"Why don't you just choose one of them to save you all the trouble"? Ino asks one day, when Neji appears late to their training, after being harassed by a fangirl and her overeager mother.
"Why don't you"? he returned, referring to the large number of men who had recently asked her out on a date.
She grins. "It's fun to keep them dangling".
He raises an eyebrow. "Dangling? I do believe Inuzuka Kiba had Akamaru tailing you yesterday. His tail did droop a little when he realized you'd stepped onto the lake to avoid him…"
Ino half laughs and half groans at this, appreciating the humour that often precedes a harsh training session. In the month or two since he removed her leg bands, Neji has become more willing to spar with her verbally, as well as physically - it is a step up from the days he would simply frown and brush off her taunts. Having proved surprisingly adept at playing her game, their bantering offers her mental stimulation she is unaccustomed to, compared to the fawning, bragging boys who constantly vie for her attention. With a little more time, she realizes with some surprise, Ino believes the young Hyuuga will become a trusted friend, as well as an adept training partner.
Then "Hey, you haven't answered my question", she grumbles.
"Why do you wish to know"? When Ino glances at him, he is watching her directly, the smallest of smiles playing around his mouth.
Hmmph, she thinks. It is no accident that every time she's lost one of their little battle of wits, it has been through being rendered speechless by an unexpected smile or laugh from the young man she'd previously believed to be humourless. He is becoming a little too confident for his own good.
"Perhaps", she retorts, "It's because you're touchy and your vocabulary is reduced to 'hn' and 'huh' whenever it happens. Perhaps it's because it feels like I'm training with a brick wall, only it has the ability to move".
"They annoy you". This time, Neji's voice is matter of fact, no inflections whatsoever. Confused at the bland reply, Ino decides it really is time to return the ball to her own court.
She rises from her sitting position, deliberately standing in his face. "I think…" she teasingly traces a finger down his chest, remembering the glare of withering contempt he had sent her last time she touched him in such a familiar manner, " that you believe that no one is good enough for you".
"Do I", he murmurs, watching her hand make its way down his body. His passive acceptance of her flirtatious gesture confirms her guess that he knows her game too well, and that she may soon need to find another strategy to keep things interesting.
"What were you and Tenten talking about yesterday"? he asks suddenly. His voice remains casual, but Ino is caught off guard by the abrupt change of topic.
"Ah - yesterday"? she stammered, taking her hand off his chest. Neji just 'hmms'.
"Nothing much…", Ino begins, thinking furiously about the conversation with Neji's brunette teammate, when their paths had accidentally crossed the previous day while Ino was returning from training.
"I haven't seen him so enthusiastic about anything for a long time". She remembers the brunette woman saying about their sessions. Her smile is filled with genuine warmth, but Ino doesn't miss the slight wistfulness in the other girl's eyes. "You're good for him, Ino-san".
"I'm not going to tell him that – god only knows what conclusion he would come to"Ino thinks to herself, stifling unexpected curiosity at how he would react. She is slightly flummoxed as to why Neji wishes to know in the first place. Is he worried that Tenten will see her as a rival training partner, and warn her off? But surely she hasn't been training that often with him? Ino pastes a smile on her face so Neji will not see her uneasiness. The smile becomes genuine however, when she suddenly devises a way to punish him for flustering her earlier at the same time.
"Well alright – we were talking about you", she says, laughing to herself when Neji's eyebrows lift noticeably at her candid admission. "And" – She makes a show of tapping her lips with her fingernails to prolong the moment.
"And the smoothness of your hair". She bursts into peals of merriment at his incredulous expression. Satisfied with her comeback, she commences training.
Walking home that evening, she is pounced on by Sakura. "That", her roseate friend announces, "was a rather long training session don't you think, pig"? Her jade eyes fix themselves onto Ino's cerulean ones, wide with inquiry.
Ino snorts. "What, you were watching"?
Sakura just responds by lifting an eyebrow. Another thing she seems to have in common with Neji, Ino thinks, somewhat puzzled to find that she is not as amused as she used to be.
"So…hmm…?" Ino waits, but when her friend doesn't say anything else, she sighs.
"You need to dosomething if you're going to have any luck, forehead girl", she said, forcing a note of joviality into her voice. "But", she bends forward conspiratorially, and Sakura follow suit. "His favourite food is ebi prawn", she whispers. Something she has learned from the packed lunches Neji frequently brings to their training.
"Neji", she thinks guiltily over Sakura's squeals of delight. "He would hate this". She supposes her information could technically be seen as matchmaking, and she knows that he will not appreciate it, after the minor debacles he endures from his fangirls and co. And she seems to finally be winning some respect and acknowledgment from him too…
But honestly, Ino thinks with some exasperation as she parts ways with Sakura. How does one explain the concentration shintenshin requires? And how to explain that the majority of their 'rather long' training sessions are mostly made up of idle moments, while one or both of them recover from its effects?
She flirts with Neji as much as she does with any other male, she tells herself firmly. And she does enjoy spending time with him – she cannot deny that if she didn't, she will not have spent the last few months with him as she has. Being coy or shy is not in her nature – that is how she is always able to silence the gossipers with withering scorn, and an arrogant toss of her pretty head.
She is not blind or deaf to the rumors and whispers concerning herself and the prodigy of the Hyuuga clan. Even from the start, she has realized that there will be speculation about their 'training', and that there may come a time when she will need to discuss the matter with Neji, if only to minimize misunderstandings or damage to their relationship in the future.
"And just what kind of 'relationship' do you share"? Ino can nearly hear Tenten and Sakura's voices in her head. Add that to Shikamaru's subtle probing and the pointed inquiries from her father…
It will have to be soon, she realizes. All she will have to do, is to wait for the perfect chance.
A.N. Wow, I was overwhelmed with the support I got for that last chapter, it's such an inspiration. Please keep those reviews coming! I think it's pretty obvious where the fic is going, but hopefully I'll manage to wangle in some twists and surprises somewhere...