Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any of Kishimoto's characters
Previously: Teaming up with Shikamaru, Tenten decides to figure out Kakashi's true feelings.
Chapter 12: One Big Mess
At first Tenten couldn't even begin to process the words. Nothing was working right in her mind, it was just blank and empty, running on auto-pilot. Her shoulders stiffened, cheeks still tinted and warm from the kiss she just shared with Shikamaru. Everything around her was a blur. One big stuffy and messy blur.
He's… really here.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she was still aware that she needed to act normally, to pretend like she heard nothing and just continue with the plan. But at this point she couldn't tell whether her body was frozen due to the kiss or the fact that Kakashi actually showed up. Most likely it was a combination of the two, but whatever the case, she couldn't move. Her eyes remained glued to Shikamaru's, her lips still pulled into a slight pucker out of breaking away from him. One of them had to do something rational. Fast.
Shikamaru's eyes flicked around the room, probably in an attempt to find Kakashi's exact location. They settled comfortably on Tenten's again as he lifted a hand to brush his knuckles against her cheek. "Ten, you still in there?"
The sound of his light voice roused Tenten from her frozen state, and she straightened in her chair, giggling softly. "What a kiss that was," she sighed, flashing him a wink and a smile. "I'm pleasantly surprised."
On with the plan.
Taking the hint, he continued his act and sat back in his chair with a chuckle. "I'm not as bad at this whole dating thing as everyone seems to think. I'm just—"
"Too lazy to try," she finished, wrinkling her nose at him.
The two shared a chuckle before falling into a comfortable silence. A few more flirty jokes were thrown here and there to maintain their romantic facade, but creativity was beginning to grown thin. Their forks pushed and shoved the remaining leftovers around, scraping harshly against the ceramic plates when the forks missed their marks. They both knew that the night was winding down, and all that was left was the walk home and their goodnight wishes. But how to transition to that? What was the best way to finish off their master plan?
Her eyes shot up to meet his, begging the genius to think of their next step. With things going so unexpectedly well, she grew more and more afraid that something horrible and disastrous would happen. She would lose her nerve and blow their cover, he would forget his wallet and get hounded by the waiter, she would get food poisoning and throw up on the spot, he would knock over the romantic, unscented candle and set her dress on fire. Who knows?
As if on cue, Shikamaru motioned for the waiter and requested their check before placing a warm hand on her shoulder. "I've got this one."
Good call; it looked better for him to pay, regardless of the fact that it started out as her bribe to him. But of course he then shot her a look that told her you're paying me back later, in cash, with interest. She nodded in response, smirking at him. "Thank you, Shika. I'll get the next one then." She winked. This fake date would have a been a disaster were she with anyone else.
For the remainder of the evening, the conniving duo continued their little charade for Kakashi to see. The longer they played their roles, the more comfortable they became at performing small acts of romance. But neither one attempted a second kiss, both settling on the pretense that one was well enough. The first just felt too sincere to repeat, and Tenten was content keeping her inner romantic conflict between a maximum of two men. Two is company, but three's a crowd. Still, every now and then as the night progressed, her mind wandered back to that moment, and she couldn't help but glance over at Shikamaru and wonder.
"I guess we're at the end of our date, Tenten."
Was that disappointment in his voice? Not at all prominent, but definitely there, hidden behind a light yawn. His voice, tired and husky, brought her attention back to the real world. The two stood within a foot of each other in front of her apartment. Being the charming and considerate date that he was, Shikamaru successfully walked her home, despite it being out of the way for him. The guy was now aces in her book.
"Thank you for such a wonderful night, Shika," she said with a sincere smile. "The restaurant was a little snobby for my taste, but I had fun." The kiss flashed before her eyes again, and she found that she couldn't look him in the eye.
"Yeah, likewise. You really do look beautiful in that dress."
Was he still acting? She couldn't tell, and at that her heart raced. And somewhere, at a distance, Kakashi still lingered behind. As promised.
"Thank you. I guess I'll see you around then."
"Right. See ya."
With a dumb smile hanging on her lips, Tenten turned away from the sound of his footsteps and stepped into her home, where familiarity and darkness enveloped her. Deep within her gut she felt a hint of regret for pulling him into all of this, dragging him here and there just to satisfy a little lustful longing. As she began to strip herself of the uncomfortably thin layers of attractive party wear, she promised herself to owe Shikamaru a similar favor. Surely somewhere in the genius's head sat a pent up cloud of raging hormones ready to burst through his groin. Her lips curled into a smirk at the thought of it, and she snorted, almost incapable of imagining him sexually active.
Speaking of men I can't imagine being sexually active... "Kakashi, you can come out now." Tenten emerged from her bedroom, fully dressed for comfort with shorts and a t-shirt, and turned toward the nonchalant man stretched across the couch.
The place was small—cozy, in a way. The walls stood plain and dull, lacking flair of any kind, and the only objects that graced the living room were assorted ceremonial weapons. But those were to be expected. The home was all very green too. He imagined Tenten to be more of a red or navy blue person, but her home radiated a natural green aura, which was somewhat soothing for his nerves. As he treated himself to a brief tour of the apartment, he continued to observe the subtle behind-the-scenes aspects of the Weapons Mistress. The obvious abundance of weapons and scrolls aside, she didn't have many photos or extraneous furniture. The space felt clean, and it wasn't at all gaudy. Simple, much like her personality. He should have poked around more the first time he visited.
Satisfied with his inspection of her living space, Kakashi settled on the lone couch adorning the furthermost edge of the living room. His ears perked to the sound of shuffling in her bedroom, and he gathered that Tenten was finally finished dressing herself.
"So, on a scale from one to ten, how awesome of a date was Shikamaru? One being 'awesome,' and ten being 'you two should get married and have four little Tentens and Shikamarus running around by Wednesday.'"
The woman wasted no time: come home, get dressed, interrogate the POW-turned-spy. Kakashi took it upon himself to give her a visible, exaggerated grimace for her graphic description of the scale. No way in hell would that lazy kid ever agree to having that many kids so soon. "Two point three."
A look of confusion washed over her face for a moment, then it turned into disappointment. "That's it? What was so bad about him?"
He shrugged, studying her with his half-lidded stare. "He smelled funny." Considering the kind of scale she gave him, 2.3 wasn't that bad of a score at all; it was generous, even. It already meant that Shikamaru was more than awesome.
With her arms folded and her hips locked in a defiant stance, Tenten frowned. "He smelled pretty nice, in my opinion. Plus he did tons better than you did when we went out. Kissed better too. His was tender and warm, whereas yours was forceful and sloppy." She paused, as if to allow time for her statement to sink in. "He deserves no less than an 8.5, and you know it!"
Forceful and sloppy? Now that doesn't sound like me at all. But when did I ever...? Kakashi felt as though he was missing something, but shrugged it off. Of course she would question his score, even though she was the one who asked him to spy on the Nara in the first place. When did these young people ever listen to what he had to say?
"Well you clearly know better than I do about this rating business. I'm at a complete loss." As the words left his mouth, he noticed that his voice was getting slightly louder, his tone harsher. Taking a slow, deep breath, he continued. "Quite frankly, I'm not sure why I'm even here to begin with. I'm not cut out for this."
At the sound of his implied resignation, her shoulders slumped for a fraction of a second before she started shaking with... laughter? "I really don't get you sometimes, Sensei," she uttered between chuckles. "I can't read you at all."
She thought that he was confusing to read? "I assure you, the feeling is mutual." Kakashi couldn't even tell if she was laughing out of irony or if she was genuinely amused. The way her intermittent giggles shook her shoulders, how she wiped the light-hearted tears from her eyes, and that big, bright grin of hers. He had no idea what ran through her mind. "Look, let's just get back to what we were doing so I can finally finish this coaching nonsense."
Again, he lost a bit of control over his tone near the end. But Tenten, ever the same understanding and polite girl, ignored his biting remark and merely nodded. "You're right, Sakura and I have had you strapped down long enough. Shikamaru aside, how did I do? You may use the same rating system if you like." She shot him a wink.
"You did well. Even though I've already seen you in that dress, you still looked fresh and undoubtedly attractive. He looked you over at least twice." He spoke as if he'd rehearsed this little comment. Perhaps he had, unconsciously. From the moment he arrived at the restaurant to the moment Shikamaru left her doorstep, Kakashi had been mulling over what he wanted to say to Tenten regarding the last phase of their sessions. "The dinner looked relaxed and casual; he seemed to enjoy himself in your company. You weren't over bearing, nor were you too shy. I think you won him over, and I'm sure the Hyuga would be pleased."
Sure, it wasn't detailed or specific by any means, but it was sincere. By the end of his brief assessment, Kakashi began to feel a certain pit of dissatisfaction growing in his chest. It was a foreign sensation, some sort of cross between a physical shortage of breath and a mental loss for words. The discomfort grew as silence stretched between the two as they sat in the darkness of her living room, only a few feet away from each other. The look she gave him didn't help either. Her expression taunted him, as if she knew some dark secret about him that he couldn't see. Why wasn't she saying anything? What was she waiting for? How unnerving.
"Thank you, Sensei," she breathed at last. It appeared that she'd been holding her breath. Perhaps due to the excitement of her success? He couldn't be sure. It sure was dark in here; too dark to adequately read her features. "You can head home now, I really appreciate the effort you put into helping me with something so foolish."
The Jonin's shoulders slumped at her anticlimactic response to the evaluation. "That's it? You're just sending me on my merry way?"
"Yep! Unless you need me to do something?"
Her features looked so cheerful and innocent, as if nothing was wrong with the world. No excited bounce for having done well, no cunning or wicked grin for planning her next step, no anxious fidget at the thought of facing the Hyuga again. Her reaction and acceptance was all too simple. Or was he overreacting to her under-reaction? All of the hushed plans between Sakura and Tenten gave him reason to build up his guard, perhaps.
"No, I've got nothing. I'll be going then."
With the wave of a hand as her final goodbye, Tenten ushered him out of the living room and out of the apartment, closing the door promptly behind him. Kakashi sat himself in front of her apartment, on the balcony overlooking the sleepy, moonlit rooftops of Konoha. The scene put him in the mood for contemplating. He sat slouching over the ledge, his arms hanging over his knees, and he felt somewhat akin to a puppy who'd been thrown out of the house for chewing on the furniture. For whatever reason, he was having trouble leaving, unable to shake the feeling that he should have done more. But what more was there to do? Sakura's three-step plan was executed, finished, over—Goodbye, and have a nice day.
After giving himself a a few more minutes of pouty dissatisfaction, he picked himself up and trudged toward home, aware that Tenten wouldn't rest easy with him unintentionally loitering at her doorstep, just short of stalking her. Along the way, his mind continued to pick and prod at the mysteries surrounding the double-bunned weapons master. The fact that it took so much work to play the girl's game irked him. The frustration intensified as he realized that he really had no idea of what ran through her head.
With a throw of his hands into the air, he gave up. "Enough of this. It's over, and they won't bother me anymore. I can finally rest easy."
If only he felt as relieved as he sounded.
Despite having had one of the more socially stressful weeks in her life, Tenten actually felt more or less relaxed and carefree. She couldn't put her finger on why, seeing as how she now had more questions than answers regarding Kakashi, Neji, and even Shikamaru. Still, as she sat in the living room of her still apartment, giving her precious weapons some well-deserved attention after days of neglect, the only debate that filled her mind was whether or not to finish that expired milk in the fridge. It still looks and smells all right, and it's only been three days since it officially expired. Yeah, I'll just finish it tonight. Her train of thought then touched on the subject of groceries, but nothing more.
Days went by, and she remained detached from the men who defined her complex lack of a love life. It helped that said men seemed intent on avoiding her as well—Not a single word from any of them. Instead of fretting over a multitude of different reasons for their silence, she remained aloof, content with going about her everyday life as she did before everything turned complicated. Eat, train, sleep, and socialize if necessary. Oh, how she missed the simple life. But she knew she couldn't avoid the tension that had built up between her and her friends forever. At the very least, she had to face Neji at some point and sort everything out. The two of them made one hell of a team on missions, and she refused to give up on that chemistry over a stale little crush.
The following morning greeted Tenten with a gentle knock of the door. Dressed and ready to leave for some morning exercises, she poked her head out from her bedroom to stare at the wooden frame. Given the lack of visitors for the past week or so, she no longer knew what to expect from her friends and acquaintances. So she stood there, eyeing the suspicious door for a full minute, wondering who it could possibly be this early in the morning. Her eyes remained glued to the wood a little while longer before she snapped out of her sudden stupor and answered the door. It opened to reveal a surprise visit from her favorite Hyuga. Her eyes slowly traveled up his torso to meet his pale-eyed stare. He seemed neither joyous nor reluctant to see her.
"Ah. Good morning, Neji." She didn't bother to decorate her tone with false enthusiasm. In truth, she wasn't really prepared to see or speak to him again so soon, though a small part of her was still somewhat relieved to see him act like he always did, all calm, quiet, and void of emotion.
"Good morning, Tenten. I hope you are well."
Leave it to Neji to sound so uninterested even when regarding his best friend. The way he spoke made it seem like they were polite acquaintances as opposed to long-time comrades who trusted each other with their lives. Realizing that it had always been like this, Tenten relived a bit of the anger she endured the last time they talked, when she confronted him about their relationship.
"Let's cut to the chase, shall we? You here to talk or what?" She was fully aware of the harsh inflections in her tone, and she felt mildly sheepish for speaking this way to him. Putting her feelings aside, she knew very well that she hadn't been reasonable nor fair to him. Still, some emotions were just too strong to control.
At her biting response, Neji sighed, shoulders slumping. "As much as I'd like to discuss your odd behavior as of late, I'm actually here at the Hokage's discretion." He paused, mostly likely anticipating a sarcastic remark.
Her only response was a pointed glare, paired with a defensive cross of the arms. My odd behavior, he says.
Looking just about ready to give up on understanding her, Neji sighed again before continuing to explain his visit. "I've come to inform you of a mission. You and I are to travel to Haganegakure to escort Matsuo Nobutora to Konoha. He is to perform business here and is expecting trouble during travel. I will provide more in depth information on our way there, as we are to leave immediately."
"Damn." The word slipped through her careless lips as soon as he finished speaking, and she turned away quickly to avoid his questioning stare. Unprepared to even speak to him, and now she was to spend at least a week with him, almost completely alone. Just her luck. "Right, okay, well." She paused, attempting to gather the scrambled thoughts in her head. "I'll just go get ready and meet you at the gates in five minutes. Sound good?"
He continued to scrutinize her with his gaze, but then relented with a brisk nod. "I'll see you there, then."
Relieved by his departure, Tenten set off immediately to pack her belongings. While she did have a lot to think about concerning her seemingly deteriorating relationship with the man, the mission came first. She was first and foremost a dutiful kunoichi of Konoha, and she wasn't about to let her personal life get in the way of getting the job done. Being a girl with girly feelings would have to wait. Besides, at least she didn't have to go undercover and pretend to be Neji's wife. Now that would have been really unfortunate.
She whipped together a pack of necessities within a matter of minutes and bolted out the door, remembering to lock up before jumping off the balcony towards the gates of Konoha. As promised, she arrived with a minute to spare and approached her squadmate with a hesitant grin. "Hey," she breathed, giving him a short wave, "Ready to go?"
He nodded without a word and turned to begin walking, glancing back once to make sure she was following along. How nostalgic, this feeling of treading softly behind him, trailing his shadow. The last time they worked together alone like this was weeks ago, possibly months. Since their promotions from Genin to Chunin to Jounin, they gradually saw less of each other—Lee as well. Everyone was just so busy with their own agendas and responsibilities, and it wasn't until recently that they decided to meet up every morning to spar for old times' sake. Well, every morning until a few weeks ago, at least. And for what? Some age old crush? A sudden wave of shame overcame Tenten at that moment as she recounted her behavior from the last time they spoke. When did she come to act like such a spiteful, shallow teenager? Hadn't she grown out of that by now, after enduring years of blood and sweat with this man who was practically family? "Foolish" couldn't even begin to describe how she felt.
Here came an urge to apologize. "So you have the details, right?" Or not. Cheeks tinted pink with frustration, Tenten swallowed her apology and attempted to find a balance in her mind to allow her to focus on the mission. As much as she wanted an immediate reconciliation, her pride influenced her to speak otherwise.
Somehow he must have sensed her inner conflict, as he decided to slow down to walk beside her and match her pace. "Yes, I met with the Hokage earlier this morning and received full details on what we are to do." With a pause, he turned to glance down at Tenten to gauge her mood, and she ducked her head in response, pretending to examine the battered path beneath her feet. "Nobutora is a small-time businessman hoping to rebuild his restaurant in Konoha, and he has been targeted by a group of mercenaries. It seems that he owes someone a sum of money, and he fears that his life is in danger."
After giving up on staring at the ground, she finally gathered enough courage to meet his gaze. "This doesn't seem very difficult, why were we sent for this?" She hoped there was some big danger factor involved, given that the Hokage was willing to send two Jounin on what seemed like a B-rank task. As long as it was dangerous enough to keep her mind off of frivolous things, she'd be satisfied.
"Indeed, it is rather straightforward. The Hokage explained that Konoha is a little short-handed in Chunin, so she sent us."
Tenten's shoulders slumped, disappointed, but she still held out hope that something more exciting would happen on the road. If not, she'd be stuck with Neji and a businessman. She suspected that there wouldn't be much sitting around the campfire telling stories involved, given the mounting tension between the two of them. Sure, she could keep her head on straight enough to get the job done, but that didn't guarantee complete emotional stability during their downtime.
"Just like old times then, huh?" She offered a smile and a silent plea.
He closed his eyes, taking in a slow breath before answering her. "Indeed," he breathed, a small smile pulling on his lips, "Like old times."
A reply like that was just what she needed to calm down. While he was the only one of her companions to really set her on edge, he was also the best at putting her mind to rest. A sort of double-edged sword. Perhaps it was time for them to have a heart to heart. Only this time, she wouldn't overreact like a child. Once again, the overwhelming urge to apologize welled up in her throat. She was all but ready to break down this suffocating tension between them, but her pride consistently threatened to make things worse, to send her running in circles, blaming people left and right for what had been happening.
"We'll be all right, right?" She hadn't intended on blurting it out. But she did.
Neji's stride faltered at her sudden change in mood, matching her own shock at the bluntness of her question.
"I-I'm sorry, I wanted to ease into the topic. And this is such bad timing, I should focus on what's important, w-which is the mission, not my personal life. You must be so disappointed in me, I just keep screwing up and—God, I'm sorry, I'm just going to shut up." Had she not run out of breath, she would have gone on blathering more nonsense. "We've been walking for a while now; how long will it take to get to Haganegakure again? Hopefully not too long, should we pick up the pace?"
This time, he didn't just falter. With Tenten continuing to spill words out of her mouth, she failed to notice that he was no longer walking alongside her. Before she could realize that he'd stopped, he'd already grabbed her arm and pulled her in, her body jerking back to be engulfed by his embrace. He had one hand roped around her waist, and the other pressed against the back of her head, forcing her chin to rest against his shoulder. Her own arms floundered about in an attempt to steady herself against him, and they eventually settled in place around his waist.
"Tenten," he started, hesitating as he grasped for the right words to say.
"Neji?" Her voice came out as a soft whisper, and with sudden clarity, paired with a pit in her stomach, she realized that she feared hearing the end of his statement. "What are y—"
"Tenten," he repeated, adding force to his tone to silence her, "I love you."
End Chapter 12
A/N: For certain readers itching for a bit more of ShikaTen, add "post/45801475188" to the end of my tumblr URL for a small alternate ending to their date. ;)
Can I just say that it's really awesome to see people still reviewing this fic, even after months of inactivity? On a different note, I love that FF increased the character list to four. Makes me feel better about having more than two major characters.