Author's Notes: This was written for the December challenge at the LJ community, Ten Squared. The theme was "What's This?"

Dedicated to the one and only Blooming Cosmo for her fantastic job as a moderator in 2006.

Steps Ahead

By Nessie

The last mission had forced Team Gai into hiatus. Each of them had sustained injuries – Neji had taken a chakra-powered hit to his now-cracked ribs, Lee sported a sprained wrist that limited his taijutsu training, and Tenten (the worst from a certain perspective) was currently hopping around on a broken left leg.

It was the first time in her whole career as kunoichi that she had suffered a broken bone; and she was nineteen! When she had emered from the hospital with cast and crutches, Lee had tried to smooth her disgruntled state by saying what a miracle it was that her body had resisted wear and tear for so long.

"I broke nine of my toes in one year!" the Beautiful Green Beast had declared proudly, as though this was the fondest memory he could ever hope to have.

Neji had simply evaluated her injury the way he did his own – necessary for the sake of the village, and he had given her no particular attention as a broken limb was relatively minor when compared to the other wounds she had suffered in the past. Tenten had, of course, expected nothing more from her often-stoic teammate.

He did, however, surprise her one day when they were drinking tea at a local dumpling shop. She found out from him that it was Neji who would be coaching her through rehabilitation on her leg.

"Not Sakura?" she inquired, sounding perhaps more taken aback than she was. Sakura was usually the one who specialized in reconstructive exercises.

Neji lifted an eyebrow at her over the rim of his cup. "Sakura has been busy. The new Genin just began their training. You aren't the only ninja on crutches." Tenten recalled now that Neji had broken his own arm shortly after their selection into Team Gai – he had still been perfecting his Kaiten and had spun a little to near a tree. "Although if you'd rather," he went on, "I can more than likely have arrange for Sakura to—"

"No," she hurriedly interrupted, laughing. "Come on, Neji, you know I didn't mean it that way. I just wondered…why you?"

Neji seemed to comprehend that his ability was not being questioned and replied less tensely. "I train with you every morning. It made sense." Standing, he passed her the crutches she had leaned against their table and assisted her in getting up as well. "And I've broken both of my legs."


Neji and Tenten had agreed to meet at a smaller dojo at seven o' clock the next morning, half an hour later than they usually began to train in order for Tenten to have more time to arrive. Being able to move at less than half her normal speed was driving her crazy, and by the time she reached the dojo, impatience was showing on her face.

"Don't worry," Neji told her calmly (he was, naturally, already there). "As quickly as I know you to heal, this will only last a couple of months."

Somehow his statement did little to ease Tenten's irritation. "How do you even have time for this? Your own training…"

"It's fine." Neji spoke in such a way that meant the issue was to be forgotten. "Now tell me. It's been a week since the break. How does it feel when you stand on your bad leg?"

Shocked, she shot a brown-eyed glance down at her mold-encased leg. "I…don't stand on it. Sakura said not to."

"How do you fare when you are without your crutches?" When she only blinked at him, Neji specified. "Such as when you are in the shower."

Though she hated it and could not name why, heat speared through Tenten's head. But seeing the focused stare the Hyuuga had fixed upon her, she quickly regained equal control of her senses. "I've been channeling chakra to my good leg to help me balance."

Neji's face changed from analytical to satisfied. "Perfect. That's what you'll be doing for me."

He went on to explain that he wanted her to send chakra to both of her legs, but more needed to be distributed to her right leg than her left. The chakra in her right would help her balance, as when she stood in the shower stall, and the chakra in her broken left leg would help power the limb. The left received less chakra so that the muscle would still be doing most of the work.

"If you stay off that leg constantly until it's fully healed, the muscle will deteriorate, and it will take even more training before you can rejoin the field. You'll save time this way." Stepping toward her, Neji took the crutch from beneath her right arm. He lingered, and Tenten saw that he had noticed the unsightly bruise left by the crutch's hard curve. His white eyes sharpened. "My family has specially-made crutches with padding on the cradles. I'll bring you my pair."

"Oh, but that's not nece—"

"I'll bring it to you," he reiterated firmly, then took away the crutch on her left. "Let's go to work."

It went well at first, Tenten distributing unequal chakra between her legs with only a little difficulty. She walked with aggravating slowness around the perimeter of the dojo, Neji followed a few paces behind. They didn't speak as Tenten found out it was frustrating and painful to push herself this early in recovery. But she allowed the sweat to drip at her temples and she gritted her teeth against the protesting jolts shooting through her left leg.

This was the life she had chosen years ago, she reminded herself, six years ago when she had enrolled in the Academy. And it had been Neji who always helped her realize her potential strength through training and challenge. Always Neji—

The jolts became stabs. Tenten uttered an involuntary whimper, and then she felt herself falling. She flattened her hands, preparing for the impact of her straining body against the hard wood floor, but it never came. Instead she felt tough muscle and soft flesh, a whisper of jet black hair over her fingers. Neji had caught her. Even as her body quaked with nerves and pain, Tenten felt a sudden onslaught of heat work its way from her abdoment to the rest of her, soothing aches.

"Well." Neji's voice was strong and crashed through her head like a sea wave. Looking up, Tenten found her hands were clutching at his shoulders as his gently gripped her waist. "You became distracted. I saw your head tilt a fraction to the left just before you started to fall."

Damn those eyes that saw everything when anybody else would leave all unnoticed. Hitting the floor would have been better than feeling embarrassed merely because she'd begun thinking of him… But then Tenten realized that Neji's eyes were not only perceptive but also – or it seemed in this moment anyway – amused. Yet not in the conceited, spiteful way that used to possess his smiles and haunt his laughs. He appeared, quite genuinely, pleased.

"Again," he told her. "Ten more steps and we'll call it a morning since it's your first." In an action Tenten would not have expected in a thousand years, Neji raised a hand to the curve of her cheek and brushed back a lock of sweat-dampened hair. Her senses went into instant overdrive, but then Neji was moving away and Tenten was left standing on one foot.

What, Tenten thought as fluster set in, was that? The scent of her own perspiration mingled with a trace of Neji's sandalwood smell remained in the air, dizzying her.

Her infatuation with Neji had passed with the end of puberty. She had been so sure of that, entirely certain that her pulse did not jump when she met his spectacular eyes or when he touched her to assist during training or missions.

So why, when all he did was catch her (he'd done that loads of times) and smiled at her (not loads, but many) and tucked back her (never ever ever) did her heart pound so hard she felt as if she'd just run a marathon?

Determined to focus, Tenten concentrated her chakra once more. As before, she started out well, but a few steps in and her mind was drifting again to the genius shinobi walking behind her…she could feel Hyuuga eyes…

Neji was there before her knees had fully buckled, but this time he caught her with an arm about her waist. She soon felt her back pressed against his solid, the patch of skin left bare by his gi touching the flesh of her uncovered shoulder.

Neither spoke. Tenten's breathing was rapid in contrast to Neji's slow, even inhalations. "That's enough," he murmured, and she felt his words ghost across her cheek. "That's enough for now."

She wanted to tell him to let her try again, that she could do it, but with him this close it was hard to think about much more than the warm hand he held over her stomach to steady her. "Alright," she answered softly, unable to say much with her mouth as dry as it was.

Her hair was coming loose, and she felt Neji take the ties from her buns, completely freeing it. Strands of brown fell in waves past her shoulder. She closed her eyes, cherishing the new comfort, and sucked in a breath when she felt him run his fingers through her hair, detangling as he went. The hand not around her waist closed over her bunched fist only once, and then he had gone, retrieved her crutches from where he had placed them near the door. She leaned on them carefully, unsure of what she could say.

Neji spoke first, saving her the trouble. "Tomorrow you'll take more steps."

She couldn't help smiling as he turned to the door, knowing she would follow. "I hope so."

It didn't matter right now what this was, she decided. She would find out later; Tenten had already chosen to take steps in more than one direction.

The End