The holiday season was one that Lee generally enjoyed. Even in a shinobi village, the chill in the air carrying the sting of a year's loss, there was a notable lifting of spirits as those left behind made the most of having another year to celebrate with their loved ones. It was an attitude that Lee heartily approved of and encouraged, choosing, in the footsteps of his teacher, to lead by example.
Unfortunately, leading by example in this case meant following tradition, and while Lee followed as staunchly as a duckling after its mother, he would have to admit to having something of an aversion to mistletoe. Not that he would think of turning his sour attitude upon the spirit of the holidays, of course. But somewhere between incidents of standing obediently beneath sprigs of the parasite- which he would swear to this day had not been there upon his first passes through the doorways in question- while his classmates snickered and dared each other to "rescue" him-- and invariably refused-- until Suzume-sensei took pity on him and saved him by grace of a brush of lips over one of his tomato-red cheeks, Lee had come to rather dislike the stuff. It was all fun between lovers or relatives or even friends-- Lee could see that much from the outside, in the giggling and blushing and quick, awkward yet unhesitant kisses of his classmates and teachers around him-- but to force a kiss upon or from an unwilling party had always struck him wrong, which was why he could never quite work up to resenting his classmates for leaving him stranded in the doorways. Kissing should not be an obligation.
It was almost funny, really. Lee had been shocked enough at the idea that the Hyuuga clan was hosting a holiday party, even if he did suspect it was more a celebration of Hinata-sama's promotion to jounin than of the season; he would never have pegged any of them as the mistletoe type (although with their uptight way of life, maybe it was the only way any of them ever kissed). Even beyond the mistletoe, he was at a loss to understand what it would be doing hanging in a hallway so disconnected from the festivities, and he couldn't help remembering the mischief that had glinted in Tenten's eyes as she reminded him of the old Academy rules, obstinately meant to build observational and evasive skills and a sense of team: Getting caught under mistletoe meant staying put, come flood or fire, until kissed. Lee could not quite help canting toward the possibility that Tenten had sent him the wrong way towards the bathroom on purpose...
But, no! Tenten was his teammate and his friend, and his cheeks burned with shame at the idea; he could hardly begin to think of a suitable way to punish himself for even considering her of such treachery. It had been ten minutes now since he had-- quite by accident, curse his luck! -- realized the trap he had wandered into. Although the event was well-attended, Lee was, if he were to say so himself, a difficult person not to miss from a room. It would not be long now before Tenten realized that he had been gone too long and came to find him; he could see her now, eyes widening as she caught sight of him stuck here in the middle of the hall and then falling shut as she put one hand to her forehead with a sigh of long-suffering; he could hear the, "oh, Lee," and the unspoken, how do you get yourself into these messes? He would smile sheepishly and she would roll her eyes but brush a kiss over his cheek and help him find the correct path to the bathroom and wait to escort him back to the party make sure that he didn't get into anymore trouble.
Ten minutes became fifteen, and Lee could not quite help shifting from foot to foot, occasionally tapping one to the rhythm of jingles he could never remember the words to. He had wandered around a bit before deciding that he had been misdirected and heading back the way he had come, so Tenten was no doubt having a time of finding him. Lee's lips twitched at the corners, and he wondered if she would be exasperated enough to tell the tale on him when they rejoined their friends; Naruto-kun would have fun with it, Lee wouldn't doubt.
Fifteen minutes rolled over into twenty, and Lee had clenched his thighs tightly together as he rocked back onto his heels and forth onto the balls of his feet. He could picture Tenten watching covertly for his return, certain, so certain, that not even Lee could have gotten into trouble on a simple trip to the bathroom. Just a few more minutes, she would be thinking, and he'll be back. In his own defense, Lee was sure he would have been to the bathroom and back if he had been properly directed- not that he blamed Tenten, of course, a mistake was a mistake and he was even willing to give her the benefit of doubt and consider having bungled her simple directions.
Lee was-- understandably he thought-- feeling rather uneasy by the time his internal clock ticked off a half hour stuck beneath the mistletoe. If he had indeed misunderstood Tenten's directions, she could very well be looking for him in an entirely different section of the compound. Of course she would know how embarrassing it would be if she had to call on Neji's Byakuugan to locate Lee, so she would be putting it off; she would be wandering deeper and deeper into the wrong direction, and no doubt growing more worried by the minute. Lee was not looking forward to the lecture.
At the forty-five minute mark, Lee's stomach had tied itself into a tight knot. Could Tenten, unable to locate him in the general direction which he had clearly failed to follow, have assumed that he had gone home? Of course she would expect better than this from Lee, but surely she knew he would never be so rude as to leave without a word to their hosts, or to his friends and teacher... Lee was strongly considering just going on his way back to the party, but Tenten would want to know why he had been gone so long, and he could hardly lie to her. Even barring that, there was the spirit of holiday tradition to consider, and integrity beyond that. Lee idly considered ways to punish such underhanded considerations even as he felt the threatening prickle behind his determinedly dry eyes.
Perhaps the worst of it by the end of an hour was the persistent itch of being watched; it might have been Lee's own impatience crawling slowly up and down his spine or even his increasingly urgent need to visit the facilities, but he had the sinking feeling that there were Hyuuga staring at him through the walls and laughing. Or smirking, at any rate. Integrity, if Lee were to be perfectly honest, had been discarded some time ago, and what anchored Lee to the spot was a frayed thread of pride that he was loathe to admit to, familiar from years past.
("Look who's stuck again."
Snickers and giggles that no one bothered to hide behind hands anymore.
"Go on then and save him."
"Ew! You save him!"
"I'm not gonna save him!"
"Suzume-sensei! Lee needs rescuing again!")
Lee was still trying to determine if was worth swallowing past the lump that had formed in his throat, as if this situation were colored in any fewer than seven shades of humiliation already, when he was shocked back into the world at hand by a soft and achingly familiar voice.
Almost falling down in his haste to turn and face the sound, Lee could no more help the dry sob that wrenched from somewhere deep in his chest than he could the bright, relieved, likely manic smile that stretched so widely that it was a wonder the corners didn't meet behind his head. His chest and gut unclenched so suddenly that it took his breath away, and all traces of morose melted like ice cubes in the summer sun. At last-- salvation! Hinata-sama was not Tenten, and that stung somewhere beyond the edges of Lee's consciousness, in a place that did not matter, but--
Oh. Oh, wait.
Hinata-sama was a rather unhealthy shade of red; her hands were wringing and she had settled her gaze round about his shoulder; Lee was reminded uncannily of the single instance when it had looked like one of his classmates would save him. She had been quiet and kind and pretty, with dark hair that gleamed and dark eyes that glittered, and her heart-shaped face had been dusted rose as she reluctantly but surely let herself be pushed toward him; for just a moment their eyes had met and her next two steps forward had been firm; Lee's heart had skipped merrily in his chest and he could feel himself light up with hope and anticipation and the beginnings of gratitude. Then someone had snicker-giggled-- that was the only way Lee could think to describe the sound-- particularly loudly, and the girl-- Satuko, he remembered her name had been, he had always remembered people's names and he had always liked hers-- had squealed and covered her face and turned on her heel to dart back into the cover of the crowd as everyone laughed out loud and someone called for Suzume-sensei.
Resigned, firm, Lee knew that he could not expect Hinata-sama to save him. That did not mean, thank goodness, that she could not go for help.
"I... I see that you've gotten yourself into some t-trouble Lee-san," Hinata-sama said to his shoulder with the faintest whisper of a smile, and Lee had to admit that there must be a certain amount of humor in this from her perspective; she had not spent an hour trapped in a hallway, listening to the sounds of merry goings-on and potential rescue scant yards away.
"Indeed I have," Lee admitted, smiling again, for all that she could see it when she could not even bring herself to look himself in the face. "I hope you will not mind me saying so, but it is very good to see you, Hinata-sama."
The reaction was predictable enough. Hinata-sama curled into herself before she could help it, face going darker red by a shade and her expression turning sickly. Lee could not bring himself to begrudge her; it was not as though they were teammates, or even that close of acquaintances, and Hinata-sama was still a shy young woman in spite of everything. Besides, her crush on Naruto-kun was the most well-known secret in and out of their circle. It would be best to put her at ease now, Lee reasoned. No use, aside from a humor too cruel for Lee to contemplate, to lead her on and make her believe that he expected to get him out of this herself.
"I-I'll just g-get you out of this then," Hinata-sama was still addressing his shoulder as she approached, dragging her feet, hands tense as she reached out to brace herself against him. Lee, who had been drawn into the moment in spite of himself, flushed guiltily as he caught her by the shoulders and backed her up a step, smiling his gratitude and assurance when she looked up at him uncertainly.
"Thank you very much, Hinata-sama, but I could hardly ask that of you. I do not wish to speak ill of the holidays or of tradition, but this is not really something that I can stand behind from an abstract point of view. It is certainly not something that I can, in good conscience, ask of a lady such as yourself.
She just stared at him, her face flickering from one not-quite-readable expression to another-- none of them, inexplicably, hinted of relief-- and her mouth opening and closing a few times though no sound that Lee could distinguish was forthcoming. At last, fingers knotted tightly as she looked at his chin beneath her thick lashes, she spoke, however hesitantly.
"I, um, I-I could fetch Neji-nii-san, if that would be preferable...?"
It was a moment before Lee found the page she had skipped ahead to, and it struck him dumb for some long moments, the first sounds he managed strangled and in no language he had ever heard.
"No-no-no, not at all, that's not-- not that I am trying to imply there is anything wrong with that, if someone-- if someone not me wanted-- or even if I wanted--" Lee paused, took a deep breath and hurried on before his words could abandon him again, "No-thank-you-Hinata-sama-that-is-quite-unnecessary!"
Only when Hinata-sama stepped back did it occur to Lee that he had perhaps been speaking rather loudly, and he was about to apologize when she spoke again, speaking to his feet this time, voice as quiet as ever and oddly lacking in tone as she stated rather than asked, "You'd like for me to get Sakura-san."
"Oh, well... I was thinking more of Tenten, but, yes, I suppose Sakura-san would be a fine second choice." They were friends, after all, he thought, even if they still tended to address one another formally.
"Oh, um, I... I s-see." Hinata-sama was talking to her own feet now, and Lee frowned, not sure quite when he had gotten lost here. "I'll just be a minute, Lee-san."
An apology was sitting on the tip of Lee's tongue as he watched Hinata-sama hurry away from him, but he could not make himself say he was sorry when he did not know what for; it would be dishonest, and this was not the time or place for it. Maybe Tenten, who was closer to Hinata-sama than he was, would know what he had done to upset Hinata-sama, and he could apologize properly.
It was within five minutes that Tenten was striding toward him, jaw and fists clenched and eyes as sharp as well-tended kunai. She looked rather more upset with him than he had expected, and he could not understand why Sakura-san was hurrying along at her heels, but he was happy to see them nonetheless-- he would have to thank Hinata-sama when he had been made able to rejoin the party. A greeting was poised to dive when Tenten suddenly reached out, catching his shoulders in a vice grip, digging in what he normally thought of as blunted fingernails. Close behind her, Sakura-san's jaw was twitching, eyes flickering between pity, irritation and a resigned, in-spite-of-it-all sort of amusement.
"Lee." Tenten's voice was low and harsh with forced control, her words like chewed gravel; she was not looking him in the eye, but had bowed her head. "I want you to listen-- very carefully-- to what I'm about to say to you. Can you do that for me, Lee?"
Lee had no idea what was going on, but he knew that it must be serious for Tenten to handle and speak to him in this manner, so he nodded mutely.
"Good," she said, and took a thick breath. "When you are stuck under a sprig of mistletoe-- when a girl tries to kiss you-- you do not," and her fingers, against all odds, clutched at him tighter, her own arm and shoulder muscles flexing from the strain of a build of potential energy, " I repeat, do not--" and here Tenten's tight coil of control sprung, for her neck snapped like a rubber band so that she could look him strait in the eye for the split second before the hallway and the women before him turned blurry as he was shaken like a snow globe by a hyperactive child as she all but roared the tail end of her sentence, "assure her that you would rather she go for another girl, any other girl! This is something we call sensitivity, Lee- no! This is something we call common sense. Do-- you-- understand-- what-- I-- am-- saying-- to-- you-- Rock Lee?"
"Tenten-san," Sakura sounded equal parts firm and impressed, and Lee was pretty sure he saw her put one hand on Tenten's shoulder. "Tenten-san, please-- that can't be good for him."
"I don't know, maybe it'll jar his brain into activity," Tenten said even as she stopped her abuse short, hands holding Lee stock still while his vision continued to spin. "My parents had a radio like that."
"Lee, shut up. I swear, I don't know what I'll do if--"
"Tenten-san!" Sakura-san, looked like she was hanging by the end of her rope but still struggling to be patient and understanding, though this seemed to be directed more toward Lee than Tenten, and Lee was getting more confused by the second. "Lee-san," Sakura-san said, her expression carefully soft as she looked at him, "why did you tell Hinata that you didn't want her to kiss you?"
"Yes, tell us, Lee," Tenten chewed and spit out the words, her eyes boring holes through Lee's. "She was a little too distraught to tell us much more than that you still needed someone to save your scrawny--"
"Tenten!" Lee felt that she was rightful thrown off-guard by all of this. "I simply did not want Hinata-sama caught up in the problem. I am very sorry to have to say so, but this is a tradition bordering on the barbaric, and--"
"Wait." Tenten's grip was finally letting up, though Lee did not yet dare attempt to move. "You're telling me you did this" (and just what was "this," Lee would very much have liked to have asked at that point but was too wise to follow through on) "out of some extreme gratification of... of chivalry, is that what this is?"
"Well, yes, something to that effect," Lee admitted, frowning. He was not sure that he appreciated, or even entirely agreed with, the wording, but it sounded close enough to the mark. "I am a gentleman, and Hinata-sama is a lady, and I could not expect her to--"
"But you expect either one of us to?" Sakura-san no longer looked quite so willing to be understanding, even though Lee could pick out an undertone of amusement.
"Sakura-san, I have the highest respect for you, as you well know," Lee felt defensive in the face of even the implications of accusation, "and for Tenten as well. However, I think you will agree with me that Hinata-sama is quite a different case, and that--"
"Look," Tenten finally released Lee, albeit with only one hand, to pinch the bridge of her nose, again apparently unable to stand looking Lee in the face. "Just-- never mind. It doesn't matter." Then she was looking Lee in the eye, and he would have taken a step back from the frightening intensity that crackled tangibly from her gaze to his if he had not been trying to keep still beneath the hand that remained clutched at his shoulder. "What matters, Lee, is that you fix this. Now."
That was all the warning Lee had before Tenten was dragging him bodily down the hall by his left forearm, Sakura-san trotting to keep pace.
"But-- but, Tenten! I still need-- I never found the ba-- the facilities."
"You can pee later," Tenten very nearly growled, never losing pace, and Lee just as nearly missed an indignant squeak.
"Tenten," Lee started again, but was cut off when Tenten brought them to an abrupt halt just outside the large room where the party was being held. Somehow, Lee doubted that she would hear a word he had to say, the intent way she scanned the crowd.
"There," Sakura-san pointed. In a far corner of the room, Ino-san was chatting animatedly to a clearly flustered Hinata-sama, stepping boldly into Hinata-sama's personal space and forcing her back at a slow but sure pace. The rudeness that oozed from the edges of this scene was almost too much for Lee to take, and he was still trying to find a polite way to suggest that Sakura-san put a stop to it when he realized that he was moving again, Tenten pulling him towards Ino-san and Hinata-sama, Sakura-san close at hand. What in the world--
"Oh-oh-oh," Ino-san crooned just as Lee and his two escorts made it up to her and Hinata-sama; her blue eyes were focused at something up on the ceiling, full lips pulled into a rather, if Lee were to be asked for an honest opinion, unattractive smirk. Tenten and Sakura-san looked pleased by something, though; Lee and Hinata-sama shared a short look before turning their gazed upwards as one, seeking the cause of all this weirdness.
There was another sprig of mistletoe hanging directly above Hinata-sama's head.
Again in tangent, Lee and Hinata-sama turned they're attention back to each other. Hinata-sama looked frankly unwell, a deeper shade of red than Lee could remember ever having seen her. Her eyes darted away from his, winding up somewhere around his mouth. Lee's own eye shifted quickly, and this time he made sure to actually see what he was seeing. Ino-san was still smirking; Tenten was quite obviously trying not to glare; Sakura-san was eyeing him and Hinata-sama almost nervously; all three of them were looking expectant.
Contrary to popular opinion, Lee was not stupid. The truth crashed over him like a wave upon the shore, and he actually wondered when Hinata-sama had fallen out of love with Naruto-kun before he was blinking through his second, Really? Me, really?
A throat was cleared. Lee blinked back into reality and felt his face grow hot as he found Hinata-sama finally looking right into his eyes. Hesitantly, she rocked forward onto the balls of her feet and then onto her toes; Tenten or Sakura-san, he would ordinarily be able to tell which, pushed him forward to meet her halfway. He was watching her eyelids drift closed and feeling her breath ghost over her lips when the jolt went through him from head to toe.
He was about to kiss Hinata-sama. Hinata-sama harbored some interest in him. He was about to kiss Hinata-sama under mistletoe.
"I-am-really-very-sorry-but-I-really-must-find-a-bathroom," Lee gushed in one breath. There was just enough time to see the mortification painted in scarlet over Hinata-sama's face before he turned and darted away into the cover of the crowd, careful not to spare a glance for whatever reaction the other three ladies present were having to his strategic retreat.
If Lee were the type to be blessed with consistent luck, being discovered and taken on by Gai-sensei would have opened the doors to a charmed life. He would not be in the position he now found himself, or at the very least he would be able to get out of it. As it happened, Tenten was right there waiting when he got out of the bathroom-- he had asked Neji where it was, and had been on his way without enough time to actually see Tenten go through with kissing Hinata-sama on the cheek to free her from the unassuming trap of the mistletoe-- and she did not look happy. Lee had to remind himself that he could take her in a hand-to-hand fight in order to keep from falling at her feet and swearing to do whatever she wished of him.
"No, you listen to me." Tenten took a step into Lee's personal space, and drew himself to his full height in retaliation. Tenten did not look impressed. "That was cruel."
"It was not my idea," Lee said, refusing to feel guilty when she flinch and glanced away. When she opened her mouth-- to retort or maybe to defend herself, he did not particularly care. She might be the one who was angry, but he was the one that had the right to it, so he held up one hand and scowled, and she was surprised enough at his behavior to snap her mouth closed. "If you will excuse me, Tenten." There was none of his usual politeness, however much it made his insides squirm to be without it, and he supposed that was what kept still and silent long enough for him to get away from her.
He had not gotten more than two steps back into the party when he had a face full of angry Ino. He was not sure what business she had in this matter, and was willing to admit that was quite possibly what made her less frightening than Tenten.
"You still have that thing for Sakura, don't you?" Ino-san accused, arms crossed tightly across her chest, eyes daring him to deny it.
"No, Ino-san, I do not," Lee said honestly, scanning the crowd and trying to get around her; Ino-san was having none of it.
"Look me in the eye and say that again," she challenged, and Lee sighed, then stiffened when he felt a presence that must have been Tenten close behind him.
Staring Ino-san directly in the eye, "No, Ino-san, you are wrong."
Ino-san looked truly surprised to hear this. Lee hoped that it would get him away from her as it had gotten him away from Tenten, but she reached out and grabbed him by the arm when he tried again to move past her.
"What do you mean I'm wrong?"
"I am no longer romantically interested in Sakura-san."
Blue eye icy and narrow, "Why, what's wrong with her?"
Too polite even in his frustration to respond in a manner that seemed fit, Lee gently but firmly pried Ino-san's fingers from around his bicep and stalked purposefully into the crowd. Several people shot him looks, ranging from curious to dark, and whispers were shared behind hands and drinks and paper fans. Lee barely contained a sigh. How many people had seen? What were they saying now? How long did he have before--
Ah, there Sakura-san was. At least he could get all three of them out of the way quickly.
"Look, I realize that we were wrong to try to force you, but running away like that..." Sakura-san appeared unable to complete the thought, and pressed her lips into a thin line as she shook her head, eyes dark with disappointment. "I'd expect something more gracious of you, Lee-san."
Yes, Lee could admit that his hasty exit was... less than what the situation called for. But. What the situation did call for was not something that Lee could have provided in the state he had been in: Quite simply, he had been on the verge of wetting himself in the middle of the party, and that scenario would have been much more awkward for all involved.
"She's out in the courtyard. Lee," Sakura-san's expression dropped, her guilt a heat that Lee could feel running through the hand she laid on his arm. "I'm not asking you to run out there and propose, but please. Fix this."
Lee nodded, wondered idly if he should feel put-out that she had expected any less, and then he was walking with long, firm strides towards-- and then out-- the door that would take him to the courtyard and to Hinata-sama.
At the sight of her, though, his steps faltered and he hung back awkwardly. Two deep breaths were not quite enough to get him moving again, so he took a third and plunged deep into the night.
She did not startle, and did not immediately face him. When she did turn at last, he was pleasantly surprised to find that she looked him dead in the eye. The sad, apologetic smile on her face made his heart ache.
"I-I'm very sorry about that, Lee-san." Her gaze was steady on his, her words as clear as the star-studded sky. "I understand--"
"No, Hinata-sama. Forgive me, please, but I do not believe that you do."
This visibly shook her confidence, but she pulled herself together in short order; her eyes did not so much as flicker from his. Lee's eyes were another matter. As he took the step that would bring him to the edge of her personal space, he spared a glance upward, just slow enough for her to follow-- and follow she did, in spite of herself. When her eyes, wide now, were back on him, there was just enough space between them for her to run away. She did not.
Her lips against his were warm and uncertain of their welcome, so he reached up to cup one blood-warmed cheek. It was soft and sweet, and not too deep before he was pulling back slowly, eyes fluttering open, which was a surprise because he did not remember closing them. They were still breathing one anthers air when Hinata opened her eyes too, and gazed up at him, happy and surprised and unsure.
"Th... there's no mistletoe," Hinata said, barely audible above the rustle of dry leaves in the wind.
"No, there is not," Lee confirmed, making certain to be much louder.
Hinata reached up to put a hand over the one that still rested on her cheek. It was warm and intimate, and Lee's heart fluttered the way it used to when he so much as thought of Sakura-san, but that was okay. He had not expected Sakura-san to fall into his arms and declare her undying love and devotion for him upon that first meeting (even if it would have been nice), and Hinata was a better person than he was.
Regardless, he felt like he should say something, and had opened his mouth to do as much when a throat was cleared behind him. Embarrassed at being snuck up on, Lee straitened-- and when had he hunched over her? -- and turned, expecting to see one of the girls.
All the blood in his face rushed for cover, following after his heart, which had stuttered and fainted dead into his shoes. Behind him, Hinata gasped.
"Lee," said Neji, voice hot with reigned temper, "might I have a word?"