath. "Father, you can't order me what to do anymore. I left the house. You've disinherited me."
"What?" she snapped, forgetting about keeping her cool.
"I haven't disinherited you."
Her hand rested on her forehead, her fingers partly threading through the thin strands of her midnight blue hair, as if to ease the pain that was starting to appear on her temples. She was beginning to feel very cold. "That's not going to bring me back."
"I advise you to stay away from the Uchiha."
She clutched the receiver angrily. "Goodbye, Father."
"Very well. However, I would like you and your cousin to be present for dinner two weeks from now. I will not accept any excuses for not coming."
She made a disagreeing sound. "Father—"
"Hinata, don't make this as difficult as it already is."
"Okay, Father. We'll be there."
With eyes closing, she brought down the receiver weakly, letting the phone drop to the carpeted floor heedlessly. Now that her father's imposing aura wasn't there to keep her on her toes, she felt unusually cold and hollow. Her mind was restless with thoughts of what her father was planning. She rubbed her upper arms briskly, willing the bitter feeling away. All her strength had gone, and that was only a minute-long conversation. How worse would it be if it was a two-hour dinner?
She groaned when someone knocked on her door but she forced herself to stand up when she heard Neji's voice. Opening the door, she returned his greeting with a lot less enthusiasm.
"I'm not imposing, am I?"
"No. Come on in."
"You're pale. What happened? Are you okay? Did you take your medication?" He fired his questions without pausing, walking straight to her couch and sitting down on it afterwards.
"Father called. No. Yes."
She wasn't prepared to answer that one yet. Instead, she focused on another issue her father talked about – an issue she had no idea how it could be related to them. "How could Father get a hold of the news about me going out with Sasuke? I thought it was only out in the tabloids."
"I… see." He sat on the couch's arm, crossing his arms in front of him as he looked at her calmly. "It was in the daily papers, just not on the front page."
"Yes, but neither my name nor my face was mentioned," she explained, frustration etching onto her face. She plopped down on the other side of the couch tiredly.
"So you noticed, too?"
"What do you—oh god, please don't tell me he's still having us followed."
Neji smirked. "I won't."
At first she could only stare at him; nevertheless, she giggled. It was better to laugh the situation off than wallow herself in self-pity. "You're too evil. But I love you," she rejoined with a small smile.
"Is that all?"
Hinata inwardly winced. Really, he was too perceptive.
"He… wants us to have dinner at the house."
"And you agreed."
"Yes." She gave him a monosyllabic answer, but that one word meant twenty more questions forming in Neji's head. She would never set foot in that house ever again—that was what she had vowed in front of her cousin.
"Hinata," he took her hand and enclosed it within his, his eyes determined to get an answer out of her. "What else did he tell you?"
"I—he—" she took a calming breath. Figures, it was always better to get it over and done with. "I'm still… included in his will."
Neji's hold on her hand tightened, his lips turning down on the corners.
"Neji, I'm terrified. I don't know what he's planning. And Sasuke, why is he warning me against him? He has nothing to do with this. He doesn't even qualify as a gold-digger."
He looked away from her, his expression pondering something serious. "Remember your arranged marriage?"
"Don't tell me he's still at—"
"It was me."
"…What?" Did he mean he once agreed to it?
"He decided on our marriage."
"Oh." For a moment there, she had doubted Neji. She heaved a sigh of relief. "Sorry I… is that why you left with me?"
"Partly," he responded after a bout of silence. "He wants you to stay away from him because of that."
"But… I'm not planning on marrying anybody!"
"Even him?" he questioned with arched brows.
She flushed. "You know I've never been serious with anyone." Except that one time. But Neji wasn't aware of that part of her life since he was studying journalism overseas.
"You're in love with that guy."
"What? O-Of course not!" Yet even to her it sounded as hollow as a cargo ship's hull. She winced. "I…don't really know. I have… mixed feelings where he's concerned," she admitted ruefully.
"Hinata, you and I both know we won't be able to say that your father has nothing to do with us anymore. You've been denying yourself so many things even without your father's influence. Hinata, give yourself a chance. Be happy with him. You seem fired up enough whenever I see you with him anyway," he advised softly as he entangled her fingers with his. He unconsciously massaged her knuckles with the ball of his thumb.
"Neji!" she complained followed by a blush. She focused her gaze on where their hands were lightly joined. "I am," she answered a little too quickly. But when her cousin's eyes trained on her with a disbelieving gaze she knew she couldn't lie to him. "F-For the moment. Whatever, I'm still going to end it."
Neji was going to argue with her but thought against it. His cousin was already holding so much in her and never in her life had she let herself cry in front of anyone. 'Weakness' was a word Hinata hated to hear with passion.
"Tenten is in my apartment, right? I'll go check on her."
"W-Wait, I'll come with you," she stood up hastily, following her cousin who was already walking out of her door.
"You should rest. You're still a little pale," he admonished when she reached the top of the steps, turning the knob of his apartment's door as he did.
"Really, I'm fine Neji!" she announced fervently. But Neji wasn't looking at her nor was his attention on her. To her surprise, all traces of color had disappeared from his now-granite face.
When she followed his gaze with concern, she gasped, her eyes widening in horror at the stack of pictures Tenten was precariously holding in her hands. It was the pictures of Tenten Neji kept in his closet. Hinata held on to the door's knob, trying to think.
What could anyone say?
She silently but hastily left the two alone, carefully closing Neji's door but not before seeing his pale stricken face staring at some point on the ceiling. She hoped that he wasn't at a loss on what to do or how to react.
She wanted to go back there and hold on to Neji's hand and tell Tenten that she was interpreting the photographs wrongly. But she had nothing to do with this, the same as they had nothing to do with how she wanted her relationship to be with Sasuke. This was between Neji and Tenten, and they had to deal with it themselves. Besides, Neji wouldn't thank her for having witnessed any of it. He would definitely resent it.
Neji. My poor, poor Neji.
She hastily went down the steps and back into her room, closing the door harshly to repress her urge to help him. She leaned heavily against the back door. She couldn't imagine what Neji must be going through right now. Her indecision with Sasuke seemed to pale in comparison. In all probability, Neji must have lost Tenten for good. She was afraid for her cousin now that he was going to know that Tenten wouldn't be able to reciprocate his deep feelings for her.
What was going to happen now?
She went inside her bathroom to prepare the tub. She needed something to relax her. The day kept changing for the worse and even if it was going to end in four hours, she'd rather waste them where the world wouldn't be able to contact her.
Of course, wasting your time in the bathtub also meant unstoppable internalization.
She remembered her father's phone call and what she had felt; and then to Neji's conversation and what she felt afterwards. She sighed as she played with a scoop of bubbles in her hands. Was her heart even capable of containing all of these?
She heard the faint but insistent buzz of the doorbell as she was about to rinse herself.
So much for burning the remaining hours away, she thought. Thinking it was either Neji or Tenten, she finished bathing and grabbed the terrycloth robe hanging on the bathroom door. Running and shivering at the same time, she opened the front door with a forced smile.
The smile turned to a small 'o' when she was faced with the person actually present in front of her apartment. "Sasuke! Why didn't you tell me you were coming?" she asked with wide eyes.
She followed with her eyes where his gaze landed when she opened of the door. Now aware of her state of undress, she unconsciously tightened the lapels of her robe around her neck.
"What? And tell me to go straight home because of the lateness of the night?"
"Would you like something to drink?" she inquired as she turned around, preventing him from seeing her reddened cheeks as well as his lips aimed at her.
"I'm going to make coffee. Go wait in the living room," she ordered, walking off towards the direction of the kitchen.
"I am in the living room."
"Snob!" she reprimanded, though she was smiling when she said it.
When she made two cups, she came back to the living room, only to pale when she found out what Sasuke was holding in his hand – her prescription bottle. And he was looking at it with a very curious face. As expected, he asked her about it as soon as she was a few steps away from him.
"I-I-It's for my blood." Partly. She took the remaining steps and grabbed the cylindrical bottle. However, Sasuke raised it out of Hinata's reach.
"Y-Yes," she answered as she planted her hand on his shoulder, using it as support when she tiptoed and reached for the bottle.
"This is the first time I've heard of this."
"Sasuke! It doesn't affect me much," she almost wailed, aware that her body was pressing against him and that he was aware of it, too.
"I see. So your being anemic doesn't have anything to do with your occasional fainting spells."
"It does!" she answered, clearly agitated. "Just… give me the pills. Please?" she implored as her hands squeezed his upper arms.
He ignored her plea. Instead, with the bottle still clamped between his fingers, his hands glided down her robe-covered back. "God! You're not wearing anything under this, are you?"
"Of course!" she snapped at his censorious attack. "I was expecting you to arrive so I timed when I was going to take a bath. And I deliberately took a bath without my clothes on," she explained through gritted teeth, her pale lavender eyes flaring in aggravation.
"You with your barbed tongue," he mused aloud. He took advantage of her open mouth by dropping a kiss.
Caught unawares, she pushed him away as she opened her mouth to tell him off. However, pushing him away was like pushing a large rock, even with his slender form. Besides, the languorous warmth was invading her senses as soon as his invading tongue met with hers. Unfortunately, his assault ended sooner than she anticipated, leaving her shamefully unsatisfied.
"But it's a rather sweet tongue so I don't mind."
Her whole head turned a dark shade of red. "You can go home if that's all you came here for."
"We'll talk if that would satisfy your puritan little mind."
"Go get dressed," he ordered as he softly pushed her away.
"Remove temptation, you mean? Maybe I shouldn't so I can test you if you can keep your promise." Aghast, her hands went to her runaway mouth.
"Go," he ordered, his face unreadable as he sat on her couch.
She complied quickly, not even bothering to lock the bedroom door with the way their conversation went.
She had the mind to pick out her most unattractive clothes but that would imply how much she was affected with the whole deal. She wore the first pair of clothing she could pull out from the inside of her closet. She had called out his name once she got back to the living room, only to cover her mouth in surprise when she saw him sprawled on her couch, eyes closed in sleep. She sat on the armchair closest to him, releasing a deep sigh.
Her face fell, finally feeling safe enough to drop her guard. The day had taken its heavy toll on her. She didn't even know how Neji and Tenten were doing upstairs. As if on cue with her thoughts, someone tapped on her door. Forcing her unenthusiastic body up while keeping an eye on the sleeping Sasuke for signs of movement, she opened the door.
Piercing light-brown eyes stared straight at her. "Hi."
Hinata stepped outside, closing the door to prevent Tenten from accidentally seeing Sasuke sleeping on her couch. "Hey."
"Can we talk?"
Hinata could hear the nervousness in Tenten's voice. "Sure. Why don't we talk on the porch? The night is pleasant enough."
Tenten nodded her assent, following Hinata with heavy steps.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Tenten asked when they were sitting comfortably on the edge of the wooden porch.
Tenten turned away from her, her gaze instead favoring the night sky. "When I first saw the photos, I felt nostalgic remembering the old days. But then I saw they were all me, nothing with Lee.. I thought it was weird, but then I put two and two together. I wasn't sure at first, but when I saw his face, I knew then."
"What did you tell him?"
"Nothing. We just… stood there."
Hinata winced at her friend's answer. "For an hour?!"
"No! I… went out for a walk… to clear my head. You have to understand. Neji is so…is so intelligent, so worldly, and so attractive! And for so long I've always thought it was you and him, never anyone else, much less me! I mean look at me… I'm nowhere near as attractive as the women who flock around him. I have no panache. Compared to you, I'm nothing."
"Are you fishing for compliments?"
"No!" Tenten declared hotly.
"Then don't talk bull," she rebuked bluntly. Her thought process had been like that, too. And Neji had fought with it as harshly as he could. Hurtful, but effective.
"There's no need for apologies."
"I think I should—never mind. I'm going back home. I… I have to finish packing. Tell Ne—him I'll stay in a hotel instead of here."
"W-What? What are you talking about? Of course you're staying here," she held on to Tenten's slender arm with an imploring look. "I know you'd rather not complicate matters but you're only going to make matters worse by running away from the problem."
"I'm not running," Tenten denied with her head turned away from her.
"Yes, you are. Tenten, Neji is…Neji is a prideful person yet he regarded and still does regard both you and Lee highly. He'd never do anything to hurt you or step out of line."
She sighed. "I'm sorry. It's just… too early. Too unexpected."
Hinata was surprised at her answer. Was she reading too much in her words? She didn't care if Tenten couldn't love Neji back. She just wanted her cousin to have a chance to repair the damage dealt to their relationship today.
"…And I will stay, just not today."
She was going to continue with her argument when a faint sound from inside reminded her she wasn't exactly in a situation where there was no problem if Tenten stayed the night. She was going to keep quiet about it but Tenten was giving her a look (coupled with a knowing smile) which clearly suggested that she knew.
"I won't tell."
"I-It's not what you think," Hinata emphasized with hands waving 'no' in front of her.
Tenten laughed, but then she frowned afterwards. "I don't know how to think properly anymore."
"Not once was I aware of Neji's feelings."
"Neji's just really good at that sort of thing—"
"In the taxi—I wasn't aware Lee was on the verge of dying."
Hinata's breath hitched. The situation was going to turn ugly if she didn't handle this correctly.
"That wasn't your fault."
Turning her face towards the source of the voice who had spoken, she saw Neji leaning on her door, his shoulders hunched, his hands buried in the pockets of his pants, his long, straight hair curtaining his face. Tenten kept on staring straight ahead, but she had stiffened when her cousin spoke.
Hinata dreaded the silence that was about to ensue, but before she could speak a taxi stopped in front of their gate and honked twice.
"I… called for a cab beforehand. I'll see you guys tomorrow," she said as she stood up, though she wasn't looking at either of them when she spoke. "Take care both of you."
The two cousins could only stare at her retreating back and listened as the taxi drove away.
Neji took over Tenten's place, sitting with his back too straight to be considered normally comfortable.
Hinata looked at Neji's strained face. "She said it was too unexpected. Too early."
Neji stiffened at her words. "She didn't tell me that."
"She didn't tell you anything."
Neji's lips compressed to a thin line at her words. "So she didn't."
She immediately regretted her words. She tangled her arms with his, resting her head on his shoulder as she did. "I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to be mean."
"I know," he said as he patted her arm.
"So what are you going to do?"
"Nothing," he said vehemently. "Tenten… Tenten is Lee's," he said with a wistful smile.
She couldn't say anything in response as she herself believed that sentiment. Neji was obviously suffering as he said those words. She hated it when Neji was pretending to be okay. Who was it that said real men don't cry? She'd give him a bashing or two if she ever had the guts to do so.
Her cousin stood up and told her he needed to leave before dawn for tomorrow. She, in turn, stood up and gave him a comforting hug before she went to her room. Inside, Sasuke was still fast asleep. She went to her room and grabbed a blanket for him to keep warm. As she covered him with the blanket, it was only now that she looked at him properly without problems constantly bugging her mind. She was struck again by his pleasing features that the next thing she knew she was holding a sketch pad in one hand and a pencil on the other.
When she opened her eyes the next morning, she was sprawled on the couch (instead of the armchair, she remembered) with the blanket she had thrown over Sasuke last night covering her. When she sat up from the couch, she immediately saw a piece of paper laid on the coffee table. She reached for it and read the short content.
Next time I see you, I want the sketch finished.
She stared at the note. She hadn't even gotten to talk to him seriously this time, especially on that newspaper article. She lifted the sketchpad right beside the note and looked at it with wide, despondent eyes.
Disclaimer: This fiction is written for entertainment purposes only, thus, the authoress will not be profiting from this. Naruto and its characters are owned by Masashi Kishomoto.
Note: If you have queries on the story, please use your FF account or leave your email so I can get back at you. It's against FF policy to reply to reviews in the chapter updates. Lengthy concrit (constructive criticism) motivates me to write.
Whoa, this story actually has plot? Anyway, more emphasis on Neji and Tenten here since their 'airtime' is going to lessen from this point onwards. We've already reached the pinnacle of their story.
Important note: I have neither explicitly stated nor subtly implied that Hinata is dying. To make it clear: Hinata is not dying.
Credits to Shiranui the Brave for the proofreading! To the reviewers I wasn't able to reply to, thank you!