It's good to be back home… here in FF.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or All I Ask of You from The Phantom of the Opera.

Note: Alternate Universe—Modern.

It was one lifetime. One beautiful lifetime he would not live through again.

Leather albums gave the impression that they met in the theatre: his sanctuary, her limbo. Neither was fond of the arts—Neji thought the rest of the population could've lived on and doubled without having another golden waste breaking the flow of traffic on the fifth avenue. How many mouths could've permanently hushed with the money they used in renovating the performing arts complex? It was narcissism, putting make-up on such ugly pieces of land. As for Tenten, she was basically apolitical, therefore indifferent to most public affairs, including the presence of the theatre standing next to her apartment until she found the need to tear off the want ad from the newspaper. It was almost unbelievable how fast food chains did not accept high school graduates anymore.

It came alive in the atrium theatre, where two-month widows remained to witness tragedies and somber musicals, as the crisp photograph suggested. Between spotlight and stargaze, the atrium was the only outdoor hall that the theatre had. They were inconvenient at times, said the realtor, prone to the insensitivity of spring rain, January blizzards, and unwanted sunlight. No one with authority cared: People liked different things—new or recycled—and they will pay double just to know what it's like to watch Hamlet under the stars. Surprisingly, Neji was one of those citizens. And so, with that foolish character, they met.

On that Sunday evening, he was in one of those sour moods—sour, because otherwise would just be bitter or insipid—when he was dripping in the aftermath of a disgusting fifteen hours behind a desk, taking note of statistics he could've already memorized by the time his lunch break was over. They could've even give him the privilege of a day-off despite the fact that he barely remembers what Church is for anyway. Being in one of those sour moods, he would let go of a fraction of his signature sensibility—and maybe his mind. Losing a grand for a ticket to that night's gala premiere was hardly a weight on his back on that moment, like he was drunk and his dead waiter wasn't much of a lawsuit. Though he was nearly idle throughout the entire show, empty and thinking eyes immobile beyond the black-rimmed spectacles he was prescribed tentatively, he was attentive. Unfortunately, he wasn't paying the antagonist the same amount of attention he paid at the TicketWorld cashier. He was watching her

…man the lights.

With the curtain call, she slipped his mind, where her thought lost grip on him. All the faintest glances of the theatre girl in paint-misted cargos slithering down the jungle of ropes and levers without the stoniness of working women, even those were left behind in the seat he vacated once the epilogue was dealt with. As for her, when the seas of mink coats, Italian busts, and waxed facial hair had already departed with their eau toilettes and white gloves, Tenten would hold the stockroom key at her left, the damp mop at her right with her bucket tucked over her elbow. She'd give the most absent-minded waves to the technicians, their rusty, gruff tones mentioning her many sidewalk names. Unlocking the olden stockroom, wafts of overdue detergent, cleanser, and her favorite honey air fresheners would overwhelm for a minute before she'd slip out of the bodega with a carefree skip in her steps: the kind of skip only the beauty of brooms could bring.

She had very gentle standards when it came to things, especially jobs, seeing she couldn't be very choosy. It was not much of a regret as the media and her parents used to prompt her with, figuring they reminded her that drop-outs didn't have rights of promising future plans. Her excuse was that though her parents had enough to give her an education, she only had enough of herself for better things in life: anything but books and lectures. With that came the small expectations she held on to: being a theatre custodian was a dignified (meaning it didn't involve moral corruption), humbling, nonpolitical, fifty-dollars-an-hour experience. It was enough.

No more talk of darkness,
Forget these
wide-eyed fears.
I'm here; nothing can harm you.
My words will
warm and calm you.

Let me be your freedom.
daylight dry your tears.
here, with you, beside you,
guard you and to guide you.

Now, it was already half an hour past since the last piece of the audience has broken away from the velvet comfort of his front seat when Neji realized his pocket was heavier two hours ago. Aside from the thinner wallet, he swears he had something else clinging to his waist before he left the theatre. Taking a five, leaning back against a nearby brick wall, he pulled at his pockets, embarrassed that he had taken his breast pocket inside out in its void state. When he had assured himself he had gone through his stereotypical assortment of paper clips, stored gum, and dog chains, he finally clicked his tongue and held his breath upon realizing he had left his wallet itself. One week without financial confidence was a horrible thought—No, not again. Grudgingly, Neji hailed a cab and asked to be brought back to the theatre while he wondered why he was walking home in the first place.

Though the glass, swinging doors of the theatre gave neither budge nor creak to his efforts and violent attempts, Neji knew it was always wise to remember that no one locks the backstage entrance until the security manager has finished the rounds. He knew no one would be diligent enough to have done the final security rounds at eight in the evening. Hopping over tin trash bins and serenading tomcats, he gave the white theatre backdoor a swift push and met with the dressing room racks, all piled with mothball cloaks and Brazilian feathers. Pushing wheeled carts out of his way with the occasional grunt and stubbed toe, he could barely make out where he was even going with the dim atmosphere and stuffy air of the corridors. Finally, to his relief, he caught a glimmer of light—mockingly symbolizing hope: of escape and still being able to have pizza for dinner everyday.

When he had reared his head from behind the dust-ridden curtains, there was a show going on. His bright eyes scaled the audience, and there was no one who stood to be attentive amidst the darkness of the night blanket—only because no one sat in the audience. It was already the after-hours, after all, with the drawn curtains, resting lights, and vanities shrouded in pagan superstition. But she stood onstage, with the sodden strands of her mop dragging over the varnished floor and its wooden end level and distanced to her confidence-struck features. Her sneakers whined against the floor wax that shone under the florescent as she waltzed in her own pace, making up her own dance styles in time. Half of the performance time she stole to herself in the privacy of her cleaning hours, she threw her voice too high, tried to catch notes she couldn't even see, tried to twist her ankles into angles geometry doesn't even teach. Nevertheless, Neji stifled his laughter, but could admit it: She was the only star beneath the sky.

Amused, he felt her thought return, remembering seeing her on the platforms overhead the stage to turn the smoke machine on for act five scene three. She was less than impressive with her voice, more attractive in the shadows of backstage. Their eyes met when she turned from center stage to the right entrance, where he silently beheld her in his gaze—all the while trying to suppress the urge to toss a rude remark at her for her singing and her insulting American waltz.

"That's how Christine Daae showed the world she had potential," she told him smugly with a smile cracking over her jaw. Twirling the mop between her hands, she breathed a spicy laugh and shook her head and added candidly, "Don't you think I have any?"

Seeing the effort to interact, he only gave a snort past a thin grin. "Yes. I think you have potential in breaking the stain glass window at the front of the nearby chapel."

He lost his wallet, half his mind; she lost her confidence. But, of course, they earned the privilege of having someone to smile back at in the middle of every show.

Say you love me every waking moment.
Turn my head with
talk of summertime
Say you need me with you now and always.
Promise me that all you say is true.
all I ask of you.

He didn't know the romance of coffee shops until she brought him to one for poetry night. Of course, both of them could never have the patience to encode and/or understand stanzas and metaphors, but she told him that it was "fun to get confused in the beauty of words". So, with a double espresso between his calloused businessman hands and a chocolate mocha latte settled to warm her tiny fingers and stuffy nose, they bobbed heads subtly, side to side in the rhythm of bongos and beat boxes mixed with a dose of indie limericks. Squinting through the orange, Halloween-breath lamps glowing on top of every table, he snatched a slip of tissue from her purse, pulled out his personalized ballpoint and started scribbling onto it with his prestigious-school penmanship.

"Roses are red, violets are blue," he began before she stopped him with her chasing giggles. He demanded that she tell him what he had said wrong, but she only shook her head and told him Shakespeare would find him a shame for all poets worldwide. Her giggles intensified into stifled laughter when he asked her if Shakespeare was a lawyer from the mid-seventies. Eventually, a barrister had called for them, told them that most of the people present liked their poetry resonating in the brilliance of a bohemian, air-conditioned, smoking caffeine cavern without the interruption of boisterous invasion. Tenten muttered something about wanting to give the barrister a chill pill. They ended the night by taking their comfort onto the edge of the sidewalk in front of the café they were semi-permanently banned from, their drinks half-gone. She could still laugh alone whenever she recalled how Neji abruptly added a statement to the chill pill she recommended: he said the barrister was probably already on pills.

Before she took the main lane to the direction of her apartment as to how he'd walk towards the public car parking lot across the street, he tucked the nine-fold napkin into her hands. For the first time, they both realized that they warmed each other's hands and hearts more than the coffee did. Ignoring the once-coming cheesy thought, Neji chuckled. "I try. I try really hard," It was all he said before saluting her one-handedly and hooking the purse he volunteered to hold for her the entire night around her elbow and rushing to his second-hand minivan—one which Tenten was pleased to see isn't painted green with flowers on the hood. She waved him goodbye with a handkerchief to her nose as she blew her nose. Once he was well 120 mph apart from her, she curiously unfolded the vandalized table napkin and read aloud the only poem spared from the disgrace of being crossed out with bold, black lines:

"Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
I can't write like Shakespeers,
But he can't love you like I do."

Looking past the broken rhyme scheme, the misspelling, and the lack of originality, he was right: He tries. He tries really hard, and succeeds.

Let me be your shelter.
Let me be
your light.
You're safe:
No one will find you.
Your fears are
far behind you.

All I want is freedom,
a world with no more night,
you always beside me
to hold me and to hide me.

Someone speaks of Saturday mornings, retelling that it is made up of moments with marshmallow trenches lost in pints of ice cream, and corrosion on pipes that resemble zoo animals. To her, the weekend could only be dubbed a weekend by marathons—movies, reality television shows, and culinary expositions out of the description. Neji took the liberty of calling her up upon lifting his unmade head from the covers of his paperwork, which was every Saturday morning when he wouldn't need to go to work until after five. Each time he does so, he'd end up chatting with her answering machine or worse—her mother. On the Saturday Neji decided to miss leaving messages or conversing with the Mrs. about mincemeat and potholders, he drove to her apartment on Maple Street and discovered that she left at around half an hour before dawn to jog around her district. Of course, her mother told him so when she answered the door, and when she invited him in for Russian cookies, he could not resist.

On the next time, when he managed to catch up, he found her in sweats and brisk morning hair just as she was locking her front door in preparation for the morning round. He gave a chime of laughter when she told him to go home and forget ever seeing her in Nike and sweatbands. The only comeback he gave that secured him from a backhand slap was the fact that he was in sweats, as well, with unconditioned hair which brought glory to hers. She took him around by the elbow, followed his pace of a step a second instead of her three a second, listened to him wonder aloud why she walked for the hell of it, and mocked him of his stamina when he begged for a power drink break. "I'm into starting my morning right." It was her explanation, but he knew it was only because she couldn't afford a television to kill mornings with.

The monsoon season hit the region in weeks' time, just when he was beginning to enjoy the dawn walks and bacon and eggs they share afterwards. The routine faded, scaled their roof plates with the smash of rain showers streaming day and night away, slithering like silver into canals and clogged drains. Passing her home on the trafficked lane to work, he could read her phrases on the windows, children of boredom from her canceled workdays due to the storms. She drew foggy sunsets on her bedroom windows, made him laugh when he chanced on profane shirt catchphrases written with a finger when he was stalling in front of her apartment at the ten-second red light for the intersection he was on. He was missing her, more than she missed her morning marathons.

And when he decided to lie once, call his boss up and tell him he had herpes and wouldn't want to paste his ass onto his workplace today, he drove his minivan to her apartment, felt a ride of happiness up his back when she was the one who opened the door for him, and could almost feel his cheeks grow stiff from his grins when she called him a pleasant surprise. He charmed the mother, made her feel forty again when he gave her chocolate-covered wafer M&M's, enough to keep her warm and "young for one more birthday". When he was sure he was cleared, no were near maternal suspicion for long, he whisked her away into his minivan, took her twenty blocks away into his own flat and treated her to a marathon—a movie marathon, seeing her never ran out of supply when it came to smuggled and pirated movie copes. By dinnertime, she was already asleep on his lap, her head tucked onto the couch armrest, her arms embracing a bucket of homemade popcorn, right in the middle of Shrek 2.

"I like you, young man," her mother mused aloud the next time the trio had breakfast together in the apricot-hued dining room, "Do you have a brother my age?"

Then say you'll share with me
love, one lifetime.
Let me lead you
from your solitude.
you need me with you here, beside you.
you go, let me go too.
all I ask of you.

It didn't take long to learn, he discovered one night, when he drove her home from one of the gala nights that served as her overtime. She was tired, and he was twice her state after a consecutive graveyard shift in the office to make up for the holiday vacations he asked for. Like every other night, they had plans of having her slip the key into the lock of her front door, swing it recklessly open with the assurance her mother was too preoccupied in her slumber to even notice her arrival at three in the morning, then invite Neji in for a small shot of apple juice—"Just to get the expiring material out of here"—before she kisses him good night and escorts him out so she can get at least three hours of sleep. There was a minor—defining minor, it didn't match—change or, say, twist, when Tenten opened the refrigerator for the juice: He closed it gently, tucked a hand behind her neck sweetly and whispered, "How heavy of a sleeper is your mother?"

She never was able to give him a reassuring answer, only because he had reeled her in straightaway, led her by her hips with her hands lost in his clothes. It was new, not all too new what with flicks and gossip, but new enough to have the friction stick between her legs and the throbbing hunger to last throughout the night. He saw her, all of her, the sensual masterpiece that's been hidden from him for too long. And she nearly felt her face sewn off when she finally savored what she's been fasting of all her life. His slim, temperate fingers sighted her, gripped her, and dampened in her lovesick noises, tucked in lips—both lips. He learned that she had an after-taste, a wondrous aroma of labor, and a tangy shiver of menthol cologne and ginger moisturizer. She glowed like milk under his gaze, the shadows cast over her crevices dancing in his head with an enchantment. When he melted into her, seared with the icy and strangling heat of lost virginities and sticky sweat, her screams silenced upon echoing into his mouth, into his throat, filling his empty chest and heaving her firm one in an offering. So, when he fell over her, teeth nipped on necks in hasty breath in an aftermath, he pulled the musty, rumpled covers over her, hiding her with his body, whispering that everything beneath the sheets was his… All his… the kisses on her mouth, the slide of her torso, her dewy thighs… her heart…

At first light, he breathed a greeting at her ear, gently, lovingly outlining her form as she stirred awake. "Boy, are we in for it," she whispered without much expression, gazing back up softly into his soothed smile. When he asked her why it was so, Tenten's mother filled them in on the fact that neither of them bothered to close the door in the intensity of their struggles…

Six weeks later, Tenten decided to let go, and move out of her mother's apartment, and bought a pregnancy test.

Say you'll share with me
love, one lifetime
Say the word
and I will follow you.
Share each day
with me,
night, each morning.

The shrieking started in the jewelry store, where the word started spreading faster than equinox temperature. Before he knew it, the noise was going about in the Hyuga compound, when Neji's cousins decided to gab about June brides and marital feng shui, and who was going to cater. Of course, it was almost an appeal to hear the same holler in the office, but the real treat was the complimentary day-off the manager gave him. "As long as your first child works for me," the tycoon exclaimed, reminding Neji of terrifying fairytales and medieval bedtime stories. So he made his way home—calling hers as his, too, by now—palms psyched against the steering wheel and his heel restless on the pavement when he started the wait for her to exit the theatre for her afternoon siesta. When he finally found her in the crowd of employees escaping into the streets with their holiday bonuses and thirteenth months pays at hand, he coiled her into his embrace and had her laughing with something about him crushing her stomach between every giggle.

It looked less stressful in the jeweler's, when they reenacted the most probably scene he would behold upon giving the go signal. It must've been the squealing women. Oh, definitely the squealing women. There aren't any of those cheerleaders here, not this time around. He was trying to be optimistic, that at the end of the day, Tenten would be squealing, too, in thoughts of sharing one lifetime with him. They always conversed about it, of possibilities. It was sometimes hilarious, giving life to the hope he planted into his gut on the very first day he could admit he was in love with her—madly. And here he was, putting an end to those days of wishful thinking, but attempting a start, a commencement, so that he can finally live through the rest of his life: with her. Only because it felt right, he squeezed her hand as they crossed the street, making her throw a concerned gaze at him. It was always his signature way of calling for her attention, so he couldn't blame her. With a jitter, he let go of her, went on one knee, letting his black, pinstripe slacks taste the sidewalk grime in the process before he managed to unhinge his mouth. When he was sure he was still sane, he asked her if she had space for him in her heart.

Her warm eyes became shot, cheeks flushed in the warmth of the sun and the poignant moment. And even as Neji recounts the chronology of that timeframe, his fingers stiffen back to the bone once again, a heavy weight at his soles and toes tugging at him, the very same crashing burn in his pocket that feels exactly as the diamond ring that was once a settler in his pants' side pouch. In fact, he boasts, he can still quote her, showcase the pinpointed words she replied with:

"I'm sorry. Lee would kill us."

Say you love me.
You know
I do.

The instinctive and default overwhelm that could strike after the first revelation was supposed to be the melancholy of manipulation—that he was barely aware of the fact that he was seeing a married woman. There were her reasons, facts that she gave away like pineapple tidbits, spoon-fed into him: They met on a February of a number pof years back that fingers could count, but she's known Lee for years on, even before she knew how she was even supposed to feel about him. When he made love to her the other July, lost everything to her, Lee had given the proposal, one not even her mother knew of, five weeks pre that. And on the sixth week when she left her mother's cozy floral high-rise, it was the same week she moved in with Lee into his blue, undisturbed shack residing by the seven a.m. train tracks. She cried, poured her river of sorrow into the gloved hands he held around her, whispering nothing but the labored breaths they were sharing in their proximities. She played the strings right, had both courses without taking the punishment of a glutton, frosted her cake and had it, and didn't see anything coming.

He half-begged, packed the rest of his pride beneath the rubble of the road as he gave the most preposterous of suggestions, telling her that he would try—try like the way he writes poetry—to never mind, be blind to the undeniable truth that he was the third party in this case, that he was the aphid every romantic songwriter sings about. All he wanted was to know he could still spend every moment with her name in his wedding ring. All he was asking her to do was to still love him. It's all he'd ever ask of her. Though on that phrase he realized he was truly out of his mind by then, it was only the righteousness of being honest—and of being in love. Again, she gave her rational testimonies, told him that he was difficult to hide unlike Lee, especially with the promotion he was getting, how everyone in town knew him, and how he was a bigger conversation… simply not someone she could just tow away, stash into a metal home behind the subway. He said she was the very one putting things between the two of them. He was right: She meant it to be that way.

"I was guessing it was just my luck," she began her conclusion, "that someone as wonderful as you came along. But I can't be cruel enough to leave Lee behind."

He failed to point out that she was cruel enough to leave him, though.

Love me:
that's all I ask of you…

And there it ended, that lifetime, the only lifetime he seemed to have left. She walked on, took with her the million years that were still ahead, while he chained himself back, and didn't resist dying with the lifetime—the memory that was her—that withered six feet under his heart.