It felt like a bad joke at first - a cruel one, even, played by her own body on her mind. Later she would wonder when the feud between the two had started.
She had often heard that love was as sweet as honey, and that it melted down inside of you like liquid rays of sunshine. But when she realized there was something else there, inside of her, it felt more like a cold, hard blade, lodged somewhere between her heart and her stomach, and twisting. The arms of war.
She couldn't believe this was happening to her.
And it had started out because of nothing, really, which made it all the more frightening, like a hand that grips you out of nowhere, in the dark.
They had been practicing all day and were headed back downtown, taking their time and walking in silence as they usually did. She was wearing her usual practice garb and her hair was a sweaty mess. Her bangs stuck to her forehead and she brushed them away impatiently, weary with the feeling that she always looked more like one of the boys than a young woman. It was odd, this sudden irritation – he had seen her a thousand times like this, or even worse, grass-stained and sleep-deprived and bruised and battered. But today the sun was shining, and she could sense spring in the air, and simply didn't feel right to be so grimy.
They had passed by the academy, and a bunch of chunins – or were they genins? she couldn't really tell the difference now, between all those gawky adolescent years – had looked up from whatever conversations they were having to stare at him. This wasn't a first either, and they crowded around him, batting eyelashes and asking for advice and professing their admiration.
He took just a moment longer than usual to shoo them away.
They were definitely chunins, Tenten decided – one of them had a steadier gaze, a more confident gait, and for a split second, she could see the girl smile. He had looked at her – perhaps even in a flattering way. She gave a little squeal when she thought they were out of ear's reach, and Tenten could just imagine her squeezing her friend's hand excitedly.
She looked at Neji, and felt a stab.
She had pushed it away immediately, of course. It was still weak, barely throbbing, but she knew, with desperation on the edge of her heart, that it would come back. The missing piece of puzzle had fallen into place, and the finished picture was glaring at her in the face.
She wasn't like other girls, at any rate – lovely, with some special something to set her apart. Sakura and Ino and Hinata were all so graceful, even as they fought, full of color and self-control. One look at them and a man might imagine a smile given to him, shy and subdued or bold and engaging.
But Tenten had never been particularly prone to smiling. Or if she did, it was like a defensive shield – the confidence of victory, the fire before battle. It was no less a weapon than her kunai and shuriken, a part of the coat of armor she always wore.
He knew she wasn't easily satisfied or softened. What he didn't know was why she was this way. He had always seen her as some sort of female equivalent to himself – hardworking, determined, sincere, and wholly uninterested in anything else but improving her technique. She had never tried to dissipate the impression. She didn't want him to find out what was underneath.
For Tenten didn't feel the least bit sincere. Every morning she looked at herself in the mirror just like any other girl, hair down, examining her body from every angle, despairing in the plainness of it. The brown eyes and brown hair and lanky shape, as if someone had forgotten to give her a distinctive feature that might catch the eye.
Admittedly, it had gotten worse over the last few months. And the impression of not having changed a bit, of remaining the same despite any timid effort she might make, was becoming increasingly unbearable.
He saw nothing. Day after day, they practiced their aim, and with his eyes he could detect the slightest movement of her hand from a mile away, but he saw nothing.
The piece of steel inside, sharp and unrelenting, was making it hard for her to concentrate during training. She felt like a traitor to the cause.
Tenten left her hair down in the late afternoon, when the sun lazily slid down the sky, after a steaming hot shower. He never saw her like this, at rest, her legs bare and her hair not yet clamped down and mussed up with sweat. She wondered if he would notice the difference, and if it would mean anything to him if he did.
She frowned and let herself sink down on her bed. It wasn't a good idea to think of Neji like that, but at the same time… It had a certain risky appeal, the appeal of hope, of fantasies coming true. And if she closed her eyes, she could imagine him as she knew him – that small, proud smile of his, the intensity of his eyes – and also as he never was: his eyes focused on her, and his smile promising something too delicious to contemplate any closer.
Tenten's heart skipped in her chest. This was dangerous territory to tread, and she knew that one step further would make it impossible for her to ever look at Neji the same way again. They saw each other almost every day – she would have to change training partners, she would have to avoid him, he would notice something was wrong…
But oh, it was just there, on the edge of her mind… and her heart and body and blood were simply too parched to pass up the image of him undoing her braids, ridding her of her dull training clothes, and breathing in her ear that he had always wanted this. Wanted her.
"Still as fast as ever," he told her the next day, "but your aiming is a bit weak, to be honest."
Tenten brushed his comment off, irritated, and turned around to plant a fresh salvo of steel on the next set of targets. She hadn't rolled her braids up that morning, and he hadn't so much as blinked.
She considered going to Sakura or Ino for advice. They knew a good deal more about men than she did. Even Hinata did, for that matter – she had the pure, innocent flower thing going for her, and without even trying. Perhaps she should try that approach – cooking meals, looking coy and sweet, awkward and ridiculous… What would Neji prefer? How was she to proceed to make the shift happen? Compliment him, play the adoring damsel? She refused to think he was the type to like groupies and the sort of open-mouthed admiration they procured, but jealousy coiled around her throat whenever she thought back on that girl, and her head pounded out rational thoughts.
Yes, she should ask the other kunoichi. They wouldn't make fun of her – after all, they weren't guys.
Tenten looked out her window to the sun sinking low on the horizon. For a moment, she found herself thinking about her family, far away on the other side of the sea. Maybe if she had had her mother at hand to tell her about these things in advance… but from what she could tell, no one was ever prepared.
Although she should've seen it coming. It was logical as hell. Neji was smart, talented, dark and handsome, and as for her… she was a woman. They were together all the time. She had seen him sweat, groan, laugh, wince in pain and defeat more enemies than she could count. She had lain next to him in the darkness of the forest and watched the firelight as it danced on his sleeping features.
The inevitability of it made it feel like a trap, sprung carefully, and just for her.
When she opened the door to find him on her doorstep, she almost grabbed the hem of her t-shirt to yank it down over her shorts. Not that it would've done any good – and not that he was even looking at her legs, but still, it felt strange to be exposed like that in front of him.
"Neji, what are you doing here?" she asked, stepping asides to let him in and frantically searching for a band to tie her hair with.
"Well, I was just passing by your place, and…" He looked around her small apartment.
"Sit down," she said quickly, motioning to the couch.
"I thought I'd just drop by and say hey."
Tenten's stomach wrenched with nervousness. They hadn't practiced today, true, but… what did he want? What would they talk about? And why couldn't she think of a single thing now, when they'd been friends for years? She didn't even dare sit down next to him, but she had too, or else he would notice something was wrong.
"Um… do you want something to drink?"
"No, I'm okay."
Tenten nodded and finally sat down, as far from him as she could, trying to look relaxed but suddenly not knowing where to put her legs.
"You know, I saw Gai-sensei today."
"Oh, really? That's… nice." She inwardly cringed – he would think she wasn't interested. But she was still trying to place her legs so that he wouldn't feel as if she was flinging them at him.
"He said he missed going on missions with us and such – although he and Lee still work together a lot."
"Yeah, I miss the old times too. It was hard, but it seems like things were more simple, somehow – like we all knew where we were going, no questions asked."
"I see what you mean." Neji was staring off in the distance, his expression unreadable. "Things have changed, it's weird."
"Definitely." And more than you know. Tenten almost laughed at the irony of his words.
A heavy silence fell on them. Neji seemed to be thinking, and Tenten wanted to squeeze her eyes shut against the tension and the pain she was inflicting on her poor calf, since she was sitting on it. She needed to regain some countenance. She should ask Neji about news from… from… Hinata? Anyone.
Tenten stopped, waiting for him to go on, but he didn't, not right away. Instead he looked at her, serious and concentrated, as always.
"I just want to try something."
Before Tenten knew what was happening, he had scooted closer to her and had simply pressed his lips to hers, and just like that, he was kissing her. When the first rush of complete confusion had subsided, and before a wave of thrilling eagerness completely overtook her, she could vaguely tell that it wasn't that good – his tongue went too deep, and he was too fast, and she had to push his shoulders a little to make him understand. He broke away, just for a moment, and started again. He wasn't kissing her anymore – they were kissing. And she was so thirsty, so starved, so baffled, so intent on grasping the reality of what was happening, that it didn't matter if he did it well or not, or if she did.
When he stopped, when she fell back, her breath short and shallow, the room was almost dark. Neji turned around and shifted strangely, then got up, putting his long ponytail back into place.
"I have to go," he said. "But I'll see you in the morning, right?"
Tenten didn't dare ask him if he meant for training, or for something else entirely. The moment was like glass – clear and strange and breakable at the slightest impact. So she said nothing as she watched him go, steeling herself against tomorrow.
The next day, they trained as usual. Neji didn't bring up what had happened between them, although he was slightly more cheerful than usual. Tenten was beginning to wonder if he had even thought about it at all, or if he was ignoring it because it had all been a huge mistake.
"So…" she asked at the end of the day, not daring to look at him. "What are you doing now?"
"A good shower, and bed," he replied simply. "By the way, they're having me teach a class at the Academy tomorrow, so no training for me."
Tenten hoped her expression didn't sink along with her heart, but Neji wasn't watching anyway.
The next afternoon, Tenten heard a knock on her door. She knew who it was. She hoped she knew why he had come. Again.
He seemed more at ease this time. He asked for a glass of juice, and told her about his class, making cutting remarks about the other teachers.
But after awhile he fell silent, and when they started to kiss again, he didn't say anything – no question, no request, nothing but what his body told her, or rather, what he let it tell her. He was restraining it, she could tell, and trembling slightly.
When he started to slip his hand up her shirt, an agonizing amount of time later, curling his fingers on the smooth skin of her stomach as if he was winding up a spring, she didn't say anything either.
A sort of routine had settled in, but they were practicing together less and less. By some sort of tacit agreement, both of them seemed to think the other part of their interaction seemed to be more urgent. It had to be taken care of. It had to be quenched, although to Tenten the need only seemed to get worse.
She knew where this would eventually end up. Off the couch, and in bed. Neji was expecting it. He wasn't restraining himself so much anymore, and she had felt him, all of him, pressed against her, aching to get even closer, to follow his hands where they had gone.
Before she went to sleep, or at least tried to rest despite the turmoil of excitement and desire inside of her, Tenten replayed some moments in her mind – the moments that seemed to indicate that Neji's feelings for her were changing. She simply couldn't be sure. Of course, he came to her house, they made out… and he touched her, yes, she had let him… but so far, he had given no sign that her status had changed, that she was more than his teammate and sparing partner. He had never told her she was beautiful, or held her hand in his, or let her cradle his head against her.
Not that she had tried. She was too terrified of what he might think. If he knew she was in love with him – and she was, that much was despairingly clear to her now – he might want to stop.
But today… today, he had been more insistent. Almost imploring.
His fingers had brushed the rim of her panties, and she had recoiled at first, because it was too much and too frightening and she could hardly breathe for all the want swelling in her chest.
"Please," he had murmured, his voice raspy and thick. "Please let me."
She had arched against him, eyes shut tight, panting hard, aroused just as much by his plea than by what he was doing to her down there.
Maybe… just maybe…
Tenten buried her face against her pillow, giddy and scared and so full of useless hope she thought she might break in two.
In the end, when it came to it, after he'd rid her of her shirt and bra, after she'd felt the bare skin of his chest on her own, after she'd undone his ponytail and splayed his silky hair out on his back, she had been the one to lead him to the bedroom. It was the only thing to do, the only and the best, although Tenten, in the back of her mind, prayed that it wasn't also the last.
"I've been sleeping with Neji."
Tenten set her glass down and hung her head in embarrassment. She had handled the whole problem backwards, as usual, and had spilled everything to Ino and Sakura when the story was about to end.
"Tenten, you mean… Wait, when did this happen?"
It was the drink, she decided. She never would've said it like that if they hadn't been drinking a little bit too much. And it had been Ino's idea to do a girls' night out in the first place.
"It didn't just happen once," Tenten admitted, mortified. "It's been happening… you know, a couple of times."
Ino raised an eyebrow and grinned. "You are one lucky girl. Neji is super hot."
"Yes, I know – I mean, that's not the point. I just don't know what to do."
"Why do you even ask? You should keep it up!"
"Ino, stop it. Clearly that's not all there is to it. Right?"
Tenten shrugged. "It's just that… well, I – I think – no, I'm sure I… I have feelings for him, way beyond friendship. I know, it's pathetic, but I can't help it." She bit her lip. "And I don't even know what he thinks of me. I've always been just this female version of Lee to him all these years…"
"Come on, Tenten, don't be ridiculous," Ino said, serving them another round of umeshu. "Obviously, if he really did think that about you, he wouldn't be having sex with you."
"But we never even talked about it. Sometimes I feel he's just doing it because I come in handy – because I'm just there."
Sakura smiled and shook her head. "I hate to agree with Ino, as a rule, but she's right when she says Neji is… really good-looking. And not only that, as we all know. He could get any girl he wanted in bed with him."
Tenten took a deep, shaky breath. Speaking out loud the fear that had been nibbling at her every hour of the day made it real – made it possible for someone to agree with her. But she had to get the weight off her chest.
"Maybe… maybe he's just practicing. Perfecting his skill."
Ino gave a little laugh, but it wasn't intended to mock her. If anything, she looked amused at the idea. "Even a Hyuuga wouldn't treat sex like he would ninjustu. He has too much honor. If you want my opinion…" She looked at Tenten and sighed. "He's definitely into you. He just hasn't found a proper way to tell you yet, and like any man faced with sudden, unexpected danger, he let his body take over."
Tenten had often like to think of herself as a danger for enemies. She had never thought Neji would ever consider her as one, at any point. But it made much more sense if you looked at love the way you would a battle.
Neji was putting his shirt back on, sitting on the edge of the bed. Tenten wiped the bangs of her sweaty forehead and clutched the sheet to her chest.
It had been painful so far – he had been careful and diligent, if only for the first few moments, but she could quite seem to fit herself around him no matter which way she wriggled. But it was getting so that the pain was pleasure, sizzling through every nerve in her body, squeezed into stronger pressure by the weight of his body on hers, and the sound of his groans in her ear.
She turned around on her side. He was looking at her, unsmiling, but looking almost nervous.
"I… I… It was really…"
She sat up, puzzled. Why was he speaking in the past tense? Was he going to tell her something? She felt a bolt of panic.
He shook his head slightly and gave a wry smile. "This is really frustrating. Because whenever I go home afterwards, I just… can't stop thinking about it."
Tenten bit back a giggle. It was a very un-Neji thing to say, said in a perfectly Neji way.
"I can't either," she admitted quietly. "I think about it – about you… all the time." She swallowed hard, pulled mercilessly into saying what she wanted to keep secret, far away from the harsh and riveting reality of the rumpled bed. "And I know I'm not your girlfriend or anything, and that you don't want to hold hands and all that stuff, but Neji... I don't want it to stop. I don't care what happens to us outside. I just want… to be with you."
She forced herself not to turn away, to look straight at him even as the words were sinking in, to not be a coward any longer and face the truth.
"You're right," he replied sharply. "You're not my girlfriend. And I don't want to hold hands and give you kisses on the nose and buy you flowers." He frowned stubbornly. "Because you're much more than that. You're the only person I would trust with my life, and the only one I would gladly give it for."
Tenten was speechless. She could hardly believe what she was hearing, but she, of all people, knew he never lied.
"I didn't know how to make you understand," he went on. "And there were… other things making me a bit muddled. But I worked it out, finally. And it's one and the same, really."
Realization bloomed inside of her. He trusted her with his life – with his body and his heart and his actions, his weaknesses and his pleasures, the little details that no one else would ever know.
"It's safe with me," she said.
It didn't matter if he didn't notice her hair, or didn't compliment her on her clothes. It would never matter. At that moment, she felt more beautiful than any woman, she was sure, had ever felt. Even steel, when it caught the sunlight, could shine like a star.