A/N: I'm more in a drawing mood today, so this is difficult. Still, no one ever said being a writer would be easy? Or if they did, they were stupid.

For all those that are so very concerned, fear not! Neji gets his happy ending, eventually.

EDIT: Fixed the Hanabi age mistake.

View the Puppet Master
By: Reggie

Chapter 16

They still hadn't managed to get a present for Hinata. TenTen claimed that once Naruto showed up, Neji had been too distracted to be at all useful. She was probably right, but Neji found he didn't care. His new lack of interest in, well, anything really, was completely impractical. But the more he tried to get over this feeling of unhappiness, the worse it seemed to get.

His brain was telling him to let TenTen go, that he couldn't compete with Naruto, but those stupid emotions were refusing to listen again.

"Neji, you've got to sit still." The hairbrush hitting him smartly on the top of the head made Neji wince. Twelve and a Genin or not, Hanabi could put power behind a blow when she wanted to.

Hinata's eyes met his in the mirror, and his cousin shrugged helplessly. Neither of them had a clue why Hanabi had insisted on helping Neji get ready for 'the dinner of doom' tonight, but the younger girl had simply refused to listen to Neji's protests that he could manage just fine on his own.

They had compromised. Hanabi could do his hair—as in, she could brush it—and pick out his wardrobe as long as Hinata was there to supervise. Neji had enough experience of Hanabi finding some way to humiliate him to know better than to take her on alone.

Crafty brat.

"Maybe sitting still would be easier if you weren't pulling so hard." Neji was not a tender headed individual, and normally he would suffer through Hanabi's yanking in silence, but she was distracting him from his goal of convincing himself to not be in love with TenTen anymore. He only had an hour or so before she came for dinner, and if he wasn't done by then he just knew tonight would not go well.

"I'm not pulling hard; you're just being a baby." An extra yank for emphasis, and Neji winced again. He wasn't even sure what the brush was getting caught on. His hair didn't have that many tangles, even on a bad day. Hyuugas were genetically unable to have snarly hair. "You're being a baby about this, and about your girlfriend."

"TenTen is not my girlfriend. She is my teammate." Did he just snarl at Hanabi? This was worse than he thought.

"Right. Because nobody has ever fallen in love with their teammate before. That's why Daddy is trying to persuade Hokage-sama to have all the people on genin teams be the same gender." Hanabi all but chirped the last sentence, which would have been creepy if she'd been talking about anyone else. As it was, that was her standard tone when talking about her father. As far as she was concerned, Hiashi-sama was the ultimate authority on everything.

It was a little bit frightening just how much she admired him.

"Hanabi-chan, if Neji-niisan says TenTen isn't his girlfriend, we should believe him." Hinata smiled, and some how Neji knew that she knew that he was both lying and telling the truth at the same time. TenTen wasn't his girlfriend. That didn't mean he didn't love her.

Hanabi scoffed and held her small hand out over Neji's shoulder. He put the band he'd been commanded to hold in her open palm. "Neechan is to trusting. Neji just doesn't want us to tease him about being in love. Why else would he pick to bring a ragamuffin in to show Daddy?"

Neji was mildly insulted that she'd called TenTen such a nonsensical thing, but as there were much worse thing Hanabi could call her, he chose to say nothing about it.

"TenTen is a very sweet kunoichi. She is also incredibly powerful." Hinata was grinned coyly at him in the mirror, and Neji suppressed a shiver. Since when had Hinata gotten to be so scary? "Underestimating her would be most unwise, Hanabi-chan."

That was the truest statement Neji had heard all week.

The band snapped against Neji's neck as Hanabi locked the ponytail into place at the nape of his neck. Hanabi had left his forehead completely exposed— she was probably trying to send him a message, but Neji refused to rise to the bait and didn't move to cover the seal. If she wanted to try to embarrass him that way, then let her. It couldn't hurt him anymore.

Well, physically it could, but he didn't particularly want to think about that.

Hanabi stepped back to admire her work, flipping the long ponytail idly between her hands. "She doesn't belong to a clan, does she?"

"Yes." TenTen's parents and what they were—a little investigation yesterday had told Neji they were a drunken gambler and some sort of almost-prostitute— and were not had been a concern for Neji since his visit to her house. Hopefully, his family would simply accept his prepared answer. "Not a Konoha clan, however. Her parents were originally from Mist."

Hinata nodded sadly, obviously understanding the implications of the time and location. Hanabi just looked curious. "Really? What can she do?"

Neji had prepared for this question, too, but he could only hope that he was right. "It gives her Ice Chakra."

"Ice Chakra? Like, instead of water?" Hanabi looked fascinated, and Neji was sure she would be sneaking active Byakugan looks at TenTen all night. It had been so long since he'd needed to look at TenTen's chakra to anticipate a move or disable her—a feat easier said then done—that Neji couldn't remember whether her chakra was unique looking or not. All the more reason to sincerely hope that he was right, or that if he was not that Hanabi would not be able to tell.

His younger cousin then turned to his wardrobe and opened the door, looking over the clothes inside. "You know, Daddy has been talking about nothing but this dinner all week. He keeps saying just how important it is that you make a good impression on the council at Neechan's party. I think he's planning something."

That, at least, explained why she had volunteered to help. She wanted to make sure he didn't disappoint her father. That last sentence bothered him though. "Planning something?"

Hanabi nodded as she flicked through his clothes at rapid speed. "I'm not sure, but I think he's more concerned about how YOU look at the party than Neechan."

This probably suited Hinata just fine. She always did much better without her father looking over her shoulder. If the relieved look on her face was any indication, she was downright happy about this arrangement.

Neji wished he could say the same. "What does it matter what they think of me?"

A shrug from the youngest of the trio. "How should I know? I just know that Daddy just says it is. I heard him say that if you don't do well, all of his plans will have been for nothing."

"What plans?" Neji whirled to face her, but found himself getting a kimono shoved into his arms instead. He ignored it. "Hanabi, what aren't you telling me?"

"I'm telling you all that I know." Her face was serious, though this didn't actually say much as Hanabi pretty much always looked that way. "I thought it best you were aware of the expectations, is all."

He nodded his acceptance of her story, more because it was pointless to argue with her than because he actually believed she was telling him all she knew.

Seemingly satisfied that he would heed her warning, Hanabi headed toward the door. "We've got our own clothes to get dressed in. Come on, Neechan."

Hinata rolled her eyes in the most affectionate manner a person could ever manage. She walked over to Neji and lightly tugged some of his bangs free. Not enough to cover his forehead completely, but enough to frame his face. Because it was Hinata, he did not flinch as her fingers lightly brushed his seal in the process. He had nothing to fear from her, and he knew it. She smiled, but said nothing, before following Hanabi out the door.

With a rather put upon sigh, Neji held up the kimono that had been selected for him. It dark blue, nearly black, with an illustration of the overnight birth of Mount Fuji, with the tiny figures of the family of farmer Visu staring up at it in the dark night. A simple yet elegant piece.

Whatever Hanabi's ulterior motives, she was sincere about one thing—she wished him to make a good impression.