It comes out a few months later, at the end of the summer.
"They broke up," Ino hisses across to Sakura, cutting her eyes to Tenten, who is in the middle of ordering an espresso at the counter.
Sakura's forehead creases, and Ino instantly swats her with a condemning, "Wrinkles!"
"Where did you hear that BS from?" Sakura asks, glancing at their brunette friend.
"Naruto told Shikamaru who told me."
"And how did Naruto find out?"
"Well, apparently Naruto dropped by their—I mean, Neji's, I guess—apartment last week and it was strangely emptier than the last time he was there. All of their cute pictures had disappeared from the fridge and Tenten's antique Chinese weapons were gone from the walls."
Sakura purses her lips, skeptical. "That could mean anything. Maybe they redecorated."
Ino rolls her eyes. "Sure. When was the last time we heard Tenten talk about her relationship?"
Sakura makes a face at Ino. "Are you kidding? When has she ever talked about her relationship with us unless we forced her?"
"That's exactly my point. She has only ever talked to us about Neji when they were at an emotional high or an emotional low. This is the lowest of low! Can you imagine how much she must be suffering? I bet Neji told her to keep things quiet—you know how domineering he can be."
"Ino, that is rid—"
"Man, I don't know why an espresso takes so long here. It's like they have to roast the beans, grind them, and then go through the whole liquefying process. Jeez," Tenten says as she walks over, wincing as she takes a sip of her drink.
Sakura and Ino chortle together, as if Tenten had made a joke. Tenten looks between them, one eyebrow arched. "What? What did I say?"
"Nothing!" Sakura and Ino chime in unison. They swiftly turn to glare at the other.
"You guys are being weird. What's going on?" Tenten asks, taking another sip.
Ino shrugs, and Sakura shakes her head, breaking eye contact. "Can we go? It's so cold in here!"
Tenten follows the two outside into the hot Japanese summer.
It is a rare free Sunday morning for the three of them. What with Tenten's archaeology fellowship, Sakura's sporadic nursing school clinicals, and Ino's . . . well, lifestyle, it had been almost impossible to get together over the last few months.
They walk through the streets of Harajuku, a favorite collective pastime of theirs, pointing at the different displays set out in front of stores. Ino and Sakura share a glance as Tenten peruses the racks of a used clothes store.
"You ask her," Ino mouths to her friend.
Sakura shakes her head ever so slightly, turning her back to examine a display of shoes.
Ino grits her teeth, but sidles up to the brunette, letting her eyes wander over the various articles.
"So, how's Neji?" Ino asks nonchalantly, pulling out a white lacy tank top to examine.
Tenten pauses for a beat, checking the tag of a sleek black dress. "He's fine," she answers smoothly, moving on from the black dress to consider a deep red velvet blouse. "He's pretty busy with preparing for his classes in the fall." She holds the shirt up. "Do you think this would look good on me?"
Ino nods, and lightly pushes her towards the dressing rooms. "Go try it on. And take these too!" Ino quickly pulls the black dress, the white top she had been considering, and a bright blue skirt, shoving them into Tenten's arms.
Tenten walks off, and Ino waits until the dressing room door closes behind her before turning to Sakura.
"That means nothing," Sakura says.
"Then what does it mean?" Ino retorts, hands on her hips. "You and I both know that Neji and Tenten would never break up. Not unless something truly awful happened."
"Ino," Sakura begins, her eyes narrowing, "not everything in life has to be dramatic. I'm sure that if there is something to tell us, Tenten will—on her own terms. Just drop it. Besides, it's not like Naruto's observation skills can be trusted. Remember that one time he saw that blonde girl in an alley and told all our friends that you'd started working as a prostitute?"
Ino nods and shrugs. "Point taken."
Neji stretches back from his desk, kneading the skin beneath his eyes. He shuts his laptop and gathers his things, flipping off the light and locking the door to this office.
It is a short walk to the train station, and Neji is grateful that it's no longer rush hour—the train is not overcrowded like it is in the mornings.
His apartment is dark when he unlocks the door, and Neji shuffles in, flipping the lights on as he moves past the kitchen and living room, and into his bedroom.
He sets his schoolbag down on the floor and quietly lays down on his bed. He sighs, closing his eyes for a moment. Eyes still closed, he reaches his hand out to his nightstand, grasping the small box. He opens and closes the lid absently, before flipping onto his stomach and gazing inside at the box's contents.
He stares at it for a long time, swallowing against the lump in his throat.
He wishes it had all gone differently. Truly, he had been so confident that day—but—
Neji sighs, snaps the box shut, and sets it back in its place on his nightstand.
His fingers stray to the phone in his pocket. He taps to his messages and her name lights up towards the top.
Neji selects their conversation, trying to come up with a reason to contact her. But he can't think of any.
He switches to his photos, scrolling until he can see their last picture together. His eyes trace the familiar planes of her face, the calm way her brown eyes regard the camera. His throat grows tighter, and Neji swipes free until he is staring at his generic home screen. He shuts down his phone and doesn't relax until the screen is completely black.
"Can you help me with this?"
Tenten looks up from the microfiche to see her colleague, Kankuro, struggling with a small sarcophagus.
"Sure!" Tenten says. She quickly pulls on some gloves and grasps the end of the sarcophagus, stepping carefully with Kankuro to one of the examination tables. They set it down carefully, and Kankuro treats her to a genuine grin.
"Thanks. These things may be small, but they're no joke to carry around."
Tenten smiles at him, looking at the engravings on the outside of the coffin.
"What exactly is this for?" she asks.
"It was the final resting place of a mummified cat, not too long ago. At least, until I found it out in Egypt," Kankuro answers proudly.
"Nice," Tenten says, peering at the painted limestone. "It's in pretty good condition too."
"Yes. We found a whole field of these. It was amazing."
Tenten smiles and moves back to her microfiche. "It's thrilling to study a culture that left so much preserved."
Kankuro sidles up next to her, his eyes flitting to the newspaper she's examining. "It's the highlight of my year to go excavating. So much more fulfilling than teaching." He glances at Tenten, his face taking on a sly expression.
"You know, I'd love to hear more about what you're working on," Kankuro says. "Can I take you out for a drink tonight?"
Tenten meets his eyes, a wave of surprise crossing her features. She clears her throat. "I'm sorry, I'm—I'm not really dating right now," she replies in a light tone.
Kankuro tilts his head at her, lazily tracing her features. "What a shame," he says. "Let me know if you change your mind."
Tenten nods, waiting until he returns to his examination table to turn her attention back to the screen. She's embarrassed of the heat rising in her cheeks and neck.
Tenten knows she shouldn't call. Every muscle in her body is tense with the possibility of it, and her mind tells her no, do not call him. But she can't help it; she selects his name and brings her phone to her ear.
He picks up with a short hello, and Tenten blurts out her question before she can chicken out. "Hi, do you want to go get a drink with me?"
She can almost hear the smile in his voice when he says yes.
"So, I thought you weren't dating."
Tenten shrugs and downs her second shot of tequila. "I'm not," she says. "This is a work-related outing."
Kankuro watches her, sipping his beer. A self-indulgent smile spreads across his lips. "You must be feeling pretty guilty, to be so adamant this is strictly a work conversation."
"I don't feel guilty," Tenten replies, shaking her head. Her slender fingers tap the bar counter, restless. "I got out of a relationship recently, and I'm not ready to jump back into dating just yet."
Kankuro raises his eyebrows. "Why did the relationship end?"
Tenten swivels her head to look at him, her eyes narrow. Her mouth is a strained smile. "This isn't work conversation," she tells him. "Tell me about Egypt."
Kankuro obliges, detailing his three-month long excavation trip with some other colleagues. Tenten is enthralled, her brown eyes bright as he explains the geography of the region and the different breakthroughs they found in the Egyptian desert.
"Fascinating," she says as Kankuro concludes. "One of my dreams is to go to China to live for a few years. Really immerse myself in the culture."
"How long do you have left in your fellowship?"
"I have another year. It's a two-year program."
"Do you think you'll try to stay with the university after your program is done?"
Tenten shrugs. "I'm not sure. . . A lot of things that I thought were set in stone have recently changed. Maybe I'll go backpacking across Asia for a few months next year to clear my head. Find some direction."
"Really? You don't strike me as someone who is aimless."
Tenten blinks, purses her lips. "I guess I'm not, usually. But a lot of things have changed for me recently. I'm feeling a little . . . untethered."
Kankuro reaches out and squeezes her hand. He likes the warm feeling of her skin. "Sometimes the best way to get over things is to rush into others."
Tenten appraises him but doesn't reply.
He has been on the train for ten minutes before he spots her. Her head is bowed as she consults her phone, earbuds firmly in her ears. He wonders what she is listening to.
From his spot several feet away, he watches her, his insides clenching at every small movement. Finally, finally, she looks up, her eyes lazily traveling over the people crammed inside the car. Her eyes are drawn to him almost immediately. A flicker of surprise crosses her eyes, and a weak smile presses at her mouth. At the next stop, her seatmate stands and exits, and she gestures him over to join her.
Neji sits gingerly next to her. His shoulder brushes hers, and instinctively Neji wants to lean closer. He resists.
"How are you?" she asks, removing her headphones.
Neji nods. "Okay. How are you?"
"Fine," Tenten answers. "I've been meaning to call you. To check in."
Neji's jaw clenches, stung. "You don't have to check in on me."
Tenten's gaze flickers to the floor, knowing she's said the wrong thing. "I know," she amends. "I just don't want to disappear from your life."
Neji can't help but feel like this is a lie. Isn't that exactly what she wanted a few months ago? She moved out within the week, without even discussing it with him. She stopped calling, stopped texting, stopped showing up where he was bound to be. She all but erased his own memory.
He wants to say these things aloud. But he can't seem to justify it to himself. What would he be then to her, to everyone in hearing distance on this train? Some lovesick, broken-hearted man who didn't know how to let go when he wasn't wanted anymore? No. Neji had more pride than that.
Instead he says, "You know I'd pick up if you called."
Tenten nods to herself, her fingers distractedly pulling at a loose thread from her jeans.
He wants to say that he's been wanting to call her for months. That he's come so, so close to reaching out to her, to begging for her to come back—to forget everything that happened. And he has restrained himself each time.
He yearns to grasp her fingers, to still her hands. He wonders if she is fidgeting because this conversation makes her feel uncomfortable, or it's because his very presence now makes her anxious.
She looks up at him, and Neji meets her gaze. It's so hard to look her in the face and realize everything he has lost.
A flicker of regret passes through Tenten's eyes, but then she is turning away from him, gathering her things and standing as the train slows to a stop.
"It was really good to see you, Neji."
And then she's gone, as if she were a dream.
It's the fourth time they've gone out for drinks, even though Tenten maintains it's a simple chat between colleagues. Kankuro lets her think what she likes.
"You seem very distracted tonight," Kankuro says, watching Tenten scan the room.
Her brown eyes flit back to him, widening. She looks down at her drink. Sheepishly, she says, "I'm sorry."
"What's on your mind?"
Tenten hesitates a moment. "I saw my ex today. On the train."
Kankuro considers her, waiting for an explanation. Tenten takes a slow sip of her drink.
"He proposed to me. And I said no."
Kankuro blinks. Somehow, he had not been expecting this, though it brings clarity to Tenten's guardedness.
"Why did you say no?" Kankuro asks.
"I don't know," she says in a whisper. Something about her tone makes Kankuro believe her, as unsatisfying as her answer is.
"Do you still love him?"
Tenten's face flushes a deep red. She shakes her head slightly. "I'm always going to love him."
Kankuro stares at Tenten. She grips her glass tightly and pushes her bangs out of her eyes.
"So," Kankuro says after a few moments, "am I just a distraction for you?"
"Let me be clear—I don't mind being a distraction. I just want full disclosure."
"I'm not . . . using you, if that's what you think."
Kankuro smirks. "Of course you are. And that's okay. I just need to make sure you know what you're doing."
Tenten gazes back at him for a moment before reaching across the table and grasping his shirt. She pulls him close and kisses him. Their kiss is buzzy from the alcohol and his mouth is mismatched against hers. And it is nothing like kissing Neji—it is none of the familiarity or warmth. When she pulls away, her heart hurts a little.
Kankuro raises his eyebrows, but he smiles. And Tenten smiles back.
Across the bar, Naruto chokes on his drink.
"What is it?" Shikamaru asks, turning to look at his friend.
"You'll never guess who's sitting over there," Naruto says, reaching for his phone.
"Naruto, mind your own business," Shikamaru reprimands, but he glances over his shoulder at the person Naruto is trying to take a picture of.
"Yes," Naruto says, snapping pictures discreetly. "And she just kissed that guy."
"I'm only telling you all of this because I care about you."
Neji glances at Naruto, then looks back down at the phone in his hands. It's undeniably her, though the lighting is bad, and the picture is blurry. Without a word, Neji hands Naruto back his phone.
"I'm sorry," Naruto says. "I just thought you would want to know."
Neji nods, but doesn't reply, concentrating on trying not to throw something or let out a string of curses, or hell, call Tenten herself and demand an explanation.
Instead, Neji sighs and says in a soft voice, "Thank you, Naruto."
Naruto watches him for a minute, trying to sense what his friend needs. "Should I just go then?"
"That would be great," Neji says, standing to let him out of the apartment.
At the threshold, Naruto claps Neji on the shoulder and gives him a look of understanding before heading out the door.
Neji closes the door and leans his head against the door frame, breathing deeply to control his emotions.
How could she do this? How could she so easily discard everything—everything—they had together? They'd been together for seven years, living together for three. Was it all a way for her to pass her time? He loved her. How could she have turned him down? How had it all changed so quickly?
Neji strides away from the door, walks briskly into his bedroom, and snatches up his phone and the small black box sitting on his nightstand.
He was tired of keeping his distance.
Tenten cracks open her door, wary.
Neji looks down at her, his expression tight and angry. Instantly, she knows that he knows—somehow, he has found out about Kankuro. The heavy weight of shame that settles on Tenten's shoulders makes her want to throw up. She swallows past the thickness in her throat, wincing from the churning of anxiety in her stomach.
"Hi," she whispers. "Do you want to come in?"
Neji nods. Tenten bites her lip and throws the door open wide, her unease growing as she observes Neji's level of fury.
Neji steps inside her tiny apartment, crossing quickly to peer out her small living room window. Tenten has spent many a night the past few months gazing out that window, wondering at her choices as she watched people meander on the busy sidewalk below.
Tenten quietly shuts the door and hovers by the entrance, studying the tension in Neji's shoulders. She used to massage those shoulders when he was feeling particularly stressed; he carries all his tension in his shoulders and neck. She would have him sit on the floor in their bedroom, and sit on the bed behind him, kneading his taut skin until the pressure eased out of him. He would always thank her by kissing her open hands, right in the middle of her palms.
Neji faces her, his expression stricken, his fists clenched. It hurts just to look at him; Tenten glances at the floor.
"How long have you been seeing him?" Neji asks, barely speaking above a murmur.
"A few weeks," answers Tenten. She wants to explain how it's not serious, how she doesn't even really know what she's gotten herself into. All she knows is that Kankuro expects nothing from her; he is a distraction, a coping mechanism for her indecision. But Tenten knows Neji won't understand that kind of thinking—it goes against everything Neji tries to be: deliberate, carefully considerate, sensible. So, she says nothing.
"Have I been a joke to you this whole time? Were you—have you been indulging me for all these years?" His tone is incredulous, so confused and hurt, and it makes Tenten flinch from the amount of pain she's caused. For the amount of pain she continues to inflict.
Tenten shakes her head, unable to find the words to reply.
"Look at me," Neji says.
Reluctantly, Tenten lifts her gaze. Tears begin to blur the edges of her vision.
Neji gazes at her for a long time, his chest rising and falling quickly. "Do you not know how much I love you?" he asks eventually. "Are you surprised that I want to marry you? That I want my life to be entwined with yours permanently? I don't know what I've done to discourage you. I thought this was our next step. But I'm sorry for misreading your feelings." Neji shakes his head, his face crumpling a little. He reaches slowly into his pocket and withdraws the small black box. His fingers tap the lid for a few moments before he sets it down on her coffee table.
"I can't—," Neji pauses, takes a breath to steady himself, "I can't keep this. I won't return it. But I can't keep looking at it, torturing myself. It's yours. Do what you like with it."
He crosses the room to where she is, reaching out for the doorknob, but pauses in front of her.
With a strained voice, he whispers, "I hope I made you happy, at some point. I've loved you for a long time. That's never going to change for me."
He turns to open the door, but Tenten reaches out to grasp his arm, tears falling from her eyes as she cries his name.
And then Neji's arms are tight around her waist, and her body is pressed firmly against the wall as he fiercely kisses her. All Tenten's inhibitions fall, her cheeks wet and itchy as she kisses Neji back, their teeth bumping as they breathlessly crush together.
It ends too quickly. Neji jerks back from her viscerally, pain written in every crease of his face, his cheeks wet with her tears.
"I can't," he whispers hoarsely. "I just can't."
He leaves the apartment, shutting the door firmly behind him.
Tenten slides down the wall, drawing her knees into herself as she lets out an anguished wail. She doesn't understand how something can feel so good and right and still bring such confusion.
- 1 year later -
Tenten sighs as she finishes taping the box, sitting back on her heels. She surveys her tiny apartment, dabbing at the sweat on her brow. The living room is filled with boxes; a fan blows in the corner, stirring pieces of loose paper and trash that rests on the floor.
She is moving to China in a week. It hardly seems real to her—she's waited so long for this dream to come true.
Tenten checks her watch and jolts, rushing to her bare bedroom. Though her fellowship had ended a few weeks prior, tonight some of the research staff were going out after a city-wide academics seminar. Tenten was going to meet them at the hotel, then join them for drinks.
She quickly showers and puts up her hair, slipping on a dark blue dress Ino had lent her a few months ago that she'd not yet returned.
Tenten goes to her dresser, where she keeps most of her jewelry. Almost all of it has already been packed away, wrapped in tissue paper and placed next to her suitcase for when she begins packing. All that remains are some scattered earrings and a nondescript black box.
As she puts in earrings, Tenten's eyes stray to the box. Tenten reaches out and opens it.
The band is gold, inset with tiny twinkly diamonds. The main stone is square, so bright and perfect Tenten can hardly believe it every time she looks at it.
And she looks at it often.
Absently, Tenten slips the ring onto her hand like she has done countless times before, imagining.
They haven't completely disappeared from each other's lives. She saw him in passing a few months ago, at a mutual friend's birthday, but they shared only a smile across a crowded room. Tenten has thought about calling him, or even dropping by the apartment several times, but she always managed to talk herself out of it.
She turns from her dresser to root through the small number of belongings she's set aside for her suitcase. She kneels on the floor, reaching for a shoebox.
The photos lie in a haphazard pile where she placed them a year before. There are other trinkets—movie stubs, birthday cards, a few poems he'd written her. But the photos are what draw Tenten's eye; she pulls them out and begins shuffling through them.
Here is the one from their visit to New York—they are standing in Times Square, squinting from the bright lights of the billboards. There is the one from Neji's cousin's wedding—both wearing traditional clothes, looking serious. A few others are from the same wedding, of Neji's eyes crinkling with laughter, of Tenten and Neji's cousin Hinata, of Neji and Tenten again, making faces.
Tenten flips through the rest of the stack—she and Neji sitting on a couch together, not long after they'd started dating; Neji in his cap and gown, with Tenten standing next to him grinning; Tenten in the kitchen cooking dinner, facing away from the camera; Neji lying in bed asleep. Tenten pauses at this picture, smiling to herself. He had been hungover that morning; they had gone out the night before to celebrate Neji completing his dissertation.
They had gone to karaoke and gotten so drunk they were still giggling when they fell into bed around three a.m.
Tenten's cheeks warm at the memory. That had been such a good morning. She woke before he did, so incandescently happy she couldn't resist taking his picture while he slept so peacefully. She'd made breakfast for them, and then they'd lounged most of the afternoon before venturing out to the convenience store.
Tenten checks her watch and makes a face. She sets the picture on the corner of her bed and rushes through the apartment in a whirlwind, slipping on her shoes as she walks out the door.
The hotel vestibule is crowded when Tenten arrives. She peers through the clumps of people, looking for her colleagues.
A figure in a suit catches her eye, and Tenten stills out of surprise.
Neji smoothly makes his way over to her, slipping between groups, his eyes never leaving her face. She can't be sure of his expression, but he seems pleased to see her, somehow. Has it really been a year since they've last spoken?
"Neji," she says, a flush creeping up her neck. "Were you here for the seminar too?"
"Yes," he answers, sliding his hands in his pockets. "Have you been here the whole time? I didn't see you before."
Tenten shakes her head. "No. Some of my colleagues attended. I'm meeting them to go out for some drinks."
The corner of Neji's mouth pulls into a familiar smirk; with one look Tenten knows she's amused him somehow.
"What's the occasion?" he asks.
"My fellowship ended a few weeks ago." Tenten pauses, before saying, shyly, "I'm moving to China next week."
Neji's mouth moves to a genuine smile, his expression relaxed. "You've talked about doing that for years. I'm very proud of you. How long will you be gone?"
"Well, I'm planning to stay for a while. . ."
Neji raises his eyebrows slightly. "What's 'a while'?"
Tenten purses her lips, a strange twist in her stomach. "Indefinitely."
Neji gazes at her but says nothing. Tenten nervously reaches up and musses her bangs, suddenly self-conscious.
Neji's face shifts, a flash of pain crossing his features. His mouth tightens, his forehead creasing.
Her mouth opens, but no words come out. She glances at the engagement ring, still sitting snugly on her finger. She'd forgotten to take it off before leaving the apartment.
"Tenten!" one of her colleagues spots her from a few feet away and gestures her over.
Tenten bites her lower lip, staring back at Neji. "I forgot I was wearing it," she says softly.
Neji nods slowly, his expression becoming more guarded by the second.
"You don't have to explain," he finally says. He swallows, his eyes sad. "I hope your move goes well."
"You should come and visit," Tenten says quickly, desperate to move past the awkwardness she'd caused. "We can be tourists together."
"Do you mean that?"
Tenten hesitates, sensing the seriousness in his tone. She looks up at him, feeling the dual urge to smile and throw up at the same time.
"Never mind," Neji says with a strained smile. "I'll let you go. Have a good time with your colleagues."
He turns to leave, and Tenten instinctively reaches out and grasps his hand. The careful expression he has in place is wearing thin, as if he's been wounded too many times. Tenten's stomach twists in agony.
"It suits you," he says, slipping out of her grip and disappearing in the crowd of bodies.
Tenten covers her face with her hand, closing her eyes against the tears welling in her eyes. A few escape and spill down her warm cheeks.
Tenten is subdued all night, no matter how much she tries to hide it. She returns home earlier than planned, feeling guilty over her attitude.
She falls into her bed without taking off her clothes, feeling buzzed and sad. She stretches for the picture she left at the corner of her mattress and holds it close to her chest.
She misses him. She's missed him all year; Tenten is just adept at distracting herself, compartmentalizing her emotions until she's ready to sort through them or until they grow so unruly she can't ignore them anymore.
It's why she'd dated Kankuro, then stopped talking to him weeks afterward, moving on to focusing more intensely on her research fellowship. And now, she was moving to China. Move on, move forward with all haste—Tenten wonders if that's all she knows how to do.
Tenten glances at the photo she's clutching, tracing the familiar features of Neji's face. He was so handsome, even more so when she'd seen him a few hours prior, dressed in an understated suit. He'd looked thinner, the angles of his face sharper than they'd been a year ago. Her skin erupts in goosebumps just thinking about him—his skin, his mouth, his deeply calm voice.
Tenten rolls onto her back, letting out a slow exhale as tears leak from the corners of her eyes.
He had said he was proud of her for going to China. It makes Tenten remember a note he had written her years ago, when Neji had gifted her a set of aged Chinese paper fans.
Tenten scrambles to the end of her bed and pulls the shoebox up to join her, settling against her pillows. She rifles through the contents until she finds the note.
I couldn't think of a more fitting gift for you. Supposedly, these fans date to the early 1900s, but it's possible the vendor I bought them from just said that to swindle me. But I couldn't not get them for you. It might be hard to believe but listening to you go on and on about Chinese artifacts has endeared you to me forever. My heart and life are yours, for as long as you'll keep them.
Tenten leans her head back against the wall, blinking through her blurred eyesight.
Why had she said no—especially when she still loved him, still wanted him? Had she considered being engaged a threat to achieving her dreams, to furthering her career? Did she still believe that?
Tenten reaches for her phone and searches through her contacts until she finds his number. She dials, but predictably, he doesn't pick up since it's close to four in the morning.
She scrambles from bed, pulling a sweatshirt over her dress, stuffing the note and his picture into the front pocket as she slips quietly out her front door.
She knocks on the apartment door until her knuckles sting, and then she shifts to pounding on it with her fist. Finally, after about five minutes, Tenten can hear his footsteps and then the clink of metal as he undoes the locks on the door.
He has rolled out of bed half-asleep—his only article of clothing is a pair of shorts he sleeps in. Blearily, he stares at her, the apartment dark behind him.
"Hi," Tenten greets.
Neji leans his head against the doorframe; he briefly closes his eyes. When he opens them again, Tenten is holding the ring out to him, an earnest expression on her face.
"Ask me again."
Neji sighs, rubbing his eyes. "Tenten."
"Ask me again," Tenten insists.
"I can't do that," Neji responds, exhaustion lining his face.
Tenten flinches. "Why not?"
Neji appraises her for a moment. "I don't want to put myself in that position again."
"What position?" presses Tenten.
"Tenten," he begins patiently, "I've spent a year trying to get over you. And I've concluded that I can't. I can't be with you, and I can't forget you—so where does that leave me?"
"I don't want to move forward without you," she says.
Neji shakes his head slightly. "You already have. You've spent this whole year moving further and further away from me. Do you really think saying you'll marry me now is enough to close this distance?"
Tenten doesn't reply. After a moment, Neji softens, reaching out to take the ring. He studies it before taking one of Tenten's hands and folding her fingers tight over the ring.
"You should sell it," he advises quietly. "It'll give you a good start."
Tenten clenches her jaw, fighting the urge to hit him. "Dammit, Neji. Can't you see I'm trying to tell you that I'm sorry?"
"You don't have to apologize to me."
"Then what?" Tenten snaps. "What do I do to fix this between us? Do you think I've forgotten you? How could I? I've been so scared that my dreams would never come true and marrying you—it was a threat to that. So, I said no. I know I hurt you. I've been ignoring my own pain, my own hurt that I caused, because I thought it was the only way to achieve what I wanted. But I want you too. Yes, it took me a year to realize it, but it doesn't change that it's true!"
Neji grasps her shoulder, ushering her inside as her speech increases to a shout. He shuts the door behind them, and it's like a switch is flipped on.
Tenten presses her body into his, kissing him heatedly. Neji's hands slip underneath her sweatshirt, his fingers dancing along the skin of her spine as he unzips her dress. He tugs off her sweatshirt; Tenten lets the dress fall to the floor. She grips his shoulders, wrapping her legs around his waist as Neji carries her to their old shared bedroom.
Everything feels familiar—his hands on her naked body, her lips on the underside of his jaw, the soft groans of their mattress.
Afterwards, they rest next to each other, limbs entangled, toes making lazy circles on the soles of feet.
"I'm still going," Tenten whispers into the dark.
Neji shifts, his breath stirring against her neck. His lips brush her ear, and a second later Tenten feels a sharp nip on her earlobe.
"I know," he breathes tiredly.
Tenten turns into him, chest to chest. Dimly, she can make out his eyes in the dark, half-dimmed.
"Will you come?"
Neji gazes at her, moves in to kiss her slowly. "Why do you keep playing with me?" he murmurs against her mouth.
"I'm not. I'm serious."
"Tenten, I can't quit my job. You know that."
"I'm not saying quit. Just—just come and see me. Take a sabbatical for once."
Neji pauses, sighing. "Are you using me for makeup sex?"
He rolls onto his stomach, staring down at her. "What are you expecting of me? You want me to move to China with you, after a year of being apart? You're not being realistic."
"Then tell me what would be realistic."
Neji's mouth tightens. "You move to China. I stay here."
Tenten chews on the inside of her cheek. "Long-distance? How is that gonna solve anything?"
"Relationships aren't about solving problems, Tenten. It's about choosing someone, no matter what obstacle lies in the way."
Tenten grows still, her heart hammering inside her chest.
Neji presses his forehead to hers, lightly touches his mouth to hers. "I've made my choice. Now you have to make yours."
Tenten closes her eyes, breathes in his calming scent, and ponders on what she wants, what she's willing to sacrifice.
Tenten shifts in her seat on the airplane, trying to get comfortable. She looks up as someone moves into her aisle; she gives the stranger a polite smile as he sits next to her.
Absently, she fidgets, her fingers tapping against her knee. She was excited and nervous at the same time, ready to start a new journey, but anxious over what she was leaving behind.
Tenten fastens her seatbelt and focuses on breathing as the plane backs out and moves down the runway. She is pressed back into her seat as the plane lifts into the air; her hand jumps to her neck.
The engagement ring that she wears on a chain is cool beneath her fingers. It glimmers demurely in the afternoon light as the plane breaks through the clouds, headed west.
Thanks for reading. :)