"Are you ready?"
Lee had been asked that question so many times. Almost one hundred percent of the time, the answer was "Yes". He didn't always mean it. Like now. But every time, he said "Yes", because that was what was to be expected of him.
He always did what people expected of him.
So of course he wasn't ready. He was terrified. He was heartbroken. He couldn't stop thinking about Tenten, and he couldn't stop mentally beating himself. He was as far from ready as he could get.
But he looked the professor in the eye and said, "Yes", all the same. Because the professor was waiting for that word.
"Yes." Lee turned to his side upon hearing the repeated word from Neji. Lee could tell his friend wasn't ready either. His eyebrow was cocked almost permanently, and every so often he would clench his fists like he was holding back the urge to yell.
But still he stared at the professor with a stony expression, and the elderly scholar smiled right back at them almost dreamily from behind his thick glasses. Lee felt uncertain about this professor. He was tall and thin, and his hair was thinning. He didn't look healthy, in fact he looked down-right ill, with a pale and sickly glow to his drawn and wrinkled skin that could only come from spending too much time inside.
Studying. Reading. Filling out papers and doing business.
As Lee stood there, facing him, watching as he held out a little silver box with a lock on it quite patiently, he had to wonder, as he fished in his pockets, if he would someday look like him.
And if he really wanted that.
He removed his cell phone from his pocket, Neji doing the same, and the professor opened his chapped lips to speak in a low, throaty voice: "You don't have to worry about anyone stealing them, we'll keep this box locked 'till you return with your ID's to retrieve your phones after the test is over. Again, this is simply a precaution to assure you don't cheat on your test."
Neji and Lee nodded distractedly, understanding, and checked their phones once again to make sure they were off.
But as Neji nodded in assurance, Lee was beginning to feel his muscles stiffen.
His phone was small and green. And on the end of it was hung a little charm. It was a tiny charm, in the shape of a three-leaf-clover. Almost inconspicuous, and to those who saw it nothing to even regard.
But upon seeing it, Lee felt his heart burst.
"Neji…" Lee's lips moved dumbly as if he was dreaming.
Neji blinked, glancing to the side at Lee. He was moving to put his phone into the box, but Lee said again, clearer this time, "Neji…Look, Neji…"
He held his phone up and clutched the charm, pulling it into view for Neji to see.
And Neji's hand, about to place the phone into the box, froze.
Lee felt nostalgia clouding his heart, bringing with it a twang of pain as he fondly fingered the charm like it was a lost ring. He'd almost forgotten it was there. He'd had it for five years, since Tenten had given it to him and Neji as a gift.
It was nothing, really. It was just a token of Tenten's friendship, just something that she said would bring them good fortune in their futures, after they'd promised so long beforehand that they'd stay together forever. She told them it was to make them think of her when they saw that charm.
So she would always be with them, and they would never forget her, and none of them would ever be alone.
Lee and Neji had laughed at that. Neither of them believed in luck, they'd reminded her, they weren't as superstitious as she was. But they accepted the gift anyways. Neither of them took the charm off their phones, ever. Even if they insisted it mean nothing, really.
Lee cursed himself now for ever thinking such a thing. It was something. There it was on their phones, and in their hearts, just for them. A simple message that they didn't even believe in;
Lee almost dropped his phone.
His head moved, slowly and jerkily like with rusted gears, so he could gaze at Neji, who was pulling his hand back away from the box.
Lee felt his mouth drop open. "Wh…What?"
"I'm out," Neji repeated, lips forming the words perfectly. Lee could do nothing but gaze, aghast and gaping, back at him, and Neji rolled his eyes. "Oh don't give me that look," he muttered. "I'm out. I'm not taking the test, I'm not going to Redbrook, and I'm not letting Tenten get Tim Horton's without buying me a bagel or something because I'm starving."
"N…Neji, wait…!" Lee found his hands were literally shaking as he watched Neji turn around and walk out of the little glass receptionist's office they were in. He glanced over his shoulder at the thin man, who was blinking at him, confused and obviously quite flabbergasted. "I…I'm so sorry, I'll be right back with him!" Lee cried, allowing the man to give him one nod before he turned and dashed out of the office after Neji.
"Neji!" he yelped, stumbling after him down the long cement path from the office. Neji was walking swiftly ahead of him and didn't even spare him a look over his shoulder. Lee groaned aloud and jogged over 'till he was in front of the man, then skidded to a halt and grabbed his arm. "What are you doing? Neji, this is your future!"
"No it's not!" Neji snapped. Lee blinked and allowed his friend to shake his hand roughly from his arm. "It stinks here, it stinks like old socks!"
"You're being childish!" Lee insisted, eyes wide and wild. "You're the one who told me to be more serious about this! This is our chance, Neji! This is what we've dreamed of!"
"It's not," Neji disagreed, shaking his head rapidly while his fingers twitched with impatience. "This is not what we had planned all those years ago! This is not what Tenten had in mind!"
"But you said—"
"—I know what I said!" Neji yelled. Lee winced at the volume; he rarely saw Neji so out of control like his, but he was clenching his jaw in a way he'd never seen before. "I know, Lee," he growled, less loud but just as furious. "But I was wrong. This isn't what I dreamed of. This isn't what you dreamed of. This is just what everyone expects from us, and that's it."
"I don't understand, Neji," Lee pleaded, eyes sparkling. "What do you mean?"
"I dunno, Lee," Neji said, sighing and putting a hand to his forehead. "It's like, what I want versus what I need, and I'd rather have what I want."
"But Neji, that's stupid!"
"Then maybe I'm not smart!"
"…Wait…No, I'm smart…Okay, I was trying to say something meaningful, I swear…"
"Is this another joke I don't get…?"
"Would you just bear with me Lee?" Neji flung his hand in the air. "Listen. I get it, okay? You're scared, you're worried, and hell, I am too. But we have to make a decision, Lee, right here and right now."
Lee grimaced, wringing his hands pathetically. "I'm not ready! I have to pee, I can't do this!"
"I will make you piss yourself right here if you don't do this with me."
"No, Neji, I'm serious, I really have to go!"
"Lee, I can tell you with all honesty that I don't give a damn about your bladder, now tell me." Lee whimpered, heart hammering, and gazed on as Neji eyed him dangerously and said, voice dark:
"What are we doing with are lives?"
The charm glittered in the light from the sun that flooded in through Tenten's open car window. She twisted it around on its cord one more time, waiting for it to snap.
But it didn't.
Tenten growled furiously under her breath, throwing her phone into the passenger seat next to her. She watched as it bounced away, landing to give her a perfect view of the unharmed charm hanging off of it that reflected the sunlight almost mockingly into her eyes.
She turned away and took another angry bite of her bagel, mumbling through a full mouth, "Stupid fucking charm won't break."
She sat in her car, parked in a lot outside of Tim Horton's, and feasted on her breakfast of a bacon cheese bagel and piping hot coffee balanced on her dashboard. The air that flooded in through her open window was refreshing and cool, mixed with the early autumn smell of leaves, and the crisp morning pinch of cold.
She took a deep breath, swallowing her bagel, and allowed the fresh air to relax her. The adrenaline was settling now, she could no longer hear the furious rush of blood pumping in her ears.
"Such idiots," Tenten muttered to herself. The silence of the half-empty lot around her pressed on her ears as she reached forward and enjoyed the feeling of the coffee mug warming her hands. "I bet they'll fail. Serves them right."
She took a sip of her coffee, and immediately regretted it.
Her eyes watered as she slammed the mug back down on her dashboard and swallowed the hot liquid as quickly as she could. The cut on her tongue was still there after she'd bit it while talking to Lee and Neji over the phone, and the coffee had just burned it again.
Tasting blood, and spluttering as the steaming beverage made its way sloppily down her throat, she swore at her steering wheel with every dirty word she knew, cursing Neji and Lee to the ends of the earth. Taking deep breaths and holding her tongue out in the open air she fisted a hand and punched the fabric of the seat next to her three times, quite viciously.
"God damn it!" she hissed, trying not to be too loud as an elderly couple had parked their minivan a couple spots to the right of her. "God fucking damn it!" She wiped the tears of pain from her eyes and glowered, touching her tongue gingerly before carefully slipping it back into her mouth. "It's all their fault," she grumbled, crossing her arms and pouting to herself. "Those stupid idiots. If they hadn't called me, I never would have bit my tongue. If they weren't so stupid I wouldn't be in pain, it's all because of them."
The adrenaline was back. Tenten knew she should be mature, and keep it at bay, and take it out some other way, but she just couldn't. She was so angry. She wanted to hurt something. She grabbed her cell phone, fingers fumbling, and grasped the charm again resentfully. Enraged, she began to gnaw on the cord connecting the charm to the phone, stretching it between her teeth 'till finally she heard the reassuring sound of the snap, and all the tension came loose.
And immediately the anger was gone, to be replaced with something else.
Tenten paused, acknowledging this strange new feeling as she slowly dropped the charm and the phone into her lap. She wiped her lips, taking note of the way she moved curiously; it was like she was in a dream. She felt hollow, all of a sudden. Like she was alive and conscious, but not really there.
She gazed at the charm in her lap. Half the cord was still tied onto her phone, the other half hanging limply off the end of the three-leaf-clover. She took the time to remember why she'd broken off the fourth leaf of her charm, and the other two's as well; she wanted it to be just them. Only them.
Just them forever.
But wasn't that a lie?
She closed her eyes. Forced herself to think of better places, better times. Shopping with her roommate Temari, or sitting with her by the lake and watching the sunset. No, none of these had anything to do with Lee and Neji.
Almost unwillingly, almost unconsciously, and with an almost unbearable wash of emotion, she felt herself smile.
She opened her eyes, closed her fist around the charm, and then flung it out the window of the car. All the while, and even after she did the deed and faced forwards again to try one more sip of her coffee, she felt happy.
The hollow feeling was floating away, and finally, in her chest, was settling a contentedness she could not place, but did not mind.
"I love you guys," she whispered to herself sweetly, breathing into the rim of the coffee cup beneath her lips. "Neji and Lee. My boys. My idiots." She laughed to herself. "I really hate you both. But sometimes, I really love you guys."
And then, it happened.
It happened, and her heart almost burst.
It happened, and she wanted to cry tears of joy, but kept them at bay, because she didn't cry.
Not in front of them, no, she didn't cry.
They didn't need to see it.
She twisted around, stiffening in shock, to see Neji climbing into the passenger seat. She let her mouth fall open, stunned, as Lee crawled into the back seats soon afterwards.
Her lips moved wordlessly as she stared at them, while they slammed the car doors shut and faced her, both of them visually uneasy, shifting every so often being uncomfortable under her gaze. Finally she choked out, "Wh…What the Hell…?"
Neji licked his lips slowly. "Can you take us home?" he asked awkwardly.
Tenten closed her fist around her phone, fingering the chewed-off cord of the charm. "Wh…why?" was all she could stutter.
Neji glowered at her, obviously impatient. "Oh, I don't know; why is the sky blue?"
"Oh! I know, I know! I read about this one!"
"…Why do we even ask that question?"
"Oh, oh, oh! I know that one too!"
"Dear Lord…" Neji reached over to smack Lee on the arm, effectively shutting him up. "Lee, would you be quiet for one second?"
"Guys, seriously," Tenten gasped, shaking her head with a confused laugh while they blinked at her almost innocently. "What's going on, what are you doing…?"
"We're not going to Redbrook," Neji said loudly, as if it should have been obvious. "We're staying at Maple."
"What?" Tenten gasped. She looked between them, waiting for some sort of indication that Neji was wrong, or this was a joke, or that she just didn't hear them correctly. But their eyes were set in stone. Their faces were completely still.
Tenten's heart fluttered and rose, but she swallowed hard and sighed. "Guys…Look, I know I got mad at you, but it's not that big of a deal…You shouldn't stay at Maple just because of me, I'm not—"
"We're not staying for you." Tenten and Neji both glanced at Lee. He stared back at them with wide eyes. "We're staying for us. For all of us. For our friendship."
Tenten watched Lee, feeling her heart pound. "Lee…Friendship isn't what we think it is…" she said slowly. "That was years ago, this is…"
"This is different." Lee frowned. "Yeah. I know. And I know about friendship. It's true that friends lie to each other, and go behind each other's backs, and everyone knows that all friendships, eventually, fall apart, because everyone moves on, and meets new people, and gets new jobs." Lee fisted a hand and said sternly, "But I don't want that to be us."
Tenten felt tears fill her eyes. She told herself she wouldn't, but they were there. Like the charm was there, and the anger was there, and the silence was there, all of it always…
Lee went on, fisting the air while he did so. "I don't want to be like everyone else. I've never been able to be like everyone else. None of us have." He glanced at Neji and waved a hand at him; Neji stared back, confused. "Neji, you're too good at everything so the world is just boring and sad in your mind, and it's hard for you," Lee said.
Neji did not say a word, just gazed back at him almost expectantly, and Lee turned to Tenten, pointing at her rudely and saying sharply, "And Tenten, you hate being left behind or alone, but you always are, and it's hard for you."
Lee thinned his lips. "And I'm…" He paused, and Tenten felt her chest grow tighter as he said, voice suddenly swimming with emotion, "Me, I'm dyslexic, so I never do anything right, and it's hard for me…" He shook his head, and Tenten felt one of her tears fall down her cheek against her whim. "But we've gotten this far, and we've always been saying to each other, since we were kids, that each of us just want to be somebody…"
Lee closed his eyes. "I always say the same thing, that I want to make something of myself. But I can't do it without you guys." He opened his eyes again, and they were fond, and happy. "It's too hard to be somebody when you're alone," he said softly. "So let's not be everyone else. Let's just always, always be us." He grinned a bit and shrugged. "We're our own, aren't we?"
It took a couple seconds for the words to settle in. Neji and Tenten stared at Lee, not moving, barely breathing. The only sounds that could be heard were the whistling of the wind outside, and the rustling of the leaves in the trees. The cool breeze embraced the three, and the smell of clovers and juniper drifted past them.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, Tenten heaved a sigh.
"You guys suck," she muttered. Neji and Lee stared at her, confused, as she opened her car door, and walked out. She bent over the pavement and grabbed the charm off the ground, before climbing back into the car and slamming the door shut.
Neji let out a small, disapproving laugh as Tenten, pouting away, snatched her phone up and tied the charm back on, knotting the cord once more sloppily. "Really? You cut the charm off, Tenten?" he asked with a tiny, smug grin.
"Shut up," Tenten grumbled. "You're really testing your luck, I'm not afraid to kick you out of the car again."
"I don't believe in luck," Neji said, shaking his head, the grin staying on his face.
"So can you take us home?" Lee asked timidly. Tenten glanced at him through the rearview mirror, noticing the eager spark in his eyes, and she exhaled slowly, blowing her bangs from her face. "Yeah, whatever. I'm sure you have a class tomorrow that you don't want to miss."
"Environmental studies, ironically," Neji confirmed as Tenten started the car gloomily, and Lee clapped his hands together in the backseat. He eyed Tenten as she put the car into reverse and backed out of the lot, handing Neji the bagel and coffee to keep it steady. "Are you sure you're okay with us?"
Tenten shrugged. "Yeah. Whatever." She tilted her head to the side slyly. "Besides, you're not the only ones with a secret."
Neji raised an eyebrow. "Oh? You have one to share?"
She felt herself grin. "Well, you know my roommate, Temari, right?"
Neji puckered his lips thoughtfully. "Yeah. You guys are good friends."
She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel cheerfully as she said, "Yeah, well…" She smirked.
"We're more than friends."
Tenten, although infuriated and exhausted, enjoyed the astonished silence, and smiled away.
Because she knew it as well as they did. Sure, they each wanted to move on. They each wanted to be somebody.
They each wanted something to call theirs.
But even when they got all that, even when they'd each found someone else to make them happy, they'd still have each other. Because they were their own. They were something.
"Can I drive again?"
"Not in Hell, Lee."
They were worth dreaming about.
1, 2, 3, smile for me