Half

By: Sonnie

Sometimes Gaara lamented the fact that he was a ninja—after all, it meant having to spend his time either risking his life or bored out of his mind, the latter always taking place between missions. He knew he had a fairly nonexistent social life unless one of the others invited him along, but Tenten was feeling dejected and Naruto was away on a mission. Now, with other sources exhausted, Gaara was inevitably left with Lee. Again.

Well, I will be, if he ever decides to show up, Gaara thought grumpily. His eyes had been trained on the door for the past half hour, and so far no Lee. He'd watched various waitresses rushing back and forth, trying admirably to be cheerful despite several rude customers. He had to admire the fact they still attempted to be nice even in the face of bad tips, complaints, and screaming kids.

God, I fucking hate children, Gaara groaned inwardly as a baby's shrieks echoed throughout the establishment. He took his gaze from the door in the hopes his stare would scare the child so badly it would be struck speechless. If Lee doesn't get here soon—

"You're going to kill someone, aren't you?" a familiar voice asked.

"I wasn't expecting you," Gaara muttered. "You've been rather depressed lately."

"That's an understatement," Tenten said good-naturedly. "But that's no reason why I can't be out and about. I'm not an invalid."

"Whatever," Gaara muttered. "I was expecting Lee…not that I'm complaining."

"Lee had a last-minute mission, so I'm meeting you here instead," Tenten explained.

"And why are we in this beef pot restaurant again?" Gaara asked tiredly, weary of the bright lights, loud noise, and crowded space, having spent the last half hour waiting.

"Lee's uncle owns it," Tenten said. "Lee knows a waitress here and wants her to get home safely."

"His sister, perhaps?" Gaara asked.

"Damn it, I really did let that slip," Tenten froze. "Well, I guess that's a good reason not to ever drink too much."

Ninjas never spoke of their family; even amongst friends the subject rarely came up. Families were a weakness, a liability, if only because they were targets in a line of work that produced grudges and hatred. That one, simple occupational hazard put great deal of stress on relationships, familial or otherwise. The fact that Tenten had so easily revealed the information, even to an ally…

"Temari said his sister is a famous musician," Gaara said.

"She's the best singer in the world!" Tenten gushed, shame momentarily forgotten.

"Then why is she working in this—" Gaara paused, stopping himself before he used the descriptor dump, "place?" he finished. Far from actually being one, Gaara just found it hard to believe that the singer his sister told him about was working in a humble beef pot establishment. That she was making miserable wages and working a job that Gaara would openly admit was the only one worse than his own, was simply unthinkable.

"She used to work here as a waitress since she was ten," the kunoichi said, scanning the room for her. "She works here when she's not touring. She always likes to be doing something…even if it's this."

Considering her brother, that's not much of a stretch, Gaara thought wryly.

"I bet she's the best waitress ever," Gaara deadpanned, bracing himself for one of Lee's exuberant responses.

"Actually," Tenten lowered her voice, "she's really clumsy and forgetful. It's a really good thing she isn't a ninja."

"She's really that bad?" Gaara asked curiously. "How can she survive as a waitress?"

"She's nice," Tenten offered. "Just plain not meant to be a ninja. If you met her you'd just know."

"Well, since I'm about to…" Gaara muttered, trying to figure out which waitress could possibly be Lee's sister. He'd had his suspicions but hadn't considered it seriously until Tenten came in.

"You probably won't like her," Tenten said after an uncomfortable moment of silence. "She talks a lot." At Gaara's skeptical look, he nodded grimly. "Even more than Lee, especially around people she doesn't know…they make her nervous. And yes, you'd make her very, very nervous…so there would be a lot of talking."

Obviously I'm meant to suffer in this lifetime if I'm to spend time with someone who enjoys the capability of speech more than Rock Lee, Gaara thought miserably.

"Look, I said I'm sorry, okay?" a voice said hotly, drawing a large amount of stares.

"We've been waiting twenty minutes for someone to take our order!" a woman hissed, poking her finger at the waitress.

"I know you haven't been here more than ten," the waitress said, succeeding marvelously at regaining a measure of patience. "I sat you myself and even got you drinks. We're a little short-staffed tonight and every table is filled. I was just about to take your order when you got up and threw your drinks down. I apologized for the wait but you've been rude to me from the start!"

"I don't care how short-staffed you are or how busy," the customer shouted. "It's your job to wait on us. If you can't do that right, you shouldn't be a waitress! Why, my family and I should just leave! I hope you get fired for taking so long. We're the important ones, here, not you."

"Hey, that's really disrespectful," Tenten snapped, standing up and walking over the angry woman. "She can only do so much! She was busy—that's not her fault! She apologized and she just said she was on her way over."

"I don't want some ninja lecturing me about manners," the woman huffed. "Women shouldn't even be ninjas. They have a duty to bear children, first and foremost."

"Sorry for having a higher calling than being a walking pair of ovaries," Tenten deadpanned. "I hate to break it to you, but in many ways, my life makes your life possible. I'm not in the best of moods right now so unless you want to start something, I suggest you leave like you were threatening to."

The woman flushed an angry red. For a moment, no one moved. Everyone in the restaurant was silent, waiting to see what happened. Growling in frustration, the woman ushered her family away from the table and towards the door. She deliberately pushed past the waitress without a word. A second after she was gone, the talking resumed. A flurry of scandalized whispers followed the waitress as she headed towards Tenten.

"Thanks, Tenten-san," the waitress grinned. "I am so glad she left. Ninety-nine percent of the customers are great, but there's that one percent…Anyway, you're looking for Jou, right? She's somewhere…nights like this we don't get much time to chat. I think she's working a section in the other side of the restaurant."

"Thanks, Mika," Tenten told her. "Hope the rest of the night gets better."

"Yeah, well," Mika grumbled, eying her customers warily. "It's just one of those days. Anyway, Jou-chan's shift should be ending right about now."

Tenten nodded. Keenly aware of Gaara's agitation, she headed over towards the other side of the restaurant. Smiling at a waitress who just emerged from the restroom holding an apron, she turned to face Gaara when she sensed him come to a standstill. Large, emerald-colored eyes wider than usual, Tenten recognized the very un-Gaara-like emotion of surprise.

"Hey, Gaara…what's up?" Tenten asked him casually, slightly concerned. The slight change to his expression vanished and he was back to looking as stoic as ever.

"We've already met," Gaara said simply. "No introductions are required. If there's nothing else, we should get going. Your shift ended over ten minutes ago. You'll be late."

"I'm just going home," Jou muttered, her expression something Tenten couldn't decipher. There was agitation, wariness, and…relief?

"Where'd you two meet?" Tenten asked after the three of them left the restaurant. Mostly to break up the strained silence, but also to satisfy her curiosity, she ventured another question. "Are you two okay?"

"Fine," they both said simultaneously, looking at each other for a second before they both averted their gazes.

"Geez, you two are acting like two preteens at a school dance," Tenten remarked with a smirk.

"I don't even know her," Gaara said roughly.

"But you just said that you two met," Tenten pointed out.

"We met, but we didn't speak," Jou spoke up for the first time. "It was a couple of weeks ago."

"Oh," Tenten nodded. "How come I never heard about this?"

"It happened that night you got blind drunk after escaping from the hospital," Gaara said curtly, effectively cutting off her insinuations. "Stop making more of it than it was."

"What was I making of it?" Tenten asked sharply, already not in a great mood. She'd just been teasing and was now starting to get pissed off.

"So, why wasn't Lee there tonight?" Jou asked, interrupting the exchange and effectively deflating some animosity.

"A new mission straight from Tsunade-sama," Tenten told her, ignoring Gaara.

"And he sent both of you?" Jou asked.

"Well, it was just supposed to be him, but he told me he wanted my help," Gaara answered. "I said yes to shut him up, and since he sent Tenten in his place…well, there you go."

"Oh," Jou murmured. "A mission straight from Hokage-sama, huh?"

"Hey, don't worry about Lee, okay?" Tenten said gamely. "He's the best at taijutsu there is, aside from Gai-sensei. He'd tell you not to worry if he were here."

"I know," Jou said, giving a weak smile. "It's different when I'm touring…I mean, I'm away and he never tells me about any of the bad missions I know he has to be doing. He's always writing and it makes me feel better, but when I'm back…I don't know; it's just…scarier. I guess because I'm home and where I belong, and when he's off somewhere it's just a reminder of what he's doing."

"You're right, Tenten," Gaara said, finding a brief pause in Jou's speech. "She talks a lot."

"Yeah, I do that a lot when I'm nervous," Jou said shyly, giggling. "And laugh…oh god, I can't help it. I just get like this sometimes."

"Why are you nervous?" Gaara asked her pointedly.

Jou laughed tremulously again. "You intimidate me," she admitted, before her cheeks turned red and she skipped a bit to catch up to Tenten so she wouldn't have to look at him. Unfortunately, she felt his eyes on her, perturbed and puzzled. Not finding any solace with her friend, Jou dropped back between the two of them as she had been.

"Wow, this is awkward," she said rather cheerily, toying with the strings of the aprons. "But it's okay…we don't need to talk. In fact, let's not. Sometimes not talking really is the best thing. Silence is golden, that's what—"

"Why don't you listen to your own advice and shut up?" Gaara asked her tiredly.

"Hey, that's not very nice," Jou admonished.

"I'm not much in the habit of saying polite things," Gaara remarked drolly.

"Ugh, why did I—" Jou snapped before quickly stopping, mouth quickly covered by one of her tiny hands. Gaara narrowed his eyes and gave her an icy glare.

"Huh?" Tenten actually stopped in the middle of the street, turning around.

Jou turned pale before her cheeks started to swiftly flush red. Squeaking with embarrassment, she skipped ahead of the group, looking rather childish. Her impossibly long ponytail swished behind her, the ends passing like a pendulum by her hips with every rapid step.

"Hey, don't get too far ahead," Tenten called out, after giving Gaara an odd look. "Lee would go ballistic if something happened to you."

"I'm nineteen, Tenten, going on twenty," Jou said in a singsong voice. "Lee's the one you need to watch out for."

"In all the time I've spent around Lee, he's really a lot more capable than people give him credit for, albeit, that isn't very much," Gaara said slowly, ignoring Tenten's tiny smile and Jou's indignant glare.

"Ugh, you're infuriating!" Jou shrieked, turning on her heel and stomping off.

"She and her brother are very emotional people," Tenten told him. "I know they're fun to provoke, and all, but still…you probably shouldn't. It's too easy."

"Hnn," Gaara gave a minimal acknowledgment, a ghost of a smile appearing when Jou tripped on the sidewalk.

"She's adorable sometimes," Tenten said fondly, smiling as Jou held her knee, limping slightly and letting forth a string of foul language. Pausing on the sidewalk outside Jou's house with the other ninja, she smiled. "Her and Lee both…like big, little kids."

"She's more like a little, little kid," Gaara said sarcastically, throwing a look towards the house.

"She's smaller than Sakura, except without the disgusting brute strength," Tenten said absently, watching Jou turn the key in the lock with no noticeable results. "She's not quite defenseless, though. When you invaded us, she, quite frankly, fucked up that poor Sound ninja that attacked her."

"Her?" Gaara asked, his voice disbelieving as he watched her practically fly inside the house as the door suddenly budged then flew wide open.

"Yeah," Tenten said absently, looking at Jou with concern as the girl climbed to her feet unsteadily. "Sound ninjas are trained with their sensitive hearing in mind. Naturally, they'd be very sensitive to sound…And well, Jou's got more volume than Naruto, when she wants to."

"I'm finding that hard to believe," Gaara said, wincing as just about every single thing Naruto ever said popped into his mind. "Naruto only speaks in the volumes of obnoxiously loud, excruciatingly loud, and 'I'm-going-to-fucking-sew-his-mouth-shut.' "

"Well…Jou's got a high C that can break glass," Tenten said. "I was dumb enough to ask for a demonstration, and my hearing hasn't been the same since, let's just say. It's actually really neat. Anyway, let's go inside for a drink."

"Um—" Gaara was about to protest; he wasn't terribly comfortable in social situations, especially with people he didn't know. Escorting this girl home had been more than he bargained for and Tenten wanted him to stay and share drinks?"

"Just one?" Tenten begged, grabbing his wrist and pulling him inside before he could object formally. Apparently his sand didn't find her to be much of a threat because it did not intervene, forcing him to submit to her rather urgent prodding.

Green hit him as soon as he crossed the threshold as if it were a tangible thing, not a color. Reminded rather unwillingly of Lee, Gaara wanted to close his eyes before remembering that they, too, were also green. Apparently he was destined to suffer because something that he had until then considered an abstract was now threatening to take over his senses.

Green carpet, green walls, green furniture, green paintings (this last one was perhaps the most alarming) made it impossible to escape the many references it made to Rock Lee. Gaara thanked his maker that Jou didn't have a bowl cut, but her hair was just as shiny and just as dark. He recalled she was wearing green when he first met her that night in the rain—a green parka and green rain boots. Now was no different.

"Sorry about the mess," Jou said, embarrassed, swooping past them and picking up all sorts of articles of clothing—jackets, shoes, scarves—and throwing them in a heap off to the side. "I thought Lee was going to be there so I didn't bother to clean up. He's used to it."

Gaara looked at the drink Jou presented him with after she returned from the kitchen momentarily. An appletini.

How…green, Gaara thought numbly, staring at the beverage with his equally brilliant-colored eyes.

Tenten eyed her appletini appreciatively with a grin. "So Jou, where's the piano?"

"I'm trying to soundproof my basement after the neighbors complained last month," Jou told her. "And even though the piano isn't loud, I decided to have Lee move it downstairs. It wasn't easy…We had to knock out the wall…"

"That should have been easy for Lee," Tenten said with a smile.

"About Lee…" Jou looked nervously at Gaara a moment before taking a deep breath. "I want to throw him a surprise party for his birthday next month. I have a venue and basically everything figured out as far as food and decorations, but I need your help seeing if certain people can come. Neji won't come if I ask him; he'd specifically stay away if I did. Lee's feelings would be hurt if he didn't show up, and I was thinking maybe you could…uh, you know…"

"Neji and I aren't really on stable terms right now," Tenten answered honestly, not caring that Gaara heard because he already knew. "I really don't know how well he'd listen to me."

Jou smiled sympathetically. "That's okay, then," she said. "I'll ask him. I'll just have to use my ultimate convincing abilities!"

Gaara shuddered as Jou gave what he could only assume was the female version of the Nice Guy Pose® by popping her foot, extending her arm with a thumbs up, and flashing a wide grin and a wink. He noticed the ridiculous action had actually made Tenten laugh.

"That's what I call family resemblance," Tenten said brightly, giggling when Jou gave her an enthusiastic salute.

"I will get Hyuuga Neji to attend this party if I have to slip him a sleeping potion and drag all one hundred eighty pounds of muscle through the streets of Konoha. He will be there at the party, I swear!"

Jou immediately turned her back and started mentally plotting, leaving Gaara the perfect opportunity to glare at Tenten. This girl was nuts. She turned to Gaara hesitantly.

"You'll come to, right?"

"Yes," Tenten answered for him.

"No."

"Yes."

"No."

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and that's final," Tenten said quickly. "He's coming.

"Oh good, Lee's going to be so happy!" Jou squealed, returning to the kitchen.

"I hate you," Gaara told Tenten flatly after staring pointedly at where Jou disappeared around the corner.

Tenten smiled sweetly. "Fair enough."

"She's crazy."

"I know."

"You're crazy."

"I know."

"You're dead if you think I'll actually go."

"You can kill me after the party."

"How about I kill you now?"

"There's a witness."

"Who's even crazier than you—who'd believe her?"

"Wouldn't you just kill her too?"

"…I might get green all over me."

"Uh huh."

"Um, what are you guys talking about?" Jou asked, coming back, puzzled. She held green envelopes in her hand.

"Killing you," Gaara replied nonchalantly.

"Oh."

"He's kidding," Tenten reassured her.

"I am?" Gaara asked in disbelief.

"Shut up," Tenten commanded.

"Whatever," Gaara shrugged.

"I'm confused," Jou confessed.

"Big surprise," Gaara muttered.

"That wasn't nice," Jou accused.

"I'm so hurt," Gaara deadpanned.

Jou pouted silently.

"You guys really do know each other," Tenten said, looking back and forth between the two of them. She leaned back, looking at each of them expectantly. "It must have been pretty awkward too."

Scowling at the large grin this realization brought to the kunoichi's face, Gaara sighed.

"I don't want to talk about it." Gaara said quickly, looking over at Jou as if the responsibility to relay the whole story now lay on her.

"Hey!" Jou snapped, flustered. "You're just as involved as I was."

Gaara switched tactics. "You kissed me."

Tenten's eyebrows shot up. "I see."

"See what?" Jou squeaked. "There's nothing there to see!"

"Obviously, there was," Tenten contradicted.

"It wasn't even on the lips!"

"Why'd you do it at all?" Tenten asked.

"Are you insinuating no one should kiss me?" Gaara asked her archly, the tone lacking too much malice. He really wasn't offended in the slightest.

"Only that most normal people wouldn't," Tenten answered.

"Are you saying I'm weird?" Jou asked.

"Are you saying that you didn't know you are?" Gaara grumbled.

"I'm weird?" Jou countered. "It was a kiss on the forehead!"

"It was out of nowhere."

"You'd just saved my life."

"I saved Neji's life and he's never kissed me."

"I'd pay money to see that," Tenten chuckled.

"Well, until Neji gets it together, he's as likely to kiss him as he is you," Jou told her.

"At least I want to kiss someone more normal than Gaara," Tenten bit out.

"Are you implying I'm not normal?"

"She's a little past implications," Jou snapped.

"And you call me impolite?"

"Yes!"

"Hypocrite."

"Creep."

"You kissed me."

"An admitted mistake."

"So now you regret it?"

"What if I do?"

"What if I regret saving you?"

"How can you tell somebody that? You're a jerk"

"You're a bitch, and an obviously useless one if you can't even save yourself from a natural occurrence such as a tree falling."

Jou blanched, standing up and stomping off into the kitchen. Silence. Both wondered what she was doing; she obviously wasn't breaking things or crying or screaming. Tenten gave Gaara a look of pure fury, which he easily ignored. A moment later, Jou came back and sat primly down on the couch across from Tenten and Gaara. Breaking into a big smile, she successfully startled both ninjas.

"So, who wants another appletini?"

Tenten's mouth fell open. Gaara's eyes widened marginally. This girl was all sorts of weird—the definitive female version of Lee.

"Uh, we're good," Tenten said, deliberately avoiding to coffee table where their first two drinks lay untouched. "We should probably get going."

"It is getting late," Jou conceded. "Anyway, this is where I'm having the party…can you hand out the invitations?"

"Sure," Tenten said, accepting the little green envelopes Jou gave her.

"Thanks a lot," Jou said. Tenten and Gaara rose to leave, and Jou got the door for them. "Goodnight!" she called after them.

"Goodnight!" Tenten called back, glancing over her shoulder and waving.

Gaara remained silent until the reached the end of the block.

"I think that was the most uncomfortable night I've ever experienced," he said finally. "And that's saying something."

"She's the female version of Lee, only she worries all the time," Tenten said after a moment. "I mean, if we want to protect someone, it's within our power to do it. It's not within hers and she has a difficult time with that. And since Neji's the type of person who believes you should only voice your opinions if you're strong enough to stand up for them, the two really don't get along. That, and on the first day of Ninja academy he made fun of Lee and she punched him in the face. She gave him a black eye."

Gaara felt the uncommon urge to laugh, staved off when he realized that Neji would have struck back. "What did he do after that?"

"He knocked out three of her teeth," Tenten shrugged. "And he broke her nose. She was really lucky a good med nin was working that day or it probably would have healed crooked. Lee was going to go after him but she didn't want him hurt too."

"Well, in all fairness, going after Neji is pretty much asking for defeat," Gaara admitted.

"And she did say no one's ever above getting their ass kicked," Tenten said, a small smile on her lips. "God, Shikamaru would be appalled. He's so old-fashioned about men hitting girls. And now two girls that hit him are chasing after him like crazy."

"I don't see the big appeal," Gaara muttered. "He's lazy, he's apathetic, and he's sorta ugly."

"He's got a nice ass," Tenten offered.

"Don't you start too," Gaara rolled his eyes. "Temari complains about him all the time. I ask her why he's worth it if all he does is make her mad, and she just gets angrier."

"Well, I live with Shikamaru and it's taught me that well, I can't live with Shikamaru," Tenten said, shrugging. "I mean, he's a good friend but he's not terribly exciting."

"And Neji is?" Gaara asked succinctly.

"Neji is…"

"Don't say 'Neji is Neji,' " Gaara warned. "Neji being Neji isn't justification for who he is. Please tell me you have actual reasons for caring about him so much."

Tenten set her jaw. "It's not really something I can describe," she admitted after awhile.

"Gee, someone's really direct at answering questions," Gaara muttered.

"God, why are you provoking everyone tonight?" Tenten demanded, turning on him.

"It's too easy," Gaara told her. "Besides, I recall being baited more than once by you this evening. If you want the whole story with me and that girl, it's really simple. There was a lightning storm. Jou was walking and I was walking and like nearly everyone else I've met here, she got scared and ran away. I was already pissed because I had to go drag your sorry ass out of a bar, and her running off just made me angry. I ran after her, saved her from a falling tree, and she kissed me on the forehead. She left, I left, the end."

"Wow," Tenten said after a moment.

"What?" Gaara wondered. "What's so impressive?"

"I've never heard you talk that much," Tenten replied tartly.

Gaara gave her a look and she cut the sarcasm, but she decided to push forward, albeit hesitantly..

"She actually wasn't there when you fought Lee during the exam…none of his family was," Tenten said softly. "His parents were on missions and Jou later admitted that she was too scared. You had quite a reputation and you still do; one of her friends had died in the exam the year before and she said she didn't want to see Lee harmed. She always hated that she was too weak to go and support him."

"Not everyone can be strong," Gaara muttered.

"She's got a lot of bravado and she'll stand up for him, but she can't bear to see him hurt," Tenten said. "She was a wreck after the match and only summoned the courage to visit him once."

"If she can't bear to see people in pain, why would she even attend the academy at all?" Gaara asked tiredly.

"She wanted to be with Lee, and she learned the hard way that you can't always follow the people you love," Tenten murmured. "From that first encounter with Neji, she said she knew that there would be people she couldn't protect him from."

"It's inevitable," Gaara said simply.

"But that doesn't mean she has to like it," Tenten sighed. "Jou stayed at the academy for one year, and after she left, she forgot nearly everything she learned in favor or pursuing music. The Sound ninja whose ears she injured returned the favor…he set off a sonic explosion that damaged her eardrums. She's only got fifty percent hearing in her left ear, and eighty five in her right. It interferes with her career but she's learned to cope just like Lee's learned to cope with his inability to perform any ninja spells."

"Lee is actually quite suited to be a ninja," Gaara said, his voice carefully neutral.

"Neji never really thought so until the exam," Tenten said.

"Neji is even better suited to be a ninja, though not much else."

"Well, I can't see him singing songs, that's for damned sure," Tenten said, smiling. "I just can't help but…I don't know, love him? And it's such a pain in the ass because I don't want to. There was a time when we got along perfectly…he understood me and I understood him and now if anything's going to happen we both have to do so much work. It's so—"

"Troublesome?" Gaara suggested.

"Yes, Shikamaru," Tenten groaned. "I don't know how we grew apart, but I don't know if we'll ever grow back together."

"Now you just sound like a pair of trees or something," Gaara muttered.

"At least you can chop a tree down if it's being a pain in the ass," Tenten growled. "Neji's almost indestructible."

"He's a ninja," Gaara said simply.

"Yeah, but didn't you ever wonder if by being a ninja, we've all missed out?" Tenten asked him. "Before I attended the academy, I was just like every other girl. I wore flimsy pink sandals, put ribbons in my hair, and I even took—"

"…?" Gaara looked at her expectantly, waiting for her to finish. She shrugged off her slip, turning around abruptly. "What did you take?"

"You can't tell anyone," Tenten commanded, stressing the last word. "I don't care if you're strung by your ankles over a pot of boiling water, you're not to mention a word of this."

"Fine," Gaara said, wondering what in the hell was so incriminating.

Glancing around at the empty streets, she approached him cautiously and whispered it in his ear so fast that he didn't hear it as he recoiled from her closeness automatically.

"What?" Gaara asked.

"I'm not saying it again," Tenten said firmly, crossing her arm.

"I didn't hear you," Gaara explained. "A warning would have been nice."

"Alright," Tenten sighed, walking over to him more slowly. Taking a deep breath (that tickled Gaara's ear, much to his chagrin), she whispered again.

Gaara blinked, stepping back. He gave her an odd look, then continued walking on without her.

"Aren't you going to say anything?" Tenten asked, hurrying after him.

"There's not much you can say to that," Gaara told her abruptly. "You'd better hope that Shikamaru and my sister die before they even get wind of something like that."

"I know Lee knows," Tenten said. "I mean, Jou was there with me, and I'm sure she told her brother, but what if she told Neji? He could have found out or maybe she told him or somehow he heard it or—"

"Maybe it doesn't matter," Gaara told her. "Much." He smiled as he added that last bit, watching her squirm. He knew it wasn't healthy to enjoy the discomfort of others, but this was too good to pass up. And this was harmless, unlike the jabs he'd been indulging in earlier that evening.

"You tell anyone you'll be picking kunais out of your body for a week," Tenten warned.

Gaara brushed off her threat. "Somehow you're not frightening at all after that little piece of information."

"Jou's right, you are a jerk," Tenten said sullenly. "Jerk!"

Gaara looked at her as if she was crazy. "Whatever you say, swan princess," he snickered. He easily ducked her sandal and it went sailing over his head. He didn't miss the next one, which left a shoeprint on his back.

"Gotcha!" Tenten crowed victoriously. "The day is mine!"

"Are you sure you don't want the night instead, so you can dance it away?" Gaara muttered, brushing the dust from his coat.

"Fine," Tenten said stiffly, pulling on her first sandal. "I was going to be nice and walk you home; you know, protect you with my fierce ninja skills. But I see how you're going to be. You can walk home yourself, and I hope it rains and pours and there won't be any pretty girl for you to save."

Gaara blinked at her, once, twice. Without further ado, he turned and went on his way home.

"Gaara, I'm sorry, don't get mad," Tenten called after him, yanking on the second sandal as she stumbled after him. "I shouldn't have dragged you to Jou's house. I just didn't know you'd be so uncomfortable."

"You can make it up to me by formally getting me out of going to that party," Gaara said, his gravelly voice a touch brighter than normal.

"Or you could just avoid me until you remember that I'm really the only normal person you talk to," Tenten pointed out.

"I'll get by," Gaara told her blankly. "I did before."

"But now that you have me how can you willingly let me go?" Tenten asked dramatically, running after him with her arms outstretched.

"Hug me and die," Gaara told her seriously.

"I wasn't going to, for I don't as of yet have a death wish," she told him.

"Are you sure you didn't sneak one or two" (shudder) "appletinis tonight?" Gaara finished, not liking the name of the drink at all.

"No, no, I'm quite sober, just feeling a bit silly," Tenten reassured him. "Are you sure you didn't sneak in a few? I've never heard you talk so much!"

"Goodnight, Tenten," Gaara said tiredly, pausing at the fork where their paths split up.

"Goodnight, Gaara," Tenten said, a mischievous look on her face. "Here, I'll kiss you goodnight!"

Feigning her threat, Tenten ran after him, giggling like mad. She was careful not to actually touch him, but was reckless enough that he had to keep moving in order to avoid her arms.

"What's wrong with you?" Gaara wondered out loud. "You haven't acted like this since…well, before you and my brother got together."

Tenten's good mood was extinguished right before his eyes.

"That's because we're not together anymore," Tenten whispered. Sighing heavily, she sat rather abruptly on the ground. Feeling uncomfortable, Gaara succumbed to the urge to look less out of place and sat down next to her.

"Sorry," Gaara told her, not knowing what else to say. His voice was devoid of emotion as it often was, and he wasn't too keen on touching her but patted her once on the back.

"It was going to happen sooner or later," Tenten whispered, tears running down her cheeks. "I keep telling myself it was the right thing, and I know deep down it is. I hope he's having a better time with this than I am."

I hope he is too, Gaara noted mentally as he watched her sob uncontrollably.

"I don't think I've cried so much in my life before this year," Tenten admitted in a small voice. "I could've counted the times I cried on one hand, no lie. And now I seem to be crying all the time, and I don't want to…half the time I don't know why."

"I don't mean to be insensitive, but I'm not the best person to be discussing your feelings with," Gaara pointed out. "You're one of the only people that knows me fairly well but there are others that know you better than I do."

"Yeah, but I always feel better talking to you," Tenten confessed.

"But I don't say anything," Gaara said.

"Exactly," Tenten said, smiling through her tears. "Everyone always tells me what to do…as if I don't already know and don't have a clue. But they don't realize how hard it is to just do something. There aren't any easy ways to go about this and it never occurs to people that the 'easy' solution is actually quite difficult."

Gaara was once again quiet. For one, he didn't know what to say. But secondly, if it was his silence she valued, why not give it to her? He had nothing to offer in the way of advice, anyway. He was a good listener by default.

"Gaara?" Tenten asked timidly, her head still bent.

"Yes?"

"I'm sorry about giving you a hard time tonight, really," she told him. "I was trying to get you to relax. Jou's a lot like Lee, and I thought you could use another friend."

"Hn," Gaara grunted, not sure what to make of her last statement.

"Am I forgiven?" she asked meekly, presenting him with a cheesy grin, the origin off which he did not know.

"Yes," Gaara said stoically. "But only this once."

Tenten smiled. "And if you ever speak to her again, maybe be a little nicer."

"…A little, I suppose, wouldn't do any harm," Gaara conceded.

"Thanks, Gaara."

"It's nothing," Gaara said dismissively, hiding that he found a bit of pleasure in her contentment.

"Now," Tenten sighed, standing up and taking deep breaths. Blinking several times, she looked at him intently. "Can you tell I've been crying?"

Well…

"Not really," Gaara told her. "Just don't let Shikamaru look too close when you go home."

"That bad, huh?" Tenten said wryly.

"Well, if you want the truth," Gaara muttered. "You look—"

"—No, that's fine, I can make an accurate assumption based on what you've already given me," Tenten assured him.

"You probably don't want to look at a mirror tonight," Gaara added.

"I said I was fine," Tenten bit at him, ending with a smile.

"…Take care of yourself," Gaara told her after a moment. "I know you're not okay, but you will be."

Tenten nodded. "Yeah, in a while," she conceded. "See you later, Gaara. And you need to shop around for a gift for Lee! I already know what I'm going to get!"

At that bit of information, Tenten perked up immensely and threw a green envelope at him. Before he could retort she was already halfway down the street, making rapid progress to her apartment. Gaara was left at the corner with the invitation.

Holding the envelope by the top corner, he scrutinized it carefully. Opening it could wait…he just needed to wait until he got over the fact it was greener than Lee's jumpsuit. Carrying it an arms length away from him on his entire journey back to Naruto's place, Gaara thought that maybe he really was going to miss out if he didn't go.