This chapter, like chapter 13 before it, contains less romantic mushy-gushiness. The mission seems like a filler, but it's actually supposed to speed up the plot development...

Anyways, I'm sorry if it disappoints...I guess it's only fair to warn you ahead of time. XD

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.

My Old Maid Keeps Dogs

By Vanilla Vader

Chapter 14

Recap:

Neji's POV

Before now, I had always protected her as my comrade or as my teammate.

This time, I would protect her as the woman I love.

I promise I'll protect you. Even if it's the last time I'll be able to.


Tenten's POV

The moon was still out when we approached the main gates. Neji was leaning against a wall, his eyes closed peacefully. He looked like he was dreaming about something wonderful, and I found myself unable to wake him. I stared, trying to remember the last time he had looked so content and serene and in harmony with himself...

"Hey, Captain Hyuga! Wake up!" Kiba hollered. "We have a mission to start."

Neji was glaring before he even opened his eyes. They just stared at each other angrily for a moment, as if daring the other to say something first. I sighed.

"Yes, I understand how much you two hate each other's guts, but can we please get a move on? We have to get through the Land of Rain and enter the Land of Stone by tomorrow morning."

They both seemed to recoil a little, and silently began walking through the gates. I followed them almost reluctantly, my legs suddenly feeling significantly heavier.

This is going to be a long trip...


We leapt from tree-to-tree all day, only stopping once for a quick break. By early evening, we neared the border between the Land of Rain and the Land of Stone. It had been raining ever since we entered the Land of Rain, and the sky stayed dark and cloudy from the storm. We traveled in silence, the only sound coming from occasional booms of thunder. I squinted my eyes to see through the rain and thick foliage. Neji and Kiba were practically racing each other at maximum speed, and they appeared as two dull blurs leaping trees about fifteen meters ahead of me.

My lips trembled against the cold air that whipped against my face. My bangs were dripping wet from the rain and my lungs felt cold from inhaling the damp, chilled air. I stayed in that state for another two or three hours, as nightfall arrived and we crossed the border.

Somehow, within ten minutes of crossing the border, the rain became a light sprinkle and the lightning and thunder ceased completely. After traveling a few more miles, the trees became taller and thicker. A footpath appeared below us, and we descended from the treetops to travel by foot. After a few minutes of walking, we were greeted by a beautiful pagoda. There was a temple behind it, and I pulled the manila folder out of my knapsack. Sure enough, the folder contained a pamphlet with a picture of the temple on its cover.

"According to Tsunade's sources, this temple will give food and temporary shelter to any travelers who pass it. But in exchange, travelers must follow the rules of the head priestess," I said after reading the pamphlet.

Neji walked over to the pagoda. A stone plaque decorated the bottom of the tower, and a lantern was hung from a post beside it. He read the inscription before turning to the lantern-post. A small, golden bell was tied to the neck of the post with a black ribbon. Kiba went over to where Neji was standing and studied the words on the plaque.

"Well," he said, reaching for the ribbon. "It says we should ring the bell if we're tired or hungry."

Neji brushed Kiba's hand away from the ribbon before activating his byakugan. After a few moments of silence, he deactivated it and furrowed his brow. "It could be a trap. My byakugan suggests that no one is living in this temple."

Kiba frowned. "Tenten just said there's a priestess. Maybe your byakugan's broken or someth-"

"My byakugan is not 'broken'. Unlike your brain, my vision cannot be broken, you idio-"

"Don't start with me, Hyuga. At least my brain can breathe. Yours is probably suffocating under all that girlish hair on your scalp-"

"My hair is NOT 'girlish'! It's a traditional Hyuga-"

Ding.

They both stopped quarreling and turned to me in shock as I rang the bell. I released the ribbon and let the bell sway back and forth, a rhythmic echo ringing through the misty air.

"See!" Kiba exclaimed. "Tenten agrees with me! If no one's living here, it just means it's an empty temple. You were just too chicken to ring the stupid bell."

"I was not 'chicken'. I was just taking extra precautionary meas-"

"Welcome to Yakusugi Temple," a gravelly voice spoke from behind us. We all whipped around to see an elderly woman carrying a red paper lantern. Her eyes were faded and grey, and her long, silver hair fell down to her hips. She was clothed in the robes of a priestess, and my eyes widened when I realized the robes were completely dry. The light rain seemed to fall away from her and the paper lantern, as if the raindrops were repelled by the soft glow of light. Kiba smiled.

"Hi," he greeted. "I'm Kiba Inuzuka and this is Tenten Wei. The grumpy guy is Neji, and he thought your temple was abandoned and booby trapped, but I never doubted the bell for a second."

She chuckled a little. "I am Izanami, the head priestess. You must be cold and tired. Your clothes are wet, and you have traveled a great distance. You may take shelter in our temple tonight."

With that, she hobbled past us and into the temple. As the light radiating from her paper lantern passed us, I felt some of the moisture leave my clothes and skin. I ran my fingertips over my bangs. They were crisply dryed.

We followed her through the temple gates. She explained that the temple was structured like a target, with a shrine in the center like a bullseye, and concentric walls and buildings around it. When we entered the outermost ring, two masked women in similar robes came out of a room.

"Kiba, Neji," Izanami called. "Amaya and Azumi will carry your belongings to your respective rooms. It has been many years since our temple has had male visitors. I am afraid you may not pass the outermost buildings of the temple. The shrine and inner buildings are restricted to all mortal men."

Kiba looked confused and Neji looked suspicious.

"Wait...so only women live here?" Kiba asked, scratching the back of his head. Izanami nodded.

"Yes. But you may not see their faces. The priestesses residing in this temple must never reveal their faces to men."

Neji narrowed his eyes. "Why? What happens if we see their fa-"

"It is best not to know what you cannot readily accept," Izanami answered. I tried my best not to look fazed by the eeriness of it all.

"So...where am I allowed to go?" I asked.

"Your guest room is within the inner walls. It is much warmer there. I will show you to your room now."

Neji and Kiba followed the other two priestesses down a corridor and I followed Izanami through another gate, and another. I could feel the cold winter sting leaving the air with each step I took. I felt a little guilty about leaving Kiba and Neji in the cold outer-ring.

The inner walls were furnished with more red lanterns and paintings of women I decided were former head priestesses. Izanami stopped in front of a paper screen door. She slid it open and lit the candles inside before coming back to the doorway.

"This is your room. Dinner will be served in the outer dining halls. Shinka will come to accompany you there after you arrange your things and change out of your wet clothes."

I nodded and took a look at the room. It was surprisingly spacious, with a large futon sitting on tatami flooring. A simple folding panel depicting colorful peonies adorned the space. I turned back to Izanami.

"How will you know when I'm done arranging my st-" I stopped short when I realized she was gone. I shrugged. I swear she was there just now...I could feel the warmth of her lantern...

As soon as I had unpacked and changed into some dry clothes, someone knocked on the door. I went over to the screen and slid the door open. A little girl without a mask was standing outside. She was not dressed in robes. Instead, she wore pink pajamas and bunny slippers.

"Tenten-san?" she asked, smiling. "I'm Shinka."

"Uh...perfect timing," I said with a grin. She nodded cheerfully.

"I know. I'm psychic."

I raised a brow. "You don't look like a priestess."

"I'm not," she answered. "I just live in the temple. And you're not an ordinary person. You're a ninja. And so are your male friends. Kiba is your housekeeper and Neji is the man you've loved ever since-"

I stared at her wide-eyed. "H-how...did you know that!"

She giggled. "I told you. I'm psychic."

We entered the dining halls. Neji and Kiba were already seated at a long banquet table. The entire room was lit with hundreds of paper lanterns. Izanami was sitting at the head of the table at the far side of the room. Other masked priestesses were there, chatting quietly amongst themselves. I took the empty seat next to Neji and Kiba, and Shinka took a seat on the other side of Izanami.

"Daughters of Yakusugi," she said, her voice projecting powerfully through the entire room. "Before we begin dining, we must thank our guests for their company and the energy they have brought into our temple. We will show our hospitality by illuminating their fortunes. Shinka, would you like to perform this task?"

Shinka nodded eagerly and stood from her seat. She approached us with a sly smile. She stopped at Kiba.

"Palm, please," she instructed. Kiba gave us a confused look but offered his hand. Shinka traced her fingertips over his palm for barely a second before her face lit up. Her eyes glazed over and she went into a trance-like state.

"Kiba," she said. "In the near future, you will find yourself acting out someone else's role. It will not be a pleasant experience, but you will do it because it will protect someone you love. Beware of a woman whose face can be hidden without a mask."

Shinka moved down the line to Neji, who seemed reluctant to offer his hand. Shinka laughed.

"Neji," she said. "I can sense that you're a very private person. You are not one who can easily express himself. But congratulations on being in love, too. Unfortunately, there is a force that is working against your true emotions. It is growing stronger, and the only way to disperse this negative force is to find the imposter hiding within your own home. And don't forget...you are the only one who can change your destiny."

When Shinka approached me, I held out my hand, but she shook her head.

"I already know yours. You are standing before a single path. You can only choose one path, and there is only one you truly wish to take. But for some reason, you still find it hard to choose. If you don't want to take the only path forward, I guess your heart is telling you to go backward...down the path you have already been."

I blinked dazedly before leaning toward Shinka and whispering. "I thought you said you were psychic!"

She just giggled before returning to her seat. Izanami smiled.

"Now, we feast," she declared, raising a glass. "Here's to our guests, Neji, Kiba, and Tenten."


After eating some of the most delicious food I had ever tasted, I was escorted back to my room by Shinka. As we walked down the hall, I tapped her on the shoulder.

"Hey, Shinka? Why are you living in the temple? Is your mother a priestess?" She shook her head, making her pigtails swish around.

"Nope. Madame Izanami found me at the base of the pagoda when I was a baby."

"Oh..." I managed to say. I felt bad for asking her about something that turned out to be rather personal. "So...are all the priestesses psychic?"

"Nope," she replied, playing with her hair. "Madame Izanami and I are the only ones. But I can also feel what other people are feeling."

"What do you mean?"

We arrived at my door and she slid it open, stepping inside. She plopped onto the floor and closed her eyes, humming in meditation.

"What are you do-"

"Shhhh," she whispered. "When I concentrate...I can feel people's emotions."

For a moment, she meditated, and I stood there, watching curiously. Suddenly, she shot up and started jumping up and down.

"Kiba and Neji are sleeping already! I saw their dreams!" she sang. I laughed as she started dancing around the room.

"And what were they dreaming about?"

"You."

I blinked. "Huh?"

"You are in both of their dreams tonight. You have very loyal friends."

"Uh...yeah, I guess. Except one's an ice cube who'll never know how I feel about him and the other just loves to tease me about every aspect of my being. Yeah...they're the best."

Shinka finished her dance and smiled at me. "I think you're also unaware about how people really feel about you, Tenten. But you'll know soon."

She started dancing again, this time to the door. She pointed toward the open window. I turned my gaze to where she was pointing and saw a gigantic, orange full moon, possibly the biggest moon I had ever seen. "Nighty-night, Tenten. You have very beautiful feelings."

"Uh...thanks...I've never heard anyone compliment my feelings befo-"

I turned away from the window and back to where I thought Shinka was standing, but she had disappeared. I scratched my head. Do they all just randomly vanish like that?


The next morning, we had rice cakes for breakfast. As we left, the priestesses came out to the pagoda to say goodbye. I hugged Shinka.

"Bye, Tenten!" she shouted. "Remember...there's only one path!" I grinned and waved. Neji and Kiba bowed.

"Thank you for your hospitality. We are grateful," Neji thanked. Kiba ruffled Shinka's hair.

"Bye, Shinka," he said, grinning. "Thanks for my fortune."

Shinka smiled sweetly. "You're a nice male visitor. You'll be a good daddy someday."

Izanami handed me a bell on a black ribbon. "Take this with you. It will bring you luck on your journey. Ring it when you're in danger."

We all waved bye one last time before continuing into the forest. Neji took out a map and started to lead, while Kiba and I trailed a few feet behind him.

"It was kind of creepy at first...but they were nice," Kiba said. I tied the ribbon and bell around one of my kunai knives.

"I have no idea what the fortune-telling was about, though." I finished tying the ribbon and tucked the knife back into its pouch. "I guess she meant there's only one path into that forest over there."

"Yeah...and she told me I should beware of a woman who hides her face without a mask. What do you think that means?"

I laughed. "Maybe she meant a bearded lady...like in the circus."

Kiba snorted. "Now that's not something you read in your everyday fortune cookie."


For another day, we leapt through forests and walked through meadows. By the time the sun was setting, we had reached the Land of Coal. The green landscapes abruptly morphed into vast urban slums and dark alleyways. Enormous pipes spurted clouds of fumes and smoke that blocked the sun from the sky. Children ran through the streets without shoes and old men lay on the sidewalk under newpapers.

"We've entered a rather run-down area of the Land of Coal," Neji explained. "But it's definitely not one of the worst."

I took out the manila folder and skimmed through the information about the Land of Coal. All I knew about it was that it was where Neji's fiancee was from.

A Concise History of the Land of Coal

The Land of Coal was once a great kingdom protected by its two powerful shinobi neighbors, the Wind and the Earth.

The land fell to ruin recently after constant political unrest. The last king was overthrown by rebels who eventually became feudal lords.

99% of people in the Land of Coal live in poverty, although the remaining 1% are extremely wealthy from the country's abundant coal reserves.

I stopped reading. It was getting dark, so we stopped in front of a hotel. Some of the windows had boards nailed over them and a wild tangle of moldy vines was clinging to the corroded siding. Neji frowned.

"It looks like we'll have to set up base in this hotel," he stated. "There's a hot spring in the back, and it looks like one of the safer buildings in this town. It's probably not as bad as it looks."

It was much worse than it looked.

When we entered the inn, a drunken man mistook Neji for his wife and tried to drag him across the lobby. Luckily, the man's real wife came just in time to save him from Neji's gentle fist technique. We watched in awe as the couple walked away, the wife nagging the filthy man about drinking all of her liquor.

The carcass of some small, woodland animal was decomposing in a corner of the lobby, next to a telephone booth. The telephone wire had been cut. Flies swarmed around the animal, and a little boy with a fishing net giggled as he tried to catch the bugs.

"Look Ko-chan!" the boy cried. "It's dinner!" The little girl next to him giggled, tugging on some rubber gloves. She began dragging the carcass across the lobby floor and out of the hotel.

I felt my eye twitch. Kiba was wide-eyed. Even Neji looked shaken.

"Guys," I whispered. "Are you sure we should-"

"Hello!" a man greeted us. "Welcome to the Chartown Inn!"

He led us to the front desk. "I'm afraid we only have one room left."

"Uh...that's not going to work. We have a girl here, you know," Kiba said. The man stared into his computer screen. A rat crawled over the keyboard. The man smiled, not seeming to notice.

"Well...we do have a honeymoon suite available," he suggested. "If two of you are willing to share a room, that is."

Neji sighed. "I guess Tenten and I can share a room. We've had to share a room on missions in the past."

Before I could remind Neji that that "room" we shared was a tent, and with Gai and Lee in it as well, Kiba scoffed. "Yeah right, Hyuga! You think I'm gonna let you corrupt Tenten! In your dreams."

"I've been teammates with Tenten much longer than you, Inuzuka. And what do you mean 'corrupt'! I'd never-"

"I'm rooming with Tenten. You can't be trusted."

"You can't be trusted. I-"

"Have you forgotten about the relationship between me and Tenten? We've been on a date already. Mind your own, Hyuga!"

I raised a brow. "What are you guys talk-"

"Let Tenten choose for herself then," Neji demanded. Kiba and Neji both glared at me.

"Tenten, who do you want to room with!" they asked in unison. I blinked.

"Uh...I...wait, why do I have to choo-"

"How about the lovely lady takes her own room and you chivalrous gentlemen share the honeymoon suite?" suggested the man behind the counter.

Neji and Kiba just stared at him.


I watched as Neji and Kiba trudged away toward their room. I gathered my stuff and thanked the man behind the counter before going to my own room on the other side of the hotel. I couldn't help but laugh at the idea of Neji and Kiba sharing a room, let alone a honeymoon suite.

I just hope they don't kill each other overnight, I thought as I grabbed a towel and headed for the hotel's hot spring.

I settled into the warm water of the hot spring and tried to relax. I was finally alone, but something was still bothering me. My mind kept returning to Neji and Kiba's earlier argument.

"You can't be trusted. I-"

"Have you forgotten about the relationship between me and Tenten? We've been on a date already. Mind your own, Hyuga!"

What did he mean? Neji probably thinks we're dating...but was Kiba trying to imply to Neji that we live together? Or...

...does Neji somehow already know?

I had been sitting completely immersed in the water, and when the thought occured to me, I forgot where I was and inhaled sharply, making myself burst through the surface of the pool, choking and sputtering.

No, I thought. That's ridiculous. There's no way he could know...

It was true that Neji usually found out about things I tried to hide from him. One way or another, he'd figure out, either by intuition or subtle investigation. Sometimes, I found myself wondering if he could read minds.

But if he could read my mind...he would know how I felt about him. And he never knows about that...

...he probably doesn't care about how I feel about him. It couldn't matter less to him...

With that in mind, I dismissed the idea of Neji knowing about my housekeeper. Sighing, I forced myself to sink back into the tepid water. My hand rose out of the pool and dug around in my knapsack, which sat beside the pool's edge. I took the manila folder out and reviewed the mission objective.

Okay...so there's a party that the bad guy is hosting...we sneak in before the terrorists get there, find the bad guy, seduce the bad guy into revealing the location of the weapons, and confiscate/destroy the weapons. And if it's possible...we should identify the terrorists who should've received the weapons...

Sounds simple enough...

I yawned and put the manila folder away again. Time for a nap...


Kiba's POV

Why does the honeymoon suite have to be on the highest floor? I thought as I entered the elevator with Neji. We rode past the first floor in silence.

Suddenly, Hyuga cleared his throat.

"What did you mean back there...when you mentioned 'the relationship between you and Tenten?'"

"I told you. We live together. You know what that means."

"What does it mean?"

"It means we're very intimate."

In the corner of my eye, I watched as his countenance gave in to emotion. His face seemed to flush with anger, and his knuckles gripped the elevator rail harder, making his knuckles turn white.

"Don't...use that word. It sounds vile."

"What word?" I asked innocently. He glared at me for the umpteenth time that day.

"I don't want to hear you talking about intimacy, especially when you're also talking about Tenten."

"Why? You're gonna be a married man soon. What does it matter to you whether or not I'm intimate with my girl?"

"That's a lie. I can tell. You might live together, but I know Tenten. It's only been weeks since that first date you had, and Tenten's not like that. She respects herself and she definitely wouldn't sleep with some man she barely-"

"First date or no date, I feel like I've known her all my life...and she says she feels that way too. You have no right to decide whether or not she's allowed to be intimate because it's her choice. Besides, I treat her way better than you ever did. Does that make you upset, Hyuga? Good. Go cry about it to your bitchy little fiancee because Tenten doesn't care anym-"

I stopped talking only because the wind was knocked out of me when he suddenly slammed me against the elevator wall. I hit the railing behind me, and I winced as it jabbed into my back. Before he could do anything else, I shoved him off and tackled him onto the floor.

As we wrestled around trying to inflict as much bodily harm on each other as possible, I accidentally ripped his shirt down the front, revealing the skin from his collarbone to his navel. He took notice of the rip and glared, flipping me over and pinning me to the floor. He raised his fist to land a blow but I threw him off just in time. I lunged at him, grabbing his hips and throwing him against the floor. I got on top of him and pinned him there by pressing my hands against his chest, my fingers tangling in his undone hair. He grabbed my shoulders to push me off.

Just then, the elevator doors opened. We heard gasps.

A group of hotel cleaning maids was staring at us with huge eyes and open mouths. One of them blushed and covered her eyes with her hands, but continued to peek at us through her parted fingers. The head maid grunted and turned her gaze away from us, also blushing rather visibly.

"Puh-lease. Get a room, gentlemen! This is not the proper setting for...for hanky panky!" she spat as she and the other maids filed into the elevator.

At first, I didn't understand what she meant. I blinked and glanced at Neji, who looked equally confused. I looked down and saw how we were positioned. Suddenly, it all clicked together. I instantly got off of him, revealing his exposed chest and torso. Some of the maids squealed and pretended to faint.

Neji got up and found himself surrounded by a bunch of drooling, horny maids. He glared at them before backing away into a far corner of the elevator. I cleared my throat.

"We're not...it's not what it looks like," I explained. "We...we were fighting! And his shirt got ripp-"

"Hey, look. I'm not judging you," the head maid assured. "I understand that you are men...and you have your...urges...and that's okay. Just get a room next ti-"

"I assure you...that was NOT what happened," Neji said through gritted teeth. The maids were starting to surround him in his corner of the elevator. The head maid wagged her feather duster at us knowingly.

"Suuure, suuuure," she answered, giving us a skeptical look. "Whatever you say. Just make sure you don't get caught next time."

"There won't BE a NEXT TIME because WE WERE JUST FIGHT-"

Before I could finish, the elevator door opened and all of the maids left. The doors closed again and for a moment, we were both silent. I turned to Neji, who was glaring at the pieces of paper he was choking in his fist. Some of the maids had given him their phone numbers. He glared evilly at the pieces of paper for another second before glaring at me. He opened his fist and separated a small, pink sticky note from the rest of the scraps.

"This one's for you," he muttered sarcastically as he roughly shoved my shoulder, attaching the sticky note to my shirt. I tore it off and returned his glare.

"We never speak of this. Ever."

He nodded gravely. "I agree. It never happened."

As he nodded, we reached the top floor and the elevator doors opened again. We exchanged one more glare before stepping off the elevator and heading to our room.

When we were finally in the room, I tried to calm myself. He was so infuriating. Suddenly, he stormed over to me and slammed his hand against a coffee table.

"Don't lie, Inuzuka. What's really going on between you and Tenten?" He gave me a suspicious look. His pale eyes were glaring through me, like he was trying to read my mind. "You bastard. You're just playing with her, aren't you?"

"Why does it bother you that I actually like her? Are you going to do something about it?"

"Yes. If you're just using her, I'll kick your sorry ass."

"I doubt that. And I'm not using her!" I snapped. He was looking crazed now. Anger, hatred, and jealousy all evident in his Hyuga eyes.

Suddenly, I thought of Ino. My role in her plan was to make Neji as jealous as possible. I pushed past him and toward the window. "Let's say I am using her. Let's say I'm just using her for a place to sleep. Why do you care? Aren't you getting hitched soon?"

"No. If she'd only give me another chance," he trailed off flatly. "If it's for Tenten...I would never get married. I'd wait for her no matter how long it takes."

I took a deep breath. "I don't love her," I lied. "I'm just using her."

I tried to sound convincing, but I couldn't say it while looking into those pale eyes, so I just stared out the window. My thoughts started arguing with Ino's intentions.

Why am I doing this? Do I really want Neji to call off his wedding and take Tenten away?

No, but that's what would make Tenten happy...so it's the right thing to do.

I can make Tenten happy...

She doesn't love you...

Does she?

Neji was still standing there, staring at me with his arms folded across his chest. Suddenly, he came over to the window. He wasn't glaring anymore. His fingertips touched the glass, as if tracing his reflection. Suddenly, his hand dropped away and his features twisted into an expression of self-repugnance.

"I thought she'd always be waiting for me." His voice was barely above a whisper, and for once, it held emotion; I could hear the hurt in his words. "But it looks like I...was wrong."

He was gazing through the window this time, and not at his reflection. It looked like he was watching the dark fumes being released into the sky from the building across from us. I gave him an annoyed look.

"Of course you were wrong. You figured that out now? You dumbass, I thought you're supposed to be a genius."

He just continued to stare out at the grayish smoke billowing out from the chimney tops. Minutes passed, but we just stood there, silent and submersed in our own thoughts.

Suddenly, he turned away from the window and went over to where his bags were.

"It's time for me to fix this. I have to go tell her," he said, taking out another shirt and changing out of the torn one. "You don't love her. So don't try to stop me." He started walking towards the door.

At that moment, I knew what was right and what was selfish. I could almost hear Ino's voice echoing in my head.

We're about to help her and Neji! You can't have those kinds of feelings for her!

I bit my lip. I knew I should let him tell her. The sooner the better.

Tenten would be happy and Neji would call off his wedding, I thought.

But then I would leave Tenten's house...

...and everything would change.

I might not even see her again...

As Neji pulled the door open, I dashed across the room and slammed it shut. He raised his brow at me, keeping his hand on the doorknob.

"What do you want? You said you were just using her for your own selfish agend-"

"Don't do it now. We're on a mission. She's probably really stressed out. A woman doesn't want to hear a confession at times like this. She wants to hear it when she's alone with her knight in shining armor. Maybe under the moonlight or surrounded by rose petals or some sappy thing like that."

Neji shook his head. "I have to tell her now. I've already taken too long. And why do you care about her? You just said you've been using her."

"I did say that. Look, I know this makes it worse...but she's still my friend," I said, looking away so he couldn't tell I was lying through my teeth. "Tenten's gonna have to seduce some dangerous guy affiliated with terrorists and weapons tomorrow. If you profess your feelings for her right now, it might make it harder for her. It's putting her in danger."

Neji glared at me. "Why are you trying to help?"

"I just needed a place to stay. I never actually wanted her to get hurt."

He stared at me furiously. "You should've thought about that before you used her."

He hit me in the stomach, but the impact itself didn't cause much pain. The blow was more of a soft tap than a punch, and I wondered what was going on. Then I felt something start to wrench in my belly and I realized what he had done.

Did he use...gentle fist?

After about a second of uncertainty, I had my answer when I found myself doubling over, coughing. Warm blood sputtered from my lips and onto my chin. I felt like my stomach was caving in on itself, but decided not to say anything as I wiped the blood away with my sleeve. Without a sound, I stood and looked him square in the eye.

"You're right," I said. Inside, I was dying. Partly because I felt like throwing up from all the raw chakra bleeding inside of me, but mostly because I hated the fact that I had to lie. None of it was true. If anything, the lurching pain in my stomach made me realize something.

I knew I liked Tenten. I had admitted it before. But the revelation of how much I actually cared for her was something completely new. I wanted to tell her this, because she was so blissfully unaware. Part of me wanted to find her myself and bring her to Neji so they could live happily ever after.

But that was just a part of me. The other part wanted to keep her from knowing. I wanted to keep her away from Neji until she could forget. It was selfish and I felt guilty, but I couldn't help it. I wanted her for myself.

I forced myself to keep standing. "You're right, okay? So you can take her. I don't care. But not today...because now's not the time. It could get her in trouble."

Neji kept his eyes on me as he let go of the doorknob. I couldn't guess what he was thinking, but he watched me with a brutal intensity.

"Fine. But I'm telling her as soon as we're back in Konoha. And if you try to stop me again," he said, gesturing to the blood on my shirtsleeve. "You'll lose a lot more of that."

I just stood there silently, wanting so desperately to strangle him. He didn't smirk, but something about his face was still undeniably smug. I could feel his hostility toward me decreasing. It was as if he had only found me threatening when he thought I had feelings for Tenten, and that made my fists ball up and shake with anger.

"I'll keep that in mind," I replied, leaving the room. He watched me from the doorway with that same vaguely smug expression.

"Where are you going?"

"Don't worry, I'm not going near her."

I turned and left. I passed the elevators and took the stairs instead. Gritting my teeth, I walked past a newlywed couple and staggered through the door leading to the stairs. When I was sure no one else was in the stairwell, I finally allowed myself to hunch over, clutching my stomach. I made it down one flight of stairs before I was out of breath, panting and coughing.

I gripped the stair railing and sat on a stairstep. By now, the blood on my shirtsleeve had dried. I winced when I felt more blood at the back of my throat, forcing myself to swallow it. When I stayed perfectly still I could almost feel my chakra and blood spilling out and pooling around my bruised insides.

"I hope...I won't...die yet," I whispered to myself between short, shallow breaths. "I have...to tell...Tenten...I'm sorry for...what I just did."

I groaned, more blood threatening to trickle out of my mouth. But I knew I wouldn't die. Neji wasn't as impulsive as I was; he obviously hit the point that would be most agonizing without being fatal. Despite the blood dribbling down my jaw and the excruciating pain in my gut, I grinned.

"Heh...where's...Ino...when you need her? I could...really use a medical-ninja...right now..."


Ino's POV

"Thank you! Come again!" I said, smiling as the customers left with their flowers.

"Well," I said to myself. "I think they were the last ones. Time to close the shop."

I had just come back from a mission yesterday afternoon. I was tired, but since no one else was home today, I was forced to run the family flower shop alone. Normally, such a day would have put me in a grouchy mood, but for some reason, I was smiling and humming. In fact, I had been that way for about a week now. It was as if nothing could affect me. I felt cheerful all the time, and for absolutely no reason at all.

I had been alone behind a counter for most of the day, so just about everyone who had come in had only seen me from the waist up. As I walked out from behind the counter, I couldn't help but glance down. I was wearing Kiba's shoes, which looked oddly out-of-place on my normally trendy feet. I knew it must have looked hideously unfashionable, but I smiled happily as I twirled around the room, putting things back on shelves and cleaning up pieces of flower stems.

After flipping the "open" sign around to read "closed," I locked the shop door and turned to walk down the street. Before I could, I went back into the shop. Although I was feeling carefree enough to wear men's shoes in the privacy of the flower shop, I wasn't feeling loopy enough to wear them in full public view. I placed Kiba's shoes in a cardboard box and slipped on some cute, super-chic, heeled boots I had kept stashed in the back of the shop for emergencies. With the cardboard box tucked carefully under my arm, I locked up once again and headed home.

When I got home, the humming escalated into singing and more twirling. I was suddenly really glad I was home alone. With a goofy smile on my face, I twirled all the way upstairs into my room and allowed myself to fall backwards onto my bed. After belting the last note of my song, I sat up and opened the cardboard box.

His shoes were rather worn and old. I scrunched my nose up at the ugliness of it all. As I admired the shoes, I let my mind wander.

I wonder how he's doing right now...I hope he's safe. And I hope Tenten's safe, too...

He better not be wavering...he's supposed to be helping Neji and Tenten end up together...

Suddenly, some of the happy-go-lucky spirit I had been cherishing throughout the day began to evaporate. I bit my lip in concern. What if he snaps and tries to break them up instead...Would he do that? Does he...

...does he like Tenten enough to do that?

I sighed in frustration. He's not supposed to like her...that's not part of the plan...

I ran my fingers over the shoes, taking in the rough texture. As my fingers brushed against the tough material, I suddenly felt something lurch in my stomach.

"Oof," I grunted. I instinctively dropped the shoes to put my hands against my abdomen. I watched as they fell to the beige carpet and laid motionless on the floor. An uncanny tremor ran down my spine and for some reason, I imagined Kiba for a second, lying alone somewhere, looking as lifeless as his shoes on my carpet. Something intuitive in the back of my mind told me the mysterious sensation that had just passed through my stomach meant something. I closed my eyes to focus on it.

This feeling...it can't be for real. That's silly...my stomach's probably just trying to tell me that I'm hungry...

I sighed dismissively before getting off my bed and picking his shoes up from the floor. I went downstairs and began heating some leftovers.

Good luck, Tenten.

But let's just hope you won't need any...


Thank you for reading.

Yes, yes...I know it was boring and there wasn't a lot of mushy-gushy, romantic froth-fluff in this chapter...please rant about it in the form of harsh, flaming reviews. :3

And please feel free to make suggestions for what should happen next...I always try to use all of your ideas, or as many as I can.

Anyways, thanks. I'll try to update again within a fairly reasonable time frame. XD