Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or its characters; they belong to Masashi Kishimoto.
:: 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 that 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 form 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. She had a heart of gold that would eventually bring her to bankruptcy. Despite her many affluent patients, Sakura enjoyed curing paupers for little or nothing – believing that saving a life wasn't something to be quantified. She was a successful kunoichi, renowned for her superhuman strength, who would indubitably surpass her master in a few more years. 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 he had to concede that they wouldn't seem more beautiful on anyone else. However, Sakura's affections were stubbornly fixated on Uchiha Sasuke and – as romantic and compelling as he 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 accentuated by an almost-too-perfect hourglass figure. Her congenial nature was something to be envied. Naturally cultured, the mannerisms of those of high society came as easily to her as choosing a suitable shade of lipstick to complement her eye shadow. Yamanka Ino was the type of girl that his family would want him to marry and he was certain that 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 that Neji wanted to do was get involved.
Now that left Tenten.
Her beauty didn't draw as much attention as Ino's and was hardly as exotic as Sakura's. Nevertheless 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 would probably require a surgical procedure. Even with her tomboyish personality Neji could actually picture her as a mother. Her empathy, selflessness and loving nature 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, owing to her uncanny accuracy and an insensitive remark he'd made one day during training. He had learnt firsthand that despite her patience and tolerance, Tenten's temper wasn't something to be trifled with. With Tenten married life would always be meaningful and diverting. …But, as amazing as she was, the spark wasn't there. She didn't ignite a fire within him that made him want to cloak her with a love so smoldering it could never be doused... And 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.
Releasing a string of expletives into the still night, Neji cursed himself for forcefully suppressing his hormones for so long. He wasn't the type of guy who ran around sniffing every woman's skirt like an untrained yard dog but he had to admit that he could have taken a bit more interest in the opposite sex. If he had, he probably wouldn't have been in this predicament now.
"This is going to be more difficult than any S-rank mission I've ever been on before." In that same breath he vowed to be a little more accommodating of the chaotic chemicals that had the power to transform him into as much of a satyriasis as Charlie Sheen.
With a fatigued groan, Neji started to get dressed for training. A workout would surely help to 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; there was some truth in that. He'd managed to expel most of his frustrations during their intense training session and was meditating the rest away when she felt obliged to bother him. 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, staring up at him while she reclined on the tree branch that they were currently sharing.
Sighing at her friend's unusually reticent behavior, Tenten deduced that perhaps 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 like stars in an obsidian sky. And eventually - after he contemplated if she really deserved it - his lips would curl upwards like the petals of an African daisy into that smile that made her heart race at five hundred miles per hour.
Like a chain reaction she smiled back, pearly whites shyly peeking through rosy lips.
"Awww! They're such a cute couple!" a gravelly voice gushed from beneath the tree.
Tenten sighed, aggravated at the declaration. Despite what others liked to assume, the man sitting beside her was merely her teammate. As powerful and sexy her girlfriends felt inclined to highlight that he was, Neji was simply her best friend and nothing more. The childish crush that she had for him had died a slow, painful death years ago. In hindsight, the infatuation had merely sprung from her chummy friendship to a handsome, single male. Whenever people (namely Sakura, Ino and Hinata) asked about her attachment to Neji, she dodged the question like a kunai aimed for the heart. But if they pushed her hard enough or got enough alcohol in her, she'd label it as a strong camaraderie - one that she treasured above all else. But that was it. Regardless of how his deep baritone sent her hormones on a roller-coaster ride, or how his eyes would soften in the most unique way when he regarded her, or especially how his smile warmed her better than any furnace…they were just friends and nothing more.
She never truly examined what her feelings for him were at present. It would raise awkward, unnecessary questions that she wasn't quite ready to address.
"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 brought Tenten back to reality.
Without looking she knew exactly who had made the remark. This happened every Thursday after all.
Looking down, 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." Secretly, 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 and 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, "and 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 coating every syllable. It hadn't escaped Tenten how fond he'd become of the old lady.
Nearly swooning, the old woman thanked him with a nearly toothless smile. Her eyelashes batted so quickly Tenten worried that she might take off.
"That's a fine young man you have there honey. He's a rare gem. Don't lose him." Her sharp eyes softened as she issued the advice. Toying with Tenten had become somewhat of a habit of hers. However it was all done in good conscience because 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.
"I found mine seventy-three years ago at this same cherry blossom tree and I've cherished him ever since." She beamed as she looked at her husband, an amorous smile adorning her lips. "Of course, a couple floozies tried to steal him from me but–"
"There was only ever one girl for me," Mr. Tseuchi interjected, preventing her from prattling off on a tirade. With his own tender smile, he gripped his wife's wrinkled hand in his bony one and lifted it to bring attention to the diamond 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. By some mystical power, the wrinkles around her cobalt orbs straightened out. When she smiled cherub cheeks revealed themselves in place of the drooping skin that coated her cheek bones before. Tenten briefly wondered if it was a trick of the eye because when she braved looking a little closer, it was as if it never happened.
Chancing a glance at Neji to see if he noticed, she was surprised to see that he appeared interested in the chatty lady's narrative. 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 used to be so picturesque and enchanting. I was an aspiring photographer so it was heaven to me. Various species of animals used to live here but most of them have migrated as a result of the trees being cut down for wood to repair the damage done to the country over the years…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.
"This used to be my favorite spot for taking photographs and one day–out of nowhere–this lightning fast baseball landed smack-dab in my shot. I simply ignored it as 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 literally 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. "Naturally, we had our ups and downs but…whenever I look at this man, I fall in love all over again."
Then she 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 painting every inch of her face. Her mouth fell open of its own accord and, just when she was about to deny the senior's claim, the lady laughed - a bright note like a bird's that went twinkling across the silence, out and away.
"Now, don't try to deny it…These old eyes of mine are remarkably perceptive and if there's one thing that they're good at identifying, it's love," she whispered privily as if it was a secret between just the two of them. 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, turning away stubbornly.
Neji, like the great friend that he was, easily picked up on Tenten's uneasy mood and formulated an excuse to get them out of there.
"I'm sorry but 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, ready to leave.
"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 wrinkled cheek.
With a final farewell, they left the gray-haired lovebirds to themselves but they lingered a bit, just to make sure that they were fine. Mrs. Tseuchi waddled over to the Sakura tree like a penguin, swaying unsteadily at the slightest gust; so much so that Neji looked just about ready to carry her himself to prevent an injury (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 really bothering you, so spill Hyuga."
Neji stiffened then halted at the no-nonsense delivery of the command. Tenten stood defiantly before him, hands held akimbo with 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, whistling noisily as it passed through. Grass littered the ground as far as the eye could see, dotted with the occasional wild flower. In a secluded corner, a brook flowed through, quietly minding its own business along the way.
He usually found it easier to talk to her here. The peaceful environment helped to alleviate 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 waited for a response, all the while peering at him as if his face held the answer to all her questions.
"I spoke with Hiashi last night." The words passed through his lips like an ash cloud - slow and thick.
He turned to her, staring into her 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 thing 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 all the hard work that he had put into maintaining peace between the two houses for the past few years. By now Tenten was sure that her smile was wider than the universe and her cheeks reddened from sheer euphoria. Judging by the way Neji was looking at her, he had obviously found a response in her eyes. She could never hide anything from him in their revealing depths...
"I just can't choose a worthy girl." At this her eyelashes fluttered and 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, 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 the most ridiculous notion ever contrived.
By then, his utterances had become blades, cutting away at her heart and releasing an explosion of emotions which wreaked havoc on her mind. She 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 hesitantly left his lips.
Expelling a tired breath, he continued. "I'd do anything for my kids but this whole arrangement is yanking me right out of my comfort zone." Neji struggled to keep the sudden rush of emotions that came with the proclamation hidden. But he didn't mind allowing that kind of vulnerability around Tenten. She was his confidant who possibly 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."
He couldn't glimpse her lackluster smile since she was facing the brook. It was hilariously ironic that he was breaking her heart and didn't even know…
How Tenten managed to get past the lump that was in her throat to mutter those words was beyond her. Her heart was deadweight in her chest, replaced with a steady physical pain, a remorseless intolerable ache that urged her to crawl into a corner and die. Her reaction (the hurt, the anger, the jealousy) alerted her – with startling clarity – to her feelings for him, 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 would undoubtedly pop up on his features 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... When it finally hit her the impact was excruciating, and made even more so because she now knew that Neji didn't feel the same way. 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 truly loved Neji, shouldn't her main priority be what was best for him? What he needed now was assistance. He desperately 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 distinctly said '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 just call me your matchmaker." She concluded after testing other 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 playing 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 tone was so genuine that even she believed that 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 as well as giving depth to my OC characters. I'm not quite sure if I pulled it off... Let me know in a review. =)