Disclaimer: Characters are the creation of M. Kishimoto. I simply play with them from time to time.
It starts with a befuddled look in a speckled and cracked bathroom mirror.
Tenten studies herself in the dim ladies' room light. Smeared mascara from sweat (why didn't she think to put on waterproof?), greasy, pinned up hair. Wide and bloodshot eyes (is that from exhaustion or alcohol?). The beginnings of crow's feet at the corners of her eyes.
Does thirty really look this bad?
Tenten pulls out chapstick from her front jeans pocket and applies it, thoughtful. The chapstick is warm and gross; Tenten winces.
According to her friends, the solution to feeling old is to act young. Hence, the club. Tenten glances at her watch. 1:15 AM.
She sighs. Did she used to enjoy things like this? She can't remember.
Begrudgingly, Tenten leaves the quiet bubble of the restroom and re-enters the club. Techno pop assaults her ears as she wanders through tables and gyrating couples to find their booth.
When she sits, she notices that Ino has taken the liberty of ordering another round of martinis.
"Are you trying to give me alcohol poisoning?" Tenten asks the blonde, taking a sip.
Ino just rolls her eyes. "You've built up an immunity by now, surely."
The blonde turns her eyes back onto the dance floor, her attention drawn. Tenten follows her line of sight, taking another gulp from the martini glass.
Their other friend, Sakura, is dancing away with a dark-complexioned man. His raven hair looks almost blue in the dark lighting.
"Who's that?" Tenten asks.
Ino shrugs. "Some guy. Pretty cute."
Tenten senses the tone in Ino's voice and turns to her.
Though Tenten knows that this night is a celebration of her supposed milestone, it serves a dual purpose of putting Ino "back out there".
Tenten wonders what it's like to break off an engagement, and how long it takes to get over it. As usual, Ino has seemed to defy all regular odds.
"Go dance," Tenten says.
Ino does not need further encouragement. She silently slides out of their booth and shimmies onto the floor. The crowd almost seems to part for her.
Tenten smiles to herself and leans back, reaching for Sakura's martini; she's already polished hers off.
Tenten has never been much of a dancer. She's much better at observing.
Which is why her focus is diverted after a few moments, feeling someone's eyes on her. Her gaze flits a few feet away. A man with curiously pale eyes is watching her.
Tenten can't stop herself from smiling.
Taking that as permission to come over, the man walks over and sits across from her in the booth.
"What are you doing here?" Tenten says, sipping her martini coyly.
Neji gives her a stern look—his version of an eyeroll.
"I was dragged here against my will. You?"
Tenten grins. "It's my birthday."
Neji raises his eyebrows. Tenten reads the judgment in his narrowed eyes.
"This is your choice of celebration?" he asks.
"Not quite. My friends brought me here." She pauses, wondering if she should elaborate further. "I turned thirty. The only way to prevent my death sentence is to apparently go clubbing."
"Thirty isn't a death sentence. Three hundred years ago, people would be thrilled to reach that age."
Tenten felt her lips tug into a slight smile. Neji's logic was painfully practical.
"Do you want to dance with me?" Tenten asks him suddenly.
She can see his eyebrows twitch in surprise. She smirks at him.
"That's probably not appropriate," he responds a moment later.
Tenten tilts her head at him. Despite his strict adherence to logic and rules, Tenten has always found him supremely interesting.
"So," she says, reaching for Ino's abandoned martini. "Why are you really here?"
"Who's the lucky guy?"
Neji glances out to the floor and gestures to the black-haired man who had been dancing with Sakura. The guy has since moved off to the side, swallowing from a tumbler. Sakura is nowhere to be seen, most likely sandwiched in the middle of all the dancing bodies.
"How is thirty?" Neji asks.
Tenten shrugs. "Okay, I guess. Not much different from twenty-nine, but I've only been thirty for a couple of hours. It still needs time to sink in."
A comfortable silence falls between them, the loud house music filling in the empty spaces.
"Do you ever find it weird how people ask you how a number feels?" Tenten says a moment later, catching Neji's eye.
"What do you mean?"
"Well," Tenten starts slowly, running her pinky around the martini glass, "every time you survive another year, people always ask how you feel. Like somehow the number has changed your chemistry or something. Am I supposed to feel differently? I don't think souls feel old, do you?"
Neji stares at her, his lips pursed. "You're very philosophical. Do you know that?"
Tenten lifts an eyebrow. "No. Not that I think it's a bad thing. Do you?"
"Why do you care what I think?"
"I don't," Tenten retorts, slightly frustrated. "It was just a question."
Silence falls again, and Tenten turns back to watch the dance floor. Ino is dancing between two guys, throwing her blonde hair over her shoulder. Her signature move.
"What do you think is the difference between a soul and a conscience?" Neji questions.
"A soul is forever. A conscience is not," Tenten answers slowly.
"You don't think they're the same thing?" Neji says, studying her carefully.
"No. Do you?"
Neji exhales a long, deep breath. "I don't believe in the soul. Only the conscience."
"So, do you believe in the afterlife?" Tenten asks, cradling her head in her hands, elbows on the sticky table.
"In a way, I suppose," he answers, noncommittal.
"Are you Buddhist?"
The corner of Neji's mouth pulls into a smirk.
"You're very focused on placing people into boxes, aren't you?"
Tenten flinches, pursing her lips.
"No," she replies, indignant. "I just like things to be straightforward."
Neji smiles slightly. He opens his mouth to speak, but Sakura and Ino stroll up to the table. Neji closes his mouth.
"It was nice talking with you," he says to Tenten, getting to his feet. "Happy birthday."
Tenten nods and watches him walk away.
"Who was that?" Sakura asks, sitting down breathlessly.
"Nobody," Tenten says, draining the last of the martinis.
Ino watches as Neji returns to his table and his party. "He was cute. In a straight-laced kind of way."
On Monday morning, Tenten is still recovering from her Saturday night-Sunday morning hangover. She clutches her large cup of black coffee close to her chest as she wanders into the building, headache thrumming with each step on the linoleum.
After the club, she, Sakura, and Ino had scarfed down greasy fast food and fell into bed around 4:00 am.
Thirty hit her at 1:00 pm Sunday afternoon. A late arrival, but an arrival nonetheless. Tenten had never felt so old and stupid in her whole life.
Her office is cluttered and messy as usual. Tenten draws the blinds with a small amount of struggle, sighing with relief when the room plunges into semi-darkness. She checks her watch. Forty-five minutes until her first class. Tenten sighs in relief as she rests her head against the back of her chair, summoning strength for the day.
Several minutes later, a colleague wanders in and draws Tenten into a begrudging conversation about midterms. Tenten hasn't even begun to put her test materials together.
With this weighing heavy on her mind, Tenten walks to her classroom a while later, gulping down her coffee as quickly as possible.
Is this how a newly minted thirty-year old should act? You're basically acting like a twenty-one year old, Tenten scolds herself. Be responsible.
Tenten breezes into her classroom and sets up her laptop, plugging it into her projector. Without preamble, she begins the lecture—today, the Mongol Empire.
Tenten tries to ignore the glazed over looks of her students, and half-wonders if she looks the same to them.
About a third of the way through the class, Tenten notices a familiar, but out-of-place face in the front row. He is listening attentively, studying her lecture slides with interest. She pauses mid-sentence, bemused at his presence. His eyes move to hers, and he gives an almost imperceptible nod to indicate she should continue.
Tenten stares at him. Her other students look up from their laptop screens, confused as to why she has stopped.
Tenten launches back into land conquests a second later, ignoring Neji's presence for the remainder of the lesson.
At dismissal, a few students approach with lecture questions, which Tenten answers patiently. Once the classroom has emptied, Neji finally stands and walks over to the lectern.
Tenten looks at him with raised eyebrows. "Is there a reason why you're here?" she asks.
"You're a good lecturer," Neji replies, sidestepping her question. "I don't enjoy history as a subject. But you made the Mongols seem intriguing, somehow."
Tenten stares at him. "Thanks, I guess," she finally says, at a loss for what else to say.
"I cancelled my class this morning, so my students could catch up on makeup assignments. What with midterms and all," Neji says, in an attempt at explanation.
"That doesn't explain why you're here in my lecture hall," Tenten replies.
"I suppose I was curious," he shrugs.
Tenten shuts her laptop in lieu of answering, packing away her things into her bag.
"Have you had breakfast?" Neji asks as they walk out into the hallway.
Tenten readjusts the bag on her shoulder. "I somehow recall you saying something about appropriateness."
"In two entirely different departments. We don't even know each other, really," Tenten answers, trying to grasp the bizarreness of this conversation.
"That's true," Neji concedes. "We have, however, had a very deep and enlightening conversation about philosophy. I know how old you are. I know you're a history professor. You drink martinis."
"I'm just a little confused," she eventually admits, wincing as they step out into the early spring sunlight.
"Truthfully, so am I," Neji says. "I don't really recall making the decision to enter your lecture. I just did."
"Sounds like destiny," Tenten mutters under her breath, half-sarcastic. The half that's serious startles her.
Neji smirks, almost bitterly. "Or fate."
Tenten considers this as their feet lead them to the dining hall, as if of their own volition.
A late submission in honor of Tenten's birthday on March 9th. I hope you enjoyed :)