Neji felt like a pawn in a twisted chess game. Shikamaru had instructed him to attend a concert with Temari and monitor one of their client's enemies. But he knew for a fact that at least one other ninja would be in attendance; why couldn't they collect information? It was an observation assignment only, not worth his time and hardly worth any money.
"Why do I even have to go with someone else?" Neji had asked, not really having a problem with Temari but not liking her in particular. Of all the kunoichi he was acquainted with she was the least familiar to him. At least she was smart, but personality wise… "And why with Temari?"
"I'll up your pay," Shikamaru said, uncharacteristically avoiding the question. "You can handle a concert, can't you?"
Neji's frown seemed to bounce right off of Shikamaru's spiky head. "As long as it's not a musical," he conceded finally. The thought of people dancing around onstage and randomly bursting into song promised a headache and one hell of a bad mood.
"You'll be listening to an orchestra," Shikamaru told him. "You know, Elegant, formal, and rich…and probably boring as hell; no singing, I'm sure. And I promise you won't have fun of any kind."
It'll be just like a Hyuuga family function, Neji thought inwardly, unable to prevent a small grimace. Ignoring the older man's obvious discomfort, Shikamaru pressed on.
"The finest musicians in all of Wind Country," the jounin recited loftily. "It's an orchestra unparalleled by any other."
"Perhaps I should just read the advertisement myself," Neji remarked dryly. "Are they paying you or something?"
"No, no," Shikamaru assured him, shaking his head. "No Green Dragon dance floor hits. I promise you won't hear one Green Dragon lyric the whole night. Yes, I know that breaks your heart…you being such a big fan of pop music."
Neji scowled. He was still sore about Tenten's escapades at the club and absolutely despised most types of music. Occasionally, Tenten would practice her taijutsu to rock music; he'd criticized her for doing something so silly but always found himself watching. Still, that didn't mean he liked the music…
"I'll go, but you have to tell me why I have to go with Temari," Neji said after a moment.
"Okay," Shikamaru agreed, a little too easily. "She was the only kunoichi available and you need a date!"
Neji's lip curled in a sneer. "A date?"
"Yes," Shikamaru replied cheerily. "After all, you look much less conspicuous that way. No one attends a concert like that alone."
Neji rolled his colorless eyes. This was going to be hell.
Formal outfits were not Neji's friend. Of course, it was perfectly tailored to his body and not one of those pathetically ridiculous second-hand suits Naruto wore. As much as he protested confinement, Neji prospered in situations that required restraint and control. While he found formal events boring, he never found them difficult to abide by. He knew exactly what was expected of him and found that was what he liked best.
Neji remembered his teammates and how they had always coped with such events. Tenten had grown up fairly poor, the daughter of a single parent. Her father had died right before she joined ANBU, but Neji had been on a mission and the funeral had taken place in his absence. Still, she was always somehow better adjusted than Lee.
Lee…Neji had always snubbed him as being wretchedly middleclass. Lee's parents were both ninjas, both dying before Lee even became a jounin, and his twin had even gone to the ninja academy before dropping out. Lee himself was never a bad ninja but Neji knew he'd never be able to give Lee the credit he rightfully deserved. His exuberance always alienated him around people, something Neji knew he was partially responsible for.
I've never been nice to Lee, even though of all the people in my life he probably has had the most positive effect, Neji thought. Lee…always hoped that Tenten and I would…end up together. I'm sure he still wants us to.
Neji shook his head. Lee was a moron, pure and simple. He'd concede that perhaps the assessment was a bit unfair, but Rock Lee possessed zero restraint, strategy, and cleverness.
Nothing is as simple as he seems to think it can be, Neji thought ruefully. The world doesn't work like that. It isn't as simple as telling someone how you feel. Humans need their pride and admitting feelings strips them bare until their vulnerability can completely undo them. Rejection is capable of causing madness and a complete lack of judgment…there's no dignity in that.
And Tenten…the way she was acting the other day in that club…it was shameful. Was it to make me jealous? Was it to prove me wrong? Or does she want to seduce me?
Neji realized that women were indeed as troublesome as Shikamaru thought. He had the feeling that Shikamaru actually knew a lot about them and didn't find them nearly as confusing as he did frustrating and just plain annoying. But Neji didn't have a clue in hell as to what they were really thinking, least of all Tenten.
"This is stupid," Neji grumbled out loud.
"We're not even there yet and you're whining," a voice said from the doorway.
"Don't you know how to knock?" Neji asked tiredly, not even turning to greet Temari.
"Do you know how to have a good time?" Temari countered. "Jeez, it's not like we're getting married. Don't get your panties in a bunch."
Gritting his teeth, Neji turned to her and fixed her with a withering glare. Narrowing her eyes back, Neji thought it was nice to know it still affected someone. Shikamaru, Lee, and Tenten had all built up immunity.
"I hate concerts," Neji muttered.
"Me too," Temari agreed. "I hate all that classic junk."
"I'm not much of a music fan, period," Neji grunted.
"Shikamaru mention something about the Green Dragons?" Temari asked slyly.
"Does everyone know I hate that group?" Neji asked tiredly. "But yes, he assured me there would be none of their dreaded songs."
"Really?" Temari asked, smiling widely. Handing him a poster advertising the show, he grit his teeth.
Summer's Already Gone: Green Dragons Symphonic Concert. The ladies of the Green Dragons play their most beloved music without lyrics, proving they don't need words to mesmerize us!
That tricky little…he deliberately used the word 'lyric' and not 'music,' " Neji thought darkly. I'm going to have to listen to their music all night long. I'm going to kill that scrawny shinobi when I get back.
"God, they really need a new publicist," Temari grumbled, crinkling the paper into a ball. "That tagline was terrible."
"Actually, the lead singer wrote it," Neji answered, causing Temari to lift a brow. "Tenten knows her and she said she just fired the manager."
"Wait, I did hear that," Temari said. "I heard he was a dick. He supposedly never let them play what they wanted to. But hey, I guess they can play whatever they want tonight, as long as they want."
Neji felt like he died had gone to hell, except he was brought back to life just so he could feel pain again. "I hate her," Neji grumbled after a moment. "The lead singer, she used to go to the academy and we've loathed each other since the very first day."
"Really?" Temari asked, surprised. "Why's that?"
"It's not up for discussion," Neji said, apparently with enough finality that she did not persist in questioning him further.
"Fair enough," Temari complied with a shrug. "Let's go. I want to get settled before too many people get there. Crowds are yuck."
Neji leafed through the program for what must have been the forth time, eyes occasionally drifting over their mark. As he did with mostly all people, Neji found him to be incredibly boring. Rich, powerful, corrupt, et cetera…he pretty much fit the cliché mold of a middle-aged businessman, complete with a woman that was way too attractive given his age adhering to his arm like it was her lifeline.
"Too bad he's not as good looking as your last assignment," Temari muttered next to him, eyes glancing at him and rolling with disgust. "Shikamaru mentioned that he and Tenten were totally getting totally hot and heavy."
Scowling, Neji turned to her slowly. "Tenten isn't here tonight, so that's one thing I don't have to worry about," he said evenly.
"Oh, so you were worried?" Temari asked triumphantly.
Neji frowned. "I was only concerned about her dignity," he amended. "And besides, she's not here, so drop it."
"Actually, think again," Temari said with a cackle. She pointed across the auditorium, to where a couple had just entered. "There she is, and she's not alone."
Kankurou? Neji was perplexed when he saw on whose arm Tenten was clinging. Perhaps clinging was unfair a word, more like holding…but still, whatever it was, he wasn't pleased. It was physical contact, and that was all he needed to be irritated. He felt the irrational urge to just yank the two apart.
Neji had begun to suspect a long time ago that his feelings ran stronger than friendship, than simple protectiveness, but he really wasn't sure how strong until he saw her with someone else. A part of him felt that it was he who belonged with her, no one else. It wasn't quite as strong as jealousy, but it was reaching that point, especially with the men whom he suspected meant a lot to her. Even her friendship with Shikamaru was getting to him.
It's scandalous, sharing an apartment like that, Neji thought furiously, remembering the time he'd come to discuss a mission with the lazy ninja only to find he wasn't living alone. Shikamaru had answered the door without a shirt on, garbed in a pair of black ninja pants. An angry Tenten had yelled something from the other room, the topic of conversation making it obvious she hadn't heard Neji come in.
"Shikamaru, you're wearing my pants again!"
"You wear mine; fair's fair."
"But you look better in my pants than I do!"
"I look better in both our pants," Shikamaru pointed out, whether completely ignoring Neji on purpose or by accident, the Hyuuga couldn't tell. "I wish you'd stop stretching mine out."
"Are you implying that my ass is big?"
"What else would I have been implying?" Shikamaru retorted, sporting a slight smirk.
"That was low, Shikamaru," Tenten told him, voice muffled. A pause, then she continued with a sly lilt. "Maybe I should just tell all the guys how much you like wearing my pants. That's a lot weirder than me liking to wear yours. You think they make your ass look good when in fact, you have no ass. You're flat as a board back there."
Shikamaru glanced over at Neji sheepishly, who, despite the situation, still found a perverse pleasure in Shikamaru's woes. A muscle in the younger ninja's cheek twitched and he straightened up to deliver his next blow. "Well, it's better to have a small ass than a big one!"
Something dropped in the other room, and Tenten came storming out. An iron in one hand and a shirt in the other, she looked absolutely lethal except for the fact that she wasn't wearing any pants. Clad in a black tank top, a jounin flak jacket, and a pair of unreasonably sexy but completely plain black cotton underwear, she froze when she noticed Neji.
"Yeah…I forgot to mention we had company," Shikamaru told her, voice unusually bright.
Tenten blinked once, twice.
"…Uh, hi, Neji…Shikamaru, you're a dead man…and I think I should get back to ironing now," Tenten said after an awkward moment. No one had moved. Neji was never one to diffuse embarrassing situations and Shikamaru was trying unsuccessfully to quell his laughter.
"Hey, Tenten," he said breathlessly, trying to stop chuckling enough to speak, "Do you still want to wear my pants? I can take them off right here, but Neji might see me in my underwear…"
"Here, you can iron this shirt yourself with your flat, shapeless ass!" Tenten growled. "Lazy bum!"
Shikamaru successfully swatted away the shirt she whipped at him, managing to look apologetic enough for her to leave. As soon as Tenten walked rather stiffly from the room, he lost it and gave in to the humor of the situation. Loud laughter erupted unrepentantly. A hand appeared around the corner and Shikamaru yelped as narrowly dodged a hot iron.
"You missed me," Shikamaru grinned. The smile faded as he fell victim to the ironing board, which Neji smoothly sidestepped. Landing in a heap, Shikamaru looked up at Neji, sighing. "I was just starting to have some fun and she goes and gets mad. Women are so troublesome."
Indeed they are, Neji thought grumpily. Even though he was certain that Tenten and Shikamaru weren't sleeping together, they were certainly too comfortable around each other. It reminded him of how two people could be very close but remain platonic, something Hinata had tried to explain when he'd asked her if she was seeing Kiba.
Shikamaru and Tenten respect each other, care about each other, even go out together regularly…Like…a couple. He trusts her almost as much as he does Chouji, and she trusts him almost as much as she trusts Lee. She sure as hell doesn't flirt with Lee…
Neji set his jaw, confident that Tenten wouldn't ever love Lee romantically but rather unconvinced that if left alone, she and Shikamaru would remain just friends. He'd heard an interesting story about the two of them having a rather wild night in Rain country after sharing a bottle of tequila. It didn't sit well.
I know that both Ino and Temari like Shikamaru…but who's to say that he really cares about them? He obviously talks to Tenten more…why don't they get more jealous? It's not like they aren't the jealous types…although there was that one time the girls thought he and Tenten were making out…
Neji winced when he recalled their shrill, accusing voices shrieking at optimum volume as they pointed at Tenten and Shikamaru's apartment complex. Their silhouettes were backlit from their apartment (another thing that irked Neji, the more he thought about it) made it appear as if they were passionately making out.
Tenten advanced on Shikamaru, her back to the window and obscuring most of Shikamaru's rather skinny frame. Her hands came up to grip his face, tilting it to get a better angle. The girls were practically banshees at this point, faces turning ashen when Tenten pushed Shikamaru backwards over a desk and straddled his waist. With his bloodline, Neji could clearly see through the wall, noting that Tenten's hand was actually adjusting a lamp so she could find the eyelash in his eye.
After many, many explanations to the disbelieving girls (seriously, when had he ever been accused of lying?) they let it drop, but both gave Tenten dark looks the next time they saw her. And Neji…he had looked at her the same as he always did. Indifferently, coolly, apathetically.
And now…I can't keep ignoring the way she looks and how it affects me, Neji thought, chest tightening as she laughed at something Kankurou whispered in her ear. The couple sat down a row in front of him on the opposite side. He wondered why they hadn't seen him yet before it occurred to him that Shikamaru probably hadn't told them of his presence. They were the ones supposed to be enjoying the night off.
I guess I'd ruin their evening, Neji mused, not sure if he was pleased by that realization, wanting very much to foil Kankurou but not at all desiring to upset Tenten. Like everyone else, he noticed she hadn't been acting like herself lately and was a bit concerned.
The house lights dimmed, and Neji turned his attention to the stage, aware of the niggling inclination to glance over at Tenten. He vaguely acknowledged that a confrontation was inevitable as he sat in the darkness. He noted Temari was glancing over at the couple with interest.
She's probably hoping they'll stay together so she leaves Shikamaru alone, Neji reasoned.
"I don't understand why we have to stand for this guy," Temari grumbled under her breath as the crowd rose to applaud the conductor. "He doesn't even do anything."
Neji shrugged at her assessment, knowing it to be unfair but also knowing she wasn't very knowledgeable about music. "The conductor's important because each member of that entire orchestra is relying on him for everything but their own talent. He has to have an intimate understanding of the material and the trust of every member, or the orchestra will fall apart."
"You seem to know an awful lot about this," Temari whispered, ignoring the dirty look of a woman sitting to her right.
"Well, think about Shikamaru for a moment," Neji explained. "His talents are different than ours, but no less valuable. He is even regarded with higher prestige because of his understanding of the situation. His position is higher than ours during missions but the success or failure of the mission falls on him. Similarly, if a flautist comes in too early it is the conductor that takes the blame."
"I thought you didn't like music," Temari scowled at him, not liking at all how much more he seemed to know that she did.
"I don't, I just happen to know a lot about it," Neji replied. For the first time, he got over his revulsion and accomplished the task he dreaded; finding that wretched woman from the Green Dragons. He scanned the musicians, eyes narrowing when they found her.
"You find her yet?" Temari asked when she caught sight of his expression. Following his gaze, she frowned. "That's her? Why's everyone so excited over her and her stupid band?"
Neji honestly couldn't answer her question. Musical passion fell into the category of emotion, something he had always and continued to shun. He didn't care that he wasn't expressive, but watching Tenten and Kankurou become lost in the music together was making him wonder if maybe she might.
I heard Shikamaru tell her that I wasn't able to convey my feelings, Neji recalled. But suppressing emotions and not feeling them are different things. I've never cared that I couldn't before; perhaps the one thing I was inept at that never bothered me. But is an emotionally articulate person what Tenten wants or needs? I've always been this way and until recently it never mattered.
"Oh shit," Temari hissed, grabbing his arm and startling him out of his very sudden and uncommon reverie. "I think Kankurou saw us. He's not looking now, but you can bet he's going to look back here when this song ends. What are you going to do?"
"What do you think I'm going to do?" Neji asked her icily. "Run away?"
"Well, no, that's not what I meant," Temari said. "Isn't she going to get, like, jealous or something?"
"She's here with someone else, why would she be jealous?" Neji asked with voice full of irritating logic. "Do you mean just because I'm here with you?"
"Honestly, all men are so dense," Temari huffed, once again drawing glares. "Fine, let her see you here."
Neji said nothing, not really sure exactly what the blonde haired kunoichi meant. Ninety five percent of the time she was painfully blunt; bordering on rude and not caring what others thought nor valuing subtlety. But when Temari attempted tact she was just incomprehensible and confusing.
"No, don't let her catch you looking at her," Temari hissed, yanking on his arm, causing him to jerk towards her. Not releasing him until apparently Tenten and Kankurou had turned around or whatever they were doing, she dropped his arm and sighed in relief.
"Could you perhaps explain what that just was?" Neji asked her coolly.
"She might know you're here now, and if she doesn't, my brother does," Temari explained. "But if she caught you looking at her, she would have assumed you've spent this whole concert looking at her. Even though you actually were," (Neji raised a skeptical brow) "we can't let her think that. Now, if she saw actually saw you, you're okay, since you looking away and she won't know you saw her and next time you catch her eye she'll be looking at you."
"And why do I care?" Neji wondered out loud. Temari's run-on sentences were barely coherent.
Temari rolled her eyes, thankful the song was over so the applause covered her bored yawn. "It's a girl thing."
"Which explains why I feel no different," Neji muttered.
"These things need to be carefully planned," Temari admonished.
For being rather abrasive and pushy, Temari was certainly a woman in all the stereotypical ways that Neji imagined; when it came to romantic matters, she was really nosy and frighteningly similar to her rival, Ino. She had all these silly illogical notions that were so nuanced that Neji couldn't possibly see them relating to Tenten—an average-looking kunoichi who never had much use for the typical scene of dating and romance. How could she fall into those stale trappings when everything about her was always so kinetic; even the way she entered the room was like a fresh burst of liveliness, smiling and spontaneous and positively charged with energy.
Except here of late, she was like a somnambulist, drifting through the halls of his mind like a sleepwalker, echoing very much how she was in real life. The spark was gone; the reasonable explanation being there was nothing to strike them up.
Using his tremendous self-control, Neji tried valiantly to suppress these kinds of thoughts until the concert was over. He was here for the sake of the mission, the target of which was snoring rather loudly from his seat two rows up. Neji didn't delude himself that he would be able to slip away; he knew that afterwards he and Temari would have to speak with Tenten and Kankurou—anything else would be downright rude. And if Tenten saw him, she would want to prove that he hadn't rattled her cage and he would want to prove the same.
A new song began, this melody starting out slow and light, dancing gently across his senses, as much as he allowed. He still wasn't a fan and never would be, but the songs always made him think of Tenten listening to them when they were growing up. He knew this to be one of her favorites before he even saw her smile at Kankurou and whisper the same thing. But Neji knew it was only her third favorite, something so inane and silly and so Tenten, as she explained very carefully that she had two other songs she liked more, but only by a little bit.
Neji recalled the summer it was released; Tenten and Lee were twelve and he had just turned thirteen. It was the first song the Green Dragons actually wrote, penned by the lead singer herself. Lee had been so proud of his sister, telling Neji how Jou would one day be a famous musician.
"I doubt it, Lee. Just because she's your twin sister doesn't mean that you can make her into more than she is if she isn't destined for greatness."
…Unfortunately, her obscurity was not meant to be, Neji glowered inwardly, and now the little witch has just created a soundtrack that catalogs our entire failed relationship from when I'm sure she first started to have feelings from me.
As if to mock his current predicament, Jou sat onstage. Temari figured out this was the singer everyone was talking about, clearly unimpressed due to the face she made. Temari judged others on strength, and Lee's sister was pretty much on the weak end of the scale. Shorter than Ino, more fragile-looking than Sakura, and even more cutesy than Hinata, Jou seemed like the type of person that would buckle under the stress of holding a soap dish.
"Huh, I don't see what the big deal is," Temari grumbled, eyeing the girl. "All these songs are so-so. She's not even that pretty."
Prettier than her brother, Neji conceded, wincing as the image of Rock Lee forced itself into his mind, but that's not saying much.
"It's a symphonic concert, Temari, and without the words most songs can be boring," Neji pointed out. He was getting tired of her whining, but she probably wasn't used to sitting still and silent for two hours. They were well over halfway done, a fact for which Neji was grateful.
Still, he wasn't sure if Tenten had seen him or not and the uncertainty was driving him steadily insane. He wasn't used to feeling anxious, and even though the feeling was so minor it was nearly unnoticeable he was still unnerved. The whole night he hadn't been acting like himself, and he wasn't sure how the concert would end if he didn't get his act together.
"Ugh, look at that green dress," Temari grimaced, making a sour face. "She looks like Rock Lee."
"They're twins," Neji told her, hoping to shut her up. It was taboo to discuss family with other ninja, especially other peoples' families to ninjas of other villages, but Neji was losing patience and seriously doubted Temari would go after her, no matter how much she hated the music…though Neji couldn't say for sure if he would mind if she did.
"Ew, he's got a twin?" Temari asked in shocked disgust. "Rock Lee has a twin?"
"Shut up, Temari," Neji said finally.
Out of shock, Temari complied, her troubled gaze going back to Jou before she shuddered. The rest of the concert she was silent, listening more closely to the music perhaps to ascertain if maybe Jou had slipped a variation of the "Sexy" theme into one of the songs.
Neji, on the other hand, was trying to ignore the urge to look at Tenten, but his brain wouldn't let him think about anyone else. He supposed it was the disadvantage to having such a focused, one-tracked mind. And it didn't help that each song that Jou played brought back a memory of when he, Lee, and Tenten shared an uncomplicated relationship.
And now…do I want it all back? Neji asked. Is it that I want Tenten back so it can be the way it was? Do I want to regain what I've lost? I've never had what Tenten and Kankurou might have, but what if that's what I want? How is a person supposed to know what they want?
"I never pegged you as much of a thinker," Temari muttered, noting his furrowed brow.
Neji briefly considered a retort but wisely ignored her. He was trying to make progress with his thoughts and she wasn't helping.
"Maybe you're just thinking too much," Temari suggested. "It is possible to over think, you know."
"This isn't the time or the place," Neji warned, "or really, any of your business."
"I've got a stake in this too, you know," Temari told him firmly. "And while I'm still rooting for my brother, if you get your act together he's going to lose. Look, I figure if they break it off early, there's less pain all around. Just…let go for once. You're so uptight no wonder you're not making any progress."
Neji paused as her words sunk in. He didn't give any indication that he heard them but his mind acknowledged that they held some truth. He continued his campaign of ignorance but was secretly wondering if perhaps she was onto something. Sure, it was her policy when it came to Shikamaru and she was getting nowhere with him, but he and Tenten were nothing alike so it might work, even on a theoretical level.
Neji felt an uncharacteristic sense of freedom when he realized what he needed to do. Reality came crashing down when he realized that winning someone over was something he'd never before attempted. But he refused to see something that every fiber of his being told him was his belong to someone else, and he realized that pride wouldn't stand for much if he had to deal with his current feelings of resentment every time he saw her for the rest of his life.
This has got to be something I do on my own, Neji swore firmly. If Kankurou can do it alone, I will too. Besides, does anyone really know what they're doing when it comes to this kind of thing?
Kiba? No. Shino, does anyone know if he knows? Hinata, what a joke. Chouji? Well, I'm not going after food, so no. Ino, no way in hell. Shikamaru? I'd rather throw a kunai through my foot. Naruto? Never, and that's final. Sakura, more likely, but still definitely not. And Lee…?
'Lee's an idiot' being the first thought that jumped into Neji's head, he had to remind himself that the phrase automatically leapt to his mind every time he thought about his old teammate. Lee hadn't won Sakura's love, but he had won over her respect and affection despite the fact her heart was devoted to Sasuke.
Well, at least I don't have that to contend with, Neji thought gratefully. He frowned when he remembered she had called him cute, but that was many years ago. Since the only person in her life who vaguely fit the role of Sasuke in Sakura's was him, he was relieved that he didn't have all the obstacles that Lee did.
"Hmm, this concert isn't quite so bad, I just wish I knew what the words were," Temari murmured next to him. "God, I bet they're all about boys and stuff."
Neji said nothing, not wanting to reveal exactly how much he knew about them. It was bad enough his friend was the brother of the lead singer, but to betray his knowledge of their entire music repertoire, whether gained voluntarily or not, still didn't sit well with him. All it did was remind him how much he actually had paid attention to her without either of them realizing it.
"Ooh, the last song, maybe this will be better," Temari said hopefully.
Neji was just thankful that he'd been so distracted he didn't really hear much music all night, though he wasn't sure if his alternative had been any better for him. In the past hour and a half, he'd promised that he would take an active role in the events transpiring around Tenten and himself. Putting his dignity on the line was a lot riskier than suffering through a string of irritating pop songs.
This song was Tenten's second favorite; he actually saw her smile excitedly at the first few piano cords. Neji took some solace in the fact that her smile wasn't for Kankurou, but for the music. At least she had been concentrating on it all night, probably enjoying herself immensely. She used to always hum this song whenever they went to their training ground, and it had been the only song he never asked her to stop singing.
Temari looked utterly dismayed at the look of happy abandon on Jou's face as she played; her smile wider than ever and her green dress catching the light. Her movements were so free but deliberate, a sign of how deeply immersed she was in what she was playing and Neji wondered if even Temari ever felt that comfortable when she was doing what she did best.
The song came to an end, rather gently for starting out so bold. Jou rose from the piano and smiled broadly as she gestured to her fellow band mates all on their own instruments before taking a bow. Enthusiastic cheers filled the room as they had for every song, but this time it was different. It was the final song, and the standing ovation brought everyone to their feet. Jou was irritatingly excited, applauding her fellow musicians and laughing with her band mates as she scanned the audience.
"Doesn't it bother you that you spent an entire concert not paying the slightest bit of attention to the performers?" Temari asked him.
Jou had caught sight of Neji, rolling her eyes and making a sour face at him.
Temari shrugged, applauding politely but not enthusiastically. Familiar with their dreadful music, Neji knew they were playing for a more conservative audience and therefore any music of theirs she might have enjoyed was not in the program. Not that it mattered to him, as each song had been equally excruciating as the next.
Spotting Tenten in the audience, Jou beamed and gave a rather large, blatantly unprofessional but woefully Rock Lee-like wave.
Everyone around her turned to stare, causing the normally easy-going Tenten to actually blush. Looking around sheepishly, she was smiling to cover up her embarrassment until she met Neji's eyes. Not filled with the dazzled awe and curiosity of everyone else's, they were just like they always were.
Neji wondered if that was, perhaps, why her smile disappeared.
Tenten felt all the color drain out of her face as she stared into the cold, snow-colored eyes of Neji. Similar to its comparison, she felt the warmth being leeched out, replaced by something she couldn't quite place. Every time she saw him her stomach did a little flip, but this was different.
Why is Neji here? Tenten wondered. Is Kankurou going to be mad? Is Neji spying on me? No…why would he? He doesn't care enough to pry into my life, so why's he even here? Why's he with Temari? Damn it, this is all Shikamaru's fault! Of all the people, why does he have to be the one meddling in our relationship?
"Are you okay?" Kankurou asked her carefully. He had seen Neji a moment ago; he suspected that Tenten had picked up on his presence at least on the subconscious level, for she'd been agitated since the concert began. Despite the Green Dragons being her favorite group, she still hadn't been able to fully relax, and upon seeing Neji knew exactly why.
"I'm fine, it's just I wasn't expecting to see them, that's all," Tenten replied, hoping she sounded as reassured as she could.
"I'll bet Shikamaru is responsible for this," Kankurou said, his voice suspiciously neutral. Despite Sand and Leaf's closeness over the past few years, he never got friendly with the skinny ninja from Konoha. Though he never disapproved of him, he and Shikamaru were never close; everyone in his family had issues trusting other people, and Shikamaru never went out of his way to make friends.
"I'll bet he is too," Tenten muttered, looking uncharacteristically angry. Though she could swing back and forth between moods like the next person, she was rarely infuriated. It wasn't pretty, and Kankurou could feel the strong urge to move away.
"Shikamaru, you have a lot of explaining to do," Tenten murmured, almost inaudibly. Though she and Neji hadn't totally alienated themselves from each other, things between them fell between the adjectives uncomfortable and agonizing. If Shikamaru had been there, she wasn't sure if she'd be able to stifle the urge to run onstage, grab a violin, and smash it over his spiky head.
"Well, they're over there and we're over here, so we'll make them come to us," Kankurou reasoned. "The crowd's going to take some time to disperse, so don't worry about it until then. Look, I know how you still feel about Neji, and I bet my sister is here on some official business."
Well, in all fairness, for the amount of time I spend with Shikamaru, it wouldn't be that outrageous if in a jealous fit she threw herself at Neji, seeing as how Kankurou's her brother, Tenten reasoned. I mean, Shikamaru and I do live together, albeit platonically, but she handles it a lot better than I would if she and Neji decided to shack up…
"Thanks, Kankurou," Tenten told him gratefully.
"Thanks for what?" he asked, puzzled.
"For such wonderful evening," Tenten told him truthfully.
"It's going to be our last like this, isn't it," he murmured, more a statement than a question. His arm was still around her, but neither of them minded. It was more a comfort to them both than anything.
"I'm sorry, but everything's too painful," Tenten said. "I can't handle being formally attached to anyone right now, not even him. I think about him all the time, but before we do anything we need to reacquaint ourselves. It may not be that either of us has really changed, but I feel like I don't know him anymore. It happened so slowly I guess I didn't notice."
Tenten let out a shaky breath then looked up at him. "I'm sorry, Kankurou," Tenten told him quietly. "It's all my fault. You're still very important to me; that won't change."
"As long as I can practice my waltz with you," Kankurou told her gamely, gracefully hiding the pain he felt.
"As long as you don't mind my stepping on your feet," Tenten murmured weakly.
Not wanting her to start crying (especially with Neji on the way over), Kankurou kissed her forehead. "You know, for as screwed up as this whole thing is, we did okay."
Tenten nodded. "We lasted longer than we both thought."
"That's true," he admitted.
"And even though we think we feel good now, we really don't," Tenten said. "Tomorrow we'll both be feeling awful, I can just tell."
"Yes, well, that usually happens when two people break up," Kankurou said tightly, his eyes following the approach of Neji and Temari. Temari was tough to fool; he knew he had to act very carefully lest she find out right away. An easier feat for him than, say, Tenten, but still not easy outright.
"Hey, did you two enjoy the concert?" Tenten asked them politely, gratefully squeezing Kankurou's hand a bit tighter than she realized.
"Not really, since I think songs are pretty boring without lyrics," Temari said offhandedly, ignoring the indignant stares of those around her.
"How about you, Neji?" Tenten asked with a small smile on her lips. "I know how much you like Jou."
"I'd be quite content if she fell off the face of the earth," Neji replied easily. "Did the two of you enjoy your time together?"
Kankurou and Tenten's eyes met.
"Um, yes, well, it was exactly what we needed, some time alone," Tenten said.
"I hope we weren't disruptive, then," Temari said, watching her brother carefully.
"Not at all," Kankurou told them genially. "I just wasn't expecting to see you here. Either of you."
"Shikamaru's idea of a joke, I guess," Tenten said, laughing weakly.
"You're mad at him, aren't you?" Neji guessed.
"Yes I am," Tenten said through clenched teeth. "That just means I can dump a bunch of itching powder in his bed."
"That's a little childish, isn't it?" Temari asked delicately.
"If he can't take a little joke, then he shouldn't go messing in other peoples' business," Tenten said serenely. "Anyway, I have to go congratulate Jou on an excellent show. It was her first symphonic concert, after all. Excuse me."
"Ah yes, well, I'd best be heading home," Kankurou said quickly, nodding politely to Neji and his sister. "I trust you two can handle yourselves. Goodnight."
Temari and Neji stood there, wondering how in ten seconds both of their companions had successfully managed to ditch them.
"Well, something went on between them, I can tell you that," Temari said after a moment.
"Hn," Neji's answer was completely noncommittal.
"Fine, act like you don't care again, we all know how far that gets you," Temari snapped archly.
"I'm leaving," Neji told her wearily, not caring how rude he was. Justification came in the form of her harassing him all night, so he didn't feel compelled to accompany her home.
"Whatever," Temari grumbled. "I don't think one of us really had a good night."
"Shikamaru did, I bet," Neji remarked. He nodded to her briefly. Then Temari suddenly found that she was all alone.
What the hell is wrong with these people? Temari groaned inwardly. She noted dourly that their target was still asleep, snores as loud as ever. Tenten was off giggling with Jou, Neji was going home, and Kankurou was god-knows-where.
I'm going to hang Shikamaru for sending us here after a bogus target, Temari grumbled to herself. And I don't know what he was trying to accomplish tonight. I think he just managed to make us all pissed off at him. That sounds too troublesome for him…
Temari looked over at where Tenten and Jou were embracing. She felt a twinge of envy over something she rarely gave much thought. She didn't have any female friends that she could speak of. Sakura and Ino had each other, as well as Hinata and Tenten and even Jou, she supposed, though she doubted whether she was close with the younger girls. Her family was all she really had, and they constantly proved to be either hit or miss.
Temari decided to head home, feeling something like abandonment at having everyone run out, leaving her alone. Every time her foot hit the ground, it corresponded with a rhythm the concert had carefully tucked away in the back of her mind. She still didn't really like it and felt that Jou was probably a big pushover, but decided that she could wait another day to test it out, her feet skipping in time to the beat inside her head.