Trip the Light Fantastic

By: firefly

Note: lol I don't even know with this one, except I always wanted to write a Neji/Ino crackfic and finally got my chance when I got this idea in the shower. Inspired by the song "Hip Hip Chin Chin" by Club Des Belugas, as well as many others I'm too ashamed to list here. Timeline-wise, takes place somewhere in the middle of the time jump.

Fic will be split into two parts since it got way too long. Also, please note that I know pretty much next to nothing about dance and it probably shows, especially since I made up most of the terms. :D Anyway, enjoy, and reviews are always love!

Trip the Light Fantastic

The newly inaugurated Committee for Shinobi and Civilian Relations was in session.

The organization was charged with the immensely important task of monitoring the social welfare of Konoha's citizens and its members were hard at work reinforcing the delicate equilibrium between the martial class and the masses.

Actually, it was just Genma and Raidō sitting at a cafeteria table in the Hokage's office building, mulling over a ton of paperwork with a bag of potato chips between them. The two were newly appointed to the job, tasked with deciding the fates of the shinobi filling the stacks beside them.

"So, what do we got?"

Genma let out a low whistle as he hefted a massive folder into his lap, his senbon caught between gritted teeth. "Ah, jeez. This is gonna take all day."

Raidō scratched his head as he took the form Genma passed him. "Wait, we've gotta process every single one of these complaints?"

Genma shook his head, still rifling through the papers. "Most of it is just minor stuff. A shinobi broke my window. A shinobi fell through my roof. A shinobi kicked my dog. Man, you'd think they'd appreciate us risking our lives for them..."

"So what do we do with those?"

"Separate 'em into two piles. The minor ones just get written up. The major ones get recommended for that new anger management program or go on probation."

Raidō winced. "Probation? Ouch."

Genma made an affirming noise, gnawing on his senbon as he sorted the papers. His eyes widened slightly when he finally hit a name he recognized.

"I heard about this one. Hyuuga Neji."

"What? The kid who just made jounin?"


"That's surprising. He always seemed like such a calm, collected guy..."

Genma's eyes scanned the report and a smirk crossed his face.

"Well, apparently some drunk civilian molested his cousin in the middle of the street. She's a sweet thing; probably couldn't even bring herself to smack the guy. Neji Jyuuken-ed him through a wall."

His friend snickered. "So the guy got what was coming to him, didn't he?"

"I agree, and so did Hyuuga Hiashi and the rest of the clan. The old stiff actually commended the kid. But the civilian filed a complaint and threatened a lawsuit because," here he rolled his eyes and quoted with his fingers, "complaining about 'shinobi brutality' is in right now."

With that, he slapped Neji's report onto the 'rehabilitation' pile and moved on to the next. He flipped through a couple more forms until he found another name that stood out. "Yamanaka Ino."

Raidō laughed. "That one's not so surprising."

Genma hummed in agreement as he read the report. "Says she beat the crap out of a couple teenagers for spray-painting penises on the flower shop wall."

"Ahh. I feel for her, but..."

"Rehab," Genma agreed, slapping her file down on top of Neji's.

Raidō helped him sort through the rest of the forms until he found the pamphlet detailing the new anger management program and looked it over. Very quickly, a frown passed over his face.

"Hey, Genma."


"Is this seriously the program list?"

"Yeah. Why?"

Raidō's tone grew more and more incredulous as he read through the options. "Dance lessons? Cooking classes? Cheerleading? How the hell is this supposed to help with anger management?"

"They're supposed to teach patience and communication skills. And lessen stress, supposedly."

"Wouldn't it be more efficient, and appropriate, to hire some shinobi psychologists?"

"Don't have the budget for it."

Raidō paused, drumming his fingers thoughtfully. "So let me get this straight. We're going to use the money to fund a bunch of useless social programs masquerading as anger management treatment, then slap the participating shinobi with hokey certificates declaring soundness of mind when they really haven't learned anything?"


"Oh," Raidō said, shrugging and taking a potato chip. "Works for me."

Two weeks later.

Neji stood in front of an oak-panelled door, reading the number stamped in black across the tablet. 552.

He lowered his eyes to the slip of paper in his hand. He was definitely at the right place. Taking a deep breath, he reached up and turned the handle.

It swung open easily, revealing a dark room. His hand found the light switch and he flicked it on, eyes narrowing slightly at the bright glare. For a moment, he just stood there surveying the room suspiciously.

It had an odd layout. The floor was polished hardwood and there was no furniture save for a few stacked folding chairs in the back and a stand with a television set. There were three long wooden benches lining the wall on one side of the room, end to end. On the opposite side, large mirrors covered the wall.

Neji's brow furrowed. He found it odd that he was the only one here, even if he was five minutes early. Without giving it further thought, he ventured into the room and retrieved one of the chairs, setting it down and taking a seat.

Frowning at his reflection in the mirrored wall, he lowered his head and mulled over the entire situation.

The circumstances were entirely unfair. He'd defended his innocent cousin from a lecherous drunkard, only to have his honourable intentions blow up in his face. Hyuuga Neji did not need anger management. He was perfectly capable of controlling his temper.

But it was either going through with it or earning himself probation from missions, which was just plain unacceptable as a new jounin. He felt a little better when he thought about the way Hiashi had clasped his shoulder in support and thanked him for his sacrifice, only to cringe at the memory of his team's over-the-top encouragement.

"The month shall fly by for you, Neji, but we will feel the gaping, bleeding wound of your absence most poignantly!"

Neji had dodged his sensei's attempt at a hug, only to run into Lee.

"It pains me that you must be punished for defending Hinata-san's honour," Lee said, eyes brimming with tears, "but know that I, your loving teammate, shall fully support you on your road to rehabilitation!"

Tenten had managed to save him from the combined onslaught of Lee and Gai, letting him depart with a few meaningful words. "Break a leg, Neji. Or not, since that's what got you in this mess in the first place."

Neji twitched at the memory and straightened in his seat when he heard footsteps approaching. Embarrassing or not, it was his duty to see this month through to the end. He would do it with dignity, no complaints.

A person appeared in the doorway and Neji stiffened in his seat when he saw who it was.

They stared at each other for a few seconds.

"This can't be the right room," Yamanaka Ino said blankly.

Neji didn't reply, eyes narrowing in memory of the blonde as she checked the directions written on her palm. When she realized she had the right place, she scowled and strode into the room. Neji attempted to ignore her as she grabbed a chair and slammed it down a few feet away from him, plopping herself down on it.

They were silent for several seconds. Then he felt her eyes on his face and turned his head to her.

"Hyuuga," she greeted coolly.

"Yamanaka," he acknowledged, just as curtly.

Her upper lip curled. "Have to say I'm surprised to see you here."

His expression didn't change. "Fitting. I'm not at all surprised to see you here."

At that she sneered. "So what did you do to land yourself in anger management class?"

"That," he intoned, crossing his arms and looking away, "is none of your business."

She was silent at first, but then he heard her mutter something that sounded like 'prick.' Clenching his fists, he willed himself to turn the other cheek.

Her cold reception wasn't all that surprising; he had the inkling she'd never really forgiven him for that slight to her pride during the chuunin exam. Not that he cared, of course, since he found the girl to be overly loud, demanding, and belligerent.

With that thought, he couldn't help hoping that the others would show up soon. Being stuck with the loud-mouthed blonde when he was already in a bad mood seemed like a recipe for disaster, especially since she seemed the type to push his buttons.

But the minutes ticked by and no one else arrived. They'd been scheduled to meet at 4:00 PM. It was now nearing 4:20 PM and Neji was growing impatient.

Just as he was about to consider giving up and going home, footsteps sounded in the hall and Ino stopped examining her nails the same instant he lifted his head. A silhouette appeared in the doorway and it wasn't until she stepped inside and slammed the door closed did they recognize who it was.

"Sorry I'm late," Anko said cheerily, breezing into the room. "That Kakashi's a bad influence."

"Anko-san?" Ino said, confused. "Are you in the class, too? Where's everyone else?"

Anko stopped and stared at the two for a moment. Then she placed her hands on her hips and grinned. "Oh, right. They didn't tell you, did they?"

Ino and Neji stared at her, nonplussed.

Her grin widened. "You two were specially selected for this branch of the program! And you'll be calling me sensei, by the way, since I'm your instructor from here on out."

Neji felt a strong sense of foreboding crawl down his spine. "What exactly will we be doing?"

Anko moved her arm across the room in a sweeping gesture. "Speaks for itself, doesn't it?"

Neji continued to stare at her, uncomprehending, until Ino gasped next to him.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me."

"Give the girl a prize," Anko said, a self-satisfied edge settling into her smile. "That's right. You guys are in the dance program."


More silence.

"What?" Neji said finally, positive he must have misheard.

"The dance program, Hyuuga." She raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you read the pamphlet?"

Neji continued to stare at her as though she was speaking an alien language. Anko decided to give him a little time to let the news sink in and turned her attention to Ino, who wasn't so much surprised now as she was begrudging of the entire situation.

"Don't give me that look, Yamanaka. I used to see you in Katami's dance class back in the academy and I know you've got moves. That's why I chose you."

"Then there must be some mistake," Neji interrupted. "I have no dance experience whatsoever."

"I know," Anko said airily. "But Gai was so convincing of your talents, I couldn't help giving you a shot."

Neji suddenly became very, very still. Ino unconsciously moved her chair away from him when his fists clenched by his sides.

"Gai," he repeated in a voice of forced calm. "He told you that?"

"Yep. He said you're graceful, light on your feet, and you've got great coordination." Anko smirked. "Plus he said you move like a swan."

Neji swallowed his fury and made a mental note to kill Gai later. Then he raised his head and spoke firmly.

"I am not doing this. I request permission to be moved to another program."

"Permission denied. The other programs are full. But really, you should be honoured. This is a specialized class and I'll have you know I'm a very good instructor."

"I refuse. The Hyuuga do not dance."

"Really?" Anko questioned, sounding bored. "All that spinning and posing you guys do look a lot like dancing to me."

Neji was so outraged he temporarily lost the ability to speak.

Anko took advantage of it and pulled out a clipboard, marking two ticks next to their names. "Okay, let's get some things straight. One, attendance is mandatory. You skip, you go on probation. Two, I have high expectations. You screw around, I will come down on your ass. Three, you guys will be performing for an audience by the end of the month. So you, Hyuuga, better start taking this seriously."

Neji felt as though the floor had fallen away beneath his feet. "...performing?"

Anko looked unconcerned by the green tinge that came over his face. "Yep. You're slotted to perform at the Annual Shinobi Culture Show. Pretty awesome, huh?"

Neji had to fight to control his sudden bout of nausea. He'd heard of the event, even though he'd never attended. Every year, all shinobi would gather at the Konoha Centre for Performing Arts to revel in a night of singing, dancing, and other useless activities he had no patience for. And he was supposed to go onstage and partake in that nonsense?

He clutched the bottom of his seat for support.

Next to him, Ino didn't seem all that fazed by the idea of being humiliated in front of thousands of people. She only looked mildly bewildered.

"Hold on a second," she said eventually. "If it's just the two of us, then..."

"Yeah," Anko said, leafing through her clipboard. "You'll be dancing as a pair."

Ino sputtered in shock and Neji stared at her as though she'd lost her mind. The blonde's surprise didn't last long, however, as she leapt to her feet and pointed indignantly at Neji's face.

"Look, it's bad enough I have to take a month off missions and not get paid, but pairing me off with the automaton over here? Are you trying to make me suffer?"

Anko opened her mouth to reply, only to have Neji's frosty voice interrupt.

"You seem to be under the impression that I agreed to the arrangement, Yamanaka. Rest assured I have even less of a desire to be anywhere near you."

Ino stiffened and turned to him, fists clenched by her sides. "My mistake. I shouldn't have assumed you'd even try, because a total stiff like you couldn't even manage a two-step, let alone meet my standards."

His expression didn't change, but there was a noticeable clench in his jaw. "You say that as though it's an insult. The Hyuuga have no time for such frivolities."

She laughed humourlessly. "Of course you'd say that. But don't worry, I won't tell anyone when you go running home to mommy after the first lesson."

This time his eyes narrowed. "Who's running?"

"Guys?" Anko attempted to intervene, taken aback by the sudden rise in tension. "I think we should—"

"It's just a matter of time," Ino continued, arrogant now as she flipped her hair at him. "There's no way you can keep up with me."

"I have no desire to when I consider it a complete waste of time."

"So like the Hyuugas to not appreciate art when they see it. It doesn't matter, anyway, because it's not like you could actually do it."

"Guys?" Anko tried again, louder this time.

"Watch your mouth, Yamanaka." Neji was standing now, all composure gone as he glared down at her. "Don't speak so highly of yourself when the subject in question is only a cause for embarrassment."

"Don't you dare talk to me like that," Ino snapped back, getting up in his face. "I'll let it slide now because I know you're talking out of your ass, but next time, I'll make you eat your—"

"Oi!" Anko bellowed, voice reverberating off the walls. "Shut the hell up, both of you!"

They fell silent, stunned by the sudden outburst. Anko scowled at them both. "What's with you two? We haven't even started and you're already at each others' throats!"

Feeling her ire, the two had the sense to keep silent, but not without throwing each other disgruntled glares from the corners of their eyes.

The jounin glowered at them both before she folded her arms and started pacing. "There seems to be a little miscommunication here about the purpose of the program. You two are here because you fucked up. Badly. So don't ever let me hear you bitch about the circumstances again unless you want a senbon in the eye. The whole point of the program is to help you face a challenge as a team, to help you talk it out and keep your cool..."

She turned her glare on them, "not to solve it by inflicting internal bleeding or massive head injury."

Neji looked resentful but remained quiet. Ino, too, kept quiet, but had to fight the urge to smirk since she didn't feel repentant at all.

"So that brings us to the main topic," Anko continued, tapping her clipboard against her thigh. "Believe it or not, Hyuuga, dance is an art form, and a damn difficult one at that. Like your Jyuuken, certain dance styles take years to master. It takes discipline, dedication, and most importantly…"

She faced them, eyes gleaming. "Passion."

Ino threw him a haughty look, which he ignored completely.

"I'm not convinced," he said instead.

"Whether or not you agree doesn't mean diddly-squat to me," she retorted. "The fact is that Yamanaka's a veteran and you're a greenhorn, so I don't wanna hear anymore lip from you."

Pleased to see she'd curried some of Anko's favour, Ino piped up. "What kind of dance will we be learning, anyway?"

"That," Anko said with a crafty smile, "remains to be seen. First you've gotta show me what you've got. So both of you, up."

Ino stood and moved to follow Anko across the room. Neji slowly rose and looked after them with trepidation.

She didn't seriously mean for him to dance for her now, did she? Because he hadn't been lying when he'd said he had no experience. Hell, he couldn't even clap his hands without feeling like an idiot.

Apprehensive, though he refused to show it, Neji made his way over to them and stopped next to Ino as Anko flung open a pair of cabinet doors to reveal a state-of-the-art sound system.

"Yamanaka, a demonstration."

Ino gave a confident grin. "Sure thing."

She hip-checked Neji out of the way and strutted to the centre of the floor. Once she was ready, Anko lifted the remote and pressed play.

Loud, heavy club music spilled into the studio. Anko beamed and Neji stared, a little scandalised as the blonde took off in a provocative routine consisting of sensual hip movements he didn't even know existed and contortions he didn't even think possible. There was something undeniably hypnotic about it, though, especially when she dipped towards the floor and arched back up, movements taut with tension but lava-slow.

Then Anko pressed another button and the music changed into something drastically different. Ino transitioned into it easily, movements becoming soft and graceful as the style shifted to ballet.

A moment later, the music switched again and she changed to a contemporary routine.

Neji had to admit, grudgingly, that he was impressed. She was freakishly flexible, lifting her legs straight into the air past her head, a move he couldn't even come close to trying without dislocating something.

Next to him, Anko looked absolutely gleeful. "Okay, that's enough. Good job, Yamanaka."

Ino flounced back over to them, immensely pleased with herself. Anko turned towards him.

"Now, Hyuuga…"

Neji froze, contemplating taking a dive out the window to escape imminent humiliation when Anko reached into the cabinet and withdrew a box of DVDs. He fumbled to catch it when she suddenly threw it at him.

"Consider that your learning material. Each DVD details a different style, from beginners' steps to advanced choreography. It's up to you to pick the right music, decide which style you like best and put together your own routine for us by the end of the week. How you do will determine the style and routine you guys will learn for the rest of the month, so don't screw up."

Even Ino was taken aback by the immensity of the task. She was about to comment about how he couldn't possibly manage that in a week, but then she remembered that Neji was a douche and probably deserved it.

To her surprise, the Hyuuga didn't seem that cowed by the ridiculous demand. Instead, he nodded stiffly and held the box by his side. "One week will suffice."

Anko gave him a considering look. "Hm. At least you're confident." Then she smirked. "We'll see how you do next week. Same time and place, guys. Try not to kill each other till then."

With that, she bid them a wave and strode out of the room, leaving them alone.

Neji determinedly ignored Ino as she gave him a scornful look. "One week? Are you serious?"

"Your lack of confidence won't hinder my success."

She blinked, incredulous. "You're really full of it, aren't you? But yeah, here's hoping you don't completely suck, because I am not letting you drag me down with you."

Neji stared at her, feeling a tic start somewhere near his temple. Nobody had ever, ever dared talk to him in such a way, let alone consider him unworthy of learning something as simple and stupid as dance. He'd actually been considering appealing to the hokage, but now...?

He tightened his grip on the box, his previous reluctance replaced by steely resolve.

"I suggest you save the rest of your comments, Yamanaka. Like you said, I only have one week, and you're wasting my time."

She rolled her eyes and turned away from him. "Whatever, Hyuuga. Good luck. You'll need it."

Then she walked off and left him alone in the studio. Without wasting a second, Neji moved towards the TV and put in the first DVD. Then he dragged up a chair, sat down, and rested his chin between his steepled fingers and thumbs. His eyes settled in a fixed glare on the screen.

Frivolous or not, he would approach this new endeavour with the same determination and intensity he reserved for his training. And not only would he come to learn it, he'd master it, too, because he was Hyuuga Neji and Hyuuga Neji was a genius, goddamn it.

Let it be known that he was not one to be taken lightly.

3 days later.

A loud clatter and the thud of a body hitting the floor interrupted the music for the fifth time as Neji tripped over his own robes and crashed into a chair. He didn't bother getting up this time, instead pressing his sweaty face into the hardwood floor.

"I took this too lightly," he groaned.

Every hour of every day, from dawn until dusk, had been spent in that cursed studio as he tried to get a hang of the so-called art form.

Each time, he made sure to lock the door the instant he arrived so no one could see him making an ass out of himself. Years of shinobi training, along with the fact that he was a genius, made it so that learning the actual dance moves weren't so difficult. But it was doing the dance moves passionately to the rhythm of music that threw him off completely.

How does Yamanaka do this? he wondered, confounded.

To overcome one's inhibitions, let loose, and throw your body into a series of choreographed movements that served no purpose went against everything the Hyuuga stood for. If he couldn't even manage it when he was alone, how could he manage it in front of an audience?

The thought sent a shiver down his spine.

He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, trying to relax. He'd tried several methods to make himself more comfortable with the idea of prancing around like a fairy, including viewing it as a training exercise and even trying to enjoy it. When neither worked, he went so far as to picture the audience in their underwear, but that only served to make him more flustered than before.

"Calm down," he muttered to himself, closing his eyes tighter. "Think..."

But he couldn't think, not when all he could picture was Ino laughing in his face; not when he could picture the unimpressed look on Anko's face and the disappointment in his uncle's; and worst of all, not when he could picture himself sitting at home on probation, drowning himself in bonbons and eating away his misery.

With a growl of determination, he dragged himself up off the floor. Then in a fit of pique, he ripped off his robes and threw them aside, leaving himself clad in nothing but his pants.

To hell with decorum, he thought irritably, throwing his forehead protector away next. And to hell with self-help tips. If he was going to do this, he was going to do it honestly, without concealing how much he freaking hated it.

Kicking his chair away, he grabbed the remote and pressed play to start the music up again.

As the music spilled into the studio, Neji took a deep breath and dove into the routine again, this time channelling his fury into the steps, imagining himself punching something with every turn and kicking something with every leap. He made zero effort in making it look pretty, centering the entire routine around the idea of beating the shit out of someone.

It was like being in a trance. He no longer felt self-conscious of his steps, twisting and turning without effort, following through seamlessly by viewing them through the mindset of a fight. Before he knew it, the music ended and he found himself facing the mirror, still on his feet instead of on his face somewhere in the corner.

Neji stared at his reflection in disbelief, taking in his dishevelled hair, sweat-streaked face, and heaving chest. He looked like he'd just come out the wrong end of a bar fight, but he was still standing.

Slowly, a small, triumphant smirk spread over his face.

He was finally getting somewhere.

Four days later.

Ino muttered a curse as she knelt in the alley next to the flower shop and dipped her roller into the paint. Three attempts to scrub the penises from the brick wall proved fruitless, leaving her with no choice but to paint over it.

Wiping her sweaty forehead with the back of her hand, she rose to swipe angrily over the glaring phallus in front of her when a voice broke the silence.

"Wow. Probation sucks worse than I thought."

Ino rolled her eyes. "Tell me something I don't know, forehead."

Sakura laughed, sorry for the blonde even if the situation was horribly amusing. She was carrying a bag of medicinal plants she'd just purchased from the shop, having found Ino after Inoichi mentioned she was outside re-painting the wall. Sakura moved over to her friend's side and looked over the fresh paint. "You're doing a bang-up job, though. Mind coming over and doing my room?"

The medic-nin backed off when Ino brandished the dripping roller at her threateningly. Then her irritated expression caved and she lowered her weapon. "You know, the worst part is that I'd actually do it if it could get me out of going to that horseshit anger management class."

Sakura gave her a bemused look. "Isn't it a dance class or something? I thought you liked that sort of thing."

Ino dropped the roller in the paint and turned to her, eyes flaming. "I thought so, too. You'd think, after hauling my ass home after a B-rank mission, getting my period the instant I stepped into the house, finding a bunch of snot-nosed kids spray-painting penises all over the shop, and getting thrown into rehab for kicking their asses, that I'd get a break with it being a dance class, right?"

Without waiting for Sakura to answer, she continued through gritted teeth. "Wrong. I get paired off with the worst person imaginable. Guess who."

Sakura blinked. "Who?"

Ino took a deep breath and exhaled, enunciating every word.

"Hyuuga. Freaking. Neji."

Sakura's jaw dropped. "You're joking."

"I wish," Ino muttered, snatching up the roller again. "He's a grade A douche. Thinks dance is 'below' him." She slammed the roller against the brick again, oblivious to the bits of paint splattering her clothes. "Uppity Hyuuga thinks he's better than me..."

Sakura raised an eyebrow. "Don't tell me you're still mad at him for rejecting you that one time?"

"Of course not!" Ino snapped, a tad too quickly. Then she saw the knowing look on her friend's face and deflated. "Okay, fine, maybe a little. But I would've gotten over that if he wasn't so stuck-up. Now I've gotta go to the academy in half an hour and see his stupid, snobby face again."

Soon after she said that, Ino felt herself twitch when Sakura gave her sly smile. "Well, that's not so bad, is it? Douche or not, Neji's definitely nice to look at. Especially if he'll be doing all those twists and squats and—"

"You are such a horndog!" Ino exclaimed. "Jeez, Sakura. Care to spare a little sympathy, first?"

The girl just laughed and Ino felt a small smile spread over her face in spite of herself. Sakura always did know how to cheer her up.

"Crap," she said after a moment, dropping the roller and checking the time. "I better get going. Pray I come out of it without killing the Hyuuga, forehead."

"Sure thing, pig," Sakura replied, smirking. "Good luck."

Then she turned and waved goodbye, leaving Ino to clean up. Twenty minutes later, Ino left the house dressed in a clean, fitted t-shirt and shorts, prepared for whatever practice Anko would throw her way.

A smirk crossed her face. She'd be lying if she said she wasn't curious about what the Hyuuga had managed to scrounge up in a week. Just the thought of him moving around in a way that wasn't rigid or proper made her snort in amusement, even if it did worry her a little.

Yamanaka Ino was not shy, but even she could do without the embarrassment of having Neji stumble around her onstage during a performance. Grimacing at the thought, she made her way into the academy and climbed the stairs, reaching the dance studio with a minute to spare. Anko arrived from another hall at the same moment, breaking into a grin at the sight of her.

"Glad to see you came prepared, Yamanaka."

Ino managed a weak smile. "I couldn't wait to get started."

"That's the spirit!" Anko cheered, grabbing her in a rough, one-armed hug and dragging her towards the door. "Let's see how the little greenhorn is doing, shall we?"

The door swung open and they entered to find that Neji was already there. Ino had to do a double-take when she caught sight of him. The Hyuuga had ditched his flowy robes in favour of a plain, dark tank and black track pants, his forehead protector replaced with a green bandana.

He rose from his chair when they entered.

"Anko-sensei," he greeted respectfully. Then his gaze shifted to Ino and narrowed. "Yamanaka."

Ino gave a slight glare in return, glad when he turned around and started clearing the floor.

It was an unspoken rule that the Hyuuga family dressed in baggy, shapeless clothing, so now that she was seeing the prodigy in something more form-fitting, Ino could see what Sakura was talking about. He was taller and more slender than Sasuke, but broader in the shoulders and every bit as toned.

Then he turned to grab a chair and Ino's eyebrow arched in surprise.

Well. Who knew.

Hyuuga Neji had a very fine derrière.

"Well, you look the part all right," Anko drawled a moment later, easing into her chair. "Now show us what you've got."

Neji merely nodded and strode to the centre of the room, standing with his back to them as Anko grabbed the remote to the sound system and waited for the go ahead. Taking just enough time to reach back and tighten his bandana, Neji dropped his arms and nodded once to show he was ready.

Anko pressed play.

Silence at first.

Then a quiet ticking filled the air, progressively getting louder with the passing seconds. Soon a low, muffled bass beat dropped, slowly heightening in volume. As it rose and fell in waves, steadily building to a pitch, Neji eased into slow, rhythmic shoulder rolls and side steps to warm up, gradually moving from step touches to triplet turns. Ino watched his footwork, mildly impressed with the tightly controlled, fluid movements.

The subdued movements escalated with the music, increasing to a fever pitch until the bass jumped, the synth kicked, the refrain broke—

And then Neji turned around and proceeded to tear the shit out of the dance floor.

Anko's jaw dropped and Ino gaped, astounded, as the Hyuuga took off in a relentlessly intense routine of leaps, blindingly fast quick steps, and complicated floor work, fusing a variety of dance styles into something unfamiliar but completely riveting.

It was like watching a perfectly choreographed fight without any impact or friction; strangely beautiful; strangely sexy; in a completely raw, masculine sort of way.

I'll be damned, Ino thought blankly, watching him burn up the floor.

Hyuuga Neji could dance. But not only that...

He launched into three consecutive barrel turns, holding their awestruck gazes all the way across the room.

Hyuuga Neji could werk.

All his perfectly choreographed movements led up to the climax, where he transitioned into a spin and the music built up to a frenetic pace. He matched it, spinning faster and faster—and faster still—putting ballerinas all over the world to shame as his lithe frame became a whirring blur and it felt more like they were watching a dynamo than a human being.

Then all too soon, the chorus was over and the song ended with a final, resounding bang, the mesmerizing twirl coming to a stop just as abruptly.

The room fell silent. Nobody spoke.

Neji just stood there. He didn't bow for his stellar performance. Nor did he give Ino a smug look. Instead, he strolled over to his seat and sat down, casually resting his arms on his knees and looking expectantly at Anko.

Ino followed his gaze to the stunned jounin, who continued to sit there, speechless.

"Well?" Neji prompted eventually.

Anko blinked. "I think I need a change of pants."

The jounin's shock lasted a lot less longer than they thought it would. A few seconds after her initial surprise wore off, Anko suddenly leapt to her feet, eyes shining with excitement.

"Wait, don't move. I'll be right back."

Then she rushed out of the room, only to return a minute later with a video tape in hand. If she'd looked excited before she left, she looked positively ecstatic now. Neji and Ino stared at her, taken aback by her sudden enthusiasm as she wheeled the TV over to them and popped in the tape.

"Before I start," she said, turning to Neji, "I have to say those were some of the smoothest barrel turns I've ever seen, and I'm not one to hand out compliments. How'd you manage that?"

Neji's voice was impassive. "I imagined I was kicking somebody in the face."

For the second time, Ino found herself edging her seat away from the Hyuuga.

Anko did not seem as disturbed. In fact, she looked downright gleeful. "Keep it up, then, 'cuz it sure as hell works for you."

Then she smacked the pause button on the VCR and turned to face them properly.

"I bet you guys are wondering what dance style I've decided on," she said, smile splitting into a wide grin. "And I'm glad Gai turned out to be right about you, Hyuuga, since I've been dreaming of choreographing a dance like this for years."

Neji waited for her to elaborate. When she didn't, his gaze shifted to Ino for a possible clue as to what Anko was talking about.

Ino could feel his eyes on her and didn't react, just as lost as he was. What could Anko possibly have in mind after that intense performance?

Viennese waltz? Contemporary? The quick step? Or, God forbid, the rumba?

Ino realized that Neji could probably read the anxiety playing over her face, because he tensed visibly before looking back at Anko. The jounin's grin only widened at the sight of their apprehension.

"Dying of suspense, are we? Fine, I'll tell you." She paused dramatically. "You two will be dancing...the Mitarashi."

Neji stared blankly and Ino blinked in confusion. "I've never heard of it."

"That's because I invented it myself," Anko replied proudly. "Up until now, I've never taught anyone who could do it justice. But since you, Yamanaka, are a trained professional and Hyuuga seems to be a natural, I think we can give it a shot."

Ino looked uncertain. "But what's it like?"

"Heh, the million dollar question. It's very theatrical. Very dramatic. As for the actual dance style...what can I say? It's a little bit of contemporary. A little bit of cabaret. Pretty much a mishmash of the hottest dance styles known to man, but with a rough, aggressive edge. That bit, my dears, is just pure Anko."

Taken aback by the description, Ino found herself exchanging a dubious look with Neji. Anko noticed their reluctance and laughed.

"Reserve your judgment until you watch the tape, kiddies. And pay close attention; we're going to be practicing this in a few minutes."

She pushed play and stood aside.

The grainy footage gradually cleared out, a lingering fuzziness at the edges implying that it was an old tape. The camera was focused on the centre of a stage where a lone, female figure was crouching. Slowly, tinny, dramatic music blared from the speakers, the figure rising majestically with it.

She took off in a solo routine, movements so sharp and fluid even Neji was impressed. There was an obvious influence of contemporary, her arching limbs and graceful leaps artfully telling a story, but there was an underlying, unnameable edge to it. The figure turned to the camera, then, and Ino felt her jaw drop in surprise.

"Sensei, is that you?"

"Sure is," the jounin boasted. "This was eight years ago. Me and my partner did the first— and last—Mitarashi-style dance at the Culture Show. Here he comes now."

Another figure, a muscular male in a leotard, entered the frame. He did his own rendition of a solo routine, muscles rippling impressively as he flounced his way over to Anko. Then the camera zoomed in on his face and Ino choked.

"N-...No way. Is that...?"

"Gai-sensei?" Neji said incredulously.

"Yup," Anko grinned. "Pay attention. This is where it really starts."

And start it did. Ino's face turned white and Neji's hand came up to cover his mouth. It was as close to expressing horror the Hyuuga could get.

The edgy, aggressive aspect to the Mitarashi style came out in full force as Gai swept Anko up in his arms, manipulating her like a feather through complex lifts, turns, and swings. On several instances it looked as though Anko would hit the floor or Gai would fumble a catch, but they anticipated each others' moves flawlessly. The near misses were all deliberate. All a part of the drama.

It wasn't as fluid as contemporary. It wasn't structured like most ballroom styles. But it was passionate and extremely intense. It was hard-hitting, heart-stopping, and flat-out dangerous. It was, for lack of a better word, Anko.

Neji and Ino continued watching the routine with pale faces.

It was bad enough seeing Gai in that skin-tight outfit, an outfit that made his usual green spandex seem modest by comparison. It was also bad enough seeing him grab Anko in ways that were just plain disturbing. But what horrified them was the knowledge that they'd be doing the exact same thing. Together.

They suddenly found that they couldn't look at each other.

Mercifully, the routine ended and Anko smacked the power button just as the audience erupted in applause. She beamed at her new protégés, oblivious to their dismay.

"You can see now why I trusted Gai enough to try you out, Hyuuga. Besides me, he's the only one capable of dancing the Mitarashi. But now, it's time to pass my legacy on to you two."

Without waiting for a response, Anko pushed the TV out of the way and briskly clapped her hands, looking at them with a steely glint in her eye. "Let's get started."

Ino and Neji slowly rose from their chairs, still refusing to look at each other, and trembled as they followed Anko. Ino was horrified, no doubt, but she realized that if she, a trained professional, was feeling this repulsed, then Neji must have been dying inside.

The thought gave her a slight bit of comfort.

"You guys will be dancing to a purely instrumental piece," Anko explained as she changed the CD on the sound system. "So you've gotta give it your all to keep it alive."

As the dulcet notes of a piano spilled into the room, Anko whipped off her coat and moved to the centre of the floor. "I don't expect you to just parrot the routine. There are some fundamental things about the Mitarashi you need to learn, first."

She gestured to Ino. "Get over here, Yamanaka."

Ino swallowed and moved over to her.

"First, you need to remember that this is a style meant for pair dancing. That means your holds and grabs are the foundations to the rest of your routine."

She beckoned to Ino again. "Demonstrate the standard closed position."

Relaxing slightly, Ino slipped into the classical hold typical of most ballroom dances, clasping one of Anko's hands in hers and resting her other hand on her right shoulder. Anko's other hand came to rest in the small of Ino's back.

"Even you would recognize this, right, Hyuuga?" Anko questioned cheekily.

Neji managed a stiff nod.

"Good. Because this is exactly what I don't want you to do." Anko released Ino and gestured for her to back up a few steps. "The Mitarashi is spontaneous and fast-moving. And because there's a lot of quick, close body contact, structured holds like the one I showed you aren't suitable."

She nodded to Ino again. "Take a running leap."

Ino stared at her. "What, like at you?"

"Straight at me."

Ino blinked but did as she was told, retreating a few steps. Then she took a running leap and lunged at Anko, who effortlessly caught her in a tight, full-bodied embrace without so much as a grunt, and channelled the momentum into a turned descent to the floor. Neji could've sworn he heard Ino choke on the jounin's breasts.

Releasing her, Anko rose to her feet as Ino staggered upright, red-faced. "No two grabs look the same. Everything depends on how well you guys flow together. The most important thing, though, is never letting up. Don't slow down and don't hesitate. Just go with it, even if you think your partner's not ready, and use leftover momentum for the next move. With me so far?"

Neji wondered if playing dumb could get him thrown out of class. But because Anko looked the type to take off his head if he tried, he fought down the urge and nodded instead.

Anko proceeded to guide them through the rest of the holds and grabs, listing the names of each one and demonstrating with Ino as he looked on with a rising sense of unease.

There was a lot of touching. And grabbing. And unwanted intimacy. Far more than he was even comfortable looking at. And she expected him to do this?

In yet another catch, Anko's hand found the curve of Ino's behind, pressing firmly to keep her aloft.

Neji blanched. Good God.

Five minutes later, the demonstrations were over and Anko said the four words Neji had been dreading the entire way through.

"Okay, Hyuuga. Your turn."

Wordlessly, Neji made his way over to them and stood looking at Anko with a vapid expression. She gestured for him to face Ino and took a step back.

They turned towards each other. Neji stared at some point on her forehead and Ino scowled at his chest.

"Let's start with the Mensa Hold, shall we?"

Right. That one wasn't so bad. He'd seen her do it. He could do this.

Ino backed up a few steps. Then she quickly started forward and jumped up, planting her hands on his shoulders the same instant he grabbed her hips and held her up off the ground. He made a concentrated effort not to look at her chest where it hovered directly overhead.

"Good," Anko said from the side. "Now the Payette."

They methodically made their way through the first set, neither speaking as Anko made corrections here and there. Then, once she was satisfied, Anko moved onto the next, more complicated set.

"All right. Let's do the Sigma."

Ino took a deep breath and strode over till she was standing directly in front of him. She waited.

Neji remained motionless. A few seconds passed.

Ino cleared her throat impatiently.

Anko stared at him.

"Okay, now grab her leg."

There was a long moment of silence. Anko raised an eyebrow at the unresponsive Hyuuga. He was just standing there with a blank look on his face.

"Er, hello?" she prompted eventually. "What's the problem?"

Neji didn't respond for a few seconds. When he finally did, it sounded as though his jaw had been wired shut.

"I can't."

"And why's that?"

He didn't say anything and didn't have to. The way his eyebrow twitched was enough of an answer. Ino rolled her eyes and stepped away as Anko took him into the corner.

"Okay, listen up Hyuuga." She slung an arm around Neji's neck, much to his discomfort. "When you're on an A-rank mission, and some enemy kunoichi tries to get one up over you, do you hesitate to land a killing blow?"

"No," Neji said stiffly.

"And let's say, oh, I don't know, you have to grab her in some awkward places to get the job done. Would you hesitate then?"


"Exactly. So think of dancing in the same way. Just imagine Yamanaka is trying to gouge your eyes out and put her in her place. Got that?"

Neji didn't respond. Anko took that as acquiescence and gave him a friendly shake before pushing him back over to Ino.

"And same to you, Yamanaka. You're treating him like a piece of wood. Pretend he's making a grab at your goodies and show him what's what."

Neji glared at her for her choice of words.

Oblivious, Anko clapped her hands. "All right, let's try again. Make it a run this time."

Ino nodded again, backing up in preparation as Neji tried to take deep breaths and steel himself. He registered, quite calmly, that he was beginning to panic. Of all the holds they'd done so far, this one was the worst. It basically entailed grabbing her waist and right thigh and bracing her weight against his chest. There would be no separation between their lower extremities. None.

Ino ran at him.

Neji allowed her close enough to bump her thigh against his hip, then promptly threw her off. She tumbled away with a yelp.

"Damn it, Hyuuga!"

Neji stared, poker-faced, at the sight of Anko storming up to him.

"You can't dance the Mitarashi if you go into rigor mortis every time she touches you! There's no need to be bashful. We're all professionals here."

"I would appreciate it if you didn't patronize me," Neji muttered.

Anko's eyes narrowed in irritation. Perhaps he was under the impression that she willing to baby him through the whole process and empathise with his morals. As far as she was concerned, the boy just needed a good shock to the system.

"The Mitarashi can't work unless you get close." With that, she hooked an arm around his neck and wrapped a leg around his hips. Then she planted her hand firmly against his buttocks and crushed him against her.

Neji's eyes nearly burst out of his head. A few feet away, Ino slapped a hand to her mouth and doubled over in laughter.

Anko held onto him for several seconds while he made a valiant attempt at escaping, squirming ineffectually. Then the fight ebbed out of him and he slackened in surrender, features twisting into a grimace.

She released him and it took every ounce of dignity Neji had to stop himself fleeing the room.

"Now, do you get it? Or do I have to demonstrate some more?"

"No," he said, sounding slightly strangled. "I understand."

"Fantastic. Let's continue."

But to make it easier on him and to spare herself further injury, Ino suggested he wrap his hands in bandages. At least that way, he technically wouldn't be touching her, the giant prude.

It worked; after four attempts, a lot of awkwardness, and much discomfort, they'd finally managed it.

Despite himself, Neji felt a little encouraged by overcoming this little hurdle. It felt like, after his success, whatever followed couldn't possibly be as difficult or embarrassing.

After all, things were always worse before they got better. Right?

Three hours later.

Neji was doubled over with his hands on his knees, wife-beater soaked with sweat and track pants dragging on the floor. Next to him, Ino was sprawled out flat on her back, gasping for breath.

On the sidelines, Anko was beside herself.

"Pick it up!" she screeched. "Where's your passion, damn it?"

They fought back a shudder.

Anko had drilled them over the grabs and holds for the first hour. For the second hour, she'd assigned them to learn the first half of the choreography. Now for the third, she was making them practice it until their legs fell off.

Granted, being ninjas, they had stamina in spades. But this was just brutal. Performed solo, Neji's moves would have been flawless, but with Ino practically attached to him at the hip, he found his steps awkward and stilted, with no fluidity between them.

She shouted at them again and they dragged themselves to their feet, taking their positions and starting from the top.

To be fair, Anko had her reasons for being furious with the half-assed performance. They weren't perfect in managing the choreography, but that was to be expected. It was their first time, after all.

What bothered her was the complete and utter lack of harmony. Her frustration skyrocketed through the roof when a potentially perfect move failed midway because the two were too occupied trying to outdo each other. Ino concentrated on getting the feeling right, whereas Neji focused on textbook accuracy. The end result was dismal.

A twitch started in Anko's eye. She watched them with rising vexation, gnawing on her dango stick as their poor attempts at cooperation deteriorated into outright abuse.

Neji stopped in the middle of the routine, looking accusatory. "You did an extra turn after the underarm swing." His voice was thick with contempt. "There is no extra turn after the underarm swing."

Ino returned the glare. "It's called improvisation, loser. I had to do something to make up for your slow-ass reaction time."

Neji opened his mouth to retort, only to have Anko interrupt.

"She's right, Hyuuga. She'll have to pick up your slack if you don't put more energy into it."

Neji looked extremely affronted but resentfully took it into consideration, only to reach the end of his tether when Ino disdainfully flipped her hair at him and smacked him in the face with her ponytail. The next moment, he tapped three points on her leg and she collapsed, crumpling to the ground with a yelp.

The scuffle was quickly resolved when Anko chewed him out for sealing Ino's tenketsu and forced him to re-open them. Then they were back to practising, managing five more minutes before the Hyuuga called her a boor and Ino's look became positively homicidal.

An instant later, Ino formed a seal and Neji suddenly stopped, raised his arm, and slapped himself across the face.

"That's it!" Anko exploded as the Hyuuga went staggering from the blow. "Get your asses over here!"

The two shuffled over to her, Ino limping and Neji sullenly rubbing the side of his face.

"Just what is the problem with you two?" Anko bit out, teeth gritted. "If you're gonna kill each other, then do it on your own time. When you're here, you leave your personal problems at the door. Got it?"

Both Neji and Ino knew better than to argue. They muttered apologies, the resentment practically radiating off of them.

Anko just stared at them, exasperated. Perhaps she'd been going about it the wrong way when she'd taught them this particular routine. It was, after all, about the separation of two star-crossed lovers. And she'd long ago realized that these two clearly detested each other.

But still. That didn't excuse them from not making an honest effort. There was no way she'd choreograph a new routine unless they proved themselves competent with this one, first.

"What did I say in the beginning?" she demanded, jabbing them both with a finger. "Dance is not dance without passion, and the Mitarashi is friggin' passion personified. Stop pretending to make it work and just make it work. You're acting like a bunch of kids, letting your feelings get in the way of doing it right."

She turned her glare on Ino. "I expected more from you, Yamanaka. You're a trained professional. You should know better."

And then to Neji. "And you. It's hard to believe you're a jounin when you're treating a little body contact like the end of the world. Yes, Yamanaka is a girl, and yes, you will have to touch her. Stop being such a pansy and get over it!"

She took a breath, vindictively glad that Ino had the decency to look abashed. Neji looked as though someone had killed his dog right in front of him.

"Do me a favour and concentrate your emotions into the routine," Anko hissed, "good, bad, I don't care! Whatever makes it authentic! Just make it work!"

She stalked back to the sound system to reset the music as they made their way back to the floor. As they got into position, Neji gave Ino a dark look from the corner of his eye.

"Don't overcompensate this time around. I won't make an effort to hide it."

Ino felt the remains of her self-control snap and spiral down into the deep, dark abyss of her fury.

"You," she said slowly, voice low and deadly calm, "can kiss my ass."

The music started and Anko inclined her head. "Go for it."

Ino lunged at him with a growl of rage, sounding remarkably close to a wildcat. Neji somehow managed to catch her and used her momentum to send her hurtling off into a violent spin, intending to send her crashing through the wall.

Undeterred, she swung around for the next grab, seizing his hand and digging her nails into his skin. Her other arm encircled his neck, fingers tangling ruthlessly into his hair. Not one to be outdone, he grabbed her leg for the lift, gripping with just as much force as he spun them across the room. By the time they separated, there were several dark hairs caught between Ino's fingers and what looked like the makings of a hand-shaped bruise on her thigh.

The music picked up in tempo, taking on all the farce of a bad parody as they lunged at each other again. If they were reticent in touching each other before, they were almost overzealous now, colliding into each other with bruising impact. The tendons were standing out in Neji's neck. Ino's hair was in wild disarray, eyes teeming with poison. She snarled something. The Hyuuga cursed.

Anko stared at them, her dango stick dangling limply from her mouth. They looked like they were trying to butcher each other, but by God, it was working.

It was like watching a train wreck. A terrible, frightening, mesmerizing train wreck. She couldn't look away.

There was a sudden lull in the tumultuous refrain, the clashing of cymbals fading into a low, rhythmic thump of a bass drum. They separated, rights hands coming up to rest palm-first against each other; slowly, they circled each other, eyes fixed in defiant glares.

In the original routine, the sequence was meant to show the intense yearning between the characters. It was supposed to be one of the more romantic aspects of the dance. But here—here their eyes held a silent promise of pain instead of desperate longing; here, their jaws were clenched with withheld invectives.

Here, it looked more like two sharks circling each other instead of a pair of star-crossed lovers.

Anko watched them, torn between dismay and wonderment. Although they were bastardizing the story well beyond repair, their malevolence translated into pure, unfettered passion, even if it was of the totally demented sort.

Even their grimaces and strained movements reflected raw, sensual energy, tinged with enough tension to look as though they were about to break into a fight.

Was it inappropriate? Yes. Deranged? Yes. Alarming? Absolutely.

But there was something strangely riveting about it. Anko could feel the gears in her mind turning as she took it in and felt the idea for a new choreography fall into place.

It seemed Neji had taken the criticism to heart. When the music picked back up and it came to the dreaded Sigma grab, he seized Ino with unexpected fervour, crushing her to his chest with far more force than was necessary. The move knocked the wind out of her, bringing their faces uncomfortably close together. But she endured it with a vicious sort of determination, returning the favour by drawing claw marks down his arms as she descended into the splits.

Then, in what was supposed to be a gradual ascent out of the splits via a climb back up his body, she dug her nails into his leg and clawed her way up, probably unaware of how carnal it looked and that the force of her grip was on the verge of tearing his pants off.

Anko realized they'd reached their limits when the move led to Ino balling her fist in preparation to knock his block off and Neji focusing a dangerous level of chakra into his fingertips.

"Break!" Anko called. "That's enough for today!"

They immediately staggered away from each other, panting furiously and shooting each other venomous looks. Anko waved them over, noticing that Ino was struggling not to wince with every step and Neji was flat-out bleeding.

The two were honestly expecting Anko to castigate them to the point of tears, only to stare in surprise when she broke into a grin.

"That was much, much better. I should've yelled at you guys earlier if I knew it'd get a reaction like that."

Normally such a comment would've garnered a smile from Ino and a nod from Neji. But right now, all they seemed capable of giving her was a withering glare.

Anko continued unabated, her previous excitement returning. "I've also thought up your new routine. Speaking of which, don't throw away those clothes. You'll be needing them to perform."

That got their attention. Ino released a horrified gasp and Neji gave her a bemused look.

"But why?" Ino cried. "I look like I just crawled out of a ditch!"

"Exactly!" Anko crowed, jubilant. "Like this, you've got a raw, natural vibe about you. So by the end of the performance, with Hyuuga all sweaty and you all banged up, you're gonna look like you two just got done screwing each other."

Ino's jaw dropped and Neji's face turned a frightening shade of purple.

"Trust me, you'll understand when I show you the new routine," Anko said, positively glowing now. "Gah, I gotta get home and plan it out. Good job for now, guys. Keep it up tomorrow!"

With that, she turned around and left, leaving Ino mortified and Neji seething.

Without a word, he turned around and strode over to the bench where he'd left his belongings. Ino stared after him, slightly wary before following to gather her things. When she got close enough, she realized he was muttering something under his breath. It sounded like 'obscene wench' and 'the heights of indecency.'

She smirked, unable to resist a jibe. "If it makes you feel any better, just pretend you're trying to kill me. Works for me."

He gave her a vaguely sinister look. "You're a little late on suggestions, Yamanaka."

Despite herself, Ino felt a small shiver run down her back. Neji was intimidating at the best of times. But when he actually showed emotion, he was just plain scary.

Never one to back down, though, Ino scoffed. "Here I was thinking you were just a callous, emotionless block of ice. Then you go ahead and add 'homicidal' to the list. Charming."

"I'm pleased to have changed your perceptions." He stepped closer until he was towering over her, jaw clenched. "But keep in mind that I am very capable of expressing emotion. As it stands, I despise you."

Ino held her ground, refusing to be cowed by his unsettling stare. "The feeling's mutual. You should be careful, though..." her eyes flickered over him, top to bottom. "You don't want me as an enemy."

The chilly undertone in his voice was enough to cause frostbite. "Are you threatening me?"

Ino merely stared at him, blue eyes gleaming and lips turned up in a smirk.

He stiffened in surprise when her hand swept over his head and deftly undid his bandana. Before he could react, she was pressing it to the side of his neck.

"Wipe yourself off, Hyuuga." She looked at him, voice softly scathing. "You're bleeding."

Then she turned around and walked away, shoulders back and head held high despite her flyaway hair and bruised legs.

Neji stood there for a long moment, staring after her. When her footsteps faded, he took his things and made his way toward the door.

His hand rose to the light switch, then paused. He took a step backwards and glanced at his reflection. Slowly, he reached up, removing the bandana.

There, at the side of his neck, were four bleeding welts, each in the perfect shape of Ino's manicured fingernails.