my thoughts were so loud i couldn't hear my mouth

xxv.

Tenten felt a tingle on her spine. It was Neji's finger trailing down her back. She squirmed and rolled over. He smirked.

She wondered what had compelled him to stay in bed.

She felt a thumb on her nipple. Tenten closed her eyes and sighed - she could die happy. His voice was low and relaxed, and it seeped into her ears, raising her pulse.

"Aren't you curious?"

"Curious about what?"

"What you did last night."

"Mmm. What did I do?"

Neji took his time answering. His fingers traced over her while he mulled over his thoughts.

"It wasn't what you did... but said."

Tenten felt a lump in her throat. Her heart raced. What did she say? Her eyes snapped open, and Neji chuckled.

"Have some secrets, Tenten?"

"That's not funny."

"I thought Team Gai had no secrets."

She shot him a dirty look. She could have hit him for making her think she'd let her tongue slip.

"Tell the truth."

"Well, it would be interesting to say you did something outrageous or shared a surprisingly dark secret; you really did nothing of consequence."

Tenten relaxed. Neji frowned.

"But," he said, "you did stumble into my room and wake me up at two in the morning."

"Oh... yeah... Sorry about that."

"It's fine."

"Well, thanks for putting up with me."

"I've had practice."

Tenten laughed.

"I suppose years with Lee and Gai-sensei would prepare us well for dealing with drunk people."

"Hokage-sama helped as well." Neji's eyes narrowed slightly.

"I told you that, huh?"

"Yes."

"Well, I had a long day. I had to go on a mission with Lee." Tenten rolled onto her side. Neji looked very unconvinced. "You'd have a drink too if you had to put up with what I did."

"I thought it was just a small resupply mission."

"That's not the point."

"Then what did Lee do?"

Tenten shrugged. She suddenly felt silly. Lee really hadn't been any worse than usual. She was just more stressed than usual.

"I don't know... Nothing, really, I guess... It can just be hard to put up with him sometimes, especially without you or Gai-sensei."

"I see."

Tenten tugged at the blankets. She felt self-conscious under his gaze.

"Is that all?"

"W-what do you mean?"

"It was just Lee that was bothering you?"

"Yeah... Of course. Just Lee."

Who was she trying to convince? She needed to change the subject.

"What about you?"

Neji was caught off guard.

"What about me?"

Now she needed a question. What could she ask? Asking about his day would be normal, but it was early, and her tongue was faster than her brain.

"What were you going to say... earlier?"

Wrong choice. It could have been a casual question, but they both knew what Tenten meant. Tenten held her breath while he scrutinized her. He took his time answering.

"It was... nothing."

xxvi.

The atmosphere in Tsunade's office was sprinkled with suppressed laughter and quizzical glances.

Between scarce mission details and swallowed laughs, Tenten felt Tsunade's eyes on her. Specifically, darting between her and her teammates.

Some memories had surfaced over the days. Today's memory was about sex... namely, Tenten's almost admission. She could see the Hokage thinking - wondering if and who Tenten had lain with.

Neji noticed how Tsunade glanced at her, and he, too, seemed to be trying to find the answer to some vague question.

Shizune flipped through a stack of papers with a fierce determination to not lookup. Her frame trembled with suppressed laughter.

She had looked up once. Her eyes met Tenten's - who almost lost it then and there.

Lee and Gai had waxed their brows.

xxvii.

"Pleaaaasssssseeeeeeee Tenten!"

"No, Lee."

"But it's just one more..."

The spandex had been shoved rather abruptly into Tenten's face when she'd opened her front door.

"I told you, Lee, there's no more room."

"Surely, you can make room! It's just one."

Lee shook the jumpsuit for emphasis. Tenten snatched it from his hand. Behind the barrier of green stood Lee, eyes wide and watery.

"We've already talked about this," Tenten said. "I have allotted one personal scroll for the exams. We have no idea what we'll be expected to do or where we might go. All three of us have our stuff in there."

"But there must be some space!"

"There's no more room on the paper, Lee. I couldn't write another seal if I needed to."

Lee frowned. He opened his mouth to offer a final thought. Tenten silenced it by throwing his extra jumpsuit back at him. Lee caught it just before it hit his face, held it out in front of him, and folded it neatly.

He tucked it into his jumpsuit. Tenten grimaced. What was the point of having a fresh change of clothes if he was going to stick it somewhere it would get sweaty?

Lee noted her face and held a finger up in the air.

"You'll see, Tenten. This suit will be needed."

"Sure, that and the ladder."

Her sarcasm was not appreciated.

"If you two are finished," said Neji. He stepped forward, having distanced himself from their conflict. "We are going to be late for the first exam."

xxviii.

Tenten's stomach growled. It wasn't enough to persuade her.

She was at her breaking point.

Her outburst towards Lee had been embarrassing enough. She needed distance to calm down.

So, she stayed, bottom firmly rooted into the rapidly chilling sand. A few more minutes wouldn't matter in the long run. Granted, her stomach seemed to think otherwise.

Lee had tried to coax her back into camp with the promise of dinner, but Tenten had declined. She understood his desire to make amends, but she was stubborn.

Neji was the person she wanted to try and persuade her. She wanted him to step away from the fire and sit by her side until she was ready to surrender. So far, he had remained silent.

He always knew better than her when she needed to be alone.

She hated that.

Still, Tenten could not stay away from the fire all night. She could already feel the cold seeping into her bones. And she needed to eat.

Tenten clenched her jaw. Her fingers were numb, and her stomach growled. But her stubbornness lingered. She would return to camp, but she wouldn't be happy about it.

She stood up and dusted her pants off. Her legs ached, and her joints were stiff. She trudged her way towards the glow of the fire.

The warmth was instant. Tenten stretched her fingers over the flames. Slowly, the ache began to recede.

The desert had been colder than she thought.

"We saved you some dinner."

Tenten turned towards the sound.

Neji came into the glow of the fire, a plate in his hand.

Tenten gnawed on the inside of her lip. She eyed the plate. A modest serving of Lee's questionable cooking had been set aside for her.

Tenten could tell that her pancake was cooked unevenly, and she imagined Lee struggling over the fire. Tenten imagined the argument that she was sure had ensued between Lee and Neji. Lee would have wanted Neji's help to proudly tell her they had made dinner for her. But Neji would have most certainly refused to help, she thought. They disagreed on far too many things to prepare a meal together. She cracked a smile.

She accepted the plate, sat down by the fire, and ate. It was not the best meal she'd ever had, but it wasn't the worst either.

Neji draped a blanket over her shoulders and sat down next to her.

"I offered to take the first watch. You should finish eating and get some sleep."

"Lee's already asleep?"

"Yes."

"Ah."

"Would you like the second or third watch?"

Tenten poked at the last few bites on her plate.

"I don't care."

"Something bothering you?"

Tenten furrowed her brows. What was wrong with her team? How could they not see what was troubling her?

"You. Both of you."

Neji raised a brow.

Tenten began to unravel.

"How can you not understand," she hissed, "That I am not some tool for you all to use as you please?"

"Clearly, this is about more than dinner."

Tenten scoffed.

"Of course, it is!"

She tossed her plate aside and snapped her attention to Neji. Tenten pointed at him, scolding him, accusing him.

"All I ever hear is 'Tenten, you're so convenient,' and 'Tenten it's so good to have you and your scrolls here." She lowered her voice to a whisper, "Tenten," she mocked, "you're such a good fuck."

Neji glared back, clearly wounded by her last remark.

"If you have a problem with our arrangement, then you should tell me so," he said, "I am happy to stop."

Tenten winced. His words had been short and sharp. She felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her. As if he had stuck a knife into her chest and turned it slowly.

Could he really give her up that easily?

Tenten snapped her eyes back to the fire and clenched her jaw. She would not cry.

"I suppose Gai-sensei and Lee are right then… I'm just a convenience."

"You know better than to take what they say to heart."

"And what do you have to say, Neji?"

She looked back at him. The conversation could no longer be avoided.

Neji seemed to be at a loss for words. His lips stretched into a thin line. Tenten watched the muscles in his jaw constrict. She realized, with a pang in her chest, that he had nothing to say.

That hurt more than Lee and Gai's words.

"I see," she said, "how eloquently put."

"Stop it, Tenten."

She turned away from him, crossed her arms, and watched the fire. She felt his hand on her arm. She pulled away. Neji tried again, tightening his grip just enough to pull her closer to him. Neji lowered his voice.

"Don't put words in my mouth."

"If you don't want me to make assumptions, then why don't you tell me what you really want to say?"

"I-" he paused.

Tenten looked back up at him.

"You're not convenient, Tenten."

After months of buildup, Tenten found his answer disappointing. But she let him continue.

"Something convenient once used up is easily forgotten." She felt him pull her a little closer. Their faces were inches apart. Her features softened. "You are not easily forgotten. We have been on the same team for six years. We have seen each other every day - and our worst and best. Do you really think I could cast you aside so easily?"

Tenten parted her lips, but she had no response. Her heart fluttered, and her throat felt tight. She bit the tip of her tongue and mentally cursed herself. She was going to cry.

His next admission came out as little more than a whisper. It blindsided Tenten.

"I love you."

She felt dizzy and nauseous. There was no way she had heard him properly.

"W-what?"

He didn't repeat himself. Instead, he cupped her face and closed the distance between them. Tenten's mind was still reeling. She had a thousand thoughts before their lips met. She had heard him right.

He loved her.

Tenten remembered every kiss they'd exchanged. She remembered the sparks and fireworks that popped in her chest with the especially slow, tender kisses. Surely, now that they were in love, there would be some sort of grand finale. Surely it would be the best kiss she ever had.

She exhaled sharply when their lips finally met, their heads twisting to avoid noses. Neji still held her arm with one hand and face with the other. Their tongues met, and her eyes fluttered shut.

But there was no grand finale.

It stirred her no differently than she had previously been stirred.

Yes, he would leave her breathless, but she would find it again. They broke away slowly, and Tenten met his half-lidded gaze with her own.

And then she realized it.

His kiss felt no different for a reason.

It was because he had always loved her.

She remembered every moment he had paused to kiss her deeply and pleasure her slowly; it had felt that way. It had been his way of trying to tell her. To show her.

She knotted her fingers into the sleeve of his shirt and felt two fat tears roll down her cheeks. She smiled.

"You love me?"

Neji nodded and smiled back at her.

"Very much."

She leaned against him.

"How long?"

"Long before I agreed to kiss you."

Tenten felt overwhelmed.

"Why didn't you just tell me?"

"You proposed a casual arrangement."

Tenten rested her head on his shoulder.

"I thought that was all you wanted."

"Perhaps it was a subject that required a bit more communication."

Tenten laughed. That was putting it lightly.

"Perhaps."

Tenten closed her eyes and nuzzled into his shoulder. They passed several minutes in comfortable silence. She tuned into the pops and cracks of the fire and the slow, even movements of Neji's breathing. Tenten started to nod off when she remembered something.

She raised her head and looked at Neji.

"I didn't tell you that I love you, did I?"

Neji chuckled.

"Not exactly, but I am not too worried."

"Well, I love you," she said. And she felt lighter for having said it. She kissed Neji. He slipped his arm around her waist and held her at his side.

Tenten pulled away and nuzzled back against his shoulder.

She couldn't remember being so happy. Tenten grinned and sat up, kissing him again. She fell into a pattern, too excited to sleep. Neji never turned her down.

"Lee might wake up," she said (after the seventh kiss).

"And?"

"If he catches us, won't his excitement drive you nuts?"

(the eighth kiss was teasing and chaste)

"It's fine."

It wasn't, and Tenten knew that. Lee would stir a migraine so intense that she was sure Neji might actually kill him. He would at least consider it.

But she also knew they were both tired of secrets. It was too much work. Besides, secrets were not part of a healthy relationship. Tenten was sick of heartache. She wanted love and happiness that she could share with the world. She suspected Neji felt the same.

Tenten kissed him again.

She kissed him, not to initiate sex and not because she was lonely. Finally, she kissed him, full on the lips, with no expectations.

She kissed him because he loved her.

She kissed him again because she could.

END


A/N: I want to give a special thanks to everyone who held on until the end! I know I slowed down between updates because I'm awful like that, but finishing a story feels fantastic! I hope you guys enjoyed reading this! Please let me know what you thought!