Earlier in the morning, Tenten had emerged from her bout of she-demonic wrath in an exhausted, emotionally hung-over wreck of a state. She had bawled until it felt like her eyeballs would fall out, and that seemed to have been enough to allow her to sleep for a couple of hours.
The downside of waking up, however, was that she started remembering what she had been doing of late. Her already pale complexion turned several grades more blanched as she pondered the inevitable outcomes of her implemented revenge.
Certainly, Kakashi had promised not to gouge out her entrails even if she stabbed him with a katana, but the Icha Icha books... that was just so much worse. While she had stashed his copies in a safe place and simply had a copy made of the threatening page, she knew that an important line had been crossed that there was no return from.
She was beyond screwed. The weaponmistress pondered she would be extremely lucky if death came quickly after this.
And all the unrelated people she had pulled into this... Tenten groaned against her pillow. She would have to at least go over to the landlady's to stop the dog howling.
Not really up for breakfast, she decided to start with that and hoped that the fresh air would clear her head enough to help decide what to do. In any case, she did not trust herself near too many pointed objects in a mental state like this.
She set up a henge of a flower seller as soon as she left home, because it also helped to hide her puffed-up eyes from curious looks. It still took a notable extension of her effort to not stop at street corners to cry some more.
Finally, she caught sight of the house of Kakashi's landlady. Time to set this business right, at least. She set a determined pace towards it, although her legs were a bit wobbly with emotional exhaustion.
What her distracted mind pointedly failed to accomplish, however, was to warn her of an approaching mortal danger. She only realized when she was raising her hand to knock on the door that waves of killing intent were radiating right behind her.
Before her fist reached the door, she found herself pulled backwards and had to reorganize her focus on not stumbling. She was then lifted up by the collar and pulled to a side alley before she could find the sense of mind to protest. She heard a door open behind her, turned towards it and dazedly obeyed a directing push at the small of her back, and found herself in some kind of basement storage of shelves, crates and sacks. The door behind clicked shut with finality while the oppressive murderousness she felt emanating from the angel of death behind her made her take a couple of steps just to get some distance between herself and its source.
But there was nowhere to run in this enclosure. She felt piercing eyes at her back and her shoulders stiffened against the weight of the gaze. The weaponmistress, nearly unfazed in the past by fighting S-class criminals, had to concentrate for her legs to not give in.
He tapped his foot. She could visualize the folded arms, the seemingly laid-back yet steely posture, and it filled her with a strange combination of dread and wistfulness. "Release the henge and show yourself."
She shook her head quickly. It seemed a futile kind of resistance, but the anger of the copy ninja was overwhelming her strategic judgement.
She half-expected a rough turning-around for her insolence, but only silence reigned for a moment. This was cold wrath, not a burning anger. Manhandling as a response to belligerence was for those who could not control themselves. After all she had unleashed upon him, Kakashi was composed. Her chances of escape or a swift end seemed more and more slim.
He stepped closer to her, and she flinched to feel his face close to her neck. A swift intake of breath, and she realized with a blink that he was sniffing her. Could he smell his way through her henge? She had spent a moment in this form in her own apartment, and that might have been enough.
It seemed so, as the copy ninja was clearly taken aback. "You?"
She took the moment of Kakashi's disorientation to try to force her way past him and through the door, but found herself smoothly pinned against the door instead. She released the henge in the sudden surge of panic at her exit being closed off, and tensed in preparation of incoming physical pain.
For now, it was mostly emotional, though. "Why, Tenten?" Kakashi's voice was beyond incredulous. "Do you have a death wish or are you just really confused?"
Her fear incensed into anger at his feigned ignorance. "I hate you, Kakashi. Let me go." Her furious struggling got her nowhere, though. He was experienced in disarming grips, and she found him quite steeled against the futile resistance she was able to put up.
"You have something of mine. I want it back."
His reference to the Icha Icha books was still made in such a level, tense tone of voice that for a moment Tenten fell for it and pondered if she had done a terrible mistake. But she snapped out of it with a furious snarl and sunk her ankle into Kakashi's foot to make his grip loosen.
He did not even flinch. "Honestly, Tenten, if you wanted me to be more rough you could have just said so." His tone was not entirely humorous.
All the fun and games aside, he was still a jounin with more experience, more strength and, for the time being, less emotional instability to boot. Tenten squirmed against Kakashi's grip, but he held fast. Between the utter humiliation of being caught so powerless and the burning anger that had driven her into the situation, Tenten felt blood rushing to her face.
The blood apparently somehow oozed through her eyes and wet her cheeks. After a moment of disorientation, Tenten realized she was crying against the door. The additional embarrassment was just too much; her frayed cover broke into a single shuddering sob.
Kakashi seemed to be at odds with himself on how to deal with this turn of events. She collected her willpower and bit out a "You lying bastard," which did not at all have the biting vehemence she had at some point planned for staring Kakashi down for his crimes.
The older nin seemed unperturbed, his hold steady. "Lying about what?"
Tenten's rage boiled over. The nerve he had to force it out of him, the shameful ridicule of it all. "Hiding your thing with Neji! Making him keep it a secret, from me too. Ganging up to toy with my feelings!" The last statement she muttered more to the door than to Kakashi, who was also more caught up on the main part.
"My thing? What thing?" Now he was starting to sound puzzled.
"Drop the act, I saw you!" Tenten was seething now. The coolness of the basement door against her forehead allowed her to focus on her anger, let it keep her steady and not fall victim to the prey reflexes that wanted to take over at the unrelenting proximity of her captor.
Kakashi blinked, her words starting to sink in. "You mean when you crashed into my apartment with some business and then left?"
"Neji would have told me! We're teammates! So you were the one who made him keep silent too. You're the one behind all this. Setting up this net around me, making me fall for both of you just so you could laugh at me when you'd made Neji fall in love with you!"
Kakashi's jaw dropped halfway through the floor. For a split second, the jounin's grip weakened as he tried to digest the turn of events.
A split second was all Tenten needed. She took the opportunity to turn around, vigorously knee the ANBU veteran in the groin, and escape through the door as he doubled over.
She ran all the way back to her apartment, locked the door behind her and finally let out a shuddering breath she did not know she had been holding in.
This was not the end of her troubles, however. Where could she hide? Whom could she trust? Should she flee the village?
It was still true that she had his books and had provoked him beyond recovery. She ran to the stash under floorboards where she had stored Kakashi's books, her hostages. They were still there; under the box was also the copy she had bought in order to send him loose pages that looked like they came from his dog-eared signed and very personal copies.
But he had as good as admitted she was right by his shocked reaction at her having seen through the ruse. It was his guilt at being caught red-handed that had made him lose his vigilance for a moment. He had sorely underestimated her observational abilities. Well, that and the dangerousness of toying with her heart that way. At least she had not been entirely toothless in her victim role.
That also left her stuck with her current predicament, though.
A fair fight was out of the question. Tenten had to admit to herself that maybe she feared Kakashi more than hated him after all. Which meant more weakness to write down on herself. She fumed silently while closing the book box a bit more forcefully than would have been necessary, and restoring the concealed hiding place of her literary plunder.
To think that she had almost completely broken down before him, as the final ultimate humiliation. Nausea wrenched her gut, the shame releasing more poisonously depressive mood into her system.
There was no way out any more. What could she do, hold the book hostage in exchange for not being gutted?
Back at the basement storage, Kakashi was getting up from the somewhat unprofessional foetal position he had assumed on the floor in response to Tenten's attempt at emasculation by patellic assault. He was struggling to come to grips with what she had said. Neji? In love with him?
Had the younger shinobi really had a motivation beyond the apparent when he had come to the Kakashi for moral support and advice on his latest predicament?
He had been noticeably distraught about his family's plans of marrying him off to a cousin, and especially what it entailed now that he had noticed his heart drifting quite firmly in Tenten's direction. He had no idea how Tenten would react. In some sense, Tenten had been right, Kakashi admitted to himself; they had been conspiring over her feelings at the time.
But returning to Neji, Kakashi had assumed this was a natural reaction to organized marriages at the time. Pushed by Tenten's outburst, though, now he re-examined the scene for any signs of Neji in fact being of an altogether different kind of orientation.
When it came to the younger man's long, lush hair, well, anything was possible... but on the other hand, complaining about his involvement with a female was an extremely weird way of coming on to another guy. Even less so when it was a woman that said other guy was interested in, although Neji might not have been aware of that...
What a bunch of teenagers they were. Kakashi groaned to himself; why could people not just behave logically? This was probably karmic punishment for trying his luck with a shinobi about the same age as his own team of students. While he refused to admit to cradle-robbing when it came to the age difference alone, considering his extraordinary career development he might as well have been from the previous generation. Well, he could have been her sensei, that much was certain.
Sadly, that thought did not help at all; his mind promptly jumped into a gutter and refused to come out. He decided to focus on one problem at a time, and to track down the escaped Erinys who was still holding his literary smut hostage.
Kakashi followed Tenten's trail to her apartment and discreetly helped himself in through a window. He sensed her presence in the bedroom, and had just enough time to move into position as he heard her get up and head out of the room.
Tenten felt like her mind was being unusually sluggish, but decided it must be because of all the stress of late. No matter how she looked at it, she couldn't find any solution. But she could certainly not stay here for very long, it was only a matter of moments until Kakashi-
Tenten whirled around and reflexively sank two kunai into the wall where the copy-nin's voice had come from, without ever letting go of their hilts. When she looked at the wall and her lodged weapons, the sluggish flow of her mind further decomposed into a buzz that blocked all sensible thought out. She could not for the life of her concentrate on how to get out of this, she was supposed to have at least four exit strategies by now and be implementing the first two of them, but all she could do was hold on to the kunai and tremble from all the pent-up adrenaline.
Since when did simple fear of painful death stop her on her tracks like this? Her sensei would be mortified at how badly she had been unravelled.
She focused on the feel of the handle in the weapon, and was able to produce an audible and reasonably level "Kakashi." to acknowledge his presence in a more civil manner.
"I was wondering if we could maybe exchange a few words before embarking to the path of sharp objects delivered at high velocity. Deal?"
His voice was coming from her left flank, she could throw a couple of senbon in that general direction without wrecking the memorabilia on the shelf right behind him... but just holding on to the weapons on the wall in front of her seemed like the most attractive idea for now. She considered his words for a moment; they seemed earnest enough. He certainly would not need to offer her such delays before preparing to cut her down; maybe she would stand half a chance after talking a bit too. It could make the buzz in her head stop or at least quiet down a b it.
A quick flash of Kakashi promising that he would never mess with her for his sick amusement struck her from nowhere. He was using the same tone as he did while holding her after their spar went haywire. Her body remembered it. Back then she had gutted herself in her imagination, and he had helped her back out of it.
The buzz in her head got all the more noisy. Tenten slumped to sit on the floor, still staring blankly ahead. "Deal," she murmured, to a spot of uneven finish on her wall.
Kakashi shifted behind the now sedated-looking kunoichi. Or maybe the more appropriate word was 'deflated'. She seemed too exhausted for resistance.
His heart ached to help her, but the extent of unpredictable attacking left him wary. She had cracked somewhere around seeing Neji at his place, and right now seemed more haunted than even when she had sunk into his genjutsu. There was a darkness to the kunoichi that was weighing her down; he had seen people broken before, and by the looks of things she seemed dazed enough to be in shock.
But why was she so distraught over the thought Neji being into older men, anyway? Why would she think he would want to bully her around like that? Or have some nefarious purposes interfering with sharing the attentions of his new boy-toy, even if she had some actual evidence of Neji having a relationship with him? Did she think he was some kind of a vampire living on emotions, or what on earth did she think his motivation for the plotting was?
Unless... she thought she could lose Neji to him.
He offered her a hand to help her up from her sitting position, which she mechanically accepted. Once she was back on her feet, Kakashi looked her in the eye, even though she was not returning the eye contact yet, and popped the question.
"Are you jealous, Tenten?"
Tenten's ears flared; she seemed more ready to fight or flee again, but could not come up with an acerbic answer.
Kakashi nodded to himself; he was not exactly overjoyed at this confirmation, as it also meant that her feelings for Neji were probably too strong for there to be any space left in her heart for any lovesick copy ninjas. Just his luck that he would fail to show originality in this part of his life as well.
He leaned back against a nearby table and pinched the bridge of his nose, processing the more immediate matters at hand. "What I still don't get, though, is why you'd use these underhanded methods, rather than just punching me in the face like civilized people, and telling me to stay away from Neji?"
Tenten stiffened. How could she tell him anything like that? Being left out of the secret affair of the two men was just the tip of the iceberg. Kakashi was too experienced, too far away to reach, too frightening and exciting, and, now, attached to Neji on top of all that. To the kunoichi's shameful surprise, her lower lip trembled and her voice threatened to break. She buried her face in her hands, Kakashi watching her with curious concern in his visible eye, and stepped closer again, cautiously to not break her train of thought, but to be within reach.
Tenten drew a shuddering breath to steady herself before turning to face his upper torso to speak; it was as close as she was coming to look him in the eye for now. "A-after last week, I really thought we might have a chance... and then this came up and now I'm not just back to square one, I'm not sure if I can ever catch up with square one any more." She burst into tears at the finality of her own words, and buried her face into Kakashi's chest in an irrational urge to conceal it.
After getting over the initial shock of a crying female in his immediate vicinity, Kakashi wrapped his arms around Tenten and stroked her soothingly. Tenten was too overcome with emotion to even notice the way his heartbeat quickened when she held on to him like he were her anchor in a storm. Her body tensed at each sob, as she fought to not let out a single whimper. Instead, she screamed her loss soundlessly into Kakashi's ANBU vest, which she was also soaking.
They spent a good while in relative silence, until Tenten's shuddering stilled and the hiccups in her breathing got further apart.
Kakashi stroked her neck and made a soothing sound. "You know," he said, barely audibly, "it's not so unusual that when it comes to love, things don't always work out the way you'd want to."
She snorted derisively against him, but he was not deterred. "Mock not my elder wisdom, woman. I know of a veteran of many battles who had a devastating crush on a younger kunoichi, and watched it go almost as badly. You're not the only one hitting your head against walls with these matters, Tenten."
Tenten withdrew her face just far enough to mutter, "What was it, she swung the wrong way too?"
Kakashi chuckled and patted her back. "I doubt that was an issue, really. There were just too many complications on the way, I don't think he ever got around to actually confessing to her to avoid causing a big mess for nothing."
Now Tenten was successfully distracted from her own predicament to push herself away and glare at Kakashi. "What kind of cowardice is that! Screw complications! He should have grabbed his opportunity! Nothing good ever comes from keeping things in." Her acute disapproval spent, Tenten deflated and rested her forehead against Kakashi again, muttering something inaudible.
Kakashi, on the other hand, was still. After a while, he asked, "You think so? Even now?"
Tenten fixed him with a solid, if somewhat puffed-up, stare. "There's secrets that keep people alive, and there's secrets that just might save you from embarrassment. But they all eat at you equally badly. Avoid them at all cost, I say. Take it from a pro." Then she suddenly recalled the things that had remained unsaid between them, and how they would probably keep eating at her until she mustered up the courage to spit them out.
She figured that things were probably unlikely to get any more embarrassing between the two of them, anyway. So she opened her mouth to just come out and tell Kakashi how she felt-
But he interrupted her plan with a resigned chuckle before she got it out, so she decided to postpone it just a bit. "Well, in that case, Tenten-sensei." She giggled at the alien designation, uncertain what the peculiar intense look in Kakashi's eye meant. "Would you like to give an old, battle-scarred veteran like me a try?"
Tenten's expression turned into shocked disbelief as the implications of Kakashi's earlier words kicked in. "... Say what?"
After Kakashi had briefed her about the true purpose of Neji's visit and repeatedly assured her that the two males had no intent on violating her salvaging trust in them, quite the contrary, Tenten was feeling a bit dazed but led him to the book stash.
Seeing how relieved Kakashi was at finding the signed copies untarnished, Tenten's heart wrenched at the thought of having so viciously used her strategic capacity to harm someone, let alone a person she felt for so strongly. It struck her that in this particular story, lost in her sense of victimness, she had actually become the bad guy.
Yet for some reason, Kakashi seemed to be willing to forgive. Maybe he really did have a soft spot for her, although it was still a bit hard to believe. Tenten found herself repeatedly reaching out to touch him just to see if he was actually real and not imaginary.
He felt real alright, although she could still feel a wave of nervous disbelief rising when she considered that for too long. It simply felt too incredible; what on earth did he see in her, anyway, that would overlook all the things she had done?
That night Tenten fell asleep in Kakashi's arms. At the point when her breathing reached the steady rhythm of dreaming, he felt an overwhelming urge to tell her that nothing in the whole wide world could come to harm her without having to deal with him first. She seemed to smile approvingly in her sleep at his thought.