And... the final chapter. Thanks for all your wonderful support!
Naruto and its characters do not belong to me.
f/2.8, ISO 100
Chapter 13: Better in black and white
"What do you mean, you left him?" Lee asks, aghast. He's slurping from yet another limeade, and she's nursing her usual pumpkin spiced latte (though Tenten think she'll get another drink the next time - the spices are starting to wear on her nerves).
"Well, he fell asleep," Tenten explains awkwardly, waving her fingers in the air to try and bring her point across.
"How can he fall asleep in your youthful presence?!" her best friend exclaims, and Tenten cringes. She doesn't want to spell out the intimacy she and Neji shared, though with the way Lee is going, the whole coffee shop is going to know about their illicit evening before the end of the day. Probably before she dies of embarrassment.
"We were doing intimate strenuous activities, Lee!" she hisses, her cheeks aflame. "Now quit going on about that, or I'll shove my fist down your throat!"
"Oh." Lee has the sense to look a little remorseful, and Tenten feels a little sorry for him.
"Look, my point is, he wants more than I can give," she elaborates patiently. Neji has sent her a handful of messages over the past few days, to which she hasn't responded. She did, however, keep her promise with the flowers - a simple picture of a string of lilies hanging over her bare back, like a garland, posted on her Facebook page, meant that he should have seen that picture. (Oh, who is she kidding - he was one of the first few to 'like' that photo.)
"You aren't going to let go of your scars like that, Tenten," Lee tells her solemnly. "If you refuse to give anyone a chance, then the hurt your parents have inflicted on you will always influence your life decisions, as much as you're trying to escape from it."
She hates how he can dispense so much wisdom sometimes.
Tenten sighs heavily into her paper cup; the surface of the latte ripples beneath her breath. "I know that, Lee. It's just... scary. Plus, he's rich and famous and all that. I don't belong in that world."
"We're human - we adapt," he counters, flashing a thumbs-up. "Besides, dating Neji doesn't mean you need to be part of that lifestyle. Leave that 'til marriage." Lee winks.
"Since when did you become the relationship guru?" Tenten mutters, looking sourly at him. "You may as well help yourself with all that advice."
Lee avoids that barb this time. He grins at her, and confides, secretively, "There may be someone else that I have my sights on now."
"Oh? Who is it?" Tenten perks up, glad that the focus of the conversation is no longer on her. "Do I know her?"
"Just someone at work that I met briefly," Lee tells her, narrowing his eyes slyly. "I'll give you tidbits if it progresses into more."
"Hey! That's not fair!" she protests, leaning forwards on the table. "I've been telling you all these details-"
"Patience, young padawan," Lee says, purposefully lowering his pitch. He scrunches his face up to mimic that of an old man, and Tenten bursts out laughing. "Anyway, I saw that you're going to have an exhibition!"
"An art show, yes," she clarifies. "It won't be for some time yet - it's scheduled to open next month, and I'm pretty excited!"
"You'll be showing the pictures you took of Neji?" Lee probes, and Tenten sobers up a little.
"Yeah. He did sign a release for them, and besides, all of the pictures are anonymous, anyway," Tenten divulges. She's fortunate enough to have scored an art show so soon after beginning her search for a gallery, though she admits to herself that those pictures of Neji are nothing short of breathtaking. "I'd love if you could drop by sometime for the show."
"Anything for you, Tenten," Lee grins, and leans in close, whispering, "Does he know about it?"
"I... guess he does." She winces. There was no message to inform Neji that his pictures will be up for show (and perhaps they'd be fortunate enough that someone buys a couple of them). All the indications she gave were the Facebook posts and event that she's created to inform her friends and followers of the event, though she hasn't invited Neji to it. He hasn't given any sign of whether he'd be attending the show, either.
Tenten cringes to imagine what he must be thinking of her now, with her walking out on him, and not replying to any of his messages. At least his interest in her would probably die out sooner or later, and they can proceed to live life as before. She hopes. The pictures of him are still hanging up in her room.
"Earth to Tenten," Lee whispers, waving a hand in front of her face.
Her attention snaps back to him. "Huh?"
"Are you worried that he'll show up?" Lee asks, curious. He reaches over and steals a sip of her latte, making a face. "I don't like pumpkin spice."
"You knew it was pumpkin spice, Lee," Tenten chides, pulling her cup back to herself. "I don't know if he's going to show up... I haven't talked to him since... you know. It's going to be awkward if he does."
She shudders, and Lee looks at her with sympathy. "What will come, will come, Tenten," he advises, "Sometimes all we can do is take each day as it rises gloriously on us."
She exhales heavily, acknowledging the truth to his words.
Tenten steps back from the diminishing crowd and studies how they seem to cluster around certain photographs over others. The art show has been going on for a week now, and she has another few days before it's scheduled to end. Two of the prints have already been bought, though she's waiting 'til the end of the show before she ships them to their new owners.
It has been bittersweet holding this art show - setting up and being surrounded by all these pictures of Neji, yet knowing that she doesn't quite know where she stands with him, whether he's mad at her, or if he's just given up. (He hasn't visited at all, and Tenten hopes that he'll continue to stay away - she doesn't need any other reminders of the strong emotions she still harbors towards him.)
The gallery itself is small, about the size of a very large living room, perhaps. She's arranged various photos of him along the walls, and set a few up on easels in the middle of the room. The ones that have drawn the most attention have been those of him on the couch, hands on his face, and the bodyscapes, covered in more shadow than light. She smiles at the memories of the baseball cap - it is not a look that suits his character, though the diversion sure serves to hide his identity.
Tenten wanders along the far side of the gallery, admiring one of the bodyscapes of him that have remained among her favorites - stark lines lighting his hips and abdomen, the careful dip of his navel, and the V that leads her attention to his groin - this image is one of the two that have been bought, and she thinks she'll be a little sad to see it leave.
"Most would find it offensive that you invited everyone but the model to your show," says a smooth baritone behind her.
Her heart lodges itself in her throat, and she whirls around-
Neji is standing before her, his hands in his pockets, looking calmly at her as if she hasn't been trying to avoid him for the past few weeks.
"I, um," Tenten stutters. She glances at his pale eyes and is unable to hold his gaze, so she looks down at his suit instead, and beyond him, to the rest of the visitors, who are slowly drifting towards the door. "I suppose there's no excuse for that," she tells him weakly, and turns away, back to the print on the wall.
"Why did you leave?" Neji asks, quietly, when she begins to move away, one heavy footstep at a time.
Tenten chews on her lips, not quite seeing her framed prints anymore. She presses her nails into her palms. "I can't do this. I've told you that before."
"What are you afraid of?" is his next question, and Tenten doesn't answer him, walking instead to the easels in the middle of the room. The remaining audience hasn't paid them any mind.
She's staring blankly at one of the prints on the easels when he approaches, coming to stand just next to her, so his arm almost brushes hers, but not quite.
"How is Beauty Without Words doing?" Neji changes the direction of his inquiries, referring to the gallery show now. Tenten winces inwardly - she should've chosen a better title for it, though the urge to name it similarly to his first concert had been too tangible to ignore.
"It's doing fine. We've sold a couple of prints," she replies tightly.
"Which ones?" Neji presses, and she turns, pointing them out to him. "Do you have a favorite?"
Tenten pauses at this next question, because admitting that she likes any of them would be acknowledging that she enjoys the work they've created - and right now, she wants as much distance between herself and Neji as she can possibly get. "The one that was sold, in that corner," she blurts, and looks at the floor, wishing she were anywhere but here. Neji can probably hear her heart beating from where he is.
She remembers the texture of his lips, too, and how he felt against her throat.
Subconsciously, she reaches up to rub the backs of her fingers against her neck, for warmth, and Neji shrugs out of his jacket in response.
"You need it more than I do," he tells her, when he wraps it around her shoulders, and she protests. Tenten resists the urge to close her eyes and breathe his scent; and she fails, tucking her chin down, away from him. She's missed this mix of pine and musk.
"Thanks," she mutters, still looking away from him, and huddles within the warmth of his jacket. "I'm, um, sorry about the other day."
Neji remains silent for a while, before he finally yields, "I didn't expect you to leave."
She refrains from snapping at him, instead asking the question that's ghosted through her mind on multiple occasions, "Do you do that often? That is, bring women home with you?"
He exhales sharply, as if in a stifled laugh. "Not in a long while."
"Oh." Tenten nibbles on her lip, and turns away again, heading to another corner of the gallery. He follows.
She's still chewing on her lip when Neji speaks again. "Consider not doing that."
"Do what?" she looks at him then, and is caught in the paleness of his eyes, and how they seem to glow in the amber tones of the gallery lights.
"Biting your lip," Neji tells her, and reaches up to brush the back of his finger over said lip. "It's distracting."
"H-how so?" she mutters, but doesn't pull away from his touch. It's gentle, like he was-
Neji shrugs, and withdraws his hand. "It makes me want to kiss you."
He looks away then, as if embarrassed, and she gapes at him, her jaw hanging awkwardly open.
"Haven't you been put off enough?" Tenten asks, when she finally remembers to shut her mouth.
"I'm intrigued," he admits, glancing at the pictures on the wall. "Though I will appreciate it if you stopped running away in the future."
"You're assuming too much," she tells him at length, when her mind has slowly processed his words. (And Lee's words come back to haunt her - you aren't going to let go of your scars like that.)
"Isn't it time to close?" Neji asks, glancing briefly at his phone, before looking back at her.
Tenten follows his gaze, and blinks. Time sure flew by when Neji made his appearance. "I guess it is."
There aren't any other guests in the gallery, so Tenten does a quick scan of the place for trash, and gathers her belongings. Neji is still hovering by the door when she crouches to lock up.
"Coffee?" he asks, and Tenten is reminded of the first time he offered her that, at the political rally.
"Um, sure," she tells him, and shrugs. It can't be all that bad, right?
"Did you drive here?" Neji glances at her as they're walking along the sidewalk, turning towards a parking lot.
"I don't own a car," Tenten admits with a grimace. "They're kind of expensive in the city."
"Oh, right." Neji falls silent, and they make their way slowly to his vehicle. The street lamps cast shadows that swivel around them as they walk, and Tenten watches them with detached interest.
"You need to stop doing that," she tells him, when he opens the passenger door for her again.
"At some point, perhaps," Neji smiles, and shuts the door behind her.
Tenten shrugs out of his jacket when he starts the engine, warm air blowing soothingly onto her face. He accepts the article and stashes it in the backseat, though he doesn't begin driving immediately.
"Are we waiting for something?" she asks, and feels bare all over again when he looks at her, his features faintly lit by the lights on the dashboard. It feels much more intimate in here, when it's just him and her in this little enclosed space.
"What happened during your childhood?" Neji probes, lightly. Tenten sighs and hugs her bag closer to herself. It doesn't seem as if he's going to be driving anytime soon. Maybe she should've declined his invitation for coffee.
She sinks into her seat, and stares up at the roof of the car unseeingly, allowing buried memories to surface. "They were happy at first, my parents. They were the very image of happiness, you know, loving hugs and kisses and things like that."
Neji nods, but says nothing.
"We ran into financial issues when I was about eight. My dad lost his job, and my mom was a housewife - they tried starting their own business and it failed... And due to his age, it wasn't as easy for him to land another job, you know?" Tenten mumbles, looking down at her feet when she remembers the endless arguments and smashed pottery, resounding in her ears as if they happened just yesterday. "He didn't like his next job, or the one after, and he turned to alcohol.
"My mom tried to patch things up, but it only worked for a short time, until my dad came home drunk, and-"
"Was he violent?" Neji interrupts, softly, and she shakes her head.
"No, though he did get pretty close to it," Tenten admits heavily. "And he was the last person you'd expect to raise his fist, though the booze changed that. It was just argument after argument, and sometimes they blamed me for things, and- Anyway, that's the gist of it. I don't want to commit to someone and have it fail like that."
"How are they doing now?" Neji finally asks, shifting the car into drive and pulling out of the parking lot.
"They're... separated. I don't really talk to them now," Tenten mumbles, looking out of the window at the lights flashing past. Maybe after hearing all that, Neji would finally understand and let her go. "My life really changed after I met Tsunade."
"She's never encouraged you to visit your parents?" Neji responds, glancing at her.
"Well, she did," Tenten admits uncomfortably. "I just... never took the time to, I guess. I don't know if my parents really know me anymore."
"At least they're alive," Neji muses. "Mine are dead."
She casts a quick look at him in shock. "But... how? You live comfortably and all that..."
"My uncle took me in," Neji tells her, shrugging. "I grew up with him and my cousins."
"What are they like?" Tenten asks. They've never really discussed family in-depth before this, and she can't deny that she's curious about Neji's relatives.
"My uncle, Hiashi, is strict, a quiet man. Hinata, the older cousin, is shy and lacks confidence - I don't know how she's going to take over the family business. Her sister, Hanabi, has dreams of it, but she's still too young to at the moment," Neji informs her blandly.
"Are they okay with you playing the piano?" she asks, without really thinking, and Neji smiles dryly.
"Only if I keep it to a minimum," he replies, and Tenten makes a face.
"That must suck," she blurts.
Neji shrugs again. "One learns to live with it."
She digests his words slowly, and he's silent when they pull into the parking lot of a coffee shop. "You've learnt to put up with a lot, haven't you?" Tenten comments at length.
He smirks. "Doesn't everyone?"
She grins weakly. "I guess we do."
Neji pauses at the entrance of the drive-thru, and flicks his gaze at her. "Would you rather have coffee inside?"
She shakes her head. "This is fine."
Neji turns the car into the drive-thru lane, and an audible gasp escapes from her throat when she spots the Christmas-themed posters advertising the season's drinks. "The Christmas drinks are out," she exclaims.
"Your favorite?" He smiles. The atmosphere in the car has lightened some, with their family histories put behind them, and she's thankful for that.
"The peppermint mocha," Tenten grins. "Let me guess, you're getting the green tea again."
"How did you ever guess?" he returns, mildly, and places their order through the stand by the menus.
Tenten snorts. "I never really pegged you as having a sense of humor."
"I don't," Neji deadpans, and the car inches forward, towards the drive-thru window.
"Oh yeah? What about that bit about you painting backstage?" she challenges, the corners of her lips quirking at the memory.
"I aspire to," he tells her, straight-faced, and Tenten bursts out laughing. Gravity leaves her bereft for long moments, even after Neji has paid for and collected their drinks, setting them in the cup-holders on the console.
When she's finally regained her breath, Neji gestures towards the paper cups. "I figured that we could finish that at my place, unless you prefer us heading to your apartment instead."
Tenten leans into her seat, considering both options. "I guess it doesn't really make a difference, does it?" she thinks aloud.
"It might if you're planning to leave a sum on my tab again," Neji answers drolly, glancing at her. Tenten flushes.
"I, um, I'm sorry about that," she mutters, looking away from him. "I could pay you back in full, no problem-"
"The actual amount isn't the issue," Neji tells her with a pointed look. She bites on her lip, hard.
It is painfully silent for a long while, and Tenten wonders what Neji is thinking. It feels as if they haven't just spent weeks apart, not talking, though it has sure been enough time for her to replay, repeatedly, that night in his penthouse, every single moment of it.
"There are compromises in every relationship," Neji begins, as they pull into the parking lot beneath his apartment. "That said, given a choice, I would do my best never to hurt you."
"I..." Tenten knows he's right, that he's speaking the truth, even before his words fully sink in. "Why aren't you in a relationship already?" she asks, to delay having to respond.
"I hadn't found the right person," he answers mildly; she frowns.
"Surely you've met a lot of eligible women though, you're rich and famous," Tenten states, disbelieving.
"That tends to attract the wrong sort of people," Neji tells her wryly. He shuts the car off and indicates for her to collect her drink.
They're breezing through the lobby (Ichiraku gives a polite nod) and heading up in the elevator before she finally dares to pry, cautiously, "What do you see in me, then?"
They exit into the penthouse lobby, and Neji leads them to the living area, settling himself into an armchair. (Tenten is vaguely glad that he isn't sitting right next to her on the couch.) "You're different," he says, contemplatively, "You're interested, but you'd much rather not act on that interest."
"Who said I'm interested?" she mutters, sipping from her peppermint mocha (to her disappointment, the whipped cream has already dissolved into the drink at this point).
Neji smirks, and merely looks at her. She takes a pretty accurate guess at what he's thinking, and looks away, heat creeping up her neck. The curtain-lined large windows suddenly seem more interesting to look at than he is.
"You are also intelligent, and do not take things for granted," Neji continues, and moves over to sit next to her - she looks at him in alarm, though he's careful to maintain some distance between them. "You also smell good."
She tenses, remembering that intimacy they shared, how he pressed his face into her neck, and chest, and-
"Well, so do you," Tenten tells him awkwardly. She tightens her grip around the paper cup, and takes another gulp. Is fear really a good reason not to experience what life has to offer?
"We could be good together," Neji murmurs, and slides a little closer to her, setting his cup on the coffee table. "You've seen the images we've done, and you know that we're good in bed-"
"You're shameless," she snaps at him, her face burning. (And he is right. Again.)
"Maybe I just want another kiss," he tells her, and smirks. Tenten finds that she can't keep her glare up for long. His request is tempting, though she knows that giving in would complicate things further. "Give us a try. If it doesn't work out, we'll return to being good friends."
"It doesn't work that way," Tenten grouses. "I've seen my friends go through bad breakups."
"It doesn't necessarily mean that that will happen to us." Neji inches closer, slipping his arm around her shoulders. "Statistics aren't a good enough indicator to determine whether we'll work out. Our actions are."
"You're right," Tenten admits grudgingly, looking sidelong at him, though she doesn't move away. His warmth is very inviting (especially when it is just his skin against hers).
"Will you agree to this already, so I can kiss you?" Neji grits, with the barest hints of impatience in his tone, and Tenten grins, realizing, quite abruptly, that she likes him enough to dare expose her vulnerabilities to him.
She sets her mocha down on the table and squirms around, to straddle his lap, grasping his face lightly with her hands. Neji studies her with his pale lilac eyes, and blinks once.
"Is this an agreement?" he asks eventually.
Tenten grins, and lowers her lips to his, so a hair's breadth remains between them. "If I said yes?" she whispers.
"I would scream and cry for joy," Neji answers, looking straight at her; Tenten giggles at the visual he conjures.
"I dare you to," she tells him, though he merely smirks, and tips his face towards hers, sealing their lips in a kiss.
"All I had in mind was coming up here to finish my coffee," Tenten mutters into the crook of his bare shoulder much later. Not for the first time, she admires the silkiness of his sheets, and his hair, and how his lips part when she touches her fingertips to them.
"Finish it later," Neji replies, languidly, slipping an arm around her back to pull her closer to him.
"Are you ordering me around already?" she chides, sending her elbow into his gut. Neji grunts.
"I wouldn't dare to," he answers, looking as if he would be rolling his eyes, if it weren't so uncharacteristic of him.
"Good," Tenten smiles, and reaches down to caress him. He angles a pointed glance at her.
"Do you have something else in mind now?" Neji asks, blandly, amusement glittering in his eyes, and she grins.
"As a matter of fact, I do."
And... we've come to the end of the photographer story. How did you find it? ;) If you've enjoyed the story at any point, now's your last chance to say so! (and thank the author, like you should. LOL)
I can see a continuation of this happening, though it wouldn't be likely, I think, due to the next storyline being less of a focus on Neji and Tenten's relationship... but we'll see. At the moment, I'm concentrating on Complexities of Blackmail, and toying with an angel!Tenten fic idea. ;) Don't forget to R&R the elf prince story too!
Side note: f/2.8, ISO 100 are actually camera settings used in portrait photography. :) Sorry I forgot to mention that earlier!