Author's Note: AU NejiTen is really fun to write. This is a pretty laid-back piece celebrating the summer, and I hope everyone will enjoy it.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction.
To Workaholics Everywhere
The first time he sees her, he sits discontentedly in a deck chair, wishing he were anywhere but on an all-expenses-paid cruise. More specifically, he really wants to be back in New York City with his work-issued laptop, grinding away at documents and client messages. As it was, Neji Hyuuga had been practically forced into taking this weeklong cruise in the Caribbean because his boss (the irritatingly younger Shikamaru Nara) had finally gone through his transcript and found that in six years of employment, he had not once taken a vacation. The cruise, he'd been told, was given to him for his health.
So here he was, drinking an iced coffee, probably getting sunburned, and supposedly not having a heart attack.
When a woman in pale khaki shorts and a sleeveless red blouse stands at the rail of the deck directly in front of him, effectively cutting off his few of the sparkling sea, he sits up. Though his world is shaded by a pair of designer sunglasses, he can see that her hair is dark brown, her skin evenly-tanned. She is well-fed, which is more than he can say for the two or three women he has seen in the last few years, but not overweight. Rather, he notices that her limbs are impeccably toned...which leads him to taking note of how long her legs are.
Those legs have his prolonged attention, and a soft voice is carried to his ears on the ocean breeze. "Excuse me?"
She has turned around, and Neji pulls off his sunglasses, fighting back embarrassment. Her eyes are also brown and show that she is at least partly Chinese. "Sorry?"
"I asked if I was in your way," she says. Neatly-shaped eyebrows arch at his slow uptake.
"No." The syllable comes out too sharply. Astonished at the sudden ripple in his usually equable exterior, Neji promptly stands from his chair. "Actually, I was just leaving." Black hair whips in the wind as he strides away from her without another word.
The brown-eyed woman watches Neji go, a thoughtful look on her face.
Neji has never understood why dinners on cruise lines are always so formal, but he feels more comfortable in tradition – especially if that tradition dictates him to wear a tie. He's used to ties, though they remind him of working, which is something he is regrettably not doing at the moment.
He should have taken Nara's advice and brought someone with him, even the most mindless bimbo. Neji hates dining alone. But he places an order and instructs the waiter to keep an eye on his glass of wine should it need refilling. His tendency to indulge at fine restaurants isn't a vice he's particularly proud of, but then again, who was around the call him on the weakness?
He twists in his chair to find the source of the one vocalizing his name, slightly impressed that it was pronounced correctly. His pallid eyes fall upon the woman from before, standing an appropriate length away. Her glossed pink lips are smiling, and it reaches her eyes. It has been a while since Neji has seen a fully genuine smile.
He takes a moment to observe her evening dress. She has piled her dark hair atop of her head in an intricate twist, though a few tendrils hang near her eyes. An ankle-length dress of pure white gives shape to her slender frame, two pale, sheer scarves crossing over her chest to fly in the air behind her as the night wind made its way into the dining room. Shimmering pearls drop from her ears, but he finds that her fingers are bare of any rings.
He feels more secure knowing he wouldn't be upsetting any husbands by allowing this stranger to speak to him. "Can I help you?"
"I admit I'm intruding," she replies, a hint of the embarrassment he had felt earlier now infusing her eyes. "But to be frank, I'm very bored. I'm here by myself and noticed you were too, and when I remembered you from before, I asked my waiter to find out your name."
Neji lets her ramble while he takes a sip from his chardonnay. Swallowing, he merely prompts her. "And?"
"Would you like to dance?"
The question slides out of her with liquid ease, and the workaholic wonders if she is used to taking initiative or if she is simply comfortable with her own attractiveness – which, Neji is pressed to admit, she has in abundance. Flicking a glance at the adjacent dance floor, he watches a handful of couples, most of them old, as they whirl around and around, jewelry and wristwatches flashing in the dim light of an overhead chandelier.
"I'm not much of a dancer," he tells her honestly, his hand inching toward the stem of his wineglass again.
Her fingers fall on his sleeve before he can touch it, and he sees the way the gold of her skin stands out against the black of his suit. "Just think of it as killing time while your dinner's being made."
Neji rises with far more complacency than he is normally known to show, and the woman's hand falls without awkwardness into his. The band starts something moderate and jazzy, and a young man takes up a microphone to croon out a song about a summer wind blowing in from across the sea.
Ballroom dance lessons he'd taken for easy credit in college slowly filter from his head to his feet again as the woman moves with her hand on his shoulder, her skirt swirling around her legs. He leads tensely at first but with more laxness as the song continues, eventually finding the daring to twirl her under his arm a couple of times, her pleasantly surprised laugh harmonizing with the tune.
The song ends on an energetic downbeat, and the woman grins. Neji keeps a hand on her waist while they catch their breath. Hardly thinking, he ventures, "Would you be interested in eating with me?" And then, of course, dozens of concerns fly into his mind, reminding him exactly why he doesn't do this sort of thing: what if she's seeing someone, what if they have nothing to converse about, what if she's not even into men…
She shoots him a look that proves she had not expected such an invitation. Regarding him, she takes the time to debate before she begins to nod, a clip in her hair he suspects hosts diamonds shooting a dazzling reflection of light. "I would," she smiles, and accepts his gentlemanly offered arm back to the table.
His prediction of there being little talk comes true, but she does not seem daunted by the wordlessness. Instead, she smiles at the band as they play and enjoys her glass of rosé, speaking only to make a few offhand comments on the taste of her meal or the display of his. Neji is amused at her avid interest in the food but keeps it to himself.
Before the evening is through, they have shared five more dances, and Neji has had only one and a half glasses of wine but finds himself in a very good mood regardless.
It is only when she announces she will turn in for the night that Hyuuga realizes he doesn't know what to call her.
"I didn't have the chance to bribe the waiter for your name," he says casually as they walk onto the deck, and she laughs, giving him an inflated feeling.
"Tenten." He waits for a last name but one doesn't come. She hastens on. "Sorry, it's just…I'd rather not—"
"It's all right," he assures her. Wondering if his tolerance for alcohol is lowering, he goes on uncharacteristically, "In that case, call me Neji."
Her smile is bright. "Thank you for the evening, Neji. I hope you have a good time for the rest of the trip." She doesn't give him time to form a return pleasantry before she turns and sweeps away, the moonlight turning her dress to silver as the scarves flutter behind her.
She isn't at dinner the next night, nor the night after that. Neji begins to get discouraged, thinking she stayed behind on the tourist island the cruise ship had ported at the previous day. He wonders why he is feeling cross that a woman he knows only the name of is bothering him with her absence. Then he remembers he has read three books in the past two days, gone swimming enough times to get a light tan and dry out his hair, watched he doesn't know how many movies…and still he has been blanketed by the worst possible feeling of boredom, something that began the minute he had boarded this cruise ship and had only been broken when in Tenten's company.
He wakes early the third morning and watches the sunrise. The expanse of the ocean is something he isn't used to. He can hardly fathom so much space coming from New York City. He recognizes things when they are cramped, close together. Widespread is an unfamiliar term.
Neji goes in to a small dining area with a breakfast buffet, and Tenten simply is there, speaking in hushed tones with a uniformed employee of the cruise line. There is no deep recognition between them, only polite asking and answering of questions. Even so, he is unable to tear his eyes from her until the employee goes away and Tenten turns to see him loitering in the doorway.
"Neji." She says his name by way of greeting and approaches, dressed far more casually than he had last seen her, wearing only a tank top and a long, thin skirt with flip flops on her feet. The two buns in which she wore her hair should have made her look childish, but Tenten was as mature and womanly to him as ever. "Good morning. You should try the lemon bake they have on the buffet, it's—"
"Where have you been?" There is accusation in his tone, but he has no idea why. He has no obligation to this woman or she to him.
She blinks as she recovers from the interruption, taken aback by the sudden rudeness. "Around. Why, where have you been?"
He tells himself to calm down, forces his brow to smooth. It wouldn't do for him to come off as some kind of psycho to the only person he has so far been able to stand on this boat. "On a hunt for coffee," he says, keeping his tone as – not pleasant, maybe, but unstressed – as possible. "The lemon bake, you said?"
They are together all day, and he isn't sure how it happens. Tenten doesn't leave, and he doesn't ask her to. They talk now, however, about the news on TV, the service on the cruise, even the uselessness of umbrellas in tropical drinks. They don't discuss each other until the last rays of sunset slip below the miles of green-blue sea around them.
With him at the rail on the highest deck, Tenten holds a mug of steaming, flavored tea between her hands to ward off the invading chill of evening, and Neji stands a couple of feet away with his hands in the pockets of his lightweight jacket. They had skipped the formal dinner and opted for hot dogs from a counter service. Both of them watch as the night unfolds above, moon and stars brightening with each passing minute.
"You know," Tenten says (and by now they have come up with a system of letting her be the conversation starter), "you can't see stars like this where I'm from. Too many lights."
"Really." He doesn't sound interested, perhaps, but his eyes are on her far more often than the sky. "Where do you live?"
"New York City. What?" she demands when his eyes widen.
He asks the question that, in his amusement with her, he had forgotten. "What's your last name?"
"Why is that…"
Apparently she is more at ease with him than she had been two nights ago, because this time she tells him. "Tsoi. My name is Tenten Tsoi."
He racks his brain, the name sending a message of recognition to his mind, but he doesn't come up with anything. "What do you do?"
"I'm a chef," she shrugs, taking a sip of her tea.
"Tenten…" It hits. "Tsoi. Tsoi's. You have that restaurant on the Broadway strip!" he exclaims, part of him elated to know who the hell she is. "I remember reading a review of your place." And that would explain why she was so keenly interested in the food on the cruise.
She holds up her hands jokingly. "Caught. Then what about you, Neji Hyuuga?"
What about him, he thought, remembering how many times his kind-of-friend Lee had declared him a perfect mess. "I'm a draftsman for Nara and Son."
"The architect company!" There is wonder in her voice. "Of course I know them. That's hilarious. You—"
"Did your building," he says, his voice merging with hers as they remember together. She laughs, he relaxes. Neji feels there is something peculiar going on.
Comfortably, they fall back into silence. Neji buys a longneck bottle of beer from a passing salesman and turns to her, asking something for once. "So why are you on this cruise? Doesn't your restaurant need seeing to?"
"That's precisely why I'm on this cruise," she reveals, her smile taking on a hint of embarrassment now. "My manager says I'm at the store too much, and my staff bought me this trip. But I can't help it. I love cooking. I'm very good with kitchen knives. I've been talking to the people here, and I might use a few recipes from this ship…what?" she demands when she catches him smirking. "I'm talking too much, aren't I?"
"No," he says and means it. "It's nothing." But her stare prods him to speak. "Well, my superior, the 'son' of Nara and Son, did the same thing. This cruise is supposed to be keeping me from dying a young death."
Tenten grins, holds up her tea. "To workaholics everywhere," she toasts. For a moment, he is completely distracted by the sheen of her lips in the moonlight. Neji feels the sides of his mouth quirk up as he lifts his arm, his bottle clinking against her mug.
The next day it is her turn to find him. Neji is sitting at a small table on the top tier of the ship. He likes it here because it's quieter than everywhere else, sectioned off to only the highest-paying travelers. He has a suite there, but he prefers the natural light outside, and Tenten comes across him at sunset while he is sketching.
Apparently she had, like him, slept in most of the day – their endless conversations from the day before had kept them both up for nearly twenty-four hours. The difference is that Neji has bothered to dress, while Tenten's appears to be wearing only a thin, flower-printed kimono. Her hair, still damp from a recent shower, hangs in thick waves over the silk. She seems perfectly comfortable, however, while he feels about fifty degrees warmer, and it is not due to the sun.
It does not help that he is at work on a sketch, and he prefers to not be monitored while drawing. Tenten's curiosity comes through with a smile. She taps his shoulder before leaning over it.
"What kind of building is it?" she asks while her amber eyes rove the many lines and smudges that blossomed from his pencil.
Neji decides resisting her interest would be futile and replies, "I was thinking a museum or a library. Something studious." Everything in the sketch is organized, easy to navigate.
"Oh yes," she agrees, clearly amused. "Very studious." Her smile falls flat when her eye examines his hands more closely. "Where'd all these come from?" Tenten takes his free hand in hers, her thumb – calloused from kitchen knives – running over a series of short, pale scars.
He pulls away as quickly as she had drawn him in. "Construction work. It was hard to break into design work at the time I graduated. Actual building was the closest I could get." He relays the information clinically, making it clear that he is not proud of it but not ashamed of it either; the facts are the facts, but Neji isn't one to linger over them.
"Gotcha." It's case closed. "Have you been here all day?"
"I ate, if that's what you mean." He eyes her kimono again and begins wondering if she had anything on under there. But he stands, ready to give his legs and drawing hand a stretch. "It's almost dinnertime though. Were you planning on going formal tonight?"
"Nope." She is grinning. Neji doesn't know what, but he doesn't dislike it. "The ship's been rockier today, haven't you noticed? That would make dancing a bit hard."
He recalls his papers fluttering wildly with a few forceful careens of the ship and nods. "True."
"But room service here isn't bad. I was going to watch a movie, maybe, if you wanted to—"
As though their talk had summoned it, a particularly strong wave rose and tossed the cruise ship at an angle. Tenten was thrown back mid-sentence and flung against the rail. Neji, in turn, was lurched forward and flung against Tenten. His hands gripped the railing on either side of her body to keep from crushing her with his weight.
"Sorry," he began before he saw the look in her eyes. "I was careless. I should have…" He trails off when he feels her arm rise to settle comfortably around his neck.
"There," Tenten says simply. "That's better."
Like the previous evening, Neji's attention is thoroughly grabbed by her mouth, which looks more and more inviting with each passing moment. And when he ducks his head to accept the invitation, Tenten doesn't resist and he waits a few seconds before asking himself what the hell he's doing.
She returns the kiss, however, and the question flees from his mind. His hand dives into her hair, and he combs his fingers through it, pulling her ever closer.
In the end, it is Neji who takes her hand and guides her into his suite, not bothering to turn on any lights as the door shuts behind them.
Tenten spends the rest of the cruise staying in Neji's room, only going back to hers to get clothes and toiletries. Shockingly, she leaves the notes for her recipes behind. Neji doesn't touch his drawing paper for even a second.
They discover things about each other. Tenten finds she loves the way Neji looks right after a shower and even catches him humming a couple of times. Neji has the realization that she smells of vanilla all the time, and that her way of twining her legs around his make him feel absolutely boneless.
"We dock tomorrow," Tenten whispers in his ear when he is on the verge of falling asleep. He makes a noncommittal murmur until she runs her nails over his bare chest, and he comes to full attention.
"I know," he says softly. "I have to be at work the day after. Monday."
She gives a small sigh. "Me too." They lay in the dark, musing in silence for several minutes. "You'll come to my restaurant, won't you? I'll cook you anything you want."
He nods. "And if you need anything repaired at your building, just call. I'll give you a list of companies."
"Does this mean I get your phone number?" she teases. The smile that crosses his face can't be seen by Tenten. But she can hear his words.
"I'd like to keep seeing you."
She flips on her back again, not surprised when he rises over her to brush a row of knuckles down her cheek. "It sounds plausible. A reason to get out of the kitchen."
"Away from the drafting table," he agrees, kissing her soundly in the dark.
"Is your boss going to like that?"
"Not until I make partner."
She grins. "I just bet you will too. You're so serious, Neji."
That he loves hearing her say his name is just one more wish that they could stay on this cruise, that they could keep on sailing. But Neji knows that not everything can last, yet still finds the hope that this will.
Tenten settles against him, keeping her hand on his. "Make you sure tell me goodbye tomorrow," she murmurs, only half-awake now.
He doesn't reply, but when her breathing evens out, he presses his lips to her temple and mouths something there. Then he falls asleep himself, amused by the thought of Shikamaru's expression when he tells his boss he met a woman – a beautiful, amazing woman – on that cruise he didn't want.
Or maybe Neji will just tell him thank you.