Note: Please remember to read Chapter 56 first, as this is the latter half of a double-update!
Reader Beware: You will encounter a graphic sex scene in the third quarter of this chapter, marked ### for your convenience to peruse or skip.
Chapter 57- What the Truth Builds and Breaks
Chapter Soundtrack: "Slow Dancing in the Dark" by Joji
Things recalibrated after the cultural exchange festival in Konoha. Nearly a week afterward, sighting Tama and Sato together again had become commonplace, and no one really had much to say on it. They butted heads much in the way their uncles used to, which most considered an amicable parting, perhaps even a blessing. Though this assumption came into doubt shortly before the weekend, as Chouji was happening by a tavern around noon that day.
He'd merely looked up to squint at the posted menu in the establishment's window, and beyond the glass he noticed Sato was seated inside. Chouji returned his attention to the special of the day before snapping his eyes back, realizing that Maito Tama was sitting across from Hatake Sato. The two had their arms folded on the table, leaning towards each other, smiling as they spoke!
'That's not rivalry!' Chouji saw through the ruse, 'This is THE REAL THING. They don't dislike each other at all. WHAT THE—' He flattened his hand on the window with a thud, getting their attention. He was compelled to intervene, giving the pair a What the fuck? expression through the glass to demonstrate that the jig was up.
Initially, Sato was spooked: 'Oh shit. Oh shit. OH SHIT.' Caught red-handed! He'd known it was bound to happen eventually, but why did it have to be Chouji; the brick wall of justice and lunch specials? He felt Tama's fingers tracing the back of his hand to get his attention. Sato looked to her.
"Well, it was a good effort, but I think this is the part where we take on the ugly side of the public view." Tama suggested, "Chouji-kun's pretty understanding."
"Ehhh…yeah." Sato yielded, his eyes still glued to their flabbergasted contemporary outside, "What do we do? Invite him to lunch?"
"No, no! Let's kiss."
"That's about as awkward as my lunch idea."
"The kiss is cheaper." Tama noted.
"You're right!" Sato leaned full across the table to meet her in a lip-lock and Chouji, briefly, went ballistic outside. Then, he hurried off to locate his teammates and any other friend who was going to listen to this wild tale.
"Good grief…I think we might be in trouble." Sato hung his head, laughing anxiously, "Now what?"
"We stick to today's plan." Tama was undaunted.
"Are you sure? It's drastic."
"If worse comes to worst, people still like you in the Star Village. Let's go live there and renounce everything in Leaf."
"Whoa! That is cold! Also, I'm not sure it'd work out the way you think. Official clearances and all that…"
"It's kind of a plan C. I'm not counting on it."
"Okay. Stick to today's plan." Sato nodded and picked at his lunch, "I'm…kind of nervous."
The village council meeting adjourned at 1:00 on the dot that afternoon, and Tsunade was still chafed that her presence had been required. Said meeting had been an outlet mainly for complaints and bad news, centered on topics like Naruto's delayed return (and precautions needed to guard the village's jinchuriki), another one of Orochimaru's decoy hideouts being discovered, friction with the Raikage, overwork and stretched security schedules, temporary trade decline with the Tide Village, and so forth.
Perhaps the only high note of the meeting was the ratification of an alliance agreement with Takigakure, for which the official documentation would be presented in-person by Leaf Village representatives. In this case, Hyuga Hideyasu and his son would be going to Hidden Waterfall to finalize talks with Shibuki, and possibly bring vassals of the Hyuga clan with them. Tsunade had not expected the endeavor to succeed at first. But with other great villages giving Leaf the cold shoulder, many councilmen agreed that any friendly association was beneficial at this point.
Wrapped in a scarf and heavier shawl, Tsunade made the trek from the council's secondary building to the Administrative Building uptown through the cold. 'I'll make a stop at the liquor store first and pick up a lunch from the café…' Her agenda was derailed as two familiar faces appeared outside of the liquor shop, as if to catch her indulging in her worst habit. But then the encounter felt reversed, since Tsunade had discovered it was Sato and Tama leaving the place. Her brain scrambled to recall birthdates and be sure they were of age to purchase alcohol, 'Ah. Well, Tama is.'
And then: 'WHAT ARE THESE TWO DOING TOGETHER?' Tsunade briskly made her way towards them with a frown on her face. Unless these alleged rivals were going to challenge each other to a drinking contest, something seemed terribly amiss here.
"Oh! Tsunade-sama! We were just coming to see you." Sato greeted her chipperly.
"Were you now?" The woman arched her brow.
"Yes, we stopped in here to get a gift." Tama confirmed.
That stomped out the embers of Tsunade's theory of what they were up to. Now she hadn't a clue what was going on, "Why do you both need to see me? A lawsuit?" She knew Maito Ken's go-to methods of waging war, "And please forgive my asking, but why is it that you don't seem at odds with each other?"
"Because we aren't." Tama clarified, "Everything is fine now."
"That is what I'm skeptical of." Tsunade clucked.
"We, uh…made up." Sato pitched in his lousy explanation as well.
"Don't think such a decision will be well-received, because it won't be." Tsunade warned, "Though I for one don't particularly care, as long as you can both be counted on for missions."
"Of course!" They chorused.
Tsunade folded her arms, "You're not running away from the village are you?"
"We did consider it, but we want to try to work things out here first." Sato admitted, "If we decide to leave, we'd do it through the proper channels and clear it with you—"
"Who says I would?" The Hokage bristled.
"That isn't what we wanted to request of you anyway." Tama assured her, "If it isn't too much trouble, we want to ask you to help us with something else."
"Ask for my help?" Both of Tsunade's eyebrows shot up.
Tama and Sato exchanged a look with each other before Sato offered up a tall gift bag to the Hokage, "Whether or not you agree to, we got this for you as a token of appreciation."
It sort of rubbed her the wrong way that these youngsters thought to get her such a gift, and it indeed was an exquisite vintage of sake when Tsunade peeked into the bag, wincing at the rarity and price tag of the selection. What did they want? She felt somewhat shamed by this exchange, but she certainly wasn't going to decline and let the couple go home with the bottle.
"We can't get the approval of our families or go to a shrine, since we've been blacklisted from most local shrines," Sato informed the Hokage, "So we wanted to get married in a civil ceremony at the administrative office. We just weren't sure if any officiants there would be willing to do it…"
"Then…you mean to ask me." Tsunade observed.
Tama nodded, "Could you please consider it? We don't know who else to ask that's an official."
"No." Tsunade clicked her heeled shoes on the pavement, annoyed, "I can't. Or rather, I can, but I won't. This is poor decision-making on both your parts."
"We've really put a lot of thought into it." Sato appealed, "Really! Discussed it for a while, made plans…we even have a whole white board—"
"Don't you understand that going through with such a thing will permanently blemish the both of you, and you dare think I want any part of such an arrangement? I will bring no harm upon you." Something in Tsunade's face was wavering, her eyes shiny, "I'd rather surrender you to Hidden Sand, if you can't be reasoned with. If you mean to go away. I'd rather…"
"I-It's alright, Tsunade-sama…" Sato was alarmed by their leader's emotional state, "You don't have to. We'll figure something out."
Tsunade tipped her head back and puffed a vaporous breath into the autumn air, releasing some frustration with it. Dumb kids. Wishing to get married in spite of all the vitriol and bad blood between their families? Why did they have to put her in the middle?
Except that she always did have a soft spot for the two, and had gone out of her way on many occasions to preserve them and advance their careers. Tsunade had enjoyed their antics and camaraderie, and had even been mildly hurt by their falling out, though she had nothing to do with their personal lives whatsoever. It seemed that, nowadays, a fair portion of Tsunade's experience was living vicariously through younger generations. Her heart saw through the lenses of Sakura, Gaara, Tama, Sato, Tenten, and all of the young ninja who had bloomed before her eyes. She no longer roamed the world or threw herself directly at conflict. Tsunade sat back and guided those who did, and oftentimes she found herself wondering how she would feel if she was still in the thick of it all.
And damn her yearning heart. When she looked at Sato, she saw flashes of Dan. She saw flashes of Nawaki. Bits of herself shined through Tama, who'd endured pain and hardship but marched on— a possible version of herself if she hadn't fallen prey to fear and heartache, and avoided the Leaf Village for so long. Tama kept charging at adversity head-on. Tsunade could not say the same of herself.
"You won't figure anything out. You're always going to be clueless." Tsunade spoke softly with a sigh, "Just as clueless as me."
Sato and Tama gave her quizzical looks.
Tsunade's grip on the gift bag's handle tightened, "This in exchange for my lunch hour. Another working lunch…" She began walking again at a fast pace, "Move it. Before I come to my senses."
Silently shocked and a bit thrilled it had worked, the pair scurried after the Hokage and entered the administrative building with her. Tsunade directed them, "Go straight upstairs to my office and wait. I need a few things…"
They bounded up the stairs obediently while Tsunade took a left through the lobby, navigating towards the civil office, grumbling to herself. She pilfered filing cabinets and desk drawers, reaching around confused secretaries who asked if she needed any help. "No, no, I need a registration form and certificate. I can notarize this without another witness, right?" When she got a nod, Tsunade continued shuffling around, "Good. Where's that script for performing a marriage?"
"You're officiating for someone today, Tsunade-sama?" The office workers brightened, smiling. Little did they know who was being married.
"Ah." She found the script booklet and added it to her pile, "I am." Tsunade held up her gift bag, "I'm marrying this sake bottle. All of you can pipe down and get back to work!"
The group deflated after her shut-down and Tsunade bustled on through the building, realizing she was perfectly deranged to do this.
'Maito Ken may come for my blood, once he learns who performed the ceremony. I really don't want to deal with that. Also, I don't know how Kakashi and Gai are going to feel…' She took a fortifying breath, 'Why do I care? I was set to marry Dan, then he died in my arms. Am I expecting these two to be casualties in the struggle to come? Do I pity them? Am I hoping they endure, and in a decade I'll watch the next young Hatake graduate and become a ninja?' Tsunade blew a strand of hair out of her face, 'What is it that I'm hoping for?'
She climbed the steps and supposed she truly didn't know. All that was clear was that she had hope. For what, Tsunade couldn't say. All the same, she felt it and knew she had to trust it. The way she had let her trust in Naruto bring her back from the edge of a Faustian bargain with Orochimaru, and not allow contempt, regret, and bitterness to drain away her remaining days.
'I might as well.' Tsunade smiled darkly to herself, 'However this turns out, I'll know I acted decisively. Put something in motion. My days might be numbered because of who I am and what I know. I had to sit at today's meeting while staring Shimura Danzo in the face. I had to listen to council members debate what the Akatsuki's next move will be. There are worse things afoot.'
Down the third floor hallway Tsunade swirled in her own thoughts until she reached her office, finding Sato and Tama there. She shut and locked the door behind her, heaving another heavy breath. Tsunade set her gift bag down on her desk and laid out the documents that would need to be completed, "You can fill these in afterward and I'll drop them off…"
"Thank you, Tsunade-sama!" They were jittery.
Tsunade glanced around the space, "Hm. It's a bit of a mess in here." She moved a few file boxes to the side of the room, then shortened the few tall stacks of paperwork on her credenza so that more light could enter the room through windows, "There. It won't get much better. Just so you know…" She turned around again, "I haven't ever actually officiated before."
Tama told her, "That's alright. We're just so grateful that you're willing."
"If you're sure about this, face each other and I'll get it done." Tsunade waved a hand at them and they did as instructed. The Hokage glanced over the script and sniffed at it, "Very well…hm. Maito Ta— ugh. I can't believe I'm doing this." Tsunade gave her head a shake and continued, "Maito Tama and Hatake Sato, you have come here today to make your commitment to each other iron-clad and true in the eyes of the law in Konohagakure. To build a life together tempered with love, effort, and support…"
As the Hokage recited the words, she noticed the two connect their hands in silence, listening.
"Marriage is perhaps the greatest and most challenging adventure of human relationships. No ceremony can create your marriage; only you can do so through dedication, perseverance, and patience. Believe in each other and listen to each other. Appreciate your differences, and learn to treasure what matters while letting go of the rest. Today I act as your witness and intermediary, to confirm your choice to stand together as partners…"
Tsunade took another shaky breath, "Do you both vow to develop your hearts and minds, and walk a path of equanimity?"
There was a beat of silence before the young pair responded, "We do."
"Do you both accept that…" Tsunade modified the line as she understood Sato and Tama's circumstances, "The road you walk will be fraught with challenges? That you must overcome obstacles and uncertainties, even those encountered in service to your village, as two of its shinobi?"
"Do you, Hatake Sato," She addressed him directly, "Promise to cherish, understand, and bring joy to Tama? Knowing that this marriage can only be as good as the two of you make it, do you promise to treat her with compassion and respect for as long as you live?"
"I do." Sato promised, "For as long as I live, even then after."
Tama shut her eyes for a moment to absorb the sincere vow into her being.
"Do you, Maito Tama," Tsunade continued, "Promise to cherish, understand, and bring joy to Sato? Knowing that this marriage can only be as good as the two of you make it, do you promise to treat him with compassion and respect for as long as you live?"
Tama watched Sato's face light up as she said, "I do."
"Huh-hrm." Tsunade endeavored not to get choked up, "By the power vested in me by the Village Hidden in the Leaves, as Hokage, and through your own wishes, you will now be called upon as Husband and Wife. May your…" The sentence stuck in Tsunade's throat, and she closed the booklet as she concluded, "Please. May your days together be blessed." She seemed to be imploring a higher power for them, genuinely invested in their welfare.
Staring at one another, joyful but somewhat shell-shocked, Sato and Tama continued to hold hands and did not know if there were any further cues. Tsunade gestured wildly at them, bothered, "Well! Kiss each other if you want, but I'm not going to look!"
Tsunade turned her face away when they leaned toward each other, grinning, and managed to not see a single millisecond of the kiss. She could not face them again. Something in her chest had shattered. 'What did I do?' Her lips trembled as she thought to herself, 'Why did I do that…? I'm not this stupid. I know where to draw the line. I've…' Tsunade kept her eyes squeezed shut as she tried to wrestle back her composure, '…Dan. I'm pathetic. I've been waiting for you and wishing. My life could have been so different. Would you have done all of this with me? Here I am meddling in the affairs of others while I keep thinking about myself…'
"Tsunade-sama?" Sato was google-eyed, able to see the unbroken trail of a tear sliding down the Hokage's cheek.
"Don't." Her voice warbled, eyes shut, and she raised the stupid booklet in her hands to hide her face, "Look."
Tama tried to console the Hokage, "Oh, Tsunade-sama…we shouldn't have asked and you were so kind—"
"It's not really…" Tsunade swallowed hard, refusing to snuffle or blubber, "About you. It's…me."
It took a moment to process that the Hokage was bereaved over something, and her performing a civil ceremony for them had exacerbated the feeling. Tsunade felt the two nincompoops circle their arms around her in a quasi-group hug, "…no. You two…" It made her feel slightly better and her shoulders drooped, "Don't you know…why I did this?" Her voice cracked again, harder, "B-Because…I w-wanted…" A hard sniff, "I was thinking of Dan. Gosh, I'm so stupid…"
"Someone special to you?" Tama gathered.
Tsunade shook her head to deny it, then slowly nodded her head yes, hiding her tearful face.
"We're all a little stupid." Sato reassured her with a heedless smile, "Don't forget who's important to you. You made sure that we won't."
Getting her shit together, Tsunade tossed the booklet over to the desk, wiped her eyes and nose on her shawl, and then squeezed her arms around them.
"You're fools." She said, smiling.
"Thank you." Tama repeated, "For doing this."
Sato nodded, "Yes, thank you."
"Enough already. You won't speak a word of this to any soul or I'll imprison you. I never cried." Tsunade freed herself from their hold, "Now finish that paperwork for your registration. I might…still have time for lunch."
They rushed to the desk to find pens.
Within 48 hours, knowledge of Sato and Tama's mended relationship had spread only amongst their peer group. What Chouji had initially passed along was a retelling of the short glimpse he had gotten: that he had seem them dining together, seemingly lovey-dovey and not exactly trying to hide it. In addition to that, Chouji had not raised an objection to it either: "If things are good, then what do I have to say about it? Maybe we should—"
"Act like nothing bad ever happened?" Ino's interruption was razor-sharp.
Shikamaru and Chouji gave her uncomfortable looks. Standing with them around a secluded picnic table, Shino, Hinata, Sakura, Kiba, Tenten, Lee, and Neji were also gathered and listening.
Chouji cleared his throat and summoned some courage to speak again, "Ino…I'm not saying that. But there was never any point in us rejecting—"
"I won't do it again." Ino said quickly in her own defense, "I don't like this, but I won't treat anyone badly."
"That's kind of beside the point now." Shikamaru held up a piece of cardstock, "They're married. And they want to know if we're interested in celebrating with them at this little party they're throwing. So that's the awkward matter at hand. If we do go, how weird is this going to be? They didn't give us any warning."
"It's not about us." Neji shared some wisdom.
"True." Shikamaru did not disagree, "And I'm fine with keeping things friendly from here on out, but I can't pretend I am not a bit annoyed about this. Or the fact that if we go, and their families are there, we can expect some unpleasantness."
"There's always been unpleasantness when Tama's parents go anywhere. That's just the way her dad is." Sakura rationalized, "It makes sense to support them. I'll go."
"I'll go, and believe me, I don't like Sato." Kiba made his feelings clear, "Though there's no family drama that can scare me away from a party after what my own family has put me through."
"We are going." Hinata had a determined look on her face as Shino nodded beside her.
"Okay, then if all of you have buried the hatchet, I don't want to be the one to miss this." Ino reasoned, "So I'm going too. Chouji, Shika?"
"It could be weird, but yeah, I'm not sitting out." Chouji confirmed.
Shikamaru gave a curious look to Tenten, Lee, and Neji, "What about you?"
"Oh, it's a yes." Tenten was unflappable.
Lee was rubbing his chin, "Did the invitation state what the dress code will be?"
Shikamaru palmed his forehead.
"We will go and give our support. I don't think this was intended as a formal reception." Neji interpreted what he guessed Sato was aiming for in terms of social outreach, "Not many people will be there apart from those they are comfortable with."
Most nodded along with Neji's estimation. Some muttering continued as uncertainties and grievances floated around. Their perception of Sato and Tama's restored relationship had only gone as far as believing they were rivals and saw each other to trade insults and compete. Yet the truth had at last reared its head. They still cared about each other and had moved past what had first parted them. This might have been easier to digest if the couple had been honest with their friends and explained it to them, say, a week ago. But the surprise was still as fresh as a ripped band-aid.
Slowly, a smile spread on Sakura's face, "I know it's kind of sudden, but I still suspected…" She sighed, "I'm glad. I know why they hesitated to tell anyone what was really going on. I'd be scared to. Everything was a mess."
"It could be an even bigger mess, after word of this starts to get around." Shikamaru wagered.
"If that's what happens, then this time more of us can help with damage control." Tenten aimed a snide remark at him, "So it's not just me and my team, or Hinata's team, showing what friendship means to them."
"Hey." Shikamaru's eye tweaked, "What's this unspoken rule about damage control? That's a personal choice. None of us are obligated."
"Friends are obligated." Her arms folded, Tenten did not budge in her disagreement with Shikamaru. Neji and Lee gave her alarmed looks.
Shikamaru wasn't going to push the subject with a kunoichi who had once whooped his behind in the past, "Okay then. We'll see what happens."
Sakura kindly changed the topic, "Good! So if we're all attending, let's pitch in for a small gift or something! It can't be a grand gesture since this is short notice. Oh! Ino, Hinata, what are you wearing? Tenten, what are you wearing?"
And conversation took a turn for the better after that. Across the village, things were not going nearly so well in the front yard of Maito Ken's house. Since sending an invitation via screech owl was not an option for Tama's parents, both Sato and Tama had appeared in-person to come clean about what they had done.
Sato had bowed in dogeza on the stone pathway in front of the house to appeal to Ken and Miako, trying to make an honest apology. It wasn't going over well. At the onset of Sato's bowing and uttering even a few words, Ken had lunged at the young man with his hands outstretched, desperate to crush whatever he could. In an act of ultimate defiance, Tama snatched her father's wrist to restrain him and hold him back with strength. Ken stared at his daughter with wild, stupefied eyes.
"Listen to him, Dad. Listen to him!" Tama demanded.
"I will not." Ken's mouth was small, his words seething, "There's nothing he can say…"
From his place on the ground, Sato looked up and understood it was futile.
"Mom," Giving up on her father completely, Tama spoke to her mother instead, "We came here to tell the truth. Things are okay now and we made up a while ago. Sato and I got married."
Miako's face lit up, astonished, but she had taken it rather well, "Dear, you—?"
With a roar, Ken hurled himself sideways to break free of his daughter's grip, stumbling to the ground and spitting like a mad cat. Spooked, Sato leapt to his feet, wide-eyed beside Tama as Maito Ken tipped over the edge in a way he never had previously in his life. Likewise, Miako was terrified by the sight, standing back by the entryway of the house. A bizarre scene unfolded when Ken stood and charged again, tackling something he thought was there as he struck empty air, wrestling with a target no one could see. Tama understood.
'Sato's using Genjutsu on him…' She held her breath. Her father thought he was getting the satisfaction of beating the insolent Hatake to a pulp while Sato, in fact, was behind him, bowing and apologizing to Miako. Tama's mother was not sure what Ken was doing, but she directed a quiet reprimand at Sato before hugging him and accepting his apology. She then asked softly, "You won't betray Tama again, will you?"
"No, never again."
"Alright. There's no way to convince Ken of that. You're not hurting him—?"
"No, it's just an illusion. I won't ever hurt him." Sato assured her.
When Tama approached, Sato ushered for her to lean in so he could whisper, "I'm going to keep up the Genjutsu to make it look like I'm beat-up. He'll probably stop if you hold me."
"He might not." Tama offered a counterpoint.
"Well. Let's try. Just to see if there's any way to talk to him at all…" Sato held a hand sign to alter the illusion, making it seem as though he'd escaped Ken (only in Ken's mind) and rushed to Tama. When Ken stood again and about-faced, laying eyes on his daughter holding her waste of a husband, he saw a version of Sato that was bedraggled and injured that no one else did. It temporarily stayed his hand.
"You…" Ken sneered, "You're always going to hide behind my daughter, you useless rat. You don't even deserve to draw breath. I wish you'd disappear like the White Fang. You have the nerve to do this. Don't ever think you can make it right. Not even if you drop dead! I'd hate you in every lifetime I have, forever!" Ken was hysterical, "No grandchild begotten by you will ever be acknowledged by me! Forget it! I'll hate them just as much!"
Miako gasped, inching forward to stand beside her daughter, unsure of what she could do.
"You know better than to defend them, Miako!" Ken's hands were fisted at his sides, staring down the gaggle in front of his home.
"I am the one who gets to decide who has a place in my heart." Miako protested, "And if I can make a place for you, Ken, then don't think I can't consider others!"
Ken was stomping and spitting, incensed. He'd never raise a finger toward his wife, but he was not fully reconciled with the fact that Miako didn't bend each and every time he wanted things a certain way. She'd be perfect if she did. No one in his family was perfect. It was a pain that whirled inside him endlessly, ripping at him. No one could do anything right except him. They were fully capable of acting with dignity, but they didn't time and time again and it made him miserable.
Finally, Ken directed his attention back at Tama, "You chose this."
"I've taught you better. I did everything I could to help you be brilliant, so you could do anything." Ken reminded her, "Even when you chose to be a shinobi, I couldn't try to stop you. Even that was something you were wonderful at. You brought us honor, Tama. You are my shining jewel. The pride of our family." His eyes were glossy, "Why did you throw that away? Our family's honor? Yours, mine? He's not worth it. None of them are."
Tearing up, Tama readjusted her position to hold Sato's hand, answering her father, "They are. I get to decide."
Ken's face went flat. He had to process that his family continually refused to align their views with his, no matter how rational he was, no matter how much he loved them. They were determined to throw themselves off the ledge of good sense and into a sea of chaos. He couldn't save them.
"Sato is not reliable. Tama, you must be fully accountable for any misfortune that you bring unto yourself from here on out. When it goes wrong, I cannot be blamed." He warned her, "Whatever happens is not my fault. I've done everything I could to prevent you from floundering like your worthless grandfather."
Tama took offense to the low-blow comment about Maito Dai, "You can't insult grandfather's memory like that—!"
"HE WAS WORTHLESS!" Ken screamed. All of the neighborhood could hear it.
Sato stupidly tried to say something to retrieve some civility, "No one in your family is worthle—"
"You shut your scoundrel mouth and go die already." Ken marched up and got a handful of Sato's tunic collar, and when both Miako and Tama intervened, Ken pulled back and hurled Sato down to the pavers again, trying to part him from the Maito family.
Ken rounded on his daughter, ignoring his wife as she tried to coax him indoors, "You get to decide, Tama? Is that what you're saying? No. You humiliate me. You and Gai humiliate me. I will never, ever approve of this. People who make catastrophic mistakes do not deserve to be forgiven— they need to be cut out of our lives completely and forgotten." He shared his manifesto with his daughter, as if she didn't already know it, "Anyone who says otherwise never had a brain cell to speak of."
Scowling, a tear ran down Tama's cheek as she allowed the brunt of the words to destroy what specks of dignity she had left. If her father insisted on taking refuge in his anger, then she would always be a mirror to reflect it back at him. If one day he looked and saw that he was truly alone, perhaps she had demonstrated why in that reflection. The prospect of him seeing was doubtful.
Maybe it was a bid for sainthood or just a selflessly compassionate act: Miako wrapped her arms around Ken's trunk, gently kicked his bad ankle to buckle his leg, and heaved him indoors as she shouted, "Tama! I'll come find you later! Never you mind this! Later, I promise!" She kicked the door shut.
Thankfully, Sato had his faculties intact so he could anticipate nosy neighbors venturing outside to discover what all the commotion was. He used Genjutsu to fool any eyes that might have glimpsed them; he and Tama appeared not to be there as they walked out of the manicured community and back to the heart of the village. They didn't make it as far as Sato's building, stopping several blocks away just beyond the Han Ethnic Quarter near the senior game tables. The area was unpopulated when Tama finally slumped onto a bench and wept.
He didn't let go of her hand. Sato sunk down on a knee, peering up at Tama as she sat curved over in sadness, hiding her face in the crook of her arm as she bawled.
"We knew it'd be bad. I just…Tama…I want you to know," Sato spoke to her softly, "What he did— what your dad did to make you feel small and stupid and worthless, that is exactly what I don't want to do. Ever. I'm sorry that I was foolish enough to do that once. He might be right about me, but he definitely has everything wrong about you." With his free hand, Sato held the side of her face and swiped at tears with his thumb, "You will always shine no matter what you decide. You're good at so many things and the person you're with can't change that. I don't want to take anything away from you. I want to give you the things you wish for, and the things you don't already have, if you want me to. There will never come a day when I change my mind or try to yell you down."
"I know, I know." She choked out, patting her hand against his as he cupped her face, "It's just so hard to hear him say those things. It's more about…him…than it is…about me."
Sato nodded, "Yeah. He's kept that chip on his shoulder his whole life like a badge of honor. Like it's his excuse to squash others."
"What if Dad and I never speak again?" Tama wondered, sniffling.
"You will." Sato predicted, "It may not be very nice for a while, but he's got to accept that if you're one of the people he said who make catastrophic mistakes and need to be forgotten…he'll never be able to do it. He'll eat his own words. Because you're his daughter."
Snuffling, Tama stretched out to wrap her arms behind Sato's neck and bend in a hug. He rubbed soothing circles on her back.
"I'm sorry I've made everything so hard." Sato gave her his thousandth apology.
Her hands carded through locks of his hair when she said, "It's not just you who's made things hard. Don't be sorry. I knew someday it would be like this with my Dad, whether or not you were in the picture."
"I wish I could have done everything perfectly. Made all the right decisions back then." Sato sighed and imagined what could have been, "It'd be easier."
"Everyone wishes that exact thing, at some point." Tama supposed, "If you had, eventually, Dad still would have blown up. If he always thought those things about me and you, even if we'd taken every proper step…he was going to make it known sooner or later."
"Jeez..." He gave her a slight squeeze in their hug, and then stood up again, "Are you going to be okay?"
"I'll be okay." Tama wiped her face and also stood, "So…what else was on our to-do list for today?"
"Well, we already moved your stuff to my place. The stuff that mattered anyway…"
"I think Mom kind of knew what I was secretly relocating my belongings yesterday, and she covered for us." Tama recalled.
"She's very intuitive."
Tama nodded, thankful for her mother, "Yeah."
"Apart from that, we just need to make sure that garden we rented is set up for the party. Move tables and seats over there, hang some lanterns and streamers. I bet my uncle and Tenzo will help us."
"Didn't they already handle catering food? Don't ask so much of them."
"They said they'd be happy to help after I told them!" Sato led her along, "I've got to take them up on the offer. It's the least Kakashi can do, really…"
That evening, the gathering was a quaint affair beneath string lights, tucked behind tall shrub hedges and garden boxes of kochia and cosmos. It had been a healthy turnout of guests: Miako, Gai, Kakashi, Tenzo, Asuma, Kurenai, Iruka, Shizune, Tsunade, Hinata, Shino, Sakura, Kiba, Lee, Tenten, Neji, Chouji, Ino, Shikamaru; all floating around the space peaceably. Tama's cohort had also appeared: Mion, Shoda, Yurie, Mashu, Aiko (and her husband and children), Inohei, Choukoki, Kojika, Michiko, Nogo, and Banri (looking a bit crestfallen himself).
Maito Ken had tried to make an appearance and maybe even contain his pyroclastic rage, but he could only walk into the garden to immediately turn around and walk back out without his wife. Miako had a feeling he wouldn't be able to handle it. She let him return home so she could enjoy the evening without his fussing.
Dressed in modern, western-style outfits, Tama and Sato moved around the packs of guests to thank them and socialize. Tama's maternal uncle and aunt, as well as her grown cousins, were chatting with Tama when another small group of guests arrived, and Sato was perplexed for a moment before rushing over to greet them, "Holy crap! Grass ninja!"
"Hey shithead." Noé greeted him with a big grin, "I didn't think you'd invite us to something like this!" He was accompanied by his teammates who had also competed in the Chunin Exam: the kunoichi Guena (who Hinata had defeated in a prelim round), and Yanagisawa Aota, the sole Final Round participant from Kusagakure.
"Hey, hey! Congratulations!" Aota was enthusiastic with a handshake and was sharply dressed, "Thank you for inviting us, Hatake-san. Here, this is for your bride. I grew them myself." He handed a basket of lotus flowers to Sato, "Now where is that lovely dragon? Excuse me." Tactless, Aota wandered off to find Tenten and flirt.
"That idiot." Guena mumbled under her breath.
A handsome, brunette man middling in age stepped up to Sato next, "Hello Hatake-san, I don't believe we've met in a formal sense. I am the Jounin Sensei of this team, Mahoto."
Sato blinked wildly, "Mahoto…" He knew that name from somewhere, "How nice of you to come. Do I—?"
"I'm Toshisue Anyo's old teammate." Mahoto explained with a smile, "That's my son, Shigeyuki, over there." He pointed out his adult son (a near carbon copy of Mahoto, but younger) somehow wrapped up in conversation with Akimichi guests at the buffet table.
"Oh my— heck! Yes! I know." Sato laughed ecstatically, "It's great to meet you! Anyo told me about you. It's such a small world. Wow, and when Anyo talked about your kid he made it sound like he was still a baby. But he's all grown up now!"
Mahoto nodded blithely, "That's just how these things go. When we tell our stories, children will always seem to stay children in our memories. Even once they're out of the house and active ninja."
Sato was tickled pink by the meeting, "I've got to say hi to him! But tell me, how's Anyo doing? The last time I saw him he said he was looking for Sarincha. Is everything okay?"
"I think so. Yes, that was some time ago. He searched all over for her once she went missing. Anyo even went to Nanakusa to see his father in law, to make sure she wasn't there. But he found Sarincha in the Tide Village, helping out the Medical Corps there." Mahoto explained, "She is well."
"Good, good! But, uh…like, are things bad in the relationship? I don't know why she'd run off…" Sato was still missing a few details.
"That's not something you should ask me!" Mahoto chirped bashfully, "They're here, you know. Go ask them yourself."
Sato yipped in elation as he looked in all directions, and yes, he did spot Anyo accepting a glass of wine from the barkeep while simultaneously holding a plate of food for Sarincha to eat from.
"You guys!" Sato stopped just short of crashing into them, "I haven't seen you in so long! What gives? How are you?"
"Sato!" A morsel nearly flew out of Sarincha's mouth. She hugged Sato while happily rocking side to side, her overcoat puffing out as they scrunched, "We're good! Anyo, look at him! Doesn't he look so handsome?"
"He looks like me." Anyo assessed with a smirk.
She batted her husband's shoulder playfully. Sarincha kissed Sato's cheeks in greeting before passing him to Anyo, who gave him a fond hug.
"Congratulations to you and your bride. Where is she?" Anyo skimmed his eyes around the garden.
"Ah, Tama's aunt and uncle are kind of monopolizing her right now. We'll go see them in just a minute so I can introduce Sarincha, but first…" Sato gave Sarincha a concerned look, "Where did you go? Anyo said you were missing for a while."
"No need to bring that up..." Anyo tried to deflect the subject. Sarincha's face indicated she was going to offer a true account of events to Sato out of courtesy. Knowing it was imminent, Anyo took a long gulp from his wine glass.
"I'll summarize. In what was…not my most considerate move as a spouse…I arranged for someone to replace me as the Director of the clinic in Kaido…and I didn't tell Anyo." She winced as she spoke, "Then I packed up and went to the Tide Village to assist their Medical Corps. Again, I didn't tell Anyo."
Her husband looked very miffed about it.
"Why?" Sato was perplexed.
"It was a dumb, selfish decision. 100 percent." Sarincha confessed, "We agreed to never have kids, but when I found out I was— accidentally— expecting, I panicked and knew I couldn't fulfill such a promise…so I buttoned up all of my responsibilities in Kaido and disappeared. I didn't tell him anything, and I thought I could raise a baby on my own in Shiogakure. Easier said than done, what with that village recovering from a serious attack…"
Bug-eyed, Sato looked to Anyo who had his head tipped back, pouring a stream of wine into his mouth.
"And it was truly a hateful thing to do not to offer any explanation to Anyo about what was going on, but I just couldn't face him. I was a traitor and promise-breaker. I sought to fulfill my dream at the expense of every vow I made to him. I felt horrible about it a few weeks later, though I couldn't go crawling back and admit what I'd done." Sarincha continued stuffing food in her mouth, getting emotional, "So here's a piece of advice: don't do anything like that. No disappearing acts. Disappearing is a no-no."
"That's what you're calling it?" Anyo drawled.
"Anyo." She gave him a sassy neck-roll, "Relax."
He shoved a prawn in his mouth and chewed aggressively. Sato could not believe what he was being told.
"I am at fault. I did wrong. You should've seen me trying to hold down a full-time job at Tide's hospital in my first trimester blubbering like an idiot and wallowing in guilt. I don't know how anyone could stand to work with me." Sarincha went on, "And how stupid was I to think my husband would never find me? I mean, I was less than 80 kilometers from the town I used to live in even though I had crossed a body of water. He's a Jounin and of course there were details I missed that gave him a trail to follow. Eventually, Anyo found me in the Tide Village…"
"But everything's okay? You didn't fight or break up or–?"
"I thought she was dead." Anyo inserted himself into the tale, "Or, woefully lacking in tactics when it came to running off with some secret lover, which wasn't the case. I was furious when I found her. It was neither of those things. She'd just resumed her life in another village like she hadn't left me behind!"
"Shush! There are a lot of people here…" Sarincha hissed.
"I thought about getting back at you or doing something dramatic, and it didn't help that I could see you were pregnant. And alone. And just so…pitiful and forgetful…walking into things."
Her eyes teared up and she nodded, "I was pitiful. I was a disaster. No wonder you didn't try to mess with me."
Anyo recounted, "You were falling over things…"
"Yup. Outside of the flat I rented, I was always tripping on the walkway…"
"You absolute…" Anyo kissed the side of her head, "Idiot."
Sato was speechless.
"I watched Sarincha for about a day before I decided to approach her peacefully, without any theatrics or accusations." Anyo explained, "She wasn't handling things well on her own…and I missed her."
A wobbly smile spread on the woman's face, tears clinging to the corners of her eyes. Sarincha was vacillating between sassy confidence and teary klutziness that were likely triggered by wild hormones. Not that Sato really meant to look, but he could see the roundness of her belly beneath her coat.
"We worked it out." Anyo summed up, "Having and raising this child doesn't make me any less worried about what could happen—"
Sarincha interjected, "There is no curse on your family. We're going to be fine—"
"We are quite old to be first time parents." Anyo went on, "But we can make the most of it. We moved to the Hidden Tide Village and enlisted in the standard forces there. We won't be able to serve Hidden Grass or Kaido anymore, but employment opportunities are much better in Tide, and we are closer to Migawari-san for visits. I'm sure he'll want to see his grandchild when he can."
Sato waffled on the name, "Migawari-?"
"Eto Migawari is my father." Sarincha calmed down again, cramming the last of the appetizer snacks into her mouth, "I'm pretty excited to live closer to him! I bet he's bored in retirement. We let him know that we moved. Oh! And Sato, you and your wife can come visit us there and play on the beach!"
"—! That'd be amazing! Be careful offering things like that to us, or we'll be hanging out with you every weekend." Sato's excitement was making him shimmy.
"Your Hokage is never going to let you loaf off that much." Anyo supposed, glancing at Tsunade as she absconded with an entire bottle of sake for herself from the bar.
"Come on! Introduce me-!" Sarincha pushed Sato towards Tama and her mother's family, with Anyo tagging along.
Interactions began to incorporate food and many took seats throughout the garden as sunlight dwindled. Since Iruka wasn't sure where to go after interviewing every last former Academy student of his, he dropped down onto a bench across from Gai, Kakashi, and Tenzo at a picnic table. Iruka's assessment was, "This is just the weirdest thing…"
"I've seen weirder." Kakashi refrained from giving an example.
"No, well, I mean it's beautiful! It's that these were all the knucklehead kids I had to train at the Academy— it's weird to move past my memories and see them as adults!" Iruka clarified, "Sato and Tama are married now, though it felt like I just saw them graduate…and all of my former pupils here, looking so mature and strong…"
"Yes, yes, even in the few years since I first met my Genin students…they grew up right before my eyes!" Gai agreed, "What a splendid privilege it is to witness such a thing!"
"It is a privilege." Iruka agreed with a far-off look on his face.
"You're all so sentimental." Kakashi was amused. He'd long since stopped eating and had pulled his mask up again. Beside him, Tenzo was slowly sipping Shochu over ice, remarkable in his restraint so that he could work the next day without a hangover.
After chatting pleasantly with Gai for several minutes, Iruka turned his attention to Tenzo and said, "I know we've met somewhere before—"
Tenzo sat up straighter and totally ignored Kakashi's merry eyes, clearly thrilled that his boyfriend had to jump through social hoops like everyone else, "Ah, I'm Tenzo." He extended a hand to Iruka who shook with him, nodding and smiling.
"Right! Yes, it's sad to say, but I remember seeing you at the Sandaime's funeral. I remember." Iruka recalled, "Umino Iruka! I've been talking to everyone who now trains my former students, and I didn't mean to be rude—"
"No, no, it's not like I initiated conversation either." Tenzo waved it off.
Kakashi's attention darted between the two, and Gai was also trying to be nondescript as he watched the interaction. Gai had pounded back two full bowls of stew just so he wouldn't say anything. He was privy to Kakashi's past and present in the way most close friends were. He recalled an occasion years ago when Kakashi had spoken to Iruka to get a feel for what graduating Academy students were like, since the Third had forced him to mentor a Genin team. Iruka had given Kakashi the scoop. And a date, once, per Kakashi's curiosity. It hadn't gone anywhere as far as Gai knew.
"How do you know Sato-kun?" Iruka asked innocently.
"I…know him because of Kakashi." Tenzo's smile was small, "We were in the ANBU together, back in the day."
"Oh, I see!" Iruka understood, "That's excellent that you stay in touch-" He didn't hear Kakashi's humorous pffftt, "-and get to see new generations come up like this! You should see some of the rising talent in the Academy now. One in particular could make for one of the best shinobi this village has ever seen…" Suddenly, Iruka's face fell, "Or, maybe not."
Tenzo canted his head, "Or not? What kind of trainee?"
"It's a sensitive subject." Iruka lowered his voice, "I haven't really spoken outside of faculty about it."
Even Gai and Kakashi leaned in, telling him to spill.
Huddled like idiots, sipping alcohol and munching food, Iruka spilled the beans to the gathered Jounin, "I've never seen someone score so high on aptitude tests. Not even Shikamaru-kun. It's unsettling, actually…." Iruka sipped from his drinking glass and said, "I don't know who'd be up to the task of training this student…or if she'll even graduate. She excels at practicals and has flawless grades, though I feel some doubt over how she interacts with other students. There are many psychological issues that make me wonder what Council officials and the Hokage will think…if it's better to continue evaluations, or deny her entry into the standard forces."
"Deny entry?" Gai was baffled, "Does this child pose a threat?"
Iruka shook his head, "That's just it. It's too early to tell. We wrapped up entrance exams for our newest students and have begun the school year. Other Chunin Sensei have agreed that we can't judge so soon. In the past no one had been able to foresee…" He hesitated, "What kind of future Uchiha Itachi would have…"
Collectively, their stomachs sank after hearing such a comparison.
"Is this student from a prominent clan?" Kakashi asked, "If so, a clan can give better guidance. Well, that's how it's supposed to work." He wouldn't cite any of the Uchiha clan's failures.
"About that…" Iruka rubbed his cheek, "Her clan has not acknowledged her. This is the eldest of the three illegitimate children that Yamanaka Inoshishi had. You heard about that, right?"
"Inoshishi-san passed away in the attack on the Tide Village." Gai recalled.
"Yes, and that's created further issues. His clan never accepted these children, since he refused to wed their mother, but he always provided for the children. A good man, but stuck in a bad romance." Iruka summed it up, "His partner hounded Inoshishi up until his death, wanting to be married and have her children legitimized. But now she and those kids have no leg to stand on with him gone, and the Yamanaka clan continues to ignore them. There won't be any guidance. And the children are growing up in a highly dysfunctional, single-parent home while training at the Academy. Or at least, the eldest is in training. I'm not so sure about the others…"
"This is kind of scandalous." Tenzo murmured, "Can you disclose the name of the student?"
"I'm worried you'll repeat it and then this'll be a village-wide rumor." Iruka admitted.
Kakashi raised three fingers for an honor-code swear, "We promise we won't. It'll be kept in confidence, and maybe we can help somehow."
Iruka sighed before relenting, "Arimachi Isae. This student could be the smartest ninja in the making this village has ever seen, however…some test results suggest she exhibits Avoidant Personality Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, Depression, and is generally withdrawn from most other people, especially other children. There haven't been any signs of Sociopathy, but teachers have been wary. It isn't right to assume a child who's been through so much could go rotten…but we've seen such patterns before…"
"Be careful." Kakashi recommended, "If this one turns south, it'll be a fast and dangerous turn."
Iruka nodded, "Of course. We've been trying to work out some educational accommodations for Isae with her mother, Arimachi Masumi, who is…uncooperative to say the least. Sensei at the school routinely make more time for this student, and even arrange for extracurricular activities which seem to keep Isae stable."
"What sort of extracurriculars?" Tenzo wondered.
"Well, anything really. Any department that will tolerate a seven-year-old. Lately the Civil Department and other Administrative branches have put her to work with small tasks. It gets her out into the community, which is what we want. Contact and social exchange." Iruka explained, "But really, I don't know the way forward. I suppose by Final Examinations this year we can prepare a strategy and educational path…but after that?" He shrugged with a lost expression.
Gai asked astutely, "Has this been brought to the Hokage's attention?"
"Once, over a month ago. Tsunade-sama hasn't revisited this matter because of other incidents requiring her attention," Iruka looked over his shoulder to where the Hokage was sitting, "And I'm not dumb enough to bother her with this at a wedding reception! She'd knock my head off."
"Go ahead and try it." Kakashi could imagine the brouhaha that would follow.
"Heck no." Iruka hissed.
"I wonder if Commander Netsuke and my unit are aware of such a child? If anything escalates, Black Ops…er…I hope Black Ops wouldn't be needed." Tenzo sipped his drink again, "But they should know."
Glumly, Iruka nodded along to that.
"It'll probably be fine." Kakashi guessed, "The key is to not let this student be an outcast, or allow the student to force others away. Neither was allowed to happen to me, for example. Look how I turned out."
"Picture perfect." Tenzo snarked. To challenge that assessment, Kakashi moved to pull up his open copy of Icha Icha Paradise from beneath the picnic table, and Tenzo wrestled the offending hand back to its hiding place.
"Oh look." Kakashi said, pointing to the garden entrance to blatantly distract Tenzo.
"Put that away, you're at your nephew's—! Reception. Whatever this is." Tenzo groused.
"No really, look. Aren't you responsible for Sai?" Kakashi gestured with his head.
Tenzo was surprised to see Sai wander in, dressed as plainly as ever, taking in the sights and moving counterclockwise around the space.
Tenzo sighed, "I'll bring him over here so he can't cause trouble."
Thank goodness he had done so, because Sai nearly honed in on Ino's location on the far side of the garden. Courtesy of Noé's DJ-ing expertise, the Grass ninja piped music throughout the yard's stereo speakers, and tempted quite a few guests to sway and step away from tables.
Having taken a leaf out of the Han-fashion book, Sakura was dressed in red and pink silk cheongsam, the crook of her arm linked with Hinata's as they turned in lazy circles to nostalgic, crooning music. Likewise, Hinata was dressed in kimono for the occasion, resplendent in white, violet, and lavender, her cheeks pink from a few sips of wine she'd taken from her gal-pal's cup.
"Good thing it's not too cold out. Garden parties are so nice…" Sakura spoke in one long sigh, "I'd like to get married and have a party outside too, but, you know, in summertime."
Hinata nodded tipsily, "Mm-hmm, summertime."
"Lots of flowers."
"You should get married in the garden I keep at the Hyuga estate." Hinata imagined.
"Can I do that?" Sakura chirped in amazement, "Wouldn't I need special permission?"
"I give you my permission." Hinata was giggling with her eyes shut.
"…I don't know if that's enough, Hinata-chan." Sakura began to grin, "Should we get another glass of wine to split?"
"No, no…I don't want to be scolded by Father when I go home."
"Fine, you're right. We've had enough. Thanks for dancing with me." She squeezed her friend's arm, "I wish Gaara-kun could have made it here. I think he would've liked this."
Hinata agreed, "Of course! He would've danced with you too."
"Pff! Gaara never dances."
"Well, we're just spinning and it's quite easy. He could've done that."
Sakura had a loud laugh as she pictured it. Buzzed twirling was a step below beginner level, so even Gaara couldn't decline such a dance. As the music began to take on a more up-tempo beat, neither girl attempted to modify their slow orbit that was mostly conversation.
Hinata noticed Sato bring Tama into open space, "Ah, there they go. I was wondering when they would dance."
"The bride and groom always have to greet each of their guests. It takes a while!" Sakura said as their eyes tracked the newly-married couple that seemed to be, finally, at ease, and for the moment free of judgement that would saddle them with guilt and otherwise render this occasion pointless.
But, Sakura's brain echoed that thought, this won't last. By tomorrow, the naysayers would be whispering, and Tama would be confronted by the people who casually intersected with her life for work, missions, and leisure, who would ask with a smile if she had lost her goddamned mind.
And Tama would only be able to smile back. Sakura's heart twisted as she imagined what was to come. Small, trite volleys of shame disguised as concern and sociability.
Nearby, Sato led Tama in a beautiful box-step to a rosy tune, their minds and movements synchronized as they ignored everything else. Sakura and Hinata were mildly shocked to see Tenten appear among a handful of other accompanied dancers, as she had accepted Aota's invitation after chit-chat. Neji remained seated on a bench, impassive, and Lee may or may not have been acting on instructions when he promptly cut in to steal Tenten back with a polite excuse me. The Grass ninja stood there with a vexed look on his face.
"Onee-san's dress looks so nice! Auntie Kayato made it for her." Hinata reported on Tenten's attire while people-watching with Sakura.
"Really? So that's new? I like the watercolor designs." Sakura noted that, per usual, Tenten was also wearing cheongsam but with a different color scheme. Blue and black hues— dark and floral, lacking her preferred reds and maroons. Rotating, Sakura and Hinata migrated towards Lee and Tenten and were summarily greeted.
"You two are having fun." Tenten smiled at them, "Did you see Aota try his luck again? I didn't want to be rude and tell him to buzz off."
"We are and we saw." Sakura said as she and Hinata switched arms, slowly whirling in the opposite direction.
Lee lifted his hand to make his teammate spin in a turn, "Perhaps you should have been more direct with Yanagisawa-san, Tenten. Neji seemed a little upset…"
"He's just sitting there! He's not upset. And he won't dance, so…" Tenten shrugged, "Neji knows he's my number one."
That earned a heartfelt sigh from Hinata. When Kiba turned up to borrow Sakura for a dance and gossip in hushed voice about what he'd overheard veteran Jounin discussing, Hinata ventured over to her cousin and plopped down beside him on the bench. Neji was picking at a plate of grilled herring, and Hinata took a stick for herself when he offered it.
"You know you can dance with Onee-san if you want to." Hinata reminded him, "No one will care if your dancing is good or not."
Neji gave her a sidelong look, "Maybe they won't. Though I said no before, when Tenten asked. She might think it strange if I changed my mind."
"Change your mind, Onii-san!" Hinata encouraged. She took a big bite of fish and scrunched her eyes, shimmying her shoulders to nudge him and maybe get him to his feet. Neji chuckled softly. Hinata was more gregarious with a drink in her. He took another sip from his own wine glass, and hoped it would dull his reluctance to participate in an activity he had snubbed for most of his life.
"Naruto-kun's dancing was never very good, but I was always happy that he chose me…" Hinata reminisced about days gone by at festivals, "It'll be wonderful to dance with him again. We talked about that in our letters. Whatever chance we can get…" Hinata sighed, took a bite, chewed some more.
"When he comes back, you should speak to Hiashi-sama." Neji advised, "To make your intentions known." It was a sort of unspoken fact that Hinata had eyes for no one but Naruto, and she would endeavor to make him the most central part of her life. Neji knew it and had known it for a long time.
"Father seems to be aware of our intentions even before we say anything. I know…it won't be easy…" Hinata set a finished skewer down on a refuse plate, "I think Father would be understanding, but our Elders…are almost never understanding. Naruto-kun has always been treated differently by people in the village. That won't be overlooked."
"Certainly not. To overcome, you need to play our Elders' games." Neji nibbled fish and added, "However I can advocate for you, I will."
She shook her head, "I don't want you to get into trouble, Neji-niisan."
"The only way things will change is if we invite trouble. Without risk, the doctrine of the Hyuga clan is going to be what it always was generations before. Elders hope to prevent mishaps and loss by that method, but when they do, nothing can ever be improved upon." He was feeling a little philosophical, "There will be friction. If Naruto's companionship is something that Elders object to, we have every reason in the world to dispute that."
"You deserve to be happy."
"Onii-san!" Hinata pressed her sleeves beneath her eyes, resolute in not shedding tears, happy though they may be.
"Let's not drink anymore." Neji decided, setting his empty glass down. They were both way more emotional and outspoken than usual.
"Let's not. Come on." Hinata rose and tugged him by his hand, "I will teach you how to dance."
"Hinata-sama…" Neji was still in no mood to attempt it.
"No more stalling. You need to learn, so you can dance with Onee-san! You'll be with her all your life and she likes to dance." Hinata reasoned, "She needs to dance with her number one!"
Neji's ears reddened after hearing such a declaration, yanked upright by his determined cousin who then tugged him to the patio area where other attendees drifted. Hinata found that Neji, though a bit rigid and not very enthusiastic, was quick to learn steps. It was more a matter of teaching him how to relax. The lesson did not garner much attention as more gathered to dance, and Kurenai passed by in Asuma's arms, signaling with a wink her approval of Hinata educating Neji in the social arts.
Dancing and drinking prevailed for the rest of the night. Laughter peaked when Tsunade agreed to share a brief dance with Hatake Sato, who was a good sport about the many times she stepped on his feet and turned in the opposite direction or without prompt. She was intoxicated, but happy. Meanwhile, Kakashi danced with Tama as if to substitute for her father, though neither mentioned the significance of it. She was surprised by her teacher's aptitude, complimenting him before he departed to drag Tenzo to his feet for a spin.
And as Hinata had wished, eventually she had gotten Neji calm enough to realize his skill with movement was innate, and dancing was merely a set of patterns he could repeat. Tenten mouthed a thank you to Hinata before turning back to Neji, trying not to give away her explosive satisfaction as his hand found the small of her back and pulled her close. She was probably smiling too much. She'd asked Lee to keep Gai-sensei occupied so he wouldn't fawn over them, though it had only amounted to Gai and Lee tearfully rejoicing on the sidelines in their general direction. Somehow Neji ignored it.
One by one, Tama and Sato's peers trickled back to seating to recuperate, returning to drinks and snacks. Several had accumulated around the table where Ino, Shikamaru, and Chouji sat, though Hinata and Shino drifted away as conversation began to take on a negative tone. Lee continued to keep Gai company as they socialized with Kakashi's table, and Tama and Sato hardly ever departed from the dance-floor. Shikamaru's drooping eyes were trained on the couple.
"Ridiculous." He muttered.
"What did I say before?" Ino tried to regulate her boyfriend's drunken temper.
"You said not to say anything unkind, or in other words, just not to speak my mind." Shikamaru groused.
She'd already taken away his wine glass and poured it out on the ground, watching as he leaned on the table top, his cheek resting in the palm of his hand, plainly dissatisfied with the event. Or, how alcohol had made him perceive the event.
"Just for tonight, that's what you have to do. Don't speak your mind. If it makes you feel any better I'm not either." Ino granted him, "You can't be at a wedding reception and criticize the guests of honor. This might be the one day they don't have to deal with that."
"Right, the one day they won't have to. Because this is the most blatantly idiotic thing…and maybe it merits criticism?" Shikamaru ventured, stifling a hiccup, "Since Tama is fully aware of Sato's indiscretion, like pretty much the entire village is, you'd think she'd know better than to marry the guy? He's just going to let her down again."
"Shikamaru." Ino's nostrils flared, "Stop. Talking."
"Give it three months." Shikamaru held up his free hand's last three fingers.
"Shika, please. You had way too much to drink." Chouji rubbed a circle on his best friend's back, "You don't mean any of this. It's not for us to discuss. We—"
"Not for us to discuss? No one got that memo a month ago." Shikamaru scoffed.
Ino held her forehead as if to suppress a headache, mumbling to Chouji, "I swear if he doesn't stop—!"
"Hey!" Shikamaru's attention was drawn to the next picnic table, where Sai was seated and vaguely paying attention to them, "Didn't I tell you not to sit with us?"
"I'm not at your table anymore." Sai pointed out, "I am now at a different table."
"You are still within a meter of Ino, so it's insufficient." Shikamaru nearly bared his teeth, "What part of get lost is so hard for you to understand? You aren't welcome to hang out with us. You're an unwanted barnacle."
Though he took a bite of a dessert pastry and said nothing, there was a hint of despondency on Sai's face.
"Wow, for once Sai barely even says ten words to me and he's still a social outcast? He was trying to talk to Chouji before!" Ino pounded her fist on the table, "What is with you, Shikamaru? Sai is allowed to hang out with us, even if I'm present. Get over yourself."
He retorted quickly with a justification, "He has no respect for you."
"Seems like you don't either." Her blue eyes were gleaming, furious.
Alarmed, Chouji rose from the bench and collected Sai (somewhat defeated-looking) to bring him around to kinder parts of the party. Chouji added to his teammates before leaving, "Shikamaru, I'm bringing you a pitcher of water and then you're going to drink it. Then calm down or go home, alright? Be right back. Come on, Sai."
"Tch." Shikamaru wasn't pleased to see his best friend to show compassion to the one trying to snatch Ino. He managed not to talk for almost a full minute, relaxing slightly when Ino scooped his hand from the table and rubbed it between hers, prodding accupoints.
"Don't get so riled up." Ino spoke to him quietly, "Please try to enjoy yourself."
"It hasn't been so easy."
"Maybe because you haven't really taken a good hard look at how hot your girlfriend is this evening," Ino taunted pleasantly, "See this dress? I'm a modern goddess. Look at me, I could've come in a boring kimono-!"
"Ino," He watched her from the corner of his eye, "I know. I just…can't stand when he looks at you."
"You really need to let that go. Sai is a non-factor." Ino lifted a sprig of grapes from a bowl, popping one into her mouth and one into Shikamaru's.
When Sakura happened by, Ino's face beseeched her to detour and stop at the table. Sakura understood the nonverbal command and she sat down, "You two look kind of sloshed! How's it going?"
Ino tried to maintain the cordial mood, "Pretty good for some sloshed people."
"I've been better." Shikamaru was still cradling his chin in his hand.
"Maybe you should call it quits soon." Sakura advised, "Did you see me dancing? Sato danced with me! I laughed so hard when he let Lee dance with him…"
Chomping on grapes, Ino tried to not to laugh again and choke, "I saw that…"
"Hee hee, see they're still at it?" Sakura grinned and pointed back over her shoulder, where Neji and Tenten rotated dreamily, "I can't believe Hinata-chan set him to it! He's pretty good, and you can see Tenten is just melting. She's wanted to dance with him for so long—"
"Don't even start with them." Shikamaru rumbled.
Ino dropped grapes back into the bowl, "Don't you start."
"What?" Sakura asked faintly.
"Man…it's one thing that Tama and Sato stuck to a bogus family oath and arranged marriage, but it's probably worse seeing Tenten walk on eggshells for the Hyuga clan just so they can end up telling her to pack up and leave—"
"Don't. Not again." Ino's congeniality was replaced by ferocious caution, "Wait for Chouji to bring you that water. Then you chug it, got that? Stop picking on people."
Sakura's concern was triggered, "What do you mean about Tenten? It's obvious that Neji—"
"It's not gonna last." Shikamaru gruffed, laying his hands flat on the table, "Anyone can see it. Neji's got no say in it, even if he thinks he does. Her background is the issue."
Sakura tried to process Shikamaru's nonsense while Ino quietly uttered threats, reminding him of where he was, and at last Chouji returned with a pitcher of water and several drinking glasses. He noticed Ino's distress and asked, "Should I ask Asuma-sensei for help?"
"Yeah, just for a minute. Just to talk him down." Ino requested.
Chouji faithfully navigated through the garden again and Sakura remained at the table, pouring glasses of water for everyone. She was wondering to herself out loud what could possibly thwart Tenten's position in the Hyuga clan, "I don't get it…"
"Did everyone forget? Tenten is related to Huo." Shikamaru then promptly took a swig of water before Ino poured it forcibly down his throat.
A quiet fell over the table as the fact sunk in. Sakura could admit she had forgotten, and had never spared a thought that perhaps the Hyuga clan might disapprove of such an association. Huo had tried to kill his competitors during the Chunin Exam, Hinata included.
In a dramatically bad case of timing, Tenten departed from the dance-floor to help herself to water at the table her friends were seated at. Ino tried to signal to her to vacate, but Tenten did not pick up on it, still high on endorphins, "Mmm! Ah. I was so thirsty. What's up guys?"
Before Sakura could come up with any kind of believable lie, Shikamaru point-blank asked Tenten, "Does the Hyuga clan know you're related to Huo?"
The smile on Tenten's face inched away and she instantly retreated into herself, absorbing the question as multitudinous thoughts burgeoned in her mind.
"Dammnit, Shikamaru." Ino held her head again, "Can't you restrain yourself for a little while? Drinking doesn't excuse you— we're going to hold you accountable for the things you say!"
Sakura touched Tenten's arm in some show of bewildered support while the woman reeled.
Shikamaru kept talking, "What I say? Doesn't do any harm. How about what you don't say to your clan?" He directed it at Tenten, "Were you honest about it, or did you hide it from the Hyuga clan's leadership? Huo's a part of a fanatical group of mercenaries that have it out for you. There's no way that the Hyuga elders will ever be comfortable with that."
Sakura snapped back to herself, angered, "Shikamaru, shut up already!"
He didn't, "You can't simply ditch your identity. People can still die because of it. How would you feel if—?" Shikamaru sputtered; Tenten had tossed her glass of water in his eyes.
Face red with rage and humiliation, Tenten turned on her heel and stormed out of the garden.
"—oh for the love of fuck." Ino popped up from the bench, her stress off the charts, "Did you really think you could say that kind of shit? I'm glad she doused you. Honestly, I'm glad!" She wrung out a part of her skirt that had gotten damp from the water-toss. Ino glanced around and hurried to a food table behind them in search of cloth napkins to dry her ass of a boyfriend.
None of this had escaped Neji's notice from where he was speaking to Tenzo, keeping an eye on Tenten across the way. When he saw what she had done to Shikamaru, and how Tenten had immediately left without him, Neji was highly aware something was amiss. He excused himself to confront the witnesses, beginning with Shikamaru.
"Why did Tenten leave?" Neji asked.
Still dripping, Shikamaru now found this domino-effect hilarious, "She doesn't like the truth, I guess."
"You need to stop." Sakura warned, vainly attempting to silence Shikamaru, "Neji, ignore him. He's plastered and saying cruel stuff about everyone."
Eyebrows elevated, Neji was taken aback, "Why would you say something cruel to Tenten?"
"Why do you think? She could get you and your clan killed." He said it so nonchalantly, "And she's trying not to think about it. The Chunin Exam was just the start. What happens when assholes like Huo come back? They nearly got Kakashi. If they look for her, she'll be among your clan."
"She will be safe." Neji was unruffled on that front.
"Keep telling yourself that, Neji-"
"—Shikamaru!" Sakura considered putting him in a head lock, and waved at Ino to hurry up after she'd found napkins.
It was hard not to think about the struggle that Hinata had gone through in the final round of the Chunin Exam, or the fate that had befallen Hikune when he had encountered Koinyu. Neji had to view those incidents through the lens of experience, as awful situations to learn from, knowing they wouldn't be so unprepared in the future. After all, Tenten was worth it. She had never asked to have a target be put on her back. She'd lived a humble, solitary life.
"So if it's not unendurable to know that she's a magnet for violence, then maybe you're less thrilled about how she lied to your clan's leadership?" Shikamaru supposed, "That can't feel good. She wouldn't have had a shot with you otherwise, if she'd been honest from the start."
"You're drunk and wasting your breath." Neji observed.
"Wake up already. She's a liar! Tenten lied." Shikamaru ignored Sakura batting at him, but slowly acquiesced to moving as she pulled him up from the bench.
Neji's eyes got sharp, "Tenten is not a liar."
"She fooled your uncle, her adoptive parents, elders, you name it: I guarantee none of them know. That means it was a lie."
Ino returned, putting a towel on Shikamaru's head and attacked his face with a cloth napkin, "That's enough. Shut your mouth and let's get you out of here…"
By then, Neji was obviously seething. Sakura wondered if it was time to flag down Lee and Gai to assist, but, sadly, Shikamaru yanked the napkin from his face and prodded, "Did you want her to lie—?" Then he was flat on the ground, struck in the face so lightning quick that Sakura would swear she hadn't seen Neji punch him.
'But he did, oh no, he did.' Sakura wasn't sure if there was any way to control Neji when he was angry and Tenten was absent. She craned her neck around to yelp for Hinata, trying to block Neji as he moved to circle around the table to scrape Shikamaru up so he could vacuum-wave him across the garden. But Neji did no such thing.
Beside them, Ino's body cascaded to the ground and Shikamaru sat up, looking frantic, "Don't! Don't! It's me! I've got him. I'm…so sorry about this." Ino had to communicate through Shikamaru's badly abused body and cope with his discomforts, "Sakura, please apologize to Sato and Tama for us, alright? I've got to get Shikamaru home." She, through her Mind-Body Switch control of Shikamaru, then also apologized to Neji, "I'm sorry, Neji. He was out of line."
Neji let go of a rattling breath before he nodded to her and left. Shikamaru (under Ino's control) gathered Ino's body into his arms, and Sakura, like a good friend, tucked Ino's evening bag into the unmoving girl's hands. Tears brimmed in Sakura's eyes, "Ino…"
"I'll be okay. I can handle this." Ino/Shikamaru assured her, "Sorry you had to see that, Forehead…"
"Do you need help?"
"Not yet." Ino/Shikamaru smiled somberly, "But find me tomorrow and ask me again. I think I'll need you." Carrying her own body like a helpless maiden, Ino puppeteered her uncouth man out of the reception and onto darkened streets to his home.
She didn't look back to see Chouji, Lee, Sai, Shino, Hinata, Kiba, Sato, and Tama clustering around Sakura to figure out what the heck had happened. Ino marched on, relishing some silence and cold night air.
'Are you even knocking around in here, Shikamaru? Can you hear me at all?' Ino thought within the mind she had captured, 'Say something. You were so talkative before.'
A long walk and many deep breaths later, Ino gently set her body down upon arriving at the Nara household, and released her control over Shikamaru. He swooned on his feet while Ino rose up with a miserable expression. Her hair was disheveled, mascara smudged around her left eye. One look at her jarred Shikamaru out of his foul state, and he wearily sat on the veranda of the house. His words caught up to him, recalling the hurt he had inflicted.
"You're an anxious wreck." Ino assessed, folding her arms, "Not a fun drunk."
Shikamaru held his head in his hands, "I'm sorry—"
"Tell them that. I should've stopped you sooner. Silly me to think you'd stop when I asked you to." Ino tapped her foot, "Thank God Sato and Tama didn't hear you. But now what about Neji and Tenten? You stirred up some major shit with them."
"You've been this way since…" Ino trailed off.
His voice was so soft she nearly didn't hear him, "There are a lot of reasons why you should like him better."
"Sai?" Ino exhaled harshly, "You're saying I like him better? Well, right now I do! He didn't embarrass me in front of friends or make me drag him home!"
Shikamaru remained hunched over and did not say anything, stewing in his insecurity.
"I'll try not to wake your parents, but heads up: I'm about to shout." Ino inhaled, furious, "You insecure jackass. Coming after people you think have it bad— or are inferior! Shikamaru, how do you think you've made me feel? Like I'm an untrustworthy woman who's going to cheat on you with the dimwit whose gestures I routinely ignore! Like my loyalty means nothing to you now and I can't be relied on. That fries me. I am ground down. I love you, but you've made me feel like what I say and do don't matter anymore."
"Ino, it does matter. I'm the one who says and does shitty things— pretty much hacking apart my appeal, right? I know you're exhausted with me—"
"Stop." She sat down beside him, winding her arms around him mostly because she was tired and needed to lean on something, "I don't want to say this again, so listen. Get the idea out of your head. Why do I put up with Sai? Because I ostracized someone once and it hurt that person badly. So now I'm more tolerant." Ino let her head loll on his shoulder, "It's unfair to make me defend myself over something I would never do. I chose you. I still do, even after your asshat-ing around."
Shikamaru wrapped an arm around her and leaned into her, "—sorry. I get it."
Ino yawned, "Ahh, I've got to go to bed. Alright now, make it up to me. Bring me home and tuck me in."
She still planned to give him an earful for the next few blocks.
When Neji set foot on Hyuga clan property, he used the Byakugan to look ahead to see where Tenten had gone. Her movements were agitated on the first floor of the house, bustling through empty hallways, rubbing a wet washcloth on her face to remove makeup. Between the bathroom and her tiny closet of a room, she traveled like a trapped tiger, sometimes turning and hesitating, finally sealing the door shut behind her. Clearly she wanted to undress, but the zipper at the middle of her back was just out of her reach. She would struggle alone.
As he often did, Neji bounded up and through the porch door of the house to his room. He stripped off his tang suit jacket, tossed it on his desk, shucked the shoes from his feet as he moved to the door of the bedroom. Before he could get to the hallway, Tenten reappeared, having forsaken her claustrophobic room. She startled at the sight of him with a small jump, "—! I…thought you were still at the party…"
"I saw you leave." Neji stepped aside to allow her entrance, sliding the door shut behind her, "Without you there, I had no reason to stay."
"Oh…you could've stayed." She moped and tried for her dress zipper again.
"We're both tired." He felt it was time to conclude the night.
Neji motioned for her to turn, which she did, and he slid the zipper down to free her. Tenten let out a long breath, making up her mind not return to her own quarters to change and sleep. She wiggled the cheongsam down and off her hips to step out of it. Neji seemed to have anticipated her decision and handed her a long tunic of his. Tenten thanked him with a mumble and slipped the garment over her head. She sat at the foot of the bed and watched as Neji ordered things, hung and smoothed the Hanfu they'd worn, undressed to change into his own sleep clothes.
Tenten watched in a daze. He'd never been more relaxed around her. Standing there briefly nude, in profile, before her eyes that stole seconds of that beauty before Neji dressed again. The intensity, the insatiable thirst that made her stare, that made her want to touch and squeeze and pin him down; to convey the things for so long she'd kept to herself… She'd become more acutely aware of this desire and its selfish undertones. Ah, she wanted him so much, but what would such want cost?
'He must think I'm going to sleep here. It's late, no one will see…and I hate my room. I…' Heat crept at the rims of Tenten's eyes, her throat getting tight as she thought, 'I want to stay and feel safe…but I don't know if I should anymore.' The words spoken to her at the party were an infection, spreading dread all throughout her being.
"Tenten." Neji got her attention again, pointing to the hairpins and baubles in her hair, "Take those out before you sleep."
"…o-oh…" Sluggishly, Tenten slid hair ornaments out of the singular, braided chignon on her head. Her thoughts nearly stole away with her again, in a bid to distract her from the present moment.
"I know what Shikamaru said to you." Neji told her.
Tenten's hand stopped on a brass and crystal dragon pin, foisted back to reality.
Neji added as he collected the pins she set down on the bedspread, "He didn't get away with it."
"There was no need to discipline him, Neji. He was drunk. Besides…" With a cracking voice, Tenten pulled the last hair ornament free, "Everything he said was right."
Baffled, Neji took the pin she handed to him and hoped his face was conveying even a fraction of the confusion he felt. She shouldn't agree with the man bad-mouthing her. She should be glad he was reprimanded and brought home. Tenten sat there, her hair unfurling in long waves down her back, her eyes downcast.
"I've known about all of those things he said…and what did I do? What measures did I take?" Tenten stared down at her cross-legged lap, "I tried to forget."
"None of that is important. Shikamaru was a raving drunk." Neji left the pile of ornaments on the desk, then crossed back to sink down on his bed.
"An observant, truthful drunk." Her voice wobbled, "Unlike me."
"Don't take any of his comments to heart. You belong here." Neji insisted.
Tenten shook her head weakly, "But I still don't feel like I belong. They don't let me feel that way." She meant the elders who only offered her scraps of consideration, seeing her as a means to an end, "I don't fit in the Hyuga clan. Still independent and unrefined after the lessons. A laborer. How does that even—?"
Neji scooched closer, magnetically drawing her eyes up to his own; wide and pearlescent, "Remember that you are admired for those things. No one else can boast what you can, Tenten. You break the mold to make it into something better, and that is inspiration this clan needs."
"Well they haven't said that. I'm glad you think that, Neji, but what we think and do is wrong in the opinions of elders and that, that…that's the least of it!" The sheen in her eyes was tempered with frustration, "I'm here as a convenience. A blemish on their record, but Elder Haburo said he'd make do with me being around. Let you vent sexual frustration—"
He scoffed at the venting explanation, "Whatever they really think— why should we care to know? It's always twisted and intolerable. Hyuga elders are never satisfied with anyone. Don't let that bother you. You are not just what they say you are, and you know that." Neji reminded her with a tiny bit of ferocity, "Tenten, you are more. And so many things that I am not."
Tenten's fingers curled into the bedspread, closing in fists, "…so what?" She ignored Neji's pained look, "What I am…is the worst part of all…"
Before he could think of something to say to retrieve her, Tenten went on, "You know…I'll admit it. Going to that reception was like a stab in the gut for me. I've just…all day…been filled with envy and disgust. It's embarrassing to see them together when their personal business is out there for all of the world to see. They're insane to get married." She was speaking about Sato and Tama, "So maybe they're crazy, but that still takes courage. I'm too cowardly to do something like that. They might be…the two bravest people I know."
Sitting with one leg folded, Neji sat there and listened to her. He didn't know yet how to help Tenten, but with enough of an explanation he was bound to come up with something. For now, he needed her to talk.
"I know that I…intentionally…obfuscated who I am and what happened to my family." She said quietly, "But I never meant any harm by it…"
Neji echoed gently, "No harm will be done."
She shook her head again, "It's already been done." Tenten did not fuss when he raised a hand to stoke her cheek, the caress descending down her neck to her back. It didn't do enough to calm her.
"I only ever set out to be…minimally noticed by you." Tenten admitted in a cracking, soft laugh, "To be appreciated by you, Neji. That was what I allotted for my personal wishes, back then…I never…" She swallowed and said, "Expected to be loved. Or to have anything serious with you…it just didn't seem possible."
"I'm sorry that I ever made you doubt." He continued his thoughtless touches, curling his body against hers, "I will not make you doubt again."
"…I've had second thoughts."
The precise statement that Neji never wanted to hear stilled him and made him nauseous. This wasn't something he could deal with. By nature, it was something he would never accept.
"I didn't plan much of a future for myself because I'd assumed I would be dead before long." Tenten shared her morbid rationale, "Dintei Bi will come back. If my Dad, who was strong enough to be a Kage— and my Mom, who was also Black Ops— couldn't stop these people from killing them…there's nothing I can do. I'll never be on their level. I don't want you to see…the grisly conclusion…"
He tamped down on some anger that returned, sparked by her pessimism, and wrapped his arms around Tenten, "You are so grossly mistaken about that it'd take all night to explain how. You have all the encouragement in the world for others, but did you save any for yourself? Tenten. You don't have to accept that fate."
"This burden that I inherited isn't meant to be shared. Like Shikamaru said— it'll get people killed. Make anyone close to me a target." She rested her head on Neji's shoulder as he held her, "I don't want you to feel like you have to get involved when I've taken advantage of your love and your clan's protection."
"Well that's too bad." Neji's tone was flinty, "No matter what you say, I will be involved. Expend whatever efforts are necessary to combat a group that is not just your problem. How can you expect so little of me?"
Choked up, Tenten squeezed her eyes shut, her fingers tugging wrinkles into the back of his shirt, "No…no…more than enough…you've done more than enough…"
"I wasn't good for much when I was younger." Neji conceded, "I'll never return to that. I know I've improved, and that you are largely responsible for it. I want you to take a chance on me. However tall the odds may seem to you, face them with me. If that feels like a selfish thing to do…to stand against something together…then let it be. We can only do it once."
She bent and rested her forehead against him, "A-Alright…but…" Tenten sniffed and cleared herself, "I still need to be honest with your clan. If I'm a danger to others because of Bi's group, I have to say so—"
She went rigid, surprised by Neji's demand. He squeezed her tighter.
"Don't say anything about it." Neji repeated.
Flabbergasted, Tenten sat back a little to see his face, where she saw true anxiety creeping into Neji's expression, "Neji…I can't keep up the deception. This clan is not perfect, but it means a lot to me…the people in it…" She gave him a pressing look, "I need to tell the truth to your uncle, and Hideyasu and Kayato, at least."
"A noble thought, but if Elders are made aware—"
"If our Elders learn about it and cast me out or punish me, then that's what I deserve." Tenten was stubborn about justice, "But continuing to be dishonest is worse than that."
"If you say nothing, I'll always be able to help you. If they know then I—"
A disagreeing shake of her head, "No. If a single other person gets hurt or dies because I kept my mouth shut, don't you dare tell me you'd be okay with that, Neji."
After a long stare-down, Neji wilted. He wasn't okay with it. Neither was he okay with Tenten potentially jeopardizing her position in the Hyuga clan.
Perhaps what he had said to Hinata earlier was coming back to bite him. His idea about "inviting trouble" in order to create change. It was much easier to talk about the idea than put it into practice himself. Nerves frayed, Neji keened over and pulled Tenten down with him. They shifted up until they reached pillows, pressed into one another, rearranging their arms for comfort.
"You shouldn't say anything until Hideyasu gets back from Hidden Waterfall." Neji's voice was a low rumble, "Please. A few more days. Wait until he can be here to help."
"Alright, alright. It's fine, Neji." Where his shirt rode up, Tenten's fingertips traced along the span of his stomach and hip bone, "There's no use in worrying."
He exhaled, slowly surrendering to the weight of the day and what was ahead.
She pressed her lips to his and then whispered, "…thanks."
"Mn." He provided sleepy sound of accord with his eyes shut and adjusted the quilt.
Tenten knew very well that if she was dissatisfied with her shoebox habitation at the Hyuga estate, it was much wiser to cross town and sleep at her flat. Neji's space was off-limits, even if he never indicated that was the case. If she were ever caught spending the night here, Tenten wasn't exactly sure what the consequences would be, 'No one noticed last time…but we shouldn't keep pushing our luck. Especially now that I have to drop a truth bomb and face the possible fallout…'
Her hands became immune to sensibility and consequence, mapping the man beside her. A nail skimmed up the slope of his waist and along his ribcage; Neji twitched under the tickle and settled again. The situation might be bleak, but it was not lost on Tenten how heartfelt Neji had been while she fretted. For the whole evening, in fact, he'd devoted himself to her. The mere thought pooled heat in her belly, made her rub her thighs together.
She ought to leave him alone and let him rest. Ought to halt her hungry, wandering hands that searched for the person she might lose. It wasn't good to do this here, where she could break a plethora of rules in one go, adding to her list of crimes. Chutes of moonlight streamed through the room's window, cutting the dark, and Tenten wondered what Neji was thinking or if he was awake at all, lying beside her with his eyes shut. There was no way to know.
Each prod along his hip, and every nonsensical trail Tenten's fingers tracked along his stomach; those touches contributed to the frenzy in Neji's mind. He put up a good front, hoping to seem relaxed and reliable in the face of Tenten's worries. He was still a bonfire of anger over Shikamaru's careless words, of excitement for daring to dance, of terror in thinking Tenten may lose her place among the Hyuga clan. Those feelings alone would keep him from sleep, but when she touched him it was all too much.
Neji couldn't keep still, couldn't feign rest. He cracked his eyes open to slivers before mouthing her neck, looping his arms around Tenten's back to pull her close. She uttered an Ah! of surprise and tipped her head back in offering, hands bunching in his top. His teeth pricked along her throat, then roved southward.
In a shuffle of frantic movement, Neji had slipped the tunic up and off of her, anchoring a hand on Tenten's naked hip, pressing firebrand kisses down her chest— listening to her contain a moan in tiny, whimpering fragments. "Mn…hng! Oh, oh…" Her back arched off the bed, her hands fumbled with his clothing.
It was no use— Tenten's hand-eye coordination was depleted by the time Neji rolled a pert nipple in his teeth, closing his lips around it to suck, using his free hand to dip two fingers into the wet space between her legs. He'd long since learned of the places where she longed to be touched, and now strived to master each pressure and motion.
And it was so much better to do this while it defied propriety, in his own space, on their own terms; even if Tenten still endeavored not to make a sound, her cries seemed to vibrate out through her eyes and expression. No one was going to tell him that she didn't belong. That she had to go. Here was right where he would keep her and his bloodless brain could think of nothing else. Every touch Tenten raked down Neji's flanks and back stoked him, distracting him with long, open-mouthed kisses before he descended again to her chest. Up and down and up again, migrating between sweet landmarks.
She batted his hand away from its clever work, muttering, attempting once more to divest him of his sleep clothes. This time Neji elevated himself to assist, and Tenten managed to slip his pants off; his unnecessary shirt following.
He heard the slap of his aching erection on her stomach, felt it already weeping from the tip. Neji exercised all the restraint he could, moaning softly against her mouth as she dragged his hand along the smooth vistas of her body. Tenten did not seem to need much more preparation as far as he could tell. She had eagerly angled her hips, drawing him closer with her legs as she cupped his face in her hands and kissed him, whispering, "Now, now…stop trying to be polite."
A breathy acknowledgment, "-I didn't ask before—"
"Ah? Well here I am asking," She slicked herself against him, "I want— hng! Haaah…" Neji pushed into her with a single, fluid motion. With intentional, slow rolls of his hips, he was hyper-aware of her tight heat and the sounds Tenten made. He muffled her pitchy noises with kisses, lest the whole house be woken.
Neji kept rhythm with languid thrusts, aiming to be gentle and keep sound to a minimum. Though it was a slow and tender act, interspersed with soft croons and caresses, neither could shake the unspoken fear of what turbulence lay ahead. Trying to squash that feeling with closeness was no easy feat. He pushed himself as deep as her body could accommodate, relishing Tenten's soft whimpers and her legs cinching around his waist. She was smooth warmth all over and within, searing him into oversensitivity. Her nails sunk into his back, walls clenching around him, lips sucking at the pulsepoint of Neji's neck— he had to move; more, quicker, deeper.
Try as she might, Tenten could not quite get herself to the threshold of release. The environment was not ideal and she hadn't done enough to steer herself down that avenue, but even so, grinding into Neji's thrusts offered a symphony of pleasure that was almost entirely as good as crossing the finish line. He was a marvelous sight: wide shoulders bowed over her, gasping into their kiss, hands anchoring her as he pistoned faster into her body. Tenten kept her eyes on him while she burned with him, rolling her hips up to meet him again and again.
Her habit of kneading his ass in her hands, when she could get them free, seemed to be a tipping point of touch— his nerves couldn't take any more input. Squeezing and pulling him close with her hands, planting kisses along Neji's face and temples, her mouth curving up with satisfaction as he made a throaty, strangled sound when he finally let go, twitching and filling her. A few more erratic thrusts escaped him. The brief calm that followed as they held themselves like that, observing each other with some fleeting, transcendent understanding, let their heart rates drum back to a normal beat.
Neji realized out loud, apologetically, "You didn't finish."
"Does it look like I'm dissatisfied?" She rolled her hips, pleased with his low, keening whine, "I wanted that. Exactly that."
Wrapping his arms around her more tightly, Neji gave a cue to move, and Tenten hooked a leg around him so they could shift to their sides. He stayed inside of her since she gave no indication he was unwelcome to, enjoying the intimacy for a while. Tenten folded her arms up, rubbing the pads of her thumbs against Neji's cheeks while watching his eyes droop, his whole face relaxed. He wouldn't let go. She acclimated to the firm hold, tucked beside him, and fell asleep.
In the dark of the morning, only a short time before dawn, Tenten opened her eyes and shut them. Then she cracked them open again, only to look upon Neji's sleeping face. Ah, she thought, what a perfect person to make mistakes with. No matter what, some internal voice reasoned, he was worth all the nonsense.
Blissful in her groggy state, Tenten drifted off again.
What registered when she next woke, as sunlight finally glinted into the room, was the depression in the bed beside her where Neji was seated. He carded his fingers through her unbound hair, gently raking his nails along her scalp. "Nnnnnnh…aaah." Tenten's vocalization was not completely voluntarily, but positive according to her boyfriend's ears.
"It's 6:00." He said, and she could hear the smile in his voice.
"No." Tenten was still unprepared to open her eyes again.
"No, what?" Neji was amused.
"It's sacrilege to interfere with…how comfortable I am." She declared, adding, "Keep scratching. Feels good."
"You can't stay in bed. The rest of the clan rises at this time and may spot you in here."
Tenten opened one, bleary eye, "Erg. You're dressed already?"
"Yes. I agreed to train with Lee and Shifu. Then Gai asked us to join him at our training ground later in the morning."
"It's too early for all of that." Tenten groused.
"You always wake up at this time, sometimes earlier."
"And I don't always get fucked so well, hmph. Let me sleep."
He was a bit rattled by her crudeness, hand stilling in her hair, "We shouldn't have…" Neji sighed, then said, "Was it good for you?"
"Extremely." Smiling, Tenten opened both of her eyes.
He couldn't help but smile back, "Ah."
"I didn't think you'd be such a rebel." She teased.
"It can't be avoided anymore. You bring it out in me."
Tenten relished the last few seconds of her head rub before Neji took his hand away, bending to peck her forehead and face.
"Wake up now, or at least return to your room if you need more rest. Do you want me to bring you—?"
"No, no, Neji. You don't have to keep carrying me all around this house. I can get there on my own." Tenten gradually pushed herself up into a sitting position.
He stole a full-on kiss from her and then advised, "Alright. Act casual. I should be back shortly after noon, and we can expect to be assigned a mission later…if the Hokage is functioning today."
"Hey! Have a little faith in Tsunade-sama." She was chortling at the thought of seeing how bedraggled the Hokage would look after drinking at Sato's reception.
With another parting kiss, Neji stood and retrieved a few weapon holsters and Mo-Ye from its place in his wall arsenal, then stepped lightly out of the porch door of the bedroom. Off he went.
With a soft groan, Tenten rubbed her face in her hands and struggled to her feet. Oh, oh, oh. She was so pleasantly sore. Memories from the night before came back to her, and she squared herself with the fact that she needed to maintain a holding pattern until Fujita and Hideyasu returned from Hidden Waterfall.
Fine. Just another puzzle to work through, like the many that had come before it. Tenten pilfered a tunic and pair of pants from Neji's wardrobe to put on, poked her head out of the door to look up and down the corridor, and set out when she found it empty. She scampered back to her room without incident, and changed into her own attire with sluggish movements, 'Hideyasu and Kayato most likely won't be upset when I explain…and I don't think Neji's uncle will be either…'
Huh, there was a thought. Kayato ought to be home, and she was the preeminent, most level-headed mother figure in Tenten's life currently. Why not run this I'm-a-target-of-rogue-assassin-cell business by her in the privacy of Kayato's work room and get some practical advice?
With her internal compass pointing in that direction, Tenten ambled through the east wing of the house and found Kayato's studio empty. She poked around, finding an open planner on a desk with the day's date circled, and note that read: Meet client for discussion 6:30am
"Shoot. Why is everyone up so early around here?" Tenten tapped her foot, "I should just…go to the forge and catch up on some weapon orders. I can do that until noon, then regroup with my team…"
Oh. Early morning. Her stomach did a flip. If no one else was around, she could be sure that the Main House courtyard would be reserved for Hiashi as he routinely did warm-ups on his own, and very occasionally, sometimes accompanied by his daughters. Tenten had been around long enough to memorize the timetable.
'Would it pay to tell him first, since Hideyasu and Kayato aren't around? I know Neji said to wait, but this is eating at me!' She tipped her head back, stewing in her thoughts, 'Hiashi-sama isn't going to take it as well…probably. But he won't take it horribly. He's never been rageful or acted thoughtlessly as far as I've seen.' As a leader of one of the most prestigious clans in Konoha, Hyuga Hiashi couldn't afford to rashly act in anger. When it came to what repercussions she could expect upon admitting her association, Tenten could not predict much.
Nevertheless, she marched through the house and arrived at the central courtyard, sliding a door aside to discover it was unoccupied. 'Huh. It's either here or the tea room, so I guess he's in the tea room…' Tenten backtracked into the house, arriving at the tea room that was most often used for the Main Family to take meals in. She knocked once on the door frame and received a soft bid to enter.
"Good morning, I…" Tenten paused as she slid the door open and discovered she was not looking at Hiashi, "Wanted to speak to…" She trailed off and gulped, discovering Elder Haburo and the younger Elder Hichida seated at the tea table. Her lips sealed shut.
"Lady Tenten." Hichida acknowledged her, "Whom do you wish to speak with?"
"With…Hiashi-sama…I see he isn't here."
"He is having a discussion in the Branch House, at the moment." Hichida noted.
Tenten shook her head, "It isn't urgent."
"If it needs to be said to the Head of this clan, it bears some importance." Haburo supposed, "Enter."
Tenten lingered in the doorway, "I really don't mean to impose…"
"Rude girl! The Great Elder gave you a command and you just stand there?" Hichida sniffed, "How lacking in etiquette. You haven't been taught nearly enough. Come in, don't dally!"
Surrendering to the order, Tenten stepped into the room and sealed the door, fighting the melting sensation that dripped dread from her brow and downward. She took a poised seat at the table across from Haburo, perpendicular to Hichida. Deep breaths siphoned through her nose.
"What did you wish to speak to Hiashi about?" Haburo was, unfortunately, very direct.
"Just a…matter that…wasn't brought up at my introduction…" How could she word it? Bend it? She had to come up with something fast.
"A matter? Of what sort?" Hichida asked before blowing the steam from his tea cup.
"Of…" Her heart stuttered, realizing that if she spoke any untruths she would only make things worse, "Of my lineage."
"Why would that be relevant?" Haburo was unimpressed, "Your previous ancestry is of no concern, now that you are a child of the Main House. Hiashi judged well enough, and Hideyasu had no misgivings about your origin."
"That's because I omitted something." Tenten drew another shaky breath.
"What did you omit?" Haburo's eyes narrowed slightly.
"I…" Her eyes bounced between Hichida at the end of the table, and Haburo, who did not seem to be in a state where she could catch him off-guard today.
"Speak, for Heaven's sake." Hichida clucked, pouring Tenten a cup of tea, "Here, to wet your lips. Drink some tea, young lady."
She stared down at the tea cup in front of her. After a long pause, she raised her eyes and said, "I am related to Sasagainu Huo. He and I are descendants of the Main line of the Sasagainu clan, formerly of Iwagakure. It has long since been destroyed by Dintei Bihokokuni, its disaffected Cadet member and known criminal—"
"Bihokokuni?!" Hichida screeched, "Descendant? That crushed clan that was scattered? Stragglers came here during the war, I know. Eh! Oh, Haburo-sama, what do we—?"
Haburo held up a hand for silence, "Young lady. Sasagainu Huo nearly killed Hinata."
"He escaped Hidden Leaf's security forces to return to his crime syndicate." Haburo also relayed some common intelligence of Huo's last known whereabouts.
"I know." Tenten repeated.
"And because of that, he can tell his leader, Bihokokuni, that you have been found. Is it right that Bi murdered most refugees of that clan? Surely his task is not finished." Haburo quickly pieced it together, "How long have you been aware of this association? Were you aware prior to the Chunin Exam?"
Somehow she confirmed it in a steady voice, "I was aware."
"And you disclosed this to Hiashi, upon his first meeting with you?" Haburo asked.
"I did not."
Hichida slammed his hands on the tabletop, knocking his tea cup over, "Outrageous! What profound disrespect! What disregard!" Hichida was rattling with fury, making gurgling sounds as he tried to find words to capture the gravity of what he'd been told. He seemed even more perturbed that Tenten said nothing further.
Haburo gave his younger counterpart an annoyed look, "Hichida."
"Great Elder! This was willful deception! A tactic to enter the Hyuga clan and avoid proper screening, perhaps to infiltrate and ruin us! Or use us as a shield!" Hichida extrapolated and ignored Tenten's harried hand waving— no, no, no, the man went on, "Paramount impudence. Would we ever accept such a liability into our fold? Never! We have more than our share of peril to deal with as it is—!"
"Stop talking." Haburo gruffed at Hichida. The other man went silent, a stricken expression on his face.
"What peril?" Haburo sniffed, "If that rogue group dares set foot in this village, and somehow bypasses the manifold layers of defense erected against such threats…I imagine Black Ops and Jounin will intercept them first."
"But if we—"
"Now that we are aware, disaster is far less likely." Haburo noted airily, "When I was a young man, the Dintei Sect had a more robust and trained following. Now they total less than a dozen members, and will only confront their targets by ambush. This is a distant threat. Trivial, compared to threats that exist within the confines of this village." He gave Hichida a pointed look, and Tenten wondered to herself if he was indicating the tense surveillance situation with the Root Foundation.
"A distant threat though it may be, she should be expelled!" Hichida insisted, catching Tenten wincing from the corner of his eye, "We can't mark her with the Caged Bird Seal, it would make her no more obedient. And I doubt Hideyasu would renounce his own child, adopted or not. Expel this thorn to mitigate the threat—"
"Hichida, if this young woman were cast out of the Hyuga clan, would it make a difference to that group?" Haburo employed straightforward logic, "The connection will never be undone in the eyes of criminals. As a punishment, banishment is much too clement." Shadows fell on Haburo's face as he glowered, "Discipline for lying to the Head of the Hyuga clan requires a much firmer hand. It is deceit that this clan will not tolerate."
Though Tenten was rarely ever one to bumble or beg for mercy, the impulse bolted like lightning through her, making her bow her head, press her hands together to plead, "Please excuse my stupidity. I never meant for it to become a lie, at the time I—"
"Spare me your intent. If you truly valued this clan, you'd have had the forethought to treat it with as much care as you would have your own kin and family. Instead, you'd bring harm to it for your own benefit." Haburo had absolutely nailed her with the truth, "Do you wish to injure the Hyuga clan? Damage it with falsehood, selfishness, and violence? Hardships that this clan has struggled to suppress since time immemorial…"
"I don't, I don't…" She'd bowed in half, her forehead almost touching the table top.
The tea that Hichida spilled had spread wide on the chabudai, and before it could drip down to the floor mats he began to mop it up with a handkerchief, grumbling to himself.
"I will settle this." Haburo informed Hichida, "Take your morning meal in here and do not trifle in this matter further, Hichida."
"Yes, Great Elder." He bowed his head slightly and threw a discreet scowl at Tenten.
When Tenten tried to take stock of where her heart had sunk to, somewhere down in the deepest pits of her stomach, she hardly registered rising at Haburo's command and following him through the wings of the Main House. She couldn't process it. Couldn't imagine what punishment the old tyrant believed would be more fitting than casting her out. If he meant to keep her in the Hyuga clan, then surely he'd cooked up a way to make her miserable now.
Why was she compelled to confront things; injustice, in particular? She just could not keep a low profile the way Neji had asked her to. Now that she had botched her chance to make a more favorable case for herself, what was Neji going to think?
"This way." Haburo slid a porch door open and ushered her onto the veranda that surrounded the Main courtyard.
Ah, how odd that she was back here so soon. Tenten scurried ahead of the elder, stepping down from the porch as directed. Beneath the shade of the roof's eaves that blocked morning light, Haburo folded his arms behind his back and stared, a glare that bored straight through her. Tenten held still, anticipating physical or verbal attacks, her mind racing. She would not resist. If she had any chance at all of recovering from this, under no circumstance could she rebel against what was done to her.
If he beat her bloody in the courtyard, or directed someone else to…
"What are you thinking so hard for?" Haburo interrupted Tenten's wild contemplation, "This won't take long. I don't have the strength or patience to beat you. If that's what you were expecting? In my younger years, maybe…" He circled around her, moving toward the house again, "Wait here. If you move an inch, you will regret it."
She didn't turn to watch him re-enter the house, her back facing the door she'd come from. Tenten heaved dry, ragged breaths. If she were lucky, perhaps Hinata or Hiashi would come along and ask what the matter was— intervene, somehow. Surely her offense would be forgiven if they had a say, but, Tenten reminded herself, Haburo almost never wanted to give them a say in anything. She'd stuck her head in the mouth of a lion and thought she could make the best of it. What had she expected would happen?
Something inside had told her to do it. A funny, wispy tickle; a tendril running from her heart to her stomach— some unknowable halation of confidence that she'd ignored for most of her life. Even in this uncharted territory, Tenten entrusted her next steps to the small warmth inside that her father had always called attention to. 'Pff. Dad and his philosophical sayings…is that what's going to get me through this?' He'd had a million proverbs, back when she was an Academy student. One such favorite being the words of a fairytale, Taoist prince who surmounted great hardships, asserting: Body in the abyss, but heart in paradise.
In other words, her conscience could be clear. Though a mess had been made of her surroundings, she could at least take refuge in righteousness and know she hadn't compromised her morals.
Returning footsteps caught her attention, and Tenten's meager trappings of hope flagged at the sight of Haburo returning with three Branch House members. Oh. Maybe this was intended to be a beating.
What was worse, she recognized these people since she had grown acquainted with many members of the Hyuga clan. The youngest, a nine-year-old girl, Hyuga Nene— was the picture of innocence and good behavior, blinking rapidly in confusion. Beside her stood Nyozeka, a year younger than Tenten, looking strong and sure; Aunt Hizome's firstborn son and thus an adopted cousin of Tenten through Hideyasu. To their left was Takuma, the eldest, a full-fledged adult, who before anyone else, seemed to have realized what was going to happen before Haburo explained. Takuma's face fell, his eyes meeting Tenten's.
"You've no regard for harming the Hyuga clan, young lady." Haburo told Tenten, "And so I will make you see, help you acknowledge what pain you can inflict. You've led a soft life so far. It's time to grow up and witness suffering, the same suffering you should strive to prevent at all costs." He demonstrated a hand sign that had been taught to Tenten months ago, reminding her how to subjugate anyone with the Caged Bird Seal.
"Choose one. Better this than one of those assassins running them through with a sword. This pain will only be temporary— unlike what you could have wrought." Haburo stood beside Tenten and crossed his arms behind his back again, "Then you will be the picture of truth and fealty. As a member of the Main House, after all, this is your duty. If you or any member of this clan steps a toe out of line, fit to throw us into chaos, then you must be able to correct such conduct."
He didn't want to hurt her. Haburo wanted her to hurt them.
Heart accelerating, nearly stampeding plumb out of her chest, Tenten could hardly draw breath. This was unthinkable. This was the precise thing Neji would not forgive. He never wanted any Branch member to be subjected to such pain and humiliation again. If she complied with what Haburo was demanding, she would betray Neji's most profound wish.
Not a single Branch member made a sound. Tragically, this treatment was nothing new to them. Though they did not have the full context of what was going on, it was plain to see that Tenten was being indoctrinated in order to meet Main House standards.
"Choose." Haburo repeated the word.
Tenten weakly shook her head, "I can't…"
"Cannot decide—?" Haburo's frown deepened.
Nene was obviously terrified. She'd never had her Cursed Seal activated before, and looked helplessly at Tenten, then to Nyozeka and Takuma. Nyozeka gave her back a small pat, not permitted to speak, but hoping to ease her nerves.
Breaking protocol, Takuma spoke up, "Great Elder…"
"Silence." Haburo didn't want to hear it.
"Please, I wish to volunteer. I offer my service to the Main House for whatever purpose it requires. Nyozeka-kun and Nene-chan—"
Nyozeka was hissing under his breath, "-don't be stupid!"
Takuma kept speaking, "- they have many duties to fulfill today, and I do not. Allow me, I humbly ask." Whether that part about him having tasks to accomplish or not was true, Tenten could not judge.
At any rate, Haburo flicked his hand in agitation at Nene and Nyozeka, signaling for them to leave. Tittering in fright, Nene hurried away and Nyozeka slowly trodded out of the courtyard, heartbrokenly looking back at Takuma.
So there. It had been decided for her. At least the other participant in this despicable act was a long-established ninja who knew what was coming, and in all likelihood could handle it.
All the same, to use the Seal against a man she'd gotten to know and had been amicable with, for no good reason at all, merely to appease Haburo, was not something Tenten could do. It would suggest that she was superior or entitled in some way. 'I'm not.' It would lend credence to Haburo's belief that sacrificing the well-being of Branch members was for the good of the whole of the Hyuga clan, 'It isn't!' She knew all of this in her heart, as strongly as Neji knew it. She could not deny these truths.
"It does not require much chakra." Haburo advised in an ice-calm voice, "Get this over with, young lady. I don't have all day."
Tenten tried to negotiate, "Whatever you want me to learn…I can't learn it this way. I already understand."
"You do not." The elder's nostrils flared.
"He didn't do anything—"
"He? It's you. This concerns you. Should I ask you to chop him with one of your many weapons?" Haburo's temper boiled over, "Does that suit you better? You're no flower in this clan, your father and I agree. You are a sword. You are destined to discipline members of our clan, but how can you if you have no discipline yourself?"
"SILENCE." Haburo boomed over her.
She was shaking. Takuma gave her an encouraging look, permitting her to activate the Seal. He was highly sympathetic and did not take offense to any of this. He also wanted it to be over with. He would not hate Tenten for being forced to do such a thing— he knew she had no desire to.
Fed up, Haburo circled around to stand behind Tenten and raise her hands, grappling with her. She squawked in horror, trying to resist, rather astonished that such an old man still had strength to puppet her into a position.
"When I say for you to do something…" Haburo snarled, "You DO IT. Stupid girl."
"I…" Tears clung to the corners of her eyes, "I…won't."
"Who do you think you are?" Haburo kicked the back of her leg, and Tenten dropped down to a knee, her arms restrained, "You are no one. You are a remnant! A stray piece to fit on our clan's board to serve one purpose, since dear Neji-kun is so difficult he'd elect to lead a celibate life otherwise— you do as we say and perform your duties!"
"Please, I'm begging—!" She screamed and couldn't speak, her right arm twisted back to an angle that nearly pulled it out of his socket, much like it had been during the Chunin Exam.
Takuma was fidgeting, highly alarmed, "Haburo-sama, I…!"
"Not one more word out of you or else!" Haburo roared at him. Takuma stilled and watched in shock as Haburo thrashed Tenten, jarring her bad arm, striking several of her chakra points with his free hand, "Eh? Is this what you want? You take pain unto yourself? What for—? You're pathetic! Now you couldn't even activate the jutsu if you wanted to, with your chakra blocked. Weak!"
"I…w-won't…" Trembling terribly, Tenten scraped up the audacity to speak, "Ever…u-use…that s-seal…"
"You're a fool like the rest of them." Haburo callously tossed her, unconcerned with Tenten heaped on the ground, sluggishly pushing herself up.
The old man rounded on Takuma, who was rooted to the spot in bewilderment.
"If you are incapable of seeing through this task, you are still able to watch." Haburo spoke sidelong to Tenten, raising his hand to form the necessary seal.
Terror and desperation braided into a rope of adrenalin-fueled action in Tenten's gut. She was up on her feet, light and fast, buoyant in spite of her crippled chakra circulation. In fact— she felt something else. It felt so very light, that thread between her heart and stomach…like a second furnace her father would preach about back in the day. The lightest energy she'd ever sensed, burning gold, lending speed to her outstretched hand that settled on Haburo's upper arm as she dove at him in the half-second before he could apply chakra to the technique.
There, in the shade beneath the house's awning, they sunk and were gone. Takuma leapt up in heart-stopping astonishment upon seeing Tenten tackle the Great Elder and plunge with him through a shadow.
"OOOF!" Haburo grunted.
Tenten was breathing heavily and trying to get her bearings. They were now inside the house in some dark space, and she scrambled to make heads or tails of what had happened. 'Ah! Oh no. I Shadow-Stepped! Did I hurt him?'
The Great Elder was slumped over on the floor, also trying to assess how he'd been transported to the interior of the house. Tenten rose to stand, patted around, and then felt the give of a sliding paper door. She opened it to peer out into the hallway. She mumbled the location out loud, "The boiler closet…"
"Heaven and Earth…" Haburo grumbled and extended his hand, "Help me up."
Half-petrified, Tenten did so, and hoisted the old man to his feet.
"That jarred my bones. If you meant to attack—"
"I didn't! I had no idea I would do that at all." Tenten insisted, "I wasn't even sure I could."
Haburo dusted his clothes and exited the facility closet, perplexed. He turned in a small circle. He looked left and right, used his Byakugan to spy Takuma still standing in the courtyard.
Then, Haburo settled on Tenten, mystified, "What jutsu was that?"
"It wasn't Ninjutsu." Tenten was tenderly rubbing her shoulder, "That…was a Tao Art."
"Tao Arts..." Haburo wrinkled his nose and looked away.
"…I apologize, Great Elder. I didn't mean to cause problems. But what you asked is something I won't ever do." Tenten explained, "I would rather die than do that."
"If you die…how will this clan be led? Who will teach future generations, and carry on the legacy of the Hyuga clan? Don't you understand what all of this is for?" Haburo sighed heavily, "So much is at risk. The gifts and secrets of this clan can be stolen, don't you realize that? You must act as a steward to protect what is ours. Or it won't be ours anymore."
"Then, I won't die." Tenten decided, "But I'll find a better way."
"What astounding naiveté." Haburo palmed his face, grumbling, and then said, "Come along."
Though she really didn't want to, Tenten complied. She'd pushed her luck much too far. They arrived at Haburo's personal study, which did not make Tenten feel any safer when he shut the door and moved around the office to hoist the blinds at each window. He then ushered her over, his gestures communicating a sort of weariness. Tenten approached and was surprised when the old man gently prodded her chakra points, opening them again.
"You still must be punished." Haburo determined, "Actions must have consequences. If you intend to resort to such antics whenever Branch members are concerned, I'd rather not bother. But if you remain a part of this clan, you must accept responsibility for what you have done."
Tenten nodded somberly, "…I understand."
"Your shoulder?" He wondered in a tired voice.
"Oh! It'll…be alright." She didn't want him to fuss anymore. The attention was uncomfortable. She was still deeply upset. Haburo did not look delighted either, for his part. He hobbled over to his desk chair and sank down into it. He massaged his temples with his fingertips and brewed in his thoughts.
"Great…Elder?" Tenten wondered if by some miracle she could be excused and deal with this at a later time.
"You may not leave. I am reaching a decision." Haburo dashed her hopes, scowling down at the mess of his desk, trying to order it, "You need to learn respect, young lady. You dare lay a hand on an esteemed elder of the Hyuga?"
"I did it to protect Takuma—"
"Takuma's duty is to protect the Main Hou—"
"He's a person just like you and I! He's not worth any more or less!" Tenten bit her lips shut after shouting.
Haburo splayed his hands flat on the table, "You simply do not know your place. I have NEVER been pushed to my wit's end like this." He glanced down at the desk calendar, and noticed an appointment, "Ack! And I wasted much too much time…I'm expected at the pavilion…"
Phew. Maybe she could—?
"You'll be going with me." Haburo stated with finality.
Tenten's face went sheet white. Accompany Elder Haburo to, what, a pavilion? What pavilion? She couldn't stand this man! He was so set in his ways. Had insulted her! Injured her! Put the welfare of Branch members on the line for a rubbish reason, and had even implied she was kept merely for the purpose of ensuring Neji would not end his days an heirless man. To top it off, she could still expect some kind of punishment, and how could she be sure it wouldn't be as bad as or worse than what had nearly transpired?
She realized Haburo was squinting her, as if struck by an idea. He tapped a thin stack of documents into a folder, neatening the disarray within reach before he stood again. He pushed the folder into Tenten's hands, "Here, you hold this. Come along. To the Peony Pavilion."
What, was she a footwoman now?!
There was a possibility, Tenten feared, that she may have inadvertently, personally indentured herself to Hyuga Haburo. Because she was acquiescing, walking a few steps behind the miserable old man until they finally exited the house, crossed the lawn, and were out of the front gate of the Hyuga Estate. Well. This was a shitpie if she had ever stepped in one.
Where were they going? Was more strife around the corner? Who was going to tell Hiashi, Hideyasu, or Kayato where she had gone? Heck, who was going to tell Neji? It wasn't even 8:00AM yet. If she disappeared off the face of the planet, would they ever suspect Haburo was responsible?
"You have no family." Haburo observed out of the blue.
Tenten shook her head, frazzled, "Uh…pardon?"
"Apart from your adopted family, you have no living relatives?"
"I don't…" It was a bit of a sore spot for her.
"No wonder. Your filial piety is virtually nonexistent." The old man got rather talkative, "You must have some role models you respect, don't you? Well, not if it conflicts with your independence. Respecting elders can't be prioritized above your convictions— feh! Do geckos hunt in packs? No, so naturally they'd have no idea how to behave when introduced to the rest of their kind. You need to be taught. I might have the solution…"
Tenten's eyes flicked to the side, grimacing as she walked, 'He just called me a gecko.' And before he had called her a pathetic, weak remnant. Such descriptions really bolstered her self-esteem.
"Ah, we turn here." Haburo made an abrupt turn, down a narrower lane that bisected a brief subsection of residential homes just off of the central thoroughfare of Konoha. Tenten moved with the same, dejected synchronization, her eyes lazily scanning rooftops when she saw it— the masked face of a Root agent ducking down.
Haburo moved with surety, looking no more agitated than he had before. They walked southward, not straying too far from the most populated vein of the village.
Tenten at length whispered, "Great Elder…"
"How long have we been watched?"
"Since we left estate grounds." The old man gruffed, "This is now commonplace. You think they'd take greater care not to be noticed, though I suppose they find concealing themselves a moot point, when the Byakugan could so quickly detect them."
"Would Root…do anything to us?" Tenten was genuinely curious.
"For now…no." Haburo imagined, "Though it seems to me…they are looking for something. For some kind of evidence or action…that they might deem a security threat."
"That is ridiculous." Tenten hissed.
"Isn't it? I wish I could say more…" There was a melancholy in the old man's voice, "I wish there was more I could do. But those days are behind me now…"
Tenten asked, "What can I do?"
Haburo stopped for a long moment. He'd never entertained such a thought. She nearly regretted her words, irked by the old man's pale, far-seeing gaze as he considered the circumstances.
They continued on down a manicured promenade, at the end of which was an enormous, splendid building encompassed by trees and gardens. Haburo responded to Tenten's question with another question, "The…Tao Art you used…how does it work?"
She wanted to withhold such information, and yet Tenten sensed sharing it might benefit the clan, "I'm not exactly sure yet, but I think I'm beginning to figure it out."
"It does not need chakra?"
"I'm pretty sure it doesn't." That in and of itself was a bizarre observation that Tenten could scarcely wrap her head around.
"That ability…" Haburo surmised in a low voice, "May be something that can aid the Hyuga clan…should times become difficult." He cleared his throat and added, "So, learn more about it and master it. The same way you will learn about filial piety."
Filial piety. Oh great. Apparently that was the trajectory of her punishment.
This impromptu excursion slowly but surely began to make more sense as Tenten noted the sign outside of the grand building, Peony Pavilion: Senior Care Center. A home for older citizens, it appeared. Though she was aware such places existed, Tenten had never spared a single thought about them. The closest she had ever gotten was checking up on Wong Leung at least once a week. Haburo took the folder back from Tenten when they ventured inside, and he told her to wait in the lobby, proceeding on his own to a small office with glass windows, sharing words she could not hear with the Center's administrator.
Glancing around, Tenten immediately judged this place was inaccessible for people who were not of means. Tile floors shined, rich potted plants and artwork abounded, bright colors and light made the space welcoming. Corridors and gathering rooms within her line of sight were filled with comfortable furniture, tables, bookshelves, and various forms of entertainment— from painting easels to musical instruments. If an old person were lucky enough to retire here, Tenten told herself, they paid a hefty sum to enjoy such luxuries. Most senior residents that she could see were accompanied by uniformed workers, patiently assisting.
On a large, framed plaque on the lobby wall, Tenten read a dedication that explained the center's mission and that it had been founded 90 years ago, 'In honor of the Senju clan…'
Huh, how nice of the village's founding clan to create a space for elders. In its original incarnation, back when Konoha had been a hardier patchwork of huts and post-battle restorations…had this place been so ritzy? Was this the result of capitalistic complacency?
"Tenten." Again, Haburo's voice snapped Tenten back to the present. He motioned to a middle-aged, suited man who had left the office to greet her, and Haburo introduced, "This is Chigashira Koki, the director of the Peony Pavilion." When the man bowed with a smile, Tenten returned the courtesy.
"This is where we will part for today, on the condition you give your utmost effort to assisting elders." Haburo proclaimed, ignoring Tenten's troubled expression, "I am here to visit a dear friend of mine. I will keep an eye on you." He warned, "In compensation for your…eh…for everything this morning…you will work here."
"Part-time." Koki assured her, "We are already quite well-staffed, but I'd be happy to have our best manager show you the ropes."
Tenten gulped. No, no, no. This was not her forte. This was not something she'd agree to, and yet if she didn't, what alternative punishment would Haburo toss in her face?
She nodded woodenly, "Alright."
"Work hard and learn." Haburo demanded, "When we return to the estate, explain yourself to Hiashi. I will confirm that you've done so tomorrow."
Just like that, Haburo toddled on and to Tenten's amazement, she saw another old fellow at the end of the hallway brighten at the sight of the Hyuga elder, clambering out of a wheelchair to greet Haburo in a hug. She was going to have to jumpstart her brain again to get through this day.
"Eh-hem, so, Tenten, was it?" Koki genially addressed her, "Haburo-sama is a trustee of the Pavilion, so anyone that comes recommended by him is most welcome. You're a member of the Hyuga clan?"
"Yeah." She refrained from adding, Just not in the ways that count to Haburo-sama.
"Wonderful!" His steps clip-clopped over tile, delighted and energetic at this hour of the morning as Tenten chose not to vent her frustrations or roll her eyes. He had no idea what a fracas she and Haburo had narrowly avoided.
And thus, to her chagrin, she was promptly introduced to other staff members outside of administration. Tenten's personal details were taken for security purposes, she was provided a uniform, hygienic shoe covers, and a face mask before sanitizing her arms and hands in hot water at a sink. Chigashira had dumped her off on a manager named Ogase, and was likely never to be seen again.
"Did 'ol Chigashira tell you what you'll be doing here?" Ogase asked.
"Taking care of old people…?" Was about what Tenten had gathered.
"Ding! You got it. And the definition of that statement can vary. It may look sunny and nice on the outside, but you get a spectrum of awfulness here, okay? Sometimes a resident is just lonely and has no friends or family left. Other times they have no idea who they are, where they are, and can't take care of themselves. You'll see it all." Ogase warned her, "If you care about human beings, this job is going to demand a lot from you. Admin doesn't hire people who don't give a damn. Top quality care means only the best are allowed to handle these seniors, but even then, it takes a lot out of us. I've been here eight years, and every time I lose one I tear up."
A slight ache panged in Tenten's chest. Yes, this definitely was not her wheelhouse. Not to say that she couldn't perform the work, but she didn't want the emotional drain that came with it. 'No turning back now. I'm lucky I didn't have to fry Takuma's head earlier just because Haburo is a heartless bully. This is just what I have to do.'
"We'll start our rounds on the first floor and I'll show you what to do, let you know about our policies and such. When can you work? You're a shinobi, right? I work seven days a week here, and I'd like you to come in for a few hours at a time for at least five of those days." Ogase squiggled initials and times on a wall-mounted schedule. He regarded Tenten's crestfallen face.
So much for getting work done at the forge. She could forget about it while this task ate up her time.
Tenten haggled, "Can you do four days a week?"
"I can do four." Ogase nodded, "Here, how do these days look?" He tapped on the schedule for what was upcoming, "I can be flexible. I get it if you have a mission, but I'd like to know when I can usually expect you. It'd be a big help."
"Yeah, that works…" She relented.
"Good, good…" His marker squeaked on the board.
Tenten observed other employees coming and going from the staff room, all rather droopy and worn-out. Some made bee-lines for coffee pots on the counter.
"Everyone looks so…" She got a sense of what was to come, "They, uh, don't look as happy as Chigashira-san."
"Heh! That's because the director gets to dress nice, greet people out front, and set up programs…" Ogase snickered, "He's never had to spend his entire day frantically prepping meals and medications, or conducting treatments. Bet the only ass he's ever had to wipe is his own…"
Balking, Tenten ventured, "His own…?"
"A lot of residents are weak and need help cleaning up. Get used to it. That'll be 60 percent of your time here, I wager." Ogase estimated.
"Can I be a janitor?" Tenten asked.
"No. Hey, have some compassion! Someday you'll be old too."
She pitched back a sassy counter, "I have the option of dying on the battlefield, so I don't have to watch the last bit of my dignity dissolve."
"Great, but for those that don't have that option, have a bit of deference. They're not a waste just because their last days are a struggle. That's something you'll see here too." Ogase smiled and adjusted his glasses, "It's not easy making a ninja do this kind of work, but I think you'll be better for it when you do."
"Yup, mm-hmm, whatever you say." Tenten shook off the urge to crawl out of her skin, then requested, "Ogase…in about two weeks, can you write a letter for me that states you've seen me demonstrate exemplary filial piety?"
He snorted, "Only if you actually demonstrate it."
Note: Goodness, there is a lot of emotional whiplash in this chapter. Hey there reading champ, thank you for getting through this installment! This was supposed to be a triple-update, however the third piece is action-fueled and needs more work. The next chapter focuses on shenanigans in Hidden Waterfall, and after that, Naruto comes home. Feel free to leave your takeaway thoughts below in the collection box.
Chapter 58- Behind the Waterfall