the rating, please.
Disclaimer: "Naruto" and its characters belong to Masashi Kishimoto. No money is being made with this work of fiction.
By Lady Calliope
"Why do you hold yourself back?"
She's so startled thekunai she's been balancing for over an hour wavers like it's going to fall. Of course it doesn't, and she's back to leaning against the wall, kunai perfectly still on the tip of her finger. She glares at him for his intrusion and her almost-mistake. "You shouldn't sneak up on people like that. It's rude."
"Don't act like you weren't aware I was coming. We both know you were."
"Whatever." She's thrown off by his presence. She had been aware, but she had also been expecting him to continue past her with nothing more than a nod in her direction. They'd passed perhaps five words between them in all her missions to and with the Hidden Sand Village up to this point. But there was no coldness or dislike in their demeanors towards one another: just a pervasive sense of the unknown. She imagines they have very little in common and he has never attempted to correct her assumption. There wasn't much time for chitchat anyway as they usually only encountered each other when each was on their way somewhere else. Usually she was on her way to train with Temari, and he would be on his way to build more destructive puppets (so she imagines, anyway).
A near-sigh escapes as she plucks a whetstone out of her kunai pouch and takes to smoothing the nicked edges of the weapon in her hand. How much longer could this meeting possibly last? A scroll exchanged hands, was read, a reply written, a bow executed, and then back to Konoha. Normally missions like these didn't take long once you arrived at the destination, but knowing the two men behind the doors she was currently guarding there was much more going on than a simple handoff. They had to have their silent battle of wills, secret contests of strength the rules of which only the two of them understood. How two such silent men could be friends and still compete over the trivial was something she regarded as yet another mystery of the male species. The corner of her mouth turns up as the image surfaces in her mind of a fully-regaled Kazekage playing tug-of-war with a scroll against an ANBU-clad Neji. She'd be surprised if the scroll survived the onslaught.
"You never answered." The broken silence pulls her back to the present.
"I forgot the question." She's not being impertinent, just honest. She hadn't so much paid attention to the meaning in his words as to the fact that he was speaking to her. With his focus entirely on her for the first time in their acquaintance of seven years, she finds herself a little unnerved. Not that anyone besides Neji would be able to tell.
"Why do you hold yourself back?" He repeats it with the exact same intonation and volume as he did the first time. Apparently he's unperturbed by her lack of focus: that settles her nerves somewhat. He's not annoyed, at least.
"What do you mean? Hold back what?" Honest in her confusion. He leans against the wall opposite her, his casual posture suggesting that she should know exactly what he's asking.
A smirk then. Small, but enough to dash the slight calm she'd gained from his patience. "With him." A tilt of his chin in the direction of the door behind her. "Why do you hold back?"
Suddenly she feels like she's knows what he's asking and her hands stop their methodical movements of sliding stone against steel. Her eyes narrow in suspicion. Why is he asking about things that could not possibly concern him? She studies his painted face, searching the purple lines of his cheeks and chin for any indication as to his motives. "I don't know what you're talking about. He's my captain and friend. I hold nothing back from him." Not so honest now, but it's not like he could know that.
"But you do."
His placid assuredness grates against her nerves. Why now of all times and why this topic of all things? Her mind, which can calculate angles, velocities, and forces of hundreds of objects in an instant, is blank. There is no formula to apply to this situation, no physic that can explain his behavior, and this irks her. She hates feeling unprepared—something she hasn't felt since she was a Chunin and still encountering unknown weapons with unknown strengths and weaknesses. She is a Master and Jonin now, she is ANBU, and yet here is an attack she has no idea how to counter.
"You're opinions are your business, but keep them out of mine." There is no longer accommodation in her voice.
"Touchy." The smirk fades slowly and a look that's almost tired settles in his eyes. "I'm not trying to corner you." The sound of scraping once again fills the air, and though her eyes remain on her task they both know she is watching him, waiting for an explanation. She's still on the defensive but not longer looking for an opening. For now.
"Let's try this again, shall we? We've never been properly introduced. I'm Kankuro, brother to the fifth Kazekage, captain in ANBU, and puppeteer extraordinaire. Pleased to meet your acquaintance."
Her whetstone stills, but not out of hostility. There is amusement in her eyes at this abrupt change in topic and attitude. He's no longer the interrogator and she's no longer the strategist.
"Tenten. Enchanted." They both smile at her response and the doors behind her open.
Though she does not know him well, she can detect the barest hint of smugness in the air around Gaara as the two men emerge from the kage's office.Looks like he won the tug-of-war. Neji looks from her to the man across the hall and nods to Kankuro. He then sweeps past, a scroll bearing the Sand symbol in his hand. That's her cue to leave, too. As she puts her kunai away and makes to follow her captain she glances up at the black-clad figure in front of her. A small wave, a smile, and she turns away to fall in step with Neji. She misses the look of disappointment that crosses his painted face even as he waves at her back.
And just like that they have bridged a gap of seven years of unfamiliarity. Perhaps it was his way of apologizing for his tactlessness, or perhaps they had both finally realized the futility of trying to stay strangers when they could maybe be friends. For some reason, the respectful distance and silence between them that had seemed so appropriate for so long has been thrown aside and could now be seen in all its absurd politeness. Though she still doesn't know why he chose today of all days, there is a slight tilt to her lips as they make for the village gate. Now all she has to do is become friends with Gaara and she'll be able to run around Suna completely free of nerves.
She laughs outright at the image of Gaara raising an eyebrow while she, Temari, and Kankuro streak by the open door of his office naked as the day they were born. Neji regards her quizzically at the outburst, shrugs ever so slightly, and they once again begin the three-day trek back to Konoha.
"Why do you hold yourself back?"
The smile she's been wearing all evening drops from her face like a rock. He had to spoil everything!
"Are you really asking that again?" They had been having such a wonderful time catching up and laughing at his inane jokes. The tentative gestures of a few months ago seem distant in comparison to the camaraderie they have since found with one another. She discovered she couldn't have been more inaccurate in her assumptions about him and they now conversed, confided, and conspired with an ease she had never expected to find outside of her hometown. In fact, their cultural differences were one of the more frequent—and fascinating—topics of discussion. And yet he never missed an opportunity to throw her off guard just as she never failed to constantly surprise him. It was a form of training, she supposed, in addition to the actual sparring matches they sometimes had. She wasn't expecting an attack during lunch, though.
"You never answered me the first time I asked." She wonders if he's aware that he sounds exactly like he did when they first had this conversation.
"I forgot the question." She glares at him even though she knows she's being childish. Why does his question put her so on edge when not even his most daring antics do? Perhaps its because his tone takes her back to a time when he'd never asked anything personal of her before. Agreeing with that assessment, she chalks it up to reflexive memory.
From the set of his mouth she can tell he's annoyed. "I thought we'd moved past you being defensive around me." He puts down his chopsticks, the ramen continuing to steam in front of him. She absently notices a new cut across the back of his left hand. In the recesses of her mind it bothers her that she doesn't know how he got the scrape.
The last time she saw him was on a joint mission between Fire and Wind a few weeks ago: they had infiltrated Rain Country to investigate reports of Akatsuki activity. Neither ANBU team had found anything conclusive, but it was the lack of evidence in combination with quiet villagers that had disturbed them. No one was talking, and silent enemies were worse than destructive ones. Since then both Fire and Wind had agreed to even more frequent diplomatic exchanges between the two countries. Temari and Kankuro had become common fixtures in Konoha—though no one could say that a man with a painted face and a woman with a giant fan were exactly common sights.
"Sorry. Call it instinct." With effort she pushes away her senses that are warning her this situation is more than what it seems. It's just another one of his games. No need to panic. This is just Kankuro!
"I wish you'd tell your instincts to back off once in a while." His tone is miffed and suddenly she's angry.
"Maybe they would if you'd stop asking questions you already know the answer to." He knows this subject is touchy for her. True, they've never discussed it directly and openly, but they're both intelligent enough to read between the lines of what she doesn't say.
"If I knew the answer I wouldn't be asking, would I?"
"I don't know! You always take such pleasure in annoying people it's hard to tell."
"Why are you getting so upset?"
"Why are you asking about something you know damn well I don't want to talk about?" Her food and composure are forgotten in her temper.
"I don't think you understand what I'm asking here—"
"I do understand and I wish you'd stop pushing me. That's not the way things work between us!"
"Which us?" His anger is tempered by his slight confusion now.
"Neji and I. Our relationship—"
"Or lack thereof." He's being petty. She glares at him but continues uninterrupted.
"—is fine the way it is and I just wish everyone would stop telling me what to do with my feelings!" It's the closest she's ever come to saying she's in love with Neji out loud.
He swallows his retort as he notices her flushed cheeks and short, shallow breaths. She's genuinely upset and this conversation couldn't be further from where it started. A long sigh. "Look, believe it or not, that's not what I'm asking about. Well, I guess in a way it is but that's not the main point. I mean, it's part of the point but not what I'm asking—"
His verbal bumblings serve as a balm to her racing blood and she cracks a small smile. "Just spit it out. You sound like a schoolboy trying to ask someone on a date."
"Schoolman, thank you very much." A grin. "What I'm trying to say is this: my question has to do with you alone and not whatever 'relationship' you may or may not be fantasizing about in your head. I think it's safe to say I've known the answer to that question for years."
A small sense of relief followed by a puzzle. "You have? But…we didn't really start talking until…"
"I'd have to be blind not to see the way you've been looking at him for so long." There's something in his voice that doesn't match with the teasing expression on his face but she sidesteps it in favor of a smile.
"Am I that obvious?" She knows his answer before he opens his mouth.
"To everyone but him."
"Yeah, I thought so. He's got the biggest blind spot I've ever seen." They chuckle at her weak joke and things are back to the way they were, a small burden lifted from her shoulders. But as they finish their meal and prepare to pay, she finds she's still curious about his question. "So if your question isn't about him, then what?"
He turns and appraises her from head to toe with such intensity she's afraid she might have spilled something on her white top. She has the strange sense that he's trying to see her answer before she herself even knows what it is. Then suddenly he's leaning so close to her she can feel the heat of his breath as he whispers into her ear. Closing her eyes against the unfamiliarity of the feeling, she takes a steadying breath only to shoot her eyes open again as his words register in her brain.
But he is gone, enough money for the entire bill on the table, and nothing to signify his leaving but the canvas of the ramen stand slowly fluttering back into place in his wake.
"Why do you hold back when you are so much more than he could ever be?"
She doesn't know what unsettles her more: the fact that she finds herself missing the puppet master's warmth on her skin or the fact that she's actually considering his words.
"Why do you hold yourself back?!"
He's screaming the words but she's having trouble hearing them. That's probably because there's blood streaming from her ears, but since she can't lift her hands to check she's merely guessing. The Grass nin's hands are rough against her neck but that's nothing compared to the pain in her hand and legs. Blood winds its way from the kunai embedded in her palm down her arm, around her torso, then down to her leg where it joins with more from her cut hamstrings before pooling on the ground. The weapon had been driven clear through her right hand into the bark of the tree behind her just before her hamstrings had been cut by the same nin now choking her. If it weren't for Kankuro screaming at her she'd swear the only sound in the world was the heartbeat in her ears. Her heartbeat, she realizes belatedly.
It seems like the others have taken notice of her predicament. Ino and Temari, from what her senses can make out. For some reason, she feels embarrassed, like she's been caught in a compromising position with a boy. Which, she reasons, she has—just not a particularly desirable position. A small part of her remembers that she never makes jokes during battle, so the fact that she is doing so now must mean it's a dire situation indeed.
"I'm going to enjoy watching that pretty face turn purple. It'll match your boyfriend's makeup."
What? Boyfriend? When did I get…I don't remember…
At the same moment she realizes the man strangling her is making fun of her while she dies, she hears that voice again above the roar.
"Why do you hold yourself back?! Fight him, Tenten!" He's to her right, viciously attacking two more Grass nin with Kuroari while defending a fallen but conscious Shikamaru with Karasu. Beyond him she can just see Neji engaged in a furious battle with four enemies, katakana and Gentle Fist style flying. Though she can't see them, she assumes Ino and Temari are fighting their way towards the others after having been separated in the ambush.
It seems no help would be coming for her before her windpipe collapses under the immense pressure of her attacker's hands. Ironic, to be undone by the first weapon she ever mastered.
"If you die now I'll never forgive you! You'll die a liar and a coward!"
Her eyes, which had previously been slowly closing, fly open at his words. Anger surges through her leaking veins at the two insults she has never been able to bear, especially from friends. "I'll kill you!" Whether she's addressing the smirking nin in front of her or the one still struggling in his own battle to her right is unclear. In the end it doesn't matter.
In the blink of an eye and with an eerie silence she has used her good hand to rip the kunai out of her injured palm and embedded it in the gut of her attacker. His eyes widen as his brain processes the nerve signals but he does not have time to even form a sound before she has sliced him open from navel to neck with his own weapon. Taking only a moment to wipe the blood from her eyes, she flings the kunai into the jugular of one of Ino's opponents with the accuracy that has made her famous. Despite the fact that the cuts through the backs of her thighs should prevent her from walking, she stands and unfurls her scroll with her one functioning hand. She unleashes her souryuu tensakai, switches all the chakra strings to her left hand, and the remaining ten enemy nin fall to the ground. Their bodies are gutted, decapitated, and split open upon the crushed leaves—the whole thing takes less than thirty seconds. It takes her teammates a few moments to realize what has just happened.
All attention turns to her but her eyes are focused on only one person. Grimacing yet still silent, she drags one foot in front of the other in something that resembles a walk. She stops often, sometimes physically pulling her legs forward with her hands, but the look on her face is enough to stop anyone from moving towards her or even speaking. After what seems like ten minutes but is in reality only one, she finds herself facing him. His eyes are unsure and proud at the same time, but he does not make to touch her or open his mouth.
"Never. Call. Me. That. Again." And then she stabs his shoulder with asenbon and passes out at his feet.
As if someone had released a genjutsu everyone is moving quickly and talking even faster. Pale eyes transfix themselves on her still form: her white vest is dyed red, deep slashes are visible through the ripped material of her black ANBU pants, and a gaping hole in her right palm shows him the forest floor through her skin. Blood—both her own and not—is spattered across her face, coats her arm, and glistens in the black fabric of her clothes. He makes to move towards her but Kankuro picks her up, cradling her to his chest and mindful of her wounds. As the puppet master makes his way towards a still-shocked Ino, he is aware of the Hyuga's stare that follows his every step. His one glance towards Neji says he already knows what the still-actived Byakugan sees.
Ino shakes herself out of her stupor as Kankuro gently lays Tenten at her feet. Healing chakra at her hands, she kneels at her friend's side to repair the damage that should have kept her from even standing. But as she clots the blood still oozing from aggravated wounds, she can only shake her head. "Since when are you so vicious, Tenten?" Her words are awed but tinged with fear.
"Since she earned the title of Weapons Master." It is apparent from Ino's start that she had not been expecting an answer, least of all from Kankuro.
"But she's been a Master for two years, ever since she became Jonin." Shikamaru's voice is steady despite the blood seeping through his fingers where he holds them against his side. Ino nods at his injury, silently asking if he'd like it treated, but he shakes his head and points to Tenten, the meaning clear: she needs it more.
"Yes." The monosyllable answer visibly grates on everyone.
"There is something you're not telling us, Kankuro." If the small smirk on his face is any indication, the slight strain in Neji's voice has not gone undetected by the man in question. "I have never seen her fight like that before." His eyes shift downwards, almost reminiscent of shame. From his tone of voice and actions, it is clear to everyone that Neji has never before thought himself unaware of anything when it came to his partner and friend.
"Your eyes miss quite a lot." He is not trying to insult, his tone is merely matter-of-fact. His focus has not strayed from the woman's prone body once. As if he suddenly senses the tension he has unintentionally added to, though, he speaks to alleviate some of their silent questions.
"While weapon mastery is a fine art, a weapons master does not kill with grace or subtlety. There is no bloodless way to end a life with a weapon. Their kills are naturally messy and violent and their quickness depends on the master's needs. Their art does not have the luxury of pretty deaths." It is evident that these last words are directed towards Neji.
"Fine speech, but you still haven't told us what you know." Pale knuckles turn whiter as the brown-haired captain clenches his fists, a time bomb. The puppeteer's silence and focus on his teammate seems only to fuel his anger at being deliberately side-stepped. "How did her chakra manage to spike so high when she was nearly out?" Still silence. "Answer me, Kankuro!"
"I already have, Hyuga! She is a Weapons Master, or can't you comprehend what that means?" A fight between the two once-allies seems almost inevitable now: Temari and Shikamru tense in preparation.
"What are you talking about? Give a straight answer, for once!"
"Are you a Gentle Fist Master? I'm not asking if you've actually mastered it so close your mouth if you were going to say 'yes'!" Neji doesn't speak, though his eyes burn. "While you may have mastered the style, you have not actually been given the title of Master by those who also use the style. Tenten has been given the title and has had it for over two years. Have you ever come across anyone else with the title of Weapons Master?"
"No." Temari's voice reminds them that there are more than two people listening. Neji's quick glance shows he cannot decide whether he is grateful or not for her interjection.
At the sound of his sister's voice, Kankuro visibly relaxes. "No, you haven't. That's because there isn't another one. She was awarded her title after the kages conferred at the end of the Jonin exam two years ago. None of them knew of a weapons specialist talented enough to challenge her for it. They still don't."
"So one day she could be challenged for the title if a kage believes someone is ready?" No one had even realized that Ino was finished with Tenten until she speaks. She waves Shikamaru over and begins treating his wound.
Kankuro's eyes soften as he looks down to see the blood has stopped flowing and her wounds are closed. "Yes."
"How do you know all this?" The anger has left Neji's voice sounding a little raw to those who know him best.
A smirk. "Did you forget? My little brother is the Kazekage. He's quite a gossip when he wants to be." Chuckles and snorts of disbelief meet his assertion, and suddenly the situation is no longer combustible. As if just now realizing they're standing in a battlefield with fifteen slaughtered corpses, they gather their weapons and prepare to continue their journey back to Konoha, some of them imagining the Hokage's face when he hears about the surprise attack of Grass nin.
Once again Neji moves towards Tenten only to be beaten by Kankuro, who scoops her up in his arms as gently as before. Before he takes to the canopy, though, he turns to Neji and looks him in the eye.
"Also, she told me. And I think you know why she didn't tell you."
Neither of them attempts to clarify who "she" is or what he's talking about. Before Neji can respond, Kankuro grips the woman in his arms and leaps to the nearest branch.
"I think I do." But the pale-eyed man's words are lost to the air as he, too, takes to the trees and falls into formation with his team. As he catches up he notices something about the puppet master beside him. "Are you going to do anything about that senbon?"
A glance at the metal protruding from his shoulder and a smile is all the answer Neji receives.
"Why did you hold yourself back?"
For a minute she thinks she's trapped in a kind of purgatory where everyone keeps asking the questions she doesn't want to answer. But then her brain processes the voice and she realizes it's not the usual person saying those words. Ever so slowly she cracks her eyelids open to take in a white room with white sheets and white floors and a pair of white eyes. The hospital. And Neji.
"Neji? What am I doing here?" The last thing she can remember is a righteous anger and then…Oh shit. Her memory confirms what she has dreaded for over two years: her secret is out. Immediately a plan of evasion starts forming in her mind. He doesn't know I remember everything yet.
"You sustained some serious wounds. Though Ino says there will be no complications or lasting effects, she said natural re-growth is best for injured nerves and tendons." A look of slight confusion at his words. "Such as hamstrings and dorsal carpal ligaments." Her quick glance at her legs and right hand affirms—for him—that she remembers that much, at least.
"I'm going to need to put in extra practice hours to get my hand back up to snuff. You up for it, when they let me out?" His silence in the face of her question is unusual, and she begins to fear the possibility of what he could say next.
His voice is quieter now than when he first asked. "Why did you hold yourself back?"
So much for the evasion plan. But Kankuro's insults—however "well-meaning" they were at the time—drift back to her and she knows she can't run any longer. "Because I didn't want you to know."
"Why?" He's hurt and not going to let her slip by with such an answer.
"Because…I don't know!" She desperately wishes for an escape from this conversation that she's feared like a nightmare.
"Tenten." Just her name, but with it he conveys a gentle command.
She's never been able to refuse him.
"Because I didn't want things to change!" With first words out the rest comes easier. "I didn't want to be wearing blood like a second skin every time I was with you. You admire grace in all things and I've become a blunt edge." Her voice grows so soft he very nearly asks her to repeat herself. "Because I was afraid of not needing you anymore. If I didn't need you, you wouldn't stay."
There it is, naked for him to see: the love she's been carrying for him for far too long. She can tell from his face that he's read between the lines to the three heavy words that formed the foundation of her deceit. I love you. I lied because I love you.
"I know." Her wet eyes widen at his confession. "I may not have understood completely at the time, but I think I knew why."
"Well, now you know for sure." She's surprised her voice still works.
"Tenten, I'm not…I don't—"
"I know you don't. At least, not the way I want you to." I've known it in every touch, word, and look you've given me. But I guess it's better to hear it out loud. There is no room for possibilities between them now. It's the closure she's been running from and yet secretly yearning for. A sharp wound, but one that could heal given time.
"We'll start training again when you get out in five days." The closest to an apology she will ever get. "Ino said you have to take it slow at first so the new tendons don't strain."
There, a willingness to continue together in the same direction even if the dynamics will be startlingly different. The gesture is enough to lessen her pain a few degrees. "Okay." He smiles as much as Hyuga Neji is capable of, rises from the chair beside her bed, and heads for the door. Before he opens it, she wants to test one more thing. "Just don't whine when I start kicking your ass."
"I'll be ready." A last glance, and the door clicks behind him. I think things are going to be okay. The pieces won't fit together smoothly, but rough edges can be worn down over time.
Now she just has to pick her heart back up off the floor.
"Why are you—"
"If you finish that sentence I will end you." She knows it's him even above the combination of loud music and louder chatter. And even if she didn't have exceptional hearing, she recognized his chakra signature when it was still outside the bar. I was wondering when he was going to show up.
"You don't even know what I was going to ask." His protests are amused despite their slight whine. "I could have been about to say 'why are you sitting alone, beautiful young lady?'"
"I know you, which means…" The sentence dies in her throat as she turns around to look him in the eye. Or at least, who she thinksis him.
Brown hair in a style that reminds her of Kiba. Skin slightly tanned by years in the sun. Standard Jonin uniform minus the vest. She begins to think that perhaps she was hearing things and she should apologize to this stranger when he smirks at her dumbfounded reaction and she knows beyond a doubt that it's him. As if she needs any further proof he grabs her hand and starts shaking it. "Hello, I'm Kankuro, brother to the fifth Kazekage, captain in ANBU, and puppeteer extraordinaire. Pleased to meet your acquaintance."
"Tenten. Enchanted." She manages to hold the polite smile for all of five seconds before she breaks down laughing and pats the stool next to her. "Wow. You look…different."
"Is that what you say to all the guys you meet at bars? If it is then I finally understand your track record." His enjoyment at her ogling is clear but damned if she's passing up an opportunity to study him without his usual paint and black outfit. He turns away for a moment to order a drink and she manages to compose herself into something that doesn't resemble a flycatcher. "I take it you approve?"
"You're…handsome."So much for witty conversation. He has the gall to look almost offended. "Oh come on, you know I didn't mean like that. It's just I never really pictured what you'd look like without the paint or the hat. What's the occasion?"
A genuine smile now, not a smirk. He knows he's impressed her. "Well, a friend of mine was just released from the hospital a week ago. And because she had some pretty nasty injuries her kage wants her to ease back into a mission schedule instead of diving in headlong like she normally would. So she came to Suna on a regular diplomatic exchange and I was hoping to surprise her. Have you seen her?"
"Possibly. What's she look like?" Though he's reminded her of how she came to be here, he's keeping her mind off of exactly who's not here with her. She's spent enough time in the past two weeks slowly stitching her heart back into place. She deserves a break, a little attention.
"Brown hair, usually up in two buns but I like it when it's down. Eyes like dark chocolate and a permanent challenge in them. Medium height, thinks she's scrawny but has a body like you wouldn't believe. Breathtaking." He maintains a smile throughout but his eyes trace a path over her features as he describes them. Slowly he brings his gaze back up to meet her slightly dazed one. "You'd know her if you see her. She stands out."
For the amount of time it took his eyes to undress her she forgot how to breathe. Playful flirtation was nothing new between them, but he'd never been this blatant or bold before. Almost as if he was actually coming onto her.No! Don't even go there. You are so not ready to jump into something like this. Remember, it's just Kankuro and his games!
"Well I'll keep my eyes peeled and give a holler if I see her." She hopes the effect his words have isn't as obvious as she feels.
"I'd appreciate it." He turns to accept the drink from the bartender and takes an long sip.
Hoping to steer the conversation away from any further embarrassment, she resumes her original line of questioning. "So really, why come to see me like this? Not that I don't enjoy a surprise now and then."
"It's much easier to walk around Suna un-accosted when people don't recognize you as the Kazekage's brother." A simple enough answer. "Plus, I wanted to see your face." A more Kankuro-like answer.
She wasn't going to question his peculiar brand of logic after accepting it for over a year. They pass the time with idle chitchat and banter and she's suddenly absurdly grateful to Naruto for sending her to a place with familiar faces instead of putting her on that escort mission to Tea Country she'd requested.
The night grows darker and cooler outside, and before she knows it they're paying for their single drinks—his treat, he insists—and heading back to theKazekage's tower at a slow walk. Since she became friends with his older brother, she's been thankful that Gaara had the dignitaries' quarters moved to the same building as the siblings' personal rooms when he became kage. 'Keep your friends close and enemies closer' was the rationale she'd heard he'd used to get the change approved with the village council.
She's leaning her head against his shoulder and enjoying the warmth the arm around her waist provides when he shatters the calm she's managed to find so far this evening. "How are you and Neji doing?"
"Fine." But a sharp stiffness in her spine belies her words. Hoping to stave off any further attempts, she gives a little more of an answer. "He was understandably hurt, I think, but we've worked it out and things are pretty much back to normal. Except that I win our spars more often than he does now."
He chuckles at that and she begins to think that she's succeeded in avoiding the damaged parts behind her half-truths. But of course he knows she's hiding and he can be merciless when he wants to be. "I doubt things are exactly 'back to normal', are they?"
"As normal as I could ever have hoped for, yes." Please drop it!
"You're lying, Tenten."
"Watch it, Kankuro." There's venom in her voice but he doesn't stop.
"No, not until you give me a real answer. You're running away again." 'You're being a coward' you mean, right? She can read the insinuation in his words and she's thrown back to the first time he insulted her like this.
"You want the truth, then?" They've reached the doors to the tower by now yet stand facing each other, tense as if for battle. Her eyes are flashing and his jaw is set.
"Fine." She breathes once, and lets it out. "It's excruciating! Every day I gain more of his respect but know my chances with him couldn't be further away. He hasn't, doesn't, and won't ever feel for me what I feel for him. Which means that all my lying and…deceit and…and cowardliness—"
"You're not really a coward!" Backtracking, trying to stem the unexpected tidal wave of self-hate pouring from her.
"—cowardliness was for nothing! Instead of hiding behind what I wanted but knew I could never get I should have been reinventing my strength and my techniques so I would never have been caught like I was in that ambush. But as it turns out he doesn't want weak me or strong me because he doesn't want me at all!" Tears escape her eyes even as she tries to hold them in place with her anger. "There! There's your truth! Happy now?"
His face, at once familiar and not, is strained as he watches her. Just when she thinks about turning away he answers. "No."
"And why the hell not?" Her anger reaches new levels at his seemingly flippant answer. She feels like she's breaking out here in the sand and clear moonlight and he's just standing there. Then he speaks so low the wind nearly carries it away from her.
"Why are you holding yourself back?"
That one question is like a glass hitting stone and she flies at him, intent on what, she doesn't know, but anything to make him feel even a sliver of what she does. He dodges her punches and blocks her kicks even as he attempts to calm her. His words do nothing but fuel her attacks and suddenly he takes the offensive, seizing an opening she would not have given if this were any other situation. He pins her arms to the wall of the building and presses his weight into her, his face close enough that they inhale each other's exhalations. The quick reversal cuts through her fury long enough for him to explain.
"I wasn't talking to you!" Her confusion at his declaration buys him more time to continue but he decides action will be more effective.
So his lips slant over hers in a demanding and forceful kiss.
Her tears stop in their tracks as her brain tries to comprehend what is happening.Kankuro's…kissing me? Oh shit, Kankuro's kissing me! Before she even has time to decide whether she likes it or not he's pulling back, resting his forehead against hers.
"I was talking to myself, not you." The edges of understanding are slowly making their way into her expression, but he wants to explain before she draws her own conclusions. "I've been the coward for the past few years and…and I guess I just now realized it."
"You mean, this whole time you…really?"
She hasn't pushed him away, so he takes it as a sign to continue. "Yeah. Really. Ever since Gaara told me about your Jonin exam."
"So that's why you started annoying me. I've always wondered." Both of them know they are fox-trotting around the inevitable question, but she doesn't know exactly what to say and he doesn't seem to be any more certain than she. Her memory recalls a time when his breath ghosted across her cheek and she thinks of how different her life is now compared to a year ago. Finally, after their breathing has evened out, she does what she will always remember as the scariest thing in her life.
She takes a chance.
"I think we should move this up to your room. People will stare."
All she is aware of is his look of disbelief, his wide grin, and then she's behind hauled up the stairs of the tower faster than should be humanly possible with a Weapons Master slung over his shoulder. He puts her down only when he has opened his door and even then removes his hands just for the split-second it takes to secure the lock. She glances around and has the impression of dark fabrics, round windows, and canvases decorated with various mediums before they're crashing into one another and falling into a heap on his bed. After a few minutes of thoroughly exploring his mouth, she pulls back to regard him with an amused glint to her eyes. "You know, I could have walked up here myself."
"But this was more efficient. And I got to keep my hand on your ass the whole time." He's smirking above her but even that can't disguise the look of utter happiness on his face.
His expression focuses her hazy senses to a stark clarity. She lets herself remember that her heart has been recently broken, Kankuro's one of her closest friends, and things will be irrevocably altered if they continue like this. Never one to miss details, he notices the small changes in her demeanor and begins to climb off her, his face now shuttered. But she grabs the wrists on either side of her head to hold him in place: she will not have this conversation with him standing across the room like he's being punished.
"Kankuro." Her voice coaxes his eyes back to hers. "I just…you know what's just happened to me, and I don't want to give you the impression that I'm here without complications. Stop!" He immediately stills his efforts to move. "You've been encouraging me to embrace myself and to stop hiding behind what's comfortable but—"
"I'm not him." Resigned. She can see by his expression that he thinks she's ripping this away from him.
"I know you're not. And I don't want you to be. What I'm trying to say is that I'm clearly not completely over him—"
"I know and I'm sorry I—"
"—but I will be. Because I want to be." Because this feels right even if it feels unfamiliar. Because maybe I've been falling for you all along. "And what the new Tenten wants, she gets, right?"
Uncertainty still. "Are you sure? Because after this I don't think I can go back to pretending."
"I'm sure. Now shut up and kiss me."
His mouth is on hers before she can finish the last syllable and it's like she's found the secret to breathing under water. Eager for more, she distracts him with her tongue as she grasps the hem of his shirt and tugs it off him. When he recovers from having the fabric suddenly separate them, her eyes are glued to his torso. Come to think of it, there's a lot of things about him I've never seen before.
He's washboard and muscular like all male shinobi, yes, but with a little more bulk than those who rely heavily on speed of movement for their style. His arms are pure corded muscle, a result of years of handling heavy wooden weapons. She trails her eyes up to his and notices the skin of his face is slightly darker than the rest of him. She smirks at that. "I would think you of all people would understand the benefits of sunscreen. You couldn't protect the one part of you that sees the sun?"
"The other kids would make fun of me if I wasn't a little tan somewhere." If she thought it possible he looks even more pleased with her reaction now than he was with the one in the bar. His grin turns devious then. "Let's compare." And her shirt is being lifted over her head before she can blink. For once she's grateful that her small chest doesn't always require a bra to be worn. "Mm…I like yours better."
She's laughing and blushing at the same time. "My what, Kankuro?"
"Everything." His lips begin tracing a path from her forehead to her breasts, where he then stops and worships each mound with tongue and hand. She's panting and arching and wondering why she never knew her breasts were so sensitive. Now it's his turn to distract her as he slowly pulls her pants down, her hips unconsciously lifting to allow him to slide the clothing completely off along with her underwear. He pulls back to look at her wearing nothing but her own skin. She immediately takes his unnatural silence to mean he's found her many grotesque scars.
"I know they're not pretty, but do you have to stare?" She tries to hide her nervousness with a grin but fails. She knows she's not as buxom as Ino or as curvy as Hinata or as lithe as Sakura and that her fighting style results in exponentially more scars, but she's never felt the difference so acutely as she does in this moment. What if he thinks I'm hideous now that he's actually seen me? This is what you get for jumping into bed with the first available guy! A sense of panic wells in her stomach and suddenly all she wants is distance from his unblinking focus.
His hands push her shoulders back into the bed, effectively halting her wiggling. "Oh no you don't. You're going to lie there and let me burn this into my memory." Her eyes widen at his tone—if it was seductive before, it's downright deadly now. "God, Tenten, I mean, I knew you had a body on you but you have a body on you! I don't think I'm going to let you wear clothes ever again."
Her relief is palpable. She feels like an idiot for thinking he could ever be deterred by something so shallow as her appearance. "Only if the same rule applies to you, too."
His eyes are positively wicked now. "Deal." Fingers make quick work of the pants he's still wearing and she takes it upon herself to divest him of his own underwear.
She manages a sentence between moans and nips as they struggle to learn each other's bodies at the same time. "I always figured you for a boxers man."
"Nah, boxer briefs give me that little extra support I like." He maintains his humor even as she scrapes her short nails down his back.
"You mean like this?" And his eyes close as he moans fiercely into her neck, the feel of her hands on his length almost too much for him to bear.
"Did you learn this in Seduction 101 or something? You could kill me right now and I'd die without a fight."
"I've picked up a few tricks here and there." They both know neither of them are virgins: even if they didn't already share their secrets with one another, they are both shinobi and that is knowledge enough. Theirs is a profession of violence and deceit and nothing sacred remains by the time they reached ANBU. Sometimes it's by choice, sometimes it's not, but they take the small comforts when they can. And right now both are thankful that they do not have to go slow.
"Well I can't let you have all the fun." He returns her favor and she can't keep up her ministrations under the pleasure of his fingers. Any nervousness she previously felt has melted into a fire in her belly and it's all she can do to let the sensations wash over her. Apparently living puppets aren't the only things he can manipulate with his hands.
Suddenly his fingers are replaced with his mouth and she arches clear off the bed at the change. "Kankuro!"
He squeezes her thighs to show his appreciation of her reaction. A minute later his fingers join his tongue and she knows she's doomed. The fire in her has curled tight and she can't hold onto it any longer. "I'm…" She can't even finish her thought as her nerves explode and her senses momentarily take leave of her mind. Her hips twist and muscles contract until she can't remember anything beyond the waves of pleasure coursing through her veins. Slowly, she recovers from her high to find him lying beside her, smirking in a textbook example of male pride.
"I guess I don't need to ask if it was good for you." His chuckle is cut short as she growls and straddles him, forcing her tongue into his mouth like she wrote the book on kissing. He feels her getting into position above him, hips rocking against his rock-hard erection in a way that renders him momentarily speechless. With effort he manages to gasp out the question one last time. "Are you sure?"
She grabs his length and lowers herself onto it in response. Both shudder and exhale, adjusting to the feeling of being joined so intimately. In all her experiences she's never felt so full or so gladly stretched. "Wow…you…"
"Yeah…you, too." That's all they can manage as they start searching for the perfect rhythm.
Soon they find it and she's forcing him into the mattress with every thrust of her hips and he's driving into her in ways that make her head spin. Moans, gasps, and the sound of skin on skin are all that can be heard as they race ever faster towards the end. Suddenly he feels her leg muscles quaking and her walls tightening and with his last coherent thought he flips them, pushing into her as far and deep as he can. His name is torn from her lips in a scream as he moans her own against her neck. She recognizes the warm sensation flooding her lower body as her spasms slowly subside and she smiles into the hair tickling her cheek.
"You're a sneaky bastard. I wanted top."
He lifts his head and smiles at the huffy look she manages despite her clearly sated state. "I guess you'll just have to try again."
And she does.
Hours later, she finds herself curled against his warm chest, completely exhausted and unable to stop smiling. So this is what the girls are always talking about. His even breathing steadies her own and the arm slung around her waist lulls her further into sleep. As she drifts towards unconsciousness, she can't help but think about what tomorrow and the days after will bring for her and the man sleeping peacefully at her back.
Their pieces don't fit together perfectly and she knows they won't for a long while. And she will still have to contend with those pale eyes just as her lover will have to contend with having all of her and not just his favorite parts. But she's confident that they can make this—whatever it is—work. They're still learning not to hold back, but she realizes she is willing to wrestle with the dark hours in order to experience the good ones.
She is done playing small games with her life.
Whew. My first piece of writing in far too long. At nearly 9,000 words this is my longest one-shot yet. My first semi-explicit lemon. And my first "Naruto" story. Lots of hurdles for this one. I'm not entirely satisfied with it, but that's all she wrote for now.
This was a challenge for me in more ways than one. It was third-person limited POV, something that I've rarely used. It dealt with two of the most underdeveloped characters in the series—who happen to be two of my favorites—so I had to fill in a lot of gaps. And last, but certainly not least, I had to keep it believable and in-character (though that's always a goal for my stories). Please let me know how you think I did. Did you understand it? Did you like it? Are you going to kill me for separating Tenten and Neji? Let me hear it!
And before anyone asks, there will be no more to this story. I imagined it, wrote it, and published it as a one-shot and that's the way it will stay. Don't worry, though, as I have other ideas planned for these characters, though not necessarily as a couple.
For the curious, the idea for this story came from the following quote by author Marianne Williamson. I was struck by the language and message more than the religious aspect of it: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond imagination. It is our light more than our darkness which scares us. We ask ourselves – who are we to be brilliant, beautiful, talented, and fabulous. But honestly, who are you to not be so? You are a child of God, small games do not work in this world. For those around us to feel peace, it is not example to make ourselves small."