Huff huff huff... writing this chapter was like running a marathon.
Could've Been, Might've Been
They were facing one another in the worn clearing, pretending not to know each other. Various weapons were scattered about and the sunlight reflected off of each silver steel. The heat of the midday was fast intensifying, and sweat was pooling on the sparring partners' foreheads.
Seven days had flown by since Tenten's Suna vacation, and now she was back in Konoha with her friends. Her engagement with Sunagakure's Kazekage had been broadcasted publicly by the Godaime Hokage herself, and it had come to the point where Tenten began to spend as much time indoors as possible to ward off her spontaneous well-wishers. The wedding was to be held in Suna, and all of her friends who were not in active duty by that day had been invited. To say that Tenten was nervous was putting it simply— the entire occasion was looking to be a very big deal. Of course, it shouldn't have surprised her, considering that she was marrying a Kage, for crying out loud. Even so…
The wedding was two days from now.
She'd bleakly protested the urgency of it— after all, what was a month or two?— but as soon as she'd agreed to marry Gaara, he had wasted no time in telling the council members. The council members, of course, saw no point in prolonging the engagement and rushed off to prepare an impromptu wedding. Tenten had been feeling very sick by the fourth day of preparations, after she'd tried on different wedding gowns. Currently, all she wanted to do now was to get it all over with and go to sleep for a very, very long time. Heaven help her if she ever woke up.
Even with all of her frequent well-wishers (mostly Gai, Lee, Sakura, and Ino), there were… non-well-wishers. In fact, there was probably only one person in all of Konoha who had yet to congratulate her— she was facing him right now.
She'd only gotten back from Suna three days ago, and Tenten, after much indecision, had decided to take a risk and show up for early morning training. It was no surprise that she'd found Neji there, waiting for her as though nothing ever happened between them. Although, in a way, nothing really did happen. Much.
They'd sparred silently together and when it was over, they'd both gone their separate ways back home. It had been like that, more or less, for the past three days. Even now…
What hurt Tenten the most was not the silent treatment he was giving her, but that look— she had not seen it directed towards her since way before the Chunin Exams, when Team Gai had just began. She detested it. She felt as though time flipped back to those days, and all the years she'd spent slowly becoming close friends with Neji had just vanished from the time frame.
But what right did he have to be mad in the first place? In Tenten's opinion, she was the one who had the right to be mad!
With that in thought, Tenten brandished her large scroll and flung it upwards into the air, sailing after it unfurled and rapid summoning her precious weapons—
Neji moved faster, his Kaiten already in full force by the time any of her weapons could even get near—
On and on they went, sounds of steel clanging against steel and earth and wood echoing throughout the clearing. As the battle wore on, Tenten's mind flew elsewhere.
The entire village of Sunagakure had been invited for the wedding. It was more like a festival, really. Even if Tenten felt like backing out now, there was no way she could possibly do so… Everyone would hate her— and Tenten loved Suna. She absolutely fell in love with the village—
Not to mention, the animosity that might fuel between Konoha and Suna if she were to back out now of all times… She had almost no choice but to go along with it. The decision was final. Anything else— worries, regrets, whatever— no longer mattered. She had chosen, and she would live with that choice. Happily.
She was confident that she had made the right decision.
Yes, thought Tenten as she dodged a kunai that had been deflected back towards her, It's right… it's right…
Her feet touched the ground lightly as she took up another stance, ready to soar up into the air once more—
A sudden blur of pink, purple, and yellow obscured her view and Tenten felt herself roughly colliding with two bodies as arms and hands shoved her back down towards the ground. A dull thud resonated across the clearing when her back hit the earth.
"What the—!" Tenten exclaimed as she raised her throbbing head, only to find a cheery Ino and Sakura beaming down at her.
Ino helped the weapons mistress up and linked her arm through the disgruntled brunette's. "Sorry, Tennie," said Ino happily, acting as though she hadn't just tackled the other girl bodily to the dusty terrain, "But with you leaving for Suna later, me and Sakura here thought that it wasn't right for you to spend your last day in Konoha training."
"That's right!" the blonde's pink-haired accomplice chirped, "Today, we are having a girl's day out— whether you like it or not!"
"Besides," Ino continued, grinning as Tenten's face grew darker and darker with every word she was hearing, "You still need to help us pick out our dresses! Can't hardly show up with dresses that doesn't match the color theme!… Wait. What are your wedding colors again?"
The weapons mistress shifted uncomfortably on the spot. "Uhm… White? I think?"
Sakura glared at her. "Don't tell me you don't even know that!"
"Hey, I'm not the one over there planning it, okay? Suna's council members are!" defended Tenten, glaring back.
"Yeah, yeah," Ino dismissed lazily with a casual wave of her hand, "We forgive you your cluelessness, Sabaku no Tenten-san… So long as you let me bring your bouquet on the day!"
Tenten blushed furiously as she shot the two grinning girls an angry look. "Fine! Whatever!"
"Yay!" the blonde celebrated, high-fiving her best friend, "Say, you don't mind if we steal Tenten from you, do you Ne— Neji?"
The three girls whirled around and found that they were alone in the training grounds.
"I— I guess that means it's okay!" Sakura said, laughing nervously at the suddenly stony look on her friend's face. She linked her arm through Tenten's other one and smiled reassuringly. "Let's go to town, girls!"
Neji had never felt so hollow in his life. There were people who believed him to be unfeeling and cold, emotionless and guarded. But against that… that bastard… wasn't he, Neji, the more 'feeling' one out of the two? Out of all the people who could have stolen Tenten right out from under his nose… he would have never thought it would be him. Someone who, Neji was sure, was even more of a "cold, emotion-lacking, social-retard," to put it in Tenten's words, than he was! And yet, she'd gone to him. She chose to marry him. To be his wife.
Why? What did that bastard have that he didn't?
His anger intensified the more he thought about it. Gaara was nothing more than a ruthless killer, someone who deserved to rot in a cell and yet… he'd been forgiven, as though all the murders he'd committed had been nothing, and then he'd been appointed as Kage, where all his people celebrated his return after the Akatsuki abduction and he reunited with his suddenly loving family.
And now… now he even had Tenten to top it all off!
How much more lucky was that bastard going to get?
The worst Neji had ever done was to almost kill his cousin in the Chunin Exams, about six years ago, and that was because of a deep pain he'd harbored from his childhood. He'd never been a murderer like Gaara had been, and yet his relationship with his family was still strained, he was still nothing but a lowly branch-member, forever branded and cursed—!
His one freedom had been Tenten. But now she was gone too… Gone off to marry him!
And yet… And yet…!
He tightened his grip on the handle of the kunai in his hand. He could not resist taking it from her, even though he was sure that she would notice its absence eventually… He never quite figured out how she always knew if she was missing something from her massive arsenal.
Neji stopped in his tracks, feeling so much and almost nothing at the same time. The girl he'd unwittingly fallen in love with— his best friend for so many years now— was going to get married to another guy. It was a huge blow. It felt as though he had left something behind with her, like she was running away with a piece of him, never to return… Was it not fair to take a piece of her with him too? Even if it was only a single kunai…
The familiar voice snapped the Hyuuga prodigy out of his musings and he cringed inwardly as he recognized its owner. Stuffing Tenten's kunai under his sleeve, he turned around slowly, almost mechanically, and repeated to himself that things could not possibly become worse for him.
As he suspected, Naruto Uzumaki was making his way boisterously over to him, Lee following in his wake. The two were wearing almost identical grins and for a second, Neji was briefly reminded of Haruno and the Yamanaka from earlier.
"Neji, my eternal rival! I have been looking everywhere for you!"
"Yeah, yeah, Neji! Boy, are you hard to find or what, dattebayo!"
He watched as the two loudmouths rushed over to where he stood, steeling himself for the inevitable. As his life was already crap, why not add more?
Lee reached him first and, shoving his horrifying face up close to his, beamed his sparkling smile and proclaimed loud enough for the entire village to hear, "Neji! You must come with us at once! It is urgent!"
Neji heaved a long-suffering sigh. The two idiots had arrived only five seconds ago, and yet he was already feeling a migraine. "What is it, Lee?" he snapped, already knowing that whatever it was, it couldn't be that urgent. The morons were smiling, after all— he wasn't stupid.
"Tenten's gonna leave today right?" Naruto responded instead, his eyes narrowing into a suspicious glare, "Of course, everyone's gathering up to throw her one of those… Uh… Hey, Bushy-brow, what do you call—?"
"It is Tenten's engagement-slash-goodbye-slash-congratulations party!" Lee filled in dutifully. "That is what Sakura-san called it!"
Naruto nodded, satisfied with the answer. "Yeah, yeah! That's what it is!"
Neji scoffed, bringing the attention back to himself. He turned away abruptly and began his miserable way back to the Hyuuga manor. "Not interested," he called behind him.
Naruto and Lee exchanged exasperated glances as they watched the stubborn prodigy walk away. They had known that it wasn't going to be easy…
"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"
The cry gave him a split second warning before Neji found himself dodging close to a hundred Narutos, all of whom were throwing themselves upon him.
"What the hell, Naruto!" he exclaimed angrily, taking his Kaiten stance. First his training session was cut short, and now he was getting ambushed by his own friends— Things really did get worse, Neji thought sullenly, as his Kaiten was interrupted by Lee's infamous 'Leaf Hurricane.'
"Just come with us, Neji!" Lee bellowed, his rapid kicks missing by a hair.
"Yeah, then we wouldn't have to do this!" the Narutos reasoned, the clones disappearing one after another as Neji punched them away.
Neji rolled his eyes. "Why are you two doing this in the first place?" he hissed. He was about to activate his Byakugan when the ground beneath him began to crack away—
He had a short moment to reflect back on his defeat at the Chunin Exams before jumping up into the air to avoid the attack. "That won't work twice on me!" he snapped. He was growing more and more annoyed with each passing second.
Neji watched the Naruto beneath the ground spring up after him, but he was already twenty feet up into the air—
Suddenly, two hands grabbed him from behind, tight like steel bands, and Neji cursed inwardly, Shit! Lee! I knew I should have activated the Byakugan—!
They twisted in midair, and Neji struggled against his friend's death grip as they began to fall upside down— Was Lee seriously going to do this to him?
But then Lee called out from behind him, "Naruto! Now!"
The Narutos called out, "Right!" and Neji watched helplessly as a sea of orange sprung upwards into the air to meet them halfway—
Instead of receiving the blows that he expected, Neji felt one of the Narutos' hands forcing his mouth open while another chucked a round pill into his mouth—
His eyes widened as he inadvertently swallowed it and felt himself become disoriented almost at once. A sleeping pill! But why—? And how did he—? … Haruno!
His last thoughts were of strangling a certain pink-haired kunoichi before he completely succumbed to the medicine.
Tenten heaved a heavy sigh as she let her two giggly companions drag her to the third boutique. So far, all they've done was gush over this dress and that dress, but the two had yet to find a keeper.
She wondered idly whether or not to tell Ino and Sakura that their idea of a "girl's day out" was really not fun at all, when a loud, "SAKURA-CHAN!" gained their attentions.
Naruto and Lee were running to them at top speed, looking worn out but pleased with themselves.
"Sakura-san, mission accomplished!" Lee bellowed proudly, beating the disgruntled Naruto from making the announcement. He pouted and crossed his arms as they stopped directly in front of the girls.
Ino and Sakura exchanged panicked looks. Unfortunately, this did not go unnoticed by Tenten.
"Uh, that's great Lee," Sakura began nervously, shooting covert glances at the weapons mistress.
Naruto elbowed Lee for his tactlessness and huffed. "Well, yeah, you guys should just hurry before he wa—!"
Tenten cocked an eyebrow as Ino practically jumped on top of the other blonde while Sakura slapped his mouth shut, looking murderous.
"Shut up, you idiot!" Ino and Sakura exclaimed simultaneously, shooting angry glances at the boys.
Tenten frowned, her eyes narrowing into a suspicious glare. "What's going on here?"
Four pairs of eyes stared innocently back at her and after a strained silence, Tenten rounded on Lee. "Leee~!" she began threateningly, advancing towards the suddenly cowering boy.
"T-Tenten…! I… I…" Lee swallowed nervously. He and Tenten both knew that he couldn't keep a secret from her for very long. But this— he had promised Sakura-san not to tell! If he told Tenten, he'd have to run five hundred laps around Konoha and do eight hundred sit-ups and six hundred push-ups! He bowed lowly to his teammate, shocking her greatly with his response, "I'm sorry! I cannot tell you!"
Tenten watched in surprise as Lee sped away from her with his lightning speed. Well, that's never happened before…
She turned back slowly to her remaining suspects and they jumped when her glare landed on each of them. She opened her mouth to speak, only to be halted by Sakura's dramatic gasp.
"Oh no!" the pink-haired girl exclaimed, suddenly looking very worried, "I think I dropped my house key back at the training grounds!"
Ino's hand flew theatrically to cover her mouth in an overdone imitation of shock. "Oh, we should go back for it right away! Who knows what kind of creep might pick it up!"
Tenten rolled her eyes, grumbling slightly as she watched Naruto make a run for it. "You two are up to something," she stated flatly, making Ino and Sakura shake their heads in furious denial.
"What? What do you mean?" Sakura asked innocently, already making her way back to where Tenten and Neji had been sparring.
"Yeah," seconded Ino, though she was no longer putting up an act, "We don't know what you're talking about!"
"Uh-huh. Sure," Tenten deadpanned. "And just how the hell do you know you dropped the key back there? Why not the other shops? Or around here on the streets?"
Sakura shrugged lightly. She quit the innocent act and threw Tenten a smirk, "Oh… you know. I just have this feeling…"
Grumbling under her breath, Tenten had no choice but to follow her annoying pink-haired friend. She had a bad feeling about all this, and was just about to voice her suspicions to the blonde following close behind her, when—
"Shintenshin no Jutsu!"
It was the weirdest, most uncomfortable experience she'd ever gone through in her life. It felt as though she'd been pushed back— mind, body, soul and all— to the back corner of her own consciousness while Ino took over.
Ino! Tenten though furiously, and she was unnerved to receive an inquiring Hm? from the blonde who was now in control of her own body.
What the hell do you think you're doing? Get out of my body right now!
Sorry, Tennie. No can do! Now, help me lift myself up—
Tenten was helpless as Ino used her arms to hoist the blonde's limp body off the ground. Sakura was grinning nearby, tongue sticking out in victory. She helped settle Ino's body into a more comfortable position on one of the street benches.
"Alright, let's go!" Sakura yelled cheerfully, and Tenten fought futilely as she responded with a cheery, "Yeah!"
Sakura giggled, "Wow, Tenten— I didn't think that you'd be so excited about this!"
"Oh, trust me— she ain't!" The Ino inside her giggled back, and Tenten swore that she was going to kill the blonde as soon as she was back in control of her own body. "Well, let's get going Billboard-brow! She's really fighting back! Besides, I don't want to leave my beautiful body alone for too long…"
Sakura snorted in mild amusement, "As if anyone would want to touch it, Ino-pig!"
They squabbled all the way to Team Gai's training grounds, Ino arguing with both Sakura and Tenten. They were only a quarter of a mile away when Ino heaved a great, heavy sigh, rolling her currently-brown eyes.
Come on! the weapons mistress pleaded for what seemed like the fiftieth time, her impatience growing, Tell me what the hell is going on! Please! Shizune is going to come looking for me soon, you know— she's coming with me to Suna!
"God, Tenten, give me a break here."
The pink-haired medic gave the brunette— who was really her blonde friend inside— a curious glance. "Is she still mad?"
"Mad? Try insane," scoffed Ino, tossing her head back out of habit— except instead of the long blonde ponytail, her hair was a chocolate brown tied up tightly atop her head. Sakura giggled at the gesture.
"That bad, huh? She's gonna kill us later."
"You know, I'm starting to think that maybe we should've left my body somewhere farther from here."
Shoving away some tangled branches, the duo broke away from the cluster of trees and stopped just inside the clearing where Team Gai trained.
Well, Sakura? See your key? Tenten asked mockingly.
Ino rolled her eyes again. "Hey, Sakura, she's asking you sarcastically if you see your key."
Sakura huffed. "No. I don't. I think I've had it all along… But wait, what's that I see over there?" She stretched out an arm and pointed to one of the worn-out wooden posts to the left, her eyes widening rather dramatically.
Ino turned, her eyes settling on the post with a smirk on her face. Inside, she could hear Tenten gasp as their shared vision focused in on the unconscious figure. Is that—? ...It is! What's with Neji? What the fuck is going on?
"Uh oh, not good," Ino snickered, practically skipping nearer to the post to get a better look at their tied-up hostage. "She's getting hysterical."
"Sorry, Tenten," said Sakura, forming a hand-seal, "This is for your own good… and Neji's too."
"That's right! Good ol' Sakura here got him drugged up."
Tenten could only fume and curse as Sakura created a shadow clone and Ino lowered herself to sit next to the limp Hyuuga.
"Okay, Sakura! Make it nice and tight!" Ino chirped.
Wait, wait, wait! What the hell—?
Sakura reached inside her pouch and drew out a rope, similar to the kind that bound the prodigy to the post.
Oh, no! No, no, no, no, no! I don't think so! You guys are DEAD!
Ino ignored the furious, screaming girl in her head and focused on helping the two Sakuras tie her up tightly next to Neji.
"How's that?" One of the Sakuras asked, surveying her work, "Can you move at all? Is it tight enough?"
Ino struggled briefly with her bindings and gave a pleased grin. "This is good, I think it'll hold for a while!"
Sakura smiled back mischievously. "Great! And now… It's time for the real me to leave! I'll be waiting for you, Ino!"
Ino and Tenten watched as the pink-haired girl made a run for it, leaving her clone behind. They were silent for a short moment, and Tenten knew that Ino was allowing time for Sakura to reach her body.
Well? Now what? Tenten demanded snidely. She was beyond pissed with the situation they'd put her in, but at least Neji was asleep. You've tied us up together. Great. Can I have my body back now?
"Of course you may, Tenten!" Ino proclaimed sweetly. She turned to the waiting Sakura clone. "But first— Sakura? You know what to do!"
They watched as the clone reached into her pouch and pulled out a small syringe. She knelt down to face Neji and brought the needle to the side of his neck.
Wh… what is that…? D-Don't tell me it's what I think it is…!
Ino giggled, readying her hands to release the mind-transfer jutsu. "Well of course it is! What use is all this if he's not awake?"
INO, DON'T YOU DARE—!
"Do it, Sakura!"
No sooner had the tip pierced his skin, Neji began to stir awake— the clone vanished with a 'poof!' and a cloud of smoke— and evil Ino, with a wide grin on her face, muttered, "Release!"
A snort overhead made her open her eyes. "You okay there, sleeping beauty?"
Ino struggled to sit up, rubbing her eyes slightly. "Yeah… Wow. It sure is nice to be back inside my own body, with no one yelling at me in my head all the time."
Sakura laughed and offered a helping hand, which her friend took. She pulled Ino to her feet, then bit her lip worriedly. "I wonder if we were being too meddlesome… Do you think they'll be okay?"
"Oh, please!" the blonde exclaimed sternly, her hands on her hips. "I think the question is, will we be okay? I mean, Tenten's after my head and Neji's bound to know where those two idiots got a sleeping pill that powerful— Sakura?"
The medic seemed to have turned into a statue before her very eyes. "S-Sakura? Hello? Anyone there—?"
"Oh. My. God," Sakura breathed slowly, her eyes wide with fear, "All this time, I thought that if he ever asked me about this I could blame you! But you're right! Oh, God, the pill! I forgot—! Who else could've given it to Naruto? Oh, God!"
Ino began cracking up in hysterical laughter, her eyes streaming with mirthful tears. "So I've got Tenten, who is conveniently leaving later today, and you've got Neji Hyuuga!"
Sakura groaned miserably. "I think I should go ask Tsunade-sama for a short one-day mission, so I can leave Konoha and still be in time for Tenten's wedding in Suna."
"Hey! You mean if there will be a wedding at all! I mean, that's what all this hard work was for, right? So that stubborn—"
"Ino. Even if he confesses now, it's kind of too late. That's what I've been trying to tell you ever since you came up with this insane plan! You're the stubborn one—"
The blonde waved away her friend's lecture, "Yeah, yeah! I've heard it already alright? Sheesh! Besides, shouldn't we be, oh I don't know, running as far away as possible right now?"
"Ugh. You're right," said Sakura, her shoulders falling in resignation, "My life is officially over. I'll be dead later, I swear."
Ino sniggered. "Aww, lighten up! When those two get together they have us to thank for!"
"God! You're so stubborn, Ino-Pig! I already said it was too late—!"
They squabbled all the way back to the village streets, blissfully unaware of troubles they've caused.
. End Chapter 11.
Thanks again to my patient readers, reviewers, and lurkers. Sorry, I know I take forever.