A/N: And now we get the next bit, in semi-reasonable time I hope. This is going a completely different direction than I originally planned, and I'm still not sure how to end it, but it shouldn't be too many more chapters. I'm thinking three at most. Maybe I'll stretch it to 25 to have a nice ending number, but we'll see.

I apologize in advance for the nasty fluff, but that just seems to be the nature of the beast. Hopefully, it's not too horribly written.

View the Puppet Master
By: Reggie

Chapter 21

Neji frowned, shifting his weight to try and ease the numbness that had settled in his limbs. He'd been sitting out here on Guy-sensei's porch for hours now, with the pale pink dawn light just peeking over the eastern roof tops. At some point his teacher had come out to offer a blanket and hot chocolate, but no invitation to come inside had been extended. Part of the young Hyuuga wondered if this wasn't some kind of test; Guy-sensei was testing his resolve to see if he'd be there in the morning before allowing him anywhere near TenTen.

He'd heard nothing after his announcement. Had Guy-sensei said so, he might have even questioned if the girl was inside. As it was, he just had to trust that she'd heard him and that, sooner or later, she had to come out. If he had to wait here for days for that time, then Neji knew he'd do it. Now that he'd realized just how important she was, he wasn't willing to let her go again.

The creaking of the door caught his attention, and Neji looked up at see TenTen standing in front of him. She'd changed into her regular clothes and the makeup had been washed off, but her hair was hanging loose around her face, the dark frame making the circles under her eyes stand out even further. She probably had slept about as much as he had.

"Hey," she whispered, while Neji pushed himself up on tingling feet.

"TenTen," was his response, and he tried to ignore it as she stepped back when he stepped forward. It wasn't that she was afraid. More like she just didn't want him in her space.

"I don't know why you're here," she continued talking to him in that quiet voice. "I've tried all night to figure out what you mean by the key, but I don't know. I don't know what you want from me. We can't go back to being friends, and that's my fault, I shouldn't…but you know now, and that changes everything. If you want to pretend it doesn't, we can try, but whatever it is that you want me to be, I can't. I just, I'm sorry, but I can't."

She was cornered by the door now, and Neji used that opportunity to put a finger to her lips to silence her. She was rambling, and he needed to talk before this sanity, or whatever, left him. "I listened to what you had to say last time. Now it's your turn to hear me."

A small nod of assent, and Neji felt his lips tug into a smile without his permission. She reminded him of a puppy, looking up at him like that.

He took a step back, giving her some space, and took a breath. These things were so much easier to say in his head. "I should have said this last night. I should have said it a thousand times before then, too, but I didn't know…" Oh, great, now HE was rambling. They weren't going to get anywhere at this rate. With another deep breathe, trying to center himself, Neji started over. "I love you, TenTen. I'm not sure when it began. I'm not certain that's even important. All I know is that right here, right now, I love you."

TenTen was trembling, staring at him with her mouth hanging open slightly. She looked ready to bolt, and Neji couldn't really blame her. What he'd felt at her confession was still too raw. He could only hope she didn't slap him before he made it through what he wanted to say.

"I know I've made mistakes in the past, but trust me when I say that hurting you was never my intention." He looked down at his shoes, suddenly unable to face her as she continued to just stare him. "They were so much worse. I was trying impress people whose opinions should not, do not, matter. And I hurt you in the process, however much I hoped otherwise. There are no excuses for that but I am sorry that it did. I cannot apologize for my decision," and now he looked up, unsurprised to see she had not moved at all, "because that is what forced me to realize that something had to change. We were going the wrong way."

Taking advantage of the small pause in his speech, TenTen swallowed hard and gave him a half smile. "The wrong way?"

He nodded. "I was trying to drag you into my cage with me. What I want, have always wanted, is to get out and fly beside you." Neji chuckled softly to himself, glancing over his shoulder at the rising sun. "I thought I knew myself so well, but it was always you who really knew. I told myself I was being honest when I was simply doing what was easy. Accepting what was as what I wanted out of habit. Pretending to myself it didn't need to change because I was too afraid to try."

"Neji…" He could see her reaching for him out of the corner of his eye, and for some reason that seemed comforting. A part of him had been afraid that he was too late to fix his mistake from the night before, but if she was still willing to try, so could he.

"You were the only one who could see I was still hiding, when even I could not." Her fingers gently brushed his shoulder, and Neji turned his gaze towards her. She looked worried. For him. "I was hiding so far from myself that I couldn't even admit when I found my love for you. I don't want to be a coward anymore. I want to stand beside you from now on. I want you to help change what I've accepted too long. I just want to be with you."

A ghost of touch on his cheek as her fingers shifted from his shoulder to cup his face in a trembling hold. "Are you sure you love me now?"

"More sure than I've been of anything before," and he couldn't stop himself from reaching up with one hand and encircling the fingers touching his face in his hand. He'd never noticed before how tiny her hands were in comparison to his. They seemed so delicate and easy to break, but the scars that peppered her exposed finger tips cut through that impression, a silent testament to how strong she was. How many more scars did she have that he'd never noticed before?

It was silly. It was irrational. He did it anyway. Turning his head to the side, he found one of the scars with his lips and, closing his eyes, gave it a long gentle kiss. When he opened his eyes again, he was startled to see tears shimmering on the surface of TenTen's eyes. What had he done wrong now? "TenTen…"

She smiled at him, extending her fingers to grab some of his hair and giving it a playful tug. "I never thought you'd say these things to me. When I allowed myself to dream this far, I always thought that I love you too was the best I would ever get. This seems unreal. It isn't like you to be so sentimental."

Well, he couldn't really blame her for that, though it still didn't really explain the tears. "I don't want to be that me anymore. I want to be a me you're proud to be with. That you can be happy with, and won't ever make you cry again."

A soft laugh escaped her as, suddenly, Neji found himself with his arms full of her and she buried her face in his shoulder. "Now I know I'm dreaming. My Neji would never say something as sticky as that."

"I thought girls loved that kind of stuff," Neji muttered into her hair, and was rewarded with a not-quite-gentle punch to the chest. He couldn't help smiling a little at that. He wasn't sure if it was them that had changed, their relationship, or maybe some combination of both, and it was comforting to know that she still refused to tolerate generalizations by gender. "I know it sounds corny, but I don't have a better way to put it. I'm not skilled in this area. I've never done it before."

TenTen hmmed a little, giving his torso another squeeze before stepping back to smile up at him. "Then I guess we'll just have to make it up as we go. Find out what works through trial and error."

"I've never been good at the error part of that." It was a joke, kind of.

He was rewarded with another brilliant smile and little laugh. "That's the part that makes it interesting, so you're just going to have to practice."

"How do we figure out where to go from here, then?" It was an uncomfortable feeling, this doing something without knowing what the next step of the plan would be. But it wasn't just his plan anymore. It was their plan, and so to make it he'd have to talk to TenTen. To his other half.

"Well," TenTen grinned up at him for a moment before her face morphed into an overly exaggerated thoughtful look. "I suppose we should kiss and get ready for Hinata's birthday."

It might not be a romantic or perfect first kiss, but this was not an opportunity he was willing to miss. He was a genius after all. Grasping her lightly by her upper arms, Neji held TenTen still while he lowered his head and, with closed eyes, found her lips. It was just a hesitant pressing together of their mouths, barely enough to count, but it still left him feeling dizzy, like he'd been holding his breath too long. For her part, TenTen looked like she had the first time she'd used an explosive tag and accidently set it off too close. Dazed and perhaps a little shell shocked.

Laughing, though at what he didn't exactly know, Neji stepped back. "What was the second thing we were supposed to do?"

"K-kiss again, I think," and TenTen laughed a little too, before they did just that.