Standard Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
A/N: The events in the story follow canon very loosely—it is about one week after Team Shikamaru's return from their failed mission.
Tenten stepped inside the hospital, thankful for the rush of warmth that greeted her. A chilly, blustery autumn had arrived in Konoha, and her fingers and cheeks stung from the cold after her brisk walk to the hospital from Ichiraku Ramen. She loosened her grip on the canvas sack that she had been clutching to her body in order to keep warm. There was a hot thermos inside with some take-out she had picked up.
She walked a familiar path down the corridor and past the nurses' desk, where the staff in attendance acknowledged her with perfunctory nods as she went by. Tenten smiled to herself as she turned a left into a quiet hallway. Neji was an incorrigible patient, and the nurses were forever telling him that if he spent more time resting in bed instead of limping about listlessly through the corridors, he would recover more quickly. Neji was not fooled. After a week in the hospital, he had insisted that he was ready to go home, but Tsunade would not hear any of it. If she said he had to be under professional care for a full two weeks, a full two weeks it would be, whether he spent the entire time inert in his room or not.
Of course, Lee had been an even worse charge during his recovery period that spring of the chuunin exam. Tenten did not know how many times a staff member had gone to check up on Lee only to find, much to her consternation, his bed empty. The nurses would inevitably find him outside, sweat dripping from his forehead and teeth clenched in determination as he tried to manage his 197th one-armed push-up. Presumably the only thing keeping Neji from following Lee's example and taking off for the great outdoors was the sudden drop in temperature outside. In general, the staff had had quite enough of Maito Gai's students, thank you very much. Why couldn't they be more like the peaceable Chouji, who was content to rest quietly in his bed with a basket of fruit at hand and his best friend, Shikamaru, sitting nearby with a shogi board?
Tenten finally reached the door to Neji's room, which was slightly ajar. She knocked sharply and slowly pushed open the door to poke her head inside. "Neji?"
His bed, as expected, was empty. He was standing by the window, dressed in his pale blue hospital pajamas, with his back to the door, gazing out at the hospital courtyard. When she looked inside, he glanced back at her and lifted his eyebrows ever so slightly to acknowledge her presence. Taking that as a sign that she could come in, she pushed open the door and stepped inside. She saw Neji lean slightly to look around her into the hallway.
"Where's Lee?" he asked.
"He'll be along," Tenten said, coming in and walking to the table that stood next to his bed.
Neji did not move from the window, but he followed her with his eyes as she set the sack down and started to take off her scarf. He noticed the color of her cheeks and remarked, "Cold outside, is it?"
"Hmm," she said, distractedly. She noticed an open book lying face down on the table where she had placed the sack and picked it up. It was one of Tsunade's medical texts. Apparently the Hokage had loaned it to Neji so that he could inform himself about the sealing procedure they had performed on him. She passed her eyes over the page. It was incomprehensible to her, but she saw the diagram of the body, with arrows representing the flow of chakra pointing towards a gaping black hole in the anatomical drawing.
Tenten still did not fully admit to herself how deeply relieved she was that Neji had survived his mission. After the medics had brought his bloodied and dirt-stained body back to the village, she had not waited at the hospital in order to hear the news of his stabilization. She had not even shed any tears for him, before or then. It was only after Lee found her, told her that Neji was going to be all right, and hugged her tightly, that she cried. And that was because of Lee's relief and his pity for her, not for Neji.
She glanced up at the subject of her thoughts. He had already turned back to the window. During this past week, when she and Lee had come to visit him, he had pretty much been the same old Neji: reserved and aloof, only with six fewer inches of hair length. But she thought she sensed a kind of inner peace within him that she had never known to exist before. He smiled a little more often, and he did not seem to mind that his teammates came to visit him every day. It was disconcerting, really. Because he was almost endearing.
Tenten closed the book and laid it back on the table, shaking herself out of her wandering thoughts. It was easier to be normal when Lee was around. The last thing she had wanted was to fall for someone like Neji. That was like asking for your heart to be broken.
"She's out there again," he said, seemingly out of the blue. "What in the world does she think she's doing, walking around for no reason out in the cold? She's there every day."
"Who?" Tenten asked.
He nodded at the window, so she walked over to stand next to him, taking off her jacket and laying it on a chair. She looked out of the window and saw Sakura in the distance, wandering aimlessly through the hospital gardens, clutching something in her hands. The wind whipped at her hair, and she hugged her light jacket closer to herself. Her face was twisted in a permanent expression of desperate anguish. She settled on a bench in the garden and pulled her knees up to her chin. Inside, Neji and Tenten could hear the wind whistling.
"I see her there every day," he said. "She just sits there, usually. For an hour or so."
Tenten studied Sakura with an expression of concern. "She's been this way since Sasuke left."
The two of them stood by the window and watched her in silence. Then Neji said, firmly, "Sakura's a fool."
Slightly surprised by her teammate's sudden pronouncement, she turned to him and asked, "What makes you say that?"
He met her glance briefly, then looked back at the kunoichi outside. "Isn't it obvious? She's a fool because she thinks she is in love with Sasuke."
Tenten furrowed her brows. "And you don't think she truly loves him?"
"Of course not," he said contemptuously. "Half the girls in this village think they are in love with Sasuke."
Tenten felt an inexplicable need to defend Sakura. "Sakura isn't like the other girls."
Tenten hesitated. "Because..." Indeed, why? She considered it for a moment. "Because...she's his teammate."
"So...she knows him better than all of the other girls do." Tenten suddenly felt very self-conscious. "All of the other girls idealize him, but...Sakura likes him for who he is, faults and everything. That's a stronger feeling, I think."
Neji was unmoved. "Maybe," he shrugged. "But that doesn't change the fact that she is a fool. She ought to have known what she was getting herself into. Falling for an avenger like Sasuke is like asking for your heart to be broken."
Tenten felt a strange rush of déjà vu at those words.
"She thought she could change Sasuke," Neji continued, "but only Naruto ever had a real chance."
"Why did you think Naruto could, but Sakura couldn't?" Tenten demanded. Neji had a bad habit of disparaging girls.
"Because I understand Sasuke very well," Neji said, impassively. "Naruto is strong, and Sasuke can respect that about him."
"But Sakura has been an equally loyal friend," Tenten argued. "Maybe even more so. Doesn't that mean anything to him?" She had the uncomfortable feeling that she was attributing a certain unwanted subtext to their conversation.
Neji scoffed. "Sasuke doesn't need friends. He needs power, and Sakura's devotion to him makes her weak."
"Is strength always about pushing people away and never becoming close to anyone?" she asked.
"To someone like Sasuke, yes."
Tenten felt irritated by Neji's complacent dismissal of Sakura. "So are you saying that all the times she has helped him and...believed in him and put his well-being before her own and made sacrifices for him...all of that means nothing to him? That he will not even recognize what she has done for him?"
He turned away from the window and met her gaze. "If it gets in the way of his ambition—yes."
"How do you know?"
"I just know."
Tenten was stung by the bluntness of his words. "Then Sakura deserves better than a bastard like Sasuke," she said, vehemently, transferring onto Sasuke the anger that she felt towards the heartless jerk standing in front of her.
She turned away from the window abruptly and walked back to the table where she had placed the sack that she had brought. As she took out the thermos, she saw him approach the table out of the corner of her eye. She fished a pair of chopsticks out of the sack and placed them on the table, then looked up at him. "Happy eating," she said, flatly, picking up her scarf and moving towards the chair to get her jacket.
Neji caught her arm as she walked past him. Startled, she turned and glared at him, questioningly. "You're upset," he stated. Was that amusement in his eyes?
"I'm not," she said, stiffly. She tried to twist her arm free from his grip, but he did not let go. "Let go of me, please."
"If it makes you feel any better, I agree with you," he said.
"About what?" she snapped.
"Sasuke," he said. "Sakura's too good for him."
"Yes, well," she said, impatiently, still trying to maneuver free from his grasp without resorting to open violence. "Unfortunately, she's the one who has to suffer because he will never love her...according to you."
He looked surprised. "I didn't say that."
She stared at him. "Of course you did. You just did!" she said, accusingly.
"No, I didn't," he said, stubbornly. "I said that he will not recognize her love for him if it gets in the way of fulfilling his ambitions, but—"
"Yes, exactly," Tenten said, cutting him off, now trying to pry his fingers off with her other hand. "Why are we having this conversation?" she demanded, frustrated.
He caught her hand that was trying to pry his grip away. "You didn't let me explain," he said, calmly. She stopped struggling and looked up into his eyes, which were suddenly focused on her with an intense expression. "Sasuke may get his revenge on his brother someday, or he may not. He might just realize that this thirst for revenge, these ambitions that he has had all his life, are consuming him and blinding him to every good thing that has ever happened to him. I don't know how he might come to this realization, but at that moment, he may understand that some things that did not seem so important to him are, actually, quite important and...and..."
Tenten was not sure she was following his train of thought.
"And then the question will be, after he has done so many things to alienate everyone, will Sakura still want him?"
There was an awkward silence. He seemed to be expecting an answer.
"Will she?" he repeated, looking at her steadily.
Tenten wanted to look away from his gaze, but she could not. "I..." she stammered. Her heart was threatening to pound right through her chest as she said, breathlessly, "What are we really talking about, Neji?"
At that moment, the door opened and Lee burst into the room with a happy grin. "Say, Neji, look what I've brought us—" He stopped suddenly and stared at his teammates, who were gripping each other's hands and standing very close together. They stared back at him with deer-in-the-headlights expressions on their faces.
After a moment of silence, Lee cleared his throat and said, with a slight smile, "I'm sorry. Am I...?"
Neji and Tenten sprang apart and she said, embarrassedly, "No, Lee, I was...just about to leave, actually." Flustered, she went to pick up her jacket from the chair.
Lee, looking disappointed, said, "You're leaving already? Look, I just went and bought a shogi set. I was thinking that Neji needed an outlet for his competitive energy since he's not in a state to start fighting me again, so I thought, what better way than shogi? I mean, I don't know the rules, exactly, but Shikamaru said he'd stop by and explain it to us. And I even picked up some extra take-out at Ichiraku because I know you only brought some for Neji. Plus, it's cold out and you haven't got anywhere to go, anyway..."
Tenten had picked up her jacket and was not listening to a word Lee was saying.
"Come on!" Lee said, enthusiastically. "We'll have a team bonding session," he said, putting the game and his bag of food on the table and clapping Neji on the back. "What do you say?" Ignoring Neji's death glare, Lee said, "Come on, Neji. Ask her to stay. She has to keep us honest."
Neji and Tenten glanced at each other, and Neji cleared his throat. "Why don't you stay for a little longer?" he said finally. With a slight smile, he added, "You can't leave me here with this nutcase by myself."
Despite herself, Tenten smiled and Lee laughed loudly. "Great!" he said. "Come on, Tenten, I got you beef, that's your favorite, isn't it?"
As the three teammates sat down to dinner, Sakura remained sitting outside, lost in her own thoughts as the wind continued to whistle and blow around her.
Post-story author's note—I'm sorry, but I have to ask this: Did I convey the subtext clearly enough? You all "got it" right? Someone validate me here! :)
(Special word of thanks to my first reviewer, roomfishing!)