Title: The World is Ending, but I'm Eighteen
Type: Oneshot. First person POV.
Word count: 6,551
Summary: In a world where the Akatsuki's plans have come to fruition, Tenten decides there's no better time than the present to start looking for true love – or whatever she can get.
A/N: This isn't a fanfiction about Tenten. Not really. Nor is a depressing tale about the end of the world. It's a story for every teenage girl, and I hope it manages to communicate what it's meant to.
Everyone always says you don't need a guy to make you feel fulfilled. I agree completely. But the thing is, being single is starting to get boring.
But how can anything be boring when the world is as messed up as it is, you ask? I honestly can't tell you. The only things I know for sure anymore are that my name is Tenten, I'm eighteen, I'll probably die today, and I've never had a boyfriend.
Sad, isn't it? I'm eighteen and I've never been asked to dance. I've never been on a date. I've never been kissed. I'm still a… you know. (How is it that I can kill a man with my bare hands but I can't bring myself to say that word?) Maybe it's just the stress from the current situation talking, but I am so ready to give up the v-card. I'd be more than happy to settle for just a kiss though. Call me hedonistic, selfish, whatever, but is it really so much to ask? The world is overrun with the nine Biju and a bunch of creepy guys in cloaks, and everywhere I look it's like a high school abstinence campaign gone horribly wrong.
Some people are denouncing the moral decadence and lack of inhibitions as something that shouldn't be tolerated during such a crucial time. Much to Lee's chagrin, Sakura is one of those people. (Oddly enough, Hinata isn't. Neither is Shino. Who would've thought? Certainly not me. And judging by Neji's face when we walked into the Hyuuga sitting room at a rather delicate moment, neither did he.) I thought I would be on the side of good old-fashioned prudery and morality too, but in all honesty, I just don't care anymore.
I haven't cared since Kakashi came stumbling back to Konoha, bleeding all over the streets. He'd collapsed halfway to the Hokage's tower and I'd elbowed my way to the front of the crowd as Tsunade and the medics swarmed around him. At first I couldn't recognize who the man on the ground was – he was so covered in blood and dirt, not even his telltale mop of white hair was visible. Neji managed to shoulder his way in beside me, and that's when I knew things were serious. Neji's not the sort to show emotion. At all. But when you've been around him as often as I have, you can kind of pick up on what he's feeling.
And if Neji's scared, you should be running for your life.
His face was blank, but the tension in his temples told me that something was up. Something big. "What's going on?" I asked him, willing my voice not to betray my sudden fear. "Who is it?"
He turned to me and I almost wished that I didn't know how to read the emotions behind his white eyes so well – wished I couldn't see that something had been set in motion that none of us could stop, no matter how hard we tried.
"It's Kakashi," he said, voice flat and simple, "His sharingan is gone."
My breath caught in my throat and the din of the crowd faded from my ears as I turned back to look at the man on the ground. Neji was right. Kakashi was too much of a mess to tell where all the blood was coming from, but Tsunade's face was grim as her hands poured healing chakra across where a forehead protector usually hid a bright red pupil. It was so absurd, so unthinkable that it felt like a horrible dream. Kakashi was a legend; things like this couldn't happen to him.
Because if they did, the rest of us didn't stand a fighting chance.
Neji shifted slightly, bringing me back to reality. Suddenly I was aware again of the noise of the crowd, of the smell of sweat under the late summer sun, of the people pushing against me as they tried to get a better view. Of how Neji's hands had curled into fists and he was staring, jaw set, at the ruin of a great ninja.
If seeing a half-blinded man made me cringe – made me want to curl myself into a ball and protect my own fragile sight – what was it like for someone whose eyes meant not only vision, but power and identity too? I reached up and squeezed Neji's shoulder. "Come on," I said, swallowing down a lump in my throat. "Let's get out of here."
We walked away, the crowd eagerly taking our place, gawking at the broken man and oblivious to how our future had just derailed. We tried to forget what we'd seen and what it meant. But no amount of practice could drown out what we knew. I threw handfuls of kunai, moving from muscle memory alone. Neji spun kaiten after kaiten, never mentioning that my aim was off.
Someone defeated Kakashi. Kakashi had been training with Naruto. Naruto hadn't come back.
We connected the dots and realization blazed through our minds. I held a foolish hope that we were wrong. A foolish hope that was dashed the next day when Kakashi had recovered enough to speak and Tsunade called an emergency meeting for all jounin. The information was supposed to be kept secret, but Neji came back from the meeting with eyes more blank than usual and told me and Lee anyway.
Bad news travels faster than wildfire and soon everyone in Konoha knew: Naruto was dead. That's right. Dead. Son of the Yellow Flash, the blond haired trickster who we'd all come to love, our future Hokage. Killed by the Akatsuki and likely being drained right that minute of the creature that had been locked inside him. The last of the nine needed to unseal the monsters and release chaos onto our world. No one could believe it at first.
Then the panic settled in.
I don't mean panic like last summer when the power went out for two days and everyone rushed the stores for canned food and generators. I don't even mean panic like when Orochimaru tried to take over during the chuunin exams and we beat him back down. I'm talking real this-is-the-end-we're-all-gonna-die panic.
You could say there was a mood that you had to live for the day because you could die at any moment, but that's not true. You had to live for today because you knew that if you were alive tomorrow you were lucky. People quit their jobs, ran off with their mistresses, spent their life savings on food and booze, and told their neighbours what they really thought of them. Other people couldn't handle the coming of the apocalypse twice in their lifetime – poor gentle Iruka – and suddenly suicide seemed a viable option for more than just half-crazed, guilt-ridden ANBU. Every age-old trapping of society crumbled in an instant. I would say that Konoha was tearing apart at the seams, but it wasn't. It was already in shreds.
Fortunately, Tsunade wasn't my idol for nothing. She gave a big public speech about standing strong and united in the face of adversity. Konoha had won out against all odds in the past and it would do the same again. I remember being caught up in the desperate energy of the crowd, cheering along with them. Then we all went home and dreamt of the Kyuubi's fire.
Morale at an all-time low, Tsunade came up with a last-ditch plan to keep the village together. The jounin would train all civilians over the age of twelve in the basics of weapons and self-defense so that they too could join in the inevitable battle. Everyone knew it was only a token effort meant to keep minds busy and hopefully sane, but we were grateful.
Lee and I were still chuunin so we were assigned to police the village while Neji acted as an instructor. The streets were mostly abandoned. Litter and empty bottles of alcohol were strewn about, and I spotted some houses that had more spray-painted 'the end is nigh'-themed graffiti on them than the night before. A few people boarded up their windows, as if that would do any good when the giant fire-spitting fox came to call.
We patrolled in silence, the Konoha of our childhood a mere spectre, and peered into the dark alleys between buildings. In one, we came across a young couple who were in the process of breaking every law against indecent acts in public. Lee puffed out his chest righteously, but I steered him away before he could interrupt them.
"Let them be," I told him, curious as to when I had become so lenient.
Lee's face brightened and he cried out, "Oh Tenten! You don't know what joy it brings me to see that you still kindle the flame of youth in these dark times."
I'd heard that line so much from both him and Gai that by then it was almost easy to resist rolling my eyes. "With all that's happening, can you really blame people for wanting to live every moment to the fullest?" My words triggered thoughts of what we'd seen – sweat and skin and maybe not love but something painfully human all the same. Embarrassed, I fought down a sudden spike of jealousy.
"You're very wise, Tenten." Lee set his face in an overly tragic expression and continued, "I too wish to be a part of this celebration of youth. If only my sweetest cherry blossom could see that even in the shadow of evil, springtime may flourish." He sighed dramatically, his mind off in a daydream. "I've promised myself that if I don't win her heart, I'll double my training weights! But so far nothing has swayed her emotions. I must find a way to win her maidenly affections! Perhaps next time I will bring her flowers. What do you think, Tenten? Would Sakura like roses?"
In that moment I wanted more than anything to beat Sakura over the head for not seeing what she had in Lee. I smiled at him, even as his puppy-dog devotion to his childhood crush broke my heart. "Somehow I think the time for roses has past, Lee."
"You're absolutely right!" He nodded enthusiastically. "I must think of a better way! If not, I promise to be the one that will defeat the Kyuubi!" He raised a fuzzy eyebrow and asked, "What about you, Tenten? When will you allow your own youthful ardour to erupt?"
I winced at his words – there was only so much power of youth I could take those days. "I don't think it ever will."
"Because no one's going to want to, err…" – I cast about for a way to say it that wasn't too blunt – "No one's going to want to share their springtime of youth with me."
Lee looked taken aback. "How can you say that? What male in his right mind wouldn't? Tenten! You are beautiful, kind, strong, the picture of virtue, and, and – " Much to my great shame I could feel myself starting to blush, and braced myself for his next words. "And so mysterious!"
"Mysterious?" I snorted doubtfully.
"Of course," Lee said, completely matter of fact, "No one even knows your last name."
(He had a point there, I guess. But you know why no one knows my last name? Let me explain. My parents aren't from Konoha. That's right, we're immigrants. Refugees, rather, since we fled to Konoha from the Rain Country during the revolution. That's all ancient history, but they say the past always comes back to haunt you. In my case, it came back in the form of my ridiculous last name. I already get teased enough for my hairstyle – I keep it because it's apparently a tradition of Rain Country women – so why would I want to advertise the fact that my last name is slang for a part of the male anatomy? That's right. My full name is Tenten Wang. Go ahead and laugh, you might as well get it all out of your system now. Although… I think I might start telling people my full name from now on. With everything that's happening, we need all the excuses for laughter we can get. I regret not having told Naruto – he would've had a field day.)
I shook my head to snap myself out of my thoughts, mentally returning to the reality of the wasted streets of Konoha. "Stop flattering me, Lee."
His expression earnest, he cried, "It's not flattery! Tenten, you are one of the best people I know! If you won't believe me that you are a flower of youth and beauty, know at least that you are the bravest woman I have ever met!"
"Thanks," I told him, but the words rang hollow in my ears. I wasn't brave; I was a ninja. I could kill without a second thought, but when it came to emotional courage I was worse than a self-esteem deficient preteen asking out the captain of the soccer team.
Lee's voice took a mercifully softer tone. "But really, if you could share these dark times with someone, who would it be?"
"I don't know," I lied, and we both knew it.
I'm not sure when I developed my interest in Neji. It certainly wasn't when we were first put on a team together – I was so young that my teenage hormones hadn't even kicked in yet. Besides, he was a different person back then, what with the turmoil surrounding his family and past. I knew he was good-looking – all the other girls said so – but Neji was always like a god or a statue; something too cold and perfect for human emotions to touch. You could only worship him from afar.
Things started to change after Naruto defeated him in the chuunin exams. At first there were only little cracks in the icy demeanour – he spoke more often, spent more time around me and Lee. But finally the whole thing melted.
I didn't understand exactly how much he had changed until a few months after the chuunin exams. I don't remember much about the mission; it had been generically B-rank and we'd breezed through it. What I do remember though, was what happened when we were coming back to Konoha.
The forest was quiet, the canopy of trees so thick they blocked out the stars. It was my turn to keep watch. Well into the borders of the Fire Country, we were safe enough to keep a fire lit for warmth. I poked at it with a stick, watching the flames curl and the wood crack. One of the sleeping bags rustled and in the glow of the campfire I could see Neji shake off the last remnants of sleep. "It's not time for your shift yet," I called out to him softly. "You can go back to sleep for a while."
He shook his head and came to sit next to me. "I'm not that tired. I can start my shift early – you go get some rest."
That struck a chord with me. I knew he was offering out of kindness, but my ridiculous drive to prove myself refused to let someone take over my duties – I could never let myself be seen as irresponsible. "No. I've been assigned to keep watch until three. I can't sleep before then."
Neji blinked, and I think he understood. "Fine. I'll stay up with you."
With that we settled into silence, watching the flames of the campfire lick at dry wood, until a whisper of chakra caused me to look up into the trees.
An ANBU was perched on a branch, hand clasped over the hilt of a sword fastened across her back. "Identify yourselves." Her voice was calm yet commanding.
I knew I should have spoken up. I was on watch so it was my responsibility to answer. But the sight of the ANBU made me freeze. It wasn't intimidation, although there was no doubt that the painted lines of her fox mask curved in sharp patterns, made all the more menacing in the firelight. The fabric of her uniform clung tightly to her body, tracing curves and accentuating well-toned muscles. Her dark hair was tied tightly into a bun, each strand held securely in place. She was powerful. She was feminine. She was exactly what I wanted to be. I could do nothing but stare in awe as the sound of my own heartbeat pounded in my ears. The ANBU's fingers tightened almost imperceptibly around her sword as I gave no answer to her question.
"Team Gai, returning from mission bee-zero-four-ten," Neji spoke up beside me, perfectly composed.
The ANBU gave a swift nod and disappeared back into the forest. After she'd left, Neji gave me a questioning glance. Ashamed, I clenched my teeth and focused my gaze into the flames, my dreams and pride singed. In the back of my mind I was aware of Neji studying my eyes closely, reading me like a book. I wanted to tell him to go back to sleep, to leave me alone, but the damage was already done – he'd seen me fail.
Neji watched me in silence for a few minutes. The fire popped loudly, a piece of wood breaking in two, and he finally said, "Don't worry so much."
I looked up at him, confused. His white eyes reflected the firelight and revealed nothing. "What?" I asked, unsure that I'd heard him correctly.
"I said don't worry so much," he repeated, his voice measured as always. "Just because you're speechless in front of one ANBU doesn't mean your life is ruined."
My face still flushed with humiliation, I squeezed my eyes shut and willed away the memories of what had happened. "I can't believe I didn't say anything. She must've thought I was so stupid." Perfectly aware that I was wallowing in self-pity in front of the least sympathetic member of my team, I continued anyway, "I'll never get into ANBU like this."
It might have just been the play of light and shadow cast by the fire, but I could've sworn Neji was almost smiling at me. "You'll get into ANBU, Tenten. You train so hard – in a few more years they'd be fools to turn you down. And I'm sure that one ANBU won't go reporting back to her commander that you didn't answer right away. Surely she's surprised ninja before – you don't have to worry about your reputation. Besides, eloquence isn't a trait ANBU are known for."
For the second time that night I was at a loss for words. Not only was I fairly certain that Neji had just attempted to make a joke, he was also being encouraging and supportive. Don't get me wrong – I'd heard similar speeches from both Gai and Lee before. Hearing it from Neji though, usually so critical and demanding of others, was downright stunning.
Shocked, the only thing I could think of tumbled from my mouth. "Thanks."
I was grateful for what he'd said, really. It meant a lot coming from him. But I was nonetheless glad when my shift was over and I could pretend to sleep, turning the situation over in my mind. It was then that I started to understand just how much of a profound change Neji had undergone. He had truly begun to live his own life, no longer tormented by his past or caged by his destiny in the Hyuuga clan. The peace he'd found could finally allow him to grow into himself, become his own person. Now that I think about it, perhaps my realizations that night also caused my feelings for him to begin to evolve.
The next morning I made a real effort to be nicer to Neji. I smiled at him and tried to speak to him like I would to Lee. At first he seemed almost confused, his eyebrows rising ever so slightly. Neji was good at reading people though, and he figured things out soon enough. He wasn't just my teammate anymore, he was my friend. Actually, that's not right. He'd always been my friend, but now that he'd abandoned his cold and aloof nature he was even more so than before.
Gai gave me a knowing grin and a thumbs-up as I stuffed my sleeping bag into my pack. I had a disquieting feeling that he knew exactly what had happened the night before. That was a silly, pointless thought of course, because Gai was like some fearsome omniscient parent – he always knew.
You know, that comparison fits pretty well. Gai was like a parent for the three children of his team. Lee was his favourite, the one in which he saw his younger self. Neji was his prodigy. And I was… Actually, I'm not sure what I was to the family that was our team. I could say I was the token girl, but that's not true. I was a part of the team like all the others, I just didn't get the same attention as them. Not that I blame Gai for that, not at all.
I've always been third down the list of parental affection. Technically I'm an only child, but with the way my parents were obsessed with weapons I might as well have had hundreds of siblings. And if there's one thing my parents were even crazier about than weapons, it was each other. So when Gai focused on training Lee and Neji, I didn't mind. I was used to it. Besides, the other two needed special training whereas I could learn the basics of techniques and then be sent off to practice on my own.
Come to think of it though, Gai wasn't just a parental stand-in. He was a father-figure of course, and he could be a mother-figure when I needed it. But he was also my teacher, my brother, my friend, my mentor, my confidant. The eccentric man in the green jumpsuit might've been the laughingstock of Konoha, but to me he was everything. Gai never neglected me; he was always there when I needed him.
I'll always remember one of those times in particular. I'd just turned sixteen and I'd failed the jounin exam. Neji had passed, but Lee and I were condemned to the mediocre rank of chuunin until the next exam date. We both congratulated Neji on his achievement, but we were ashamed that we'd failed to do the same. Lee's cheery mood bounced back soon enough, as he and Gai made a pact that next time they'd show the examiners that geniuses of hard work knew no limits. I was more difficult to console.
My failure brought back memories of the first time I'd taken the chuunin exam and how I'd been beaten so thoroughly by Temari of the Sand. The shame of losing ripped those emotional scars back open. My loss during the exam meant not only personal disgrace, but a stab at my goals as well. How could I ever hope to call myself a weapons master if two people were now capable of saying they'd defeated me? Even worse, this meant that my dream of joining ANBU – of proving to the village my worth as a ninja – was pushed back at least another year.
For days after the exam I practiced relentlessly, forgetting about the world around me. I arrived at our team's practice area before dawn each morning and stayed until well past midnight. I forgot to eat, forgot to sleep. I forgot about the value of teamwork, brushed aside my friends. All I knew was that I had to be stronger if I wanted my life to amount to anything. If I didn't want to be a failure.
One afternoon, my fierce training was interrupted by Gai. He looked at me for a moment, unusually silent. I wiped the sweat from my face and braced myself for what I knew was coming – the inevitable lecture about neglecting my team for my own personal growth. Instead, he simply requested that I meet him at one of his favourite training areas that night and then vanished in a swirl of leaves.
I went back to my training, losing myself in it so completely that I almost forgot about my meeting with Gai. When I finally remembered, the sun had long since set and I took off in a sprint towards the meeting place.
The training ground was one I knew well. It was a small clearing in a forested area; the trees around all deeply scored by our kunai. The night was still, the glade lit only by the moon. At first I wondered if I'd arrived too late – Gai was nowhere in sight.
"I'm glad you came, Tenten."
My teacher's voice surprised me and I looked in the direction of which his voice had come. His green jumpsuit blended in with the long grass as he stretched out on the ground, arms folded behind his head.
Curious, I moved towards him and asked, "What did you want to see me about, sensei?"
I was prepared for a lecture. I was prepared for a stern, fatherly talk. I was almost prepared for his disappointment. But I never expected him to say: "Tonight we're going to have a special training session, just you and me. We're going to watch the stars."
I gaped at him, certain that he'd finally run one too many laps around Konoha. "P-pardon?" I asked. Maybe I hadn't heard him right.
"We're going to watch the stars," he repeated, keeping his gaze fixed on the sky. "There's not much else to explain."
I bit my lip and felt a swirl of emotions, confusion and anger rising to the surface. How could he say something so ridiculous? I needed training. I needed direction. I needed to get my life back on track towards my dreams – the dreams he had always encouraged.
I took a deep breath and fought for calm. Gai was my teacher; I trusted him. He was odd, to say the least, but he'd never led me astray. Slowly, I lay down beside him. The grass was soft and cool, but I couldn't relax. I squinted at the sky above, trying to understand what Gai wanted me to see in the little specks of light.
I was becoming frustrated by the time Gai spoke again. His voice contained none of the explosive energy it usually had. Instead, it was deep and soothing, almost as though he were speaking only to himself. "What do you see?"
I knit my eyebrows and tried to figure out what answer he wanted. "The sky? The stars? Constellations?"
Gai sighed. "Yes, but what does it make you think?"
"It makes me think… It makes me think…" A tight feeling formed across my chest as I began to panic. I tore at the grass nervously with my hands. I was going to let him down, I was going to fail again. "I- I don't know!"
From the corner of my eye I could see his weary grin. "Let me tell you what I think."
I waited for his explanation. In the stillness of the night I heard the faint chirp of crickets. A gentle wind blew the grass to tickle across my cheek and I felt an ant crawl over my fingers. I began to notice stars that shone brighter than the rest.
"When I look up into the sky at night and see the stars, I think they're beautiful. But at the same time they make me scared." I startled at that – how could my teacher be scared of anything? – but Gai continued, "They make me scared because I realize how small I am. How it doesn't matter that I've mastered the secrets of taijutsu. The stars have watched hundreds of people do the same for centuries, and they'll see countless others do it over millennia. And when I'm overwhelmed by those feelings, overwhelmed by how trivial everything in this world is, I can finally appreciate my own life. The sun is going to rise tomorrow, and the world won't stop spinning for me. There will always be highs and lows in life, and that's how things will be for eternity. So the only thing I can do is live and be happy with myself, and try to help others do the same. When things are going well, I'm grateful and make the most of them. But even when times aren't so good and my dreams seem too far away, I always know that something better is on the horizon."
Gai turned to look at me, but I couldn't take my eyes off the sky. The stars blurred as my eyes watered. "I think you'll find, Tenten, that life has a funny way of making things work out, no matter what happens."
We spent the rest of the night talking. Not about weapons, training, missions, or anything ninja-related. I told him that my favourite toy as a child had been a brown stuffed animal dog and that I'd cried when my father had stuck him in the dryer. I told him that my favourite flavour of ice cream was mango because I remember my mother buying it for me from a street vendor. I told him I hated skirts because I thought I had skinny knees. I told him it may be remotely possible in a far away alternate universe sort of sense that I had a tiny, millimetre-sized crush on Neji. I laughed until my sides hurt and cried my eyes red and puffy, and in the end I forgot why Gai had needed to call me out there in the first place.
When the stars began to fade in the early glow of dawn and we stood up and stretched, Gai placed a hand on my shoulder and smiled. "Remember this, Tenten: Whenever you feel overwhelmed, whenever you need perspective, whenever you forget to enjoy your life, you can always look up into the sky. It's the one thing in this world that will never truly change."
Gai's words were always in the back of my mind, but soon enough real life swept me away and I was once again sparring with Neji and Lee, sharpening and polishing my weapons, collecting paychecks for bloody missions. I forgot about the stars; a ninja's life has no place for them. Or so I thought.
I wish I would have listened to Gai's advice.
I wish I would have listened before it was too late.
Before the only stars left were the sparks from the Konoha forest as it burned.
The skyline was blood red with clouds the colour of autumn leaves and I didn't know if the sun had set because all you could see was the Kyuubi's fire casting long shadows over the village. It would have been beautiful if it weren't so horrific.
I watched from the top of the Hokage tower as the legendary monster breathed flames across the landscape. I tried not to think of how many friends, acquaintances, peers, allies, mentors I lost in that instant. Selfishly, I hoped Gai wasn't one of them. In the face of such destruction I felt powerless and small. Fragile and mortal and as though nothing in my short life had really mattered in the grand scheme of things. I looked up into the sky, searching for the stars, but not even they could shine through the smoke.
A rush of wind alerted me that Neji and Lee had just landed on the rooftop as well. Lee took my hand in his, giving it a reassuring squeeze.
"It'll be time for the second wave soon." Neji's voice was grim as his white eyes took in the devastation. The tower swayed as another explosion erupted in the forest.
"I don't know how they can stand it," I whispered more to myself than to them, my words almost drowned out by the sound of the distant fighting.
"How who can stand it?" Lee asked gently, and I admired how he could still care so much for others when our lives were about to end.
"The people who had to see this twice."
An earsplitting siren tore through the Kyuubi's roars and the crackle of fire. Lee pumped his fists in the air and ran towards the edge of the roof. "That's our signal everyone! Let's go show that fox the youth of our village!"
He turned and gave me and Neji his nice-guy pose, dramatically backlit from the explosions of the battle raging in the distance. Before he could dash away and leave me with more regrets than I already had, I ran towards him and threw my arms around him in a hug. Not a lady-like or even casual hug – a real rib-crushing one, 'cause blood doesn't always mean family and I've never had a brother like Lee.
"I never thought I'd say this, Lee," I told him as I blinked back tears, "But I hope I see that pose again."
"Of course you will, Tenten." I'd never heard him so serious before, so determined as he returned my embrace with equal force. "I promised I'd be the one to defeat the Kyuubi if Sakura didn't go out with me, remember? I always keep my promises."
He kissed me on the forehead and he was gone.
Neji and I stood alone on the rooftop, watching the green blur that was our best friend dart toward the walls of Konoha and the destruction beyond. I swallowed hard and wiped the back of a hand across my eyes, not bothering to hide my actions from Neji.
He looked at me with those blank eyes I knew so well. "Let's go."
Neji had never been a man of many words, but I couldn't leave things at that. I couldn't leave things at that because there needed to be something better to sum up all our years together. Because he might be kind of stuffy, but he was still my friend. Because once we left there'd be nothing else but fire and blood and I wasn't sure my life had a place in the future. Because I didn't want to regret that I'd never had the courage to do something I should have done long ago.
In that instant, I made up my mind.
I didn't know what to say and I've always been more the sort for actions anyway, so I stepped towards him, grabbed the collar of his robes, stood on my tip-toes and kissed him.
It wasn't an amazing kiss. Not that I had any past experiences to go by, of course. My lips were dry and they made a funny smacking noise, but I don't care. Neji stood rigid, completely taken by surprise, his mouth frozen in its usual thin, hard line, but I don't care. The sky is on fire and there's a giant fox scarfing down ninja as appetizers, but I don't care. I'm eighteen and I just kissed Hyuuga Neji, which means that if the Kyuubi doesn't kill me first, the byakugan will get me soon enough.
But I don't care.
I should've kissed him every day, back when everything was as peaceful and quiet as a ninja village could be and the Kyuubi wasn't lighting up the horizon like a great orange sun for our dying world.
Neji's eyebrows were slowly making their way upwards as reality dawned on him. Before he could say anything and finish ripping my pride to shreds, I screwed up my remaining courage and blurted out, "I've wanted to do that for such a long time."
I looked into his pupil-less eyes and for the first time since this whole disaster started, I felt good. I felt like I had finally accomplished something amazing. Getting into ANBU was nothing compared to this.
Neji opened and closed his mouth a few times, like he had something to say but couldn't find his voice. Finally, he took a deep breath and said, "So have I."
I can say with pride that I've never read a romance novel, but I swear to you that this kiss was straight from the best one. The earth trembled and I saw fireworks, if only because the Kyuubi had started blasting its way through the walls of Konoha. Neji crushed me against him, all passion and desperation, and everything could have ended right then and there and I wouldn't have noticed. My knees weak, I clung to him as he broke the kiss.
"Wow," I said stunned, my own personal universe exploding because this was too good to be true and why couldn't this have happened long before we were all going to die? "I can't believe you just did that. The world must be ending."
"The world is ending, Tenten." He didn't have to tell me. I knew it already because not only had I just been kissed by Neji – Hyuuga Neji! – he was now also smiling.
He kissed my nose and my cheeks and my eyelids, because if he couldn't now when could he ever? I moved to kiss him again, but missed and my lips landed against the corner of his mouth, which was grinning like I'd never seen.
"When we get back," he told me as his fingers wound themselves into my hair, undoing the buns and letting the braids tumble down my back, "I'm going to do this properly. I'm going to ask you out with flowers and chocolates – Wait, what am I saying? That's stupid – I'm going to ask you out and give you a new katana, one of those fancy ones that never goes dull –"
I ran my hands across his chest. "-And then we'll stuff our faces at Ichiraku and spend all night doing things that people do when they go on dates –"
"- like using genjutsu to sneak into the movies –" His hands moved over my back and lower, lower.
"- and we'll make out on top of the Hokage monument –" I nuzzled against his neck, licked at the soft skin.
"- and I'll walk you home and then –"
"- and then what?"
I could have sworn he blushed. "And then… Well, you know."
My face hurt from smiling at him. "Yeah, I know. Let's just skip dinner and those other things altogether, okay?" And he actually laughed – sure sign of Judgment Day.
The siren announcing the second wave blared again and we held hands, leaping off the Hokage tower and towards our fate. We grinned at each other as though the Kyuubi didn't stand a chance in hell against our teenage hormones.
And it didn't, really, because a few kisses weren't enough. Not when I'd spent my entire life worrying about rules and proving myself and what other people thought and everything that didn't really matter. Kisses weren't enough when I'd finally found my courage and realized that life is too short and I should've done this long ago – should've done whatever I wanted every day.
Kisses weren't enough by far, because I'm eighteen and I want it all. Because by the end of today I want the stars to say that even as the world is ending, I, Tenten Wang, am finally alive.