05 - Inara
Hyuuga Neji was not happy. He was fairly certain that there was some sort of addictive substance in the green tea abominations Astralights served. There was no other explanation for why he drank so much of a substance he despised.
Unless he didn't actually despise it, but he was sure he hated it.
Neji pulled the lid off and took a careful sip, automatically scanning the room for people he recognised. Portions of his ponytail slid over his shoulder and he knocked the hair back in an easy
Inara needed to get out. She needed to leave behind the confines of her room (now cleaned and tidy, lest she leave it a mess for when Toph returned) and find something ordinary to occupy her time. The encounter with Dean had left her more shaken than she cared to admit, and knowing that Nusaken might seek her out...
She needed a drink. She needed something warm, and comforting, and away from it all.
So she changed, tossing the remnants of her dress in the trash and washing her hands, and she made her way downstairs.
The Astralights was mildly quiet, and safe. Slipping into the shop, the Companion made her way to a table she hoped would offer her some normal conversation, and sat down, smiling amiably at the young man across from her.
"Pardon. May I join you?"
Neji didn't actually tilt his head to look up. Instead, he shifted his the focus of his eyes and let his peripheral vision do the work.
A woman. Sane-looking (well, as much as he could tell. No evident nervous gestures, no obvious paranoid body language-- perhaps a little too calm, but definitely calm), and well-dressed. Probably educated.
"If you wish."
Inara's smile broadened. "Thank you. I'm sorry...I don't know that I caught your name. I'm Inara. It's a pleasure."
She extended a hand to him, idly noting his appearance. Small, slight, with long black hair and eyes as empty as the moment between waking and sleep when all was white, and nothing, and everything.
"Hyuuga Neji," Neji clasped her hand. "Delighted."
He didn't sound delighted. Then again, he didn't often sound anything.
"How long have you been here?"
The Companion blinked, somewhat taken aback, then simply shook her head. "At the hotel, or Astralights? The former would be far too long, but the latter has been a pleasant couple minutes. Moreso, now that I've found good company."
"Yourself?" she added curiously, resting her chin on the backs of her fingers and leaning across the table. "And might I ask what you're drinking?"
"I have been in the hotel for three days, but only a few minutes in this part of it." He closed his eyes, then re-opened them.
Though it wouldn't have been apparent to the unobservant, he was slightly disoriented from having spent so long in his room. He could still feel a mild pins-and-needles sensation all the way to his hands.
He'd needed out. Badly.
"A green tea frappuccino. I don't reccommend it."
"So, you've been here about as long as I have, then," Inara said simply, a smile tugging at her lips. "It's a shame to have not seen you earlier. But then again, this hotel is rather...strange." And it's occupants stranger, she thought, though she did not let it show in her eyes.
"But a frappuccino? I've never had one of those before. Why drink it if it isn't tasteful?"
"Strange is a mild way of phrasing it." Team Gai did not often employ tact-- unless it was in tactics, or tactical strikes, or something similar.
He eyed the drink, more than a little suspicious of it. "I cannot explain. It is a sin against tea, but..." He raised then lowered an eyebrow in a gesture that very nearly equated to a shrug.
Inara laughed lightly. "Is that so? I'm not what one might call a connosieur of teas, but to call a drink a sin is surely exaggerating, isn't it?" Her eyes danced. "There are, after all, much greater sins to be committed in this hotel than the incorrect blending of a beverage."
She wasn't sure how she kept the heat out of her voice on that one.
He 'shrugged' again. "There are some who devote their entire lives to the study of tea. But much worse happens in this hotel."
For example, the fact that hydrochloric acid couldn't get them out. Or that fact that his room was molesting him. Or that his partner was sleeping just centimetres away from sandpaper.
Inara tilted her head, contemplating his answer and the words he didn't speak. "I take it you speak from experience?" Don't we all? "This hotel...it takes. It takes and it rends everything useless and nothing and leaves us to fend for ourselves with only the vague remnants of what we once had."
She laughed a little. It wasn't funny, not remotely, and the fact she spoke such heavy, sad words worried even her. She wasn't one to forecast doom. "And listen to me. This hotel...changes so many things. And often before we realise there's a difference."
...vague remants of what we once had. The thought struck him and stayed, he couldn't help it.
It was true.
"I'm listening," he told her. "What I hear is.... uncomfortable, but true. And yes, I speak from experience."
Those moments where he had believed the hotel walls were made of spiders. The time he'd spent perilously close to insanity, thinking that nothing was real and nothing mattered...
This hotel made everything wrong.
He seemed upset, inasmuch as it was possible to assess his emotions. Inara frowned, gently placing a hand over Neji's, and squeezed lightly.
"It isn't so bad, though," she whispered reassuringly, smiling warmly. "We often allow the negative to outweigh the positive, but...surely there is something in this hotel that, despite its rather...hated...mechanisms, brings you some sort of solace? Perhaps there's something to counter the challenges thrown at you?"
Or someone to protect. There are devils within these walls that are not made of granite and stone...I don't want him to touch anyone again. Even if it means...
"Provided by the hotel? No. She found me on her own and he's--" he stopped. He was never going to admit to missing Lee.
Not without having a few of his limbs broken. Or his hair singed off by Tenten.
"What assets I've found in this hotel were present in my life before I came here. And yourself? Have you found a sort of solace?"
"...in a sense, yes," Inara answered eventually, choosing her words carefully. "I'm used to...oddities and unforseen problems from my time on Serenity, so I suppose this hotel isn't as much of an issue as it is to others. But even so...yes, I suppose I've found something to make the time go more pleasantly."
She was fairly certain that keeping Nusaken away from Dean and anyone else was a form of satisfaction. And just knowing Kaylee was here, that she had someone to talk to...well.
"I'm quite content here, barring a handful of bumps. The only thing I truly miss are the balls." She smiled wryly. "And the gentlemen."
Neji made a faint, 'hn' sound. "There don't seem to be many here."
He wasn't sure he counted as one. From his understanding, he wasn't a legal adult in most cultures represented here. But he was completely legal, if not technically an adult, where he was from.
It was an interesting quandry. Everyone around him wanted to see him as a child, and yet he was one of the farther things from childhood.
"The sane seem to be in short supply as well." He took a sip of the drink, eyebrows furrowing and jaw shifing just a bit. "I met a man who believes his mother should rule the world-- and he wants to help her commit genocide."
So there were more men like the doctor in the hotel than she thought.
Inara quirked a brow. "Is that so? Did you happen to catch his name?" Not that she wanted to meet him, considering she had enough to deal with, but it was safer to know your enemies than not. Probably the one good thing she'd learned from Mal. "If it eases your thoughts, I'm perfectly sane, though."
Neji nodded. "I thought you were. The mad here hide poorly." A pause. "His name? No. I did not ask. He has platinum hair. A little past his chin. Wears a lot of black."
Neji took another sip, then finally made an actual expression (disgust) and set the cup on the table. He slammed the lid on top of it, mouth turning up, into a thin hard line.
"You are using the term 'serenity' as a proper noun. What is it?"
Inara smiled wistfully. "She's the ship I lived on for...a very long time. I miss her, now, even though I've been away. I suppose that's another one of those things you grow to miss when you never realised it could be missed in the first place."
She shrugged. "But enough of that. Tell me, Neji, about yourself a little? You seem a bright young man. What do you do?"
Well, he'd already admitted to being a ninja. It wasn't like he had any reason to hide it, anyway.
"I'm a shinobi. Generally, my team's specialty is combat." He smirked, but it quickly went away. "We thought this would be a... working vacation. Spar in a new environment, but without the assassinations, revolutions, or roving bandits to take care of."
They had been... well, not entirely wrong. Just mostly so.
Inara's eyebrow shot up just the faintest bit. "Really now?" she breathed, impressed. And at such a young age.
And then she shook her head. "You would get along with Mal," she said simply. "He's all about violence."
Neji's almost-nonexpression turned grim, disapproving. He disliked being called violent. His job was violent, yes, and he loved it, but he wasn't about violence. And if he was, it wasn't something to take that attitude toward.
"I do what I'm paid to do. I spent my first four months as a ninja pulling cats out of trees, painting houses, and babysitting." Or trying to deal with horses, but he didn't need to mention that mission.
"I spend most of my time training because loss of two days training time causes lethal backsliding. But I am not 'about' violence."
He was about his team.
She shook her head. "I meant no offense. I'm just not terribly fond of anything that leaves another hurt, whatever the reason. My trade is to bring pleasure, release, to be a confidant when there is no one else to speak with. Settling disputes through violence is archaic and pointless to me."
"But I don't befgrudge you this life you lead, so...we all have our reasons. They don't neccessarily need to be understood."
Neji said nothing, merely leaning back and processing her words.
There was no shortage of war on the mainland. No shortage of people who needed shinobi. And he needed that. He needed to be needed.
Being shinobi was his life. As intrinsic to him as being Hyuuga.
He watched her, eyes cool and objective, but also intent. "A confidant?"
At that, she laughed lightly. "It's amazing how much people hide in their heart, how much they desperately need to express before they can feel at ease. I offer them that chance--an ear to hear their fears, concerns. A mouth that won't speak a word of it. And a body to find physical comfort in when the mind is at ease." She shrugged. "Among other things."
That sounded almost like... "Geisha," he said, face moving quickly from impassivity to curiosity and then back again.
His face closed down after that. Kunoichi were often hired to pose as geisha. It was when they received their best information, or so claimed the kunoichi who excelled in infiltration.
Tenten would only take that role if ordered. Then again, that was why they were a combat team.
"Something like that, yes," Inara replied, nodding. "That's an old custom from Earth-that-was, but...yes. For all intents and purposes, geisha works."
She smiled warmly. "You're the first to give me that much credit. Most simply take me for a common prostitute." The sneer was obvious in her voice. "It's...nice...to find someone more cultured than that."
"For all its..." Murderous hatred of its own kind? "...flaws, my family is civilised."
If only barely.
The Companion simply nodded. "You show it. Moreso than some twice your age, I would say."
And that made her wonder. "How old are you, anyhow?"
"Those who do not learn to display any civility are punished." He smirked, as if it had been a joke. It wasn't. "Sixteen."
The Hyuuga are the strongest in the Leaf, after all, he thought, more than a little bitter and trying not to let it show.
This boy--and he was a boy, he was half her age--made Inara smile more freely than most, and in a very long time. And the way he tried to hide, the quarter off his emotions in a way befitting one older than he (but still such a childish thing to do) well...Inara couldn't help herself.
She liked him. No matter their differences, this boy was a much needed ray of sunshine among a much bleaker landscape of vampires and foolish devil hunters who were too like a captain she did not want to remember.
You're wise beyond your years, Neji," she said softly, humourously. "You'll make some girl very happy, someday."
An eyebrow ticked up. "That's assuming I live long enough, which... is unlikely. But I thank you for the sentiment. Both sentiments."
He wasn't quite sure what to make of this Inara. That last statement had been blindly optimistic... but there was something about her. She was perceptive, and very probably a power in her own right, combat ability or lack thereof notwithstanding.
Idly, he rubbed his knuckles. The tingling was still there. It was especially strong in his knees, but it was still present in his hands. The cold drink had not helped.
Inara frowned faintly. "You don't give yourself enough credit, to make a claim such as that. You seem to take a great amount of pride in your abilities...do you doubt them? Or is there simply no girl worth protecting for you?"
He stiffened. His eyes narrowed.
"I protect her no more than she protects me." Tenten guarded his blind spot. He needed her in more ways than just a few. "And she would be insulted at the implication. I try not to delude myself. Not to see the truth is unacceptable-- and the truth is, no matter how skilled, there is always someone moreso."
He had already come precious close to death. More than once. Kidoumaru had nearly killed him, and then Kisame.
Maybe he needed to stay away from people with 'ki' as the first hiragana in their names.
Ah. There was a girl. And yet...
"Just because there are stronger out there doesn't mean you can't have a future," she said simply. "Always assuming the worst...what do you gain?" She shrugged. "Is that fair to her? Same lifestyle or not...is it fair to her? Surely she's trying her best to keep you alive. Shouldn't you be, as well?"
"We do not give in. I simply do not... wish to torture myself with a tomorrow that may never come, and die with more regrets than necessary." He leaned forward, making eye contact. "I do not hold illusions about it. I will die, probably before I turn thirty. I'll keep my team and my self alive as long as I can, but I would rather die beside them than live without them."
Like Mal. The thought came unbidden, but true nonetheless. The mission the team--Serenity and her crew--they meant more, were more, than any transient happiness brought by a normal lifestyle. And this boy, so terribly young...he had all ready realised that.
"Oh, Neji," she whispered softly, gently brushing a hand over his. "I will not pity you, but...that is a sad life. I couldn't live that way."
Neji stiffened, but did not recoil from the touch. "I was born to it. Tenten and Lee... We were raised knowing it." A smirk. "We could never live another way. There is nothing... there is nothing that could match it."
The pride of a successful mission. The perfect neck-breaking technique. The competition and the complete unity of the team as they hunted or listened or engaged in bloody, bloody battle.
There was nothing that could match that pure, wild rush.
She frowned. "I suppose...I can understand. To agree, well...I don't know. But to understand? I think that I can do."
She paused. "When you've spent your whole life striving toward a goal that others condemn you for, but that you take such pride in. That...I can understand."
"Condemn? To be shinobi is highly respected. Konoha, my home, is a ninja village. The Hyuuga would not allow a son to be anything else-- civilians are next to useless." His eyes narrowed. Inara was not a friend, not yet, but she was intelligent, perceptive, and formidable.
She would make an excellent ally, and an even better friend. If he wanted her to be a friend-- which was questionable.
"I assume that being a Companion receives no such respect?"
She laughed. "Goodness, no. We're some of the most respected, powerful people in the entire Alliance. But, as with any other...there are those against us. For whatever reason." She smirked. "Our 'evil ways' and suchforth."
She sighed. "I wouldn't pass off the usefullness of civilians, though. You would be amazed at what ordinary people can do under the right circumstances."
He nodded. "I suppose. But, for the most part, combat behaviours are not natural activity. When someone is trying to kill you, it is not reflex to counterattack. The natural inclination is to get down and stay down."
She frowned. "Then why put yourself through that? I will never understand what makes warriors stand a fight in the first place. There are more productive things than war."
His eyes narrowed. "I won't criticise your lifestyle if you won't criticise mine.
Inara narrowed her eyes faintly. "As you wish," she quipped, sitting back, ready to get up should she so need to. "I can respect that wish. You'll have to forgive me if I gave any slight. That wasn't my intention."
He noted the narrowing of her eyes. It was small, but he was used to looking for things like that.
Neji bowed his head. "I apologise for snapping. I know you did not intend harm..." His head tilted and he smirk-smiled. There was something more than a little bitter in his expression, an almost defiant glint in his eye.
"I'm sure we both have heard the arguments many times."
"...that we have," Inara murmured, relaxing. "A great many times."
She sighed, then smiled easily. "I do not much care for arguments, so..." A pause. "I suppose I'm at a bit of a loss. You're quite unlike anyone I've met before, and you're significantly younger than those I associate with on a regular basis. I must say, I'm at a loss." She laughed--charming, sweet, amiable. Even the most unpleasant admittence could be masked by a pleasant laugh.
Neji inclined his head. "I have never dealt with anyone quite like you either." His smirk faltered, and then became slightly fixed. "Usually when people of similar education levels visit the Hyuuga household, I am..." Too busy fulfilling Branch House duties. "...not present."
Words left unspoken were often the most important.
And Neji left a great deal unspoken.
"You and your family...I take it there are some...issues...between you? Or am I mistaken?"
"You are not mistaken." Neji closed his eyes. "But it is a very long story, and I will not tell you unless you are sure you want to hear it."
A professional confidant, maybe, and therefore trust was not an issue. He had no doubt that what he told her would be in confidence.
But he did not want pity, and he did not want to disturb her, either.
And he didn't want the manji on-- display. Not in public.
She simply watched him a long moment before reaching out and gently touching his cheek. "Friends are hard to come by in this place--moreso those who you can hide behind. I won't force you into anything, but...I'm here, should you wish to speak."
She leaned back, then, letting her hand fall away. "I cannot wield a blade nor take down cities, but...I can at least absord the unveiling of a heart too long shielded in the dark. So...should you wish."
She left the rest unsaid.
Neji tilted his head until the hand on his cheek was on his hitai-ate. He reached up behind him, loosened the knot, and tapped the metal band.
Inara blinked, taken aback. But she did as he said, drawing the band away, brow furrowed at what she saw hiding beneath the metal.
I don't understand.
As quickly as she'd looked, she pressed the band back, nodding thankfully. "I'm sorry, but I'm unfamiliar with what that character means...it was used, long ago, on Earth-that-was, but..."
She pursed her lips. "A symbol of power, of dominance, of subjugation...but which are you, the scheme of things?"
"It is called the Manji. It is... a sign of peace, intelligence, or strength. You are most likely thinking of another symbol." He re-tightened the knot, hiding the Curse Seal away where no one but another Hyuuga could see it.
Within the household, hiding it was purely symbolic.
"My family has what is referred to as an advanced bloodline technique. A mutation causing enhanced vision." His gaze sharpened on her.
"There are those who would have the Byakugan for themselves. In order to prevent that, the Hyuuga house... split. There is the Main House, the true aristocrats, the privileged ones... And there is the Branch House. My kind." There was more to it than that, much more. He should have been Main House.
Even now, it wouldn't leave him alone. "The Manji is more than just a symbol... It is a means of punishment, even death. Branch House serves and protects the Byakugan of the Main House, because of it."
"Sacrifical lambs left to the slaughter to protect your 'betters', I take it?" Inara wasn't stupid, and she knew enough about various peoples and civilisations to see where Neji was taking this.
And it simply brought into focus a great many other things.
"When you worry about your death...you aren't neccessarily worrying about dying on the battlefield, are you?" She looked away. "You said you wanted to die with them, but...should you be given up for this ability of yours...you would not be granted that...would you?"
His eyes closed tight. It was a terrifying thought. It would be painful, searing, punishing agony throughout his entire body, and he would begin to go blind within moments.
And at the end, he knew, he would love it. He would look on death as a mercy from the blindness.
"No. I would not. I would die wherever the House wanted me to die... And it would would not be with my team."
She could think of only one thing to say to that.
"That terrifies you more than anything, doesn't it? Being away from them." A soft, sad smile. "Being away from your family."
He looked away. It was true. A perceptive, perceptive woman, this Inara.
But just because it was true didn't mean he had to name his fears aloud.
So he settled for a brief nod.
Ah, an awkward moment. Inara smiled, patting his hand affectionately. He was, after all, still young, and she'd touched upon something even the old had trouble speaking on.
"The crew on Serenity," she finally said, closing her eyes and thinking. "They are much the same to me. Perhaps not quite family, but...sometimes, family is not the word needed, to describe those you surround yourself with."
She opened her eyes. "You are lucky to have some of them with you here. They must be a comfort, when things grow difficult.
He nodded. They were. He wouldn't have traded any of them for the world, or even a position in Main House. "Do you have any of your crew with you?"
"Two," she replied. "Kaylee and River. I...do not know where the rest are." Other than the two who cannot be here now. "Kaylee was trying to set up a party, last I knew." A laugh. "She worries that everyone will be unhappy. And River, well...we all worry for River. But even so, they are here, and I am glad for that."
Neji furrowed his brow in thought. "Kaylee. Did she send those baskets?"
River. River. Why was that name familiar? He tried to recall. Something on the Gadget.
But he couldn't place it.
Inara nodded. "One in the same. She's always doing her best to bring a smile to others. She is...a very good friend, and I love her dearly."
She laughed. "If you've met River, you should remember her. Many times she says things that...don't quite make sense."
"I think I met River through the Gadget. She was talking about remembering to be cows." Kaylee, he had never actually met. "We had a debate about the possibility of an economy being set up within the hotel."
Inara laughed. "River is a complicated girl," she offered eventually, shaking her head. "Everything is fluid, everything is real. An in-depth discussion on economy has as much weight as children's songs and quantum physics. It is...difficult...to keep up with her at times."
The Companion smiled wistfully. "I missed her. Missed them all, really."
"You were away?" He leaned forward. "That is... never easy." If she loved her team the way he loved his, then it could be excruciating.
He'd never admitted it to Lee or Tenten, but the two-week jounin orientation period, where they stuck him in another squad, with people who moved in lines, and didn't know him, and pried and were loud and...
It had about killed him.