Once upon a time, there were two ogres. One was red, and the other was blue. The red ogre wanted to become friends with children in a village nearby. He tried to offer tea and cakes, but no one came.
Moved by his friend's feelings, the blue ogre said, "Look, I have a plan."
"Are you alone this evening, Hyuuga-sama?"
"I am waiting for a friend."
"Shall we accompany you then?"
"Is that a 'yes'?"
"Not in the slightest."
"KYAAAAH! SO COLD!" Swooning squeals ensued.
This was the scene that greeted seventeen-year-old Tenten when she arrived, huffing and puffing after running and dodging through the festival crowd while garbed in a dreadfully restricting yukata and a pair of geta that messed up her usual gait.
Even as her teammate presented the facade of a cool customer, Tenten knew better: the tell-tale signs of distress in his deceptively impassive eyes and the lightly sweat-drenched towel that wrapped around his forehead's cursed seal clearly said so.
At a little over 5'6", Hyuuga Neji towered slightly over most other jounin soldiers in the village. His strict regimen also ensured that he was growing up to become strong and well-built, as promised by the prominent collarbones that peeked out underneath his navy blue yukata. Yet his porcelain complexion and willowy figure lent him a strikingly ethereal form of elegance, rather than the rugged handsomeness of most other boys their age.
Combined with his miserly proclivity to smiles and despise for any form of cheap talk, Neji had won the village over for his goddess-like unattainability. His admirers deemed him as a shared object that defied sole possession, which helped spare Konoha from fan bloodshed at least.
Oh well. Noblesse oblige, she thought as she barged her way into the small circle of excited women that surrounded the male. "Neji!"
In the corner of her eyes, she saw all heads turn to her in a mix of awe and contempt. Not many people had the gall to so casually address the prodigious member of the elite Hyuuga clan— especially not a girl.
"You're late." As always, his relief was guarded from everyone's scrutiny except hers. Years of watching him and his back forged that clandestine advantage. It was one of the very few things she took immense pride on, next to her always on-point long-ranged combat techniques and her unwavering belief in the battlefield's equalizer role for men and women soldiers.
"I had to lose Gai-sensei along the way. He was threatening to give me a salon makeover."
"Good job losing him on your trail."
"It was a do-or-die crisis for my hair, so I had to get serious." She gestured to the merrily lit stalls behind the entrance. "Shall we?"
He nodded and led the way, seemingly deaf to the whiny and disappointed sighs from the crowd he was leaving behind.
"W-Wait for me!" Hurriedly, she skipped past him, determined to use his body as a meat shield against the disgruntled, stabbing glares thrown her way.
A frown of disapproval marked her teammate's face. "You shouldn't run so carelessly."
"What? For fear of losing my womanly charms?"
The lines on his face grew deeper. "I meant—"
"It was a joke, Neji." Count on the no-nonsense Hyuuga to always take everything she says so seriously.
"—running and walking on geta do not use the same form," he clarified quietly. "You strike your heel first when you run. If you do the same on geta, you'll easily develop blisters on your feet."
"Oh." So it wasn't a knock on her womanly charms. "Um, thanks."
"Your geta is meant to complement your yukata," he explained as he intently watched her shuffle her feet. "Take smaller steps. Pinch and pick up your geta with your toes."
His instruction was on-point, as she felt the pain was bothering her less. "You're pretty good at this, Neji." I wonder if it's because he was forced to cosplay traditional women's clothes when he was a kid. After all, he possessed a face that could easily be mistaken for the opposite sex'.
He gave her a withering look in response, as if telling her he knew she was thinking of something ridiculous again. "The Branch family always escorts the clan heiresses during shrine visits, so I've learned a bit about this."
"Besides, he should see you at your most ladylike."
The blue ogre proposed, "Why don't I pretend to terrorize children and then have you, the red ogre, chase me off?"
"So it will look like I'm saving them?" The red ogre cheered up considerably. "That's perfect!"
Tenten scrunched up her nose as she concentrated on memorizing the strange walking pattern that her clogs necessitated, trying not to grow too conscious of her teammate's intent gaze on her. "Hmm, yeah, I think I'm getting the hang of this."
"Good." Neji slid gracefully to her other side, moving her to the less crowded half of the path.
She grinned brightly at him, touched by his unusually overt show of consideration. "Thanks!"
"I just thought you'd get in other people's way, walking like that," he replied quickly, maintaining a steady gaze ahead.
That was Neji's vintage way of accepting people's thanks.
The Hyuuga pointed to the flight of stairs leading to the upper temple. "Let's go there. It'll be easier for you to be seen there."
That made sense. She nodded in agreement.
They had one pesky problem, though. Even with the size of the crowd, Hyuuga Neji still managed to stand out like fine china in a sea of sawdust. People openly stared at him, and she knew that her introverted friend felt surely uncomfortable with those impolite gazes.
He didn't like crowds. He didn't like being here. Yet here he was, accompanying her, despite a hundred other less childish things a clan prodigy could do to spend his evening productively.
Their conversation from yesterday replayed in her mind.
"I wanted to invite him to the festival, but he already made plans to go with Naruto and the others! He says it's a once in a lifetime chance to see Haruno Sakura dressed up in a yukata! As if I wasn't going to wear a yukata, too!" she sulked, cupping her cheeks with her balled fists.
Beside her, Neji, who was calmly polishing his kunai, asked, "Didn't Lee invite you to go with them instead?"
She sighed. At that point though, she was feeling too affronted by what she perceived was her inferiority next to another woman in Lee's order of priorities. She was his teammate, while Sakura barely acknowledged his existence, for crying out loud! "He did, but I said I had other plans."
A tiny voice within her hoped against hope that he would try and coax her to go anyway. But to her disappointment, he brightly told her that maybe they could all go together next time.
"Bummer. I've even already picked out what to wear." She let out another deep sigh.
"Then should I take you there instead?"
She blinked, incredulous at the words she just heard. Hyuuga Neji, who had turned down his team's request to attend the festival together year after year, was offering to go with her to the summer festival?
"Show him your yukata, Tenten."
His voice broke through her reverie. "O-Oh, right! I have an idea!" Quickly, she grabbed the sleeve of his yukata and pulled him towards the direction where numerous mask-selling stalls stood..
"Pick one. My treat!" she beamed proudly at him while gesturing to the various hanging masks in front of them.
"No, thank you." He shook his head firmly. "For something so cheaply made, they're quite unreasonably priced—"
"HAHA, YOU'RE SUCH A CLOWN, NEJI!" The kunoichi grabbed the nearest mask she could get her hands on and planted it right smack on his face. And before he could utter anything more to rile up the vendor who was now looking at them with a healthy amount of suspicion, she proceeded to put on the plastic mask for him.
"The mask is kid-sized, so let's make do with tying the mask to the side of your head, okay?" Well, at least he won't stand out as much like earlier!
"A blue demon, huh?" he murmured, inspecting his reflection on the nearby mirror.
Her eyes bulged in panic. What the heck did you pick, Tenten?! "W-Well, it suits you!" She nearly pulled her hair out when she realized what she just said. "N-NO! I-I mean, it suits you, like it looks good on you! I-I don't mean that you're demon-like! Because you definitely don't!"
"... calm down, Tenten."
But she could not be easily mollified. Frantically, she whipped a finger out, as if making a sale to an exacting customer. "Blue oni personalities are the cool, smart guys! They're cultured and quiet and just really, really sophisticated!" A teasing grin appeared on her face. "Sure, you're a little hard to read, Neji, but like the blue oni, you are highly respected by everyone who knows you!"
"Isn't it just because it's the mask that's hanging nearest you?"
"O-Of course not!" Inwardly, she grimaced. She wished she had Rock Lee's talent to talk her way convincingly out of situations.
"Anyway, like I said, I think it looks good on you," she finished lamely. Sighing, she took out her wallet and began to count her bills. "Here you go, my good man—"
A hand gently brushed hers aside. Hyuuga Neji then offered the vendor his own money. "I'd take the red oni mask as well, please."
Disarmed by his sudden mellowed tone, the vendor happily picked out the best-looking red devil mask in the bunch. He handed it to Neji, who placed the mask on her face with all the care and grace she sorely lacked when she did this earlier for him.
"If I'm the Blue oni, then you should be the Red oni," he remarked quietly as his hands moved.
"Because I look like a demon?" Please deny that, Neji. Have mercy on my self-esteem!
Her trusty partner did not let her down, as always. "No. It's because you are impetuous, but few people are as determined, bright, and full of life as you are."
His every word rang with sincerity, making her feel horrible for fibbing earlier.
But was I, really? At some point, she felt her babbling had made a more earnest, heartfelt turn near the end, just as she realized how fitting her serendipitous choice of mask was.
"It's done," he announced, jolting her out of her thoughts.
However, he made no move to step away from her. His fingers still lay somewhere between her mask and the loose wisps of her hair. His pallid eyes remained wordlessly fixed on her face, an unfathomable expression set on his enviably refined features.
She knew Neji valued personal space, so she never dared to violate his boundaries except during training and combat, where the team's safety was paramount. But neither was happening now, and yet here they were, still standing so closely to each other.
It all definitely felt too strange.
"I want the Ultraman one!" A couple of kids shot thoughtlessly past her, but Neji was quick to pull her aside before she could get hurt.
"T-Thanks." She couldn't tear her gaze away from his hand that was protectively clutching her shoulder.
"He has spotted us."
The plan went without a hitch, and the red ogre became the most popular creature among the children, and all came to play with him.
"Lee's here?" she echoed, feeling dumb. For the umpteenth time, it had to be Neji who had to remind her why she was here this evening.
"How do I look?" She nervously patted down the wrinkled parts of her garment.
"I refuse to answer that."
Her eyes widened. "Why?! Do I look that bad?" It must have been because of all her running around earlier.
"No, Tenten," he answered quietly. "It's because no man will ever find it easy to compliment a woman he likes if she is making herself look good for another man's eyes."
Wait. Neji… likes me?
"You know, this should be right about the part of the story where the Blue oni has done its job and must now write a farewell letter to the Red oni. But..." He reached for hand nonchalantly and tucked it in his. "... I won't let this story end with us not meeting ever again."
"Tenten! Neji! You guys should have told me you're both coming!" Rock Lee waved happily at his teammates. "You even dressed up for the occasion, too!"
Neji held up their clasped hands for him to see. "Post-training session," he said simply.
"N-Neji!" she cried, mortified. However, he obstinately refused to let go of his hold.
"Hmm." Lee rubbed his chin. "Well, that's a strange way to add weights to your training, but you're the last people in the world whose wisdom I'd question." He grinned at his female teammate. "You look so cute, Tenten! You'd give Sakura-san some serious competition for sure!"
"T-Thanks." After Neji's unexpected confession, everything else she would hear from that point on would only sound anti-climatic. How deviously the Blue oni works!
Lee gave them a smart salute. "Well then, Naruto-kun's probably looking for me already. I'll see you guys tomorrow. Don't train too hard!"
They watched their teammate disappear through the throng of crowds.
"Well, mission accomplished. You got to show him your yukata." Neji tugged her along with him. "Let's head for the food stalls, then let's try the shooting gallery later. I hope they haven't heard of Konoha's best long-ranged attacker just yet."
"Um…" Neji spoke and acted like normal, so does this mean she merely misheard him?
As if sensing her thoughts (as he always did), he suddenly turned to face her. Then sliding his blue oni mask to the back of his head before adjusting her own mask, Neji brought his lips next to her ear and proceeded to whisper his confession again, lest the Red oni would forget how dear she was to this particular Blue oni.
Blue Oni, Red Oni
For Nairil. Belated happy birthday!
A/N: For readers who might be following my other ongoing stories, kindly note that this month's updates will be delayed due to my IRL additional workload preparing for SXSW '17. Thank you for patiently sticking with this writer's snail-paced updates!