Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or its characters.
:: Damn Good Friends ::
But you're so impossible to suggest
You like us just the way we are…
Needless to say, Neji hadn't slept that night. The situation was so dire; every minute was priceless.
Watching indifferently as shadows danced along the windowsill where he sat, he mulled over his acquaintances and selected the few pearls from the sea of women that Konoha provided. Then he singled out the few who he could have a decent conversation with without being bored to death, scared shitless, or ogled shamelessly. That tedious exercise left him with Haruno Sakura, Yamanaka Ino, and Tenten.
Sakura was mother-material–caring, strong and selfless. One could even consider her pretty. Her unusual pink hair and striking emerald eyes were her best features. The peculiar combination gave her an exotic air, and Neji conceded they wouldn't seem more beautiful on anyone else. But Sakura's affections were fixated on Uchiha Sasuke. As romantic and compelling as Neji could try to be, he didn't have enough time to have her fall out of love with Sasuke and in love with him.
Ino was another story… She was a classic beauty: golden hair, ocean blue eyes, and legs that went on for miles. Naturally cultured, her congenial nature was a thing of envy. Yamanka Ino was the type of girl that his family would want him to marry. A couple weeks of wooing would do the trick with the vain blonde. The problem was: she was already caught in a love triangle with Temari and Shikamaru. The last thing Neji wanted to do was get involved.
Now that left Tenten.
She didn't draw as much attention as the other two. Still, she had a certain ethereal loveliness that no other woman possessed. The type that made you stare regardless of how hard you tried to look away. He regarded her as one of his closest comrades; splitting them up sometimes required a surgical procedure. Even with her tomboyish personality, Neji could picture her as a mother. Her empathy and benevolence were expedient to any child's development.
Her devotion to her trade had also earned her a great deal of his respect. She was one of the few women who'd ever managed to terrify him. Tenten's uncanny accuracy taught him that her temper wasn't something to trifle with, despite her patience. With her, married life would always be meaningful and diverting. But, as amazing as she was, the spark wasn't there. Considering that this marriage's main purpose would be to procreate, it would be illogical to choose someone who had no effect on his divine rod.
So, that left him with…no one.
Neji cursed himself for suppressing his hormones for so long. He wasn't the type to run around sniffing women's skirts like an untrained yard dog, but he could have taken a bit more interest in the opposite sex. If he had, he wouldn't be in this predicament now.
"This is going to be more difficult than any S-rank mission I've ever been on." With a fatigued groan, Neji started to get dressed for training. A workout would help ease his distress.
"What's got your pristine Hyuga boxers in a knot?"
Neji directed an enraged scowl at his teammate as he fibbed. "Nothing's wrong." Technically, he hadn't lied. He'd expelled most of his frustrations during their intense training session and was meditating the rest away. Until Tenten felt obliged to bother him that is.
Her light laughter permeated his moody aura like the first rays of sunshine after a storm. "After almost ten years of friendship, you insult my empathy now?" She challenged while reclining on the tree branch they shared.
His reticent behavior made Tenten suspect that what troubled him was clan business. It was the only thing that he was ever tight-lipped with her about after all.
"It's me Neji. Tenten: your personal shrink, remember? I don't disclose confidential information. Unlike Ino: the walking twitter," she muttered, somewhat affronted.
Then she saw it. That thing that was as rare as a Great Comet but just as beautiful. It always started with the slackening of his jaw, followed by a mirth which lit up his eyes. And–after he contemplated if she really deserved it–his lips would curl upwards into a smile that made her heart race.
Like a chain reaction, she smiled back with pearly whites shyly peeking through rosy lips.
"Awww! They're such a cute couple!" a gravelly voice gushed from beneath the tree.
"Darling, you say this every time." This voice was marked with age. Yet it was soft and hearty: the ideal timbre for story-telling.
Neji's poorly concealed chortle mirrored Tenten's exasperation. This happened every Thursday...
Tenten greeted the elderly couple who frequented their training spot with a friendly wave. Every time the old lady saw them together she always made the same comment. And, whenever they denied it, she always gave the same response: "I call 'em like I see 'em." She and Neji attributed it to her having the memory of a goldfish.
"That's our cue," Neji prompted, bounding down from the tree branch, then waiting for her to do the same.
"We haven't seen you two in a while," Tenten said as soon as she landed, a genuine smile gracing her features.
"The know-it-all hags at the hospital held me ransom," the old woman lamented. "They made Mr. Tseuchi here pay a hell of a hospital bill too."
Tenten tried not to laugh; though she covered a suspicious cough behind her palm.
"Well, we're thrilled to see that you're better," Neji stated. Sincerity coated every syllable. It hadn't escaped Tenten how fond he'd become of the old lady.
Nearly swooning, the old woman thanked him with an almost-toothless smile. Her eyelashes batted so quickly Tenten worried that she might take off.
"You have a fine young man, honey. Don't lose him." Mrs. Tseuchi's sharp eyes softened as she issued the advice. Toying with Tenten had become somewhat of a habit of hers. But it was all done in good conscience; she only meddled when she had good reason to. She was merely trying to help a clueless girl realize her affections for an equally clueless boy. It provided some felicitous fun in her old age.
Tenten sighed in aggravation. Despite what others liked to assume, Neji was her best friend and teammate, but nothing more. The childish crush she once had for him died a slow, painful death years ago. In hindsight, the infatuation had sprung from her intimate friendship with a handsome, single male. She treasured what they now shared–a strong camaraderie–above all else. Regardless of how his deep baritone sent her hormones on a roller-coaster ride. Or how she saw his eyes soften in a unique way when he regarded her. Or how his smile warmed her better than any furnace…they were just friends.
Whenever people asked about her attachment to Neji, Tenten dodged the question like a kunai aimed for the heart. She never examined what her feelings for him were at present. It would raise awkward, unnecessary questions that she wasn't quite ready to address.
"I found mine seventy-three years ago at this cherry blossom tree and I've cherished him ever since." She beamed at her husband. "Of course, a couple floozies tried to steal him from me–"
"There was only ever one girl for me," Mr. Tseuchi interjected, preventing her from prattling off on a tirade. He gripped his wife's wrinkled hand in his bony palm and lifted it to bring attention to the gem on her finger. "And I've been married to her for the past sixty-six years."
"You'd scarcely believe how we met. It was one of those weird, coincidental moments. The type that wasn't likely to come to pass unless fate stepped in." Mrs. Tseuchi grabbed the wheel again, steering the conversation elsewhere. At the mere words, the old lady was twelve again. The wrinkles around her cobalt orbs straightened out, and when she smiled, cherub cheeks replaced drooping ones.
Chancing a glance at Neji, his obvious interest in the chatty lady's narrative surprised Tenten. In fact, he even seemed eager to be dragged into her memories.
"I used to come to this section of the forest all the time when I was younger. The scenery was so picturesque and enchanting. I was an aspiring photographer, so it was heaven to me. Most of the animals I loved capturing have migrated. As the trees went to repair the damage done to the country over the years, so did they. …And a tiny river used to flow over by that tree where your friend has her huge pin cushion." Tenten giggled at the term applied to her dummy used for target practice.
"One day–out of nowhere–this lightning-fast baseball landed smack-dab in my shot. I ignored it since my parents always told me: 'Ichigo, don't you ever take anything that's not yours.'" Her hands flailed animatedly as she spoke, making the story even more vivid.
"And then I came strolling along, looking for my favorite ball (autographed by Ichiro Suzuki himself!). When I saw this angel poised in the middle of this clearing in a vintage kimono, my jaw became one with the earth." Mr. Tseuchi jumped in, wishing to personally relate his parts.
"I swear I heard it! It made me turn around and–"
"When our eyes met it was love at first sight."
"Yes, it was. As soon as I looked up, his eyes clicked onto my face and, instantly, I was in one of my own pictures. Time froze, leaving nothing in focus except me and him…"
"After that, I started hitting my ball out there every day." The quip made even Neji laugh.
"Since that day, this tree has been our spot. Our first kiss. His proposal. Our marriage. They all happened at this Sakura tree…We'd arrange to be buried here for sure if the law allowed it." Her tone was wistful, her cobalt eyes lost in her reminiscences. "We had our ups and downs, but…whenever I look at this man, I fall in love all over again."
Then Mrs. Tseuchi regarded Tenten with an expression that promised mischief.
"But you already know what that feels like, don't you?"
Tenten jumped at the accusation; mortification painted every inch of her face. Her mouth fell open of its own accord. When she was about to deny the senior's claim, the lady laughed–a bright note like a bird's that twinkled across the silence, out and away.
"Now, don't try to deny it. These old eyes of mine are perceptive, and if there's one thing that they're good at identifying, it's love," she whispered privily. Her eyes crinkled with wisdom and experience. "You lit up like a Christmas tree when we told that story. I know there's someone…"
It unnerved Tenten how sure of herself the woman seemed. At the same time, Mrs. Tseuchi's words had unforeseen consequences on her heart. It went off like an alarm clock in her chest, waking her up and forcing her to analyze her feelings for the 'someone' that Mrs. Tseuchi (thankfully) discreetly referred to.
"Give the poor girl a break, darling," her husband acquiesced with a short chuckle. Mr. Tseuchi had a stern face and a sagging belly that morphed into a bowlful of jelly when he laughed.
"These young people don't take chances anymore," Mrs. Tseuchi scoffed as she turned away.
Neji, like the great friend that he was, noticed Tenten's uneasiness and formulated an excuse to get them out of there.
"I'm sorry. If we don't leave soon, we'll be late for our mission briefing." Neji muttered–cringing at the little white lie–with a polite bow.
"You scare them all away," her husband teased, a raspy chuckle bursting from his lips.
"I only need the affections of one man, Mr. Tseuchi." The words were delivered with a tender kiss to his cheek.
With a final farewell, they left the gray-haired lovebirds to themselves. But they lingered a bit to make sure that they were fine. Mrs. Tseuchi waddled over to the Sakura tree like a penguin, swaying at the slightest gust; so much so that Neji looked ready to carry her himself (not that she'd mind). Albeit, that was unnecessary as her husband held her like a lifeline.
"I'm going to assume that you brought me here to tell me what's bothering you, so spill Hyuga."
Neji stiffened at the no-nonsense delivery. Tenten stood defiantly before him with her hands akimbo and annoyance burning in her eyes.
He had journeyed deeper into the forest to a meadow where they often trained during Konoha's unbearable summers. The cool wind was a permanent guest in the area, soughing as it passed through. Grass littered the ground as far as the eye could see, dotted with the occasional wildflower. In a secluded corner, a brook flowed by, quietly minding its own business along the way. He usually found it easier to talk to her here. The peaceful environment alleviated his conflicted emotions.
Instead of answering, Neji sat down and patted the space beside him, welcoming her to do the same. She took him up on his offer and awaited a response.
"I spoke with Hiashi last night." The words passed through his lips like an ash cloud: slow and thick.
He turned to her and stared into caramel depths to gauge her reaction when he dropped the bombshell. "He made a hell of a proposal…If I marry within six weeks then my children won't have the cursed seal placed on them."
In the kaleidoscope of emotions that filled her soulful orbs, surprise was the first he beheld. It shook the streaks of colour in her iris like an earthquake. Surprise melted into comprehension and acceptance, brushed with the slightest bit of apprehension. Finally, all he saw was elation. It spread to every corner of her doe eyes like an uncontained fire. Tenten opened her mouth–as if ready to speak–then snapped it shut. What was she supposed to say?
She was beyond happy for him. This was something that he'd wished for all his life. Well, not exactly in those terms but it was more or less the same thing. He deserved it. In fact, his clan owed it to him for maintaining peace between the two houses for the past few years. Judging by the way Neji was looking at her, he already discovered Tenten's reaction in her eyes. Her cheeks reddened from sheer euphoria.
"I just can't choose a worthy girl." At this, her smile faltered; his confession stung a little more than it should have.
"I considered almost every woman in Konoha…I thought particularly hard about Ino and Sakura." She couldn't fathom why the statement made her jealous, or why it seemed to snicker at her inadequacy.
"At one point, I even contemplated you." He laughed as he said it, as if it was a ridiculous notion.
By then, his utterances had become blades. They cut away at her heart and released an explosion of emotions which wreaked havoc on her mind. Tenten looked away to avoid his keen gaze. Her eyes were the gateway to her soul and–at the moment–her soul was too battered, too vulnerable to be seen.
"Before, I gave little consideration to relationships. I invested all my focus into my career and now I'm beginning to regret it." By his tone, Tenten could tell that he was still ruminating over the thought as it left his lips. "I'd do anything for my children, but this arrangement yanks me right out of my comfort zone."
Neji struggled to keep the defeat that came with the proclamation hidden. But he didn't mind allowing that kind of vulnerability around Tenten. She was his confidant who had enough information on him to destroy his flawless reputation already. She knew that it was a hard confession for him to make.
Each word was a brick, crumbling as it fell from his mouth. "I know." How Tenten managed to get past the lump in her throat to mutter those words was beyond her. He couldn't glimpse her lackluster smile since she was facing the brook. The irony! He was breaking her heart and didn't even know…
Her heart was deadweight in her chest, replaced with a remorseless, intolerable ache that urged her to crawl into a corner and die. Her reaction–the hurt, the anger, the jealousy–clarified her feelings for Neji. And they couldn't have revealed themselves at a worse time. A childish crush wouldn't hurt this much. Heck, not even a breakup hurt this much. Those too were oceans apart from what she felt. Nothing hurt more than unrequited love.
"But, at the same time, I desire what the Tseuchis have. I crave what my parents had." She was tempted to look at him then to view the unbidden emotions that emerged at the mention of his parents. She was tempted to see him as emotionally ravaged as she was.
"I want a wife who I can grow old with. Somebody who would want to spend her last days with me terrorizing so-called young couples." Too miserable to laugh at his attempt at a joke, she settled for a consenting grunt. After Neji's confession, silence gripped the clearing in her cold embrace, leaving little room for words.
Tenten was lost in a maze of her thoughts. The realization was still too raw, too unexpected. She'd been running from it for so long, evading it in every possible way... Knowing that Neji didn't feel the same way only made the revelation more excruciating. She was just Tenten: his best friend; Tenten: his training partner…and nothing more.
In the spur of the moment, the knowledge that he'd never return her love acted upon her ideas as a tide acts upon cliffs. If she loved Neji, shouldn't her main priority be what was best for him? What he needed now was assistance. He needed a friend who he could trust to help him find a wife and then complain to when the relationship got rocky. He would need her.
"I'll be your Sebastian!" Tenten suddenly yelled, standing before Neji in a comical pose that screamed 'I'm here to save the day!' Her smile was so forced Tenten worried that it might break under the strain.
Confusion stared back at her from his milky eyes.
"You know! The crab from the Little Mermaid; he's the ultimate wingman…except I'd be your winggirl…winggal? …You know what? Call me your matchmaker." She concluded, after testing titles on her tongue and spitting them out like spoilt milk. Her sense of humour usually suffered when she was anxious.
"My matchmaker?" the Hyuga repeated skeptically. An amused smile played along his smooth lips.
"Don't give me that tone," she admonished. "I'll ensure that you have the perfect wife right on schedule." Her expression was so genuine that even she believed his unknowing rejection of her was copasetic.
A/N: This story's practice for my other story "Teaching Him; Learning from Her." I'm trying to become accustomed to writing Neji and Tenten and giving depth to my OC characters. I'm not quite sure if I pulled it off... Let me know in a review. =)