and the wheels just keep on turning
the drummer begins to drum
i don't know which way i'm going; i don't know which way i've come
* * *
Neji felt uneasy. And he didn't know why.
Well, actually, yes he did: Tenten had been gone on her mission – her "first solo A-Class!" as she had excitedly told him – since yesterday. It was perfectly natural to worry a little about her, to wonder if she was doing well in the hellishly hot climate of Suna, if she had been able to track down the missing-nin, if she'd have to fight. This wasn't the first mission they'd taken apart, and it wasn't even the first A-Class, but…
Yes, that was perfectly normal. But he had seen the mission profile, and it was nothing she wouldn't be able to handle – to track the missing-nin down, especially with Gaara's full cooperation, would be no hardship for her research-oriented mind, and the missing-nin was levels below her in terms of combat aptitude. Added to that, he knew that in Suna there were very reliable and very formidable allies close to hand.
So, to be uneasy was understandable. But to be so unnerved that he jumped at odd noises yet missed entire lectures; to find himself absent-mindedly wandering into the strangest places; to actually have caught himself chewing at the ends of his hair…
No, Neji wasn't in a stable state of mind. And somehow, when he tried to image Tenten coming back hale and whole to Konoha, her mission deftly successful, in order to calm his worries…somehow it only made the odd pit in his stomach feel a little more odd.
It didn't help that his yearmates were treating him like a pariah. True to her word, Tenten had extracted a promise from Lee and Gai to "be nice to Neji!" That didn't stop them from glancing at him either accusingly or mournfully from time to time, somehow managing to make Neji feel simultaneously guilty and annoyed.
And Tenten (who surely hadn't expected that the entire Hyuuga clan knew of that night's debacle, and much less that they'd tell others about it) hadn't managed to extract similar promises from any of the females of their little group – with the result that Yamanaka and Haruno were glaring at him as if he'd killed, skinned and devoured kittens and puppies in front of them, Hanabi – who had taken to hanging around her older sister's friends – would periodically try to kick him in the shin, and Hinata – Hinata, who wouldn't say boo to a mouse, even if it gnawed her legs off – was giving him the cold shoulder. She wouldn't even bring tea to him in the morning any more.
Hiashi only beamed approvingly at this hitherto unexpected backbone of his eldest daughter.
* * *
Neji walked into the Ichiraku distractedly, more out of habit – Naruto had somehow made it the more-or-less de facto headquarters of the Rookie 9, with whom Neji's team was always lumped together – than out of any conscious decision. He began regretting it as soon as he looked up and saw who was there.
Teams 7 and 10 were gathered in one of the booths near the back of the restaurant, the two females of the teams fixing him with angry glares as soon as they noticed he was there. The other three boys, after gaping at their suddenly furious teammates, turned and saw Neji; understanding dawned in their eyes.
Understanding, and more. Neji kept his back very straight as he walked past the table. Shikamaru and Chouji were only bemused and a little – on Shikamaru's part – scornful, which Neji felt was very inappropriate on the part of a guy who was stringing two kunoichi along – but it was Naruto who made him…wary. Not nervous, wary. Naruto had reacted to the drama that was the latest chapter of the NejiTen story as strongly as any of the girls, perhaps a little more. That damn crusader-for-all-wronged personality of his!
And no, Neji wasn't thinking of what had happened the last time Naruto had held him responsible for a girl's suffering.
Worried, overwrought, tense and to top it all off, hungry, it wasn't a surprise that Neji snapped when he saw Naruto's lips lift slightly over his too-large canines to growl softly.
"What is your problem, Uzumaki?!" Neji hissed, spinning on his heel. The other people at the table, even the angry girls, flinched a little – but Naruto only bared his fangs a little more.
"Isn't it obvious? You're my problem."
Neji glared back, letting his veins bulge ever so slightly in the prelude to a full Byakugan. "It's got nothing to do with you. This is between me and Tenten."
Naruto sneered back. "Man, after what you did, I'd be surprised if there still is a you and Tenten."
At the jinchuuriki's incendiary words, Shikamaru let out a low whistle, while Chouji focused very hard on his noodles and the girls nodded in sharp agreement. Neji clenched his fists until the bones in his hand twinged.
"Shut up!" he snarled, very uncharacteristically. "It's not like that – we're past that, it's not an issue anymore! So shut up, and leave it! She's already said sorry…"
Naruto surged to his feet, while the others drew in sharp breaths. Blinking, feeling the atypically blind rage leave him, Neji began to feel that maybe he'd said too much.
"You asshole!" Naruto raged, trying to get at Neji. "You made her apologize for loving you? Tan'inga, langhiyaka!" he spat, reverting to some of the more exotic curses he'd learned while traveling the world with Jiraiya. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
Neji stepped back from the younger boy, watching in some fascination as the six scratches on Naruto's face darkened and shifted, turning into angry streaks that ran from jawbone to cheekbone. Sakura and Chouji were holding onto him now, while Shikamaru moved to block Naruto's way out of the booth. All five of the younger teenagers were looking at Neji with shocked eyes, as if he'd confessed to thinking that Orochimaru was really cool or something. Well, maybe the way he'd put it had sounded a little bad…
It was then, with Naruto snarling and the others glaring and old man Teuchi setting up a "Witness the Latest Episode of Konoha Love Love Live Drama, Exclusively at the Ichiraku!" sign outside that Kiba popped in to tell them that Tenten was back.
* * *
They had almost stampeded out of the Ichiraku, Naruto flinging a handful of ryo back to the disappointed proprietor to cover the costs. (Kiba would later discover having been deftly pickpocketed.) Neji was hauling Kiba along by the collar of the dog-user's jacket, demanding directions.
"At the Lion's Gate, the east side of the village," Kiba choked out. "Why…why don't you know? Hinata was fetched by Hanabi, and I saw some of your cousins heading that way earlier, with gifts and stuff…I thought…"
At Kiba's words, Neji felt that odd pit in his stomach turn into a sensation of cold falling – it felt like fear. He abruptly let go of Kiba's jacket, dumping the younger boy on his ass as the Hyuuga prodigy sped towards the Lion's Gate.
* * *
Tenten had been feeling rather pleased with herself. She had spotted a strange discrepancy in the Suna's account-books that all their analysts had missed, and it had turned out to be a bright red sign to where the missing-nin was hiding – and using his accomplice to siphon off funds from Suna's treasury. She had caught him the same day she'd arrived, earned the respect of several Suna-nin and even Temari had given her a gruff, "Good job, bun-head."
Best of all, she could go home early! She had been so eager to go home that she hadn't waited for sunrise, departing Suna while the stars still glittered in the deep blue of early morning.
And perhaps that had actually been a mistake. Maybe she should have gotten some more sleep. Maybe she should have eaten breakfast. Because obviously the journey and the lack of sleep had caused her to go delusional.
There couldn't really be a crowd of half-naked Hyuuga boys waiting – waiting for her -outside the village gates...right?
* * *
More on that later. *evil smirk*