Hyuuga Neji silently watched as Tenten put down the scissors and fresh gauze on her bed. His teammate then hunched over to get a bottle of water. Whistling, she held out her wounded arm over the tiled floor and unceremoniously dumped the liquid over her wound's old dressing.
He had seen enough. Moving from the hospital door where he had stood for some time to observe her, he marched to her side and irritably grabbed the bottle from her hand.
"Stop fooling around, Tenten."
The brown-haired woman looked at him, grinning. "Since you were peeping at me, I thought I might as well put on a good show!"
"Move," he instructed through his gritted teeth, plopping down beside her as soon as she made the space available. "Why didn't you wait for the nurse to change this for you?" He briskly spread the remaining streaks of water over the edge of the tape to loosen it.
"I was bored. The nurse from last night's rounds took away all my toys," she grumbled, obviously displeased.
He yanked out a few sheets of tissue paper from the nearby dispenser. "The fruits were meant to be eaten, not to be used for target practice." One of the nurses had promptly brought him up to date regarding his friend's condition, including her odd penchant for utilizing nearly everything in the room as projectiles.
She curled her lips in annoyance. "Killjoy."
His pale eyes assessed her wound for possible signs of infection. To his relief, only a shade of redness remained on her arm. "Please don't do this again," he said quietly after a moment of pause.
To which, she shrugged, "Even if I want to, I already can't. They've banned all cutlery and eating implements in the room-" Her smiling eyes turned more solemn when she felt his grip on her tighten. "Neji…"
"Soloing an A-rank mission… what were you thinking?" He couldn't take his eyes off the dried blood splatters on the old dressing. "Lee could have backed you up. You could have sent a messenger for me..." and I would have met up with you. No matter what. He couldn't keep the angry accusation out of his voice—not with the disgusting carmine stains haunting him for not being there with her during the incident.
"Now, now, Neji! Don't give me that 'you're a girl' crap, or else I'll get mad, okay?" She proudly flexed her other healthy arm for him. "I'm alright, see? After all, I'm the teammate that you, Lee, and Gai-sensei trained."
But that was the problem. No matter how highly skilled his teammate was, he could not stop himself from seeing her as a girl—a girl he didn't want to see harmed in any way. When he returned from a week-long mission in the Sand Village this morning, he was promptly notified by the village guards about Tenten having been brought in a couple of days ago for emergency treatment.
He didn't even have time to think; his body moved on its own. The next thing he knew, he was in the village hospital, flying down the hallway and frantically searching for his teammate. He thought he heard someone yelling after him that Tenten was safe and was recovering at the last room on the second floor.
Only then did he feel that he could properly breathe again.
When he opened the door and saw his friend seated upright on her bed while checking out her bandaged wound, it took him all his sixteen years of discipline and mindful restraint not to rush to her and envelop her in his arms.
A nurse caught up with him, but he could barely register her words. He was too overwhelmed with relief and gratitude in knowing Tenten was safe.
But it's not as if I can exactly tell her all that. Sighing, he proceeded to cover it with the gauze Tenten had cut (rather badly) earlier. He bent his head down more closely towards her arm, making sure the edges were taped down properly and securely on her skin.
"So OC," she murmured. And because of their proximity, he found himself unable to escape the jolts of electricity that her soft whisper sent coursing up and down his body. Had any of his Byakugan-endowed relatives seen him at that moment, they would have been treated to quite a chakra circus show.
"Neji, are you okay?" He heard her ask in a puzzled tone. "You look funny."
Damn it. He cleared his throat self-consciously to regain his composure, but he elected not to meet her inquisitive gaze just yet. "Don't mind me—watch what I'm doing so you'd know what to do next time."
She nodded earnestly. "That's true. I should learn this—it might someday save Lee's life or yours in the critical parts of a fight."
He had to smile inwardly at that.
"Though I won't let it get to that point," she continued, grinning smugly. "I, the Weapon Mistress of Konoha, will not let even one enemy come close to you two—not under my watch! No one's better than I am when it comes to accuracy and ranged offense!"
This unshakable faith in herself—the same trait that allowed her to prevail in combats— was the same thing that put her in dangerous situations like this one. It was very inch infuriating as it was impressive.
"Good thing I gave up on following the medical path of Tsunade-sama," she chirped as she watched him meticulously tend to her wound. "I'd rather face a flood of enemies than risk making a tiny mistake and end up hurting my friend while treating his injuries. Sakura's doing a tough job."
"I wouldn't want you working as a medic in the camp anyway," he remarked evenly. "I'd rather have you in the battlefield with me, looking after my back." Call it selfish or immature, but Tenten was his teammate—his partner. He didn't relish the thought of her eyes following anyone else but him.
She blinked, and for a second, he wondered if he said a bit too much. But then she let out a hearty chuckle. "Y-You're right. It's too expensive to settle a class suit of medical malpractice anyway."
Of course he could always count on Tenten to find an uncanny way of interpreting his words. A vein popped on his head as he proceeded to dress the length between her elbow and her knuckle with bandages.
"I-Isn't this a tad too much?" she protested. "Now I won't be able to practice my aim!"
"Good." That was precisely his intention.
"You're really good at this though, Neji," she said admiringly. "Constantly wrapping those bandages around your body back when you were a genin must have REALLY helped you master this!"
He decided she was making fun of him, but he didn't really mind. She was the only one of two people who would dare do that anyway—with Uzumaki Naruto being the other one imposing his will freely on him as he would with everyone else in Konoha.
"What time will you be leaving?" she asked, almost shyly. He thought that was uncharacteristic of her, but he realized it must have been mind-numbing for her to be confined in a room for several days. She craved for company the way a sunflower sought warmth.
"Later," he replied noncommittally. He finished the bandages and started to put away the nursing items.
"Will you still be there when I wake up?" she yawned, collapsing back on her bed.
He nodded. Dropping by the Hokage's office to personally deliver the outcome of his mission would just have to wait till tomorrow. And anyway if things were urgent, he knew messengers should have already been sent to get him.
"It'll be awesome if I wake up to Chinese food by then," she spoke in a sing-song tone.
"I'll have to check with your nurse first," he replied stoically.
"Ah, so strict!"
"I can't be anything less when it comes to you."
"Because you're the woman I approve of." He finally allowed himself to smile, albeit more tenderly than he would typically permit. "Good job on successfully completing a solo A-rank mission, Tenten."
His teammate's coffee-brown eyes grew wide in surprise, while her cheeks turned flushed—one of the rare times he ever caught her discomposed. He'd lie if he said he didn't enjoy seeing her frazzled.
"T-That's what I've been waiting to hear from you all day, stupid!" In one big hasty motion, she pulled her blanket over her head.
Stupid. Now that's a word I don't get called so frequently. He shook his head, amused.
She spoke again, her voice slightly muffled by the blanket. "Thanks, Neji. I'll see you later, okay?"
It felt peaceful. Besides the footsteps of busy nurses on the hallway and sporadic quiet streams of conversations from hospital visitors passing by the room, the place was completely quiet. Neji could even effortlessly time his breathing to match the pace of Tenten's soft, blissful snores.
He leaned back against the frame of the hospital bed, finally feeling exhaustion setting in. But he had no plans to leave her side the whole day. As irrational and juvenile as it may sound, he wanted her to see him first thing when she wakes up from her nap.
What did Nara Shikamaru say again about women? Ah yes, that they're a man's sine qua non: an essential condition. A thing that is absolutely necessary.
"Why do you think men give up their peaceful and quiet solitude in exchange for a shared lifetime of expectations, responsibilities and endless compromise?" The genius tactician raised his index finger, as if emphasizing a point. "It's all because men were designed with a fatal flaw: that a man can never know true happiness until the moment he had made a woman smile."
He felt the woman stir beside him as she adjusted to find her most comfortable sleeping position. Unfortunately, it caused her blanket to slide down her body and settle on her waist.
Pardon me. He deftly reached over to pull the blanket back up.
"Don't wanna…" moaned his teammate, startling him. She blindly grabbed his hand to stop him from taking the sheet. "Too tired… not coming to work…"
"A-Alright," he relented, patting down the blanket, as if reassuring her that he would be letting her sleep in all day. "Sleep well."
"Mmmkay." A small, satisfied smile formed on her face as she sleepily clutched his hand. Soon, her breathing had returned to its normal, rhythmic pace.
His racing heartbeat, on the other hand, took far longer.
"I guess this is what Shikamaru's talking about, huh?" he murmured after a while, having regained his composure. "To be able to see you smile like that…" His eyes softened. "I think I can understand it a little better now—why some men end up acting selfish, even over things they didn't have the right to own."
He gently clasped her bandaged hand into his, marveling at how much smaller it was than he expected. It was the same capable hand that he entrusted his blind spot to—the hand that protected his back during massive raids and preemptively defended him when he was engaged in one-on-one combats.
It was also the same hand for which he would offer up anything to, if only to ensure its safety.
Then and now, he found it next to impossible to reconcile his conflicting feelings of pride and fear whenever Tenten went out to battle. He didn't think he ever will, so long as he carried this unexplainable attachment he had to her. But there was one thing he knew for sure.
Nothing else in this world mattered more to him than this woman's strong, small hand.
My sine qua non. Carefully, he brought her bandaged hand to his lips—not unlike a knight solemnly resealing a solemn vow to his liege. "Hurry up and feel better," he said lightly, caressing the back of her palm with his thumb. "I need my partner back."
"OIIIII, Shikamaruuuuu!" Rock Lee waved his hand at his friend energetically as he approached. And because he was holding a bouquet, the colorful petals fluttered around him, framing his blissful face.
"For a minute there, I thought you were a walking shoujo manga cover," commented Nara Shikamaru when they were within each other's earshot.
Lee clenched his fist emotionally. "I apologize if my fire of youth was shining too brightly. I've been scolded many times by Gai-sensei to tone it down out of consideration for the easily excitable hearts of the young maidens and maidens-at-heart of Konoha, but alas! I keep forgetting my esteemed teacher's words!"
The Nara clan heir scratched his cheek uneasily. "While I don't necessarily agree with your teacher's reason, I also think you should be more discreet with your fire."
"Of youth," added Lee quickly. "Fire of youth. You should always say it together because it's thought of as one word. You know, like 'butterfly'. If you leave out the word 'fly' then it KILLS the meaning of the word! You wouldn't want to become an insect killer, would you?"
Lee's infamous brows furrowed. "By the way, why are you just standing around? You're here to ask how Tenten's doing, aren't you? She should be healthy and ready for a new mission soon."
"Nah. I'm actually here for somebody else." When he heard that Hyuuga Neji had been sighted in the village entrance but had not appeared before either the Hyuuga elders or the Hokage's office, he immediately knew where to find him. "But I'll give him a few more minutes."
"Him?" Lee only needed a moment to understand what the shadow jutsu user meant. "Well, that took him long enough." A fond smile formed on his face. "You know, I promised Tenten I won't tell Neji about her injuries… but I can sense that she's hoping he'll come for her anyway."
"Your teammates should learn to be more honest about how they feel."
Shikamaru straightened and tapped the bowl-haired male's shoulder. "So go and treat me out to the nicest place you can find within the block. The nicer the meal is, the longer the extension I give him."
"Sure! I'll introduce you to my absolute favorite dish in the world: the curry of life!" The Taijutsu expert clapped his hands in excitement.
"Of life. Curry of life. It's said all together, like 'rainbow'. Do you know that if you remove the word 'rain'—"
"I GET IT."
Sine Qua Non
A/N: Still working on Everett's Web's third chapter, so I ended up writing a NejiTen oneshot to fool myself into thinking that I've actually made progress.
It's not super effective. :D