Make Room, Make Room!
When Tenten realised that Neji's name meant "screw", she burst in a fit of laughter.
"I hardly think that this is the right time to be laughing." Neji straightened his newspaper and continued, "The employment rate has dropped to fifty-two percent, and suicide rates are..."
"That's so sweet of you, Neji," Tenten said, creeping up to his naked lap and crossing her ankles, "I never knew you were familiar with the concept of compassion."
"You're not as tough as you make yourself out to be, are you?" Tenten purred and ran a bored finger over the tendons in his thigh.
Saying nothing, Neji draped his arm across her bare shoulder, and kissed her between the nooks of her shoulder-blades.
With Neji's lips ghosting its way up to her jaw, Tenten could only wonder—why him—why him out of the billions that now populated the world. She seemed to have shuffled against every shoulder and bumped into each sweaty back in the city before she met him, and yet...
"Is something on your mind?" Neji said.
"Not particularly," she replied, and reached for the remote near Neji's hip. "I was just thinking about us."
"Yeah, us." Her elbow planted between his knees, she put her hand on her cheek and smiled up at him. "Remember when we first met?"
"I remember." Neji's brows puckered. "It was the hottest day of the year. There were hundreds of people in that subway tunnel."
Neji made a faint grimace as he touched upon the end of his sentence. Tenten laughed.
No, the circumstances in which they had first met were hardly romantic. Dozens of damp faces, wailing babies and smelly armpits had clustered around them in an all too-warm swarm of human mush. A delivery boy who went by the name of Rock Lee—in a rush to get to the other side of that wide sea of people—had then bowled them over like tenpins. His basket full of paper lotuses had then showered over all of them like a colourful tornado, and that was how the three had begun their lives together.
Neji chuckled too. Tenten flicked their television on.
She hoped that there might be something happy on for a change, but as usual, everything that aired was full of doom and gloom.
Overpopulation, global warming, an unsustainable natural environment, wars, pollution and rising rates of everything were being reported and lampooned all over the news. And the deviltries never stopped there. There seemed to be a genuine nuclear threat and, as if that wasn't enough to crush them like bugs, there was also the delicate global economy to worry about.
China was about to implode, it was so goddamned crowded. Japan had become a plump old woman trying to fit into her half-a-century-old wedding dress. India's slums were so big now that the slums themselves had sub-slums festering in them. The rest of Asia grew poorer and poorer each passing day, all of the Americas were a crying mess, and Europe's crib business was now its biggest enterprise. The AIDS pandemic in Africa upped in percentage every hundred babies per second. Poor Australia was being battered left and right by countries wanting more of its land. And even Antarctica wasn't safe anymore, with everyone dumping their rubbish near its fragile biospheres.
If they were to list all the problems the world faced now, they'd be dead before they could finish.
"You know, some people are calling it the end of the world," Tenten moaned.
"I'd be surprised if it wasn't," Neji replied before folding his newspaper and putting it on his bedside table.
"So what do you think we'll do?" Tenten asked. Cool beads of sweat clumped at the hollow atop her tailbone. The relaxed atmosphere of their morning break together dissipated slowly but surely. "If we go on like this for any longer, I think people'll just start dropping dead on the streets."
Neji's hand constricted against Tenten's spine and when she looked up, he wasn't smiling anymore.
Tenten gazed at him worriedly, took a lock of his long, dark hair and kissed it. "Is something wrong?"
"No." He resumed the gyration of his palm against her back.
"You can tell me." She tightened her fingers around his hair and breathed in the scent of honey and milk. "I promise I won't be mad."
"It's not fair to you."
"Yes, it is! Remember that time when I showed up sweating puddles at your door with my bags, my everything—and you just..." Tenten strung her hand within his left side of hair. "You were just there for me? I owe you."
Neji's chest heaved heavily as he sighed.
"Must you know?"
Neji removed his hand over her shoulder and locked his fingers together.
"My cousin is," he said, enunciating a most painful pause, "Pregnant."
"Pregnant?" Tenten felt her eyes focus. "You mean Hinata or Hanabi?"
"Hinata." His voice was very, very soft.
"Hasn't she been studying abroad for a while now?"
"Now you know why she's been away for so long."
Tenten swallowed. "...Has she been approved by the agency?"
Neji shook his head.
"Oh dear," she said, clenching her fists, "who's the father?"
"She's not sure."
"For real?" Tenten sat up, her bare breasts bouncing as she shifted on the mattress. "How far along is she?"
"The baby's due next month." Neji massaged his temples. "Oh hell—the ponchos, I really should have known."
"It all makes sense now." Tenten rubbed her chin. "So she wasn't just making a fashion statement."
"I planned on telling you next week. This little piece of news only made its way to me some days ago." Neji clasped her fingers tight. "She doesn't want Hiashi to know. She gave me a call yesterday and asked me to pick her up tomorrow night."
"And do what?"
"Shelter her," Neji sighed.
"Anywhere she can have the baby in peace."
Tenten gave him her fiercest look, before she resolved, "I'm going with you."
Neji didn't discourage her decision, but did not hearten it, either. "This will be an intractable journey for all of us, and I don't—"
"Oh my god, why didn't tell me earlier, you—gah!" Tenten sprung alive, jumped out of his arms and grabbed the first shirt she could find. "We'll need to make her some of those cinnamon buns she likes so much, get some flowers and call Lee and, and—"
"Tenten." Neji grabbed a hold of her wrist. "Might I stress that she hasn't been approved?" he said, his eyes broken and his brows slanted, "You know what happens to mothers who aren't approved."
"Yes, I do, but Lee—"
"Fine, you can call Lee." Neji grunted and went to look for some clothes in their cabinet.
"We won't let anyone know," she reassured. "You'll pick her up after I've got all the stuff done and we'll throw a little party here."
"That may be inappropriate."
"Neji, think about this for a minute." Dark nipples jutting from her thin, unbuttoned blouse, Tenten stopped flapping on her clothes and put her hands on either side of his cheek. "She's pregnant, alone, and doesn't even know who the father of her kid is. You think she's enjoyed these months zipped up thinking she did something wrong?"
Neji's voice was as placid as ever when he said, "Hinata could use a cousin like you."
He never failed to make her blush even in the direst of situations.
Rock Lee stormed into the room with a twirl and a song.
"A happy, youthful morning to you both!" he chirped, his silky black hair a chirpy frame for his cute and unassuming face. "Have the lovebirds been vigorous in their love-making?"
"None of your business, Lee," said Neji, grunting as he lifted himself off the wall. Tenten seemed torn between laughing and smacking Lee upside the head. "And that's not why you're here."
"No, it isn't," Tenten agreed, crossing her arms and becoming solemn.
"Actually, why is he here?" Neji turned to Tenten and stared at her in askance. Tenten rolled her eyes.
"Why, I'd like to know!" Lee exclaimed excitedly, delightedly, "What is this most youthful surprise my dear friends have been talking about?"
"Well," Tenten sighed and drew circles with her feet. "We need your help, Lee. There's a rather precarious situation we seem to—"
"…Hinata's pregnant," Neji cut to the chase.
"Oh dear, oh my." For the first time today, Lee for stood still. "That is a precarious situation indeed, if I do say so myself."
"And um," Tenten continued, "She hasn't been approved."
Lee twitched and his eyes lit up with fear. "Surely the father…"
"She isn't sure who he is," Neji said.
Lee dropped his shopping bags, pursed his lips and slumped on the closest chair.
Neji drove them to the airport with uncharacteristic nervousness. Hinata had been the last person he'd expected to fall pregnant during such hard times, and now that she had, he didn't know what on earth he was supposed to do.
Traffic was awful, as always. Maybe five years ago it would have taken them a cool half-an-hour to reach their destination, but with traffic congestion and blaring horns in the damn way their journey clocked in at two long hours sitting in a stuffy car trying to crack jokes and keep themselves sane.
"Does she really want her child to be born in a godforsaken world such as ours?" Neji snarled as a shattered little car cut in a little too sharply from the left lane.
"Don't say such things," Lee said, his brows furrowing sadly, "There is still hope and youth left in the world yet."
Neji sucked in his lips and eyed Lee from the rearview mirror. His knuckles went white as he squeezed them around the steering wheel. "Sorry, Lee," he said, very softly.
"It's all right," Lee responded with a grin, "I know you feel powerless to stop anything at all, but you can still smile on and keep wishing for the best. Every baby has the chance to make this world right again. And I think that that's something to look forward to."
"We'll pull through this," Tenten reaffirmed confidently. "I hate to say it, but Lee's right for once."
Neji tried to smile and Lee tried to laugh.
The sky was orange and thick industrial trails of smoke bled through the streams of tangerine and yellow to paint a muggy picture of the end of the world.
Hinata was wearing a purple poncho when she stepped into the arrival longue, although even the oversized article of clothing did not do so well to conceal the bump protruding under it. She pulled a single red, wheeled suitcase along her, and made tiny ladylike steps towards her friends, her expression neither relieved nor apprehensive.
"Hinata!" Neji, Tenten and Lee called simultaneously, outstretching their arms in turn.
"Oh, Neji," Hinata cried, returning the favour, "Tenten, Lee…"
"Hinata!" Tenten said brightly. She pulled back from their cushioned hug and held Hinata by the shoulders. "How have you been?"
Hinata looked down, clasped her hands together and did her nervous thumb-twiddling thing. "Good."
"Tell us all about it," Neji said, without prejudice and as much kindness as he could muster, "when we get home for a cup of tea."
Over cups of tea poured into intricate china and over-iced cinnamon rolls, Hinata, Neji, Tenten and Lee discussed what was to come of the young woman's pregnancy.
It was definitely not a conversation most people would like to have, but it was nevertheless an important dilemma to discuss.
"Where do you plan on having the baby?" Neji said in his softest voice.
"A-anywhere but a hospital," Hinata mumbled. "They'll turn me in if I go to a hospital."
"So you plan to raise this child?" Neji folded his arms on the table and Tenten found the air thicken with each word. Lee was too busy eating to have noticed the shift in the atmosphere.
"I don't know." She twisted her wrists to make her tea swirl. "We'll see."
"Hinata," Neji warned, leaning over the table, "In a worst case scenario, your indecisiveness could lead to your death."
Hinata froze and Lee stopped eating. Tenten scowled and pinched Neji back into his seat.
"Neji, you're doing that thing again," she huffed.
"The thing where you go and be a tactless drama queen, make yourself look stupid and hurt people and stuff everything up."
Neji grunted her remark off, Lee resumed eating and Hinata simply sat looking rather terrified.
Tenten closed her eyes and made a tired noise. "It's okay, Hinata. We'll work something out for you."
"We will!" affirmed Lee.
"We'll hire a caravan and go somewhere secluded, so you can have your baby there," Tenten said, slightly jittery. "It'll be absolutely fine. I'll hold your hand—I've done this kind of thing before, I think—and Lee'll help with all the relaxation shit and, um, Neji'll be an angel and get you your certificate of approval one way or another. It'll be fine."
Neji put a hand around the bottom of Tenten's waist and rubbed, calming her into a reserved silence.
The very next day, the three musketeers set out to find themselves a caravan and a place in which they could deliver the baby in peace.
Then with a heavily pregnant Hinata and a birthing manual in tow, they drove to the quietest place they could find in the countryside to wait out the rest of the month.
It must have been strange for Hinata to have found herself at the centre of such a mess, as she probably had not anticipated the chain of events that had lead up to the moment her water broke. None of them had—not even the father of the child. And at what odds would he have to reclaim his offspring? A reunion between lost parent and misplaced child was unlikely, as Hinata would probably not find him again, and she probably would not want to do so.
Hinata had confessed she had had a small string of flings around the time her child was conceived, and narrowed her candidates down to a big-hearted roguish wolf-boy who had driven her all the way to the sea, and a drunken night spent with a tenacious blue-eyed, blond bombshell. Neji had not seen her in person for almost two years, and the ostensible courage she showed in pursuit of her romantic endeavours surprised him.
But Hinata would still make a wonderful mother, no doubt; she was kind and patient, and could take care of anyone but herself. Her son or daughter would delight in the meals she cooked and the flowers she pressed, and grow up strong and compassionate children who practiced all the virtues of the world.
And it was strange how a pregnant cousin could make a man suddenly think about life as it was. Reflections about the future of his cousin—rather egotistically—soon drifted into consideration about his own future and that of Lee's, and Tenten's.
Though he had only known them for a modest fraction of his life, Neji felt as if he had been bonded to them now inseparably. Although they had never resorted to such sappy sentimentalism in discussing that unspoken connection, Neji knew that they felt the same as soon as they hopped on to assist Hinata's childbirth without a single doubt raised.
Lee, who was idealistic and unwavering in his devotion to humankind, was childish in his ways and the best person out of them all. He saw everything as an opportunity for something good to happen, treated everyone like he'd known them all his life, and fell in love fast and hard. There needed to be more people like him in a dying world like theirs, and Neji wished him all the happiness in the world.
Tenten was down-to-earth in her integrity, and beautiful and fierce in everything she did. She never lied to please someone else, but always offered a shoulder to those who needed one. She, like Lee, could be endearingly unconventional at times, with her eccentric hairdos and fixation on sharp, pointy things. In the years he'd been with her, Neji knew her to have been never indecisive and always helpful. And she was sexy and voracious, honest and practical, and Neji didn't want—didn't need—anything more.
Ever since the first time Neji had seen and kissed her hips, her breasts, and all the other groves and curves and clefts that made up her body, he had been enamoured with them. While he supposed that in a different time and place they might have gone on to make a baby, the situation at hand would never have given them a chance to do so. That wasn't to say Neji did not like the way things were now, because he did, and he wasn't sure if either of them were up to putting her through the pressure and the pain Hinata was experiencing now.
The world was ending, and although there was little space left for newcomers to fit into that overcrowded earth, Neji had lived his life in it to meet people he cherished and memories he'd never forget, and that was as good of an achievement you could accomplish during the apocalypse, wasn't it?
Neji thought about all these things as he sponged the sweat off Hinata's brow, his knees soaking wet with the blood and water that had seeped through the carpet. The scene was a gory mess, with Hinata screaming and squirming on the bed, Neji squeezing her hand, Lee hopping to and fro with towels in his arms and Tenten steadying the poor girl in bouts of, "push, push," in an age-old cliché anyone would have seen on television over and over again.
And after what seemed like hours of hushed encouragement and triumphant cries and sudden revelations, the miracle and blight of life entered that very caravan room.
Tenten was all splitting grins and congratulations, and Lee a puddle of manly tears and coos. Hinata seemed tired, but when she held her daughter in her arms with her little fingers, little feet, little smile, she glowed brighter than ever before.
Neji himself felt awash with a sense of camaraderie and pride, and hoped with all his might the world would be generous enough welcome and make room for just one more soul.
#9:Make Room, Make Room!
8/9/2011—15/10/2011: So I wrote two-thirds of this chapter today. Writing for this collection always makes me feel immensely happy, for some reason. But I've got only two half-fleshed ideas written down in my files to go. So if anybody wants to make a request, now is probably a very good time to do so.