A tale of growing up, old wounds and underage drinking.
"I need you more than I should."
He spoke slowly, quietly. There was no tremor of unbridled passion, no offering of meticulously prepared flowers to complement and sweeten his words; only the crisp, cold blades of grass pressing into her back, the chill of the autumn winds infused with the brittle scent of dying wild chrysanthemums, and the lumbering grey shadows of the clouds above them, dark and heavy in the night sky. And yet, as they both lay sprawled on their backs against the gentle slopes of their old training grounds, Tenten found that she could only smile at the depth of emotion carefully concealed behind each word. This was Hyuuga Neji, after all, and he had locked those words within him - for her sake - for far too long to allow even three bottles of cheap alcohol to fully loosen his inhibitions.
"You're drunk." She smiled lazily. "... ...And so am I."
He didn't answer, instead lifting his hand to press cold fingers against her cheek before letting them fumble across her bottom lip. When she glanced over at him he was still staring blindly up at the sky, as if the clouds held some meaning she could never decipher, the answers to the questions he would never ask her. Then her gaze dropped to the ceramic bottle of sake lying on his other side, a few remaining drops of clear liquid pooled at the rim. Her hands tightened briefly around the one she cradled in her own palm, thumb brushing over the closed cap pensively.
"It's cold," she murmured, letting it roll away across the grass as she shifted closer to Neji. She felt him relax when she curled herself against his side.
They'd never allow themselves to be this close when sober, she reflected ruefully, but the bottles on the ground were empty and her heart was pounding an erratic rhythm in her chest as he instinctively wrapped an arm around her shoulders, each touch painfully tender, lingering. It wasn't often they could touch like this and so they treasured every moment, every second of warmth.
Tenten watched the steady rise and fall of his chest for a moment before speaking.
"Remind me what happened again?" she asked softly, rolling on top of him. (She wanted him looking at her right now, instead of those goddamn clouds.) "I thought we had agreed to stay away from all forms of alcohol for at least another month."
"Well," Neji began stoically, "It appears that you simply could not resist my charms for another day and felt that you had to get me drunk and, as you can see, beneath you."
She slapped him playfully. "If only your sense of humour still existed when you're sober."
"No, but really," she insisted, "What happened? All I remember is you asking me out for a friendly dinner -"
"Simply because I wanted to hear about your solo mission to Mist, of course, with no prior intention of us ever becoming inebriated-"
"Only it turned out the chicken special I ordered was half drowning in sake anyway -"
"So we decided to enjoy the night together properly - as friends and team-mates - by having a few drinks after the meal. The end."
"I love you," she told him.
A pause. Neji's eyes widened fractionally and he studied her for a long moment, all traces of amusement abruptly gone from his face. Then he sighed, shifting to press a light kiss onto the exposed skin near her collarbone.
"You're drunk," he said finally, echoing her words, and Tenten felt her heart twist deep in her chest at the disappointment in his voice. "You don't. Not really."
I. ( Ginjo-shu: sweet, light and fragrant, often infused with a fruity or flowery flavour. Delicate and complex. )
It was common knowledge throughout Konoha that Rock Lee, bowl haired taijutsu extraordinaire, was terrifyingly dangerous when around alcohol. The startling ease with which he became intoxicated and his violent tendencies that emerged when inebriated meant that he was always passed over when his fellow shinobi looked for a drinking partner: someone to spend a lonely night with after too many days on the job, someone with whom you could get ridiculously plastered just so you could stop giving a damn, for once. When asked, both Neji and Tenten would inevitably decline and it was usually held that they did so out of polite deference to their sadly intolerant team mate. In any case, none of the rookie nine or their sensei really ever gave their self-enforced sobriety much thought. Team Gai was Team Sober; unfortunate for their social lives, perhaps, but it balanced out their usually rather dysfunctional behaviour quite nicely.
What no one realized, however, was that Tenten and Neji had another, more private reason for turning down their invitations: both were uncommonly bad at holding their liquor. Not half as bad as Lee, perhaps, but enough to make them wary of consuming alcohol around anyone but each other.
They had discovered this very early on - two days after Lee's infamous devastation of a restaurant, in fact, when he accidentally received his first taste of sake. Gai had been sceptical of his precious student's amazing intolerance - had suspected foul play by Kakashi, or perhaps something had been wrong with the roasted squid? In any case, he had been determined to test Lee's capacity (under safe conditions, naturally) and so had dragged him - along with a reluctant, thirteen year old Neji and Tenten - to their training grounds for an impromptu takeout dinner, with an entire wooden crate of sake to share between them.
Safe to say their training grounds have never looked quite the same since.
- x -
Gai had ran after the violently drunk Lee, leaving the two exasperated onlookers (Neji had refused to help Gai sedate Lee again; idiocy did not merit sympathy and getting kicked in the face by a raging drunk Lee once was enough for a lifetime) sitting cross legged in the remaining traces of sunlight, the many left over sake bottles lined up between them.
"And what are we supposed to do with all this?" Tenten now asked, eyeing the alcohol warily. She had only had a few sips so far; ginjo sake was too sweet for her tastes, though the fruity tang was admittedly rather pleasant.
Neji didn't reply straight away, knowing he was still too irritable from Gai and Lee's antics to risk unwittingly snapping at Tenten. Instead, he took a bottle and flicked the cap open, easily downing half the contents in front of a surprised and vaguely amused Tenten.
"We can't train tomorrow anyway," he told her, adding by way of explanation: "Family function at the compound."
The unsaid words 'and I'm too annoyed to care about getting a hangover' hung heavily in the air.
"Right." Tenten nodded and grinned, taking one for herself.
Funny how the taste seemed to grow on you the more you drank. The empty bottles began to pile up as they made the most of what their sensei had left them, occasionally talking about training and the upcoming exams, other times lapsing into companionable silence. Tenten leaned back after her third bottle, savouring the heat coursing down her throat and tingling all the way to her fingertips. Neji sat next to her with his back still impeccably straight, though his gaze was unfocused and a faint flush tinted his cheeks and the bridge of his nose.
They were young and drunk, burning the night away at their training grounds beneath the palest moon of the year.
"I thought we were supposed to be the sensible ones," Tenten noted, not sounding particularly perturbed. "Too bad. I may have lost all my respect for you."
"Hn." He returned her dry smile with a familiar smirk, knowing full well that she was only joking. Tenten knew he was aware that she admired him intensely, looking up to him in every way, and she watched his nonchalant response for a long moment. Perhaps it was the late hour; perhaps it was the alcohol burning its way through her veins - she was used to the coolly confident exterior with which he faced the world, the careless way he treated others' feelings - but for some inexplicable reason the current blankness of his face and the utterly unconcerned way with which he shrugged off her teasing stung her uncomfortably, left her hurting a little as she lay on the ground by his side.
"I don't like what I am now," she suddenly confessed, her words slurring together from the alcohol, "But I can change. I'm getting better, I can get better. I know it." She swallowed. "I don't really like the way you are, either. You're cruel. To others, and to yourself. I wish I had half your talent, but sometimes I'm scared of what you might become in the future." She glanced up at him tiredly. "But you're strong, at least, and I suppose no one can blame you for being a bastard. I know I still love you all the same."
He flinched the moment love left her lips and she smiled without any trace of bitterness, knowing how the Hyuuga avoided the word and all its connotations - knowing how, beneath the coolly arrogant exterior and the blank, perfect white of his eyes he believed himself incapable of being loved. Unworthy. Because no matter how hard he tried - how hard he fought, how brilliantly he shone - at the end of the day he was nothing but a branch house member. Even his father, brother to the clan head, had become the sacrificial lamb for the sake of the Hyuuga.
What Neji never realized was that his biggest enemy was not the clan, but himself; the more bitterly he blamed the injustices he had suffered on fate, the deeper his belief in his ultimate - fated - inferiority tore into his subconscious, a bloody gash that threatened to rip him into shreds and turn him, once and for all, into the puppet he never was.
"To what we can become," Tenten declared, raising her bottle of sake in the air between them.
"To what we can become," he echoed hollowly, his eyes fixed on her lips as she leaned forwards drunkenly and kissed him, their lips meeting roughly, clumsily. He hadn't thought much of her words then - after all, there was no point in talking about what they could become when one was shackled to fate and the other was cursed, a girl with bad, bad luck - and he was much more interested in the way her skin felt under his hands when there was no fighting involved, at the way he could feel the gentle curvature of her spine and the burning in his chest as she licked the bittersweet aftertaste of sake from the corner of his mouth.
But all too soon it was over: Tenten pushed herself abruptly away from him, cheeks flushed and hair in disarray, a stunned expression on her face. Neji watched her with half lidded eyes, lifting a finger to trace her bruised lips in a gesture too gentle for his age.
"Go home," he said, and so she stood up, dusted her clothes and left him alone in the dark with the empty bottles of sake scattered around him, the heady scent of alcohol wafting in the air.
"I'm training without you tomorrow," she announced as she walked away unsteadily, not even bothering to look back at him. (Because in the end they were just a boy and girl playing at lust in a world where love was dangerous; it was unnatural, unsatisfying, and it left them both empty and longing for something different. Something better.)
The next time they trained together there was no mention about that night; apart from hazy, disjointed moments neither of them could remember clearly what had happened, and it was understood by both that if anything - inappropriate - had occurred between them, the excessive sake was to be blamed. (It was quite simple, Neji thought, unaware that it was exactly this simplicity - this ease with which they could hide or excuse anything they did together when inebriated that would come to hurt him the most.)
- x -
Three months later, Neji frowned as Tenten announced to her team that she had been practicing a new technique - on her own - for the past few weeks. Soshoryu, she called it. She had found a tattered old treatise on weapon-based attacks in the attic of her parent's old home, had spent hours alone deciphering the language, foreign to Konohan shinobi, that was part of her heritage. It involved being airborne for as long as possible, she said, and sending countless weapons hurtling down on an opponent with the added manipulation of chakra strings.
"It sounds difficult," Neji commented doubtfully. Tenten was a capable Kunoichi - one of the best in their age group - but he felt that she ought to accept the limits to her ability, the unchangeable boundaries she would never be able to cross. Tenten took a deep breath and stared at him flatly.
"It is," she admitted, "But I've been practicing. A lot."
She slid a newly prepared scroll from her pack and stalked to the middle of the training ground.
"I'll show you guys now," she continued loudly, trying to sound more confident than she felt. The technique was still new to her - a few weeks of practicing was not enough to perfect every detail and she was still relatively clumsy - but the scepticism evident in Neji's face was enough to make her determined to at least try and prove the genius wrong. (And the truth was that Tenten had always been afraid of flying but now was the time to risk it all, to take a chance and try. For herself. )
A twist of a heel against the dusty ground - knees bent, fingers gripping tightly onto rough parchment - she could feel her team mates' eyes boring into her back (it's now or never now or never breathe now and fly for ever and ever ever) - muscles contracted, adrenaline scalding in her veins; Tenten took a deep breath (breathe just breathe) and then she was airborne, spinning higher and higher into the brightest blue sky with the wind in her hair and the sun in her eyes (here I come oh -)
- and suddenly, amidst the smoke and screaming steel, Neji finally saw what she could become - saw what she could be like ten years on, in the way her cheeks were flushed with anticipation and triumph, at the fierce glint in her eyes that spoke of pride and hope and a determination to push herself further and further
Neji couldn't remember clearly what had happened between them that night - had forgotten the words exchanged in between sips of bittersweet sake or the toast she had made - but there, watching Tenten spin dizzyingly above them amongst dragons and her precious blades, he felt the uncomfortable sensation of being left behind settle into his gut, heavy as the chains that still bound him to his fate.
II. ( Honjozo-shu: prominent fragrance and sweet taste, due to a small amount of pure, distilled alcohol added at the end of the fermentation process. Best served warm. )
The ceiling of the hospital room was impeccably clean, whitewashed and pristine. It reminded him of the Hyuuga compound and the blank, pale gazes of his clan members.
He hated it.
Lying on the thin mattress of his hospital bed, slowly, agonizingly recovering from his fight with Kidoumaru, Neji slipped in and out of consciousness for weeks at a time. The only thing that remained constant was the ugly white of the ceiling and the quiet blip of the heart rate monitor that proved he was still alive (though at times he doubted it; surely all this whiteness could only be hell.) Occasionally blurred figures flickered over him: two bawling green idiots and the pale uniforms of the nurses who came to usher them away; a trembling, crying mess that could only have been Hinata-sama; behind her, quiet and severe, her father.
And Tenten. She'd be there, sometimes, when he surfaced. The first time he had woken to the sight of her asleep by his bed he had been surprised at how tired she looked, how drawn her face had become. There had been tear tracks coursing down her cheeks and he had wanted to ask her why, had wanted to reach out and touch her, but there was a gaping hole in his shoulder and it hurt, Gods it hurt.
Then she stopped visiting after a few weeks, leaving nothing behind but an empty space where she used to lean against the bed and trace soft circles into his pillow.
Neji wondered why that seemed to hurt more than his physical wounds ever could.
- x -
The nurses had told him that he could be out in two weeks, provided he was a good boy and rested in bed until then. But Hyuuga Neji was hardly a boy anymore, even at age fifteen; his muscles ached from disuse and he needed to run, to feel the blood pounding in his veins and the ground hard against his feet and the air rushing cold between his fingertips -
- and there was someone he needed to see. Now.
He slipped out of the open window at five to midnight, easily clearing the hospital walls. The village was empty, dark, lit only by small circles of dirty yellow from the flickering street lamps. He made his way immediately to her apartment complex, jumping up onto the porch outside her bedroom.
No one. What was she doing out this late? (At the back of his mind an indignant voice raged against her absence; it was only natural to him that he should know where Tenten was, at all times. It was his right, was it not?)
Frowning and inexplicably feeling more frustrated than he knew was necessary, he made his way back down and was about to leave when he caught a glimpse of dark brown hair curled into two messy buns, tired eyes and a familiar spider web of silvery scars tracing down a forearm. Tenten was alone, leaning against the glass window of the all-night inn restaurant on the other side of the street, nursing the bowl of warm sake before her. Neji paused, hesitating a little as he watched her stare despondently at her reflection in the amber liquid, a few loose strands falling into her eyes.
There were no other customers this late at night save for a few off-duty shinobi tucked away in the corners of the room. He walked inside slowly; Tenten didn't look up and he silently approached the inn keeper near the bar.
"Can I help you, sir?" The man looked up tiredly, wiping a dirty glass with an equally grubby rag.
"I'll have a bowl of honjozo. Warm."
Neji leaned against the counter and gestured to where Tenten sat, still oblivious to his presence.
"How long has she been there?" he asked quietly.
"The young lady by the window? A few hours. I'm not sure." The man shrugged. "She's been coming in nearly every night now for the past few weeks."
Suddenly Neji found himself gripping the counter so hard his knuckles drained white.
"Your sake, sir." The aromatic liquid was pushed before him.
He thanked the man tightly and strode across the room, settling himself down unceremoniously opposite his team mate. "Tenten."
Her eyes widened fractionally, fingers tightening against the faded wooden bowl in her hands. She stared blindly down at the sake, as if afraid to recognize the Hyuuga's presence.
Neji frowned. "Tenten."
It was only then that she looked up - slowly, unbearably slowly - and he barely kept himself from flinching at the look in her eyes: the formerly bright hazel was dulled, blank, and the upward lilt of her lips was now replaced by a tight, thin line of worry.
"Neji," she greeted him hesitatingly. "They told me you were going to be out in a few weeks."
"Two," he told her shortly. Tenten only nodded and looked away. Neji watched her, perplexed. This was the first time they had spoken in almost two months; Neji had only managed to regain consciousness for long enough to converse with others after she stopped dropping by, and yet here she was, stiff and cold, as if he had merely been missing from her life for a day.
"You stopped coming by," he pointed out accusatorily, almost pouting at her apparent indifference.
Tenten swallowed and shrugged awkwardly. Neji gritted his teeth when she continued to refuse to look him in the eye. "I... ...I was busy. I'm sorry."
"Are you not glad to see me?" he demanded bluntly.
"Am I not... ..." she echoed disbelievingly, and then suddenly something in her seemed to snap and she turned to face him fully, tears welling up in her eyes. "Of course I am, Neji, how could you think otherwise? I know I should have come to visit you but I couldn't - I couldn't stand seeing you there in that damn hospital bed like you were dead to us, and you never once answered when I called your name and -" She was really crying now, tears coursing down her cheeks as if they had been held back for far too long to check in, " -and I'm sorry, I really tried but it was so hard seeing you and wondering whether you would ever wake up again and -"
"Tenten." Neji didn't quite know how to respond to this sudden outburst. "It's alright -"
"No, it isn't! I've missed you like crazy, but even when Lee said you were better and tried to get me to visit you with him I wouldn't, because I couldn't," Tenten interrupted him miserably. "And now I think I'm drunk, and it's all your fault, and you really should be back at the hospital you goddamn idiot -"
She froze when Neji suddenly leaned across the table and placed a finger on her lip.
"You're right," he chuckled, "You are drunk."
Tenten smiled ruefully but looked ready to burst into tears again when he wiped her cheek with a calloused thumb.
"It's been lonely drinking by myself," she admitted hoarsely.
"I can imagine." Neji let his hand drop slowly before picking up his bowl of sake. "Now stop crying. I'll drink with you tonight."
- x -
They stumbled out of the inn at three in the morning, Tenten half asleep and mumbling against Neji's shoulder.
"I'll take you back up." It wasn't an offer, and Neji - himself swaying lightly on his feet - proceeded to half carry his inebriated team mate across the street and up the stairs of her apartment complex.
"You...you better get back to the h-hospital," Tenten reminded him languidly. "You shouldn't even be out yet, and if you g-get hurt again I'll be very upset. For a long, long time. Don't go breaking my heart again, Hyuuga Neji." She attempted to fix him with a glare but only managed a tired frown. "If you can't take care of it, then play nice and g-give it back."
"... ...Hn." Neji fumbled for the keys under the row of potted plants by the wall. "I can't give back what I never had, Tenten."
But there was an odd lilt to his voice ( because some scars cannot be healed by forgiveness alone, and for now - even after the fight with Naruto, even after the semi-reconciliation with Hiashi - Neji was still afraid of what Tenten had to give him. Afraid of what he wanted to give to her, in return.)
She froze, straightening up briefly before grabbing the keys from his hands and opening the door.
"You're right," she mumbled morosely. The cool morning air was beginning to clear her head slightly and she shivered, heading inside the apartment hurriedly. "What am I saying? Of course you're right. Goodnight, Neji."
He caught her by the wrist before she could close the door in his face. "You will come by later today."
She looked up at him with a small smile on her face, and in that moment - watching the pink stain further across her cheeks and the way her eyes glinted unnaturally from alcohol - Neji realized that he had missed her more than he had thought.
"I'll see you when I'm fully sober." When I can bring myself to pretend I can't remember any of this had happened.
The door closed with a soft click.
III. ( Junmai-shu: pure sake. More heavy and full in flavour; bitter with a lasting aftertaste, yet less prominent in fragrance. )
Duty: one word to sum up the life of a shinobi of Konoha. Duty to the village, to the Hokage, to their comrades.
Team Gai was older now. Widely respected as one of the strongest in their generation, they were known not merely for their individual members' prowess but also for their immaculate teamwork, the ease with which Neji, Tenten and Lee worked with and trusted each other. Team work was crucial; team dynamics were fragile, imperative to their success. During missions and training Neji and Tenten's partnership continued to strengthen, honing their skills with daily spars until instinct for them became a matter of not only trusting their own bodies but the other's, until they could feel where the other was even when all other senses failed them.
But outside of work, the bonds that had held them together since childhood were slowing crumbling down, wearing thin against the demands of everyday life. It was simple: neither was fool enough to remain unaware of the attraction between them, of the way a stray glance could leave her cheeks tinting pink, or how his eyes would glaze over slightly whenever she let her hair down before him. By now Neji understood himself enough to know that he wanted Tenten as much more than a team mate, and Tenten -
Tenten had loved him all along.
But duty was everything, and partnership was safer than this fragile thing called love. There were too many what-if's: what if they argued, what if it didn't work out, what if this, what if that. Both of them understood that in the end, Team Gai was more important to Konoha than their feelings must ever be to them. Love was dangerous; the lost look that still appeared on Sakura's face whenever Sasuke's name was mentioned was warning enough for the rest of her comrades.
And so they continued fighting on as friends and partners, wanting too much but unable to admit it to each other - or even themselves - until the times when it all became too much and either one or the other stumbled, drunk, finally able to be honest about their feelings while hiding behind the excuse of insobriety. (It was never enough, but it was all they had and somehow they learned to live with it. As shinobi should.)
Always careful not to get caught by their peers or family, they preferred sake that had little fragrance so the bitter scent of alcohol would not cling to their clothes whenever they drank. They took to drinking junmai, as if the heavy, bitter taste somehow served as punishment for their weaknesses: every time they drank it was both thrilling and painful and every night they spent together ended with the taste of ashes in their mouths.
- x -
The sixth time Neji got drunk was when Tenten went out on a date with Sabaku no Kankurou. It had been a dare, proposed by none other than Temari when the two older Sand siblings were in the village for the first stop of a diplomatic tour around the Shinobi countries, necessary for securing the authority of their fledging Hokage. After overhearing her brother complain loudly to an attendant about the ridiculously long time since he had 'gotten some', an amused Temari had decided to secure a date for Kankurou with a respectable Leaf Kunoichi. Luckily for her, Tenten had shown up at the embassy barely two days into their visit, demanding that Temari spar with her. (A friendly match, she had called it, but the gleam of competition in her eyes had been obvious enough.) Temari had gracefully obliged - with a condition, naturally.
And so it was that Tenten, after a half-satisfying draw with the Sand Kunoichi earlier on in the afternoon, found herself facing a rather embarrassed looking Kankurou across a dinner table at one of the more upscale restaurants in Konoha, attempting a bit of polite small talk about cultural influences on weapon design. Interesting enough, really, but it was obvious to the both of them that neither were particularly attracted to the other. Her date had - to Tenten's initial alarm - ordered for them rather copious amounts of sake, probably hoping that the alcohol could soften any potential awkward silences - and as the night wore on and Tenten found herself increasingly wishing for a particular someone else's company, she began downing the sake more liberally, ordering consecutive bottles before a dully impressed Kankurou.
"Are you sure you should be drinking this much?" he asked her a little worriedly, watching her wrap thin fingers around the cup of sake on the table.
"I'm fine," she insisted thickly, downing the liquid in one swallow. "I'm used to this. Don't worry about me." She raised her arm, calling loudly to the waiter: "Another bottle of junmai, please. Make it stronger."
Kankurou sighed inwardly (was he so unattractive that women had to drink themselves tipsy to stand spending time with him?) and stood up, gently holding down her wrist.
"That's enough," he told her firmly. He hesitated, before continuing, "I think we're done for the night. Leave the tab on me, I'll take you home."
"No!" Tenten drew back violently, startling the customers on the nearby table. "I mean - it's alright, I can go home myself." She had a pounding headache - the damn lights here were too bright, her head was throbbing and for some inexplicable reason she hated, hated the idea of being walked home by any man other than... ...than him. "Thanks for the dinner - I must've bored you the whole night, I'm sorry - maybe you'll have better luck next time with someone more interesting... ..."
Fifteen minutes later she was finally out in the cold night air, having successfully brushed off a reluctant and worried Kankurou. She had managed to take a last bottle with her on her way out and now swallowed mouthfuls of sake as she stumbled back home, savouring the way the liquid burned down her throat and chest.
To her surprise she found the Hyuuga waiting for her, leaning against her apartment door.
"Neji?" She paused on her way up the stairs. "What are you doing here?"
He shrugged and merely watched her unsteadily, pale gaze glimmering from the shadows.
"Right." She made her way to the door and began fumbling with the lock. It was only then that she noticed the faint flush that darkened his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. "Heh, you were drinking too?"
"How was it?" he suddenly asked her, ignoring her comment. "Your date. With the Sabaku."
Tenten blinked at the way he spat out the word date.
"Not that great," she admitted wryly. "But it wasn't his fault. And now I have a headache, so can we leave this for tomorrow, Neji?"
"He's a shinobi from Sand," he insisted.
"I noticed," Tenten sighed tiredly.
"And you still spent an entire evening with him?" Neji sounded outraged (if rather drunkenly so.)
"Yes, I did. Jealous?" Tenten suddenly felt furious. She had missed him the whole night - had wanted to spend time with him, instead of Kankurou - but now that he was here with his goddamn arrogance, with the way he looked, so pale in the faint glimmers of moonlight that filtered down the stairwell, the way she knew she couldn't have him - it hurt, goddamnit, and she had had enough of hurting for a long time to come.
"Perhaps." He glared down at her.
"You're supposed to be my partner," she reminded him bitterly, and Neji pulled back, stung.
"Is that it? Am I nothing more to you than a team mate?" he demanded roughly, the careful reasoning with which he normally justified depriving himself of Tenten completely ignored in the heat of the moment.
"You're everything to me," she said in a small voice, almost whimpering. "That's the problem, can't you see?"
His shoulders relaxed, the anger visibly draining away from him.
"When you look at me," she continued sadly, lurching forwards and closer to him, "It hurts. Here."
She dug her fingers into the fabric at her chest, right above her heart. One hand came up to rest against his cheek. She traced a finger along his cheekbone, looking up at him with a steadiness that contradicted her inebriated state and he caught her by the wrist - held her palm against his cheek - said nothing because Tenten was unfolding before him, each word peeling away from her like petals unfurling delicately from a bud.
"Tell me more," he demanded quietly; somewhere at the back of his mind he knew that this was a bad idea but the aftertaste of sake was still bittersweet in his mouth, rendering his usual inhibitions worthless compared to what he wanted to hear right now.
She shook her head wearily. "What do you want me to say, Neji? What can I say?"
"Do you love me?" he asked bluntly, unable to fully conceal the desperation in his voice, his need to hear proof that perhaps he could be loved after all.
"I love you," she told him honestly, and the words tasted like sake on her tongue.
- x -
She approached him the next morning as they stood outside the Hokage's office, waiting for a mission briefing. Lee had bounded off to chat animatedly with Sakura in a nearby corridor and she took the opportunity to draw closer to the Hyuuga, fiddling with the edge of her shirt nervously.
"Neji - if I said anything inappropriate last night, I'm sorry - I was drunk. I... ...I didn't mean any of it," she said in a low voice, looking up at him worriedly.
"It's fine. I understand." Neji didn't meet her gaze. "... ...I don't remember much, anyway."
But he remembered enough - both of them did - and for the rest of the day they treaded carefully around each other, being perfectly what they were only meant to be: team mates.
You don't love me.
"I do," she insisted, eyes closing in pleasure at the feel of his lips at her throat. The words came easily to her; in broad daylight, when she was supposed to be clear-headed and responsible, she would never have been able to tell him so honestly how she felt. (And so it was that the darkness hid their secrets and the sake drowned their pain; in the end they were all lies, dust and ashes, but for the moment it was enough.) "You know I do, Neji. I've loved you from the very beginning."
His hand found hers. Their fingers intertwined, palm against palm. A moment's hesitation, then: "Thank you."
Tenten smiled involuntarily.
"You'd never thank me if you were sober, Hyuuga Neji," she teased him lightly, standing up and tugging him after her. "Come on, it's getting late and I'd actually have to sleep for a hangover to set in tomorrow morning."
She turned to leave but was stopped when Neji slid his fingers around her wrist, pulling her back down gently.
"Neji?" She settled onto her knees, glancing down at him curiously. He didn't speak for a long moment; the quiet of the night was thick and heavy around them, almost stifling. Then Neji let her hand drop, sighing.
"I'm not drunk."
Tenten blinked, uncomprehending. "What?"
He gestured to his bottle. "It's only water."
She stared at him. "I... ...I don't understand." She shivered involuntarily when he lifted his hand and cradled her cheek in his palm.
"I need more than what you're willing to give me," he admitted, with a kind of quiet resignation, "And I'm only telling you now because you won't remember anything tomorrow morning."
Silence. She found herself suddenly aching, a dull pain reverberating at the bottom of her heart when she saw his expression, the subtle sadness barely discernible in his eyes.
"But it doesn't make sense," she protested weakly, "I saw you - when we dropped by at the inn to pick up a few drinks - you asked for three bottles of junmai from the bartender."
"Junmai that I then asked him to replace with cold water," he explained, "When you went back to your apartment to get your own sake."
"Neji - I -" She faltered, biting her lip - and then suddenly she couldn't stand it anymore, what with the warmth of his skin on hers and the way he was leaning down towards her, almost as if he wanted to kiss her but barely restrained himself from doing so. Slowly, she wrapped an arm around his neck and pulled him closer, tilting her face up, letting him know quite clearly what she wanted from him. To her surprise and disappointment he stopped her, placing both hands on her shoulders. His lips twitched up in what was almost an affectionate smile.
"Not when you're drunk," he insisted, but his voice cracked slightly at the idea that she'd only ever allow herself to kiss him when she was inebriated, when she could wake up the next morning and pretend nothing had happened between them. He hated the way things were - the way they insisted on going in circles, the way they had to depend upon alcohol of all things to get through to each other when being apart became unbearable - but he refused to blame her for it. He loved Tenten (it was the only thing he knew now that was simple, straightforward, undeniable) and if this was the way she needed things, then so be it.
Tenten bit her lip. "Actually... ...I'm not."
His hands tightened against her shoulders. She gestured ruefully to her own bottles lying in between the grass.
"Green tea," she confessed a little embarrassedly.
"Why -" he began, confused, but she cut him off with a finger on his lips.
"I guess I just got sick of being drunk," she explained hurriedly. "I...I just wanted to spend the night actually being able to be honest with you - honest with myself - without it feeling it was all unreal the next morning because we weren't really ourselves and…and oh, I don't know. I thought it'd be a good idea if I just pretended, so I could still say what I wanted without making everything too difficult the next day and... ...I'm sorry."
"I see," he murmured. Tenten winced.
"So... ...what happens now?" she asked him in a small voice.
For a moment Neji's expression was a conflicting mix of hope and wariness as he looked down upon her.
"So when you said... ..." He trailed off, sounding utterly unsure of himself for the first time in his life. "You really meant it? It wasn't the sake talking?"
"When I said what?" Tenten smiled wryly, knowing fully well what he was trying to get at in his own awkward way.
"When you said that you...that you..."
"That I love you? Yes, I meant it. Yes, that was really me," she assured him. "There wasn't a drop of sake in those bottles."
A pause; then the corner of his lips twitched up in an uncertain smile. "I think that I should test that claim before I believe you."
Tenten blinked. "How?"
She gasped softly when she suddenly found herself flat on her back, his hands sliding down her arms reassuringly as he moved on top of her, ghosting kisses gently over her forehead, the tip of her nose, her mouth. Her lips parted instinctively and he groaned in spite of himself, mouth immediately slanting down upon hers as if craving for more, for her.
"Neji -" she murmured breathlessly when they separated briefly for air, "Neji, what are you -"
Then he was leaning down again and silencing her effectively with another kiss, this one rougher, needier. A hand came up to thread calloused fingers through her hair; Tenten closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around his neck, drawing him even closer as she savoured the comforting weight of his body on hers, running her fingertips down the hard muscles of his back and moaning quietly when he deepened the kiss.
"Green tea it is," he reported after they finally broke apart, panting. Tenten could only nod dazedly, lifting a finger to trace over her bruised lips. He kissed the hollow of her throat lightly before resting his forehead on hers, fingers pressed lightly against her her temples. Their gazes locked together, white mirroring dark hazel in the dark of the fading evening.
"We're such fools," she whispered, smiling a little sadly. "All those nights...all that damn sake. And in the end we still end up like this."
"We can start again," he murmured, and Tenten knew he meant it as a question. She bit her lip.
"What about the team? What about Lee?" she pointed out softly. "The ANBU trials are coming up and we promised we would go for them together. What if..."
She trailed off, a million other doubts running through her mind. What if this didn't work out, what if one of them got hurt, what if Lee felt left out...it was risky, dangerous. Terrifying.
But the both of them knew that it was too late now to be afraid - the truth was present in the empty bottles in the grass, in the way neither of them could forget about the words exchanged this evening or the feeling of her hand curled safely in his: stripped bare, clean and simple between them with no easy way out, no possibility of compromise.
"I can't pretend this won't change the team," Neji began, hesitatingly briefly before continuing: "But change is not necessarily a bad thing, Tenten. You of all people should know that."
Because in the end what still mattered the most was not who they were, but who they could become; the girl who had flown with her dragons and the boy who nearly wrecked a clan and himself with his genius had grown up, grown wiser, into the man and woman lying together beneath the shifting clouds with their hearts on the line and the future uncertain before them.
She took a deep breath and smiled for him, kissing him lightly on the cheek. "I know." I love you.
And there was still a long way to go - a hundred lessons to learn and a thousand opportunities to grow, to become something better - but this time they were in it together.
"No more sake," she announced firmly.
"No more," he echoed, squeezing her hands lightly before suddenly smirking down at her, the arrogance back in full force. "Pity. You were always interestingly - ah - fiesty when drunk."
"Neji!" she berated him, mortified, earning a chuckle from him at the way her cheeks immediately flushed deeply. She glared at him, leaning up to whisper softly in his ear - "I'm even better sober," - and grinned when the smirk was wiped cleanly off his face.
"Prove it," he challenged her huskily, breath hitching when she rolled them both over until he was pinned against the ground, her hands trailing down his chest. She leaned down, smiling now, and pressed a soft kiss on his forehead.