I just wanted to write something very silly and very light, to get myself back into a mood to continue my pirate fic, Captain Neji and the Hidden Straits of Death. Thus: silliness, and fluff.
The Fine Line Between
When they were fourteen it was discovered that Hyuuga Neji was developing a humane sense of humour, almost as if it were something that came with puberty, like breasts. It took everyone by surprise, with the most surprised being Neji. Tenten would probably have been less shocked had Neji in fact developed breasts. Instead she looked on, a little wary and rather impressed, as Neji began to chuckle – not sneer! – every now and then, without a hint of cynicism or bitterness, at things that did not involve someone in pain or failing or failing painfully. It was almost, she observed to Hanabi in private, as if Neji was becoming – well – nicer. (Thereafter she and Hanabi had exchanged guffaws at the joke. Good one, good one.)
Later on Tenten would realise that it wasn't so much about niceness as it was about jadedness; Neji had never been an intrinsically unkind child, only one who had been broken early on and rendered bitter, angry. And it wasn't that Neji never used to laugh. It was only that his laughter had been utterly humourless and devoid of real enjoyment, induced by observations of cruel twists of fate, verifications of his conviction that life was but a merciless series of cosmic jokes designed to browbeat the optimistic into grim submission.
Neji was less bitter now; there was a new warmth to his laughter, and Tenten thanked Naruto for it. Well, most of the time anyway. She wasn't quite that grateful when she found herself at the butt of Neji's newfound sense of humour, not when it was turning out to be of a decidedly dry kind, parched and sarcastic and quietly sardonic. (What was that age-old saying again? Once a heartless jerk, always a …)
There was that one time her civilian cousin had left her in charge of his pet hamster for a few weeks. (Don't ask.) After the initial outraged embarrassment (A widely-feared weapons mistress! Taking care of a hamster!) Tenten had discovered in herself a begrudging fondness for the furry little rodent, as well as a powerful allergy of wood shavings. She had managed to draft Lee into helping her with the weekly cleaning of the hamster cage, but even then by week two had found her nose permanently blocked and her face swelling up in a decidedly abnormal purple hue. When Neji and Lee dropped by her apartment one morning they found her squinting blearily at them above a set of enormous cheeks, her eyes watery slits. A large cage was placed in the living room on a raised stool, containing one very cheerful hamster.
"Tenten!" Lee had cried, rushing to the bathroom for a cold towel. "What sorcery is this? Has your youth been wilted by some deadly disease?"
"It's de stup'd hamst," Tenten muttered grumpily. She glared at the critter as it happily sprinted nowhere in its tiny hamster wheel, kicking up tufts of wood shavings in its athletic frenzy. "ACHOO! Ah we goin' t' train now, Nehjee?"
Neji said nothing. To her surprise he slid open the cage door, reaching in to grab the hamster with a deadly precision that had ended countless lives on the battlefield. The hyperactive hamster stilled immediately in his calloused palm, surrendering itself to the immense power dormant within the Hyuuga's fingertips. Its little paws rested respectfully on the top of Neji's index finger.
"The Hyuuga touch is truly a most potent force," Lee observed gravely, dabbing a wet towel against Tenten's throbbing cheeks. Tenten resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Hyuuga Neji: trained killer. Jyuuken prodigy. Hamster tamer.
"What ah yoo doin' wid de hamst, Nehjee?" she asked instead. Neji remained silent.
Tenten tried to narrow her eyes at him, but they were already so squinty she ended up closing them instead. So she settled with squinting menacingly. "Wud ah you doin', Neh-"
She broke off when Neji silently raised the hamster up to her face, holding the rodent next to her cheeks so that both it and Tenten were facing him. His gaze slid calmly from Tenten's face to the hamster's, and back again.
Then he smiled.
Lee burst into guffaws as he realised what Neji was quietly implying. "Tenten! You look JUST like the hamster! Your cheeks!" He grabbed his own and tugged them wide for emphasis, before collapsing onto his knees with long, shuddering gasps of laughter.
Tenten twitched and glared, which only managed to make Neji smile wider and send Lee into paroxysms of choked laughter. "Angry hamster!" Lee gasped helplessly. "Angry hamster!"
"Hyooga Nehjee, I'm goin' te krill you…," she snarled thickly, and Neji had laughed then, a real laugh, and Tenten had almost forgiven him because a honest-to-god laughing Neji was so rare to come by, and so honest-to-god handsome.
And then there was that other time Lee had somehow managed to convince her and Neji to help him bake a cake for Gai-sensei's birthday, in the pristine Hyuuga kitchens, no less. Against all odds they had managed to produce an edible-looking chocolate affair, perfectly round and sprinkled generously with macadamias. Tenten had been holding a sieve and carefully dusting the cake with a layer of frosting sugar when Lee had accidentally slipped on the perfectly waxed floor and bumped into her shoulder, sending a giant white poof of sugar into Tenten's face.
Tenten had blinked at her teammates, wide-eyed and chalk-faced, her face comprehensively sweetened. Lee had turned a mottled red in his effort not to laugh, and Neji had apparently never forgotten the hamster fiasco because he only smirked, leaned very, very close, and calmly traced a neat set of whiskers into the powdery whiteness of her cheeks.
Tenten never forgave him for that one, partly for the indignity and partly because she had blushed hard for a good half an hour after. It was a good thing that Neji was finally coming out of his shell and learning to grow a sense of humour, it really was, but was it too much to ask for him to practice it with someone else instead? Someone who maybe didn't have a tiny little insignificant temporary unimportant crush on him?
And so it was that Tenten warily eyed Neji one fine Sunday morning, the day after her twenty-second birthday, as they trained with Lee in their old training grounds. They were all jounin now, regularly deployed on individual missions or as members in other teams. They saw each other less these days: Team Gai was becoming more a name for their friendship than for their actual roles within the ninja ranks, and that was okay; their bonds had ceased to rely on the official ties of a genin team a long time ago. These days they trained together when they could, and dropped by each others' apartments for a meal and a conversation when their schedules allowed it.
"What do you mean, just get married then?" Tenten bit out, eyeing Neji sceptically as she hurled another giant axe in the general direction of a green blur in the distance. She and Lee had developed a fun and wholesome training game a few years ago, wherein Tenten would throw weapons at Lee and Lee would test his speed by trying to run in a circle around her without getting diced.
Neji shrugged, not moving from his meditative stance by her feet. "It would stop your aunts lecturing you about it." A faint smile betrayed his amusement at her predicament.
"Yes, but Neji," Tenten explained witheringly, "in case you haven't noticed, I don't even have a boyfriend. How am I supposed to get married?" Another axe, this time with an excessive number of exploding tags attached to the handle. "Besides, I'm a kunoichi. A jounin. I'm busy. I don't want to get married."
But a boyfriend would be nice, she thought privately, a little wistful. Despite her tomboyish reputation, Tenten was not the type of kunoichi who made it a point of pride to care only about her work, to the detriment of her personal life. She was not as openly girlish as Ino or Sakura, and no one would dispute her strong sense of ambition and drive; yet there was a balance to her character, between the kunoichi and the hot-blooded young woman, and she saw no shame in accepting the fact that, at the end of the day, she did wish sometimes for a romantic partner in lieu of a sparring partner, someone who would push her against a wall and kiss her senseless and hold her hand and whatnot. Not that that was going to happen any time soon. It wasn't like she already had a particular someone in mind, someone who had not shown any romantic interest in her whatsoever since they met a decade ago. Not at all.
"They mean well," Neji reasoned.
"Yes, but - they're just so….so….irritating!" she growled eloquently. "I mean, I just turned twenty-two, what am I supposed to do – start popping out babies here and now? In between a mission or two?" Not likely, she thought savagely to herself. Last time she checked, you had to sleep with someone for a baby to be produced, and that was definitely not happening, thanks to a certain not-a-love-interest-of-hers-who-she-was-definitely-not-waiting-for being a frigid, unresponsive asshole. How many times did she have to not-so-accidentally get caught in the rain and end up soaked through in conveniently flimsy clothing before he got the message, anyway?
"They're civilians," Neji said calmly.
He shrugged again. "They don't realise that it's difficult to raise children while on active duty."
Tenten sighed heavily. "I know. It's just – they've bugged me about this every year since I turned sixteen. Sixteen. I don't think my aunts ever got over the fact that I decided to become a shinobi, instead of joining their precious teashop."
"They sell good tea," Neji remarked mildly.
Tenten ignored him. "Besides," she muttered, "it's not like I have someone to get married to. I haven't even been on a date since Ino set me up with that awful chuunin last year, what was his name again? Kuuta? Yuuta?"
"Yuuto," Neji supplied smoothly.
"With that awful Yuuto boy," Tenten snarled, whipping out a scroll and sending a trident of all things in Lee's direction, before hurling the scroll itself for good measure. "He was such a pretentious asshole, and he was weaker than me! Like hell I'll date someone weaker than me. How am I supposed to take him seriously?"
"So find someone stronger than you." Hyuuga Neji, voice of reason.
"Easier said than done," she grumbled a little spitefully, most definitely not looking at the young man by her feet. "He has to be attracted to me too, you know."
He looked up then, smirking. "I'm sure I can arrange for you to be married off to someone in the Hyuuga clan," he said, teasing gently. "They already know you through me. As far as I can tell, you enjoy a satisfactory reputation amongst my clansmen."
Tenten snorted, ignoring the way a faint sadness suddenly pressed against her chest. "Har-har, you're hilarious, Neji. No thank you. I'd never survive in a family as traditional as yours. I'd end up offending everyone and getting fed up myself by all the formalities."
"…..I see." If Tenten had glanced down at Neji now she would have seen the slight frown darkening his face. At this moment, however, Tenten was much too busy gauging the distance between the gargantuan hooked blade in her hand and an escaping Lee, her tongue sticking out as she narrowed her eyes in concentration.
"Wanna practice your kaiten after I get used to using this knife, Neji? I'd like to check out how well it moves in the circular airflow."
The frown had disappeared, replaced by his normal blank expression. "Hn. Alright."
Her aunts' nagging aside, Tenten knew that she was in trouble – really in trouble – when Hinata of all people sat her down for a Talk on her romantic prospects, and by romantic prospects she really meant lack of. Of course, Ino had been dropping hints as subtle as mating elephants every month or so since their chuunin days, and Temari (or "Eternal Rival", as Tenten had grown to call her in her head) derived a clearly sadistic pleasure in teasing her about it whenever she was in the village visiting (terrorising) Shikamaru. But Hinata? Shy, unobtrusive Hinata, who would normally rather drink cyanide than intrude on another's privacy? Hinata, would had herself taken years upon years to even talk to Naruto without pumping half her body's supply of blood into her face?
The Talk occurred on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. Hinata had politely invited her to tea at the Hyuuga compound while Neji was off training with Hiashi, ostensibly as thanks for a set of new ceremonial daggers that Tenten had crafted for her and her sister. They sat in her room with the doors slid open, looking out onto a small private courtyard.
"Tenten," Hinata began hesitantly, gripping the porcelain cup in her hands, "Neji, he ….my cousin is not, I'm afraid, the most … emotive of men. As you well know."
"No, he isn't." Tenten raised an eyebrow and tried not to burn her tongue on the tea.
"He doesn't normally like to … display ... his feelings. Positive feelings," Hinata amended. Neji had always been awfully adept at displaying his negative feelings.
"….Indeed." Tenten wondered where this was going.
Suddenly Hinata looked at her with a rather frightening earnestness, a glint of determination hardening the usual gentleness in her eyes. "You mustn't let it get to you, Tenten. He… he does care. I'm certain he does."
With a dawning horror Tenten realised where the conversation was heading. That's it, she thought despondently, my perpetual singleton status is becoming so dire that even Hinata is in a position to offer me emotional support. Maybe I'll actually end up turning into one of those strange cat ladies, hosting thirty-two cats in my apartment while other people build families and have grandchildren and whatnot. Perhaps I can train the cats to throw kunai? Maybe I can design kunai specifically tailored for kitty dimensions. Hmm…. I wonder what kind of handle design would best suit little paws while retaining an aerodynamic surface structure …
A polite cough. Tenten blinked and realised that Hinata was watching her concernedly.
"Thanks, Hinata," she said hastily, banishing all kitty ninja army thoughts from her head and taking hurried sips of the tea. "This tea is delicious. Very fragrant." Expensive, no doubt.
Hinata leaned forwards and pressed a hand softly onto Tenten's knee. "I'm sure my cousin will come round one day and ... tell you how he feels."
Tenten stared at the hand on her knee, and then at Hinata. "About what?"
Hinata only looked at her kindly. "About you, Tenten. About how he … he returns your feelings."
Tenten blanched. "Oh! I'm not – I'm not into Neji that way," she said a little too loudly, her voice coming out a little too high-pitched. "We're just friends. Really. I'm not at all upset by the fact that he has shown absolutely no sign of affection for me above and beyond that for a good friend and teammate, or that he has displayed a distinct lack of jealousy on the rare occasions when other men have expressed interest in me. It's really perfectly all right. Absolutely."
Hinata wore a grave expression on her face as she listened. "Forgive me, Tenten. I'd just thought that – I'm afraid I may have been being presumptuous, but I must admit that I'd been under the impression that you have been waiting. For cousin Neji. After all," she added softly, "I know you care deeply about him. And it's not like you haven't received attentions from other men. You simply brush them aside."
Tenten flushed. "I haven't been waiting for Neji." Yet her insistent declaration sounded strained even to her own ears.
"I see." Hinata looked out at the courtyard for a moment, pensive.
Tenten fell into an uneasy silence. The napkin in her hand was scrunched up tightly; slowly she unfurled it, smoothed it out, folded it into a neat little triangle with deliberate care. Then she said, "I just haven't found the right person yet," in a voice that made it very clear she had.
Hinata sighed and wondered a little guiltily whether she could possibly convince Naruto to punch Neji in the head again. Maybe that would help. "Apologies for my directness, Tenten. I hope I have not offended."
"It's alright." Tenten shook her head, gazing out into the brittle spring sunshine, and thought: what am I going to do?