Standard disclaimers apply.
By Cassandra's Destiny
The walk to her office desk felt like the longest she has taken her entire life. She scanned the halls from left to right every so often, and scanned the rooms from left to right every two steps. The bathroom break she took after coming down from the top floor was meant for her to collect her thoughts, and straighten out her disheveled look from five minutes ago. Her stay inside the office comfort room, however, had to be over in two minutes tops. She only had time to fix her hair, retouch her light make-up and conceal the nasty scratch marks on her black skirt. At the faintest hint of another person wanting to use the comfort room, she had to rush out the door. Had she forced her right to a five-minute bathroom break, at the very least, her long walk would have been a walk of shame for various reasons.
First, her office mates might start talking and go back to a habit from their pre-school years.
"She pooted! She pooted! Teacher, she pooted!"
Tenten wasn't even sure if pooted was in the dictionary, or if the word only existed to torture little kids who spent more time in the comfort room than an average four-year old.
Second, should she show any sign of dizziness, the girls in the room might turn their heads and go back to the times when they first heard about menstruation.
"Oh my goodness, you barfed, didn't you? That means you're pregnant!"
"Pregnant? But I'm not married!"
"Mommy says when you get the brownish red thing coming out onto your panties, you can get pregnant!"
It was fourth grade, she thought, when girls her age first heard about what menstruation was. Most of them felt a mixture of excitement and fear, actually. Excitement because they can no longer be considered babies in their households, and fear because if they get raped, they can possibly conceive a rapist's baby.
"Kids," she muttered under her breath.
Third, the high school curiosity about smoking might resurface.
"You took an awful long time in the bathroom… Can I borrow a lighter? I won't tell the principal if you won't."
It was probably one of those phases every teenager goes through – the curiosity, that is. She did not know anyone from her high school days who actually held a cigarette in between his or her fingers and made it a habit. She knew Shikamaru smokes, but it was something that caught on to him only after they graduated.
Tenten sighed. Who knew the amount of time spent in the comfort room may have various implications?
If she had not, though, an idea far worse than her excreting, throwing up or smoking in the comfort room might come around. Like hell, if she hadn't the decency of fixing herself up after that little episode upstairs, there might be replicas of that sick and twisted writer from a while ago, dwelling in their sick and twisted worlds, thinking she was some sick and twisted skank who had a sick and twisted sexual encounter with the Executive Director.
Scanning her new team's work room, she made her race to her desk more subtle than it was in the empty halls. The last thing she wanted – getting asked about her meeting with Hyuuga Neji being a close second – was for anyone to suspect something was up. Or down. Or whatever.
That was why she very much against the heavy sigh that escaped her lips as she collapsed into her seat, although still very thankful for the slight privacy her cubicle walls offered her.
She straightened up her posture and closed her eyes in an attempt to normalize her breathing. She had to think of happy thoughts, and nothing but happy thoughts.
The deep baritone voice, his rippling muscles, his ecru button down shirt, his silver cuff links…
Her eyes popped open. If currently, that was her idea of happy thoughts, then being sick and twisted was definitely contagious, and she blames no one else but the whale-saving writer from Neji's office. If Hyuuga Neji's physique was her idea of happy thoughts, she had to think of something sad then.
Burying her face in her hands, she couldn't help but feel so vulnerable at the moment. How on earth could Hyuuga Neji – damn, Hyuuga Neji – still have that much power over her?
What did it matter if he was back in her life? It wasn't like he was back for good.
What did it matter if he remembered her name? It wasn't like it meant he remembered everything.
What did it matter if he does remember everything, god forbid? It wasn't like he was ever going to do anything about it.
She let her head drop to her desk, where she let it rest with her eyes staring blankly to the cubicle divider. What really bothered her was how much it bothered her, and perhaps, only her. It didn't seem to matter to him or to anyone else that the two of them have crossed paths after almost a decade.
Of course, it would matter to Lee because he was her best friend, and he knows her more than anyone else does. It would matter to Sakura, too, because she has always been such a loving friend. It would matter to Ino, she supposed, partly because she was also her friend and partly because it was such a sweet dish.
But not one of them will feel the excruciating pain she is feeling. Not one of them will, one of these days, wallow in self-pity and curse the fact that Hyuuga Neji still had the power over them after so many years.
Lifting her head from the desk, her gaze fell on Ino, who was standing by her desk with a lifted eyebrow.
"You're not on coffee break, so company policy dictates that you can't be found lying around."
"Give me a break, Ino."
Halfway through rolling her eyes at Tenten's crabby reply, she retorted. "I can't. I'm not your boss."
Under normal circumstances, Tenten would not press on the matter further. Given the situation, though, she would prefer playing the interrogator rather than the interrogatee. "Have you found out who Shikamaru's dating?"
"Can't say. Our parents have been friends for the longest time. I think we've been friends since we were young, too. But now he won't even dish details about his personal life to me!"
She watched her lean against her desk before questioning her further. "Have you told him what has been going on in your life?"
Ino shook her head no. "What, like randomly ramble about how it's hard to find a man in a world of pigs? That will be weird. Too weird. He's your boss now, and he's sort of my boss, too, just not directly. However way you put it, he's officially my superior."
"If you're not telling, maybe he won't either."
Shifting in her seat, she turned on the monitor, hopefully giving Ino the hint that she intended to get back to work immediately and did not want to be bothered. With the issue of sharing about happenings in the past to superiors out in the open now, the topic of Hyuuga Neji and high school was not far behind.
"Ino, if you don't mind—"
"Here," she interrupted, placing a long brown envelope and two sliding folders on her desk. "You need to look over the documents in the envelope, and the ones in the folders are for signing."
Before she can unseal the envelope, Ino was already on her way out the work room. "Better be going now since we're still on the clock, and in the many years I've worked at Parcae, I know well enough that the walls have ears."
Then she gave her what she could have sworn was a conspiratorial wink, and closed the door behind her.
As soon as she unlocked the door to her apartment, she grabbed a bottle of ice cold water from the fridge and dragged a big box from under the CD rack with her name written on it. It needed some dusting off, of course, but after a short while, it was good enough to be carried to her bedroom.
Tenten flopped onto her bed, kicking her shoes off onto the floor. Memories from the past she thought she had forgotten came flooding back.
She saw her baby pictures, pictures with her playmates, of her and Lee in funny costumes, and of her and Sakura on her thirteenth birthday. The pictures were just pictures – unmoving and void of emotions, but there is always a story behind every photograph, and a specific emotion evoked upon seeing every single one.
A small smile graced her lips as she held the pictures of her and Lee during the Christmas party. They were seven, and Lee just received the biggest wrapped-up box known to children. He was grinning like an idiot for the camera as expected, and seven-year old Tenten couldn't help but act naughty and put two fingers above his head. In the next picture, he was sticking her tongue out to him, and she can see a miniature version of herself about to take of her shoes. She remembered wanting to hit Lee, because he told her she was getting nothing but coal for being so naughty.
Lee has always been there for her, despite the many times she made of fun of him. Before stepping into high school, she was sure that everything in the world can go wrong and still she would be fine, as long as she had her best friend by her side. Naturally, like all wide-eyed teenagers with a strong hold on their beliefs and aspirations, entering high school meant those were to be stepped on and damaged, if not entirely crushed. All of Lee's optimism and kindness were not enough to prevent the brand of torture she went through. But still, she could not imagine how things would have been without him.
"Here." In came Lee, intruding on her personal space, on what was meant to be her alone time, shoving a bowl of soup on her face.
"What's this?" Her voice came out raspy, probably from being unused the entire weekend.
"Pumpkin soup," she felt the mattress shift as he answered. "It doesn't stop the hurting, but it sure cushions the blow."
When she neither replied nor took a sip, he continued. "Tenten, a person can only cry so much in a day."
"I wasn't crying," came her quick reply.
He shrugged, and stood up. "Then kindly tell that other girl who had such a rough week to try not to sniff so hard next time. I'm afraid she might inhale all the dust bunnies in her room."
She grimaced. Lee had such a way with words.
Moments later, her mind came to a temporary halt as she pulled out a large hardbound book from the box.
It was her high school yearbook.
"Would you sign my yearbook?"
"I don't understand what's with the whole yearbook-signing fiasco," she ranted to no one in particular upon overhearing the group of giggling girls waving their frilly pink pens next table.
"Tenten, don't you want people to sign your yearbook?" It was Sakura who paid attention to her comment. "We're graduating in a few days, and we might not be able to see each other until our 25th high school reunion."
She huffed. "If it's you and Lee signing my yearbook, and maybe Ino and the other guys, I'm okay with that. What I don't understand is why people are so busy running around the halls asking guys and girls they hardly talked to in their four-year stay here to sign their yearbooks." Spotting a short girl shyly approaching the school's quarterback, she rolled her eyes. "What's so special about a standardized yearbook message?"
"Standardized yearbook message?"
"You know, Sakura, something like, 'you rock, don't ever change'. I mean, how can they not want you to change? They hardly know you!"
Taking a bite of her tuna sandwich, she figured this was why Lee opted to keep silent. If you fight fire with fire, you just get a bigger fire. If you fight Tenten's words with more words, you'll just have her blowing up. Half of her agreed with Tenten, though – the irrationality of it all, not to mention it being so superficial and contrived. Still, the remaining half of her refused to miss a long upheld yearbook tradition. "If people did not sign yearbooks, why give them out in the first place?"
Sakura congratulated herself for that comment. Even Miss Cranky-pants right across her would not be able to deny that yearbooks were meant to be signed.
"It's a scam, Sakura," she stated a matter-of-factly. "Yearbooks exist for three reasons."
Sakura sweat dropped. Tenten was really hating on this tradition.
"One, it's the school's one last chance to rip us off of our money before they let us go. How much did we pay for these anyway?" A looked of disgust was evident on her face as she traced a finger over the embossed parts of the cover.
"Two, it gives the teachers an excuse to make fun of us as they let us go through the agony of getting our hair done and applying the right amount of make-up for our individual pictures. It's stupid, really, like why do we need to pretend that all we did in high school was sit still as we innocently gazed into the camera lens? High school was nothing like that, and our pictures in this thing are not reflective of our experiences here at all."
"I think your picture turned out great, Tenten."
Their heads turned to Lee who made that comment in between servings of his lasagna. "Yours too, Sakura," he added, still not shifting his attention from his food.
Before Sakura can thank him – and maybe swing in a new topic into the conversation before Tenten continued her rant – the other girl beat her to it.
"Thanks, Lee. I think yours came out pretty good too," then she paused, before going on with her litany. "Oh, and three, these yearbooks are made for us to keep in order to give us the illusion that high school was as cheesy as the snapshots here make them appear. Like hell, we most certainly did not hold hands around the camp fire and shared our feeling, and – Wait here."
High school was not some over the top cheesy flick, but she remembered all too well the confused looks on Sakura and Lee's faces as she walked away from their table. The dedication on the first page of her yearbook only cemented the memory: You rock, don't ever change. (plus a small, almost inconspicuous heart)
"Shigure Kyoza?" With her tone subdued and made more feminine, she approached the captain of the swim team.
She made it a point to constrain her movements and keep a slightly raised eyebrow. She knew she must not be angry, loud and boisterous, but be the exact opposite if she wanted to achieve her desired effect. She could just imagine Lee's jaws dropping at her sudden display of girlishness. "Sign my year book?"
As he turned to face her, she made a mental note of the boyish grin he sported, which she knew was disguising the arrogant smirk he felt like giving. "Of course, Tenten."
The way he said her name made her want to barf, but Shigure Kyoza was a necessary evil.
Tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, she added, "I'd love it more if you signed the first page. You know, I'll be reading yours over and over." She finished with a wink, oh how she dreaded this conversation.
"I should make it extra special then."
Extra special her ass. He knew nothing about her, and there was nothing he could add in his dedication that can have it stand out from the pool of standardized yearbook messages.
Yet she smiled coyly. "You really know how to make a girl blush."
She noticed the smirk forming on his lips, and it made her sick to her stomach. The only thing stopping her from rolling her eyes was the man standing on the other side of the hall, listening to what she surmised was Naruto babbling about lunch.
She grimaced. He wasn't even looking.
Absent-mindedly, she continued flipping the pages until she arrived to the page her picture was at. Her hair was not in her signature buns for picture day. Instead, she opted – well, Sakura and Lee forced her – to have her hair in a low ponytail that slightly hung on the side. Some soft curls framed her face, and a sincere smile, not a sarcastic grin, graced her features.
Tenten was never fond of the camera. The lights blinded her, and the flashes annoyed her. She let Sakura do her hair early that morning, and she hated it. Alright, maybe not hated it, but she definitely thought it was too girly-girl and there wasn't enough attitude evident in it. So, when the other girl finally let her go off the hook, she toned down the look, and transformed it into something she can own.
"Okay, now smile!"
She was smiling alright, only because there was one thing worth smiling about: Her high school nightmare was soon over.
Four pages forward, her gaze fell on single photo, one that stood out from the rest for its effortless stature and class. Tenten hated every inch of it.
"So, what are you smiling about?"
"Is it a crime for a girl to smile?" She knew what Lee was trying to get at, but it didn't mean she was going to give in too easily. "If you give me one of your brownies, I might tell you."
"Tenten, you're such a bully." He sat down next to her by the kitchen counter before handing her one of his special brownies. It was made from the sweet and youthful secret recipe an old mentor left with him, if she remembered correctly. "Are you going to tell me soon?"
Taking a bite of the brownie, she shook her head no.
"Oh, come on!"
She bit her lip to suppress a giggle, and Lee narrowed his eyes at her. She was happy. Too happy.
A moment of silence passed, and they both continued munching on their brownies.
It was Tenten who broke the silence. "He talked to me today."
At first, he pretended not to have heard her. He knew she was only saying that because she no longer had any brownies in hand.
"And he knows my name."
Still no answer.
"Lee! I told! Now, give me more brownies!"
She recalled wrestling him for more. The brownies were that good, and she wondered why he hasn't introduced it to the customers of the Bakeshop of Youth yet. "Come to think of it, he hasn't made those in years."
Falling on her back to the bed, her thoughts flew to him once more. It seemed that no matter how hard she preoccupied herself with trivialities like brownies and yearbook memories, her mind always found a connection back to him.
She heard it then, the gentle knocks on her bedroom door just as she felt herself become invisible upon her wish. She slowly sat up, eyes puffy and red. "Go away," she blurted out.
"I brought you brownies," the voice was muffled through the door. "Lee made them for you, and he asked me to take it up here in case you wanted them."
"Sakura, just leave me alone."
On the other side of the wooden door stood a girl whose one hand carefully balanced a tray of freshly-baked brownies. Lee called her half an hour ago, saying Tenten hasn't come out of her bedroom since yesterday, and he was getting worried. Maybe she needed a female friend to talk to, he thought. "Tenten, open the door."
She let out a sigh. "Hate him if you must. Curse him if you must. Just don't do this to yourself, Tenten.
"I loved him…" she reminded her coldly, half-chiding herself because it was how she felt still.
"Liked him," she corrected. "We're young, and we make mistakes. He hurt you, I know, but don't do this to yourself, Tenten. Don't let him feel like what you're doing to yourself is justified, because it's not – don't let him win."
"You're a strong woman, Tenten. Fight back."
"Fight back," she echoed Sakura's words from that night. "Fight back."
She quickly sat up on her bed and took a moment to think. Back in high school, she was such a fool; she was the fool who wasted a large chunk of her life crying over a bastard like Hyuuga Neji.
Untangling herself from the sheets, she dawdled to where she hung that piece of cardboard Lee called Today's Advice. She has made a habit of taking one every day, actually, but that was something she will never admit to her best friend.
Closing her eyes, she turned and pointed to the cardboard. Then, she read her advice out loud: "Don't wait for others to fix things, take action." She smiled to herself. This was turning out to be the exact opposite of what she imagined earlier as a night of self-pity.
Her eyes traveled to the clock hanging on one of her white-washed walls. Nine o' clock, it was still early. She had a quick change of clothes and secured her house keys in her back pocket. Taking a quick gulp of her bottled water, she then picked up the phone and dialed Sakura's number.
"Hey Ino, do you and Sakura have plans tomorrow night?"
All those nights she spent crying, all those years she spent being bitter and in denial – over that bastard who now calls himself Executive Director, nonetheless – those are long gone.
Tenten was going to fight back.