The Hyuuga library was deep and diverse. It was in a pair of relatively small adjoining rooms on the second floor of the southeast building. One room had a large picture window facing out into the courtyard and a small table with a few chairs in the middle, and the other had all walls covered with shelving, and more free-standing bookcases in the center. The thick, musty smell of old paper always permeated the place – the window was never, ever opened – and there were continual, omnipresent motes of dust suspended in the air. Neji supposed they were there in every room, but in the library they were just more noticeable. When you breathed in, you could feel them on your tongue. But it was worth it when you needed to look up information that you couldn't just ask about. The two rooms were packed with shelves of obscure books and scrolls on every subject from local agriculture to the founding of Konoha to the invention of the least important jutsu.
On certain subjects, though, he found, it failed utterly.
And he was much too embarrassed about what he was looking for to point this out to anyone. The closest he could get were the medical texts, and they fell short by quite a bit. He found a few novels that looked promising, but they were severely lacking in helpful detail. Once or twice he thought about looking elsewhere, maybe a bookstore or Konoha's library – but the very thought of seeking out this kind of information in public was enough to make him cringe with humiliation. It was bad enough he had to do it where any member of his clan might just wander in.
They should really cover this at the Academy, he found himself thinking. The subject is so much more useful than flower arrangement.
He gravitated toward the medical texts. When the Hyuuga elder that kept the library asked him what he was researching, Neji smoothly made up an excuse that sounded reasonable – something about helping a colleague with a medical jutsu. Neji couldn't even remember exactly what he'd said afterward, since at the time he was concentrating so hard on not letting his face flush.
It wasn't really worth the bother. He stole into the library a couple nights in a row, spending several hours there, but in the end he had nothing to show for it. He waited a week, distracted by two other short missions, and then tried again for one more night. He left with an overwhelming wealth of information on the internal mechanics of the female reproductive system, but what good did that do him?
It had been a week since he'd thoroughly given up on his search when he was summoned to see his uncle. It didn't even occur to him, when he received the summons, that it might be for any reason out of the ordinary. He assumed it was just a clan mission or something similar.
"Hiashi-sama," Neji said smoothly, bowing to the man.
Meetings with Hiashi followed a strict pattern, Neji had found. There would be basic questions about his well-being, then a discussion of his training and perhaps recent missions, and then the man would get to the point.
"I trust you are doing well," the man said.
"I am, uncle. And yourself?"
"I am well, thank you. You have received many solo missions lately, I notice."
"Not so many, and those that I have been offered are low-rank and brief. The Hokage has specifically stated that she is keeping me in the village until the summit in two weeks."
"Ah. I am sure you will do your clan honor in whatever service she has selected you for," Hiashi said.
Neji thanked him and waited. This would be where Hiashi told him what he was needed for. But his uncle was… hesitating?
"And your sensei, has he recovered from his injury?" Hiashi said.
"Yes. He is fully recovered. He attributes this to his excellent health and ardent consumption of carrots." On a mission not long ago, with Lee and Tenten at his side, a powerful flash bomb had been ignited close to Gai-sensei's face, leaving him temporarily blind. It was an unnecessary injury, but Gai still had an inclination to protect his students before all other considerations, even if they were good enough to hold their own. Lee had wept inconsolably. Even Tenten had been deeply affected. She'd visited him every day while he was in the hospital, and drilled herself harder than usual in training – something she tended to do whenever she was feeling guilty. Although she rolled her eyes at him on a regular basis, Tenten respected and loved her sensei. In a very real way, he was more of a father to her than her own.
"That is good. I have a strong respect for your sensei, who is truly the most accomplished master of taijutsu alive today."
"I agree," Neji said.
Silence fell again. Now Neji was certain his uncle was hesitating, and it was starting to make him anxious. "Is there a reason you called for me, uncle?" he asked.
"Yes," Hiashi said, then paused again for a moment before he continued, leaving Neji's nerves on edge. "I am concerned about Hanabi. She has been overtraining. I do not want to discourage her, but if she continues in this vein she will injure herself."
Neji knew that his uncle had a difficult time talking to women, any women, even women in his own family, and especially his daughters. It would have been nice if his wife was still alive to communicate for him, but she'd died on a mission years ago, and it had never occurred to the man to even consider re-marrying. "I will speak to her," Neji said. "Or perhaps I could allow her to train with my teammate Lee for a week. I doubt her enthusiasm would survive unchanged."
"I do not think torture is a necessary step just yet – but it may not be a bad idea to make her aware of the threat."
"Then I will speak with her."
"That is very well. Thank you, nephew."
"Is that all, uncle?"
He hesitated again before answering. "Yes."
Neji bowed and started to get up.
"No," his uncle said suddenly. "There is something else I called you for."
Neji sat back down obediently, now thoroughly uneasy.
"It has been brought to my attention that you have a girlfriend," Hiashi said.
Neji immediately blushed to the roots of his hair. Discomfort overwhelmed him and he found it impossible to say anything.
"I have been told that you are quite close, as she is your teammate."
Now he was mortified. His uncle knew who she was.
And who, exactly, was telling his uncle these things? Were there spies? What had they seen?
"And this is a matter which must be discussed. These things must be said plainly, early on, to avoid disaster."
Jarred out of his internal monologue, Neji was startled. "What?"
"How much do you trust this girl?"
He heaved a breath. He couldn't notanswer his uncle – that would be a blatant sign of disrespect. "I..." He cleared his throat. "I trust her with my life."
"That is well. Do you use protection?"
Neji nearly gagged. "I… uh. Yes. She… uh. As most kunoichi do. She has. She takes… um."
"And that is why I asked you if you trusted her," his uncle said quickly. "Because it is of utmost importance that you have confidence in the protection. If she becomes pregnant, you have to marry her. Our bloodline cannot be allowed to stray beyond our control. There have been women… in the past… who have used this to their advantage. If they want to belong to a powerful clan, they simply seduce."
"She is nothing of the kind," Neji said quickly. How could he possibly correct his uncle's assumption that this was a romantic relationship? That would mean explaining the whole thing, which was far out of the question. So Neji had to let the misunderstanding remain.
"Even so, I would recommend using a condom," his uncle said. "Strongly recommend, unless you are willing to marry this girl."
"I understand," Neji said quickly, wanting nothing more than for this conversation to be over.
"Good," Hiashi said. Then paused again. "Neji… that is, nephew, do you have any interest in marrying this girl?"
"Uncle. Um. We have not discussed it."
"You are very young still. But I need to know if I can consider you for other matches that might be for the clan's benefit. Such opportunities often come up, you understand."
"I have no interest in being married or engaged or committed to anyone right now," Neji said quickly and firmly.
"Yes, that is well, you are very young, as I said. I will not commit you to any agreements of that nature. Please let me know if your intentions change."
"May I be excused, uncle?"
"Yes. Yes, of course. Good luck to you."
"Thank you." Good luck? Good luck for what? "Good night, uncle."
Neji walked back to his room as fast as he could walk without getting noticed. Then he sat down on his futon, folded his legs into half-lotus, sat with his head in his hands, and halfheartedly hoped for his own imminent death.
How had his uncle found out? You never knew where the Hyuuga were looking. There must have been spies. And if there were spies, they surely knew everything.
Everything except the nature of his relationship with Tenten, apparently. The nature of his relationship with Tenten was not romantic – it was platonic, with sex. Awkward, horrible sex. Which she was done with. Which he was planning on convincing her to start again.
Life would be so much easierif he could just walk away right now, if he could have told his uncle that they had broken up, that they were just teammates again. And then he could direct his energies back to training, or maybe even to girls like Reina, who were surely much less complicated. With whom he would have to use a condom.
He didn't sleep much that night. He left for hardcore training early the next morning and returned to his bedroom after dinner and a shower to find a gift on his bed.
It wasn't wrapped. It was a book.
It was a manual.
Well, not so much a manual… more of an encyclopedia…
Mostly it consisted of positions. Positions illustrated in such a way that there could be no mistaking the mechanics. But it did have a few handy tips, also. It seemed to be badly translated from whatever original language it was in… the language of a much happier people, surely. But he understood it. After he deciphered it. Which took a lot of time.
He tried, tried, tried to ignore the fact that this was most likely his uncle's gift, but it turned out to be a difficult fact to ignore.
"Neji! That's obscene," she whispered automatically, quite chagrined, turning her head away from him with a distinct blush. In the center of the training field, Gai-sensei was demonstrating a complex meditation method that was almost certainly made up by Gai-sensei himself fifteen minutes ago.
"It is not."
"Students! Listen to the hum of the universe around you as its energies penetrate your unconscious being!"
"Yes, sensei!" Lee chimed.
"I don't know what's gotten into you, but I don't like it," Tenten hissed, with unusual bite.
"It's simple. I did you a favor, and now I expect the same in return," he said evenly.
"I don't think it's quite the same!" she argued, under her breath.
"The ethereal light of eternity permeates my body!"
"Sensei!" Lee gushed.
"That's for you to decide, of course. If you don't want to, I understand. But this is a new discipline for me, and I mean to perfect it."
"I get the feeling that this is all a big joke to you," she snapped.
"It is nothing of the sort," he replied.
"I can feel the energies of the chakra of all living beings flowing through me!"
"Why don't you just ask someone else? Anyone else? I'm sure Reina would be more than happy to assist you. Seriously, Neji. Find yourself a girlfriend. A real one."
"I don't want to," Neji answered.
"Observe the unearthly peace that surrounds me!"
"So I'm just the safest one, is that it?"
"Yes. The most trustworthy. This is simple experimentation, you see. You understand that."
"Oh yes, I understand."
"At peace with the universe, the body can achieve a state near nirvana!"
"So are you agreeing, or not?" he asked.
"…Fine. My place, though."
"Sensei, I can feel the unearthly nirvana in my hair!"
She was blushing profusely. "This is ridiculous," she stated.
She was naked on her back, on the bed, and he was bracing himself over her, with arms stuck onto the mattress on either side of her hips. It was almost an hour since he had arrived. (She had insisted on showering extensively.)
"You can't possibly be this cool about it. You have to be hiding something."
"Stop saying that!"
Her discomfort was obvious and amusing, and she was well aware of both of these facts. "You just get off on dominance, that's what this is about," she accused.
"Oh my god. Are you kidding me?"
He kissed her right below the belly-button and looked up to see her reaction. She was still staring at him with deep suspicion, propped up on her elbows. "This… this can't be healthy," she said.
"Who said it was?"
"I'm just saying. It's not hygienic."
"Neither is manslaughter, or your average lunch."
She scoffed. "You're being disgusting."
He kissed lower.
"It's very unusual," she said. "For you to be disgusting."
He kissed lower. He felt the crinkle of her curls against his lips and felt her thighs jerk under his hands in reaction to the kiss. She seemed more startled than anything.
"I am having serious second thoughts about this," she said, her voice higher-pitched than normal.
"You should stop trying to analyze it."
"You know me well enough to understand that that's impossible."
He would be the first to admit that what followed was gross. The idea was gross and the act was gross, and there was no other or better word for it. She was right. This was disgusting. And probably pointless. She remained propped up on her elbows, staring at him with deep suspicion, and her expression didn't change from the first time he looked up to the next.
"You need to relax," he said.
"Sorry, but that's absolutely impossible right now."
He sat up. "Do you need a minute?"
"No. I'm fine. Except that this is a waste of time. A really gross waste of time. And I don't understand why you're so interested in it. It's not natural."
"It is so natural. Lots of couples do it."
"They do not."
"They do. It's perfectly normal."
"What makes you such an expert? Have you been reading things again? I'll bet that's it." She grabbed onto the sheet and pulled it over her. "You need to learn that things you read about just don't apply to me, Neji. I'm never going to be normal."
"No one is normal. Especially not in this village."
"I don't care. I've changed my mind. I'm not doing this," she said, sounding quite petulant and looking incredibly uncomfortable as she pinned the sheet tight to her chest with white-knuckled hands.
He sighed, realizing that there was no place for reason in this argument. "Fine."
And for a little while he honestly believed that was the end of it.
Except, a few weeks later, she showed up to practice, looked at him, and blushed.
Which was very strange. They'd practiced together just the week before with absolutely no such incident. He'd been assigned to assist with a clan matter for several days but was now back with the team. He'd been greeted by a bombastic speech from Gai, Lee imploring him to hit him as hard as he could in the chest, and Tenten blushing and looking away.
He'd seen her blush a few times before, by now, just never in this context. Which was to say, never without context.
Even though their team training went by as it usually did (although, with Gai's propensity for coming up with new tortuous exercises for them to endure, nothing their team ever did together could really be described as usual), he found himself utterly distracted. Because every time their eyes met, she did it again. She'd managed to get herself under control to the point where it was probably not noticeable to anyone else, especially with her face red from exertion anyway, but he remembered that first blush with extreme clarity, and he was unsettled.
"What is it?" he asked her, keeping his voice low and even, when they stopped for a water break.
There was a moment of comprehension in her eyes, and then she blinked it away. "What? What are you talking about?"
"You know what I mean. What is different?"
"I don't know what you mean," she said, blatantly lying.
She walked off without another word, making a show of stretching out her arms, as if she needed to avoid him to do that.
"What is going on?"
Neji started when he heard the voice. Sometimes, when he was deep in the thrall of Gai-sensei, it was easy to forget that Lee was also a thinking human being.
"Tenten is acting strange and will not tell me why," he said, seeing no reason to lie to his teammate, or to be any more specific than that.
Lee, it had to be said, was not exactly an intuitive person. But he was a ninja. And, although his personality often overshadowed it, he was actually a good one. And even though Neji knew this perfectly well, it still surprised him whenever Lee picked up on something subtle.
"Ah. You know, Gai-sensei has said to me that a woman's heart is as complex as it is deep."
Neji realized that he had somehow put himself in the same position Tenten was in a few minutes ago. "Lee, please. I do not know what you mean. Tenten and I do not have that kind of relationship."
"Neji. I work with you both almost daily. There are things that are impossible not to notice."
"What things?" Neji asked, honestly perplexed.
"Don't worry. Gai-sensei does not know yet – I am sure of it."
"Lee, what things?" he repeated. Trying to get Lee to focus on something could often be difficult.
"I think it is for the best. You are both so well suited for one another!"
He clapped a hand on Neji's back and smiled broadly, forcibly ignoring the rest of Neji's pleas for information.
And Tenten still wouldn't meet his gaze.
A few hours later, they broke ranks for the day and she vanished into the forest before he could even move in her direction. Well, she had made one thing perfectly clear, at least – she didn't want to see him. At all. She hadn't minded seeing him on their mission last week. What on earth had changed?
A few weeks passed, and everything normalized again. They worked together as they always had – sometimes with Lee and Gai, sometimes alone. Personal matters aside, there were missions to plot and a village to protect. The reality of being a ninja was that you had a personal life at the discretion of the Hokage, or not at all. And for Neji, it had always been more complicated than that, since he also had the Hyuuga telling him what to do.
But even if normalcy had a different meaning for a ninja, it was still normalcy. It was the routine that you expected, that could set you at ease or bore you, depending on your attitude. When there was no mission, they met for regular team training on a set schedule that had been established for years. Lee and Gai had an additional training schedule on top of that – this was a leftover from Team Gai's early years, when Gai had had to push so hard to improve Lee as fast as possible, so that his taijutsu was so far ahead of his peers that they wouldn't question his presence in the ranks, even if he had no control over his chakra. Partly because of this, because they both felt wrong to stop for the day when their teammates kept going, Neji and Tenten had a separate schedule too, just for sparring together. Whenever anyone was absent because of non-Team missions, the rest combined forces, or worked alone.
Now that they were older, of course, there were added complications. The Hyuuga required more and more of Neji, from private missions to the training of the younger generation, so more often than not Tenten was left training on her own, or (if she were driven to it) running wild marathons with the green beasts. But then she'd started taking coaching from an elite ANBU member on swordsmanship, and not long after that recruited her own student in weapons training. Lee and Gai, meanwhile, had started their own dojo, a place for the worship of pure taijutsu.
Sometimes it felt like Team Gai was falling apart, with so many different projects and missions pulling them in so many different directions. This wasn't unexpected – it happened to a lot of teams, after all – and at some point Neji was sure that their usefulness as Team Gai would be eclipsed by everything else – Tenten had already said she would consider joining ANBU after she made jonin, and Lee and Gai could easily make a profession out of teaching exclusive taijutsu at their dojo. Team Gai would cease to be, sooner or later. Even if they remained more or less friends, and even if Gai continued to be uncomfortably paternal (the affection he had for his students could be smothering), it was bound to happen.
Neji hated the thought. It was one of the reasons he was so reluctant to let Tenten drift away from him like she seemed to want to. If their friendship could end, the team could easily fall apart. Maybe Tenten sensed it too, and maybe that was why she let him near her again.
The two finished sparring one day and decided to get food, stopping at their favorite noodle stand in the village – beloved not so much for its product as its location. It marked what was more or less the midpoint between the Hyuuga complex, Tenten's apartment, and the village entrance, although it wasn't especially close to any of them. It was there, while they were eating dinner, that she asked, out of the blue, "Do you want to come over tonight?"
Neji kept eating without the barest hint of a reaction. He had learned that this was the best way to deal with anything approaching the topic they were approaching – pretend it was normal, something that fit in their routine. They were seated next to each other at the counter, which was a good place to be, since although they were physically close enough to talk without being overheard, there was no obligation to look each other in the eye. Instead, Neji alternated between staring at his bowl of noodles and looking up over the counter at the cook, a stout man with an apron thoroughly dyed with broth splatter.
"Okay," he said.
After dinner, they walked there together. If she thought there was anything strange about the fact that he wasn't trying to sneak in, she didn't show it. Neji didn't feel that there was a need anymore. His uncle and his clan clearly knew, and Lee knew, and he supposed Gai probably knew as well, even if their sensei hadn't said anything. He couldn't imagine that the Hokage didn't know, either. So there really was no reason to sneak around.
She poured a few glasses of water, and he could tell that she was nervous, but he didn't say anything about it. Always before he'd gotten into trouble that way. So they sat next to each other on her cheap couch and talked about benign things, like missions. It was no exaggeration to say that the discussion of killing other people was less explosive than the discussion of sex. Because when you were killing for your village, it was never exactly a choice. Your village needed it, or the Hokage had ordered you to, or it was important to the mission. The other thing was a result of people acting purely on their own.
He never could recall the exact moment when he made up his mind to do so, but he did eventually kiss her, and she didn't shove him away, so that was good. Even though he had hated this action at first, it now felt familiar and comfortable, something he wanted to do. He could almost understand why it had become a normal thing that humans did in the process of courtship. Without the added weight of foreplay, it was just a kiss, a simple sign of affection, something that felt nice. His arms were around her soon, and the feeling was something between familiar and new, comforting and exciting, because he remembered the feeling of her body from not long ago, but he didn't think he would ever touch her that way again, until now. So he treated every moment like a gift, because as soon as she decided to push him away it would be all over, again.
But she didn't push him away – and if she had even shown the slightest hint of hesitation, he would have stopped immediately, but she didn't. He even paused at one point, straddling her as she lay across the couch (one of his knees very close to slipping off the cushion) and said, "Tenten, should we stop?"
But she silently shook her head and pulled him back down. He was the one hesitating this time, waiting for that other shoe to drop, and in the end she had to take off his pants for him. By that time they had somehow transposed positions (the memory was very foggy afterward, and he couldn't recall how this had happened, exactly), and he was laying down on the couch looking up at her when she positioned herself – but they found that this position was not really as simple as fiction made it seem, and he had to reach between their bodies and hold his member steady while she lowered herself down on it. After that it was easy, though.
They built a rhythm, and he tried to keep his eyes open so that he could watch her. She still had her bra on (the clasp at the back was being difficult, and he had given up on it, and she didn't seem to mind), and her eyes were closed with concentration, her mouth open out of necessity.
He wasn't able to hold out for very long – although it was still longer than he would have made it if he had been on top, he felt. He tried to warn her – "Tenten, I'm going to…" but he trailed off, jerked into her sharply, and failed to keep his eyes open as he let out a guttural grunt. When he did open his eyes again, he saw that she was looking down at him with a vague smile, almost tenderly.
He closed his eyes and waited until he could breathe normally again. When he opened them, he looked at her and a question occurred to him – one that he did not know exactly how to ask. "Did you…" he started.
"Did I what?" she responded. Then she realized what he meant. "Oh," she said.
She knew better than to try to lie to him.
He reached up and wiped a drop of sweat off of her chin before it fell onto his bare chest. "Do you want me to…" Again he let the sentence trail off, hoping she would figure it out before he had to say it.
She did. "What? No! Ew, when you've just been down there? That's really gross."
"It is not," he argued, not knowing why he was arguing, as he absolutely did not want to do that right now.
"Not… not before I take a shower," she hedged.
"Want me to come with you?"
"Neji," she chastised, laughing briefly. But she let him.
Showering with her was not nearly as sexy as his imagination wanted it to be. It was all business. But she did at least let him wash her hair, closing her eyes and leaning back while he rubbed his fingers against her scalp and worked up a lather. She had the water spraying against her chest, completely blocking it from him, and as a result he was feeling a little cold, but he didn't complain. "What changed?" he asked her, fiddling around with a snarl in her hair – one that was likely his fault.
"I… um." He watched her face, transfixed. Even with her skin pink from the shower, his keen eyes could see that she was blushing.
"Well," she said, shaking off her hesitation and dipping her head into the spray to rinse her hair, "I tried it. Couple times, actually, to be honest."
He didn't understand at first. "Tried what? What do you mean?"
"Don't make me say it, Neji."
"You have to explain better."
She scoffed. "Do I have to spell it out for you?"
"I cannot read your mind."
"I… you know. With myself."
Now she was blushing very thoroughly, and he understood why. "With yourself?"
"Well, you do it every day, apparently, so I don't see how there's anything for me to be ashamed of!"
"I didn't say there was."
"So it doesn't gross you out? Do you think I'm a freak of a girl?"
"No. I think it is something that everyone does and no one discusses."
He watched her closely while she fanned out her hair with her hands to get it completely rinsed, turning to face him so that her hair would be directly in the water stream, and as she tipped her head back he realized that this was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
They kept moving along in that manner, and for the first time it became something nice, something he looked forward to rather than an obligation to a friend with occasional and purely physical highs. It became the new normal, the new routine – the new training, whenever they were both in the village. And it was comfortable, even though they still ran into the inevitable awkwardness now and then, and she occasionally yelled at him and tried to send him home out of embarrassment. These days, he took more convincing before he'd leave.
He ended up sleeping at her apartment often. He tried to avoid it at first, because even though he was resigned to the fact that everyone knew, he didn't want to make it that blatant. But most days, it was just easier to fall asleep with her. And it felt good to wake up next to her – he normally woke up first. When they were on missions together and he saw her sleeping, it did not particularly interest him, but when he woke up and watched her sleep in her own bed, it was different. He didn't try to explain it to himself just yet, but he liked to be near her, and not just for sex. He just let the moments pass, one by one, and savored them.
It was easy enough to go without explanation while they were still experimenting, because they could leave it unsaid that the experimentation was the reason. The more comfortable they were with each other, the more at ease she was, the better everything… went. He would always distinctly remember the first time she came while he was inside her. He was sitting on one of her kitchen chairs while she rode him slowly, and all of a sudden her breath hitched, she stilled, and he felt the indescribable sensation of constriction inside her, and the rhythm of her heartbeat reverberated through him. She'd come before then in his presence, in the course of other experiments, but never with him inside.
She still cried, sometimes, and sometimes still he'd feel her shudder in a way that was not pleasant at all. And sometimes, too, she'd turn her body away from him and curl up and cover her ears. She couldn't help it. He hated how she blamed herself for these reactions, and how the shame she felt over them always made it worse. So when she told him to leave, he didn't. Even when she yelled at him, he'd stay. Either on the bed or on the floor or on the couch. He'd made up his mind that he wasn't going to leave her again. And it was always funny when she woke up in the morning and was completely unprepared to see him lying on her living room rug.
Kiba and Naruto once asked him (because who else would) how to get a girl, since apparently they didn't know anyone else in their cohort who had done it, and he realized how absolutely ridiculous it was for him to try and offer advice. He told them so.
"Don't hold out on us, man. You've been there," Kiba protested. Naruto had his eyes squinted and his forehead scrunched, as he did whenever he was contemplating something utterly beyond him. "Can't you offer some words of wisdom?"
"Why don't you ask the Toad Sennin?" he asked, looking at Naruto. "I can't believe he hasn't given you instruction on this already."
"Ero-sennin only has one way of getting girls: he pays for them," Naruto said. "But you've slept with a real one."
"You think there's some magic combination of words that will get the girl of your dreams to sleep with you?" he asked Naruto.
"No, idiot," Kiba said to Naruto, "That's not what we're asking. What we're asking is just for a frickin hint,okay? And don't think it doesn't kill us to admit that you cangive us advice on this."
"I can't help you," he said, for what felt like the thousandth time.
"Why the hell not?"
"Because it's not going to happen for you the way it did for me. I wouldn't have the first idea how to act with any other girl."
This was true. He'd never even been on a date with her, and he doubted that there were two other people exactly like them in the world.
"So tell us how you got into herpants, and we'll leave you alone," Kiba said.
Neji looked him squarely in the eye and told him to fuck off.
He developed a chemical dependence of sorts. He hated the nights when he was in the village and she was away. When he was on a mission without her, it was fine, because he had the distraction of the mission. Even when they were out as a team, it was fine, because even while she was trying to avoid him (for obvious reasons) it was something just to see her. But when she was away and he was home, in his own bed, he could tell something was missing.
She'd been away on a mission for a week, and he'd been thoroughly annoyed by it, when he left a clan meeting to meet Lee and Gai-sensei on their training field. But when he arrived they were nowhere to be found – there was just Tenten there, stretching under a tree. Thoroughly stretching. He stared at her and admitted to himself, for the first time, that he was addicted.
"You're back," he said as he approached.
"You're late for team training," she said, with a shade of a grin, as she reached her arms over her outstretched right leg and wrapped her fingers around her toes.
"Where are Gai-sensei and Lee?" he asked, every step bringing him closer.
"Climbing something," she said off-handedly.
"Climbing something far away?"
"Why do you ask?"
By now he was right next to her, and he felt no need for pretense. She let go of her toes and looked up at him and he reached for her hand and pulled her to her feet. His hands fell comfortably around her, sliding into the small of her back. "Let's," he said just before he kissed her.
He broke the kiss and buried his face in her neck and felt her laugh. "Here?" she said.
She pulled back immediately. "Are you mad?"
"We are perfectly safe. Who else uses this training field?"
She folded her arms on her chest and her eyes bored into him. "Are you, Hyuuga Neji, seriously suggesting sex in a public place?"
He almost thought about it for a moment, then decided against thought. "Yes."
She glared at him warily. "You had just better keep your eyes on."
And that was how it came to be that the two of them found themselves rolling in the dirt below the tree where she'd punctured too many targets to count over their long history as shinobi-in-training.
Although he was enthusiastic about the scenario, she only very reluctantly allowed him to start removing her clothing. It turned out to be a lucky call.
Because although he kept his eyes activated… one unfortunate thing about Byakugan is that, while the technique offers 359-degree vision, its usefulness is limited by the ability of the user to concentrate on 359 degrees. And Neji's concentration was focused wholly on Tenten. So it was really very fortunate that Tenten had only let him undo her shirt by the time their sensei's voice bellowed out Neji's name at the top of his lungs.
Three things became immediately clear to Neji.
First, that he had been wrong in his assumption, and Gai-sensei truly had no idea about what was going on between Neji and Tenten, at least up until now.
Second, that Gai had a lot of issues with what had happened to Tenten, resulting in a lot of rage that had had nowhere to go for several years (since it wasn't exactly permissible to kill a fellow shinobi of your village, no matter how much you hated him).
Third, that it seemed Gai had finally found a suitable outlet for that rage.
Neji managed to dodge for several minutes, which in itself was a major victory – Gai-sensei was one of the physically fastest shinobi that had ever lived. Gentle fist was no advantage when you couldn't keep up with the position of your enemy's body – half the time when Neji tried to reach for his sensei's chakra points, there was nothing but air by the time his hand made it to the right place. Neji didn't even try to block Gai's attacks at first – hoping that, perhaps, his sensei was only trying to scare him. When the first hit landed on Neji's chin, an uppercut so hard he could feel two back teeth crack and he was completely consumed by the pain for several seconds, he realized that Gai-sensei was not fighting as if this were a spar.
Gai-sensei was intending to fight to the death.
And while Neji had superior skill in his blood, he didn't have the experience – there was a reason that, although they were both jonin by this point, Neji still considered this odd man his teacher, his superior. Regardless, Neji definitely did not have the inclination to fight back quite as viciously.
Caught off-guard for a second time, a roundhouse kick landed on his face and knocked him flat on the ground, and he was only just conscious enough to dodge the falling heel that followed less than a moment later. In desperation, and only able to see out of one eye, Neji retreated to the canopy.
Neji thought he heard Tenten yelling something, but he only caught snatches of it. She was begging her sensei to stop, please wait, you don't understand, we can explain, it's okay, it's not like that, please stop.
He was flat-out running away, now, and he was sure he'd hear about that later, but frankly he'd not done this badly in a fight in several years. Unfortunately with the second branch he landed on, he realized his ankle was sprained, and he had to think quickly because if he hesitated even a fraction of a second…
He reached up and swung himself onto the limb above it with his arms. A split-second later he heard a violent crackas the limb he'd been standing on fell away from the tree, and that was when he realized that Gai had opened gates.
How many? No time to wonder…
Gai lashed out again with his fist, this time against the trunk of the tree, and Neji had to flee again to another tree. The one he'd been standing on wobbled unsteadily for a few moments before crashing down onto the forest floor, but by that time the two ninja were already moving, were too far away to see it kick up the dusty leafmould as it landed. Gai's fiery eyes reflected his nearly inhuman rage. Neji turned away from him and felt something pierce his back.
Tenten was frankly screaming now. "Just wait, can't you wait and talk to us for just a minute please, sensei!"
Gai had caught up with him again, and this time Neji attempted to block the strike (a very stupid move, with Gai) and nearly got his arm snapped in half.
The limb was in so much pain that he didn't even try to dodge the next hit, which caught him firmly in the stomach, took the air out of his lungs, and knocked him out of the tree and careening into the underbrush. There were shuriken lodged in his back – when had that happened, he wondered? – and he landed flat on them, driving them right up into his flesh.
He very nearly blacked out, but then he was quickly brought back to the present when Gai's face appeared, hovering over him. He's going to kill me, Neji thought in stunned silence. He's actually going to kill me.
"Gai-sensei, please! Look at him! Look at how he's bleeding! You're not going to kill him – you don't want to kill him, do you?"
And for the first time he was aware that she was physically intervening, trying to push Gai away from him, but Gai brushed her off, and, instead, picked Neji up from the forest floor by his throat.
Neji's next moment of awareness came when Gai slammed him back against another tree, fingers still clamped tightly around his throat. Neji, knowing it was useless but unable to help it, clawed at the grip on his neck.
"You…" Gai mumbled, staring at him with utter fury. "You…"
Tenten was still yelling, but Neji could only pay attention to one of them at a time.
"You… How could you… To take advantage of your teammate, someone you should be protecting…"
"He doesn't needto protect me – he's not taking advantage – if anything, I – please, please, please stop!"
"I suppose you thought it would be amusing to string her along? I thought you were better than that – I thought you were above those piddling little rich-boy games…"
"PLEASE, SENSEI. Let us explain. It's not what you think! He's going to choke!"
Gai was actually shaking with anger. Neji could feel the heat of chakra pouring out of him, overwhelming all rational thought. He'd never before realized the true power that killer intent could have.
Gai must have noticed that he was starting to lose consciousness, because he let his grip slack just a little. "What can you possibly say to justify your actions? What could make you any less reprehensible?"
Neji heaved breaths as hard as he could through the still firm grip on his neck. There was no way he could speak, but he tried.
Gai slammed his head back into the tree trunk again. "I would like nothing better than to choke the life out of you – to watch you die, slowly," Gai said.
Tenten shrieked. "Sensei, please, you've already beaten him, can't you just listen to me for a second? You can't… you can't really want… don't you see what you're doing to your own student?"
"I disown you as my student," Gai said coldly, his gaze on Neji's face unwavering.
Neji wasn't sure how he did it – possibly Gai's grip had slackened when Tenten spoke – but he found his voice. After coughing briefly, he managed to say, "We're in love."
He could feel Gai's body go completely still.
Tenten's voice, when he heard it again, seemed to be coming from somewhere very far away. "Let him go. Please, sensei, let him go."
All at once, the hand released him. He was able to support himself on one leg enough to lower his aching body to the ground. As soon as he was on it, the pain of his wounds seemed to wash over him all at once. He lowered his head and closed his eyes, grabbing at consciousness. Gai-sensei certainly had not held anything back.
The rest he heard, rather than saw. He heard the sound of a sharp hit against flesh, and Tenten's shrill voice. "It's me you should be mad at, me you should be punishing. I got myself into this situation." He could hear the quaver in her voice and knew it meant that she was about to cry. He'd become familiar with the sound. "But you're not going to admit it, and you're not going to punish me, because you think… No, because you still feel guilty. You still think it's your fault, don't you? Even though you had absolutely nothing to do with it. I told you back then and I'll tell you again now, it wasn't your fault. It wasn't your clan. And if it had been your clan, your family, I know you never would have let it happen."
Neji didn't hear anything for a minute, and he couldn't help wondering where his sensei was looking.
"I'm not a little girl anymore," she said. "I can protect myself. You taught me how to do that. In fact if it weren't for you I never would have…"
She trailed off and didn't finish the sentence. It was quiet again for a minute.
He heard his sensei turn away from the scene and begin to walk away, into the forest, back toward the training field. "Get him cleaned up," Gai-sensei said coldly as he left.
A few moments later, he felt Tenten stoop down next to him, on the side of his unbroken arm. She lifted him gingerly to his feet again, and together they began the long journey to the hospital.
They didn't speak all the way there. He was drifting in and out of consciousness the whole time, and only realized they had made it when he heard Tenten say, "Training accident," by way of succinct explanation, to a person who must have been a nurse or something. Shortly thereafter he was hefted onto a stretcher, and they were kind enough to drug him into unconsciousness before they started to put him back together.
He woke up later to find himself in one of the recovery rooms. Tenten was sitting next to him, still, and when she saw his open eyes she nervously looked away. He did, too. He looked at the other shinobi in beds lining the walls, at the fluorescent lights in the ceiling, at her hands, which were picking at his bedspread. Anywhere but her eyes.
"Good, you're awake," she said. "You had a pretty good concussion, you know. The nurse says you need to take two days off training and come back to the hospital if your arm hurts, and especially if you get a headache."
"Have I been out long?"
"Only a few hours. It's dinner time."
Their eyes accidentally met for a second, and then they both looked down. "Neji…" she started, trailing off uneasily.
"What is it?"
"Did you mean it? Are we in love?"
He didn't know how to answer that.
It was impossible to say what love was, because everyone seemed to have a different definition, and they were all very subjective. He understood that it was supposed to mean more than purely physical desire for another person. But he didn't know what it was supposed to feel like or look like, and he didn't know if he was the kind of person that was even capable of recognizing it, because in spite of everything, he was still, essentially, very fucked-up.
"I don't know," he said honestly.
She finally looked at him voluntarily, and he wondered if she was seeing in him the same things he was seeing in her. Fear, mostly. Confusion – much of that as well. There were no easy answers. There were no simple stories.
But at least he could count on one thing. As with most of the other challenges he'd faced in his young adult life, they were in it together.
It amazed him, in retrospect, that Gai-sensei hadn't known. Everyone else in Konoha had known, apparently.
Neji was slightly bitter over the fact that Tenten had escaped punishment from their sensei, at least until they learned that Gai-sensei had gone to speak with Hiashi, at which point she suffered utter mortification that seemed to eclipse mere physical pain. Luckily, they had such a long history of being embarrassed by Gai-sensei that she was more or less over it by the next day.
Neji decided he didn't want to know what had been discussed and didn't ask his uncle about it. He noticed a very small change afterward, though. Gai's coldness toward him started to abate. Although the man still couldn't stand to look at him, he didn't insist on dissolving the team, which Neji had been afraid of. It made missions a challenge when your captain wouldn't look at you or give you orders directly, but Team Gai worked so well together that they didn't have to talk much anyway.
They were lying on her bed, like they did most nights now when they were both in the village. It was high summer and hot. The flat sheet and blankets were crumpled on the floor. Both of them were sprawled on their backs, Tenten with all her limbs splayed out, because it was too hot and humid to be proper, and it wasn't as if Tenten had ever cared to be anyway. He wasn't quite as wanton – he had one hand rested on his chest and the other trapped under her neck.
The bedroom window was open and he could hear sounds of the village from the street outside, just a few floors down. There were crickets and frogs, the sound of a baby crying, clumsy civilian footsteps through the leaves, wind chimes. (Not that the wind helped. Even the breeze was hot.)
They sometimes talked, after. It was never about the same thing, and it was never anything either would say in the daylight. He wasn't sure when this act had become something relaxing, but it was, somehow, even for her now, and she could tell him things afterward that she would never share with him otherwise.
"She could have fixed him," Tenten said, out of nowhere.
"My uncle. After our fight. When Gai-sensei brought him back to the hospital. Tsunade told me later. It was well within her capabilities to… put him back together, so to speak. She chose not to, and let my clan believe it wasn't a choice."
The way she could talk about it now, calm and removed, sometimes unnerved him, but he thought it was probably a good sign for her. "Hm. Physicians are not supposed to do that – let their emotions affect their work."
"It wasn't a choice she made as a physician, it was one she made as Hokage. She was… protecting her people."
Neji breathed deeply, feeling pleasant and sleepy. One of the reasons they could talk so easily afterwards, he knew, was that they were both always so spent. Their emotional energy was all used up. "I used to want to kill him so badly," Neji said. "Like Gai wanted to, I suppose."
"You don't anymore?"
"No. I have thought about it. Now I understand better – it is crueler to let him live as he is than to let him die."
She laughed silently – he could feel the vibration through the mattress. "Are you saying you'd rather die than never have sex again?"
He couldn't help but smile. "I think so, yes."
She sighed softly.
He reached his free hand over his body and searched for hers. Because of the way they were positioned he could barely reach, and she was too languid to make an effort. He ended up with just the tips of his fingers curled through hers, and she closed her fist around them and sighed again. And somewhere in between the wind stirring the curtains and Tenten cooling off and rolling toward him for warmth, he started to fall asleep.