ezyl: (suhweet)
m nemonica ([personal profile] ezyl) wrote in [community profile] narutobang_fic2010-09-05 09:17 am

day seven. "A Good Team"

Title: A Good Team
Pairing(s): Neji + Lee, Past Lee x Sakura
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: None
Summary: How does a man go from being a private investigator to a self appointed defender of the masses? He gets targeted by a gang for just doing his job though the fact that he’s a Hyuga doesn’t seem to help anything. Throw in an old friend who’s looking for a new start in life, fist fights and karaoke and you have the story about how it all began.
A/N: I really wanted to write Neji x Lee but it just wasn’t coming. Despite multiple read throughs there may still be issues with tense. Let me know if you see any. I did my research re: PI’s and then disregarded much of what I read. Apologies to any private investigators and their fans.

*Authors—please reply to your comments after reveals or anonymously.*



<><><>

“What are you doing?” I hissed as Lee jumped down and landed lightly next to me.

“Nothing was happening on my side of the building.” Lee’s grin was barely visible in the dim light, “I thought I’d come see how you were doing.”

Despite the hundreds of retorts that came to mind, I just stared at Lee.

There is such a thing as a life you never planned on living. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s simply a different path from the one you imagined you’d find yourself on in those hazy days of childhood. I never thought that I’d one day find myself perched on the roof of a building, childhood friend at my side, acting like some demented nutjob who thinks he’s a superhero.

Who does that sort of thing in real life?

And yet, here I am, dressed in the requisite all black, watching a couple of lowlifes that like to give unsuspecting girls a hard time.

Lee is nearly vibrating at my side. What ever possessed me to go along with him in this, undoubtedly misguided escapade, I’ll never know. I should have learned years ago that he’s hardly the sort to make a good silent partner – the boy does loud like few other people I know. I had to talk him out of a green spandex costume for fucks sake. I’m sure that he’d love nothing more right now than to fling himself down on the bad guys, cape and fists flying.

As sidekicks go, though, I suppose that he really would be my first choice. Exuberance aside, he’s got focus and drive and a real burning desire to prove himself and that sort of thing goes a long way in this job.

I can’t imagine what we look like, perched like a couple of gargoyles on the rooftop. If anyone in the next building over bothered to look out their window they’d see two dark and undoubtedly sinister shapes. If they were smart, they’d call the cops. If they were of a vigilante mindset themselves, they might try to shoot us off our ledge. Right now we couldn’t even afford to have one of them start screaming. The point of this part of the game is stealth after all.

Lee hissed at my side, “They’re moving.” I could tell he was seconds from dropping down on them and, with a sigh, I had to admit that his instincts were spot on. He shot me a shit-eating grin before dropping over the side. “Two minutes, tops,” was all I heard before he vanished.

The two men, who had been talking shop over a cigarette on the rooftop, startled as we suddenly appeared before them. As usual, I sent up a short prayer that they weren’t carrying guns before turning my mind to other things. Namely, teaching them a lesson.

The bigger of the two, a man known on the streets as Big J, was a sleek guy despite his terrible attitude. He also apparently watched too many Kung Fu movies if his pathetic attempt at blocking my fist was anything to go by. Rumors on the street had him pegged as a good fighter but I could safely say that those rumors were nothing more than a pack of lies. Big J went down in less time than it took me to pour my coffee.

Tikki, Big J’s personal sidekick and Lee’s opponent, was struggling. Poor Tikki didn’t have a chance and he was blubbering by the time Lee was done with him. We roughed them up a little, just to get out point across, and then sent them scuttling out into the night, their tails firmly tucked between their legs.

As soon as they disappeared from sight, Lee dropped to the roof and started in on what was most likely going to be a ridiculous number of pushups. It was the payment for losing the bet, not that I’d hold him to it.

I sat on the edge of the roof and watched him go, letting my mind wander.

My career certainly didn’t start out this way. Ten years ago I moved from the small village I grew up in to the city. An uncle, one I barely even knew existed, was retiring and he wanted to pass his PI firm onto me. At the time I was estranged from my family, working odd jobs and teaching karate and barely making ends meet. The work seemed interesting and the pay was good and so I packed up and left without a backward glance.

Things had gone along swimmingly at first. It turned out that I had a knack for investigative work - I’d always loved a good puzzle – and I took some satisfaction in taking down the bad guys, even if my role was only to get the evidence necessary to take them to court.

One day, a few years back something happened that changed all of that. Something and someone happened, I should say, and that, as they say, was that.

<><><>

It was late, twilight already, and the sweep of passing headlights flashed against the metal of the file cabinets in the corner. I was neck deep in a case involving the Hibari Gang, a fairly infamous group of yakuza in this part of town, and the paper trail I had to wade through made every other case I’d ever taken seem like a walk in the park.

The pile of paperwork on my desk was huge, despite the massive dent I had already made in it. Everything I found had to be unwound from the lies and layers that surrounded it. All of it was interesting even if a good portion of it was stomach turning.

It was going to be a long night, that much was obvious. I had to turn over all of my findings to the lawyer in two days and there was still a lot of information to slog through. Taking off my glasses, I rubbed my hand over my face before rising to pour myself another cup of coffee. If this were true film noir from the forties, I’m sure there would be a half empty bottle of whiskey in my bottom desk drawer but alas my tastes run more to sake than Jim Beam and, either way, it was too late at night for either.

I had just finished pouring myself a fresh cup of coffee when someone knocked on my door. The office was tucked away in a building with several other nondescript offices, my name lettered in gold foil on the door. It wasn’t the sort of place you just found walking down the street. I liked the peace and quiet that the set-up allowed me and it helped to keep a lot of riff-raff from my door.

As a result someone knocking, especially so late at night, was quite a rare occurrence. Before I’d even had time to move towards the door, the person on the other side knocked again, more urgently this time.

With a sigh and a weary eye towards the mess on my desk, I made my way to the door, intent on telling whoever was on the other side to call back tomorrow.

I never got the chance. The minute I opened the door a whirlwind burst through it.

“Neji, my old friend! I’ve been looking for you! How have you been? You look great!”

With an inward groan of frustration and resignation, I shut the door behind the eccentrically dressed man who had invited himself in. No primly tragic woman seeking help for me. I get, instead, a blast from the past.

“Lee…” I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I could insult him straight to his face and he would brush it off like it was nothing. “What a surprise to see you.”

“I know! I am very sorry to intrude.” He looked around, eyes wide with curiosity. “Nice place you’ve got here. Naruto said that you had set up shop in the city but I had no idea you were working as an investigator.”

“It’s a job.” I said, groaning inwardly. Naruto, of course, would be the one person to tell Lee exactly where to find me and not bother to warn me in the process.

It wasn’t as though I disliked Lee. Excepting a few hard years in grades five and six we got along pretty well. The one catch being that Lee often took things to the next level and it wasn’t always intentional. It made him a fairly tiring companion. And, as competitive as I was, that tendency had gotten us in our fair share of scrapes as kids.

“Yeah, but it seems like a cool job. I’m sure you do a great job at it.” He flashed me a bright smile.

I shrugged. “It pays the bills.” I could almost see the sheer good will pouring from him. The man should have been a motivational speaker.

“So why are you here?” There was no point in being anything other than blunt with Lee. He did subtleties about as well as our old sensei did. Which was, to say, not at all.

It was Lee’s turn to shrug and for a moment he looked lost. I must have imagined the look on his face though because a moment later he was his old chipper self again. “No reason really, I just wanted to get out of the village for awhile. I haven’t seen you in a long time and I wanted to see what my old rival was up to!”

I handed Lee the cup of coffee I had poured for myself and went to dig up another cup from the cabinet under the coffee maker. “Well, this is it,” I indicated the room around us, “I work here, sometimes I sleep here, it’s a living.” I nodded towards the pile on my desk. “One that I need to get back to.”

Lee finally seemed to notice that, despite the hour, I was still hard at work.

“Oh, are you in the middle of something? May I help?”

I was about to refuse until I realized that there was no reason he couldn’t help out. Just because he played the part of over-eager buffoon rather well didn’t mean that he was dumb. After a moments hesitation I shrugged, giving in. I was tired and a little help would go a long way. Not that I could give him the files for the current case (I was tired, not stupid) but he could work his way through some busy work for me.

Shrugging again I gestured with my coffee cup towards the seat on the other side of my desk. “I guess. Have a seat.”

Lee settled into the chair, cup of coffee balanced on the edge of the desk, watching me with bright, interested eyes. It was like being watched by a particularly wide-eyed lemur. I handed him a file and a highlighter. “Can you go through this file and mark any place you see the name, Higurashi Setsuno.”

We worked in relative silence, just the sound of computer keys and the scratch of the marker on the paper with the occasional odd comment from Lee and my own non-committal grunt in response. I hadn’t given him anything dangerous to read, just some files dealing with an infidelity case. Not my favorite type of work, but it paid the bills. It was probably boring Lee to death too but beggars can’t be choosers.

Absolute silence from the seat across from me finally pulled my focus away from my computer screen. Lee had stopped working and was staring off into the distance. He seemed lost in thought and unusually still and he didn’t seem to notice that I was watching him at all.

With an internal shrug I continued my own work. He would tell me what was troubling him when he was ready to so there was no reason for me to go digging into his personal affairs. We had agreed to keep out of one another’s business years ago and I wasn’t about to break that deal, regardless of how often Lee had done so over the years.

Two hours later I emerged from behind the wide screen on my monitor, blinking the dryness from my eyes as best I could. It was after one in the morning and I was starting to make mistakes - I’d made two in the last half hour – and that was as good an indicator as any that it was time to call it a night. Lee, it seemed, had pulled himself from his wool gathering at some point and was flipping through the file I had given him, holding the highlighter in his hand like it was a weapon.

Sighing, I stretched and logged off the computer, tucking my glasses into their case. The paperwork would still be there in the morning and I had done just about all I could do tonight. There were still some loose ends to tie up but I hoped that they would reveal their secrets after a night of sleep.

“Are we done now?” Lee asked, stretching and cracking his spine on the back of the chair. “I don’t know how you can sit still for so long, I feel like I need to go for a run.”

“Well, I do have a much more comfortable chair that you,” I pointed out, “But normally I don’t sit for so long. Sorry, the work load’s intense right now.”

Lee smiled, “I will have to fight you for the chair tomorrow then. We’ll play rock-paper-scissors for it.”

I glared at him. “What are we, twelve? I’m not playing you in rock-paper-scissors for my chair.”

“No?” Lee seemed genuinely bummed, “How about arm wrestling then?”

“Absolutely not. And I’m closing up shop now, so grab your stuff.” I took the folder from him and put it in my active files draw, turning the lock and pocketing the key once my own hard copies were also safely stored inside. “Is your hotel close by or do you need to grab a cab.” Cabs weren’t hard to come by in the area, but it would be in his best interest to call ahead as service got a little spotty by this time of night.

Lee didn’t answer me right away and the moment I saw his face when he turned around, I knew what was coming next.

“Hotel? I came down to see you, why would I stay in a hotel? We’re going to make a night of it!”

The enthusiasm that was creeping into Lee’s voice was a bit worrying. I knew that Lee wasn’t a drinker (we’d all found that out after a very memorable night in high school), but that didn’t mean that he didn’t have a list of things he wanted to do or see that was ten meters long. Lest I be pulled into an all-nighter involving curry and push-up competitions and Kung Fu movies, I had to put a stop to his train of thought right now.

I held up my hand to stop whatever idea he was going to suggest next. “Lee, I’m tired, it’s late and my house is hardly big enough for me. And you’ve got enough energy for four more people.” I looked at him closely, the circles under his eyes and the paleness of his skin apparent even in the dim light. “You look tired too. Go get a hotel and meet me back here in the morning.”

He protested a few more times but eventually, seeing that I wasn’t going to budge, Lee finally relented. I waited with him at the shop until his cab came and then made my own way home.

I liked walking at night and I did it often. Most people would probably catch a cab or take the bus but I didn’t mind the twenty-block walk. It was my time to let my mind wander, to shake off the mental dust that came from spending sixteen hours a day behind a desk. More than once I’d figured out what my next step was on a case during one of those wanderings. It was a different sort of peace that what I’d once found in the dojo, but it was an equally useful one.

Except for a few drunken businessmen and some shadowy figures hanging out in the dimly lit alleys, I didn’t see anyone. It wasn’t the nicest part of town but I didn’t mind the gritty and rundown aura of the place. The quietness, in the middle of the big city, more than made up for the general lack of aesthetics.

I lived in what amounted to a small studio room on the third floor of a run down apartment building. The room was downright tiny, the walls paper thin, and the landlord often absent, but I had managed to make it my own. My neighbors were genuinely nice people, if occasionally loud, and they stayed out of my business, which was exactly how I liked it. Growing up in a small town, where everyone knew the whole story of your life, had become claustrophobic and I enjoyed the anonymity of this place.

The stairs rattled hollowly beneath my feet as I climbed up the three flights. A few lights were on here and there but the whole of the complex was silent.

The apartment was stuffy and muggy – it’d been nearly eighteen hours since I’d left – and it was all I could do to haul myself into the shower, once I was through the door.

My mind turned towards the dilemma of Lee as I showered. He was a bit of a conundrum – I never knew what he was going to do or where that mind of his was taking him. Instead of thinking about my case, I‘d spent large chunks of the walk home thinking about why he was here. If I was to hazard a guess, and I have a good instinct for that sort of thing, I’d say that it was woman problems.

He and Sakura Haruna have had an on and off relationship since high school – more often off than on. I wondered if it was off for good now.

Whether they were or not was of no concern to me, however, and I had no more time to think about Lee and his problems anyway, as I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

<><><>

Lee was waiting outside my office early the next morning, two cups of coffee in his hands and a bag of what was probably doughnuts or bagels balanced on the top of them. He looked chipper and wide-awake, far more awake than he should rightfully appear if he had gotten had little sleep as I had. The man had never needed to use coffee as a pick-me-up and it showed. He flashed me a bright smile when he saw me round the corner.

Just looking at his cheerful face made me grumpy.

With a sigh I held the door open for him and then lead the way down the hall. Thankfully he remembered that I wasn’t up for much conversation before I’d had a few cups of coffee because he managed to keep any chipper remarks on the loveliness of the morning to himself.

I realized something was wrong almost immediately. The hallways of this particular building weren’t very well lit and the shaft of sunlight that was blazing through an open doorway was decidedly unusual.

A few more steps down the hall and I could see that the opened door was the one to my office. The glass had been shattered and the door kicked in. Lee was making sympathetic noises behind me as I stood at my ruined door, looking into a room that was white with paper. Every file cabinet had been tipped and smashed open and my computer monitor was tossed to the other side of the room.

Calmly, I pulled my cell from my pocket, dialing first the police and then the owner of the building. The police turned out to be far more helpful than the landlord of the building was. Mr. Shin seemed to imply that the break-in was my fault and then spent the rest of the time telling me that it couldn’t have happened because the building was alarmed. The police showed up while I was still discussing the concept of responsibility with him.

Lee stayed quiet through the entire call, though how he managed I had no idea. The minute I hung up, he handed me a coffee.

“Neji, this is terrible. Who would have done such a thing?!?”

I took a sip of the coffee as I thought about the answer to that question. In my mind I knew that there was only one likely culprit.

<><><>

Lee trailed me as we walked towards the business district. The police had taken copious notes as they wandered around my wrecked office but had done little else. They agreed with me that it had probably been one of the individuals I was gathering information on but they seemed unable or unwilling to do much else about it. I really couldn’t blame them. If my hunch was right then the probable suspect had tentacles that ran long and deep through many layers of the world, both legal and illegal. I knew for a fact that he held some sway over the police.

It looked like the only way to have the men responsible taken care of was to do it myself.

Lee and I were heading towards a bar that I knew some of the higher ups in the Hibari Gang hung out at. It was expensive, swanky, the sort of place where no one worried about the cost of the booze and the only thing that mattered was the amount of money you had in your pocket and the power you wielded. It was a place to play at games of chess and chance that involved real people, real money and real mayhem.

I had contacts there though usually I was loathe to use them. It was too difficult to trust anyone in environments like that; too much money floating around can cause loyalties to shift without warning. I had been smart enough to avoid getting stabbed in the back, but if the Hibari Gang was out to stop my investigation, asking questions was going to be an even trickier proposition than usual.

It was dark by the time we got there, a few hours past dinner. Prime drinking time. I didn’t bother going to the main entrance, instead heading for the alley that ran behind the building and the staff door that connected to it.

A couple of discrete knocks and a young waitress opened the door. Her smile was blindingly bright but her demeanor was completely cold. I’d never seen her before and she obviously didn’t know us from Jack.

“We’re here to see Mr. Yamada,” I said, pulling a business card from the case I carried with me at all times.

“I’m sorry, he’s not in right now.” The sweet smile was still plastered on her face, “You’ll have to call back another time.” She made no move to take the card from my hand.

“Ah. I’m sorry. It is urgent that I speak to him. Please let him know that Mr. Ito is here to see him. He’ll know who I am.”

“I’m sorry, perhaps I didn’t speak clearly enough. He’s not in. Please come back later.” The smile was dimming and her face had become even more shuttered and cold.

“That’s fine. We’ll wait.” I stood, staring at the waitress impassively as I tucked my card back into it’s case.

Finally, she seemed to accept that we weren’t going anywhere. “If Mr. Yamada returns, who’s your friend?”

Lee flashed her a bright smile, opening his mouth to tell her god only knows what. I interrupted him before he could get a word out.

“This is Mr. Goto. He is a trusted friend. Mr. Yamada doesn’t need to worry about him.”

The waitress seemed unimpressed but she nodded before retreating back into the bar, closing the door firmly in her wake. Suddenly exhausted, I leaned against the wall. Lee joined me though not for long.

“Who is Mr. Yamada?” He asked as he began to slide down the wall until he was doing a wall sit. I could tell he was counting out seconds in his head. It was surprisingly comforting, to have Lee acting in such a classic manner. I had dealt with such hassles before, but it was a nice change to have someone familiar on my side.

“Just a man who knows a lot. He can usually be inspired to share what he knows.”

“Trustworthy?”

“As much as you’d expect.”

“I don’t imagine that you would trust just anybody.” Lee looked up at me from his position against the wall. “I bet I can do this longer than you can.”

“I doubt it.” As tired and keyed up as I was, going head to head with Lee on something as silly as wall sits suddenly seemed like a good idea. But just as I slid down the wall myself and matched Lee’s position, the door opened.

“Mr. Yamada has returned.” It was the same girl from before. “Please follow me…”

<><><>

On my way home I stopped at the convenience store on the corner to grab a few beers. Lee and I had parted ways after our meeting with Mr. Yamada. My conversation with Mr. Yamada had been even more cryptic than usual. The man talked in circles that put the logic of even the most convoluted person I knew to shame.

After a tedious hour of not asking the questions that I really needed to ask, and Mr. Yamada replying with his vague and shifting facts, it finally came out that the boss of the Hibari Gang had heard rumors about my investigation and had finally made the connection between the PI that was lurking around his businesses and the case being brought against them. That I was a Hyuga, and they knew that as well, only made things worse.

For some, this would have lead to the obvious path of trying to buy me off but the Hibari Gang wasn’t interested in making friends. It seemed like they were more interested in putting me out of business altogether than bringing me over to the dark side. My reputation and name had preceded me.

But that was neither here nor there. The important part was that I had a motive and a suspect for my ruined office.

The store was nearly empty, just the clerk behind the counter who looked half asleep, and a couple of rumpled business men who looked to be in rough shape, though whether from being overworked or booze, I couldn’t tell. I grabbed a couple of beers and, in a moment of weakness, one of the pre-packaged meals that was sitting in the nearly empty refrigerator case. On any normal night I wouldn’t touch the stuff but I was too tired to contemplate cooking something at home.

It turned out to be a good idea since, when I got home, I found my front door kicked in and my apartment looking suspiciously like my office had that morning.

Pulling my cell phone from my pocket I placed nearly the same calls as I had that morning – to the police and to my landlord. I also called Lee. He answered on the first ring.

“Neji? Is something wrong?” I could hear the TV in the background; an old Kung Fu movie or something similar was playing.

“Unfortunately, yes. I’m going to need to stay with you tonight.”

<><><>

When Lee showed up I was sitting on the stairs, drinking a beer and choking down the dry rolls I’d bought. I must have looked pathetic because Lee’s eyes widened comically. If I hadn’t been so pissed, I just might have laughed.

“So, what’s the plan?” He asked as he sat down beside me on the step, snagging a roll from the container. He ate it in two bites and picked up another one as he waited for my answer.

I knew that Lee wasn’t asking me about sleeping arrangements. Whatever I was going to do, he wanted to be a part of it. I couldn’t blame him, even after years of not seeing one another it was far too easy to fall into the same patterns we had developed at children. Despite the animosity that had often flared between us, we worked together exceptionally well.

“Sleep. A shower. Meditation. Ass kicking. Not necessarily in that order.”

Lee nodded, the serious, grown-up look he had adopted still sitting strangely on his face. “Alright. Are you ready to go?”

I dumped the rest of my terrible, pre-package meal into the sack I’d brought it home in and stood up, dusting off my pants as I did so. Lee was already on his way back down the stairs and I followed slowly behind. Tomorrow I would call up a few more contacts and try to ferret out the truth. My shop and my home in one day was too much of a coincidence. It was time to convince the Hibari Gang that I wasn’t a man to mess with.

<><><>

I didn’t sleep well that night, despite the shower and the beer. As I lay on the bed next to Lee I couldn’t help thinking about the convoluted truth of my past. Despite the gloss of the Hyuga name, the family had it’s own dark and well kept secrets. When I was a child I remember my father remarking that the Hyuga ‘see all and know all’. It had seemed very mysterious and exciting at the time. It was only later that I would learn the truth.

I kept coming back to what Mr. Yamada had said, about the Hibari Gang in general and Mr. Ono, one of the very ambitious lieutenants, in particular. How interested they had seemed when my family connections had come out.

It wasn’t as though the Hyuga were above the law. While my family was hardly yakuza, they were some of the most influential people on the southern islands. Nothing goes on, legal or illegal, without the hand of a Hyuga in it. I watched my father die for that family and I left because of it.

Now, crouched next to Lee in yet another dammed alleyway, our bodies close enough to touch, I listened as some of Hibari’s muscle calmly discussed the latest baseball scores. I had hoped for something more useful but so far, their conversation had been about little more than batting averages.

Twenty minutes of mindless debate passed before, finally, the one with the ugly face and crooked nose exhaled slowly, the smoke from his cigarette barely visible in the dim light, and asked; “Any word on the PI?”

The other man took a deep swallow of whatever booze he was drinking from a paper bag before replying. “He’s vanished. He’s fucking Hyuga, what do you expect.” He spit on the street, “Lots of guys out looking, but he’s gone to ground and no one’s seen hide nor hair of him. So far as we can tell, he don’t even have a girl that we could use to persuade him to show his face.”

Cigarette shrugged, “Keep looking. It might be a big city but we’ve got a lot of guys on our side. Besides, just because he carries the name, doesn’t make him one of them.”

I snarled under my breath at that. I may have left the family but they were still my flesh and blood. I didn’t rage, hadn’t since I was a child; my anger is always focused, pin-prick sharp, but as I listened to them talk about my family, I felt the anger bubbling up, boiling beneath my skin.

We stayed still for a handful of minutes after they left. Breathing exercises did little to calm me down. It took me a moment to realize that Lee was speaking to me.

“Let’s run,” he said, “Ten blocks. Loser buys winner breakfast.”

Without a backwards glance, he took off. I overtook him quickly, and he followed behind, keeping pace as we wove our way through the city. We were passing through areas I’d barely explored before - dark alleys and cheap takeout shops and even cheaper bars. Every so often girls called out to us from the darkness but we pressed on, ignoring them.

“Race you to that light pole,” he said behind me, leaping past as he pushed himself into a sprint. I kept my pace steady and let him have his fun. As we reached the pole I veered off down a side street and grinned to myself as I heard his muffled “hey” behind me.

Throughout the city we chased and were chased. It was a silly moment of nostalgia for me, a way to recapture the days of our childhoods, though as a child I had never appreciated Lee’s ability to push me. We’d been rivals from the word ‘go’, when we’d faced each other across the mat at five.

I could hear his footsteps behind me, though he ran lightly for a man of his size. Or maybe it was just his presence that made him seem larger than life. The breeze generated by his passing blew my hair across my eyes and, as I shook them out of my face, I saw him leap a curb and take off down yet another alley.

We shouldn’t be doing this, not now, but I can’t seem to stop myself. Ten years of isolation, of the occasional phone call home to speak with my gruff uncle, my quiet cousin. Always the same words, the same conversation. Small talk with a hint of guilt on both sides, too many things left unsaid. Just because we understood one another didn’t make conversations any easier. I spoke to Naruto more often, if only because he called me.

We came out of the twisting alleys into a long row of factories. Most were closed for the night, the lights on at security desks and nowhere else. I had been here before, six years ago or so, watching in the dark as a night guard met up with his mistress. I had been winding my way here on purpose; this was where the Hibari Gang ran a lot of the dirty side of their business. Supposedly, Mr. Ono favored this part of town for his side of things.

Ahead of me, Lee had stopped running and was now slinking along in the shadows. I could see why instantly. Two men walked ahead of us, just over a block ahead. They were walking with a confident strut, the sort of swagger you start to recognize in my line of work, the sort of swagger that indicated that they were known in this part of the city and in the very particular world it inhabited.

I slipped into my own stealth mode, became as invisible as a man can be. Lee was stalking them like prey and I scanned the street to make sure no one was stalking us in turn. That we had been followed crossed my mind. With enough men, you can create an ambush anywhere and the Hibari Gang certainly had enough men to pull it off.

The two ahead of us stopped in their tracks and Lee and I paused as well. They were too far away for me to hear what they are saying, but their body language alone indicated that they weren’t up to anything good. Sure enough, at the next drive they turned, scooting down the alley towards a small shop at the end of the street.

Lee and I followed, the sense of anticipation increasing with every step. By the time we reached the shop it had grown to a fevered pitch. It was Lee’s influence, I thought, this do-gooder urge, this desire to stick my nose in places it didn’t belong. It wasn’t that I was against helping the average man, it was that I didn’t often go out of my way to do so.

One look at the serious, determined expression on Lee’s face, and I knew without a doubt that we were going in there. And not only because we should – my instincts as a private investigator were rarely wrong when it comes to criminals – but because there was something thrilling about stepping outside of the usual boundaries I placed on myself. If Lee wasn’t here, if I didn’t know that there was an unspoken challenge in place, I would keep quiet, take copious notes and call it a night.

I could hardly know that it was going to be the start of a new way of life.

<><><>

Panting, I wiped away the blood that was dripping down into my eyes. A quick check proved that it was little more than a flesh wound. Lee hadn’t been quite so lucky; the guy with the knife had had better aim than the idiot that had come after me.

“Ok?” I asked.

Lee grinned. “Never better.”

I laughed humorlessly. The two thugs we had followed were on us within moments of us slipping through the door. We had put them on the floor within in seconds. We waited until they were standing again before we went on the offensive. We fight very differently, Lee and I, but we’re both far more accomplished than your average street fighter. I watched from the corner of my eye as he knocked his opponent around. He was breathing hard; the knife probably cut deeper than he was letting on, but Lee was hardly a lightweight; I knew that his fists landed like bricks.

Gritting my teeth, I turned my full attention onto the cretin that had thumped me on the head. He seemed to think that he had gotten one up one me. I didn’t bother to dissuade him. Talking during a fight is cheap – nothing more than a distraction. His mouth was running a mile a minute, spewing a dictionaries worth of vileness, but I wasn’t paying attention. All my focus was on him and the knife hidden in his boot, the flash of which I’d seen as he pushed himself off of the ground. He had big rings on his fingers too, the sort that guys like him wear with a purpose. At least the chunk of wood he hit me with was long gone.

I knew that he was going to rush me before he moved even one step closer. He was easier to read than Naruto, and that was saying something. The difference was that Naruto had unpredictability on his side, something this particular lackey lacked, and it was hardly any work at all to block everything he threw at me.

Sweat was dripping in his eyes and he was tiring though he was trying to hide it. He had probably never fought in a fair fight in his life. Tough luck kid, I wanted to say, today was not your day.

Lee’s guy was down and out, groaning on the floor but making no attempt to stand again. Lee still looked a bit crazed but there was a big toothy grin twitching at the corner of his mouth. He beat me to the punch, so to speak, and he was going to count this as a win on that running list he kept in his head.

My guy was tiring; worried now that his buddy was down for the count, so I stopped playing around. It took me less than a minute to put him on the floor next to his friend.

We tied them up into a neat little package and called the cops on our way out. I didn’t bother to try and question them; they were the low life thugs that Mr. Ono surrounded himself with. They talk big but know pretty much nothing at all. There was no point in showing my hand before I was ready.

<><><>

We went to Lee’s hotel room for the night. My apartment was still in shambles and the lock on the door was still broken so it was the logical place to go. It was a small hotel, unassuming and quaint in it’s way though that quaintness read as grungy and damp and decrepit. I was surprised that the TV was in color. Lee wasn’t the sort to care about appearances, but I selfishly wished that he had spent a little more on a room.

Lee swallowed a hiss as he striped off his shirt and we both got a good look at the cut the arc of the knife made. Thankfully it didn’t seem deep enough to need stitches but it was ugly and red regardless, still oozing a thin line of blood.

I found some towels in the bathroom that were clean if a little shabby and threadbare. I wet one down I took it to Lee, wishing as I did so that we had thought to stop and pick up antiseptic on our way back to the hotel. Who knew where that knife had been before it made contact with Lee’s flesh.

“Thanks,” he said, daubing the crust of blood that was forming over the wound. “If I had known he was playing with knives, I would have been more careful.”

Lee’s voice was taut with tension and I realized that he was still burning through the adrenaline the fight had brought on. I couldn’t say that I was surprised; for such a seemingly easygoing guy, Lee could be fiercely serious when he needed to be.

“If we hadn’t decided to play at being heroes, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

“It was fun though, I can’t remember the last time we got to fight side by side.”

“You can’t remember because it never happened.”

“Of course it did.” Lee was warming up to the topic at hand and his voice got louder as he continued. “We fought against those guys from the next high school over our senior year. And the year before that it was those punks that the Uchiha kid was hanging out with. And the year before that, you and Naruto got into it…”

I interrupted him before he could go any further. “We only fought together for one of those. Naruto and I had it out on our own. And you were in the hospital for the Uchiha thing.”

The room only had one bed and I sat down on it gratefully. In the last forty-eight hours I’d been robbed twice, chased, and had a couple of thugs make an attempt on my life. It wasn’t turning out to be the best of weeks. Add Lee to the mix and I was suddenly exhausted. Lee was in the middle of extolling all of the fights we had fought against one another at the dojo but I wasn’t paying attention. The lure of sleep was too much.

<><><>

It was hot when I awoke, the sun pressing against the thin fabric of the curtain and worming its way inside to heat the room to an uncomfortable level. We’d neglected to turn the air conditioning on and the room was absolutely sweltering. Lee was stretched out next to me, down to nothing but his boxers, the cut on his side an angry red. There were scars criss-crossing his body. A few I recognize: the fight with Gaara first year, the fight with Kimimaro the next. The others, I had no idea. For all I knew, he’d been trying to take down mountains or was spending his weekends tilting at windmills.

Groaning, I sat up, my clothes twisted and rumpled and pulling oddly when I stretched. The heat made me cranky and realizing that I had slept in my clothes only made it worse. I hadn’t meant to fall asleep and I certainly never expected that I wouldn’t feel Lee joining me on the bed.

He was a strange guy, though he didn’t see it that way. He just lived his life as if he would never fail and never fall. You only had to consider his never-ending quest to win the love of Sakura Haruno to see it. It was the same with the fight against Gaara. It was the same when we were children, when we would meet at the dojo and I did my very best to reduce him to nothing. It never happened. Every time I sent him to the mat he stood back up again. Eventually, you had to respect a guy like that.

Shaking my head at the memories I climbed out of bed, careful not to disturb him. The shower was small with inky stains of mildew at the corners but I felt nearly human by the time I emerged. Lee sat on the edge of the bed, prodding gingerly at the cut.

“Breakfast?” He asked.

“Breakfast.” I replied.

<><><>

The café was quiet; situated on a side street it seemed to avoid the majority of foot traffic. The woman behind the counter looked warm and worn but she smiled cheerfully at us as we walked into the shop.

“What can I get for you?” She asked, her eyes flitting to our rough appearances, Lee’s cut lip, the bruising on my jaw. Her smile never wavered though and she rose in estimation in my opinion.

“Two black coffees and two bagels, please.” Lee smiled brightly at the lady, cash in hand before I could protest. With a sigh, I let it go. Lee was wearing me down and he’d only been around for a few days. I could only hope that he didn’t plan on staying too much longer. Despite how much I had enjoyed the previous night’s entertainment, in the light of day I wanted my quiet life back.

In no time at all, we were sitting at a small round table towards the back of the café. The bagels were dry but the coffee was good and strong. We sat in silence, listening to the quiet tinkle of music over the speakers and the hiss of the machines. A few people straggled in, lower level salary men and secretaries, a few hard laborers. They all seemed to know the lady behind the counter and she greeted each of them warmly.

“What’s next?” Lee was the one who finally broke the silence as he stuffed the last small bite of bagel into his mouth. “Are we going to check out that lead about the karaoke bar?”

I nodded as my mouth was still full of bagel. Vile things, bagels, dry and tasteless. I really hated change before breakfast.

“Do you need to go back to your office?”

“No, I’d like to go and scout the place out first, before it opens.”

Outside the sun was already blazing hot and the humidity pressed down on us like a wet blanket. The karaoke bar was quiet, the door shuttered tightly. It wasn’t a fancy place, none of the glitz and sparkle that some of the more high-end establishments had, but our source had said that it was the go-to place for the local gangs.

Lee and I walked, our gait casual as Lee played the role of exuberant coworker to the hilt. We paused just past the edge of the building, where it connected with an unassuming news shop, and assessed the situation. Lee knelt down to tie his shoe and I yawned politely into my hand. One exit out the side, shops along the other side, one entrance, five windows and a moderately busy street, all told.

Lee and I walked on. We would go back later, much later, when it was dark and when the karaoke bar’s patrons had time to make headway into drunkenness.

We wandered the streets then, winding our way back towards the hotel. He flashed a bright smile at everyone we passed but I could tell that he was preoccupied with something else.

It finally came out, as we passed through a more residential area.

“Sakura and I are done.”

“Are you?” I looked at him sideways but he was staring up at the sky.

“Yeah. We’ve been on and off for a while and then…” Lee shrugged, “It stopped working.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I gave him an awkward pat on the shoulder. “Are you going to keep chasing her?”

“No.”

Lee offered up no more explanations than that, and I didn’t push him. Sooner or later he would undoubtedly tell me far more than I ever wanted to know. So instead of discussing his doomed love affair, we turned our attention to the more pressing matter of getting close to the gang.

<><><>

Later that night we were once again in front of the karaoke shop. It was a mass of lights and sound and there was a group of kids hanging out in front. Seeing them took me back to high school when Lee and Tenten would drag me out to hang out with the rest of the group.

Lee and I went in laughing and joking and staggering slightly. We were supposed to look like a couple of old friends out on the town. Funny how right that was.

We were able to get a room easy enough. The inside of the rooms were far more drab than the outside of the establishment would suggest. A couch, a tv, a mirror and some older concert posters were all that occupied the room. Our source said that the men we were looking for always took the same room every time they came here. It was just a matter of figuring out which room that was and inviting ourselves to join them.

Lee was my go-to man for this. Not only was he energetic, I was pretty sure that no one knew that he was with me.

Settling in to play the waiting game, I picked up the phone and ordered us some food and drinks. I wasn’t willing to question anyone who worked at the bar. If this place was the hang out of some of Hibari’s higher ranked goons, who knew how many of them were in their pocket. Asking questions outright would likely get us killed.

“Do you want to go first?” Lee asked me once I’d hung up the phone.

“I’m not singing Lee. I didn’t sing in high school and I’m not singing now.”

“But Neji, I can’t sing against myself!”

“Lee, I am not competing with you in karaoke of all things. We don’t have to sing at all. We just need to wait around until Mr. Ono shows up.”

“Of course we have to sing! We might as well enjoy ourselves while we’re here.” He picked up the book and started flipping through it. “I will start us off.”

Within minutes I was listening to Lee wail away on some classic song from the seventies. I could only roll my eyes and hope that the drinks arrived before Lee really started pressuring me to sing.

I was able to dissuade him again when the first song ended by convincing him that he needed to warm up in preparation for hooking up with Mr. Ono and his group. During the second song there was a discrete knock at the door before it swung open, admitting a waitress with a tray of drinks.

It had been a while since I had welcomed the sight of a bottle of sake so joyfully. I poured myself a cup and downed it quickly before pouring a second. The second cup I sipped slowly as Lee’s song came to an end with a soaring crescendo. Lee was no virtuoso but he made up for his lack of talent with sheer volume.

It took another cup of sake and him promising to buy me breakfast before Lee was finally able to wheedle me in front of the TV. Apparently the sake was weakening my resistance. Lee was only drinking tea. The last thing we needed was for him to have a few drinks and unintentionally tear the place up.

Standing there, feeling more than a little embarrassed but completely unwilling to show it in front of Lee, I listened to the intro nervously. Lee had unearthed a tambourine and he was already shaking it enthusiastically. I was surprised I could hear the music over the racket he was making.

When I was done, he cheered, banging the tambourine against his knee. I looked at him crossly but he wasn’t fazed. The somber mood from earlier in the day had completely faded. To look at him, you wouldn’t know that he’d just gotten out of a nearly ten year relationship.

I handed the microphone over gratefully as Lee popped up off of the couch, ready to sing again. I saw that he had made a list on a piece of paper of all the songs he wanted to attempt. I could only hope that the list would keep him occupied and he wouldn’t feel the need to make me sing again.

Two hours later, during which time I had been coerced into singing three more times, the time seemed right to try and track down Mr. Ono.

<><><>

I watched Lee leave the room with some trepidation. It was hard to trust such a delicate thing to someone else but there were no other options. I didn’t doubt that Lee could do the job; I would have hardly let him trail along if that had been true.

My Uncle and Naruto were probably right; I did have some deep-seated trust issues.

Pulling a small earpiece from my pocket, I slipped it into my ear. I had made Lee wear a very small bug, something I had stitched into the fabric of his cuff. It was noticeable if the cuff was touched but I hoped it wouldn’t be a problem.

It didn’t take Lee long to find Mr. Ono’s group at all, and he invited himself to join their group with such cheerful forcefulness they didn’t seem able to tell him to leave.

Time passed slowly and my bottle of sake got emptier as the hours passed. All I had heard over the earpiece was a lot of tone-deaf singing and the general sort of filthy conversation that men tended to have after a night of drinking. It was all very general. And then I heard someone offer Lee a drink.

Lee was supposed to go in and ingratiate himself with Mr. Ono. He was supposed to seem like he could be a good choice as a runner. He was supposed to seem like an enthusiastic little cretin. The one thing he wasn’t supposed to do was accept a drink.

With a sigh I pushed myself off of the couch, I could only hope that they wouldn’t be sober enough to recognize me beneath my disguise. Hopefully I could find the one waitress who wasn’t involved in any of this and have her pull Lee from the room.

As it turned out, luck was on my side for once.

<><><>

After Lee had been extracted, we had waited in an alley a block down from the bar, hoping that at least some of the gang members would head home in that direction. My good luck continued when a handful of young men sauntered by and Lee made to go after them. We followed them slowly, stumbling along. Lee kept breaking out into song every so often. Despite the fact that he was staggering, he managed to stay on his feet.

“Neji, you’re the best, did you know that, the best friend a guy could have.” He laughed and slung an arm around my shoulder, nearly knocking me off my feet. “I am so lucky to have a friend and rival like you.”

“Shut up,” I hissed and I maneuvered him down a curb and across a street, “You weren’t supposed to really drink.”

“Couldn’t help it. Needed to fit in. You said so.” He reached over and patted me on the face, “I won the karaoke contest.”

“There was no competition. You were doing that on your own.” Adjusting his arm over my shoulder, I soldiered forward, regretting that I had sent him in on his own. There had been no other choice, but that didn’t mean that I had to like the decision I’d made.

I realized then that the men we were following had disappeared. “Shit,” I swore under my breath; I was going to be in trouble if Lee didn’t snap out of it soon.

I wasn’t surprised when they appeared again around us, more men than I would have liked to see. My good luck appeared to have broken far too quickly for my taste.

“Hey!” One of them said, “It’s that idiot from the bar. Easy pickings.”

“Come on boys,” another one said, “turn over the wallets and we’ll let you go home without any trouble.”

Lee leaned close and spoke, loudly, in my ear, “They want our money!” And then he laughed. I think it was the laugh that pushed them over the edge.

There were five of them and just the two of us but they obviously thought that the odds were in their favor by the chatter that was pouring from them.

Lee patted my cheek again, “I am going to take down more thugs than you.” Pulling his arm from my shoulder, he stood, swaying, watching the young men approach. I stood next to him, relaxed and ready. I was sick of these guys and utterly sick of this whole mess.

Things started out easily enough. We went one on one for one round and then they upped the ante. It didn’t take long before it was a full out melee fight. Lee was whooping it up, somehow still standing though I had no idea how. I was better prepared this time around and I was ready for all the dirty tricks they had up their sleeves. I had my own fair share of dirty tricks and I wasn’t afraid to use them.

It wasn’t until all five opponents had been taken down that I turned towards the man that had been lurking in the shadows since the brawl began. The man could only be Mr. Ono, my current nemesis.

“Nice fighting, Mr. Hyuga. I’m glad that we could see you in action.” He smiled as he pulled a small pistol out of his jacket, “And you’ll have to excuse me now, but I’m a busy man.” With a jaunty wave of his hand, Mr. Ono slipped into a door and vanished.

Lee, at this point, was lolling against the wall, rubbing undoubtedly sore knuckles. Grabbing him by the arm, I towed him in the direction Mr. Ono had gone, leaving the young thugs where they were on the ground. It looked like I was going to be making another anonymous call to the cops.

“We did good.” Lee wrapped his arms around me and gave me a rib-breaking hug, “I like to fight along side of you.”

“Always a pleasure,” I muttered in response, “Now come on or I’m leaving you here for the cops too.”

We lost Mr. Ono’s trail almost immediately but I wasn’t going to call the entire night a loss. If nothing else, we had managed to learn a bit more about the distribution of power within the gang, information that would come in handy.

By the time we made it back to the hotel – was I ever going to see the inside of my apartment again – Lee’s eyes were drooping and his arm was getting heavy over my shoulder. Thankfully, he still had the key in his pocket.

The room was humid and somehow seemed even more damp than it had felt the night previous. I dumped Lee on the bed and then turned on the air conditioning immediately. I needed to soak in a bath and I needed some quiet space but all I had was a grubby shower and a temporary roommate.

By the time I got out of the shower, Lee was completely out, snoring softly into his pillow. Annoyed, I gave him a thump on the head. How dare he be asleep after causing me so much trouble?!?

<><><>

Lee was embarrassed and apologetic the next morning and even though I was over it I did let him treat me to another breakfast.

We went to the same café as before and sat in our same chairs and watched the same people walk through the door.

“Do you have other cases?” Lee asked out of the blue, “Is the trouble with the Hibari Gang causing you to neglect your other work.”

I looked up from the bagel I was meticulously tearing into tiny pieces. “There are some that need to be worked on, but I can’t bother with them now. Until this gang figures it out and gets out of my face, I need to focus on them.”

“Well, then, I think I have a plan.”

<><><>

We began working our way through the gang like ghosts, starting from the bottom and working our way up to the top. At first, the higher ups didn’t pay much attention to the fact that their underlings were getting beaten up, scared off or hauled off. I’m sure they didn’t have much respect for their intelligence. But when we started working our way through some of the mid-level guys, the boss started to take notice. Mr. Ono, according to one informant, was called in and raked over the coals for failing to put a stop to us.

By that time, the rumors were already flowing and people had begun to whisper about us. To some we were heroes and to others represented the descent of the modern world into lawlessness and vigilantism. We weren’t any of these things, not purposefully at least.

The problem was, even though our goal was to take down the Hibari Gang, we were helping out other, innocent bystanders in the process. These innocent bystanders weren’t aware of the larger plan at play, and so the rumors were born.

Lee, laughingly, had said that he was the Robin to my Batman. Honestly, it wasn’t a position I wanted but, once we had begun, it was hard to stop. I’d learned early on in the PI business that finding a partner you could trust was a lot of work. Lee had pretty much landed in my lap and, despite the fact that the man often drove me crazy, he was a terrific guy to have covering your back.

Hibari’s boss, by this time, was starting to get scared. The entourage that surrounded him 24/7 had grown by at least five men, all of whom looked like they ate puppies for breakfast and kittens for snacks.

We were getting closer, everyday, to the prize at the middle of the maze, Hibari Gang’s big boss man himself. We stalked him as surely as a tiger hunts it’s prey and he must have felt us breathing down his neck. We set up the trap so very carefully and, after months of planning the pieces finally began to fall into place.

We followed him for weeks until we learned all of his patterns and had memorized his movements. He was a creature of habit and that was going to be his downfall. There was a bathhouse he frequented, very private and very exclusive, and he went there several times a week to speak with his advisors. That was the time we were going to strike and, if our luck held, Mr. Ono would be the match we would use to set fire to the house of tinder that was the Hibari Gang.

The boss’ house was not empty and getting past the guards was no simple matter. By this time, after weeks and weeks of lower level thugs being pulled off the streets, the men who were left were tough as nails, with a lot more experience than the small fry we’d been tackling. They were smarter too, less easy to trick and more aware of what was going on around them. We wouldn’t be able to take them down as easily.

We used a hallucinogenic gas, pumped through the air ducts, to get in.

Lee flashed me a hand signal, indicating that the way was clear, and we slipped through the back door. There are times when using your fists is the only way to go and there are times when something else entirely is needed. This was one of those times. With slow, precise movements we moved through the entire house, leaving a devastating trail of incriminating evidence in our wake. Some of it had been hidden so deeply it had taken me weeks to ferret it out. It would make for great reading in the paper.

Mr. Ono was implicated in everything and all of the information we planted pointed to this whole affair being a ruse to gain control of the gang. We had tied him in to everything from the initial call for investigation to the email currently sitting in the inbox of a powerful and influential politician. The ironic truth was that that was entirely true. Mr. Ono had been gunning to knock the big boss off of his throne. He had thought to use me to make it happen.

I left a note for him on the counter on our way out.

Two days later, it was all over. Mr. Ono had disappeared, most likely into the bay, and the big boss was heading for a trial. If I had my way, every charge that came his way would stick.

Lee and I were sitting in my reassembled apartment, sharing a drink to commemorate our successes.

“So, what are we going to do tomorrow night?” Lee asked. He was drinking oolong and eating the curry he made earlier. I wouldn’t touch it; the smell of the spice alone had made me cough while he was cooking it.

“Nothing. Sleep. Relax. Put this behind us.”

“I think we should go out.”

“Out? And what’s this with the ‘we’?”

“We make a good team. And you are trailing me by one.” Lee grinned at me over his curry and I swore that he was seconds away from flashing me a thumbs up. “Are you going to let that stand?”

I sighed and sipped my sake. He had a point, one that pinged my inner child viciously. I never let Lee win at anything, if I could help it. “Don’t you need to go home?”

“I like it here. I like hanging out with you. I like sneaking around and taking out the bad guys.”

And somehow, against my better judgment (maybe I was lonelier than I thought I was or maybe I had drunk more sake than was wise) I agreed to give it a go. Deep down, if I were honest with myself, I found the whole endeavor as satisfying as Lee did. There was something about protecting the little people. I think my father would have been proud.

And now here we are, two years into our vigilante project with no thoughts of stopping. Lee sleeps on my couch and helps me with the paperwork every now and then at the office, in between the handful of odd jobs he works. We spend our nights lurking on street corners and in alleyways, ears to the ground, listening for the slightest hints of evil. It’s impossible to fight it all, but we do our best.

I’m happy to say that I’m ahead by five these days.

<><><>


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