A/N: Written for the March challenge at the Ten Squared LJ community, featuring the theme "the rising dragon." Fluff/angst/kinda? humor. This whole fic is kind of weird. Almost crack.
Warning: Sexual innuendo and suggestive text. Nothing graphic, but for the over-17 audience.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction.
Years either flew by or passed at a crawl; there had never been any in-between for Hyuuga Neji. Things altered, situations differed, and he had grown up repeatedly learning to accept every new change, slow or fast. There was a certain expectancy that accompanied his upbringing, and that was the reliance that he could rely on nothing.
When he became a member of Team Gai, he discovered that perhaps consistency was not as rare as he had always believed. His team was one hundred percent trustworthy, despite the months it took for him to adjust to the unfamiliar notion. Gai was honorable, if overbearing; Lee was loyal, if irritating; and Tenten…
A morning bird cried out sharply, the call pricking Neji's ears, and eyes opened to reveal pools of white. He stretched his arms carefully, the knuckles on his right hand brushing first coarse cotton, then smooth, warm flesh. Turning onto his side, he saw the woman in the bed beside him still sleeping, and Neji allowed himself the tiniest of smiles.
Tenten was perfect.
She had her flaws, yes. Her voice was high for her age but gave musicality to even the harshest of her tones – and he had been a recipient of such tones. Her hair she paid practically no attention to so that when it was getting too long to properly style into the buns she favored she usually just grabbed the nearest blade and sliced off a few inches. Neji didn't mind that; it was a pleasure to see the messy waves cascade down her back and into his hands when he released the tresses from their severe hold. And he liked that her eyes and hair were the same color, giving her yet another aspect of consistency.
But that was just the physical, something he was altogether pleased with. Tenten was too passionate for her own safety, always putting others before herself. Like in last night's evening training with Lee. Lee had miscalculated the distance between Tenten and Neji, had hurled a shuriken, and Tenten had taken one of the star's points in side to protect Neji from getting impaled in the shoulder.
He had been stern with her, the Hyuuga recalled now as his smile fell, although the cut had been shallow and had stopped bleeding immediately after he had bandaged her wound. She had apologized, probably thinking she had somehow insulted his capability, but it wasn't that. Neji had simply been scared by her thoughtless maneuver – something that was rooted in her concern for him before herself. It wasn't at all kunoichi-like, only…
Tenten-like. Very Tenten-like. Neji eased the fist he didn't remember tensing, and passed his index finger down the curve of her jaw. Of course, she had distracted him from fully reprimanding her by proving her good health and seducing him the moment they returned to her apartment. He had been living with her for seven months. She expressed happiness every day for his being there.
Beneath the touch of his journeying hand, Tenten stirred. Neji carefully schooled his features so that she wouldn't know he had been moved by the way her arms instantly sought him. Her eyes opened, polished orbs of brown, and he kissed her before she could murmur a greeting.
She responded with a short moan, caught off-guard by the unanticipated physical pleasure. He expected her to return the gift but instead waited until he broke the kiss and then looked at him very seriously.
"Neji," she said, her voice deepened from just waking. "I'm going to join ANBU."
That was not exactly a good morning.
Competition was destruction. Those labeled as rivals were called such because it was polite. The true meaning behind rivalry wasn't glory, it was a will to defeat and destroy. Naruto and Lee competed with Neji to surpass. Chouji, Shikamaru, Ino, Kiba, Shino, even Hinata (not to mention Sasuke)…all of them worked the way Neji worked, to improve for the sake of being better than other people.
It began to come to light that the thing which had made Neji so comfortable around Tenten was that she didn't have an urge to destroy him like the rest of their peers. She did not train out of a desire for the capacity to beat him – she trained because she wished to defeat her previous state of less skill. As one of Konoha's few weapons experts, she really had no choice but to compete with herself. The only thing she had appeared to fight Neji for was his friendship and, later, more than that.
Her decision to become a member of ANBU was the equivalent of a long, sharp katana suddenly shredding that truth. As a Hyuuga branch house member, Neji did not have the freedom to affiliate himself with a formal organization outside of his clan. It had taken much clever networking just to be allowed a residence other than the Hyuuga compound, and he was certain that his relationship with Tenten was often jeered at within the family's walls. So despite a biannual offer for instant captainship at ANBU, Neji had not been able to obtain a position.
He had not even been aware that Tenten had been approached about the job. Membership with ANBU required an invitation and Tenten had achieved Jounin status less than two years ago. It was unusual for a twenty year-old kunoichi to be approached by ANBU. In fact, that portion of Konoha's social ladder was still traditional enough that it was exceedingly rare for a kunoichi to be approached at all.
Tenten was showing no signs of declining.
They had spoken surprisingly little on the subject. Neji was not her husband and it was only minor knowledge that they were living together – few people other than Team Gai, the Godaime, and the Hyuuga clan knew about it.
"I thought you were going to teach weapon use at the Academy," he said to her without warning one afternoon when they met for lunch between his mission-planning session with Shikamaru and a conference on medical safety she was helping Sakura with.
"I can still do that about thirty years from now when I'm old." Tenten paused in sipping from her cup of green tea to catch his distinctive eyes with her own. "Why, do you think I'll get rusty by then?"
He understood wanting to feel accomplished. He understood rising in levels within the community.
This was ANBU. ANBU was the emergency squad. ANBU meant S Class on every single mission she would undertake, it meant giving up ninety-nine percent of her life to battle and that remaining one percent to politics. He wondered how well Tenten comprehended that.
One thing he knew; never, not once in the eight years he had known her, had she talked of an aspiration to become an ANBU kunoichi. She had talked of Tsunade and Sannin, of being a Jounin with a team to teach, of having a child or two when the time was right.
And now, why? It was the question he didn't dare ask her and yet it was the only question Neji really wanted to pose. Was she feeling unconfident? Underappreciated? What had driven her to accept the position?
Missions remained work, and he treated her as he had always treated her. Home life, however, was another matter. They stopped talking as much. The laughter ceased. After two weeks, they stopped making love and just went to bed as though every day about the village was exhausting. After three weeks, Tenten stopped showing for morning training sessions and Neji spotted her standing outside the Hokage's office, speaking in quiet voices with three masked ANBU ninja.
That was when Neji snapped.
He wanted her vulnerable, unable to resist any interrogation he might inflict on her. He had heard precious little of her voice in the past while, but he was determined to hear plenty of in now, in explanation. She had been training, he was sure. The muscles in her back, which had always lacked strength when compared to her limbs, had grown in development in only the last week. She was trying out new techniques.
He played the unwelcome intruder and caught her in the middle of the private routine she went through every other night: cleaning her weapons.
Her head jerked up at his voice. Neji took a split-second to notice the short-sword in her lap, the bottle of metal polish on the floor beside her and the dirty rag in her lax grip. Reaching up, she brushed back a strand of hair that had come loose from her buns and blinked up at him wearily. She tended to half-doze during this particular chore. "What is it, Neji?"
He would not, Neji ordered himself, find her adorable right now. "We're going to talk." His voice was firm, saying he would remain undisputed. At least that was the intended affect.
Tenten nodded complacently, setting the short-sword aside and choosing an oversized shuriken from a small pile of pointy, lethal-looking objects. "About ANBU?"
"No, about—wait." He hadn't expected her to call him on it. "Yes, about ANBU." Suspiciously, he added slowly, "Do you think we need to?"
Her nonchalant air kept tossing him off-balance. Planting his feet on the floor, he folded his arms to imitate an unmovable statue. "Are you going to look at me?" he demanded then because the sight of her drooping eyes and patiently-polishing hands was annoying to him when he was trying to be serious with her.
In obligation, Tenten looked up and granted Neji her undivided attention. She lifted one eyebrow to prompt him to continue. She didn't appear angry or the least bit upset, simply…expectant. He wished she would say something to him.
"ANBU," he began.
"ANBU," she nodded. "My profile information and experience resume is with Shizune. She will be having the final say on whether I'm accepted or not."
"When do find out?" Neji was frustrated because that was not the question he wanted to ask.
"Tomorrow morning, at the latest. It's possible one of them will drop by before dawn to let me know."
He suddenly thought of her in the animalistic mask of an ANBU ninja, dressed in black to replace her preferred happy pink and red clothes. The vision made him miserable; he wouldn't be able to see her smiling at him behind a mask. "Tenten…"
"What is it you're afraid of, Neji? That I might gain more prestige than you?"
His eyes narrowed. He had not expected words like that. Surprised choked him for a moment but he recovered quickly enough. "So that's it. You wanted…you wanted to defeat—"
"Fate." When he stood blinking at her, Tenten went on. "Neji, when we were kids, you lectured me about how I shouldn't try to achieve too much success – weapons experts have a low survival rate, I'm a woman and an orphan, and oh – my shirt was pink."
"I would not have said—"
"Yadda yadda," she interposed. "But the rest…you said that. And Neji, you were right. My status socially has been grounded for the last two years, ever since I became a Jounin. And I don't think that just because I lack the connections other people have I should have to wait around. Joining ANBU – I could rise higher. Not just for me."
It was taking him many seconds to process her words. "So…you're not…"
"Competing with you?" Dropping the rag, she folded her arms in the way he did, something she had picked up over seven months. "No. Why would you think that, of all the possible…" Tenten cut herself short, seemed to remember what she had been saying, and went on: "I could help this village a lot more if I joined ANBU. They could use a weapons expert. They could use a woman." The corner of her mouth tipped up. "And maybe a pink shirt."
Something warm trickled through his veins like chakra and caffeine. "And what about an orphan?" Neji muttered, his voice changing, deepening.
Tenten leaned back, holding herself up with her hands. "The thing is, Neji, I don't feel very much like an orphan anymore. For the last eight years, I've felt like I have a family. And while you aren't related to me…" Her smile grew, and the Tenten he had always know returned to him. "I want my children to be related to you."
Neji realized he was doing an excessive amount of stupidly blinking tonight.
"Marry me," Tenten whispered.
Somehow, surrounded by things that could kill him and dirty from polish, Tenten had never looked more attractive to him in his life. Leaping forward, he covered her body with his and kissed her on an almost violent level. Affection blended with sexual frustration had them grabbing at each other.
"Is that a yes?" Tenten managed to ask before Neji hushed her with a growl as a kiss in answer. "Neji," she said after a minute, "you spilled my polish, and this floor is very hard. Wouldn't we be more comfortable in bed?"
Pleased that he had put her mind on the right track, he replied, "What if an ANBU ninja comes by to tell you you're in?"
Tenten grinned, pressed her palm to his cheek. "I'll say no. I'm grounded for real now. With you."