Of all the sights in the world, this was the least that Hyuuga Neji expected to walk in and see that morning.
Wearing a green apron with Maito Gai's face, address, phone number and signature sewn on it, Konoha's weapon expert and his sparring mate Tenten was bent before a wok. Her hand gripped a long-handled ladle in ways that made him think of everything combat and nothing culinary. Her lips were curled in an irritated manner as her auburn eyes scanned the cookbook, which at that unfortunate moment was balanced precariously on the magnetic spices rack overhead.
"I didn't know you had a spice rack," he remarked.
Tenten threw him a startled glance, but as expected of the continent-famed weapon mistress, she quickly recovered. "Never had one till last night." She went back to searching for any hidden context behind the bulleted list of ingredients and procedures on the recipe. He decided against pointing out to his stubborn teammate that it was simply a recipe book, not a piece of Masonic-themed novel that merited such devoted scrutiny.
He stopped by the counter to furtively glance at the wok's content; it was not very encouraging. Sighing quietly, he proceeded to the lone available seat in her kitchen-cum-dining room. "So what made you consider that life-changing decision?"
He watched her turn to him, brown eyes narrowed. "What life-changing decision?"
"To build a spice rack." Spice racks meant kitchen, home organization and domestication—none of which was synonymous to his sparringmate.
She shot him an annoyed look—the only one he silently permitted to do so. "I'm catering to my womanly whims, is that so shocking?"
"You have no idea how much." He heard the news from Rock Lee last night, but he had to come to her pad to personally confirm it with Tenten herself. What he just saw this morning more than completely verified it.
"Feel free to tone down on your sarcasm anytime, Neji," she said, rolling her eyes.
He never felt compelled to become derisive when it comes to Tenten, but at that moment, she seemed unconcerned to accommodate neither explanations nor protests from him.
Tenten could feel her teammate's eyes watching her intently, for reasons that escaped her. His presence in her pad was also puzzling; a couple of days ago, she heard from Gai-sensei and Lee that he was going to be away for a week to meet with his counterpart jounins from other villages.
A few days after his departure, she was sent to the Godaime's office. It was then that she was handed her mother's letter—it was apparently entrusted by her mother to the Sandaime because she felt that her daughter's teacher, Maito Gai, was "a strange and seemingly irresponsible character." The letter was passed on to the Godaime by the Hokage's aides after finding it in one of the dusty shelves that belonged to the Sandaime.
That was why as much as she wanted to share the Godaime's news with Neji first, she was not able to. I didn't expect him to be home so soon though.
She opened her mouth to voice out her thoughts, but Neji interrupted her.
"Your wok—it's on fire."
Her heart leapt to her throat when she saw the cooktop's flames that seemed to dance out of control. "I-Is it supposed to? Be on f-fire, I mean?" She swore she was supposed to be steaming vegetables!
"You're the cook, not me," she heard him supply most unhelpfully from behind.
She grabbed the cookbook and flipped through the pages frantically. "What a useless book! Where's the part that tells you when is a fire alright and when is it about to devour your kitchen?"
"Apparently, cookbook authors have not yet anticipated readership similar to you," he commented wryly as he watched her throw a pitcher of water on the burning wok.
Neji took one look at the burned vegetables she hesitantly served him, then he looked away pointedly.
"That bad, huh?" said Tenten woefully. Since there was no other available seat, she sat down on the kitchen counter instead. "I've been practicing since last night, but my vegetable supply is dwindling down, so I don't think I can do any more practice cooking sessions. This is seriously straining my food budget for the month."
"Does your fiancé require cooking skills?" he asked, turning to her with a hint of curiosity.
"My mother emphasized in her letter that the best way to a man's heart is through his stomach," she replied in a clueless manner. "But I asked Gai-sensei and he said that while some cooking skills are handy, it's more important for a wife-to-be to have a glorious fashion sense."
Which explained her apron, thought Neji with a sigh. Though his teammate not owning an apron was very possible, too.
"What about you, Neji?" Tenten asked, swinging her legs gloomily. "You're a man, too, right?"
He looked at her as if he couldn't believe she was asking him that question.
"Do you think… well, does it matter to you if the woman knows how to cook or not?" she asked earnestly.
"What I think is…" He looked away quickly. "What I think does not matter."
"It would have been nice to get a second opinion, though," she shrugged.
"When will you be meeting your… this man?" he asked.
"Later this afternoon," she groaned. "Which reminds me- I still have to drop by the seamstress to pick up my dress." She jumped down and looked at him smilingly. "Want to come with me to the market? I promise not to get us lost like the last time."
He shook his head. "I must first let Hiashi-sama know that I am back." He, too, got up.
Her forehead creased. "Eh? Did you come here straight from the Cloud Village?"
His reply couldn't be any farther from her question. "Wait for me this afternoon."
"Weren't you listening? I can't train with you today! My schedule's pretty hectic, and I need to leave early," she ranted.
"So we'll leave early. That will not be a problem."
She looked at him, startled. "You don't need to. I-I mean, it's really nice of you, Neji, but I'm perfectly capable of going there on my own."
"Without a doubt," he agreed. "But I imagine that you're planning to walk on foot to that man's village, yes?"
"O-Of course not!" Although given her budget at this time, she might end up doing just that.
He seemed to have read her mind. "I can bring you there with appropriate entourage and transport."
She knew she had to be practical—she didn't want to ruin her rental dress while running through treetops and crossing over rivers. "Well, alright, you win," she said, "but do away with the entourage—I don't want them thinking I can give a sizable amount of dowry or something."
His mouth curved into a half-smile. "Already a penny-pincher at this stage of the courtship? How will you be able to woo a prince if you do not invest, Tenten?"
"Simple! By intoxicating him with my elegant beauty, sparkling wit and undeniable charm, of course!"
It was an hour past noon when Tenten heard a knock on her apartment door. She briskly walked to the front door and opened it. "You're late," she announced, pressing one hand on her hip.
Neji's eyes lingered wordlessly on her for a moment before he spoke. "My apologies. I thought women take their time to dress up for special occasions."
"Okay, I forgive you for being a stereotypical male idiot, then." She adjusted the collar of her white Mandarin formal dress self-consciously. "How do I look, though?"
For a second, Neji looked like he was heroically wrestling with something internally. Finally, he spoke. "Different."
"I-In a good way or in a bad way?" she asked, growing a bit concerned.
"In a good way," he said reassuringly.
She sighed. "This is one of the times I wish you were less honest, Neji. I could really use some motivation right now, and empty flattery ranks high as good motivators."
"That is absolutely non-sense, Tenten," he said dismissively.
"Well, you're not the one wooing a man you've never met in your whole life. If you were, then you'd like to hold on to anything that remotely boosts your self-esteem," she reasoned as they walked on the apartment hallway together. "Imagine, your own mother can't trust you to find a suitable groom on your own, so she had to assign someone to be one."
"She must have seen some cause for such concern."
She tilted her chin. "Hmm, I did tell her during one of her visits back when I was still a genin that I will not settle down till I become like Tsunade-sama." She broke into laughter. "I remember she nearly threw a kettle at me when she heard that!" She paused and frowned. "No, wait, I think she did throw it at me. The concussion must have somehow suppressed that painful memory."
"Well, anyway, Dad was there, so he intervened and told me to join him in the work shed. But I did hear my mother say before we left that she'll put my marital future in her own hands. I never believed her then." She shook her head. "I should have known, Mom. Where else will I get this pig-headedness from? Geez!"
"And this man that she picked to be your fiancé?" he asked as they both boarded the carriage.
"According to the letter, he's the only son of a wealthy merchant, but he's a little sickly, so I need to be the one to go to him." She smiled sheepishly. "Plus, the letter was handed to me too late. The man was expecting me last year, on my 18th birthday."
"Can't you just pretend to have not seen that letter instead?"
"It's tempting, but," She shook her head slowly, "I can't, Neji. All my life, I've been my father's daughter—a blacksmith's pride. I've always disappointed my mother, not only because I'm more interested with weapons than household chores, but because I've ended up spending more time with my father than her." She clasped her hands together on her lap. "So this time… this time, I want to become my mother's daughter."
"I see." He looked out at the carriage window in pensive silence. She was about to retreat to her own thoughts, too, when he spoke.
"Maybe your mother's intentions are a bit different from how you've understood it."
Her forehead creased.
However, Neji offered no further explanation. So she kept her silence, too.
After an hour of travel and tentative questions from townsfolk, they finally arrived in front of a palatial residence.
"So… is this where my fiancé lives?" Tenten whistled under her breath. "I can get used to this."
"It's smaller than the Hyuuga compound," remarked Neji, slightly miffed.
Before she could give her retort, a dark-haired maid arrived. "Good afternoon! May I know who you are looking for?"
"That's Hyuuga Neji from the Hyuuga clan," introduced the kunoichi, "and I'm Tenten. I'm here for Kanzaki Meguro, please?"
The maid's hand fell on her mouth. "Y-You are… Kanzaki-sama's wife-to-be!"
"Wow, I sure am famous around here," remarked Tenten dryly as she watched the maid dash towards the house in panic.
"Please have some tea," the maid said in a fidgeted manner as another maid served them the beverage. "The mistress will see you shortly."
"The mistress, you say?" asked Tenten, frowning. Beside her, Neji proceeded to calmly sip his drink.
"Kanzaki Sakuya-sama, She is—"
"Meguro's mother," interrupted a female voice from behind. Tenten saw the maids move out of the receiving area swiftly.
The matronly woman was huge, even by male standards. She towered at close to seven feet that she literally had to look up at her to meet the woman's gaze. But what a grand, luxurious tower she makes! Draped in several layers of silk finery and black pearls, she was the perfect epitome of a wealthy merchant's wife.
"N-Nice to meet you, Ma'am," she greeted, holding out her hand eagerly.
The woman merely looked at her waiting hand. "You are late. We were expecting you a year ago."
She dropped her hand to her side, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, my mother's letter did not reach me on time."
"And blaming your mother for it, too. How shameful!"
"Your mother was my closest confidante back when she was still alive," recounted Sakuya, fanning herself with a painted fan. "She was a plain woman, but her eye for style and beauty is enviable. Hence, I made her my wardrobe keeper.
"She would patiently listen to my stories, but there was one time that she looked upset and didn't want to hear my usual tales. So out of boredom, we switched roles, That was when she told me about you, how at a young age you seemed to be too much of your own woman who would refuse to submit to any man. She was distraught just imagining you alone with no one to care for you at golden age."
Tenten chuckled to herself. Her mother's penchant for drama was vintage.
"Hence, I told her about my son, who seemed to be doomed to a solitary life after he sustained a serious injury on his lower half of the body during a training. We agreed for our children to get married on the girl's first adult birthday," The woman shot her a miffed look. "But lo and behold, you arrive a year late. This is ridiculous!"
"…so can I still marry your son?" she asked, in an effort to cut to the chase.
The mother glared at her in return. "How audacious of you to think that my son will be sitting around, twiddling his thumbs and waiting for you!"
"I waited, Tenten. For 10 months, I did." An equally tall young man with short brown hair and green eyes framed by eyeglasses wobbled down the stairs, assisted by his crutch and a couple of maids.
"Meguro, you shouldn't have forced yourself to come down here!" Sakuya's glacial demeanor instantly melted into concern for her son.
"But I've wanted to meet her for a long time." He then turned to Tenten smilingly. "I've heard so much about you."
"I… wish I can tell you the same thing," she said, laughing uncomfortably. "I-It's so nice to meet you, Meguro." She offered her hand, which he happily accepted.
Beside her, Neji coughed politely.
Meguro's jade eyes went to the pale-skinned man. "And he is…"
"Hyuuga Neji, my teammate," she quickly introduced. "He escorted me here out of pure goodness in his heart."
Neji nodded politely, but said nothing else.
The rich heir turned to her again. "Let's take a walk outside, shall we?"
Sakuya's face immediately scrunched up in disapproval. "It's too cold outside! You can't go out, Meguro!"
"We won't be out for too long," he assured her. He then turned to Neji. "Please take care of my mother. And Tenten-san is perfectly safe with me. I do believe she can outrun me anytime."
Neji nodded silently as Tenten sweatdropped. "Meguro… I don't think that kind of request… is needed."
Her fiancé led her to a gazebo built in the middle of the tiny garden of bonsais and flowering plants. There were no seats, so they leaned on the rails instead, enjoying the early spring breeze.
"I appreciate you coming here still to fulfill our mothers' wishes, Tenten."
"To tell you the truth, I've disappointed my mother way too often, so I wanted to do something nice for her for a change, something a filial daughter would do," she confessed.
"That's one thing we have in common," he replied, grinning. "I, too, often feel I let down my mother, after the accident. She wanted me to become a medical nin, and I grew up wanting that, too. But with my condition right now, I'll just be in the way.
He took a deep breath. "I wanted to please her and assure her that I am still her able son despite these useless limbs. I guess that's one of the reasons that in these modern times, I ended up getting engaged to a thirteen-year-old girl who had no idea who I was till now."
"But it's an accident! You shouldn't blame yourself excessively for it!" reasoned the kunoichi.
"That's true, but it doesn't change how I feel about things." He smiled meekly at her. "Though out of all the things she asked me to do, our engagement was the most likable of it all. I've seen you in pictures—your mother brought them with her when she visited us. You're the embodiment of myself when I was a child: carefree, confident, and full of life."
She scratched her cheek shyly. "That's… well, thanks."
"You've grown up to be a lovely thing," he said fondly.
She choked slightly. "Y-You're kidding!"
"I'm not. And mind you, I'm not the only one who knows that." His eyes crinkled into a smile. "What is the fellow's name? Hyuuga Neji, is it?"
For the life of her, she felt her cheeks turn warm. "N-Neji? No way! He is one step away from turning asexual!" Ridiculous! He can't even compliment a woman properly!
"You don't mean that. I can't think of any other reason why he would escort you here."
She held out a point finger, as if making a point. "Well, if we were meant to be, we should have gotten together long ago. Because really, we've been together since… forever?" Her tone ended in an uncertain note.
"See?" Meguro smiled triumphantly. "It would have been nice to give Hyuuga-san a little competition," He let out a sigh. "But, Tenten, I can't marry you anymore."
"Eh?" Her eyebrow arched inquisitively. "Is this like the Chuunin Exam where you can get disqualified for tardiness?"
Meguro let out a hearty laugh. "No, Tenten. It's because I'm already married. I married my nurse last month."
He folded his hands under his chin. "The last I've heard, you're being considered for a Jounin rank. Your mother will turn in her grave if I marry you at your career's prime."
"But her life's dream for me is to get married," she commented, more to herself.
He flashed her a grin. "Then again, maybe it's not just that."
When she and Meguro returned, she was awed to see that Mistress Sakuya was now giggling like a schoolgirl as Neji quietly sipped his tea. Nothing else seemed to have changed in the atmosphere, so Tenten had no explanation as to why the mistress' mood abruptly changed.
"Come visit us again, Tenten," said Meguro as he draped one arm over his wife—the dark-haired woman she mistook for a maid earlier.
"Yes, please," the woman seconded, smiling shyly at her.
She nodded. "I will. You take care of yourselves, lovebirds!" She turned her smiling gaze at Sakuya. "Ma'am, thank you for being my mother's friend."
"You didn't turn out quite exactly like her," remarked the mistress, fanning herself. "Which is good for social diversity, I guess."
Ah, she really had to thank Neji for whatever transformation he caused with the Madam.
"Goodbye now! Let's meet again one day!" Tenten happily waved at them as she boarded the carriage. "Bye!"
"Careful, you might fall out of the window," Neji warned. The carriage began to move.
She steadied herself back to her seat. "Phew! Glad that was over!" She stretched her arms lazily then proceeded to tuck her legs underneath her chin, as she was accustomed to after a long day of training.
"Here." Neji threw a blanket on her lap, and only then did she realize that she was not wearing her usual training outfit. Her skirt had indecently hiked up her smooth legs.
"T-Thanks." She hurriedly covered herself with the wool blanket as Neji looked at the opposite way.
"By the way, Neji, how did you manage to turn the Madame's mood around on a full 180 degree?" she asked curiously.
"Respect begets respect. Fear begets intimidation."
"No, really, what did you do?" she pressed.
"I called her a shark, and she was thrilled beyond words."
So Neji's unemotional compliments do work on certain types of people! She thought wryly.
"And what about you? How did your courtship fare?" he asked in what he hoped was a disinterested manner.
"It was going fine until I found out that he's already married."
Neji glanced at her. "But if he weren't, would you have stayed?"
She blew her bangs off her forehead. "Maybe not, because that would mean I have to switch villages and allegiance and stuff. Too friggin' inconvenient."
"I thought you wanted to make your mother's dreams come true."
"Maybe I took things too literally, because I never really got used to dealing with a mother," she said ruefully.
"But after watching how the Madame and Meguro interact, I realized something. Maybe my mother is not really after my marriage at all." She cupped her chin. "What she really wants for me is the same thing all mothers want for their children."
"Which is?" he prompted.
"For them to be happily surrounded by friends who care for them," replied the kunoichi. "Friends, lovers—it really doesn't matter!"
"Well, on some level it does," he objected softly. Too softly for her to hear.
She looked out of the window and watched the afternoon twilight skies. "Don't worry, Mom. I won't find it so lonely at the top. I won't be making this ascent on my own. Neji and Lee are with me! And Gai-sensei, too, even if you don't find him too reliable a teacher.
"These men don't need me to go through stupid detours like their stomachs so I can reach their hearts, because I'm a weapons expert. I go straight for my targets!" she said proudly.
"And you never miss your mark," he concluded for her.
She looked surprised at his remark, but she grinned quickly. "Yes, Tenten of Konoha never does."
Neji/Ten-hinted oneshot. Because I wanted to write an oblivious Tenten and a pining Neji for once. :p