I know this is a Christmas gift and Christmas is festive but I swear I can't write fluff unless it's accompanied by bucketloads of angst. Now, following hours of binging Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir along then getting distracted by Yuzuru Hanyu's elegance and mourning my own failure to do an axel (I managed a lutz once), here is my take on the Nejiten!Skating AU. I think you will like it even if it's kinda angsty! (At least it's wintery)
The Sharpest Blade
dedicated to Azaraath for the 2020 NejiTen Secret Santa Event
"We have a career, a dream—"
"You have a dream, I have expectations,"
It starts off less of a surprise than she cares to admit when Tenten Long's longtime skating partner realizes he's good enough and better to go solo than to stay in pairs. When nine of the fourteen years they have been skating have been together, circling around each other, learning to dance rather than glide, it's hard for her to let Rock Lee go. Her life and her career lay in his hands and he decided that while she had to risk her safety no longer, she had to figure out her future on her own.
Her tantrum in the rink on the day she found out about his change in direction was not at all ill-founded to any witnesses. After all, he had dropped her career, her dream, to make it big on his. Yet deep down, Tenten knew this day would come and all the insecurities she had of their pairing unravelled like knots being cut. She knew that while their technical skills could easily win them a few championships and qualify them for the Olympics, there was no way they had enough chemistry to impress the judges who drank sexual tension like middle-aged women watching soap operas.
"If you're so mighty, why don't you go solo too?"
"Fucking hell, Long. Isn't it obvious? Lee has enough personality, while ridiculous, to set him apart. You and I only have sex appeal. While you held his persona down, we complement each other."
"Deny it. I dare you."
Because of course, when Gai finds a match for her, he has to be a snobby rich guy who lives in the richest part of the Konoha and looks down on their rink with distaste.
He's Neji Hyuga and his family has been figure skating for generations. She's heard rumours that he could have had a solo career but his uncle forced him to pair skate with his cousin Hinata Hyuga. Before Lee had announced his desire to go solo, Hinata had a highly publicized injury, though no one really knew what had happened. However, everyone knew that it was bad enough to end her skating career, even if she could run and walk.
Why Gai chose or how he managed to recruit Neji was beyond her but there he was, standing in his rich glory and skates he could afford to sharpen every week without nearly breaking down in fear of instability. His fucking training trousers probably cost more than her one of her Swarovski studded dress and she nearly wants to puke on his privilege.
"She's… taller than Hinata," he says disdainfully. It's the most respectful way of saying that she's gonna be heavy but that doesn't make her unoffended nonetheless.
She's had a rough week.
Her partner left her.
Her new one is an asshole.
And he can afford to skate.
Tenten practically flies towards him, grabs his shirt, and hisses into his ear. "Well guess what, Hyuga, this bulk is all muscle so you better believe that I punch stronger too."
She has never hated someone so quickly and Gai has never been more sure, much to her fury. But the coach is always right, after all.
"Don't you ever get tired of hating me?"
"Yea, sometimes… don't let it get too deep into that thick skull of yours, ok?"
His hands are actually slightly smaller than Lee even with them being the same height. Yet despite that, his fingers seem to be longer and also seem to carry more grace than she can ever hope to have, despite being a skater herself. It's different when he's lifting her, when he's catching her, that even though there is less surface area, he's softer, his touch is more delicate despite the 9.8 metres per second squared of gravity threatening to injure the both of them.
And when he does catch her like that, his grip is lower on her waist than she expects. When he holds onto her hand, he wraps more into her wrist than her lower palm. Tenten had always thought that of all the figure skaters she had met, no one had the artistry in the way that Lee had, but Neji's effortless elegance is simply beyond comparison. She supposes that she should be grateful for a partner with a gift that no one could teach but that does more to intimidate her than anything.
Neji is so unfamiliar and she doesn't think she will ever get used to him right to the smallest detail like how he smells like sandalwood instead of baked bread or how his hair is long instead of short. He's more swan than human, he's more godly than mortal. While Lee makes her feel at home, he makes her feel like she can't live up to something. She realizes after some time that perhaps that's exactly why they are still together.
It's almost like every time she starts her routine in his arms it's a dream she can't comprehend, that it's a worst-case scenario, that Neji is some weird figment of her imagination. She tries not to flinch when he throws her or spins her or supports her. She can't show her true distaste for this man until after their program.
"May I ask when you will start trusting me?"
"If I didn't trust you do you think I'd let you throw me around?"
"Even I don't think low enough of you to think that you find trust on ice and off ice the same thing."
"Is that supposed to be a compliment?"
It's not like she didn't expect him to drop her during practice. But it's not like she expected it to hurt so badly.
The pain shoots from her hip and her arm through the rest of her body and half of her air is knocked out of her. Tenten doesn't cry. She doesn't cry like, ever. And even though for a moment she wonders if this truly marks the rest of her career, but she is jolted from the thought because yea she can feel her legs and she isn't bleeding or in shock. As Gai screams at her, asking if she is ok after blacking out for three seconds, Tenten slowly struggles up and is so fucking relieved to find that she's truly is completely fine.
Weirdly enough, it seems to be the complete opposite for her partner, the one who did not hit the ice and nearly break their hipbone (she really should have known better than not wearing butt pads).
Neji is staring at her in horror, his hands trembling like delicate leaves in a hurricane. He almost seems to be on the verge of hyperventilation. He's chanting apologies like it's automatic but his eyes are blank and he seems in worse condition than she is. Something in her realizes that this man, this cold rich man likely has been through some things she hasn't given him credit for.
They take a break for the day but something has irrevocably changed her view of him.
"Hyuga, I have only one reason to trust you and that is that if I don't, we won't make it to championships."
"And is that reason enough?"
"You and I both know that it isn't. I sure wish it was, though."
Perhaps the first time he actually shows her even a drop of empathy really happens to be because of the drop itself. She rolls over the areas she was hit with her muscle roller, hoping it will somewhat ease the pain that will be there for the next two weeks at least. Tenten stretches like she usually does and can only be glad that it wasn't worse.
When she arrives at the studio for conditioning and dance, her bruises really are a lot more prominent than she would have thought. Tenten regrets bringing shorts instead of leggings and a t-shirt instead of long-sleeves. The bruises crawl up her arm and spread like spilt oil and there are so many different colours. She hasn't been dropped like this for a while.
She puts her hoodie and sweats back on and refuses to take it off until her training coach demands her to, sweaty mess and all. For once, Neji hasn't commented about anything, the way she is training a little less intensely, how she winces during certain exercises, and is dripping over the matte floor. When the swollen skin is revealed, the trainer averts her gaze and Neji swallows before looking away again. He really doesn't comment this time.
But something about his guilt-filled gaze troubles her and she offers him a little bit of her own sympathy.
"It's not like you won't have a lifetime of back problems," she offers.
Neji blinks at her blankly and looks away once more. "I'm sorry,"
"There's nothing you can do," Tenten replies, before flinging her bag over her shoulder. "You up for coffee?"
It would be rude to reject the person you injured, after all.
"Do you even like skating?"
"I don't think I've thought about it to the depth you have."
He is definitely more interesting than she gives him credit for, though at first, it is truly an awkward experience.
Neji has a taste for classical music, impressionistic in fact. He has much more of an ability to admire art than she would have thought, enjoying Debussy, Ravel, and Bartok. He drinks his coffee black which isn't surprising and he enjoys nature documentaries.
She observes a lot of things about him that are minuscule and strange such as the fact that he always crosses his legs with his ankle on his knee and the watch on his wrist looks expensive but passed down from someone older than him. Most of his emotions are shown by the movements of his hands. He clenches them when he's upset, he holds them in front of him when he's relaxed, he places them closer to his chest when he's withdrawn.
He brings her a cup of coffee the next time they meet, though they do not have much time to drink it. Nonetheless, an unexplainable smile is plastered on her face for the rest of the day and something about their chemistry changes on the ice. Both Gai and their choreographer notice.
"I had enjoyed hating you as well,"
"Uh, is that a compliment?"
It was an understatement to say that Long and Hyuga were talked about widely, especially after winning their first three competitions, one of them being the Konoha Championships. While not unheard of for rookies to win the championships, they had years of winning these championships oexperience on their side.
She cannot describe it in any way other than thrilling. The adrenaline from winning, the pushes it gave her to continue, and the heavy pants right after she performed, oh Tenten drank it in like the vodka she consumed following Lee's departure.
While it's a simple routine, composed of soft and melodic music and her expensive costume, a flowy white dress, Neji dressed in a button-up (barely buttoned, however) and classic pants. Her hair is in a bun, his in a low ponytail. They twirl a lot. He throws her a lot. And they end their routine back to back like lovers holding onto each other for eternity.
It's like they are dancing to swan lake.
And whatever romantic fantasy they had tried to project onto their audience seemed to work as standing ovations are given during the World Championships, their biggest competition yet, and Tenten has a really really good feeling. She knows that if they win this if they win the World Championships, they can win the Olympics. Her heart races in excitement. Their routine was flawless, there is nothing more she could have done.
She turns around and meets his gaze. His pale eyes, the colour of the rink they skate on are glimmering with the same giddiness as she, the same anticipation and excitement. She rarely sees Neji so emotional nor smiling so widely. He looks at her so tenderly, nearly mystified.
Tenten flings her arm around his neck as she does in their past competitions and they kiss each other on the cheek before continuing to their skate guards to meet Gai. He's blowing them kisses, just as excited, if not more. He screams about their youth, she embraces him tightly, and Neji even offers him a hug.
She can feel her pulse in every part of her body, she doesn't know how to not be excited.
They start to the kiss and cry, elated and walking on a cloud compared to flying on ice. As the three of them sit onto the wooden blocks, more like pedestals than anything, she looks at Neji again, her heart still pounding even following the exhilarated performance they had delivered. She tucks her head, a now shyer smile on her lips.
"I think we're gonna win," she mouths, careful not to let the cameras see it.
He grins back, his long lashes pointed downward. She hasn't noticed how long and dark they were until now, though it comes off as less of a surprise considering the rest of his beauty. "Me too," he mouths back.
Suddenly, Tenten's chest cliches and a swarm of butterflies destroy her stomach. She hasn't felt that before, not from skating, not from the warm smiles of any other guy she has met before him. On top of her elation, these butterflies make her senses foggy, the announcement of the speaker nearly like white noise.
Yet the moment the speakers announce their score, 153.87, the white noise drops and suddenly all she can hear is the lingering number in her mind. They needed a 154.18 to have beaten Sabaku and Sabaku, siblings from Suna, who had been previously placed below them during the short program. And somehow their free skate, even without deductions, without any flaw she could think of, is 0.31 points away from winning when the two of them had beat a duo with practically no chemistry, not even platonic.
Her heart pretty much stops. That competition had been the most prestigious one all year and they had gotten second. They deserve first. She knows they do.
Tenten looks at Neji in disbelief. The rest of the audience is in disbelief. She tells herself not to cry, she won't give the media that. Even his lips are parted in surprise. They shake their heads and walk off.
The world knows about the medal they were robbed of but the judges don't.
"I know what we could have done better,"
"There is nothing we could have done better—"
"That would have involved us making an entire new routine—"
"Good thing we have an entire new year."
While their score did not change, a Suna judge was fired off of the committee for "no apparent reason" though everyone knew there was some obvious case of mark manipulation. Tenten is not over her loss, not by a long shot but she knows that Neji and her need to put on a performance that a slight bias can't change. So she requests their choreographer to create what rarely anyone can pull off but every single person adores: an intensely steamy routine.
Oh, it's risky. Even more risque. But Tenten wasn't one to sit around waiting for gold especially with the upcoming Olympics and it's not like Neji has any objections.
She takes for granted how easy ice dancers Yamanaka and Nara make it look with their precision and perfect teamwork. Whether or not the two are dating, (there have been rumours that Shikamaru has a relationship with Temari, the girl they lost against), their ability to perform as two characters madly in love with each other is truly admirable. Even Gai pulls her aside and asks her if she truly wants to do this because Neji like always, never offers his opinion unless technical. But she insists because how much riskier is making your routine super sexy when you're thrown into the air on a daily basis?
They don't get better with practice, unlike jumping or spinning.
Tenten asks Neji one day why he is horrible at any form of expression and his answer somewhat startles her.
"Why must you so openly voice every single emotion?" he replies back, his face uncomfortable blank, almost as if he's proving how simple it is to be a block of ice.
Tenten fumes and crosses her arms. She unties her skate with more vigour and has an urge to throw it at him. "Our job is literally to express ourselves!"
"It's a sport, not an art form."
"It's both!" she cries. "And you aren't doing your part!"
"Get rid of me then!" he suddenly yells. "This is your dream, remember? Your dream was abandoned, not mine. You chose to be a figure skater. I was forced!"
"Then why don't you fucking leave?" she yells back, her heart pumping in her chest so rapidly. It's the same fight again, no variation. But they haven't fought since the drop, which has admittedly been quite a while. She thought they were fine. She thought he no longer resented her for the fact that she wanted to skate and he had to fulfill the expectations imposed onto him.
"Yea," he scoffs, his eyes rolling to the back of his head. "Because you'd do really well to get rid of me. Because you could find another partner better than me in the ten months we have until the Olympics."
"Don't you dare tell me you're doing this for me!"
Tenten literally has her skate guard in her fist (because she has decided that Neji Hyuga is not at all worth a thousand dollars so will not throw her skate) and she really wants to smack him with it. He is always so stubborn and she is such a fool to have believed he had even an ounce of remorse.
"Who else would I do it for? It's not like I depend on it financially or have no other options!" he hollers, his voice shaking her core. Something in her clenches and she realizes how much she really does hate fighting like this. She's sick of it. She actually wants to get along.
"Your uncle, dumbass!" Tenten retorts, not even expecting herself to reach so low. "Because you're so afraid of being a failure for your uncle because you have nothing else other than him! Because what would you be without figure skating, Neji? No one. You'd be a rich no one because you would have no friends or family to be anything more. You'd be a name. A name we say with no meaning because tell me, is your life really meaningful? Did you make any of your own decisions? Did you?"
His eyes are dark with fury and she tries her best to hold her ground. She nearly misses the flash of a pain-stricken look but his gaze is intense and deep down she is cowering like a small child in the dark. He stares her right in her eyes and suddenly she knows he can see right through the fear, regret, and also the heat in her stomach.
Neji strides over to her and though she is not as short as most female partners are, he towers over her and she has to tilt her chin up to hold his glare. He traps her with his arms pinned by her shoulders, his eyes now more frozen than the ice they skate on. And for some reason, some wicked reason, this excites her.
"Say that again, Long," he hisses.
"You're really fucked up, Hyuga," she says before he tackles her mouth onto his, destroying her senses, pressing bruises into her neck, her jawline, and collarbone that he absolutely does not regret.
Tenten doesn't care that this is a bad idea or maybe she does, but some part of him is right. She is using him for her own dreams, she doesn't care about him. He's just good enough to be her partner, hot enough to have sex with.
And when he takes her in the backseat of her car, his mouth doing things so much more impressive than all the lifts and turns he does on ice, Tenten swears that it's all he is. She just will have to use him for sex more often.
"This can only be sex, you know that right?"
"Of course, just sex,"
Does their chemistry change overnight?
Does it get better?
Perhaps the attraction she had always held for Neji had mostly stayed the same and she only paid it a little bit of recognition. They had agreed that for the sake of their career and pride, they would forget about it. It was simply the best solution.
But like all situations involving sex, neither do.
This situation does two things, one being that she can no longer look at him the same, providing an uncomfortable awkwardness when they are close together, the second was that said awkwardness also made her angrier at him and likewise. And while these situations were unfavourable, she wasn't seriously considering that any of their times would be their last time, therefore knew that she has to fix the problems their twisted relationship is causing.
Weirdly enough, it seems to work. She starts to project her anger and burning attraction towards him during practice and there seems to be more tension like desired.
"Pretend you're mad at me," she tells him. His eyebrows raise in confusion. "When you're mad at me you tend to kiss me and then we tend to have sex. So when we're rehearsing, if you pretend you're mad at me, maybe we'll have more chemistry."
And it gets better and better each day.
It's like every practice there's a war that they are fighting and fighting together, and the routine of pretending to be angry is worked so often that she rarely has to think about it anymore. The successful days, each one going by quicker than a passing bird, raises their moods and they go back to being somewhat of friends, despite never fully resolving any of their arguments.
But something else changes too.
Maybe it was because of this anger they released when they skated that helped their mental health or perhaps they just reconciled deep down, but there was something more of a tender feeling every time she thought about him. Tenten suddenly cannot cease her thoughts about him and it only gets worse as she's away from him longer. She thinks about his body too often and she checks her phone even more so to see if he would text and when he doesn't she calls him and they talk until their sleep schedule allows. Yet even then, she stays awake thinking about him and smiling for no apparent reason.
They started to stay over at each other's apartments as well, curled up naked in his arms and breathing more steadily. She content for a while after that, just laying next to him, taking in his cologne, waking up to smell like his cologne. There are so many more things that were not there before. There is pillow talk, teasing, making each other breakfast… They have toothbrushes in each other's bathrooms and she refuses to admit that it freaks her out any bit that her skating partner has started to insert parts of his life into hers and as is she.
The butterflies will go away, she tells herself, though there are fear and doubt in her mind so strong that no amount of training can lift it.
"Have you had a dream before?"
"Not since I was naive and foolish enough to believe in them,"
"It's not foolish to dream. Anything can be a dream."
It's weirdly uncomfortable when one day Hinata Hyuga tags along to their practices and she is instantly slapped in the face by just how effortlessly graceful she is, just like Neji. She has the same porcelain skin and lavender eyes smooth like polished china, only that she smiles willingly, small dimples in her cheeks. Hinata possesses such figure skater energy that Tenten is nearly jealous like she was of her cousin, and had she not known about the severe injury, she would have thought that Hinata was literally an ice princess.
Her ice skates are of course just as refined and when she steps onto the ice there is no wobble in her steps, only precision and elegance, wasted energy completely nonexistent. Tenten watches her skate a few laps, forward and backward before starting on backwards crossovers to prepare for a jump or a spin.
Hinata first does a flying camel spin, her leg and body perpendicular to her standing foot and Tenten is incredibly impressed by how easy she makes it look.
She performs a double salchow nearly flawlessly but she slips on her landing foot and slides across the ice in a fall, losing her grace. Tenten calls out to check but her voice is practically drowned out by Neji's as he practically scampers onto the ice to check in on her.
Hinata takes his hand and smiles, shaking her head. Her voice is just as soft as her kind face. "I'm fine, Neji-nii, it's just a fall. I'm slightly rusty."
"You are still recovering, Hinata-sama," Neji insists, worry still evident.
"Please do not concern yourself with such a careless mistake. I'm holding you back from your practice. I'd love to watch you and Tenten-san perform live. Your performance during the World Championships was incredibly impressive."
Tenten suddenly feels self-conscious of herself, like their routine is too scandalous for a girl who radiates innocence and performed with delicacy in her time with Neji. She had said herself that she had watched their routine at the World Championships and those two routines were far different from what they had now.
Even Neji seems to have the same thought as they exchange uncomfortable glances and start into their position. They don't want to scar her for the rest of her life, despite it being that Hinata is more than mature enough to handle it. It just feels like she's an angel and they are performing Satan's work.
It goes by yet goes by uncomfortably stressfully and when they end Tenten swears that she has never breathed so hard. Hinata stares at them for a few seconds before clapping her gloved hands together, smiling. Somehow Lee is with them too because now their practice has turned into a judging session by their best friends. He hoots in response, screaming about youth like he always does. Gai stands by her, seemingly pleased.
"Isn't the youth of Neji and Tenten ever so blossoming?" he shouts, so loud that the whole rink is likely able to hear them.
"Yes, Gai-sensei!" Lee agrees. "I knew that Tenten would be able to make it with her new partner in such a short time! They are sure to win the Olympics. Their youth is absolutely unparalleled!"
While Tenten is usually pretty annoyed with Lee for being so exuberant, especially during the long period of time they had been skating together, she could only smile at him then, realizing how much she had missed him. In curiosity, she glances towards Neji, who seems uncomfortable, unsurprisingly. Hinata, in contrast, seems surprised but by no means at unease by his personality.
"And what are your opinions, Hinata-sama?" Neji asks. Tenten can't help but wonder why he continuously addresses her so formally despite no barrier really seeming to be between them.
She considers it for a minute then shrugs. "I think your choreography is elegant and innovative and your jumps are very clean."
All four of them wait for a "but" as she taps her fingers against the board awkwardly. "There's just—you have chemistry but it seems… forced."
Tenten frowns. "Doesn't that equate to not having chemistry at all?"
"No, no!" she stammers quickly. "You have very good chemistry! But I think that your chemistry isn't executed properly. It's almost like you're— like you're… I'm not sure… embarrassed? I think you need to have more fun. To treat it more like a passion than a necessity."
Tenten never thought she would have heard someone give her such advice, being that she had started off as relatively poor and had to use her passion to make it her source of income, which was still tight. Had she not had the passion there would be no way she could have made it this far. But she looks over at Neji who seems to be even more frustrated by this advice.
"It isn't like we had fun when we skated," he notes, head tilted up and jaw tight.
She shrugs again. "Well— to be fair we didn't have enough chemistry either."
Tenten stiffens at the conversation. It doesn't seem cold, just seems like a distant memory laced with regrets.
"To be fair, we are cousins,"
"It's not like that really has so much to do with it," Hinata says softly. "We never wanted—"
He looks at her, a hard icy glare he used to send Tenten and the petite girl stops talking immediately. Tenten's curious about the backstory but decides not to pry yet. She holds out her hand. "To have fun, I guess?"
They restart the music and Tenten focuses on her joy of skating, the rush against her face, the feeling of being unstoppable. She's confident, competent, and she's the most beautiful being alive until they stop skating and the three of them, Gai, Lee, and Hinata don't look super impressed.
"Tenten's mostly got it," Lee says honestly. "But not Neji. And even so, it seems like you're skating apart. It's almost worse than before."
Neji rolls his eyes and abruptly exits the ice, shaking his head as he shoves skate guards on and into the change room. It takes her several seconds to process his outburst, uncharacteristic and also deeply unsettling.
"I'll go talk to him," Hinata offers but Tenten intervenes.
"No, no, I'll go," she replies and she, too, steps off of the ice and into the change room.
He's grabbing towels and wiping the snow off of his blades and though he isn't dumb enough to take care of his skates improperly, there's a roughness to his action that she can't ignore.
"I don't need you to tell me to try again. I've tried and I've tried and what difference does it make?" Neji retorts, his Chelsea boots hard against the rubber floor. "It's the same. It's all the same. She's— she's no differ—"
Tenten supposes he had not been talking to her and her theory is confirmed by the shock in his eyes when he sees her.
"I— I would have thought that Hinata would be the one in here," he says.
"She offered," Tenten admits as she leans against the wall, crossing her arms. "I didn't think it would help."
He says nothing for a moment, but his eyes are vulnerable. She can see that he wants to end this awkward silence and he searches for words amidst the tension. He is about to spill but unspoken words remain unspoken. She wants to know what he means.
"She's no different," he had been about to say.
What had that meant? Is it that she isn't talented enough for him? Lacking technical skills? Or maybe she's like the other figure skaters, the same personality and the same performance level. Maybe she's just another girl he has fucked, someone he has brought home and means little to him. Something in her doesn't want to accept that, despite it being something that wasn't supposed to bother her.
Tenten swallows down how painful the concept is and stares him down, trying to find something in the silver eyes she was never able to read. But he closes every door to his emotions and he steps towards her, taking her jaw into his hand and kisses her.
No one makes her or has made her feel the way he does, with his firm lips and gentle touch, the way he smells of sandalwood and tastes of earl grey tea. She wants to tell herself that it's just physical but not when she spends an absurd amount of time thinking about him. Yet if a notable skating partner or a good fuck is all she will be to him, at least she can be something.
"I cannot seem to distinguish whether you are an arrogant or insecure person,"
"Why funny you ask. While I was most definitely not as badly as you are, I used to be pretty arrogant,"
"Used to be?"
"Yea. I was until I met you and every part of me didn't seem to live up to anything."
She lies in his bed, linen duvet covering them both. Tenten feels exposed even though she has exposed far more than how she is now. Yet perhaps this is a different type of exposure, an emotional kind. The type where she knows that she would probably do anything he'd ask of her.
Tenten draws circles on his biceps and pretends to be interested in them. His hair falls to the side and she wonders what it's like to have silk for hair and ivory for skin. She subconsciously touches her own hair, static and slightly greasy, her skin dotted with flakes of her dry skin, tight unlike his. A selfish part of him wishes that he would admire her like she does, though she couldn't imagine what about her he would envy.
She knows that she would tell him anything, she'd tell him about all the things she has felt over the past month and all the things she thought she didn't feel in the time before that, but only if he asks. She wonders if he too, would tell her anything if she asks. And perhaps he would. It's scary like that, to think that she could receive any answer but maybe not the answer she prayed for. So Tenten settles on a question that only affects him, that will give her a reach of something that no girl has. That she can dive into his mind first.
"Why is it that you and Hinata-chan have such a strained relationship?" she asks softly, still pretending to be focused on the patterns she has conjured up with her fingers on his arm. "She seems wonderful and kind. I do not think she wishes for it nor provokes you."
His breathing is slightly uneven. Neji doesn't answer but he doesn't stop her from speaking either.
"Can I ask you something else then?" she glances up towards him. His eyes are glued to the ceiling and his jaw is tight. She cannot stop thinking about or seeing the pure beauty he radiates.
"Yea," his voice is deep and reaches her core, her chest tightening at the very sound.
"Why doesn't Hinata seem regretful that she can no longer pursue a skating career?"
Neji sits up and seemingly wants to ignore the question and Tenten sits up with him, clutching the sheets to her chest. She needs to know and is even more intrigued by his avoidance. He didn't bother to lie to her. He cares for her that much so he can provide her with this too.
Tenten grabs his hand and squeezes it. He meets her gaze from the corner of his eyes through thick lashes and lays back down on his side, dragging her down with him. His own gaze is unfocused as he tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and sighs deeply, wondering where to begin.
"Her skating injury was during a practice," he starts, his voice already beginning to uneven. "I'm sure you've questioned how it happened, like everyone else. Few details were broadcasted, though broadcasted widely,"
Tenten watches him try to find the right words and she doesn't think she has ever seen him struggle like this. "Yea?" she presses.
"But it's such a simple situation. There was an accident during a routine practice. Everyone makes mistakes and sometimes others pay for them. The world talked about my guilt as if they knew me, as if I told them myself how much I hated myself for that," he chokes, hand clenching at his side. She runs her fingers through them in comfort.
"Were they wrong?"
"No," he breathes. "They formed all of those articles on speculation but all depictions of that guilt was correct. But—"
He takes in another breath and squeezes her hand. He's completely avoidant of her eyes, even her face. "It wasn't an accident."
Tenten swallows, not knowing how to react. "You—dropped her… on purpose."
"Yes," Neji says. "She asked me to."
Upon her lack of commentary, he continues. "My family is intense, to put it lightly. My uncle and father often competed alongside each other during their youth. While they were evenly matched, it was likely that my father was better. Yet with my uncle being the firstborn, my grandparents naturally preferred him. Yet before the Olympics, my father was nearly run over by a car but sustained injuries that would no longer allow him to compete. His foot was shattered…" he trails off realizing he has told her likely too much, more than she has asked for, but he clenches his jaw again and continues. "It's absurdly obvious that there was involvement towards his injury but it's not like he was rich enough to file an intense investigation under his own immediate family. Even after he died when I was four, they still remain to be rigid and competitive. Hinata was my uncle's child so he only cared about raising her to be a decorated skater, not me. But her skills were not as promising as mine and in an effort to diminish my success and improve hers, we were put into pair skating,
"She never really enjoyed skating competitively. She loves to dance, art, things less physical and more mental. She cared more about telling a story rather than winning competitions. And we were sick of it. I was sick of my wasted potential. She was sick of being forced to compete. So she asked me to drop her accidentally. Enough to permanently injure her so she didn't have to compete anymore and that I could finally be free…"
Tenten inhales a sharp breath, biting her lip as she watches a series of painful emotions trickle across his face.
"There was a moment where she looked at me and said she wasn't sure she could endure it. I told her she was brave and if she wanted it, truly, she'd easily be able to endure it. So she nodded and on February 2nd, 1:54 in the afternoon, I threw her up into the triple twist and I didn't try to catch her properly. She landed on her left foot and broke her ankle badly, obtained head trauma, and dislocated her shoulder." he tells her. "I still can hear her crying. I don't know if it was from pain or relief. I just know that even though she has mostly recovered to skate but never competitively, I can't. I don't know how to look at the situation without feeling like I failed to offer her some other way out."
Tenten stills, not knowing what to say. She lifts her hand to his face and tilts it so he is looking directly at her, in her eyes. She finds so much pain, pain she would have never expected from a man who seemed so cold.
Without thinking, she flings her arms around him and holds him tightly for a long time.
"I dream of you sometimes,"
She likes to think that they're dating now though there really is no other way to put it.
Tenten likes dating Neji. She likes the warmness in her chest and the trust she has poured into him and the way she can make him smile. While there is still some insecure part of her that wonders how much he loves her back— oh god she loves him— she knows that she means a great deal to him and she truly is satisfied with that.
When it comes to him, she can't stop thinking about him from the small spreading of frostnip on his knuckles to the way his eyes crinkle slightly when he laughs. Only Gai, Hinata, and Lee know and she's glad it's that way, though it certainly would be about time some form of paparazzi found them. She cares little about it.
Despite their advancement in their relationship, there is no significant improvement in their chemistry, despite them supposedly having it in real life. Hinata is never satisfied with the way Neji is, how he seems to be forced on the ice. It isn't like Tenten sees anything in the video but coming from someone who has skated with Neji but also possesses a strange amount of foresight, she thinks that they still have to do something.
A rare long weekend pops up and she drags him into her SUV, packs their skates and their bags, and she drives off. She won't tell him where they are going but it is clear where they are headed to as she drops off at the third gas station and orders something specific each time, refusing to buy anything different.
"It's a ritual," she tells him, and he only frowns at her as she fills up the tank and smiles widely.
He takes a bite out of her bagel and shrugs, then they get back on the road.
By the time they've reached their destination, the sun has set and their dinner has consisted of Cheetos and lattes. She parks in the lobby of a hotel and he seems quite frustrated by how anticlimactic the day was. He had expected something a little more meaningful than a cheap hotel overlooking cement buildings with no real significance, everything muddy and grey. She convinces him that he will understand tomorrow and kisses him on the cheek.
Neji sighs and lays onto his back, hands crossed together over his abdomen. Smiling, she kisses him on the cheek again and when he barely reacts, she bombards him with more until he too, breaks out into a smile and tackles her down with his own until they are laughing. Tenten falls asleep grinning ear to ear.
She wakes up grinning too. Tenten softly wakes Neji up and he groans, flinging his arm around her and turning his head, opening his eyes, His hair is slightly ruffled but he still looks charming nonetheless. He always looks better than her. He looks better now than she will ever but to be honest, she has learned to care less. There's a mesmerizing look in his eyes that she could take in forever.
"We're gonna miss breakfast," she whispers.
He pulls her in tighter. "Do we have to go?" he mumbles.
Tenten gives a light chuckle. "I paid for it,"
"I'll pay you back. I just want to stay here forever."
It's quite unusual to see him drowsy in a state like this and she finds it absolutely adorable.
"I'll go to breakfast myself then," she teases, sitting up.
To her surprise, he grabs her shoulder and she falls back onto the bed, squealing a little. "With you, Tenten. When does breakfast end?"
She glances at the clock. "At ten. It's nine-thirty. Come on Neji, you were so frustrated that we weren't doing anything yesterday."
"No I wasn't," he mutters.
"Mmmmhmmm, come on, for me?"
That gets him. "For you,"
She puts on a pair of black yoga pants and a cropped long-sleeved tee of the same material and throws on Chelsea boots. Neji is about to change into jeans but instead, she tells her to wear something moveable so he picks a pair of his skating trousers and a mock-neck long-sleeve, somewhat matching with her. After breakfast, they throw on trench coats and scarves. She packs their skating gear in the back of her car and drives off.
It's only a twenty-minute drive until the buildings disappear and they are in a small suburban area. She stops at a park and pulls out their skates, then lightly drops them on the stand.
"Where are we?" he asks.
"It's the rink Lee and I first learned how to skate," she tells him, gazing upon the rough ice nostalgically. "Our foster parents didn't really have a lot of money to offer us lessons but they knew how to so we were taught. We came here every day, trying what we saw on TV. We fell. A lot. But you know, we managed. We baked cookies for the neighbours and sold lemonade so we could get money to afford lessons. We did it up until we were able to receive scholarships to train competitively and were able to move."
"I fell in love here," she whispers. "I hope you can too."
A shade of red flushes onto his cheeks and he quickly reaches for his bag before she stops him. Instead, she grabs a shovel and clears the ice of snow and large bumps before they start to tie their skates. "Remember, we need to get these sharpened right after. Outdoor ice is absolutely horrible,"
Tenten finishes her last knot before standing up and taking a deep breath. She pushes off and glides across the ice, a completely different experience. Tenten turns on her outside blade and faces him as she skates backwards, watching as he tests the ice before joining her.
"It's not much different," he says, but she disagrees.
"It's completely different," Tenten smiles, and she does a few half-assed twizzles before jumping a simple axel. "It's freeing. It's whatever you want."
He sighs and glides by her side, not seeming to get it.
"Don't you feel like there's something you should be doing?" she asks as she does crossovers, preparing for a jump until she switches directions in preparation for a spin. "Like something your heart tells you?"
"Not really," Neji mumbles, not exactly impressed.
Tenten halts her crossovers and stops by his side, the ice screeching. "Close your eyes."
He sighs, then obeys, fluttering his lids closed.
"Breathe, like you're meditating," she instructs.
The two of them breathe in the winter air until she is so completely immersed in their environment. She pushes off backwards and floats on the ice, dancing as if she is a ballerina, soaring as if she is a bird. Tenten defies gravity and his eyes are open, watching her skate around him until he bends at the knee, then starts soaring with her.
Neji is even more elegant than she's used to and thought that it would be impossible to do that. He goes into a lutz and then a toe loop and she smiles. He's getting it and he knows it.
Suddenly, he stops on the other corner of the ice and meets her in the eye. On intuition, she starts, just as he does, and they are dancing around each other, synchronized in thought even if their movements are not. When she leans back he catches her. They spin each other. They support each other and build an impromptu routine.
While she had always trusted him to be there for her when she leaped, it was always timed. Now, she trusts him in nearly blind faith. She nearly feels like as long as her intuition tells her so, Neji will be by her side and he too, will know exactly where to be, for the leaping and the landing.
And when the smile on his face remains unbreakable, she knows that he has fallen in love with skating, finally.
"Was it ever about the competition?"
"Yes. But in the end, it never is."
"That makes little sense,"
"You cannot tell another fish that he is a better swimmer for the sole reason that he is in a larger tank, but cannot blame him for wanting one"
The issue remains not that Neji does not love skating enough but that like Hinata, he simply cannot learn to love it under pressure. For Neji, rink skating and practices will always be about fulfilling a duty rather than pursuing a thrill. Tenten knows that she cannot change that.
Had he the choice, he wouldn't be skating anymore.
"What would you do instead?" she asks him as they breeze around a trail of ice on a December evening, the trees around them stung with Christmas lights.
"Go to college," he says nearly immediately, a small smile turning at his lips by the mere thought. Tenten grins at the way he imagines a future, as he dreams the way he never had been able to.
"I'm not sure. I've always loved philosophy but I could see myself as a lawyer," he shrugs as if it is a small matter. Despite it, she doesn't miss the spark in his eyes.
"Maybe that's because you literally dress like one already," she teases as she glances down at his designer trench and pleated pants.
"Seems like something my uncle would have made me do have I not been good at figure skating," he says disdainfully.
Tenten sighs. "You really do resent him, do you... Pursuing a career just to spite him."
"Any career that makes him angry would be a career worth choosing," Neji chuckles, staring off at the scenery. Christmas carols are faint in the background of restaurants and snow drifts into their hair slowly.
"You could be my househusband," she teases. "What could be worse than that?"
"Is that a proposition?" he teases back, his eyebrow raised as a flush travels down her face. Tenten considers it for a moment, being married to him. They've dated for less than a year and she is worried if her love is strong enough for such a commitment.
"No, just an idea," Tenten says. "But seriously, if it means so much for you to piss him off, why haven't you retired yet? There's no way you're financially dependent on it, no?"
He gives her a bittersweet smile. "It's not that, Tenten,"
"Then what is it?" she laughs, her voice fading as his gaze in front of his is glazed and ever so soft. Something clenches at her chest and though the butterflies are a little tamer now, there's something in them that makes her worry about their meaning.
"I don't think that retiring really was a real possibility in my mind before I met you," he admits, his hand cold in hers but somehow warmer than she would ever feel. "You know that experiment of that dog who stays in his open cage even though it causes him pain because he never had the choice of leaving before? I think that's what it was like. I knew I hated it. I wanted to quit but I never thought I could so I never tried. But after I met you and you talked about how much you loved skating and were so insistent on following dreams, I started to realize that I wanted that too. A dream."
"But if I go pursue my dream, I'd give up yours," he whispers. "Someone's already done that to you—"
Neji lets go of her hand but she quickly takes it back. "Lee and I couldn't have gone further than where we were stuck. But even had it been that we could have been the best in the world, there was no way, no way I would have stopped him from pursuing his."
"You too, Neji," she whispers. "I won't stop you if that's what you want,"
He swallows, looks at her and then looks away. When he speaks again, his voice is slightly choked.
"I love you," he whispers.
She chuckles. "I love you too,"
But still, she cannot help but wonder if he too, will throw away her dreams in order to pursue his.
"I didn't think I'd ever hear you say you loved me,"
"I didn't think I needed to,"
Tenten stands in front of her mirror and her makeup is perfect, her outfit is perfect, everything looks perfect, even without him. But when he stands next to her, their matching sparkling jumpsuits with deep v-necks, it looks more than complete, beyond perfect.
Their costumes are gold, black, and red. Three colours of power with purpose. The bottom part of his jumpsuit is red while his top is black and she contrasts him with black pants and a red top. While he wears long sleeves, she has dramatic cap ones. They even contrast with their eyeliner, hers on her upper lid, his on his lower. The two of them have slicked back their hair and it's all incredibly dramatic.
She takes it all in.
One more performance they need to completely nail because they have already placed first with their short program, defeating Sabaku and Sabaku by a total of two points.
Tenten's hands shake until she clenches them shut, forcing her nerves down. Neji sees this movement and he takes her hand in his, squeezing it. She catches the sigh on his lips, the draining look that foundation has not covered.
There are forty minutes until they are supposed to perform and Tenten suddenly doubts if they really should be doing this. She can't force him to compete anymore.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" she says quickly, her voice nearly desperate.
Neji freezes, his eyes wide in absolute shock. Tenten grabs his arms and she shakes as words tumble out of her words but sentences lack.
"I can't do— why would I even— you hate this but— Neji I won't let you— this is so fucked up I'm shit I'm sorry—"
"Tenten!" he yells, jolting her from her heavy breathing. "Get it together Tenten! We can't quit now!"
"We can!" she pants. "We can quit! You don't have to do this anymore!"
"No!" Neji demands. "I won't let you quit for me! I won't let you give up your dreams for me!"
"I won't let you cage yourself for me!"
He inhales sharply and is about to run his hand over his but stops himself at the makeup. Neji takes a deep breath to calm himself and faces the mirror. He gives himself a hard look and then meets her eyes through the glass.
"Last one," he says. "This is the last one. We win this and then we stop. We have to win though."
Tenten inhales sharply. "If we don't— you won't quit?"
"I won't. I won't ruin your dream,"
"You can't just put so much pressure on that!" she yells at him. She slams her fist on the counter and he shakes his head in frustration. She doesn't understand why he will do that for her, why he will force himself to continue something he feels caged in for her feeling of freedom.
"Tenten! You are supposed to win four fucking Olympic golds and I won't rob you of one!" he cries. "I can bear another four years!"
"Let me bear them for you," he interrupts, voice suddenly softer.
Tenten can barely breathe. She can barely wrap her mind around the fact that he is willing to, that he loves her so much that he will. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense at all.
Yet one breath later she finds that none of it makes sense, from her love of skating to her love for him and maybe things don't have to make sense for it to be true.
She presses her blood-red lips together and nods. "We're gonna win, Neji. We're going to win."
He nods, presses his chin carefully into her shoulder. "We have to go see Gai and Hinata, they are probably waiting for us."
She nods back and they head out of their dressing room. Gai and Hinata wear their coaching jackets and face them with smiles on their face. While Gai's stays, Hinata reads their expression like a magazine and gives Neji a long look. He pulls her to the side and Tenten watches the small girl's ivory face harden with worry.
"It's not good to put so much pressure on this performance, Neji." Tenten can hear her say.
Gai analyzes them and he seems to understand without even asking. "Tenten, my darling. It has always been about the artistry. Don't you forget that."
Tenten flings her arm around her coach, digging her chin into his shoulder, squeezing him tightly. It's a silent thank you, a thank you for all the effort and love he has put into her and Lee and Neji. She gives a small sob and Gai pats her in the back, comforting her, reassuring her that everything would be ok.
The coach is always right, she thinks before she can doubt it.
When Neji rejoins them, she takes his hand and squeezes it through all of the performances she doesn't watch. It's the longest twenty minutes of her life. Temari and Kankuro walk into the waiting room with triumphant grins on their face. She looks at the scoreboard and her breath catches. 156.76, even better than their score at the World Championships last year. Tenten exchanges a look at Neji as they stand and he looks just as worried as her.
The two make their way from the stands and he's at the stands, taking off his skate guards until she grabs his hand, squeezes it tightly.
"Neji," she breathes. "All of this is a feeling. It's not a sport. It's not a routine. It's a feeling."
The two of them breathe together, their noses touching as they take in the smell of ice, rubber, and clothing. Then suddenly it's just his cologne, his shampoo, and his soap. She can see his pale eyes with so much clarity and when they enter the ice, she barely thinks about the 156.76 they need to beat.
They start in back to back, just like the ending of their last performance when the music starts, sultry tunes enveloping the rink. She spins around him, their arms and hand grabbing for each other until finally meeting. They glare at each other until he grabs her from underneath her arms and spins her around.
Neji spins her out and they circle each other once again until she runs directly at him. At the moment she is about to crash into him, he lifts her and she shifts her weight to two different poses until he lets her down. As she goes the other direction he pulls her into him and in anger, Tenten pushes off of him until he grabs her back once again, throwing her into a series of crossovers before he throws her out and she lands.
She lands absolutely perfectly but there's something so intriguing about this character she plays, madly in love with him (though that part isn't fake) and absolutely pissed off at her lover. It feels this real every time, it feels like one of their fights or something better. It's thrilling, it's better than sex, better than nearly anything she knows.
When they continue another dance sequence into side by side jumps, then consecutively into a death spiral, low to the ice and spinning, they come back together and there's enough choreography between these moves to be considered as ice dance, not free skate.
She's pressed against his chest going backwards and she reaches her arms out to grab his face but he grabs her wrists stopping her from touching him. He abruptly throws her above him, twisting in the air. He catches her when she falls. Tenten doesn't think she even notices the flawlessness of the throw, only focuses on his proximity. She dances in his arms, shoves all the anger and frustration and attraction she has ever felt towards him into her movements as the music intensifies.
Their eyes are seemingly locked throughout the whole dance. She opens her mouth in a silent holler and he tucks his face into her shoulder, presses his hand onto her lips and another into her eyes and he's flipping her around, turning her in his arms like she is a doll, not a human with weight, twisting above his head and under his arms until she locks onto his chest with her knees, legs crossed slightly behind her and holds his face to her hands. Neji keeps her in place with his hands at her back until he shifts his grip to her hips and she dips her head down so low for a moment that her hair skims the ice.
The crowd is absolutely wild when they go into a side by side spins, he swings his arm above her, bending down. The portion of the music gains a slightly more romantic feel and they start with more synchronized steps, crossing over so the two of them perform side by side jumps, landing only to shove their toes back into the ice and spinning in the air another three times.
Their routine ends as they circle around each other, hands locked together this time. He twirls her into his arms. Neji bends down on one knee and she supports her weight with her elbow onto the upright knee. He leans his face close to hers, almost like he's gonna kiss her and she stares at his lips, so close, so inviting. Of course, she doesn't meet them, this is a performance, no matter how easy it would be, her arm around his neck bringing him closer and her knees in the crook of his elbow.
They are panting for the same breath, eyes locked even past the music ends, past the audience's silent consideration before bursting out into applause and Tenten comprehends the fact that they absolutely delivered on their performance. It had been their best run. She can feel the electricity sparking in her veins with his hand at her jaw and her knees shaking in excitement.
Neji suddenly pulls her close, so close she can barely breathe but it wasn't like they were breathing much, to begin with. Tenten laughs, sobs in relief and she chants into his ear.
"We're free, Neji. We're free."
162.34 in their long program and the gold medal that sits between their teeth is nearly as satisfying as the fact two dreams came true in completely different ways. But perhaps the most beautiful part is that once upon a time, Neji's ice blades had cut him deeper than any knife could but hers had healed him.
"So, what's your next move to piss off your uncle?"
"I was considering taking up that offer on becoming your househusband, actually,"
"Stop it, Neji! I'm serious!"
"So am I,"
"This is a really shitty proposal,"
"Will you marry me?"
"Yea, I will,"
merry christmas guys, please stay safe and have a wonderful new year :)