Writing this was really, really scary to me. It's been, what, 8 long months since I last wrote a fanfic. My world has been lately dedicated to work, work and more work. As I admitted in my blog posts eons ago, one of my greatest fears is to lose my touch. Because a part of who I am now is due to this world who had inspired me since I was an insecure teenager of 14.
But I have to write this Valentine story for the people that I love, the readers who, amazingly, still e-mail me from time to time. Though I'm not as active in this field as I was before, please know that I can never say I love you guys and I thank you so much for being just so fantastic!
I hope you enjoy this two-part story. Special shout-out to Aya-chan and Omitot (the latter who believes her OTP is canon since Naruto Chapter 2 hehehe)
"This will be all for today." Hyuuga Neji landed on the wet, muddy soil, his firm stance and belying the complexity that this seemingly simple movement required. But his longtime training mate Tenten only knew too well how much years of training and innate ability it needed to drop from a six-meter height onto freshly-rained paddocks without at least losing one's stride.
But this was the least of her concerns. Although her usual timepiece—the sun—had long hidden itself beneath the dark nimbus clouds, she knew by instinct that it was nowhere near dinner time. Her teammate's presence wasn't usually required in the Hyuuga mansion until at least seven in the evening. So why was he wrapping up their training so early?
It disturbed her. Yet she didn't voice out her puzzlement. Obediently, she gathered her weapons and started to babble with forced cheerfulness about Rock Lee finally getting the elusive date with the cherry blossoms of his fiery youthful life today. It was both a talent and a curse—to be able to fill uncomfortable silence with streams of mindless chatter whenever she was tensed. Neji had indulged her anyhow, as he had always did. He nodded, he listened.
But at some point, while she narrated to him how Lee voice-acted the courtship poem he and his mentor penned for Haruno Sakura, Neji suddenly spoke. It was so sudden, that she—lost in her gratuitous monologue—didn't hear it first. She only realized this when she felt his thumb flick on her forehead, causing her to cease all speech.
Her eyes met his uncertainly. He was looking down at her as well, his usually taut facial muscles somewhat more relaxed. It seemed like he was almost smiling, but she wasn't able to know for sure because he spoke again.
"I dislike repeating myself, Tenten. Count yourself fortunate that you are always an exception to my rules." Before she could protest, he continued, "I will have dinner tonight with one of the councilmen's daughters from the Rock village. I need you to come with me."
Her eyebrow rose involuntarily. So that was the reason why he ended their sparring session earlier than usual. However, she wasn't surprised about his dinner appointment. After Hyuuga Neji ascended to the top Jounin position in the Hidden Leaf village only after four years, ladies left and right flocked and craved the company of the mysterious Hyuuga who rose from the barren ranks of the Branch family to being the second-in-command of the entire clan.
But this was the first time that he requested her presence in these dates. She didn't know what his motive was, and although she was never keen towards saying' no' to this man, she found herself hesitant to reply at once.
Neji noticed it. And he wasted no time rubbing the fact to her face. "Do you have other plans for tonight?" He knew there was none; it was his veiled way of stating, 'Did you just say 'no' to me?'.
"None that I recall." She knelt down and continued gathering her tools. It bought her time to think; to decide whether she would show him how she really feels about his request, or just feign nonchalance and do as he says.
Was it his way of showing her how different the two of them were, as he would soon become the man of the world? They both knew that his growing busy tending the social invitations coming his way from all of the very eligible and desirable ladies of the continent was just a start.
Or perhaps, he was just being the typical Neji, needing her presence to check the perimeter of the date venue for possible bad elements from the Rock village who might assassinate him.
Neji, Neji. Neji the banker. Neji the driver. Neji the fisherman. The words of an old nursery rhyme they used to sing in class went back to her. Neji, whom she thought she knew best of all people, but actually didn't have any clue about. A farmer, a dancer or a pilot. Neji, who are you really now?
She shut her eyes tight. Oh, but she didn't care that Neji only saw her as a battle accessory that he happened to be quite benevolent to. What was important was that she was useful to him.
Despite how she started to hate him ever since that fateful night that he dismissed her affections for him, she was drawn to the fact that he needed her. That he needed her in some way so he could function. He could cut his left arm if he deemed it necessary, but not his ties with her.
"Then you will come with me." His words resounded with finality.
"I don't have time to change." It was the best show of defiance that she could muster.
His gaze traced every part of her body piercingly. She didn't flinch; although mud-spattered and disheveled, she met his stare squarely.
His mouth broke into a tight smile. "Very well. Come as you are."
It seemed like a lifetime ago when she foolishly thought that because he never showed any outwardly disgust, annoyance or unpleasantness towards her, it meant that he harbored feelings towards her.
It may have been chemical imbalance caused by puberty, or perhaps she was a dreamy teenager of fifteen that was smitten by the notion of romance, but in the night of February 14, she found herself filled with boldness she never knew. She came to him and requested that he accompany her in a stroll that night. He agreed, giving her morale even a greater boost.
Some minutes into their walk, she suddenly ran up and blocked his way. Cheeks flushed, she offered him the expensive hearts-shaped chocolate that she saved her mission reward for.
She waited for him to react, to say anything, to look anything like he knew what she was trying to tell him.
He remained silent and poker-faced.
Frantically, she babbled. She only remembered telling him how she had admired him secretly since they were eight—it was a sudden rushing river of incoherent words and phrases that at her tender age she attributed to powerful, moving love but she only knew now as embarrassment and despair when he left her hanging in a noose of her own making.
When she finished, chest heaving in speaking too much too quickly, she waited with bated breath for what he would say. A 'thank you', an apology, even a smile—none of them materialized in his face. He simply sidestepped her and walked off, telling her to go home as well because it was getting late.
She recalled hot wet tears springing from her eyes, but she held on to the last remaining shreds of her bravado. She caught up with him and told him again that she loved him—and then asked if there was any chance, miniscule as it might, that he liked her, too.
His words were something she would never fail to forget, because it changed everything about the way she thought she knew about him.
"You're being rather arrogant by adding meanings to an otherwise insignificant liaison that we have. I need you, Tenten. Love is not among the reasons why I do."
After that night, her first instinct was to leave him alone. Yet when she trudged back to her pad that same night, she grew resigned to the fact that it was impossible. She couldn't envision her life without him, the possibility of facing enemies and danger without knowing that she's got his back and his hers. Separation from him was like losing connection with the world she built her life around on.
And so the next morning, she returned to their usual sparring spot, where she found him resting on the treetop, pensively watching the skies.
He was mildly surprised to see her, but he didn't say anything. On the other hand, she unrolled her scroll serenely, telling him that it was alright that he didn't feel anything for her, but that she would like to stay by his side for as long as he needed her.
Until this day, she was with him. The promise was made ten years ago.
Neji took her to a mansion that rose above the hills of the humble Rock village. Her hawk-like eyes expertly scanned the surroundings—the cardinal rule for all shinobis was to familiarize oneself with the environment, and then make it one's own. She knew that beneath the cold cordial ties among and between the nations making up the continent lies the power-hungry ambitions of the various leaders to topple one another and lord over the weaker countries.
This knowledge makes her wary over seemingly trivial meetings between important figures of different villages, such as this one that Neji was having. Yet she admitted that a significant part of her thinking was influenced by petty jealousy. The ten years of hurting all but prepared her to watch Neji flirt and woo different women, then drop them like hot potatoes.
There were many aspects of Hyuuga Neji that she couldn't explain, but she never said one word about it. One of the lessons she learned after first breaking her heart was to keep her mouth shut.
"Tenten?" He turned to her expectantly, waiting for her report on possible people that had picked up their trail.
"Negative." Her conviction rose from years of doing stealth missions that nearly cost her life several times. Lessons earned from those kinds of learning situations were difficult to forget.
She expected him to turn his back on her and continue walking, but to her puzzlement, his gaze lingered at her. The moon had risen well above them, but thick dark clouds suffocated its soft silver glow. She could barely make out his face—only feel his intent look that seemed to trace her contour.
"Is there something wrong, Neji?" she asked quietly.
"No." Then another softer, "no" from him. They both walked into the mansion.
The person waiting for them inside the parlor was a petite, young girl with long silver tresses. Garbed in lily-white kimono, she ushered them to sit on the immaculate white silk pillows. Tenten hesitated, all too well knowing how her muddy state could ruin the expensive cloth covering of the pillows in seconds. However, the silver-haired child smiled most welcomingly at her that she had no choice but to reluctantly come in. She gulped silently when she saw the grimy footprints she left, leading to the door.
"It's been a while, Hyuuga-san." The girl bowed at him. "I'll be back with some meals shortly."
He acknowledged her with a nod of thanks. Tenten's eyes followed the small figure until it disappeared from her sight, her mind working furiously.
"You wish to share something about her?" he asked, glancing at her. She turned to him, and was met by his two amused pale eyes. Sighing, she said (while self-consciously rubbing the grime off her cheeks), "She's so young, Neji. Won't you get arrested by the Godaime for cradle-snatching?"
He made a sound akin to a chuckle. "Thank you, Tenten. I'm glad you liked her."
And they say my opinion counts. She fell silent when the child returned, this time with a very old-looking woman accompanying her. She sweatdropped. Is Neji interested in necrophilia, too?
"My name is Patience," the child began. "And this is my twin sister, Charm."
Tenten's mouth dropped open.
"Patience is my twin brother," explained the old woman.
The kunoichi was still frozen in shock, as Neji reached for his own plate and then placed another plate in front of her.
"Tenten, please." He motioned her to pick up her chopsticks, to which she obliged after a couple of seconds of dazed thinking.
She had a feeling that this night was going to be long and eventful.
To be continued