Upgrading Chapter 9

It was a different Hinata who bustled from table to table. Smiling at customers, reciting with confidence the specials and her recommendations. Living on her own suited Hinata. The regular sex probably helps too, Tenten mused, covering a grin with a hand.

Sitting in a corner, nursing a huge hot chocolate, she sighed and looked down at the notes spread out over the table. This late on a weeknight, she had an entire booth to herself. And she needed it.

Bad enough that I’m out days before a midterm. She couldn’t give up the valuable study time as well. And Hinata understood that. Which is why both of them were keeping busy. After midterms though, the two of them were hitting their favourite mall for some serious girl time.

Tenten was squinting at the tiny side bar in a textbook when a plate of muffins was placed down at her elbow. “Oh!” She looked up blinking. “Thanks, Hi—” That wasn’t Hinata. “Kakuzu?”

He arched a brow as he sat down across from her. “How long have you been here?” he asked, shifting some of the papers aside so he could set down his own mug. Coffee, by the smell.

“Just after school.” Tenten frowned at him. “Don’t you have classes?”

In response, Kakuzu started stacking her papers on top of a book, and pushed it to the side. “Eat every single one of those muffins, and finish that cocoa before you study another second, woman,” he snapped moodily. “My classes ended an hour ago.”

Frowning, she pulled the plate over and picked up the blueberry. Then blinked. “Ended?” Her eyes snapped up to the clock by the cashiers. I knew the sun had set… I didn’t know it was past nine! The low growl from her friend had her hurriedly biting into the muffin. And after that, she really didn’t need encouragement to eat the rest of them. Blueberry, cranberry, and chocolate-banana. Someone’s been talking to him.

The man had set a bag she was only just noticing beside him on the seat. As she ate, he opened it and tugged out a book of his own, sifting through the pages before he began to read. A comfortable silence fell between them until she’d finished.

“Want more?”

Guiltily conscious of his spending habit—she highly doubted he had more than one—Tenten shook her head. “No, those were great. Thank you.” She didn’t say he shouldn’t have, since worse than telling him not to spend money on her was to tell him that she felt it wasn’t worth it. Her only route then was reciprocation. “Can I get you anything?”

He snorted. “No,” he responded, thick finger tapping his mug. “I’ve already eaten. I’m good.” He considered her a moment, before leaning back. “What is it?” Apparently, she was that transparent.

“You’re not going to like me for telling you,” she said, reaching out for her notes. Or maybe, he knew her that well. No one accused Kakuzu for being unobservant.

His hand reached the notes first, covering half of their surface with its span. “Drink,” he said flatly, and tugged the pile out of reach.

Scowling, she sat back, taking her warm mug with her. “Tyrant.”

He shrugged, as if to say, ‘so what?’ “You haven’t answered my question.”

Lifting the dark blue mug to her lips, Tenten shrugged back. My mouth is busy, she thought cheekily, hiding her sudden grin behind the porcelain.

A beat passed as he eyed her, then he smirked back and relaxed against his seat. “Seen Hidan lately?” he asked as he reached for his own drink.

Blinking once, slowly, she reluctantly lowered her shield. “As if you don’t know,” she muttered. “Yes, I saw him early last week.”

He nodded, glancing toward Hinata over by another pair of customers. He’d already said hello, likely, considering he’d come bearing gifts. Or possibly blackmail material.

“Interesting,” he said finally, an odd lilt to his tone.

That was one way of putting it. Hidan had been cheerfully talkative that night. Free beer, free game. He was nice too. Not just to her, but to Isao-kun as well. For Isao-kun, the treatment was obviously a one-time deal, but Hidan had mentioned special privileges for her and Hinata. Hinata, she could understand…

Tenten took another sip of lukewarm liquid chocolate and told herself not to read too much into it. Look where assumptions got you last time.

Kakuzu sighed, running a hand over his neck. It was a strange, almost surreal moment in which he kind of looked more like a human being—a tired one—and less like some sort of workaholic robot. “I think I might take the weekend after midterms off,” he said thoughtfully. “Need to sleep for a good long time.”

Gaze snapping up from his collarbone, Tenten coughed. “I don’t know whether to be amazed you’ve held out this long or drag you to the nearest soft surface.” Pause. She carefully placed her mug on the table without looking at him and sank her burning face in her folded arms. “Oh god. Don’t say anything, please.”

Kakuzu, hardass bookie and money-monger, started to laugh at her. “But you left it open. What kind of friend of Hidan’s would I be if I didn’t?” he asked, tone very amused. At least he didn’t actually say anything specific. Yet.

Groaning, Tenten refused to look up. “See if I ever say anything nice about you ever.” And the sad thing was… he did have good qualities… she just couldn’t ever list them out. Again. Isao-kun was it as far as confessions.

He must have leaned forward, because when he spoke, his voice was very close. “Good. I have a reputation to uphold, after all,” he murmured.

“Nrr…” She gave a single shiver before letting the adrenaline work itself out through the tapping of her foot. “I’ll say you have a kitten,” she threatened.

“I’ll claim it was for eating,” he answered.

He was still so close. “Doll houses.”

“Replicas so I can practice my hit list routes.”

And oh so smug. “Baking marathons,” she shot back, feeling her blush die down and a smile tug at her lips.

“Ever seen Sweeny Todd?” he asked, a chuckle banking the words.

Tenten couldn’t help herself and burst into laughter. Turning her head, she gazed up at him, eyes shining. “That’s just disturbing, and you know it.”

The corner of his mouth turned up. “That’s the point,” he answered, finally sitting back. “Your drink is getting cold. If you don’t hurry up, I’ll have to go buy you another one.”

Grinning widely, she snatched up her mug again. “Your threats are so scary when you’re being generous,” she told him lightly before gulping down the rest of the chocolate.

Dark brows twitched up slightly, and he got up. “Now study. I’ll be right back,” he said, and turned to head over to Hinata.

“Ever seen Terminator 2?” she called out to his back, snickering even as she reached out for her papers. He was such a brute. And a pusher. And—Shaking her head, Tenten deliberately opened up the textbook and flipped to that damn sidebar. I hate midterms.

The bell over the door jangled, but it wasn’t until she heard a familiar voice that she looked up. “… so sure this is a wise idea, Lee…”

Tenten felt shudder go through her body and never in her life felt so thankful to be in a corner booth far from the entrance. I won’t hide. I won’t hide. I will not hide, she chanted, eyes cast down on blue and black ink. But I don’t have to acknowledge him either.

“Neji-san! This needs to be done!” She could almost see Lee gesturing and verbally pushing her—his mulish friend. I can’t even say we’re friends anymore, can I? Below her nose, the book began to shake. “She’s family, and bonds of blood are eternal!”

“Lee—” Neji cut himself off though, and she could imagine his silent sigh as he gave in to Lee’s good wishes. “Fine.”

They were walking through the cafe, toward Hinata now. Toward Kakuzu

Grimly, Tenten put down her book, took a deep breath, and turned her head. Being a coward for herself was one thing. But they weren’t here for her. And if he upset Hinata, all bets were off. Though… with Kakuzu right there, she doubted that Neji would start anything. Also, it was a place of business.

Ah hell. You know what? Fuck this. Tenten pressed her lips together and slid out of her seat. She stalked after them. I’m not going to wait for disaster to happen. Kakuzu could run prevention like any good bouncer, she was going to make sure Hinata had her support now.

The larger of the boys glanced toward her and narrowed his eyes as she approached. Then he looked toward Hinata, and Neji as he drew to a stop before her. The Hyuuga male glanced at the bookie, and inclined his head in a parody of acknowledgement. “Hinata, I wish to speak with you…” Lee elbowed him, and he added, “If you would spare me a moment.” Another nudge. “Please.”

And Hinata nibbled on her lip only once, and glanced at the clock on the wall for just a second, before nodding. “I can take a break now,” she said, the faint tremble only just there—Tenten was so proud of her. “If you just take a seat? I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Neji paused, then nodded. “Okay.” His voice was very quiet. Turning away, he grabbed Lee’s arm and dragged him toward a secluded table.

“You don’t have to do anything,” Kakuzu told Hinata flatly. “If he says or does anything that upsets you, tell me and I’ll get rid of them both.” His eyes lifted to meet Tenten’s as he finished speaking.

Gifting him a small smile, that unfortunately Tenten didn’t feel, she walked forward and hugged Hinata. “Well, maybe not Lee,” she murmured into dark hair.

In her arms, Hinata let out a shaky giggle. “Lee is special, isn’t he?” she agreed before nudging out of Tenten’s embrace. “Gotta tell Rika that I’m on break.” She smiled at them both. “Don’t go anywhere, please?”

Kakuzu nodded. “We’ll be at our table. Ten feet away,” he said, glancing toward where Neji had found a seat. The young man was not looking toward Kakuzu and Tenten.

Reaching out, Tenten mock punched the other girl in the shoulder. “Make us proud, neh?”

Smile turning up by degrees, Hinata nodded and then marched off to the cashier where the other girl stood watching. The moment she was within whisper distance, Rika leaned forwards, a worried frown on her brow.

“If she doesn’t say the right thing,” Tenten murmured in wry amusement, “Rika is going to hit the panic button.”

“I know,” Kakuzu said. “Go sit down. I put in an order for drinks, so I’ll join you in a moment.” When she opened her mouth, he shook his head. “No arguing with me.”

Sighing, Tenten stuck her tongue out at him instead. “Tyrant.” All the same, she turned and marched back to their booth. For a moment, her gaze was glued to Neji’s profile, then it wavered and slipped over to Lee’s. Who was watching her.

She shook her head before he announced her presence, and he subsided silently. A dismayed expression his only reply. Neji meanwhile seemed to be in heavy communion with a napkin he was shredding. Poor napkin.

Three tables away, she slipped to the side, soundlessly slipping into her seat. She had given him a chance to see her, to notice her, to acknowledge her. Feeling a little empty, Tenten glanced down at her notes. Should she feel vindicated that he had proved her point? That he didn’t see her?

She hoped fervently that Hinata had better luck. Lee was right after all. Family bonds were permanent and when they were ignored, it hurt.

Kakuzu sat down across from her again, setting a steaming mug by her elbow. Then he moved to sit lengthwise on the seat so his back wasn’t to the family meeting, as Hinata went over to sit with them. A beat passed. “You okay?”

Pressing her lips together, Tenten shook her head and then shrugged. Really, what could she say? They had been together for years and she had ended it only two months ago.

He sighed. “I promised Hinata I wouldn’t do anything to him,” he admitted. Paused. “However, for a hefty price, my allegiance can be shifted.”

Blink. That was… so ridiculous… Oh, hey. Look at that. I’m gigglingChalk that up to hysterics. Tenten ducked her head and covered her face with a hand.

“Better,” he said, sounding so self-satisfied. “You should probably try to study. What are you working on?”

Looking up, she pressed the same hand into a fist against her mouth to control her giggles. A moment later, Tenten coughed once and gave him a skeptical look. Really? Now?

Kakuzu stared right back at her, expectantly.

Yes, apparently right the fuck now.

Taking a fortifying breath, she let her hand drop, gesturing at the notes. “China and its use of Communism,” she replied. “We’re studying the differences between the ideal and the practice.”

He nodded, gaze shifting briefly away. “Okay. And?”

Brows tucking together, she glanced down. “What can I say? Judging from what I’ve read, I’m really glad my grandparents immigrated out. The system could work, but only if the ones in power didn’t abuse their position. China has always been like that though…” She watched his expression for a moment. “How is she doing?” she asked quietly.

“She’s strong, and there’s nothing going on at the moment. They’re talking. Calmly.” He shrugged. “Tell me about the system. I’m not that up-to-date on the practices of China.”

Marginally assured, Tenten eased back in her seat, a smile blossoming. “I’m surprised Lee hasn’t vibrated through the wall,” she said, reaching out for her fresh cup of hot chocolate. “And I really don’t think telling you anything about their governmental methods would be good for anyone.”

He smirked at her. “What, afraid I’ll get ideas?”

“Always.”

“Smart girl.” Kakuzu shifted in his seat, grabbing his cup to drink. A beat passed, then, “Interesting.”

Tenten leaned forwards, ears straining. “What?”

“Looks like they’re wrapping up. She just hugged him,” he answered, shifting his gaze to meet hers briefly.

Chuckling, she dropped back. “Lee’s suggestion, I’m sure.” But that was good. Very good. And she was proud of both Hyuuga for going that far. I may not like him, but I can be happy for her. Hinata had always been surrounded by family, when she moved out, she had grown stronger, but she had still missed the family. Especially after coming home from a dinner with Hiashi-san.

“Hm. Still. Her willingness to do it speaks volumes about how things are between them,” he said, twisting to sit properly on the bench. Lee’s enthusiastic tones were shifting away, toward the door. “Well. Now we can focus on important things.”

“Ah… Neji-kun! I am very sure that is not a wise idea!” You didn’t have to know Lee to hear the tones of panic.

Tenten’s eyes flew open. She had closed them in relief. So much for that.

Sure enough, a figure stepped up to the side of the table in her peripheral. Across from her, green eyes had snapped toward the figure, but Neji spoke first. “What are you doing?”

“Sitting. What the fuck does it look like I’m doing, Hyuuga?”

“With her?” He wouldn’t even say her name? “I’ve observed your group for years. You don’t sit with little girls.”

Kakuzu leaned back, looking almost relaxed to the casual observer. However, Tenten knew he was ready to lunge. “Back off, boy. Getting into my business is not what you want to do right now.”

Neji,” she hissed. “What are you doing?” She was not going to play the I’m-going-to-ignore-the-main-issue game. Beside Neji, Lee appeared, his hands opening and closed into fists.

He ignored her. Again. “Or what?”

“Or I’ll fucking kill you,” Kakuzu snarled. Yeah, he was pissed now. “Get your friend away from me, Lee, or you’re going to lose him.”

Oh, damn. Tenten clenched her own fists, and glared at Neji. “You can’t fight in here,” she told him. “Hinata will lose her job.” And what did it matter if Kakuzu was sitting with her? Neji didn’t want her anymore. That was clear, wasn’t it?

Neji was silent for a second. Then, “Chuushin, outside.”

“Agreed.” Kakuzu got up as Neji backed away, and headed for the door. “Tell Hinata I’m sorry, but I’m beating the shit out of her fucking cousin. I’m done with this bull.”

“Fine.” Fingers clenched around the seat edge, Tenten closed her eyes, ignoring the frustration that seeped out. I hate this. Grinding her teeth, she surged to her feet, winding through the tables, mercifully empty, though there were still a few customers who didn’t follow the two men outside. I won’t watch this idiocy. I won’t.

Hinata met her halfway. “What’s going on?” Eyes wide, her friend brought up her hands, thumbs rubbing over Tenten’s cheeks. “Tenten?”

Growling, she swept her own hand over her face. “Neji was being an idiot and called Kakuzu out.” Tenten shot a glare at the front door. “Kakuzu says sorry. He’s gonna have to wreck your cousin.”

Shaking her head, Hinata sighed. “Idiots.”

“Yeah.” It wasn’t even the violence that made her feel like shouting. It was the way Neji completely ignored her… and yet caused trouble anyway. “He just had to pick today, didn’t he?”

“You know…” Hinata began, steps a determined march towards Tenten’s booth. “I could just call Father and tell him what’s going on.”

Trailing behind her, Tenten was startled into a shaky smile. “Neji would be in traction for weeks.”

“One way or another, yes. Yes, he would.”

Hidan was a horrible influence on Hinata. And Tenten loved him then for it.

Almost fifteen minutes passed before Lee came back in, looking strangely confused, and told them that Kakuzu said Tenten needed to come out. That it was important. He wouldn’t say anything further.

When they went out, it was to the sight of Kakuzu standing in the side lot with Neji in front of him, on his knees, facing out. Kakuzu had one hand gripping the younger boy’s hair at the back of his skull, and the other was hanging, a bruise darkening on the forearm. Broken, probably.

When the girls and Lee drew to a stop ten feet away, Kakuzu shook the other boy. “Now.”

Neji coughed, and spit up blood. “I’m sorry.”

Another shake. “Like you mean it, bastard.”

The boy finally looked up, pearl eyes meeting brown. His eye was turning colors, and his nose—like Kakuzu’s, actually – was broken. “… I am sorry, Tenten,” he murmured, and looked away in shame.

Kakuzu released him, and the other male fell onto his hands. “Fucking waste of a perfectly good night.”

Meanwhile, Tenten was blinking down at the broken form. Dark brown hair spilling down over pale features. Was she supposed to forgive him? She glanced over at Hinata who looked so sad. She could be a coward when it came to herself… but… “Just don’t do that again,” she said wearily and turned back to the warm lights of the cafe. “There’s no need to.”

Kakuzu caught up with her by the time she got to the door, and grabbed it for her. “My shit’s inside,” he said, frowning.

Shaking herself out of her confusion, Tenten looked at him. Really looked at him. “Is that broken?” she asked, as they both stepped in through the door.

“Yeah. Probably. Fucker’s not a bad fighter, even if he keeps picking the wrong fights,” he muttered, stopping beside the booth to reach for his bag. He slid it to the edge of the seat, opened it one-handed, and then grabbed the book he’d left on the table. That was tucked away before he snatched up the mug of cold coffee and guzzled it. At her look, he shrugged. “Not gonna waste.”

Half sighing, half laughing, Tenten shook her head and placed a hand on his uninjured shoulder. “Give me your keys. You can’t drive like this.”

Green eyes flickered over her, and then he nodded. “No speeding. Getaway wastes money.” He tugged a keychain with over a dozen different keys on it from his pocket before handing it over. He tugged the strap of his bag over the shoulder of his good arm and stepped away from the table. “Finish your drink.”

Amused beyond what was probably proper, Tenten picked up her bag and the travel cup Hinata had prepared for her. “I’ll just bring it, thanks,” she said, waving at Hinata who was walking in through the doors, murmuring into a cell phone.

Hinata paused beside them, giving Kakuzu a worried once over. “Hidan’s pissed,” she told him over the swearing emanating from the speakers. “But he’ll see you at the hospital when his shift is over.”

Kakuzu shrugged. “Fine,” he said. “Tell him he’s a fucking moron.” That declared, he went for the door.

He was through first so he didn’t hear it, but as Tenten let the door swing shut behind her, she heard Hinata say, “He says he loves you too.”

And despite the absurd mess the night had turned into, Tenten was smiling when Kakuzu glanced back.

xXx

 Chapter 8 | Table of Contents | Chapter 10

A/N: And there’s more to that scene, but for the sake of the story as a whole…
it’s been cut out.

Shout out to Clumsy. You wanted this pair, you got it!

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