Disclaimer: I do not own anything of Naruto.
By: Chigiri Sasaki
The darkness of the cool night had already spread throughout Konoha, soft moonlight peeking through the rare openings of the murky clouds. The air was chilly up in their usual training area: a clearing on the peak of a hill, sapped of heat by the rising moon and the building thunderstorm located just a little over the horizon.
A pair of pale, ivory eyes saw flickering lightning in the dark sky every now and then, but they remained emotionless and unfazed. The clouds completely swallowed the stars as they grew more ominous but Hyuuga Neji was not concerned about the weather. It wasn't necessary to find a shelter because he knew that it would not rain heavily until he was done training.
Tenten, the brunette standing a considerable distance away, frowned slightly as she swiped at her eyes with her dampened sleeve. The weather was unfavourable; the light drizzle distorted her vision slightly, impairing an asset that she would need if she were to continue battling Neji as an equal. Her dark eyes narrowed by a fraction, mentally scrutinising her condition as well as scanning the amount of weapons she had left.
Her lips curved into a somewhat smug smile when she discovered that she had been barely grazed. Other than a few smears of mud on her limbs, she was practically in perfect condition. She had a lot of chakra left, too; she estimated that she could probably muster enough for at least three more attacks. Realising this bit of useful information, she let her fingers dance against the large scroll on her back for a moment before drawing it out. She smiled confidently as the Hyuuga prodigy fell back into a defensive stance, his Byakugan activated once again.
This was how their training would always go: wordlessly, emotionlessly and sometimes, if they were upset after a failed mission, recklessly. The way Tenten saw it, Neji had chosen her to be his sparring partner, out of all people, because the benefits and improvements were both mutual and in abundance. Her fighting style was complementary to his; she would attack and he would defend. There was another advantage altogether, as they were part of the same team and virtually inseparable when it came to their duties as ninjas. Knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses inside out was immensely helpful and had long established an efficient dynamic between the two.
Tenten landed gracefully, just shortly before Neji's distinctive chakra stopped whirling. She couldn't help but watch briefly, because even after years of training with him she could not fathom how one could expel so much chakra at once, and then do it over and over again. Of course, such an ability was unique to someone like Neji, who trained without cessation. He had this strange, strong-willed power to move forward, no matter the circumstances. The way he was able to push himself beyond his limits—it sometimes made her think that he was inhuman.
Maybe he was. Whenever they fought, she would get the impression that she was fighting a robot, and not a man. Only an vacant shell could feel nothing—react to nothing. Even death was something he could easily smile at, not because he particularly wanted it but because he had long accepted the bare truth of its inevitability.
That wasn't quite true, she corrected herself as she lunged forward with a kunai. Neji wasn't always expressionless. There would often be a phantom shadow to his face, casting over the outline of his eyes' delicate shape. His eyes reflected great sorrow and vehement hatred, and at times she would even catch a glimpse of pain in them. Most of the time, however, he would simply use pessimism as a cover. It was his shield, polished from years of training and a life of sorrow and hardship. It kept him away from the rest of the world, which he had shunned a long time ago. He refused any offer of help and sympathy from anyone, even her.
The intense yet ghostly expression he seemed to always hold made her despise him sometimes; she especially hated that arrogant look he would have after defeating her, as if he had expected victory all along. Sometimes he would even tell her to give up because she would never beat him. The only indication that implied that he thought of her as a somewhat worthy opponent was the unrealistic training schedule he would give her every week. It was as if he wanted to fight her every day just so that he could knock her off her feet.
At times like those, she hated him a lot.
Yet, somehow, she still loved him and for that, she hated herself.
Because despite knowing that nothing could come out of it, she had hopelessly fallen for him. She respected his negative opinions, unconditionally accepted his orders, supported his often crude and pessimistic judgement and even admired his stubbornness—all because she was in love with him. She loved him not only because he was the talented Hyuuga prodigy and exceptionally good-looking and a tortured soul that she desperately wanted to fix; she loved him in every way because under all those layers was a boy who handled life better than she could ever manage. Neji worked harder than anyone else she knew, he was wiser than most people his age and despite being unusually jaded, his outlook on life was real and raw. He took things as they came and dealt with them efficiently, in a manner that would put most adults to shame.
He kept her grounded in all aspects of life. Everything about him made her work harder.
The stormy night crackled to life, the leaves rustling wildly from the restless wind and the heavy rain beginning to pour. Today the sombre weather seemed to have completely drained Tenten, however, as she was feeling more light-headed than usual. She took a step back, dropping the weapon she had in her hand.
"Tenten," Neji said, letting go of his own weapon. His inquiring tone was the only indication of his unspoken question.
"I'm fine, I just—"
Despite her relatively good condition, Tenten suddenly collapsed onto her knees. Her eyes instantly clamped shut and she flinched, preparing for the impact of her fall.
But it never came.
Over the years, Neji's rude and cold-hearted nature wasn't the only thing she had been exposed to; Neji also possessed a softer side, a gentle one that he showed very rarely but often enough to have made her fall even harder for him.
Two strong arms were wrapped around her protectively, having prevented the collision by a hairline. Tenten, still cringing, opened one of her eyes to face the bottomless white pools of her teammate. They were, as usual, beautiful beyond comparison, but at the moment there was the predominant presence of uncertainty and—she wasn't quite sure, as she had rarely seen it from him before—concern?
"You're sick," Neji stated impassively, placing a warm hand on her forehead. His voice was emotionless, as usual, betraying the concern that was etched into his eyes. He quickly ran his eyes over her body to check for any major injuries and frowned when he saw none. She was obviously sick, so why had she come out to train with him, especially when she knew that it was going to rain? Did she do it solely for him?
Tenten squirmed uncomfortably under the intense gaze of the Hyuuga. She hastily averted her gaze, her eyes searching frantically to look at anything but him. She knew what he was thinking. She knew that she was disappointing, as a partner and as a teammate; she was a letdown in all ways. To him, she was probably just an unworthy and useless nuisance. This wasn't the first time she had failed to be a worthy opponent. This wasn't the first time she had fallen pathetically because her body couldn't keep up with his. She silently cursed herself for being so weak, and for being foolishly faithful in her abilities despite having lost countless of battles to him.
In an desperate attempt to escape the source of her disgraceful embarrassment and anger, she scrambled to her knees but instantly doubled over when her knees gave way. Neji was prepared this time and caught her instantly, this time holding her even more tightly.
"Don't," he murmured when she tried to move again. He then stood up gracefully, carrying her, and walked over to a sturdy oak tree. He gently eased her back against the tree trunk and followed suit.
Tenten didn't say anything then, so he gazed up and silently observed the tree that had served them well over the years. They were both quite fond of it, and not only because it provided them with shelter; it was the only tree that had withstood their constant, vigorous training over the years—the deep carvings and indents on the trunk were clear indications. He watched the leaves as they swayed back and forth, rhythmically to the wind. Somehow, it was like the tree represented their relationship—flawed but sturdy, reliable, and there was never a doubt that its flowers would bloom every year.
Neji's recollection of rare but pleasant memories was interrupted when Tenten sighed, almost in a laughing manner. He raised an eyebrow questioningly.
Tenten smiled weakly. "I'm sorry that I'm so pathetic. I'm always so weak, always having to rely on someone else to take care of me."
The question startled Neji even though he didn't show it. He shook his head in denial slowly, knowing that silence between them, like their partnership, was comfortable. "You're strong."
Tenten felt herself smile slightly and closed her eyes. They both knew that she was not the strongest but the fact that he was trying to make her feel better made her happy enough. "Thanks, Neji."
"I mean it."
"I know." She put her head on his shoulder, savouring this moment with her teammate of many years. She knew that this wasn't much but it was still enough to make her heart soar high and free her mind from worries. Moments like these were the reasons why she would endure gruelling training sessions. In fact, she had decided a long time ago that loving Neji without reciprocation didn't matter; she just wanted to be with him.
"Tenten," Neji started and then paused, as if he was trying to remember the lines he had prepared. "You worry about lacking physical strength when you're the strongest person I know. Your love for life and everything in it challenges everything in which I've ever believed. I never thought that I would find myself working so hard to defy fate. You don't see it but you're the reason why I haven't shut the world out completely."
Tenten turned to face Neji directly for the first time that night. He had a pair of rather ardent ivory eyes, she noticed as they burned ever so brightly. His perfect, pale visage seemed genuinely sincere for once, and his lips were curved into the smallest yet most genuine of smiles.
Tenten had to blink repeatedly in order to prevent the pent-up tears from falling. "Thank you," she breathed softly.
The sky had cleared up unusually quickly. The dark clouds had parted considerably to reveal a constellation of stars, each of which seemed brighter than the two ninjas had ever remembered them to be.
Neji waited for Tenten to fall asleep before he did. Looking at the sleeping girl lying on his chest, he frowned at the sight of her disturbed face. Her perfectly shaped eyebrows were furrowed slightly and her eyes were clamped a little too tightly. The troubled look was made evident by her frown, and when her hands tightened their grip on his shirt, it was as if she was trying to make him stay.
He wasn't going anywhere, he wanted to say, but there was no reason to say such a thing. He hadn't even moved from his spot.
Maybe, he thought with a bitter note, she wasn't happy because even after all these years he couldn't bring himself to love her back the way she loved him. In truth, he wasn't sure if he could even learn how to love. He wasn't sure he could give her the happiness she really deserved.
He gazed at the sleeping girl, who looked more like an angel under the soft moonlight. He had always been aware of the feelings she had for him; he would be lying if he were to say that he never noticed the worry and distress written all over her face whenever he got hurt. He never missed the quick, stolen glances at him, and the small grin she wore every time he beat Lee, not to mention her blushing whenever he did anything remotely nice for her. She had always been gentle with him, never actually intending to hurt him whenever they trained together. She had always been understanding, too, and never failed to respect everything that he did.
If only she realised that he treated her in the same way.
As subtle as he was at times, he had always thought that it was obvious he cared for her. It was Tenten whom he would always keep an eye on during missions, and it wasn't because he thought she was weak. He helped her whenever she asked for it—which was rare on her part because she was often too proud and stubborn to do so—and whenever they trained he, too, was careful to never seriously hurt her.
The things he did were not uncommon, but he hoped that she at least noticed he did not treat every other person in the same way. He didn't trust other people quite like he did her; in fact, the amount of trust he placed in her was unnerving. No wise ninja would do such a thing, yet somehow, he couldn't help it.
He sighed quietly. He had experienced a lot more than most people his own age. Years of suffering had taken his childhood away from him. He didn't know what familial love consisted of and he had never taken the time to properly form friendships. A life of solitude was something he had been prepared for since the age of four; in fact, he had made that very clear the first day he had met Tenten. Yet somehow, without her pushing him, he had gone from living a solitary life to expecting her to be in it.
"Tenten," Neji whispered, "you're definitely not just my friend. You mean much more than that. I can't exactly tell you that I love you yet, but I do know that I wouldn't want to be with anyone else but you. I'm willing to try, Tenten. I'm willing to love."
She was asleep—he was aware of that—but somehow, he had half-expected her to hear that. And perhaps she did, because a blissful smile then appeared on her lips as she continued to sleep.
A/N: Tada, my first fan fiction! Hope that it's realistic. Let me know what you think! :)
July 2013: It's edited! The amount of nostalgia is almost overwhelming haha.