A/N: This is a companion piece to "Worth the Trouble." It's simply an elaboration on what's mentioned in that fic. It's also to prove that I AM capable of writing a short fic. If the formatting is messed up, I apologize. I'm fighting with QuickEdit, so please forgive me. Hope you enjoy, and feedback is more than welcome.
Her hand was agonizingly close to his; he had only to reach out and catch her fingers, to clasp their palms together. The temptation almost overwhelmed him. How many years had he wanted to touch her, make contact more meaningful than that made during practice sessions? The desire had haunted him for a long time, and it was a demon he did not need.
They came to a stop, reaching the clearing in all its dappled splendor. The shade of the trees was not enough to combat the sweltering heat of the day, but the occasional breeze blowing across the nearby stream would help cool them somewhat. The spot was better than any other when the weather was so oppressive. "Neji?" she asked, and he realized he had been staring at her, taking in the sight of her covered with the shadows of leaves, the contrast between the dark patterns and her pale, smooth skin mesmerizing him.
"What?" he said in reply, choking back the other words he needed to say. He had always wanted to say them, but there was never a good time. There was never a good reason. He wasn't afraid of many things, but the thought of her rejection stopped him cold every time. Besides, the womanly ideals he held himself to negated her. He needed to marry a Hyuuga, to keep the bloodline pure. Tenten was free to make her own path, but he was confined to the choices he had made. Love was not his priority. It couldn't be, not as a member of the village's most powerful clan, not as a proud shinobi.
Lee had reminded him once that the other shinobi he respected had all fallen in love, or had something close to it. Naruto was mad about Hinata, Lee was in love with Sakura, and even Shikamaru seemed to have something with either that Sand woman or the Yamanaka girl. Neji had pondered that for a while, but decided that his position and goals did not allow him to choose love. His only concession to his hidden weakness was to ask Lee a single question: was Tenten in love with anyone? Lee had merely waggled his unsightly eyebrows and walked off with a faint smile on his face. Neji hadn't spoken to Lee for a few weeks after that.
As he looked at her now, adjusting her weapons pouches, he wished he could be the ninja that Tenten was. Unlike everyone else in their academy year, and even the year after them, save the Aburame heir, Tenten had not dated anyone, not even once. He admired her dedication to the ninja way with his entire being. He envied her single-mindedness, free of the distraction of attraction. Tenten was the village's most perfect kunoichi, in his opinion.
"You're somewhere else," she said, reminding him they were in the midst of a conversation. "Did you change your mind about training?"
"Of course not," he said, scowling slightly. He wondered what she would do if he took her into his arms.
"Then let's get going. I don't have all day."
Did she know how beautiful she was? Did she know how her talent made his heart beat faster? Did she know that every time he asked her to train, every time he asked her to eat a meal with him, he actually just wanted to be by her side? They had gone to the autumn festival together several times, even dancing together, but never once did she touch him in anything but a plutonic manner. Lee and Sakura often accompanied them, and while he enjoyed their company, he wanted to be alone with her. He had willingly devoted his life to his clan, but since he had undertaken that fate for himself, he found that she was the only thing he wanted to be his and his alone. She was his only weakness.
The image of her dressed in a kimono, her chestnut hair cascading down her back, filled his brain as he dodged her first kunai, backing away as she sprung into the trees. She was serious, and hard, and disciplined. She wasn't emotional like most of the women, and even some of the men, he knew. Hope flickered in his chest as she smiled at him, but he realized a split-second later that he had nearly stumbled into her trap. Spinning away, he disabled it and threw a blade of his own.
She evaded him easily, showering him with weapons as he avoided her strikes. They had repeated this exercise countless times, and although she had never beaten him, her training took more of his concentration than just about anything else in his life. Not even sparring with Naruto was so demanding, on certain levels. Birdsong reached his ears, the sound distant, and his chest constricted as he realized what shouldn't be. Tenten would most likely never be his. She told him often that he was her best friend, her precious person, and he treasured her admissions. That was it- if Tenten managed to get through his defenses, then he would ask her to marry him, since by defeating him she would be a perfect kunoichi. He deserved a perfect kunoichi, didn't he? He certainly hoped so, because he wasn't sure he deserved someone that made his heart soar like Tenten did.
No, that was silly. He loved Tenten, and she was a fine ninja regardless of whether or not she could beat him. He would ask her to marry him someday, maybe at sunset. She liked sunsets. The river would be the perfect place. Tenten also liked water. He knew her so well, and he knew she understood him, too. They were meant to be together, in his mind, as his passion for his duty faded and was replaced by something warmer.
"Pay attention!" she shouted, scowling and unleashing attack after attack. Her stamina had improved greatly over the years, her speed evolving to match it. She was fast, and she was strong, her ropy muscles activating in her bare arms as she hurled a barrage of needles at him.
"You do the same," he said, spying an opening and taking it, lunging forward. Tenten moved unexpectedly, escaping underneath the branch, and as he followed her, she nearly managed to land a foot in the small of his back. He wondered if she ever saw him as anything other than her friend and opponent. Retreating, he positioned himself in the center of the clearing, sensing that their battle was nearing its close. A clank resounded from the trees and he crouched, a hand held out in front of him. He was unbeatable and he knew it, his heart hardening to the fact. As ANBU he had no right to ask someone to love him, just as he knew he had no right to love someone else.
Tenten appeared on a branch, her gaze shaded as she eyed him, kunai tucked between her fingers. "The moment of truth," she growled, scowling at him. Her face, usually so placid, so tolerant and kind, was even more beautiful in the throes of determination. Screaming the name of her technique, he tensed as the weapons scattered and hailed metal down upon him, the feeling of chakra infusing the entire clearing.
"Kaiten!" he shouted, spinning his body and energy, shocked as he felt a part of it weakening. His eyes widened as a blade appeared out of nowhere, headed directly for his eyes, and he only had time to move a fraction of an inch before it exploded on his forehead with teeth-shattering force. There was no time to cry out as his spinning was arrested, his body sailing through the air. Silence surrounded him, Tenten's astonished face appearing for a brief second as he twisted during his flight and landed directly in the stream. The shock of cold water seized his body, filling his mouth and nostrils even as it eased his sweat-drenched skin. Rocks scraped along his backside, tearing at his clothes, and his knees shuddered as he stood.
"Neji, are you all right?" she asked, standing a few feet from the bank, face a mask of concern. Her brown eyes were liquid and warm, studying him intently. She cared about him, he knew that. She spent her free time with him. Did that mean that he had a chance? He certainly hoped so, for it was too late to go back on his oath now.
He blinked up at her, dazed with emotion and shock, then broke out in a grin. Neji wasn't prone to grinning, but the stretching of his facial muscles felt wonderful. Shaking her head, Tenten extended her hand and he took it, hauling himself up. Her hand felt so warm, so strong in his, and he was so proud of her that he began to laugh. The laughter shook his whole body as she helped him out of the stream, a worried look on her face. "Did you hit your head?" she asked.
"No, Tenten," he said. "I feel wonderful!" A fit of chortling seized him, and while he was wrapped up in his fuzzy feelings, he felt his feet slide out from under him. Tensing, he latched on to the only thing he could, namely Tenten's arm. Her yelp resounded through the clearing as they both toppled into the water.
"Neji!" Tenten shouted, mouth set in a tight line as she stood up, clothes clinging to her body. He could tell she was slipping into one of her quiet rages, but he was just too ecstatic to care. She looked lovely, her curves exposed by her wet clothing, and he wanted her worse than he'd wanted anything in his entire life.
Thin eyebrows drawing together in a frown, she turned and scrambled out of the water, him right on her heels. "Tenten, wait!" he said, unable to wipe the smile from his face even though he knew she was upset with him. Splashing water everywhere, he struggled out of the water and scooped her up in his arms, crushing her to his chest. He had not grown to be a tall man, and so they were nearly of a height as he looked into her eyes, peals of laughter escaping his mouth. Glee filled his chest and he raised a hand, drawing the side of his thumb down her cheek. She was perfect, just perfect.
"I have a confession to make," he said, in awe of how right she felt in his arms, reeling with joy at the sight of a blush on her cheeks. "I love you. Will you be my wife?"
"What?" Tenten gurgled, cheeks turning pink.
"I've loved you for a very long time, but I didn't think you returned my feelings. I can't wait one more second to have such a talented kunoichi as my wife. Please, marry me?"
Passion thickened his voice, his fingers digging into her flesh where he embraced her, and he wanted nothing more than to absorb her, to become one with her in any way he could. Tenten, however, pushed him away roughly, drawing a kunai and lowering into a battle crouch. "Is this some sort of sick game? You dragged me out here to torture me?" she hissed, eyes narrowed.
"No!" he protested, dodging as she tried to sink the blade into his belly. His fingers came within inches of wresting the knife away from her when she suddenly spun around him, slashing at his back. "I really do love you!"
"Who are you? Where's Neji? He'd never say something like that!"
Neji scrambled to the side, wet, thick hair partially obscuring his vision. Tenten was hot on his heels, an he could feel the pressure of her onslaught behind him. "Byakugan!" he said, and she suddenly appeared in his field of vision, chakra blazing. Immediately he ran into something hard, taking a step back as he realized he had collided with a tree. Pressing his back up against it, he held his hands out in front of him. "It really is me, Tenten! Please, listen!"
He could count the times he had lost his cool during his lifetime on one hand, but the confusion and stress of the current situation was crumbling him. Did she not feel the same way? Did she truly not see him as anything but a friend? Reaching out to her, he felt his heart, the heart he had so carefully fashioned out of stone, begin to break. "Don't you love me too?"
The fear seeped from Tenten's eyes as she stood upright, her hands relaxing at her sides. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes. "You big dummy, of course I love you!" she wailed, dropping the weapons and throwing herself on him. "I've loved you for as long as I can remember!"
"Then you'll marry me?" he whispered, squeezing her as tightly as he could. They were both people who rarely acted impulsively, and that they behaved in such a manner towards one another was further proof, to him, that they belonged together.
"Of course I will. Just promise me that it won't be a big, froofy wedding. I'm not wearing a dress."
"I wouldn't expect you to. You're the best kunoichi I know. You're a ninja I respect," he murmured, and as he kissed her he felt his stony heart flare to life. He had something real to fight for at last.