A/N: Ah, so here you have it: the last installment in the Chords fiction. –sigh- I'm feeling the relief and sadness of having a story be over…It's hard work for an author, you know. Now everybody's mad at me, but I suppose that's good, if you're mad because the story's ending. It means I've done a pretty good job, lol.
Thanks again for all the reviews and support that you've given me.
In all of its long years, the old wooden structure of the towering Orphanage, so much like an old mother guiding its children, had never looked so lively and festive. The dreary wooden boards were spruced up by decorations of live flowers, (though they were fast withering without water) and garlands of fat, green leaves.
Out in the backyard, giant tents with great striped patterns had been set up. Within, the hosts were busy setting up tables and games, chattering away as camping style seats were set up. An air of festive joy was bustling in the air.
All the little children were hyper beyond belief: they ran back and forth between the backyard and inside the Orphanage with tireless energy, fetching things for their elders, but mostly getting underfoot and in the way of things of the older kids as they moved things from inside to out. There was many a muttered curse as they tripped over a running child.
Tsunade was yelling orders outside, her arms akimbo and her eyes overseeing the progress like an eagle's. Her blonde hair was all over her face and she kept having to blow it out of her eyes. Kakashi and Jiraiya were helping out also, though they were mostly dillydallying.
The stage was being set up right in the middle of things. The celebration was pouring out straight into the street: all were welcome to attend. The stage covered part of the sidewalk and all the way into the road: a great black colossal thing, it was supported by many interlocking slats under the platform. Workers milled busily about it, setting up stage lights and other such things.
Curious townspeople gathered to watch the preparations on their way back from grocery shopping, their mouths agape, or driving past in cars, honking horns at the road blockage. The shop owners around the area poked out their heads and sat out in front, sipping tea and watching a festival setup unfolding in front of their mirthful eyes.
This celebration had been long anticipated for.
The day passed with furious energy. At last, the sun was getting tired and sinking below the blurred purple-black horizon. It looked like a great big glowing egg yolk, disappearing into folds of scarlet and orange sky. Its rays illuminated and bounced off of the clouds, making them appear all shades between pastel blue and soft pink.
A sort of hushed silence fell over the children and adults alike of the Orphanage as people began to seep into the at-first empty tents. The hubbub built up to a roar of voices as more and more people arrived, laughing and joking with the friends and enjoying the long night out.
Of all the nervous and excitement bubbling in the air, it was probably unequaled to the scene boiling backstage.
Yamanaka Ino was having a nervous breakdown. Her blonde hair had been put up into two messy high pigtails by Sakura, and streaked with sky blue from one of the spraypainting stands. She bit her nails, rocking back and forth slightly in one of the chairs.
"Ino-pig, you've got to relax!" Sakura laughed at the sight of her friend. She pulled up a chair and sat down. Sakura's hair had been pinned up by chopsticks, (courtesy of Ino). Loose pink strands fell and framed her face elegantly. Her cheeks were flushed with excitement, her green eyes glowing. "You're going to be great."
"No, I'm going to die," Ino moaned pitifully. "What if we blow it? It'll all be my fault?"
"Who says?" said Tenten, walking over and sitting down on the other side of Ino and winking at Sakura. "A band is a band: all of the people are essential to make the piece sound good. You're not always the center of the universe, you know." Tenten had her hair in a long braid, pinned on top of her head into a swirling bun. She had on a pair of black fingerless gloves that she had cut for herself earlier.
Ino perked up slightly. "Eh? Where's Hinata?" She made an effort to smile. Sakura and Tenten smiled slightly back.
"Getting ready and warming up, I expect," said Sakura. "C'mon, we should be too! The best way to warm up cold fingers is to…well, warm up." She stood, and quickly found her guitar resting against a wall where she had left it.
Tenten pulled Ino up, and they also found their instruments. Ino smiled and relaxed slightly as she played a few simple scales on her keyboard. Tenten strapped on her bass backwards, (again), though this time she righted it herself after realizing her mistake. Ino's teeth chattered. "Please, please, please don't do that onstage," she pleaded. Tenten rolled her eyes.
"Sure thing, mother."
She strummed a few deep chords. Sakura played a melody to go along with Tenten's beat. It sounded very good, compared to what they had been doing at the beginning. Sakura laughed. "Yeah, that's what I'm talking about!"
Tenten, Sakura, and Ino all gasped in delight as Hinata walked out from behind the door of a changing room. Her pale eyes were downcast and shy. She twiddled her fingers, an old habit that they had never quite helped her get rid of.
"M-May I join y-you?" she asked timidly.
"Of course!" said Ino warmly, realizing that Hinata was probably more nervous than she ever could be. The girl was trembling from head to foot, though she looked more than beautiful with the makeup job that Ino had given her earlier, and they were all quite confident that she would sing marvelously. Hinata had always been lacking in self-confidence.
"Hinata-chan, you'll be great!" Sakura told her confidently. Hinata tilted her chin up a little, her eyes sparkling as she tried a small smile.
Sakura waved her off airily. "I'm only telling the truth. What's to thank for that? C'mon, let's get ourselves tuned up."
"Oi, Lazy, your beat is off," Naruto complained.
Shikamaru glared at the blonde, coming close to bringing down the maraca he was holding across his head and breaking another one. "It is not."
"It is," said Neji.
"Troublesome people," Shikamaru sighed, and adjusted the tempo he was shaking the maracas so that it matched Naruto's vibrating bass drum beats. Naruto smiled happily as his arms moved easily around the drum set. Sasuke thrummed the bass in rhythm, and Neji twiddled with the guitar's knobs.
"This is awesome!" Naruto crowed. Sasuke smirked.
"Alright, everybody!" Tsunade's imperial voice sounded on the outside of the curtain. She had dressed herself up in a red dress, her hair pulled back into a simple but nicely done ponytail. Jiraiya stared at her like she was a goddess. Kakashi indifferently pulled out his little orange book.
Behind the curtains, Sakura leaned over and took a peek out at the mounting crowd, and bit her lip. "Alright, guys. This is it," she whispered.
"No going back," Ino muttered, her eyes once again frenzied and nervous.
Hinata's teeth chattered, too scared to speak.
"Let's do this!" Naruto whooped.
"Shush!" said the girls, as Tsunade had paused at his outburst. Her voice continued on again. Ino's knuckles whitened as she tightened her grip on the megaphone that she was holding. Neji put his hand on Tenten's shoulder.
"Please welcome a group that has worked very hard, from our very own Orphanage," Tsunade finally declared loud and proud, "…The Terminators!"
"The Terminators?" Ino hissed in disbelief as they pulled aside the crack in the curtains to roaring cheers from the audience. "Since when were we The Terminators?!" Her nervousness was forgotten in her incredulity and anger. Realization was dawning on Tenten. Her eyes opened wide.
"I asked Lee to sign us in this morning!" Tenten recalled with horror, shielding her eyes against the bright stage lights. "I was too busy to do it myself…I guess he must have made up the name off the top of his head…I'll throttle him later, I promise," she added on savagely as she strapped on her bass again, (the right side out this time). Ino nodded in vast agreement as she helped Naruto and Shikamaru drag out the drums.
"Hello everybody!" Ino shouted into a microphone, glancing worriedly over at Hinata, who's eyes were wide in panic, and was holding onto the microphone stand as if it were the only thing holding her up right then. She didn't look ready to announce them, so Ino was doing it for her.
"We're…er…The Terminators," she coughed. "This song was written by this fair lady right here," she motioned to Hinata, to more rousing cheers. "It's called Illusion."
She backed away from the microphone back the keyboards. On a soft count from Naruto, Neji strummed a few soft, delicate chords on his guitar, his fingers nimble and weaving out a melody so beautiful that it was almost painful. Shikamaru shook his maraca, an annoyed expression pasted on his face.
Hinata gulped, and squeezed her eyes shut. She was supposed to start singing in another 20 counts, once Neji and Shikamaru's long intro was over. The words floated through her brain, as if she were reading them off of a paper. She opened her mouth and closed it again, taking a deep breath through her nose.
I can't do this! She was panicking.
"Hinata-chan!" She froze. Naruto was whispering to her. "We believe in you! You can do it!" She bit her bottom lip. She couldn't just let her friends down like that. Naruto-kun.
Eight counts. She curled her fingers more tightly around the microphone stand, trying to ignore the swarming black mass of people, silhouetted against the brightening stage lights, below her.
She took a deep breath, and pretended that they were in rehearsal, in the tiny little room back in the Orphanage, and closed her eyes, letting loose…
I am gazing up at the endless sky,
Mouthing the words to a song I do not know,
I count the glittering stars one by one,
Too afraid to hope
She opened her eyes in surprise. Her voice hadn't stumbled a bit! Ino smiled encouragingly as she entered into the background melody along with Naruto, who was gently tapping the cymbals. Ino played a melody like water, and then Hinata started to sing again.
Are you watching me silently,
From a forest I have not seen?
Are you aching deep inside,
Hiding it from me?
Sakura struck a loud chord, followed by Tenten and Sasuke. They were entering the fast part of the song now. Hinata breathed a sigh of relief. All eight of them took part in this part. She didn't have to be singled out anymore. She smiled slightly as they entered into the fast tempo together.
I am gazing but not seeing,
Blinded by a place that knows no light,
Hear the depths of my heart,
The notes ring true
Are you gazing on my lost eyes,
Pleading for your return?
Watching from an ocean too vast,
A space of time too long?
Ino winked and gave her a thumbs up for a brief moment. Sakura smiled too, though she was looking at Sasuke. He noticed her staring, and let loose one of his famous smirks. Sakura, imitating him, smirked back.
Let me loose from this illusion,
That I will be alright,
As I am, As I will be,
Come back to me,
Come back to me.
For a moment, they all went silent as Neji played on his guitar again. Then Sakura, Tenten, and Sasuke came in once again, and the girls were all singing loudly.
Take away all this pain,
Shield me from reality,
As I am, As I will be,
Come back to me,
Come back to me,
My elusive angel,
Come back to me,
Come back to me,
They struck a final chord, and then the crowd was roaring with approval on their feet. All of them were standing, and then they were all holding hands, bowing. They gazed out over the crowd, hand in hand, not willing to have it any way else.
Ino dragged the other girls backstage to change into their party clothes. The boys went another way, also to change back into some normal clothes. The band's attire was all black.
"Hinata-chan, you were great!" Sakura declared as she pulled a shirt over her head in her stall.
"Totally," Ino agreed, stepping out as she was the first to finish.
Soon, the others were also done. They went over to the other side, and found the boys. Naruto was so excited that he was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. As soon as he sighed Hinata, he grabbed her hand and smiled slightly impatiently. "C'mon, Hinata-chan, let's go!" Before she could even protest, he had dragged her off into the crowd.
Sakura smiled shyly at Sasuke, her eyebrows raised. He smirked at her, even more confident than he had been on stage. Sakura glanced pleadingly back at Ino, asking with her eyes if it would be alright to hang out with the blonde later. Ino laughed. "Go ahead."
Sakura and Sasuke left, and then Ino prodded Tenten until the brunette walked reluctantly forward towards Neji. Then, satisfied that her work there was done, Ino took Shikamaru, and the four pairs went their separate ways into the crowd.
"C'mon, Shika, what do you want to do first?" Ino laughed, dragging him along. The main band had struck up a nice song, pretty fast paced, and it got her blood boiling and her legs impatient to do some running.
They arrived at a food stand, where their old friend Chouji was munching bags of potato chips. They both bought some fried tako, (squid), and went to find a quiet place to sit and eat, "away from all this noise", as Shikamaru had complained irritably.
They finally found a bench around the side of the Orphanage, where the noise was a pleasant background hum, and chewed happily on their squid.
"You having fun?" Ino questioned. Shikamaru nodded.
"Hard not to, with you around." She shoved him playfully.
"You're my best friend!" he protested. "I'm supposed to have fun with you! You look…pretty…" He flushed red. She turned an odd, but pleased, shade of pink also at the compliment.
"I do?" she fished.
"Troublesome woman," he mumbled. She took that as a yes.
"Shika…" she said softly. He turned towards her questioningly.
She leaned forward and kissed him questioningly, looping her arms loosely around his neck. His arms automatically drew her towards him. After a moment, he pushed her gently away. "Ino," he protested. "I can't."
"I know," she sighed. "But just tonight, okay?"
He didn't argue, so she leaned forward again to touch his lips with her own. This time, he kissed her back. They broke away for breath a few moments later. She smiled at him. "See? You do love me."
He paused. "I do. But…"
"It's still Temari," she finished for him, resigned. "But as long as you still love me as your best friend, and almost as much as Temari when it comes to being a girl…" she laughed. "That's okay with me."
"Ino," he stopped her, and she turned in question.
He didn't need to answer. He nodded his head at one of the tall hills that bordered the back of the Orphanage. On the top, silhouetted eerily against the now ebony sky, the silvery stars, and a perfectly crescent-shaped moon, were four figures. Ino's breath stuck in her throat.
"It's them, isn't it?" she whispered.
"Speak of the Devil," Shikamaru muttered. He hesitated. Ino smiled and pulled him up with her as she stood.
"Go on. I know you want to see her."
Shikamaru touched her arm in a grateful gesture. "Thanks, Ino."
The said blonde turned to see Shikamaru standing next to her on the hill. Gaara gave her a long stare, and then the other three vanished down the hillside to find a place to spend the night. Temari noted that her little brother and Matsuri's hands were loosely linked, as if she were his child. Or perhaps their student-teacher bond had grown into something more…?
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
She shrugged. "We're not on your territory, if that's what you mean. The border line is right at the back of these hills." She smiled. "Not that Gaara's not going to try and take your territory again. You've got my warning."
His eyes probed her face curiously, a deep ache pounding in his heart. "I've missed you," he admitted.
She laughed. "You kept your promise."
"You told me that you would never forget me."
"It was true," he said slowly. Temari gazed more carefully at his face.
"Something is troubling you," she stated, taking a step forward. He met her halfway there, but stopped her when she leaned up to kiss him, and instead tilted her head slightly to the side so that they were locked in a soft hug.
"Ino," he whispered.
"I knew that it would happen, you know," said Temari, surprising him. He had expected her to be angry.
"Yeah." She shook her head. "Even though she's a brat, I think she's probably better than I am." She smiled weakly as she pushed him away slightly.
"That's the problem. I still do love you, Temari, but her also," Shikamaru admitted. "It's troublesome."
"Don't hurt her," said Temari simply. "I'm sorry that she and I never got along, for your sake. But I think she's not as bad as I thought she was, if you can love her. I'll never stop loving you…but I think I agree with you when you said that we can never be together."
Shikamaru smiled weakly back at her.
"Well, I don't think I'll bother you again," said Temari with a try at airiness. He nodded, a lump in his throat.
She leaned forward and kissed him gently, a goodbye. He stroked her cheek, and didn't push her away this time. She took one last look, and then disappeared in a streak of speed down the hill where he could not follow.
"Hinata-chan! I'll get us some ramen," said Naruto. "Stay right here, okay?"
Hinata nodded, and then the blonde rushed off towards the ramen stand. He was back in what seemed like a second with two giant, steaming bowls of the stuff. Hinata smiled. Same old Naruto.
She took her bowl, and they sat down at the rows of picnic benches that had been set up under an awning, where many families and kids were already eating.
Hinata had never been much of a talker, but she didn't ever need to worry about lack of conversation with Naruto around. As they slurped their ramen noodles, Naruto chattered away about pretty much everything: the quality of the ramen, how annoying Sasuke was, how pretty he thought she looked that night, how much ramen they had gotten, how the band had performed, ramen, how loud everybody was, ramen again…
She smiled and nodded happily, noodles vanishing into her mouth, as she listened to him. Naruto made her feel so uplifted sometimes…she let herself loose and slurped the ramen a little more loudly. Naruto laughed.
"That's the proper way to eat it, Hinata-chan!"
"Naruto-kun, thank you f-for helping me on the s-stage," she said gratefully.
"Ah, that? No problem," said Naruto modestly, scratching the back of his head.
Hinata gazed at him carefully. It was a wonder how he managed to keep so happy and resolute all the time, with the rest of the Pack seeing him as an annoying fool, and having no family. At least she had Neji…what did Naruto have to hang on to?
"Don't y-you ever get l-lonely, Naruto-kun?" she murmured.
His cerulean eyes widened. "Lonely? Why?"
"You…d-don't have a-anybody c-close to you, do y-you?" she said softly, her wide white eyes already regretting her questions. Naruto pouted.
"How could you say that? I have you, Hinata-chan. And the ramen." She flushed up to her hairline.
"Oh…" He cocked his head curiously at her uncomfortable and embarrassed expression, (though deep down, she was feeling very, very pleased).
"Are you okay? You're all red," he said in concern. She nodded hastily.
"You have a spot of sauce on your lip," Naruto pointed out. Hinata wiped at it hastily with her napkin, flushing even redder.
"Nah, on the other side," said Naruto, coaching her.
She missed it again.
"Here, I'll get it," he said. He leaned across the table and kissed her, his tongue darting out to lick the spot of sauce off of her mouth. She made a muffled sound of extreme surprise, feeling like she was about to faint again. He released her just as she was really about to pass out, and promptly knocked over their ramen bowls.
"Sasuke-kun! Let's go dance!" Sakura declared.
Sasuke's coal-black eyes widened in mild panic as he was dragged onto the dance floor by an impatient and hyperactive Sakura. They were soon surrounded by dancing couples and little children trying to imitate the grown-ups.
"I don't dance," he said coldly.
"Well, I'll teach you," she said cheerfully, unfettered by his remark. She placed his hands on her waist and looped her arms around his neck. "See? Now we just kind-of…dance," she said, failing to explain. He chuckled darkly as she made slightly nudges with her arms against his neck to tell him which way to go.
She laughed, and her green eyes danced, though her arms tightened against his neck.
He choked. "Say that again, and you're a dead man," she hissed into his ear.
"Oh? When did you become so fond of threats?"
"Only for you, Sasuke-kun," she said sweetly at a normal tone of voice as she pulled back from his ear.
"I seem to recall a twelve-year-old fangirl, and now this?" he said, his eyebrows raised. She smirked confidently up at him.
"And what is 'this'?"
She watched with enjoyment as Sasuke struggled for words, scrutinizing her lovely, pale face and her sparkling emerald eyes. Her pink hair was still up in its bun. Absently, he reached up with his right hand and pulled them out so that her hair fell around her shoulders.
"You," he said simply, brushing a few stray strands back behind her ears.
She closed her eyes at his touch, a smile tinting her lips. "Arigato, Sasuke-kun."
She opened her eyes. "For being you."
Unconsciously, they had closed the gap between them. Their foreheads pressed together. "Sakura."
Their mouths met. She ran her fingers through his ebony hair, having missed it and everything else about him so much when he had left. He did the same to her hair, breathing in the sweet smell that seemed to come in waves from her skin, her hair. It still smelled as sweet as ever…he groaned.
"You. Are. Mine."
"I love you, Sasuke-kun."
Tenten flinched. She had been waiting for Neji to bring that up, and she wasn't all that happy now that he had.
"Yes?" she questioned.
Neji faltered, his white gaze locked on her face. She stopped breathing for a moment, and so did he, and then the moment passed. "Hn."
She sighed. "You are so stupid sometimes."
He raised his eyebrows as they walked among the many vendor's and game stalls, but did not question her statement. She took that as a cue to continue. "Why can't you just say what you think once in a while?"
"I do. I am Alpha."
She tittered impatiently. "I mean what you really think…Neji-kun, basically, I wish you weren't such a jerk. Or an ice cube. Or-"
She exhaled. "Fine. I'm waiting."
He shoved a bowl of rice, several pieces of candy, a kabob of roasted lamb, dumplings, a packet of soy sauce, a piece of pie, and a juice box into her face. She nearly overbalanced trying to carry the hefty load.
"HYUUGA NEJI, I CAN'T SEE WHERE I'M GOING!" she cursed when she ran straight into him, and he relieved her of half of the load, his face still deadly serious, though the corners of his mouth were twitching like they always did when he was amused.
"Thank you," she exhaled, glaring at him, and chewing on the kabob to stem her anger. "Where did you get all that food all of a sudden anyways?"
He narrowed his eyes at her. "Eat."
"I know, I know!" she said hastily. "See? I'm eating. C'mon, let's walk."
They actually managed to finish off the food after much hurried chomping. Tenten finally opened her mouth once they had gobbled the last dumpling, wiping her mouth with her sleeve and catching a dribble of soy sauce. Neji raised his eyebrows.
"There is a napkin."
She glared at him. "I know."
"You wiped your mouth with your sleeve."
He shook his head.
"God, Neji-kun, this isn't court, you know."
"Okay, okay, let's talk."
"What is there to talk about?"
"Neji-kun, you know what I mean," she said, exasperated.
"You were the one that brought it up earlier."
She paused. "You know what? I don't think I want to talk about this after all."
"I hate you."
"So maybe I don't hate you-hate you…"
"Tenten. You are rambling."
"So what if I am?"
"That is a problem."
"Let's fix it," she said. He was about to ask her what the Hell she was talking about, if she was not suddenly two inches from his face, her eyes glinting with mischief and a secret challenge. "You up to it?" she whispered.
In answer, he closed the gap between them, and their lips met. She laughed against his mouth. And for the first time in his life, Hyuuga Neji truly smiled.
Two hours later, the eight of them lay on the grass, watching fireworks explode in the sky. Naruto was munching on a paper bag of popcorn that Chouji had given him as a gift, sharing with Hinata and occasionally tossing pieces up into the air for Akamaru, who was playing nearby. Shikamaru was asleep, Ino's head on his chest, her eyes closed. Sakura and Sasuke both kept peeking at each other out of the corners of their eyes, until Sasuke reached out an arm. Sakura happily let him wrap said arm around her shoulders. Neji and Tenten both were lying with their arms behind their heads, but their elbows and knees were both touching.
"You know, I think everything turned out pretty okay," said Sakura to nobody in particular.
"Yeah," said Tenten. Crunch, crunch, went the popcorn.
"Pretty okay? I'd say this stuff is freakin' awesome!" said Naruto out of nowhere, pointing at the popcorn.
And it was, as they promptly found out when a popcorn fight ensued, waking up a cranky Shikamaru and Ino.
May you have much popcorn.
A/N: Okay, kind-of a weird ending…but anyways, please tell me what you think! –sniff- Tis the end! (And you have to admit, that WAS freakin' huge…)