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Flight of Fancy

Chapter Text

Tenten sped through the woods, a heavy bagful of scrolls on her back. After living in Konoha for years as a sleeper agent, she had finally blown her cover, and now her only goal was to get over the Fire country border and disappear into her homelands before she was caught.

Her departure from the village had been sudden and unplanned. By sheer chance, she happened to stumble upon a stack of ANBU Root documents that she simply could not leave behind. After all, they had turned out to contain the detailed plans of sabotage and bribery to overthrow the current ruler of her home country. An extensive list of Konoha spies posted within the country was also included. ANBU Root was going to plunge her home into chaos in the near future; there was no way she could stand by and let that happen.

During her years in Konoha, Tenten had made friends and advanced through the ranks to become a chuunin. She had been assigned in the team of a genius ninja by the name of Hyuuga Neji, and a somewhat less brilliant, but quite determined taijutsu specialist called Rock Lee.

Looking back, she somewhat suspected that Neji might have been assigned to keep an eye on her, just in case. Her cover had been close to watertight, but it did not hide her being of a foreign descent. Tenten assumed it would be standard procedure to be slightly suspicious of foreign shinobi in the village, even though she had grown up there in the care of loyal civillian co-conspirators.

Wearing a innocent, cheerful face had become second nature for Tenten, and she was confident that even if Neji was paying special attention to her, he would not have noticed a thing. They had not gotten very close, so most personal topics were extremely easy to avoid. In fact, she had been emboldened enough by Neji's desire to keep a distance between himself and everyone else to even flirt with him. The electricity between them was undeniable, but he had never given in to her probing innuendos.

All that had just become meaningless, in any case. She now was a fugitive, and pursuers would follow soon. She readjusted the shoulder strap on her precious cargo, and focused on getting a move on.

Despite making good speed, she had not gotten very far from the village by the time she felt someone slowly closing in on her. When she realized who it was, she grit her teeth.

Hatake Kakashi. The laid-back, chronically tardy jounin in charge of Team 7 was gaining on her. How someone with his speed was always late from meetings, she had no idea.

But having him on her tail at this point was bad. He would catch up to her hours before she made it to safety. She swiftly prepared a strategy for facing him, and adjusted the direction of her mad dash through the trees to pass through a slightly more open area.

Once she had reached a suitable position, Tenten hastily prepared her equipment for battle and hid the bag of documents so that she could grab it on her way forward. Mere seconds after, she felt that her masked opponent had arrived within range.

Tenten's own techniques involved a combination of long-range and close-range attacks. Besides his speed, she recalled that Kakashi was equipped with a truly nasty close-range attack capable of passing through even hardened metal. In other words, close-range combat was right out. No matter; she was quite capable of raining sharp death upon the gray-haired jounin between the sparse trees.

"Yo." Kakashi called out.

"Kakashi-sensei." Tenten's reply was brief, but courteous; they both knew what this was about, but there was no particular reason to be coarse about it.

"No chance you'd come along quietly, I guess?" Tenten smirked inwardly at the faintly hopeful tone of Kakashi's voice. The lazy...

"I'm afraid not, Kakashi-sensei." She pulled out a selection of shuriken and lobbed them his way, more to signal that she did not have time to chatter than to expect a hit. Kakashi was not serious yet either, she could tell from his stance and the fact that his other eye remained covered by his hitai-ate. It might be that she could catch him by surprise by a furious attack and then retreat in the confusion.

Thinking fondly of this possibility, she absent-mindedly dug out a few kunai, using the movement to hide her pulling on the invisible strings bound to the shuriken to turn them back towards her opponent.

To her surprise, they caught him square in the back and neck, drawing a splattering of blood and a gasp from the man.

A very surprised-looking Kakashi disappeared in a puff of smoke, to be replaced by a log via a quick kawarimi technique.

Tenten immediately tensed, extending her senses. Kakashi had disappeared; there was no knowing what direction his counterattack would come from.

She did not have to wait long for it. Kakashi leapt at her from the branches of a nearby tree, a kunai in hand. She parried it with her own kunai, and swiftly retreated from him. Kakashi was barely tall enough to be towering over her; it was not any ominous aura of his that intimidated the younger kunoichi, but she knew that at close range, she could not reliably counter his attacks.

When she turned to face Kakashi again, she felt something that made her blood turn cold. Another shinobi was quickly closing in on them. It was none other than her team-mate, Neji.

Tenten suppressed a frown. She could hope to incapacitate the lone jounin for long enough to flee from him, but against him and her team-mate she was more than just out-numbered. Like Kakashi, Neji was at his most dangerous at close range, but his Kaiten technique made him all but impervious to her long-range attacks as well. In their practice rounds, she could count with one hand's fingers the times she had landed a single blow on him. And even those few had been due to various distractions, such as a screaming Lee having been hurtled at him moments earlier by their enthusiastic team leader, Maito Gai.

She knew she could outrun Neji eventually. The few shinobi present in the village that would be able to catch her on her sprint included Kakashi, one boisterous boy from Team 7 with an incredibly powerful demon fox sealed within him, and her other team member, Lee - should he be running without the ridiculously heavy leg weights that he constantly wore. It was for the sake of exercise and a strange concept of honour, apparently.

Tenten had no particular use for glorified methods at the moment; she needed to get out fast, and was even prepared to go for solutions that might compromise her style. She pulled out two scrolls of weapon summoning, made the seals and ran up a tree to launch herself high in the air. From the peak of her trajectory, she released the twin scrolls. Within seconds, the air was gleaming with a lethal concentration of sharp, jagged blades.

As she was falling, Tenten flashed through the seals of a bunshin technique, leaving a clone of herself behind to guide the flow of metal in the air. Once on the ground, she dashed off again, barely even slowing down to grab her concealed bag along.

The distraction had proven successful, and for a while she felt she was putting a respectable gap between herself and her pursuers. And a gap she would need, as Neji's range of swiftly detecting which way she had gone was broader than Kakashi's. Of course, failing that they could look for her with the help of the latter's tracker ninken, but she was hoping that summoning the dogs and catching her scent would be a slower option.

As the surge of adrenaline from her brief battle was wearing off, despair crept up and sank its bony claws in Tenten's chest. Her home was not one of the great shinobi nations; why would Konoha turn against it, and even go through such an elaborate plot to put it to ruin? As the initial cold dread was starting to dissipate, she found herself feeling angry and appalled at the same time. And how many of the people she had called her friends in the village were in on the plan, in quiet or vocal approval of it?

Would Neji have approved something like that? She had to admit that she had no idea; despite having spent so much time physically near Neji, she never was sufficiently close to him to figure out what was really going on in his head. The pale-eyed young man was a mystery to most people, if not even himself. His subservient position as a branch member of the powerful Hyuuga clan, known for its excellent skills of observation, had schooled him well in hiding his emotions. Letting his superiors catch sight of his anger would have been a dreadfully bad survival tactic.

Sooner than she had wished, she again sensed Kakashi gaining on her. As expected, Neji has fallen behind, not being able to keep up with the older jounin's extraordinary speed. She mapped out the area again in her mind and diverted her course in preparation for another battle.

This time, she managed to reach a sizeable clearing among the trees just when she could feel Kakashi's chakra signature a stone's throw away. Once again, she set the bag down, hastily concealed by some bushes, and checked her equipment. A few quick traps for good measure, maybe?

Tenten watched Kakashi reach the edge of the clearing, and pause there. He sidestepped a bit to avoid a warm welcome she had set up, involving a handful of exploding tags she had scattered around the perimeter. When he stepped away from the shade of the trees, Kakashi's posture had changed from before; he meant business, now. His other eye was uncovered, the blood red colour of the permanently activated Sharingan clearly visible.

When she caught sight of the Sharingan, Tenten could not help but pause and wonder at the rare bloodline ability embodied in the famous copy-nin's eye. It was said that the Sharingan allowed, among other things, its wielder to learn any technique they observed even once, and that Kakashi had already learned innumerable techniques that way. The ability also made it easy to follow and even predict the movements of one's opponents.

The red-and-black colour of the activated Sharingan was in stark contrast to the hereditary eye power of the Hyuuga clan. Neji's eyes, like those of most of his relatives, were a disturbingly pale white. Before she managed to get too distracted by comparisons of the truly fascinating eye colourings of her two pursuers, Tenten tore her own, quite regular and brown-eyed, gaze away from the mesmerizingly beautiful mismatched eyes of her present enemy.

Who knows what could have happened in a different life, at a different time. But right now, Tenten knew she had to focus if she wished to keep on living at least her current life.

She would have to release another massive weapon attack. She grimly released her large tool summoning scroll from its straps. With a few seals, she threw her scroll in the air, releasing a storm of weapons moving at extremely high speed, directed at her enemy in an unavoidable pattern. To extend the range of damage, the weapons carried tags to produce an explosion upon impact with the ground or their target. She hardly ever missed her target, but it never hurt to be sure.

Once again, she did not have any reason to stay behind and watch the carnage. Despite the immense effectiveness of the attack, she prepared for the possibility that the special ops jounin would survive it and still be capable of fighting. Given that and the probability of further pursuers gaining on her should she tally, she was determined to get away from the site as quickly as possible. Grabbing her bag of Root scrolls once again, she left the clearing and ran, making a beeline for the border that would release her from this amok run.

Tenten did not feel Kakashi following her, which was a relief. She allowed herself a brief moment to regret that she would have to fight the people she had grown to like, and even admire. She had occasionally envied Team 7 - as well as some other teams - for their jounin leader, finding the leotard-clad, stubborn and extremely boisterous Gai-sensei in charge of her own team a difficult target for admiration. There was no denying his abilities, which actually had made him an enthusiastic rival of Kakashi, but his personality was sometimes quite tiring. There did not seem to be a shred of mystery about Maito Gai, unlike almost every other shinobi in the village.

In stark contrast, Hatake Kakashi, who both masked his face in dark cloth and concealed his thoughts under a cover of relaxed indifference, never failed to intrigue Tenten's inquisitive mind.

She caught herself getting distracted again. This would not do; she had to guard her thoughts more carefully or she would miss something. She focused on what her senses were telling her; apparently there still were no pursuers trailing her. She actually had a good chance of pulling this off.

After about half an hour of running, she had a feeling something was not right. True, there still was no sign of enemies, but the forest felt somehow... off. She had not been to this area for quite a while, but she distinctly recalled that she should have passed some bigger landmarks by now.

Then she spotted something that made her stomach knot and cold sweat broke in her palms.

She had seen these trees before. Several times.

She had seen these particular trees several times within the last fifteen minutes.

She was somehow running in a circle. But it was impossible; she had an excellent sense of direction, and had not been straying from her aim for the border.

Her entire body tensed as she shakily turned to look behind her.

A short way away, she could still see the clearing she had left half an hour ago, the clearing where she had left Kakashi to fend off her technique honed for utter obliteration.

She dashed into the clearing, and received an instant confirmation for her fears. Kakashi was still standing at the edge of the clearing, where he had settled before her attack. There was no sign of her summoned weapons, or craters left by explosions.

She was in a genjutsu; Kakashi must have caught her in one when she mistakenly looked at his bared Sharingan eye.

She cursed to herself as she concentrated to scramble the chakra flowing through her brain to release herself from the jutsu. She was badly out of practice; if there was a single class of techniques that team Gai hardly ever practised, it was genjutsu. Neji simply never seemed to bother; Lee was a genius of hand-to-hand combat and hopeless at pretty much everything else. And as far as she could tell, the only person Gai-sensei could mesmerize was Lee, who worshipped the ground their eccentric jounin leader walked upon.

"Kai!" As far as she recalled, she had done everything right, but nothing had changed. Kakashi was still looking at her impassively at the edge of the clearing. She was still inside the world he created.

The only way she could break free would be to distract the man who had imprisoned her. If a destructive attack had not done it, maybe she should try an opposite approach.

With newfound determination, she strode to the imaginary embodiment of Kakashi in the illusion she was trapped in. He just stood there; his eyes moved to constantly watch her, but he did not react to her proximity in any way.

Here goes nothing.

She took a hold of Kakashi's mask, pulled it down, and kissed him full on the mouth.

It certainly caught the illusory Kakashi by surprise. Smirking, Tenten deepened the kiss. It did not hurt that she had spent quite a while wondering what it would be like to kiss the man. Even if this version was really quite imaginary, she also knew that the real Kakashi was out there, in some form, seeing and experiencing this first-hand in his mind's eye. Or something.

She grabbed hold of the back of his vest and pressed her chest flush against him, quite aware of the further distraction that would provide. After an initial tensing, he relaxed and actually reciprocated the kiss, embracing her with a ferocity that momentarily broke the rhythm of her continuous attempts to rearrange the chakra flow in her head to break free of the illusion.

It did not seem to be enough. Oh well, she gathered, there was little more she could do now - and there were worse ways to go.

The kiss and the embrace went on; by now she just concentrated on enjoying the warmth radiating from him, fully expecting the scene to fall apart at any moment to release her into a far bleaker reality.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a baffled-looking Neji cautiously approach. She took a moment to marvel at the imagination of her captor to include such a vivid image of her flabbergasted team member walking in on their passionate smooching. She quite suspected Kakashi was getting a kick out of the idea; why else bother to think up such a detail?

The illusory Neji closed the distance between them and reached to touch the back of her neck with a glowing palm. Suddenly, everything went dark.

Chapter Text

Tenten woke up in a bleak holding cell. She felt strangely groggy. Whether it was due to some precaution against inmates built into the cell or from Neji knocking her out with the Gentle Fist technique, she could not tell. The room was sparsely furnished, dimly lit, windowless except for a small, barred peep-hole on the door, and altogether not a pleasant place to be in.

The dismal atmosphere was threatening to rub on her. She had failed her sole mission in life, which would have been quite a lump to digest even in more cheery circumstances.

On the other hand, she had never been one to mull over things in the past. What was done, was done, and now she needed to think what to do next. She tried to look at the situation from a more distant perspective, now that she could not immediately affect it in any obvious way. From the bird's-eye view, she found herself wondering if this outcome hadn't been for the best of the village, after all. It felt like such a lousy rationalization, but she was willing to indulge in comforting thoughts for the moment.

Rice country was tiny. While she had no idea why Konoha would be interested in investing so much to covertly bring the country down, she had to admit that it felt a lot better than the option of an army of shinobi marching into the almost completely civilian country, butchering and pillaging as it went. War was pure nightmare, particularly for the civilians who could not do much else to change their fate than try to run or hide. Her foster parents, both non-combatants, had perished in the devastating attack of Orochimaru and the Sound ninjas some years ago. Even though her relationship with them had been more courteous than warm, she did not wish such an experience upon anyone.

If the option was to go down peacefully, in a bloodless coup even, she was not sure if she should mourn her inability to have stopped it from happening.

This line of thought did not reduce her anxiety over Konoha's motives or Rice country's future under either direct or indirect Fire country rule, but it made her feel somewhat better about her own failure.

Her musings were interrupted by the sound of footsteps on the hallway. She could not recognize the one walking in front; she concluded it must be a guard of the holding area, as they mostly kept to themselves. When she turned her attention to the chakra of the second person, on the other hand, her stomach got all tingly.

Maybe Hatake Kakashi, one of Konoha's elite trackers, had come to deliver another prisoner? The unexpected opportunity had her hesitate for a few precious seconds, before she hastily scrambled to the door to call out to him.

"Kakashi-s...-san!" As an afterthought, she hastily threw in a honorific. Using the usual "Kakashi-sensei" sounded just a little bit inappropriate, after she had all but sexually assaulted him. Yet she did not want to make the guard accompanying him unnecessarily suspicious about her informality either.

She heard the footsteps pause, then resume, as the two men located the direction of her voice and walked up to her cell door. Kakashi shifted to peek in through the bars in a fluid movement, catching her face a mere breath away from his before she had time to back away. She quickly thought of cold showers and other un-heated things in an attempt to stop herself from blushing pink.

"Oh, you're awake already? How's your head?" Also backing to a more conversational distance, Kakashi flashed her a cheerful grin. Due to the mask covering his face, the expression was mostly conveyed by his uncovered eye, which was crinkled in amusement.

Tenten strongly suspected that the lackadaisical attitude he projected had to be a product of years of training, but it melted her heart nevertheless. He was consciously putting her at ease, despite her being a despicable traitor and all. Being in the receiving end of even such small kindnesses in her situation made her throat constrict. She barely managed to loudly whisper, "Uh, could I ask you something?"

Kakashi, catching her intention, smoothly turned to the guard to tell him he'd be right after. Once the other shinobi was out of earshot, he turned back to her.

She summoned up her courage to produce the briefest fragment of the question churning in her head: "Er. About that genjutsu...?"

Kakashi crinkled his visible eye at her, and innocently queried: "Yes?"

How the same smile could be a lifesaver at one moment and fully infuriating behaviour moments later, she could hardly understand. It made her envious of the capability, however. And it was not going to stop her from pushing for the answer. "Was I actually still out of it by the time... Neji showed up?" As euphemisms for their steamy smooching scene went, a memory of Neji's mortified look was luckily among the least blush-inducing.

Kakashi feigned to consider the matter carefully. "Would it be easiest for you if you were?" His look was a flawless imitation of innocent concern.

Tenten leaned her forehead at the cool bars of the door, letting out a sigh of exasperation. "Oh dear."

Kakashi winked at her. "Don't worry, I can tell Neji-kun to play along either way. It's completely up to you!"

She could not help but giggle at his incorrigibility. "Oh, just leave me to meditate on my embarrassment in peace then, you fiend."

"Such coldness!" Kakashi dramatically lifted a hand to his heart, as if mortally wounded. Then he touched the side of his nose and glanced at her conspiratorially. "Surely it must be the headache talking. I should ask Neji to not be so rough in the future!"

She rolled her eyes at him, but then sobered up a bit. "I'm sorry, though. About the rest," she added, hopefully not too hastily.

Kakashi waved her off. "You'll have a chance to say your piece soon enough." He paused and locked her in his one-eyed gaze, suddenly serious. "We're all shinobi here. It's nothing personal."

She blinked when his posture shifted slightly to indicate the moment of bafflingly sensible behaviour had passed. Only a long-time ANBU member could shrug off the conflict between personal ties and orders that lightly, she surmised. His membership in the black ops was of course all speculation on her part, all operatives working fully masked and under code names, but then it would be madness to not hire a shinobi as talented as Hatake Kakashi for such an organization. "Thanks," she exhaled, then pulled away from the door.

She saw Kakashi raise his hand to wave her bye, and listened to his footsteps grow more distant. She was suddenly saddened again. If Kakashi was indeed in ANBU, was he in on the planned destruction of her home village as well? Was that why he wouldn't take her betrayal personally, in return to his own? Because he knew Konoha was already betraying her home?

She caught herself. Did he know it was her home, though? Then, maybe he had concluded it to be the most likely reason for her to run with the scrolls. But did that mean he had checked what the scrolls were all about before returning them, or was he in on what she had taken even without that?

There simply were too many unanswered questions, and her head was starting to throb again. She opted to rest her eyes for just a moment instead, and fell asleep out of sheer mental exhaustion within moments.

oOOo

Once her deep sleep had taken the edge out of her exhaustion, Tenten's dreams turned... distracting. They featured Kakashi, sometimes Neji as well, in situations sufficiently enthralling to make even a world-wise kunoichi's cheeks redden upon remembering them. When she woke up, disoriented and covered in a fine sheen of sweat, Tenten wished very, very empathetically that she had not been talking in her sleep.

She got up and did what she could to bring her somewhat dishevelled appearance under control. She suspected that since she had already been seen awake, she would indeed be interrogated soon.

While reorganizing her dark hair into twin buns, Tenten meditated on whether she should just divulge all her information or try to hold something back. It wasn't like she knew a whole lot that would have much weight either way; it was one of the upsides of being a sleeper agent with no contact to Rice country for years.

Some time after a guard had dropped off some bland but digestible food for her, her expectations were indeed fulfilled. Neji showed up with a guard to take her to be interrogated, in a room down the long hallway of holding cells. She could not catch any sign of the earlier shock on his face to confirm her suspicions about Kakashi's genjutsu, but then again he had had plenty of time to get over it by now. Neji's control over any post-traumatic twitching would of course be superb, along with every other aspect of his self-discipline.

Tenten, on the other hand, could not muster up enough of the same to ask him about it directly. In any case, it was theoretically possible that he could actually decide to conspire with Kakashi on the topic, as the latter had earlier proclaimed.

One half-lost in her musings and the other being his typical, stoic self, the two former team members walked down the hallway in silence.

In the interrogation room, Morino Ibiki awaited. His appearance demanded respect, if even a little bit of fear. With scars criss-crossing over his face, the torture expert of Konoha looked nothing if not experienced in his chosen line of work. He was seated behind a large table, and motioned for Tenten to take a seat across him.

As Tenten followed his instructions, she spotted Kakashi standing in the corner of the room, pretending to be deeply engrossed in an Icha Icha book. Despite this, he cast her a quick acknowledging glance when she looked at him, before returning to his deep literary endeavours. Sitting down at the side of the table, Neji seemed likewise prepared for passive observation; judging by his equipment, he would be taking notes of what happened.

So, Ibiki would lead the interrogation; this was not entirely surprising, but the ominous aura constantly surrounding the man did nothing to reduce Tenten's nervousness. She focused on collecting her resolve and clenched her hands into fists under the table, to stop them from shaking.

"So. Do you know why you are here?" Ibiki's tone was, for the time being, rather conversational. Tenten did not take it as any kind of reliable indication of how the rest of the interrogation would go, but appreciated the calm start for all it was worth. She nodded.

"Sir. I assume I am here for breaking into the ANBU Root archive, appropriating a bagful of classified scrolls detailing a large-scale mission in Rice country, disobeying a superior and attacking two Konoha jounin as they came after me."

Ibiki returned her nod. Neji was scribbling something down, no emotion evident on his face.

"And what prompted this kind of behaviour?"

Tenten, all but determined by now that she should just come clean, but afraid of what she did not yet know of the classified operation, hesitated. She glanced at Neji and Kakashi, in an attempt to remind herself of the time when she trusted Konoha to be fair and wanting most of all to retain peace. She also considered that the extent of her own mission must have been quite apparent already, given her earlier actions.

"Sir. I've been planted in Konoha as a Rice country sleeper agent." There, she got the worst part out, openly admitting to holding another country's allegiance. When Ibiki did not as much as raise is eyebrows at this, she was emboldened to continue. "I've been like this since I was a child, and I was raised to the task by my late foster parents. My recent actions have been the first time that I came across information so critical that it was necessary to break my cover in an attempt to deliver it back to Rice." Tenten squeezed her fingernails against her palms, the memory of her shock and dismay upon finding the documents jolting through her.

She caught Ibiki's gaze and held it. "I always assumed that peace would go on forever between the two countries, and I was almost certain the only reason I had been sent here was that there was no way to train me as a shinobi and weapon master at home." Her clan had gone extinct, but for her. "I still cannot understand why Konoha would invest to much into covertly taking over Rice. Surely the small country cannot pose a threat of any kind to Fire country!"

Her look had turned pleading, but Ibiki remained impassive. "We are not here to discuss Konoha operations." After a short pause, giving it time to sink in, he continued: "Do you maintain that this was the first time you acted against Konoha or Fire country?"

Tenten was briefly taken aback by the question, then vigorously nodded. "Yes, sir. Up until now, I have been nothing but loyal to Konoha - as far as that can be said of one assigned as a foreign covert agent."

Ibiki tapped his fingers together, as if giving this careful consideration. "If you were to learn that Konoha was about to mobilize against Rice country in order to keep the peace, what would you do?"

"Sir?" Tenten asked, puzzled.

"Humour me."

She considered this. "Although I find the concept hard to imagine, if I were convinced that Konoha was trying to prevent a war, I would support Fire country in any way I could."

"Even if it meant betraying your home country?" Ibiki's gaze pierced through her.

"I feel that unleashing a war, particularly one that could be avoided, upon the civilian population would be the ultimate betrayal of my country, sir."

She thought she heard Kakashi mumble something about the "Will of Fire" in the background, but when she glanced at him sharply, he showed no sign of having ever moved his focus from his most enthralling book.

Ibiki reeled in her wandering attention. "Now, if Konoha were to plan a bloodless coup in Rice country, do you not think that interfering upon it would most likely lead to war?"

Tenten's cheeks burned. Had Ibiki been reading her thoughts? "It occurred to me afterwards, sir. But at the time, I did not stop and think; I knew I had to make a choice there and then, and it escalated quite fast. To be honest, the shock of a large country mobilizing against a small one, without any provocation that I knew of, made me doubt everything I knew about Konoha."

"But not what you knew of Rice country." Ibiki was relentless, despite maintaining a conversational tone.

"All I know of Rice country, really, is that it hardly seems a threat from any point of view," Tenten conceded.

"You have not been there for the last decade, however."

"True. But I've taken the bold assumption that if Rice turned from a civilian, neutral country to a military power, I would have heard something about it by now. Things like that do not happen overnight. In any case, Konoha has more power to treat international matters through diplomatic means rather than resorting to dirty tactics or a full-blown military operation."

The empathetic declaration seemed to amuse her interrogator. Tenten cringed inwardly; had she spoken out of line?

"Very well, one final question for the day: If Konoha were to ally with Rice country to wage war on a third civilian country for reasons you did not know, what would you do?"

Tenten buried her face in her hands. This was beginning to feel like an overall judgement of her values and beliefs rather than an interrogation. "Agonize over it for days to start with, I guess. As a shinobi I'm supposed to be a tool for my home country, but even then I am a human first." She sighed. "I'm not sure if I would have the courage to become a missing-nin to protect a small country against a huge army. I'm not particularly suicidal. But assuming that I couldn't change the situation from within Konoha, and was eventually sent out to kill civilians myself, I wouldn't be able to follow my orders in any case. I... would probably betray both countries, sir."

Ibiki nodded and straightened up. "I see. You are dismissed." He turned to the pale-eyed Hyuuga secretary, who had just finished his notes. "Neji, would you escort her back to her cell?"

Tenten followed Neji out of the room, baffled. This had not been at all the kind of interrogation she had assumed it would be. Once she got back into the bleak cell, she lay down on the bed and simply boggled at the situation. She spent a good while turning all that had been said in her head before she finally fell asleep.


That night, Tenten dreamed of Orochimaru's attack on Konoha during the chuunin exams, and how she had felt powerless to help the innocent bystanders from getting hurt in the onslaught. It was not particularly uplifting.

She had woken up and was staring at the ceiling in silent contemplation, when Neji showed up and called out to her. It was early in the morning. She had not even been given any breakfast yet, but she shuffled out of the bed and followed him out without comment. After all, if Morino Ibiki was going to finally get serious, it might be just as well that she had nothing in her stomach.

The moments between her cell and the interrogation room passed in silence, once again. She was honing a theory she had come up with during the long hours of the night, juggling it around in her mind to see if she could spot any obvious holes.

Once she had sat down in a setting exactly like yesterday's, Ibiki once again asked her, "Do you know why you are here?"

It was all the confirmation she needed. She leaned forward, and tried to pierce through the shroud that concealed his true intentions with her gaze. "Sir, if you allow me, I have a theory."

Ibiki raised his eyebrows slightly. "Go ahead."

"There is no infiltration of Rice country. The scrolls I 'found' were actually planted in the archive for me to discover, probably to see what I would do. Important parts of them were simply, even casually decipherable without tools and time, which would be amazingly sloppy of Root. Yesterday's questioning was nothing like an interrogation, it felt more like an elaborate academy test.

"I've suspected for a while now that I was set up in the same team with Neji-kun in order for him to keep an eye on me, and the main reason to use a jounin like him as a secretary for a case like mine would probably be to have him cross-check my words against what he has learned of me through prolonged observation."

She had to pause to inhale, but did not dare to tally longer, lest her forward momentum be lost. "Why Kakashi-sensei would be involved boggled me for a while, but I'd assume he is the ANBU contact to make this work out. While Neji-kun seems like definite ANBU material, he has not been jounin for long and is therefore not likely to have the appropriate connections to set up something like this. Hatake Kakashi, on the other hand, has probably been in ANBU for years already. Not to mention that he is one of the few shinobi present who I could not outrun, making him perfect for the job of reeling me in once I did take the bait."

She did not have the gall to hold Ibiki's gaze longer, and broke eye contact. "What I have not figured out is why go through all this just to confirm that I'm a spy, and why now, and not when I was a genin if the suspicion were there already."

When she did dare a fresh glance in Ibiki's direction, she saw he was smiling, why, like an academy teacher about to tell you that you passed your exam.

"Your theory is quite laudable. There is one piece of information that you do not have access to, which explains your confusion."

Tenten blinked. She was right? Of course she was expecting to be right, she would not have spilled it out if she wasn't, but was it really that simple to crack?

"You see," Ibiki continued, "Rice country has indeed been under some pressure lately, but from Water, not us. Rice got thoroughly tired of getting stomped on and started secret negotiations with Fire to join us, as an autonomic area. We'd benefit from trading their goods and the produce of their extremely fertile lands, and in exchange they could trust to be effectively protected by a larger country with a hidden village. The Water daimyo would not cross us to get at Rice.

"As a sign of goodwill, the leaders of Rice recently gave our representatives access to their classified archives, including the handful of agents they have placed outside the country borders."

Tenten tensed slightly at this, but Ibiki waved her worries off dismissively.

"You are right, we suspected you for a long time already, but were content to keep an eye on you, and to stop you from climbing in ranks to get too dangerous. After we had confirmation of you working for Rice, we knew that there was a small window of time during which we could take advantage of this information without you knowing that we knew."

Tenten shook her head in disbelief. "So, you took advantage of it by setting out to watch me run off with forged documents?" She still could not see the point in going through with something this elaborate to confirm her as a traitor.

Ibiki chuckled drily. "It was an opportunity to test whether you had held on to old loyalties, or forgot about them after spending so much time making new friends at your assigned location."

Tenten's face shifted between shock, bogglement and finally comprehension. "So, my running off with the documents..."

"Yes. It was the correct answer. You passed your academy exam, congratulations!" Ibiki was struggling to control his obvious amusement.

Tenten glanced around again, and found Kakashi watching her with evident curiosity, while Neji seemed, strangely enough, like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Tenten, on the other hand, had a hard time doing anything but gape. "So... what now?"

Ibiki's smile broadened until he was beaming in a way that was not only completely unforeseen of the man, but also reminded her disturbingly of a feeling she had not realized she had been missing after her departure from the academy and the violent death of her foster parents. The psychology expert of Konoha, or the ANBU head sadist, depending on whom you asked, had played a little afternoon game with her and seemed to be pleased with what he had seen.

"Why, we let you advance in ranks beyond mere chuunin, of course. You've been delayed for long enough. And once you're a jounin, I expect we'll have another chat with some more... formality."

She blinked and glanced at Neji, who seemed unperturbed by the implication. Ibiki was one of the high-ranking officers of ANBU, and was quite probably referring to recruiting her. Yet to say something like that in front of Neji and Kakashi all but confirmed that they knew this already, and therefore probably were ANBU. Then again, she wasn't, not yet at least.

But after all that had happened in the last two days, she suddenly realized she had just passed what had to be the strangest job interview ever.

oOOo

As she was walking out of the prison compound of Konoha, flanked by Kakashi and Neji, she could feel the spring returning to her step. She actually felt like she had come out of this episode with more confidence in her abilities than before, and to top it off, it seemed that her bonds with Konoha had become both stronger and less complicated.

And speaking of bonds, the way Neji was looking at her right now was drastically less guarded than before - if not downright hungry. She glanced to her other side, where Kakashi was looking inexcusably smug on top of his usual sleek nonchalance.

She stopped, suddenly, and pulled the two jounin into a double bear hug by their necks. "You know what, guys, getting out of jail calls for celebration. My treat." Kakashi seemed to perk up at the notion immediately, while Neji's reaction was more carefully schooled. "But before that..."

She released her arm from around Kakashi's neck, took hold of Neji's with both hands, and gave him a deep kiss that left him gasping for air.

Actually, left both him and Kakashi gasping. She was quite pleased at how well a single visible eye could convey an expression of acute shock so effectively.

Now it was her turn to smile smugly at the two. She concluded that when it came to her bonds with Konoha, it wouldn't do to let them get too simple.

 

 

Chapter Text

"So, how's sushi sound? Or should we go to that new place that just opened? We can of course hit Ichiraku's too if you insist," Tenten happily chattered away, as if the sudden kiss mere seconds ago were nothing but a pat on the back of her teammate.

At the mention of the ramen stall where Kakashi's student, Naruto, was often sighted, she paused to glance at the two men to see if they were getting over their initial shock. They were not.

Neji, looking wild-eyed, stammered an excuse on why he was required elsewhere, and hastily left the scene. Kakashi raised an eyebrow at the departing Hyuuga, and raised his hand to stroke the short hairs at the back of his neck.

"Maa, maa... your treat, eh?" A treat indeed. He was fighting back a sudden intriguing mix of jealousy and arousal. "While the offer is attractive, I'm afraid I'm also expected to report at the Hokage's office... hm, a while ago, in fact. Rain check?" He flashed her the most stunning apologetic smile in his repertoire, hoping she would be sufficiently distracted to not call his bluff.

Tenten was probably aware of the need to regroup that had surfaced in both men at her little surprise assault. Mercifully, she was ready to grant them that without protest.

Or maybe she just honestly could not predict what kind of a reaction her actions would create, Kakashi mused. She did sometimes appear blissfully unconscious of the effect she could have on the opposite sex, which was something that simply made her even more attractive.

The two parted ways, Tenten pointedly declaring that she would opt for the next most urgent thing on her action list, namely to have a long, hot shower.

The thought made Kakashi's step falter ever so slightly as he took off towards the Hokage's office.

-ooo-

Once she had reached her apartment, Tenten found herself humming a cheerful tune. The prospect of washing off the stuffiness of the holding cell, and any other psychological residue with it, was definitely lightening her mood. She suspected that in the end, it was just as well that Kakashi and Neji had turned down her offer for a celebratory lunch.

There was no harm in being happy about how things turned out, in any case. Tenten opened a window to replace the stale air in her small but precious refuge. She then shrugged off her gear to pile them on a chair, and headed for the bathroom. One of the joys of having an apartment all to yourself was the freedom to waltz around it in the buff.

When she was done freeing up her waist-length dark hair from her trademark twin buns, she got the water running and waited, with her hand under the shower, for the cooled-down water to get out of the pipes before jumping in herself.

Only it never did. The water stayed cool.

She turned off the tap for a moment and let out an exasperated groan. Of all the times...! They were out of warm water again. She would have to have a lengthy talk with the landlord about this. For being a village filled with near-omnipotently powerful ninjas, Konoha really suffered from a disturbingly uneven availability of technical infrastructure. Excepting the almost excessively well-equipped hospitals, of course, but that could be explained by their heavy use by the aforementioned elite citizens.

There was no helping it, though. She wanted a shower too badly to be picky, so she turned on the water again and dived under it, quickly cleaning herself.

When she stepped out and grabbed a towel to dry herself, she felt a presence in the apartment beyond the bathroom. Whoever it was, they were masking their chakra, but at this distance, the slightest signs were enough to prick her senses.

She was vigorously rubbing her hair dry and making various sounds of unpreparedness, all the while equipping herself with a few odd bladed weapons hidden in various stashes around the bathroom. After wrapping herself and her hair in a pair of large towels, she stepped close to the door to listen for anyone immediately outside it.

Satisfied that the intruder was probably further in, she quickly snuck out through the door and pressed against the short corridor wall. She spotted someone sitting in a chair with their back towards her, in the main room.

With a few feline strides, she was behind the unsuspecting figure and pressed a kunai against the trespasser's neck.

It barely registered to her that the neck seemed familiar. Then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone in a puff of smoke. She instinctively turned around and swung her blade, only to have her wrist grabbed before the knife could strike home.

Her conscious mind was halfway into cursing the fact that she had been caught with a decoy, like some rank amateur, but her combat training ignored such deliberations as irrelevant. Her free hand pulled a strong needle-like blade from the towel around her hair, even while her feet were already moving in an attempt to wrench her wrist free by the application of unexpected torque backed by her body weight.

A surprised hiss sounded from her assailant when she managed to plant her needle roughly into the back of the gloved hand holding on to her wrist. She was released, and rolled into a crouch.

When her mind was finished processing the backlog of stimulus from the fight and preparing to produce contingency strategies from it, it started to tick off interesting details for her, like the protective slab of metal on the fingerless glove her needle strike had to circumvent, or the Konoha leaf on the headband of her opponent, a mask and a mess of silver hair...

"Kakashi?" She blurted in sudden realization.

The identified jounin was examining the damage to his hand. "Eh, that needle of yours, it didn't happen to be poisoned, by any chance?"

She straightened from her defensive posture, adjusted the towel around her and headed for the medicine cabinet. "Of course it was! Why do you think I stabbed it in your hand and not somewhere efficient, like your eye?"

He offered a faint "General mercifulness is out of the question there, I guess?" and carefully went to sit down in the nearest chair, which happened to be the same one his clone had originally occupied.

She came back with an antidote, in a vial labelled "tranquillizer". Kakashi raised an eyebrow at it. "You sure you have the right bottle?"

"What, you think I'd keep around poisoned weapons in case of intruders and then welcome said intruders to freely peruse my antidote collection afterwards?" She handed him the vial.

"I'm at your mercy in any case, I'm afraid," Kakashi noted submissively, and took a swig from the vial before handing it back.

Tenten returned the vial to its place, then returned to fix Kakashi with an inquisitive stare. "Now, how about you explain what the hell you are doing in my apartment."

Kakashi spent a moment in meditation, trying to sense if he was, in fact, about to be knocked unconscious by either the original poison or the claimed antidote. When he mostly felt fine except for a slight dull ache in his hand, he leaned back on the chair, seeking to recover some of his aura of suaveness that was lost in the unexpectedly ferocious struggle.

"You left your window open." He cast a puppy-eyed glance, dripping with sugar-coated innocence, at her.

She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head, unimpressed. "The last I checked, that's not exactly an invitation for a friendly little break-in. And what's with the ambush? I could have stabbed you in the eye, you know."

He was struggling to recreate an air of laid-back ease while not wanting to quite provoke a burst of aggression. "You wouldn't believe that I was just planning to go 'Boo!' at you?"

It was mostly true, after all. He had also been curious to see how she'd react to the situation. Kakashi had prepared for some resistance, even attempts to throw him around, but it was just slightly too embarrassing to admit out loud that he had all but dismissed the possibility that Tenten would emerge from the shower, in her own home, armed to the teeth.

He made a mental note to lay his plans more carefully before following up on sudden bright ideas, at least when they concerned a certain kunoichi. "In any case, I wasn't expecting you to be done so quickly. Didn't you say you were preparing for a long and steamy bathroom scene?"

Tenten smirked amusedly, before the joke made her remember she was cold and wet despite the unexpected exercise. "The hot water's not working. No steaminess was achieved." She pouted at him, off-handedly fishing for sympathy.

Kakashi looked appropriately sympathy-struck, at least. He made a quick tsking sound before pausing to consider this for a moment. "Why, that's simply unacceptable. You've more than deserved your hot water, after all." He scanned her facial expressions to gauge her reactions, then continued, "Actually, how would you feel about a hot bath? I happen to have an ofuro in my place that you could borrow."

She blinked, taken by surprise. "A hot tub?" She looked at him suspiciously. "You don't strike me as the type to go for such luxury."

Kakashi smiled disarmingly at her. "I wouldn't, normally, but it just so happens that one of the thousand techniques I've copied is just perfect for heating up a tubful of water." He shrugged. "Besides, I have to say that adding a botched ambush to your cold shower leaves me suffering from a guilty conscience. You'd do me a huge favour to accept."

Tenten's eyebrow twitched, but she tried to keep a straight face. "Just to clear your conscience, eh? And not for the opportunities for peeking?"

Kakashi raised his hands in surrender, palms forward. "While I cannot say I wouldn't dream of it, you can trust me to steer clear while you bathe. I'd rather not get more needles sticking out of me when you don't have the antidotes nearby."

Tenten smiled sweetly. "Why, it is settled, then. Let me just get dressed."

Kakashi cleared his throat. "Yes. I'll, ah, wait outside." With that, he slipped out of the open window and disappeared from sight.

Tenten closed the window, rolling her eyes, and moved to collect a fresh change of clothes. She decided her hair might as well be loose for the brief trek to Kakashi's place. Drying it out for increased controllability just to get it wet again moments later was definitely not an appealing thought.

When she got down, Kakashi was waiting for her at the door, poised as the perfect gentleman escort. He offered to carry her bag, and she smoothly declined the offer, "lest her private things get misplaced".

As they walked, Kakashi noted the girl's loose hair as an unexpected bonus. After all, she had hidden it in a towel earlier and was not generally sighted in public without her usual, no-nonsense twin buns. It was wetting her clothes around her lower back; he considered whether bringing this up would be sufficiently pragmatic as a discussion topic to balance for the inevitable "oh, and this came to me while I was checking out your rear" effect.

He concluded that it might be best to play it safe for now. He would not want Tenten to grow too self-conscious, or pervert-conscious, for that matter. She was the one with the long hair, surely she came prepared for any trouble it might try to stir up when set free like that.

The two strode on in a comfortable silence. Before long, they reached Kakashi's apartment.

Once Kakashi had opened the door, Tenten peeked in eagerly. It was... surprisingly clean. She had definitely not imagined Kakashi to be the neat-freak type. The place was maybe a room larger than hers, but not particularly luxurious. A small bookshelf held what was no doubt well-read smut literature, and a single potted plant stood in the corner. The table, chairs and sofa were practical rather than decorative. Tenten fully approved of this.

The overview gained, she quickly moved to examine what was hidden behind the closed doors, under the pretence of looking for the bathroom. Unfortunately, she lost the excuse by finding her target on the first try. Tenten's eyes jumped to the ofuro tub by the wall. She stepped back out of the bathroom to catch Kakashi's attention as he was wandering towards the living room.

"Kakashi. That ofuro... it doesn't look like it was carved, or nailed together." It was a magnificent tub that looked like it was made of living wood, and it fit the bathroom perfectly. This was not a mere run-of-the-mill furo tub, this was something much greater, a definite o-furo.

Kakashi waved his hand in amused dismissal. "Oh, you noticed? You're right, it's not. A friend of mine who can do wood element techniques grew it for me."

Tenten's eyes gleamed. "It's awesome. Who do I have to kill to get one too?"

"Well, given that you were getting a fine start with me already..." He rubbed his stabbed hand in mock agony.

Tenten seemed to consider this. "No, I need you to heat my bath water, otherwise it would go unused." With that in mind, she popped back into the bathroom to start the water running.

While Tenten was waiting for the tub to fill up, Kakashi gravitated into the bathroom as well. After all, he should be available to act his part as the highly efficient water heater. He smirked at the prospect.

It was all going very smoothly according to plan. The moment he had decided to follow Tenten home and leave his reporting excuse for later, he had sent out a clone to clean up his place so it would be prepared for entertaining a female guest, yet not going overboard with rose petals or anything that might make Tenten suspicious. He himself had then headed for Tenten's house, swiftly located the tank storing hot water for the building, and applied a dose of elaborate sabotage before sneaking into her apartment through the conveniently open window.

It was all in good-natured fun, of course. The heater would re-heat the water soon enough, and no one would be the wiser. Tenten would get a relaxing bath, and in it Kakashi had the perfect bait set up to lure the little vixen into his den.

As Kakashi was silently congratulating himself on his successful plot, Tenten turned off the water. The tub was full. Brought out of his musings, Kakashi made a few hand seals, concentrated his chakra, and the previously cold water soon started to steam. Tenten clapped her hands in girlish excitement. Kakashi responded by making an elaborate bow and presented with a hand wave her prepared bath.

"I guess I will leave you to it, then. If there's anything you need, just holler." With that, Kakashi left the bathroom and closed the door behind him.

Tenten proceeded to get rid of her damp clothes and fold them into her bag. She then quickly but carefully showered, this time with regular warm water, to clean herself before getting into the tub. The water in the ofuro, distinctly warmer than body temperature, was not meant for shedding grime, but for the warmth and relaxation. For the same reason, she was careful to get any soap off her body beforehand, to not introduce unwanted bubbles into the meditative bath.

She first tipped in her foot, bracing herself for the heat. It was just right; she was impressed with Kakashi's fluency in a technique which she until then had assumed was mostly invented for show. Slowly, she eased herself into the tub, pulled her legs close to herself and leaned back. As tension started to seep out of her warming muscles, she closed her eyes and sighed happily.

Outside the bathroom, Kakashi kept himself busy by preparing some late lunch that wouldn't look too planned. It consisted of various sorts of finger food, rice balls and bread.

While his hands were working away on the rice balls, his mind stubbornly refused to get out of the gutter. He tried to not to imagine too vividly the naked kunoichi on the other side of the wall, but was repeatedly failing at distracting himself by mundane tasks. The dark, flowing hair was probably covering most of her from sight, anyway. It wouldn't do to get too excited, or he wouldn't be able to look her in the eye once she got out.

After the food was set up, all too soon, he decided he needed a better distraction and sat down at the ready-made table to read an Icha Icha book. Surely enough, his favourite literature was considerably more efficient at getting his mind off the nubile little naiad, although even the somewhat colliding topic could not entirely keep his mind from wandering.

Tenten had lost track of time while in the bath, but when she started to feel like she might be drifting off to sleep, she decided she had relaxed enough. As she set out to leave the bath, she noticed her stomach was growling as well. Maybe she could pilfer some food from Kakashi before heading home; she hadn't eaten anything since yesterday. She prepared to doe-eye him into submission as she slipped into the more comfortable change of clothes that she had packed with her. Her towel served once more to collect her wet hair within itself.

As she peeked out through the bathroom door, she saw Kakashi sitting with his back towards her. Grinning mischievously, she snuck up on him. Instead of threatening him with a kunai this time, however, she lightly grabbed his shoulders, leaned close to his ear and breathed, "Boo."

Kakashi masked a sudden shiver of pleasure by feigning horrified surprise. He stowed away his book while standing up to present the culinary sacrificial offering to the fickle water spirit that had snuck up on him. Tenten's eyes widened at the sight, and she swallowed to not drool all over the floor.

As Kakashi held the chair he had previously occupied to Tenten, she was already setting up assault plans for the meal before her. As Tenten filled her plate, Kakashi pulled a chair for himself and followed suit.

For a while, they mostly focused on the food. Or Tenten did, in any case. She was into her third rice ball before she broke off long enough to produce coherent verbal output. "This is delicious. You're a life-saver." That said, she proceeded to fill her mouth again.

Kakashi smirked at her amusedly. "I knew I simply could not pass on the opportunity of dazzling a starved damsel with my average, but aptly timed cooking."

Tenten flashed him a grateful smile and helped herself to some grapes. As she was popping them into her mouth in more of a pragmatic yet sensual way, she suddenly remembered why she was here. "Oh yeah, Kakashi, I couldn't find a lid so I left the ofuro uncovered. Are you going to go in later on?"

Kakashi waved her a hand in dismissal. "Don't worry about it. It's easy enough to re-heat just right when I get around to it." He winked at her, making the hand sign commonly used for concentrating chakra. In all honesty, he had not given the bath a second thought; his plan revolved around actively performing as the resourceful host for his prey, not in more mundane pleasures.

Granted, though, it might be an interesting aspect to consider. He noticed she was wearing comfortable clothes for indoors, a change that no doubt was warranted by her previous set still being cold and damp. If he could get her to stay for long enough, maybe he could turn this into a
pyjama party.

He felt his blood warming up at the thought. Luckily, Tenten took just that moment to be distracted by the sound of raindrops hitting the window. "Oh man, it's started raining." She tensed her shoulders at the prospect of getting wet and cold again soon.

Following her gaze, Kakashi was ready to whoop with joy. Everything was going better than he had expected. He reined in his satisfied grin, though, and turned it into a concerned frown before turning to look at the girl. "Tenten, I didn't haul you over here for warming up just to send you back home cold and wet. There's no point in going out just now; just wait here until the rain passes." At Tenten's minuscule hesitation, he added, "Besides, you haven't seen dessert yet."

At that point, she was definitely sold. "There's dessert?"

He strode into the kitchen and came back with a tray of anpan buns. "I just got these from the lady next door for saving her cat for the tenth time, and there's no way I'll manage to destroy them all myself in time."

Tenten leapt up from her chair and captured Kakashi in an enthusiastic hug. "It's official, you're my favourite tub-warmer!"

Kakashi managed to free up an arm to return the embrace while setting down the tray with his other hand. "I think they're filled with red bean paste, although I haven't tried them out yet. Don't thank me before you've tried one," he admonished with false seriousness.

Tenten reached for a bun and bit into it, then closed her eyes and made tiny sounds of delight. As Kakashi had returned to his seat, she gave him a kiss on the cheek before sitting down herself. "They're just perfect."

Kakashi basked in her excitement for a while before reaching for a bun himself. After sampling it, he decided she wasn't just faking it. The buns were good. Granted, his preparatory clone had actually gotten lucky to run into the lady and tip her off about his plans to have visitors, and she had happened to have her oven ready... but the countless times he had saved his neighbour's cat, at the peril of being late from some meeting or the other, were definitely paying off.

He wiggled the bun at her. "You should be more careful with your kisses, though, you know. Never know whose heart you'll end up breaking."

Tenten glanced at him, her eyes glinting with amusement even though she was not certain what he was getting at. "What, are you saying I should refrain from molesting you now that we're not enemies any more?" She blew him a kiss with a wink.

Kakashi made a show of catching the flying kiss and putting it in his pocket for safekeeping. "Nah, I'm old and jaded, I can handle it." He leaned forward conspiratorially. "But you shouldn't play with poor Neji's feelings, you know. It could crush him."

Tenten rolled her eyes at him, then leaned back and crossed her arms, peering at him questioningly. "And how do you know if I'm just toying with him, hmm?"

Kakashi, unfazed, held her gaze with his visible eye, and lowered his voice to a husky tone. "Oh, I don't know. Do you, right now, meditate on what it was like to be kissing him, or might you have been comparing it to kissing me?"

Tenten could have sworn his eye changed into a deeper colour from the intensity of his gaze. She swallowed and averted her eyes, a blush creeping up to her cheeks.

Before she could recover enough to compose a witty comeback, Kakashi mercifully broke the tension and stood up. "In a completely unrelated note, are you feeling tired? I know I tend to get drowsy after a hot bath."

Tenten couldn't be sure if his intonation on the word "hot" was entirely innocent, but decided it was safe enough to take the comment at face value. Especially since it made her remember how she was almost falling asleep in the tub. She stretched lazily and found that indeed, sleep was not far away. But it was still raining out, so... "Well, I'm not sure what you've drugged me with, sir, but I might indeed be inclined to take a beauty nap."

Kakashi grinned at her through his mask, his eye gleaming in wicked delight that made the pit of Tenten's stomach tingle, before he assumed a more sombre look. "You can feel free to crash on my bed. I promise I won't take advantage of you in your sleep." He paused for effect. "That is, unless you want me to."

Tenten remembered her sweet bun and wiggled the uneaten half at him. "Yeah yeah, I bet you tell that to all the girls you knock out with your hot... bath." She bit into the delicious pastry once more, then used a finger to wipe some of the sugary filling off the corner of her mouth and licked it clean teasingly.

This time it was Kakashi's turn to look away hastily. "Give me a moment to get you a spare comforter." He disappeared into a side room, presumably the bedroom.

Tenten finished the anpan and followed Kakashi. She was constructing a lewd pun concerning comforters, but lost her train of thought at the sight of the bed.

There was a dolphin plush toy on it. Tenten let out an involuntary titter, and a boggled Kakashi turned to look at her. When he followed her look, he made an indignant noise, then picked the plush up to strike a pose with it.

"It's a gift. I'm told I look fabulously good together with my fluffy Iruka-kun." He stroked the dolphin a few times, then set it back on the bed. "Of course, what these fans may be failing to realize is that I look fabulously good with anything."

Tenten erupted in near-hysterical giggles at his antics. The fact that Umino Iruka-sensei, a teacher at the academy, was a namesake of Kakashi's plush toy gave her all kinds of ideas of delicious rumours begging to be started.

Once she had calmed down somewhat, she grabbed the dolphin herself and cuddled it snugly. "You won't be jealous if I sleep with Iruka-kun, now will you?" She glanced at him slyly over the plush toy.

Kakashi smirked. "Nah, I'm not so worried about competition. You two knock yourself out." He waved his hand and retreated out of the bedroom, leaving Tenten to test out the springs on the bed. She soon settled on the bed, pulled the spare comforter over herself and fell asleep.

While Kakashi cleaned up the remains of lunch, he was listening intently for sounds of Tenten's breathing settling down to indicate she was asleep. After being reasonably convinced that the girl was knocked out, he still waited a while longer, just in case. A hot bath, followed by some food and sweetmeats, could be expected to work exactly like this, but he did not want to get caught peeking. That would be amateurish, after all.

Once he determined that the risk of the wily kunoichi feigning sleep was reasonably low, he snuck soundlessly to the bedroom door to peek in. The girl looked unfathomably cute when asleep, with her face relaxed and a contented smile on her lips. He caught himself holding his breath, lest she hear him breathe, wake up and break the illusion.

His curiosity satisfied, and his allotment for cuteness filled for the week, Kakashi retreated back to the living room and settled down to read a book.

Half an hour later, Tenten woke up and sauntered out of the bedroom, stretching herself. Kakashi was enjoying some tea while reading in his favourite chair, and lifted his mug in greeting at her. "Want some tea?"

Tenten grinned mischievously. "I'm good, thanks. Say, Kakashi," she continued innocently as he sipped from his mug, "are any of those thousand techniques you've copied good for freezing up the hot water tank for an entire building?"

Kakashi choked on his tea, spluttering.

"I was just wondering, you know." Tenten winked at him, then went to check up on her change of clothes. It was dried by now, so she changed into the more outdoorsy set, bid Kakashi farewell with thanks "for everything", and headed back home.

Chapter Text

Returning home, Tenten meditated on the silver-haired jounin who had gone through surprising lengths to treat her to a hot, luxurious bath, a tasty lunch and a nap. She knew that Kakashi was a man of no meagre means, despite - or perhaps because of - his relatively spartan lifestyle. It was titillating to be the target of his mischievous pursuit.

On the other hand, ever since she had woken up nuzzling Kakashi's plush dolphin, she had felt... not quite be as immune to falling for the old game as she had assumed. True to his skills as a tracker, Kakashi struck her as the sort of guy to pursue his prey through thicket and marshland, only to stop and leave the kill for others once he caught up with it. He'd most likely lose interest altogether the moment she showed signs of softening up.

No, Tenten ruminated, she would not fall for Kakashi. She wanted to enjoy the chase together with him as long as possible, and then retreat gracefully before her emotions got tangled into it. There was no way a guy like him would manage to remain single all this while without setting up a serious barrier between himself and any lady folk swooning around him.

Or could it be that he actually had the hots for Iruka-sensei? Maybe he obsessed over the slightly younger Academy teacher at night, while inappropriately fondling his plush dolphin? That would explain a few things...

By the time she reached her door, Tenten was grinning to herself over rampant yaoi fantasies. She got in, unloaded her things and prepared to settle for a nice, quiet evening by herself. Of course, there was no such luck: she spotted a note on the floor, requesting her presence at the Hokage's office at her earliest convenience. In other words, she was expected there hours ago, if only she had not conveniently been misplaced. She straightened herself up, including an attempt to forcefully yank her mind out of the gutter, and got out again.

-ooo-

One swift mission briefing later, Tenten settled into a comfortable chair in the bottom floor of the Hokage tower to read the background information file she had received. She was to set out tomorrow morning, in a three-person cell led by Neji, with their third teammate Rock Lee accompanying them. The mission itself was a straightforward patrol round; someone had sighted bandits stalking on a trade route and they would check out the area.

The timing was perfect. Ever since Tenten was turned loose after the interrogation, she had been planning to spend some time re-figuring out her Hyuuga prodigy teammate of old. She suspected that interesting things could be happening between them. After all, they had recently done away with the inconvenient strain created by his earlier assignment to keep an eye on her in case she should decide to betray Konoha at some point.

She had some packing to do before meeting her teammates around dawn. The upcoming mission, despite its somewhat routine outlook, started up a familiar tingle in her stomach. This time, however, it was mixed with some additional butterflies of an entirely different colour.

-ooo-

The mission was mostly uneventful; if there had been bandits about, they must have left well in time to miss the Konoha cleanup crew. The team spent a night camping out, and the quest for a comfortable camping spot turned out to be the most exhilarating experience on the mission.

This was probably just as well, as Tenten felt slightly distracted throughout the mission. She and Neji were cooperating as smoothly as ever, but the shared secret of her past kept materializing into meaningful glances, sly smiles and the strangest excuses for passing touches. Lee, who treated the quiet mission as the perfect opportunity to train random skills, managed to remain completely oblivious to his teammates' strange behaviour. Tenten decided there was no reason to snap him out of his comfortable bubble, either.

When the trio returned to the village, Lee suddenly offered to fill out the mission report and dashed off towards the Hokage tower. Tenten cast Neji a quizzical look at this outburst of bureaucratic enthusiasm, and he explained amusedly that he might have suggested their energetic friend that paperwork provided an excellent type of motivational exercise. Which was not that far from truth, in any case. Lee, who their sensei had aptly titled a genius at hard work, would not waste such an excellent opportunity on strengthening his capacity at self-motivation.

Tenten was not one to waste opportunities, either. "An exemplary plot like this calls for a celebration. How about coming over to my place for some tea?" While the Hyuuga compound was located in the opposite end of the village, her apartment was conveniently located nearby. She was not particularly surprised when Neji accepted the offer.

It was not the first time Neji was at her apartment, either. Like an old couple, they split the tasks at hand - Tenten would set out to unload any moist gear from their packs to dry in the bathroom, while Neji went to the kitchen to heat the water. The division of labour was mainly determined through upholding Tenten's privacy, which her teammates had always been somewhat more worried about than she was. The guys could handle each other's underwear and their own just fine, but when it was suggested that they should rummage around in Tenten's pack for some reason or the other, they would become acutely awkward in a way that suggested it was not any stowed sharp objects they were worried about. Such strangeness, Tenten had decided, did not warrant deeper delving into, as long as they took care of a balanced share of other tasks in return.

Tenten got into the kitchen just in time to find Neji foraging the cupboards for her selection of teas. After a brief, nonverbal negotiation, they settled on trying out a fresh batch of ama-cha, a tea made from hydrangea leaves. Tenten had equipped her cupboard with some of it after finding out, to her considerable amusement, that most hydrangea species were poisonous, and picking the right plant for making tea required expert care. She had fondly called it blowfish tea ever since.

They sat down for the tea, and exchanged the occasional banal observations to settle into the intimacy of just sitting beside each other, with no physical activity to hide behind. Tenten finally broached the comfort zone. "So, when did you get assigned to keep an eye on me?"

Neji looked at his teacup intently. "From the beginning; when the teams were set up."

Baffled, Tenten blurted out, "But we were barely even teenagers then!"

Neji smirked at her, amused. "Your threat rating was not considered too much for me to handle at that point."

Tenten giggled at his smug expression, and countered with a shrewd grin. "Is that so? How about now?" She bent forward slightly and moved to set her hand on his thigh under the table.

She was rewarded with a delightful stiffening of muscle under her hand, although Neji's facial expression remained carefully deadpan. "You've been cleared by the Hokage." Back in control of himself, Neji confessed, "I can't really say that makes you any less dangerous, though. It merely changes the scale."

Tenten flashed him a victorious smile, then felt a threatening blush warming up her cheeks. She got up to refill her cup in order to hide it.

It took her two steps to reach the pot, which had strategically been left behind under a hood to keep the tea inside warm. She lifted the hood and was about to pick up the pot when she suddenly sensed that Neji had moved to stand right behind her.

As a small hitch in her breathing revealed that he had been noticed, he placed his hands on the edge of the counter, on both her sides. Tenten barely suppressed a yelp, and quickly moved her hands away from the pot to not spill tea all over herself. Her legs were swiftly turning to jelly. Could this really be happening?

Neji's voice was strained, as if he had trouble controlling himself. "Tenten, I..." Tenten could feel his breath on her bare neck. "I... do not know what to do." His scent in her nostrils, the timbre of his voice, so near, feeling like it vibrated all through her... Oh yes, Tenten could feel the sexual tension that had built up between them for years, and it was like the block of concrete holding it in had suddenly disappeared. All it took was a reassigned threat level.

Tenten squirmed to turn around and face Neji. "If I've understood correctly, you are now free to do... this." She gently grabbed hold of his shirt and pulled him into a kiss.

The moment their lips met, something clicked to place in Tenten's mind. This was right; this was how things were meant to be. She let go of all restraint and dived into the kiss, pulling Neji closer all the while he moved his own hands to her back and gathered her into a possessive embrace. Their first kiss had been a planned sneak attack on Tenten's part; this one had snuck up on them by itself.

When they paused for air, Neji looked into Tenten's eyes, as if checking for a cue. Tenten thought she felt his hands tremble slightly where he held her, from all the not-doing - not letting them roam around her body, not moving her to a more convenient location, not ripping off her clothes. He had spent his life controlling himself, and this was the closest Tenten had seen him to throwing all the don'ts, mustn'ts and can'ts out the window.

Tenten grabbed him by the collar and pulled him close enough that their noses touched. "Look, from what I gather, we've had this coming for years now. There's no escape; we might as well get it out of our systems to not spend the next few months too distracted and horny to function." She moved slightly to nibble on his earlobe. "Now let your inner animal loose, and take me for one of those heavenly spins that you're so famous for."

Neji chuckled, let out a sultry "Rawr," and lifted Tenten onto his shoulder to haul her into the bedroom.

It was exactly as good as Tenten had suspected it might be.

The second time was even better.

Chapter Text

Tenten woke up next to a perfectly relaxed Hyuuga prodigy, who was still sound asleep. She was once again struck by the feeling that this was how life was meant to be, that her fate was somehow falling into place here.

When she examined the feeling further, she noticed an unwelcome tint of fear mixed with it. It was casting a bleak shadow of uncertainty over her happiness, and corrupting the fulfilment she should rightfully be feeling over taking her relationship with her long-time friend to the next level.

She and Neji were a match made in heaven; what was wrong with her? She sighed. She was probably just getting ahead of things, and the unease must have stemmed from that. There was no telling if the pale-eyed man next to her had any interest in getting into a more serious relationship, after all. She should wait and see, and not jump into conclusions all by herself.

Feeling somewhat relieved by this decision, Tenten shifted to nuzzle the warm body next to her. She was slowly drifting back to sleep when she felt him stir.

"Something's on your mind," he drowsily remarked. Indeed, they knew each other well enough it was not even funny.

"I'll tell if you promise to not freak out," Tenten cooed back.

"I do not freak out, Tenten." He peered at her sternly.

Tenten's eyes glinted mischievously. "Is that so? Not even when I suddenly kiss you in public?"

Neji looked away first. Tenten could hear him formulating an excuse in his head even before he made it: "I merely needed a moment to reassess the situation, to not do anything uncalled for. Your signals were mixed," he finished with the slightest hint of reprimand in his tone.

"Hm, yeah," Tenten conceded. He probably did know about that little incident with Kakashi, at least on some level.

Kakashi and kissing. Why did she have to end up thinking about him now, of all times? She firmly pushed the silver-haired jounin aside from her mind.

"You did not answer my question."

Tenten felt some warmth creeping to her cheeks. "I was pondering how we'd work out as an item. Just theoretically, I mean," she hastily added, carefully searching his face for any signs of horrified disgust.

"Hm." He seemed to ponder this. "I've given it some theoretical thought myself, to be honest."

Tenten winced, worriedly trying to predict what might be coming. "And?"

Neji sighed. "I appreciate the thought, Tenten. And... As far as I know, I'm going to be right here, waiting, in case you decide to come to me. But I don't want to monopolize you. Not when I cannot be monopolized in return." He looked sorrowfully into her eyes.

Faced with Tenten's suspicious look, the dark-haired jounin squirmed slightly. "I do understand that in matters like this, one should move swiftly and with determination. Like a man catching fish from a river with his bare hands; there is no space for hesitation." Neji shook his head, as if to clear it from unnecessary clutter. "However, I'm not a starving man knee-deep in water. Even though the thought of having a fish is very tempting, I would rather let them swim free than throw them to dry land." Tenten was still baffled, but Neji seemed more composed now, committed to his words.

"My ambitions are going to forever be in the way of giving myself fully to another person, and my clan binds me even more strongly, should things come to that." Neji's voice became softer, more quiet, more forlorn, when he brought up the Hyuuga clan and his duty to serve its main branch with his life, if need be. Or... as a breeding stud, Tenten suddenly realized. As a clan prodigy, and his exclusion from the main branch only determined by his father's twin brother being born moments earlier, his blood would be considered to run particularly pure. Tenten grimaced at the prospect of Neji getting married off by his clan elders for selective inbreeding.

So, in essence, the stern young man lying next to her was unable to give himself fully to a woman, no matter how much he might like to – or that was what he was thinking, or saying in any case... Tenten moved to protest, but Neji stopped her as she was drawing breath. "Please, let me finish; I have had time to give this some general thought in the past few years. As I cannot give myself fully to another person, having someone give themselves fully to me would leave them starved instead.” He continued with a more optimistic tone: “I have seen couples that work when both are very committed to each other, and even some couples that work when their distractions are in balance."

When Neji paused, Tenten realized he was searching for any changes in her facial expressions. She granted him a shy, still somewhat confused smile, hoping it would encourage him to explain further. Apparently satisfied, he finished: "What I'm trying to say that I do not want to see a bird destined to soar the skies caged for my convenience, as I cannot fly with it."

Tenten peered at him, slightly miffed. "So, in other words, you've deemed that we cannot work out? That you don't want to give it a try for fear that I'm too clingy?"

Neji looked shocked at her comment first, then melted into an uncertain smile. "No, not at all. It makes me surprisingly happy to hear that you would even ask something like that... It's not what I'm saying. I could not live with the thought of caging you, and making you unhappy with your fate bound to mine, but if you are willing to grace me with your singing on your own free will, despite my... distractions, it would make me happy. I would want you to remain free to, ...to find your song a more worthy audience when I am not capable of receiving it. To, uh, be free to fly around." Neji was blushing, as incredible as it was, as Tenten wove her way through the euphemisms stacked upon euphemisms.

Then her jaw dropped at the sudden realization. "You're saying I should date other guys to balance for you being married with your sense of duty?"

Neji let out an embarrassed chuckle. "It is a merciless summary, but not inaccurate." Tenten peered at him, again wondering how much exactly he knew, or imagined, about her and Kakashi.

As the thought of the laid-back tracker nin popped up again, infuriatingly tenacious, Tenten's suspicions rose again simultaneously to the rush of annoyance at her incapability of keeping the insufferable man's ghost out of her bed. "So, are you sure you're not just saying all this to test my commitment?" Her tone was strained.

Neji frowned, looking so genuinely puzzled that Tenten regretted snapping out at him. It was her own doubt that made her edgy, after all; he had never given her a reason to suspect his word. "I have the utmost respect for you, Tenten. I would not toy with you on something like this," he said earnestly.

Tenten swallowed a lump in her throat. Indeed, she was the one barking at shadows, when the largest shadow was cast by her own secrets. She decided it was past time to come clean. "As much as I hate to bring up other men in a situation like this, are you thinking about Kakashi in particular?"

Neji cocked his head, either carefully deadpan or simply not guilty. "The possibility has crossed my mind, yes. I see he affects you. But this is also more general than that. I am willing to share my loved one with another target of passion, be it a person, an ambition, duty or a combination thereof. I would like to have you as a part of my life, a significant part, even. For both our sakes, however, I believe it would be best if we were not an exclusive couple."

Tenten turned to lie on her back, and let out a long breath. "Wow. This has got to be the most complicated pillow talk ever had on a first date." She giggled a bit. "Or make that a pillow speech. But I can sort of see where you're coming from. Balanced couples do work best, and it's the imbalance that leaves people miserable. I just hadn't thought of it that way before." She affectionately snuggled the introverted over-thinker next to her. "Hyuuga Neji, I may just take you up on your offer, one day. That is, unless some more selfish monopolizer steals me away first."

Neji smiled at her, relieved, and then winked lewdly. "I've come to terms with that possibility."

They nestled under the covers for some additional smooching.

-ooo-

Alas, all good things must come to an end. It was well past noon by the time Neji confessed that he had business to take care of at the Hokage tower. After carefully weighing her options, Tenten allowed her bedwarmer to get up and retrieve his clothes on the condition that she would walk him to the tower.

She was positive that they were radiating a syrupy-sweet, mildly nauseating halo of successful pairing during their walk, even though they had opted to not even hold hands under the pretence of professionalism. She could have sworn she caught a few knowing glances from onlookers, particularly the elderly women. It was possible they always looked at young people like that, though; maybe she had just not noticed it before?

One thing was certain: there was a definite spring to her step that had not been there a few days earlier. She felt charged, inspired, even empowered. Nothing could break her cheer now.

When they reached the tower, they exchanged a subtle, loving touch of farewell; the shinobi equivalent to sucking face for minutes prior to parting for a few hours. Tenten almost giggled at how the shared secret they had enjoyed on the previous mission had just become an order of magnitude more potent. It was making her giddy already. Oh, how they would drive each other nuts on the next mission they were sent out together on.

Maybe they should warn the Hokage about that; refraining from assigning joint high-rank missions to the pair in the next few months might be a good move. In the name of work safety and all.

In any case, Neji would probably be tied up for the rest of the day. Tenten considered heading off to the Yamanaka flower shop to see if Ino was there. No matter how non-exclusive Neji insisted they keep their affair, this was serious business, and warranted some serious girl talk. And an appropriate amount of gleeful squealing, of course. Neji might not go out a whole lot, but he definitely had his fair share of devoted fangirls to fawn over him. Yet none of them could even come close to making him lose his cool the way Tenten, the weapon-geeky tomboy teammate, had. She smiled smugly at the memory of the other forms of losing control that had been taking place the previous night. A bubbling, warm feeling was spreading in her chest that demanded to be let out; she should go seek out Ino so that she could freely indulge the urge to advertise her happiness.

Tenten was just about to round a corner after leaving the tower when she suddenly heard a familiar voice nearby. The words were unclear and not even directed at her, but it made her step falter and her heart to sink down far enough to somehow get painfully tangled with her guts.

Kakashi. Of all the people, he had to show up to bring down her soaring spirits. She was really not in the mood to guard her feelings with evasive banter right now; she wanted to focus on some simple and basic floating upon pink clouds, not to play evasion games. What was he doing at the Hokage tower, anyway? That slacker would be unlikely to come voluntarily to a briefing or a debriefing; it had to be a part of some universal conspiracy to mess with her.

She should really go punch him for this. Not in the mood for that either, however, Tenten opted to continue walking in the opposite direction instead.

She wandered in the general direction of the flower shop, but felt like her taste for socializing had turned somewhat bitter as well. Curse that man, curse him to the deepest pits of... mindless D-rank missions requiring early wakeups and punctuality! Curse that voice of his that she was so attuned to that it could knock her off-balance even at a distance! And his trademark mess of hair, also too defining a trait – she was now seeing ghosts of it everywhere. While at it, curse his slouching poses that gave the impression of laid-back innocuousness despite the predatory preparedness that lay just beneath, and curse the way his tiniest bemused gestures made him both lickably hot and captivatingly cool at the same time...

Tenten grabbed her mutinous head with both hands and directed it to the closest wall to beat some sense to it. She was most definitely jumping right off that particular train of thought.

At that moment, she also realized exactly what she should do. A spar, a chance to slash into things, would clear her head. She swiftly headed home to get some additional gear, all the while battling truly infuriating urges to jump and stare at the slightest hint of silver, pointedness or the right timbre of voice.

Once she had her storage scrolls with her, she headed to the nearest training area. Surrounded by nothing but the occasional tree that had survived generations of target practice, Tenten started to loosen up slightly. At least she was not surrounded by people conspiring to remind her of the single person she did not want to think about. Maybe she could control this, given a bit of time.

What a ridiculous thought! Of course she would control this. She just needed to blow off some steam, and be a bit more careful not to be caught so badly off-guard in the future.

Neji made her feel comfortable, in place, and free to feel without restraints. Why should she spare a second thought to a player who she could not be herself with, a heartache just waiting to happen? She was flicking off some shuriken and entertained herself with the visualization of each solid thud pushing Kakashi further out of her system.

"You do know that if you keep sinking all that metal to just this side of the tree, it'll topple over from the weight, right?" The teasing drawl coming a few steps behind her made Tenten throw a few blades in its general direction before she broke out of her murderous meditation.

Did she hit him? No such luck; Kakashi gracefully handed her weapons back when he reached her. "Now, is that any way to greet a random environmentalist?"

Tenten snorted. Her day was not getting any better, but if he was going to be that way, they might as well change a battle of wits to one of blades. Besides, she really would feel more at ease with an edged weapon between herself and him.

"If you're keen on saving the dendron in distress, you'll have to go through me first. Pick your weapon, tree-hugger!"

Smoothly complying, Kakashi rummaged through the selection and armed himself with a bo. He proceeded to cuddle the wooden staff quite inappropriately before being harassed into a more serious fighting stance by Tenten and some kunai flying his way.

They exchanged a few probing blows, she threw some projectiles at him, and he snuck up on her a few times to give her minor jolts before she quickly restored the distance between them. She could feel some perspiration gathering, but still suffered from the distraction of her gloomy thoughts. She needed more adrenaline.

For really losing yourself in combat, hands-on close-range fighting was the way to go. Tenten summoned a katana from her storage scroll, and pointed it at the silver-haired jounin. "This spar isn't quite intense enough for my tastes. How about we take the baby gloves off, Kakashi?"

He produced a kunai from one of his pockets and saluted her with it. "Your wish is my command, weapon mistress. No punches pulled, then?"

Tenten nodded affirmation, and leapt to engage her lopsided opponent. She figured that unless she gave him time to pull up the hitai-ate covering his other eye, he would be at a disadvantage due to a lack of depth perception. True enough, her furious attack put him on the defensive for a while. His kunai outmatched by her longer katana, he soon disengaged and shifted to ninjutsu. Their roles reversed, Tenten soon found herself dodging projectiles of water and fire.

She wasted no time to get back at him, however. This was not about winning strategy; she had no intention to return to the ranged attacks that were her trademark. She wanted to, she needed to not have the time to think; she had to lose herself in the flow of the battle. It was too easy to start setting up strategies and doing other kinds of perilous cogitation in ranged battle.

She caught Kakashi in another flurry of slices, cuts and swings. She had lost count of how many such clashes they had gone through already, when suddenly her katana bit deeply into Kakashi's side.

Tenten gasped in dismay when the growing red stain of blood revealed that she had not hit a bunshin copy, but Kakashi himself. The wounded jounin looked quite pained, but responded to her flood of nervous apologies with a calm "It's not coming from me, Tenten." Besides not making any sense, Kakashi's voice sounded somehow distant; Tenten got all the more nervous, as his incoherence could only imply that she had hit a vital organ.

"Of course it's your blood, you crazy bastard! Why didn't you dodge it?!"

When she tried to tear off his shirt to assess the damage and apply first aid, he suddenly got up, brushed her aside, and leaped away from her. Before she could ask what on earth he was thinking to be exerting himself like that, he flipped through a set of seals and vanished into the ground.

Tenten barely had time to even realize what was transpiring before a pair of hands reached out from the ground below her and pulled her legs down into the earth. Caught from the pelvis down, Tenten tried to pull free but found that the soil encasing her legs would not budge. It was probably strengthened with chakra.

Kakashi reappeared before her, out of range of the katana she had reflexively picked up at his sudden move away from her. Tenten could not read his expression, but threw the bloody blade away in sudden distaste and spread her arms. "You win, Kakashi. The spar has gone far enough. We should seriously get that wound checked now."

No response.

"Kakashi?" Tenten's voice was edgy now, betraying her growing anxiety.

Kakashi's blank expression did not change. "It's you, Tenten. You're doing this to yourself." As she watched in shock, he went through a long series of hand seals, and his right hand started to emit a blue glow accompanied by a chirping sound, the signature trait of chidori, the famous copy ninja's sole original technique.

It was an attack that could not be parried, and it penetrated all armour. Tenten, caught in her chakra-enhanced earthen prison, was in no position to dodge it either. Her mind was reeling like never before; the terrified girl that had taken over could not even formulate the words to plead for her life.

All she could do was to scream in horror and disbelief as Kakashi, his visible eye cold as steel, moved to plunge his chakra-imbued hands through her chest...

She came to with a jolt that made her back arch. From the force resisting her movement, Tenten realized she was being held.

When she saw Kakashi's face above hers, she let out a panicked whimper and squirmed for release, but to no avail. He held her fast, and as moments passed, the nonsensical noises he was making were decoded into words and sentences like "It was just a genjutsu," "It's alright, Tenten, just calm down," "Take deep breaths" and "Please snap out of it already", with some generic soothing sounds added in between.

Caught up with the situation, Tenten blinked a few times and summarized her analysis of the current state of affairs with a concise "Wha-?"

Kakashi exhaled a breath of heartfelt relief. "That was exactly what I wanted to ask you!" Tenten proffered a blank look at Kakashi, who found it best to continue. "The last time I used this particular genjutsu on you, you ended up trying to subdue me with generous doses of tongue. How on earth did we get from aggressive smooching to all this extremely painful penetration business?"

Tenten stared at him quizzically, connecting the dots in her head. "Are you saying... I made all that happen?"

It started to make sense, when she dug her memory for old theory lessons on mind techniques. Kakashi was probably using a low-effort genjutsu, where the target is left to fill in their own imagery for the illusion. Its main purpose was to disable, not to drive into madness, and allowing the target to fool themselves was quite effective. People were much more likely to be convinced by listening to their own imagination, when compared to having the user of the technique come up with the details of the illusion, most of which end up ignored yet some of which might be the trigger to make the target realize they are caught in a mind-altering technique. His earlier words suddenly started to make a lot more sense, too.

Seeing her jaw drop open in realization, Kakashi nodded confirmation. "So, you see why I'm curious to find out what on earth is going on in that head of yours right now." He cocked his head. "Unless you're just really worried about your virginity, that is. What with all the thrusting and screaming..."

Tenten flushed, groaned loudly and covered her face with her hands. "No!"

Kakashi helped her into a more upright position, but sitting on his lap was not exactly getting her the generous amount of personal space that hiding from this embarrassment really called for. More demurely, she continued, "I... I'm just confused, I guess. More confused than I realized. I need to clear my head." She moved to get up and leave for just that, but found she could not.

Kakashi held on to her, gently but firmly. Tenten's heart was pounding, threatening to crawl out through her throat and burst in his face. While it was somewhat disturbing to have it shifting around so much in one day, there was an upside: Kakashi would definitely back off after having to fend off a violent assault from her major organ. Nevertheless, Tenten struggled to keep her fluttering heart in check.

Kakashi chose to look her in the eye, which was not helping at all. "Tenten. If you need time to think in peace, I'll give you the space you need. But I want you to know that I'm not a threat." Tenten nodded slowly and suspiciously, somewhat overwhelmed by the feeling of his voice reverberating from his chest to her side. And that haunting single eye.

Convinced that she was not acutely fleeing any more, Kakashi leaned to murmur in her ear. "I do respect you deeply, and I promise I won't tear out your entrails without your approval, not even if you put a blade through me first. That goes for needles and katanas." She could hear his solemn expression turn into a smirk. As Tenten's eyes went wide with incredulity, he finished, "And I won't mess with you for my own sick amusement, for that matter. Although I can see how that might be harder to believe."

Tenten felt more than a little giddy by now. Throwing caution to the wind, she decided she could always plead momentary insanity afterwards. She lifted her face towards Kakashi's, and pulled down his mask to give him a careful, exploratory kiss.

It went on for a while. Afterwards, she settled into his lap more comfortably. "You know, Kakashi, I think I feel a little less confused now."

-ooo-

Epilogue:

Tenten emptied her cup, and then concluded her monologue with "And so I ended up having this triangle fling of sorts with Kakashi and Neji."

Ino looked at her strangely. The blonde girl had not touched her drink yet.

Tenten peered at her confidant, puzzled. "What is it?"

Ino squirmed in her seat. "Tenten... you do know that rumour going on about those two?"

Tenten frowned. "No, what is it?"

"I'm... sure it's nothing." The Yamanaka girl looked torn for a moment, but the duty to gossip came before discretion; information wanted to be free, after all. "You know that time, when Neji was getting recruited into ANBU and Kakashi was showing him the ropes, and they were spending kind of a lot of time together..." She leaned forward, closer to Tenten's ear, to finish the message.

"THEY WHAT?!"

 

 

Chapter Text

he rest of the coffee with Ino went by in a daze; Tenten smiled at the right places (or so she hoped), nodded at the right times (probably, since she was nodding at regular intervals), and made the right affirmative sounds (or some sounds, anyway). But her heart was not in it; it had clawed its way out through her ribcage, toppled to the floor and shattered into pieces before melting into a nondescript, insignificant puddle below her feet.

As she was walking home, it was as if the world kept moving around her, while she was stuck in a bubble without colour or emotion. There was no way to break free of it; she had lost contact with her mind. The last she had heard was her brain transmitting a prompt "No, that can't be true." to her heart, and then promptly shutting down because the opposite was too horrible to even contemplate.

The two men she had fallen for, who had already kept her in the dark about keeping an eye on her, had kept her in the dark about being lovers, and were obviously both completely beyond her feeble mortal reach. And they were so far so, even, that they could not even tell her. It was a conspiracy, one to save them all the grief of one broken third-wheel heart. It had just failed.

No, Tenten's brain was quite determined to not process this possibility. So instead it resigned to humming a grey static for her, white noise that was just noisy enough to cover the hasty mutilation of any thoughts that might be wandering in the wrong direction.

At home, Tenten flopped to her bed, strangely exhausted, and despite the mind-numbing tumult in her head that was too intense for her to even follow, she soon drifted into sleep. It seemed that her mind agreed with her heart that some things needed some serious subconscious processing before they could be trusted to waking thought.

She could only hope that she would not remember any of her dreams in the morning.

Unfortunately, waking up with a scream stuck in your throat, repeatedly, during the night was rather conductive to remembering every last one of them.

Neji and Kakashi. Together. Sweaty, glistening bodies. In Kakashi's bathroom. At the Hyuuga compound, messing up Neji's always immaculately made bed into a tangle of sheets. In Kakashi's bedroom, before the knowing eyes of his dolphin plushie, who is also a part of the conspiracy. It is laughing at her in that creepy dolphin way that tells you just how stupid you were to go through the futile effort to crawl out of the oceans into a much drearier existence.

Kakashi and Neji. Together. Plotting how to best set up Tenten's surveillance. You get her to have a crush on you, I will keep an eye from the sidelines. Maybe a bit of genjutsu could help, she has always been susceptible to a bit of chakra-enhanced suggestion. Together, we can see right through her. When the time is right, reel her in and she will be putty in your hands, willingly moulded for the best of the village. Yeah, it is for the best of the village, is it not?

Neji and Kakashi. Together. Making out like there was no tomorrow. Neji pauses, Kakashi, do I have to pretend I want Tenten? I only think of you when I am with her. Hush, lover, think of me and bide your time, and we will make up for the lost time once you get back.

Kakashi and Neji. Together. The village knows, but no one trusts Tenten. She is an outsider. They are all laughing at her, at her silly feelings. How did she ever think herself worthy of Konoha's finest? Two of them, even? How preposterous, such a vain girl. It is only fitting that she be brought down, hard, from her delusions. They were never for you, they were meant for each other from the start. How could you not see it? They look so perfect together.

She awoke once again with a strangled gasp, rubbing her face to get in some tangible evidence that she was now awake, and more importantly had still been asleep a moment earlier. Glancing at the clock, Tenten judged that next morning was closer than last night, and got up before she would get more tired.

Her throat was raw from being clamped tight to not scream hard enough to wake the entire building. She was determined she would keep this inside her, because if it broke free it would demolish the village as certainly as an unleashed nine-tailed fox. This was worse, even; it was her ten-tailed personal demon. And it was already whispering to her from within its cage, drawing strength from her prolonged living with secrets of her own, her feelings of being left outside the course of normal life with normal relationships while she was an undercover agent.

Somehow, she had always known she was not built for happiness, that it would forever be denied of her. Maybe she had even subconsciously picked these two men as the targets of her emotions in order to ascertain her gloomy assumptions would not be violated...

With a wave of great determination, Tenten slammed a seal on the cage doors to hush the demon. She still had some hope. She would walk up to Neji and ask him; they had spent so many years working together that he owed her a fair answer to a direct question. It would hurt, but then she could heal. And a tiny, budding hope growing on the wreckage of her heart proved that there was still life left in her. Sanity had not yet fled her, she could keep her cool. She had lapsed momentarily because her guard had been weakened by the emotional tumult from her cover being blown, but she had training, conditioning. She had control over her feelings. She had discovered an important weak spot in herself; she would hide it, fix it efficiently and move on.

Tenten walked briskly into the Hyuuga compound. She was relatively confident that if Neji chose to, his poker face was strong enough to give her any answer he had prepared, but hoped that he would respect her enough to answer truthfully anyway. It passed her mind that Kakashi had claimed as much, too, but her confusion had not abated so much as to drop her own mask completely in front of him to reveal any more of her internal insecurities than was unavoidable.

The need for continued sneakiness made her grit her teeth, but she saw no other way out. This would have to be handled with utmost delicacy, lest she crash-land on her bottom after throwing an uncontrollable fit at the unfairness of it all.

As she reached the walls of the Hyuuga clan compound, she ran into an old caretaker and greeted him. Applying her premeditated excuse, she asked him if Neji was around, as he had promised her to perfect a technique and she had some time off now.

The caretaker shook his head sadly at her. "Sorry, Neji-kun has clan business to take care of today, so he is not free to come spar with you. Would someone else be able to help?"

Tenten shook her head ruefully. "Thanks, but no. You know how it is, secrets of trade and all." She waved him goodbye and turned to leave, counting thirty steps quietly in her mind before she let her glued-on smile turn into a grimace.

There was no avoiding it, then. She would have to ask Kakashi, as she would rather endure the difficulty of discussing sensitive matters with the copy ninja than last a whole day of waiting for Neji in this state of mind.

She took a few chakra-enhanced leaps from rooftop to rooftop to speed her journey. While she did not look forward to opening up to Kakashi, she hated the ongoing uncertainty more.

She arrived at his apartment and knocked on the door, struggling to keep her rapping from being excessively urgent. When Kakashi came to open the door, she swiftly squeezed past him, with a quick "Hi, we need to talk, do you have a moment?"

She hear Kakashi utter something surprised and maybe noteworthy behind her as she took the few steps towards the kitchen, but before she could decode the meaning of his words, she froze on her tracks at the sight that greeted her.

A dishevelled Neji was sitting at Kakashi's kitchen table, at the very chair she had sat on earlier, and he was looking clearly shocked to be seen here.

"I... thought you had clan business tying you up today," Tenten stammered.

Neji looked abashed. "Yeah. I left a bunshin there and snuck out." He was more tense than ever.

Tenten swirled around and noticed that Kakashi was looking quite embarrassed as well. With a conclusive blow, she realized that her question has been thoroughly answered already. She stuttered an excuse-me and hastily left the apartment. On her way out, she stepped on a small flower, and knew in a single step, she had also eradicated the budding hope growing from the wreckage of her heart.

She could not bear walking away; she had to run as fast as she could.

A good sprint later, Tenten found herself in woods, and with no one around, she judged it was safe to let out just a tiny bit of her frustration. So she beat her fists against a tree until they bled and the chakra-enforced hammering had all but burned off the bark from the unwitting victim of her scathing sentiment.

She was furious. Not only did the two have a thing, it was still going on right under her nose! And judging by the shock on both their faces of being caught red-handed, they clearly had kept it all from her for a reason.

That was more than enough to explain Neji's strict demands for non-exclusivity: he had was already called for by Kakashi, and was looking for at most a side fling. No doubt the copy ninja was as much as the emotionally constricted Hyuuga prodigy could handle as well.

Maybe her dreams were right; maybe this was even a ploy by the two of them?

Tenten felt sick at the stomach. Even if Kakashi had hogged Neji and was behind all this, they both kept it a secret from her. Jealousy burned cold within her; she was not even certain who she was more jealous about, but now she knew exactly what her subconscious must have been trying to warn her about Kakashi.

The betrayal hurt even more than she thought the copy-ninja's inevitable loss of interest might. The very thought sapped the strength from her. Losing interest, indeed! She had had the gall to assume she held his interest to begin with, when all he had interest for were layered mind games. Maybe he was using her to toy with Neji, or maybe they both were using her as as an entertaining puppet now that they had gotten into the taste of playing with her life for ANBU.

Seeing the splintered and bloody result of her emotional tumult, Tenten blinked in disbelief. She was destroying wood and her knuckles, when she should be damaging something completely different. Someone completely different.

Someone who needed to be seriously harmed for putting her through this hell.

He would soon learn that the fury of a kunoichi scorned was not to be taken lightly.

 

Chapter Text

Kakashi had spent a few hours looking half-heartedly for Tenten to see if she was alright, but eventually had given up as duties dragged his attention elsewhere. She had been avoiding both him and Neji after her strange rushing in, and he was wondering if there was something she was seriously upset about. He recalled how the emotionally evasive kunoichi, who was also a former Grass sleeper agent and only recently cleared, had reacted when he put her under genjutsu. In a manner of days, she had gone from playful to somehow deeply distressed, then seemed to recover from it only to dive straight into unpredictably moody again. Kakashi was forced to conclude he had no idea what was going on in the kunoichi's head.

Unfortunately, when he came to the Hokage tower the next day to see if Tenten would have any business there, he learned she had been sent out on a mission, and was no longer in the village. Kakashi decided to wait until she came back to deal with whatever it was that might have been bothering the girl.

The day passed by with routine tasks performed with a fifth of his mental capacity, while the rest was dully brooding over the distracting concern he found he had for the feelings of the little vixen who had been happily flirting with him just two days ago.

When he finally returned home, a pile of essays to be graded had appeared in his mailbox, with a note from Umino Iruka saying, "Thanks a ton for helping out, you're a real lifesaver! I need these done by tomorrow morning. -Iruka."

So much for a quiet night, he figured, letting out a sigh. It was not the first time his young academy teacher friend got him to help out with assignments; he would occasionally pop by at his class to make an educative demonstration or give Iruka an ANBU recruiting point of view in analyzing the kids who might end up going far with the right sort of push.

But it was not like Iruka to be so forward with his delegation of work. Kakashi decided he should ask the younger man about it, and headed back out for a quick stroll to the academy. Somewhat disappointingly, it turned out he could not find the ninja academy teacher anywhere near his office. Maybe he had taken a day off sick? That would explain his acute need for help.

With a shrug, Kakashi returned home to deal with his surprise paperwork. It was well past midnight by the time he was done, and when he dropped off the papers early in the morning, Iruka was still nowhere to be found at the academy. He decided to go search in the Hokage Tower next, idly pondering that he would definitely sic his dogs on the next person to disappear on him this week.

One.

Kakashi admittedly had to wonder, just a bit, what reason Sakura had for assembling a complex hydraulic device for the hospital in a small side room of the Hokage tower. He did not suspect anything untoward when she asked him for help. By then it had become apparent that Iruka was not to be found at the tower, either. Locked in the small room, they pulled up their sleeves and got to work.

Kakashi had some misgivings about the instructions Sakura had been given when he took a look at the available parts. The hospital could really work on being more selective in their acquisitions. But he was already determined to comply with the request for aid from his former student, so he would get the work done even if it meant he would have to use some brute force and forbidden jutsu to get this infernal device together.

It was not before he stepped out to a round of hearty applause from a gathered crowd that it all started to click into place. As he peered at the assembled crowd quizzically, Genma and Anko were helpful enough to burst into a mimicry of what had just passed, to the jeers and cat-calls of the people present.

"I think you're just going to have to shove it in hard, Kakashi-sensei!"

"I don't know, Kakashi-sensei, maybe it just needs more lubricant?"

"Let me hold on to it and you... no, that doesn't work. I've got this stuff all over me now."

"Give it up, Kakashi-sensei, it's too big, it won't fit!"

His little fan club dogged him all the way out of the tower. If the aloof copy-ninja's posture ever faltered, it was when Genma tried to trip him so that Anko could steal a peek at his "hydraulic shaft".

Two.

On his way home, Kakashi popped by the sweet shop which, as he recalled, would by now have prepared his special order of chocolate delights. They were both somewhat pricey and took a day or two to prepare, but they were also exquisite enough to be well worth it.

When he entered the shop, the owner's assistant was the only person around. The young man looked at him curiously when he asked for his goods. "Your order? I don't have your order here."

After some polite insistence from Kakashi, he looked at his books. "Ah, I see that you have placed an order but it's set as cancelled on the next day. It seems you owe us the cancellation fee." The assistant reached out his hand.

Kakashi decided it was not worth it to argue the matter with an assistant who was not even there when he had originally made the order. Maybe the shop owner had been away on vacation and her aides had gotten the books confused. He decided to pay the fee and bring the matter up with the owner later, when picking up his order.

He told the shopkeep that this time, he would pay up front and would expect his treats to be here on time, which the still somewhat suspicious assistant grudgingly agreed to.

Quite certain by now that this was not his day, Kakashi took no further detours on his way home.

Three.

Kakashi was just about to relax at his dining table with at truly well-deserved cup of tea and some Icha Icha Tactics, when something flew in through the window and promptly exploded in his kitchen. While his reflex when seeing the projectile enter the room was to quickly dodge out of the way of any shrapnel, the explosion turned out to merely produce a large puff of smoke instead of something more devastating.

Kakashi hastily reassessed the seriousness of the situation when he got a first whiff of the aforementioned smoke.

Stink bombs! In his kitchen!

He hastily made a wind jutsu to fan the smelly smoke out, and grabbed the remains of the bombs to throw them out of the window while holding his breath. At that point, the wickedness of the small weapons dawned on him: under the smoke screen, they had also splattered the room with a sticky substance that was, if possible, producing an even more acrid stench that made his unprotected eye tear up even while he was still struggling to not breathe it in. And it was all over his hands too, now that he had touched the bomb husks to dump them out.

Kakashi jumped out through the window, still holding his breath, ran for one block and leaped into the river meandering through Konoha. With his hands carefully kept underwater, he drew in a careful first lungful of air. It still smelled unpleasant from the momentary exposure the air had had to his hands, but thankfully, it did not burn. He took the moment of resupplying his body with air to compose his scattered thoughts.

This prank was too well-executed to be coming from any of the students of Iruka's whose essays he had been grading late at night. None of them showed the level of promise that would entail a booby-trapped stink bomb in the apartment of the one jounin in the village with a nose as sharp as the dog-bonding Inuzukas'. If someone wanted trackers out of the picture and could get into the village, he should check with the Inuzukas whether they had been hit as well.

But that would have to wait until after he could get rid of the stinky substance coating his hands. Thankfully, it seemed to be water-soluble enough to lose its edge in the river. He rubbed his hands vigorously together, but found that he would have to leave his gloves behind for someone with a less sensitive nose to pick up later. He figured Genma, the old sleazebag, would be just the man for the job. It would hopefully teach the man to treat the privacy of his seniors' "hydraulic shafts" with more respect, too.

There was no going back home for now; his apartment had to be declared a hazard zone not to be approached without protective gear. Instead, Kakashi headed for his landlady's place next door to let her know not to wonder about the reek wafting from his apartment, and to momentarily refrain from making a surprise visit with foods or other treats she sometimes blessed him with. While the old lady's mercifully civilian nose was nowhere near as sensitive as the master tracker's, Kakashi was quite convinced the stench would be enough to brutally violate anyone's olfactory senses.

Four.

After he had borrowed a nearby refreshment establishment's bathroom to wash the worst of the river muck off himself, Kakashi appeared on the doorstep of his landlady, armed with his most disarming puppy-dog eyes.

The old woman who opened the door was disturbingly resistant to such charms for some reason. She took one look at the elite jounin on her doorstep, huffed and motioned for him to come in. Unperturbed, Kakashi followed her to the sitting room.

"I have been expecting you to pop by, Kakashi-san," she noted while he found himself a seat among the exuberant flower-embroidery that had thoroughly laid claim to the room. Her comment gave him pause. "You already heard, ma'am?"

The old lady emerged with two steaming cups of tea. Kakashi noticed from the lack of accompanying pastries that she was possibly quite miffed with him at the moment. This confused the jounin further as he accepted his cup with a wordless nod. "It's not like I can not hear them, young man. I have never heard such howling before. Whatever did you do with them?"

Howling? Now things were just getting bizarre. "Eh... Please go on, ma'am. I'm all ears."

"I really wish you could do something to the poor dogs so they won't miss you quite so badly whenever you're out, Kakashi-san. I have been listening to the poor creatures howl in misery for two nights in a row. A woman's got to get her beauty sleep, you know."

Had the entire world gone completely crazy overnight? He had been home, and he had not been summoning his dogs for days. But Kakashi knew that when it came to little old ladies with very polite requests over a cup of tea without biscuits, they should be treated with equal seriousness as any other person who was screaming and flailing with rage. It was even worse, in fact, as this particular little old lady held special powers: it was within her whim to passively-aggressively kick him out of his apartment, which, stink-bombed or not, Kakashi had grown quite fond of over the years.

So he denied nothing, elaborated that he was very grateful the lady had brought the issue to his notice, as he had not realized the commotion that was going on during the nights, and that he would see to it immediately. To further appease the old lady, Kakashi offered his help for anything she might have need of doing, and was promptly assigned a personal D-rank mission of reattaching some loose shingles on the roof.

Being an efficient team leader, he opted to delegate the task to a shadow clone while he went on to investigate what the mysterious howling was all about.

After a few hours spent investigating the scene, Kakashi discovered a localized, very basic but effective genjutsu trap that would generate an illusory sound to plague the hapless victim whenever they moved to a particular area of the landlady's apartment. The affected area covered her bedroom and some nearby windows, all likely for her to approach during nighttime in particular. What irked him even more was that even after dismantling the trap, he still had no clue who would have set something like that up – or why.

Five.

Kakashi was growing rather confident that the howling was connected to the stink bombs, however. The theme matched, and both plots took some personal knowledge concerning the target to execute. But who would benefit from pranking him like this? It was too forceful to be Naruto or Sai's doing, as they knew better than to risk facing the jounin's inevitable revenge.

Could it be Genma's handiwork? After all, he had told the special jounin off about his lack of undercover recon skills during their last mission debriefing over a week ago. He recalled making a rather empathetic remark about the his senbon-chewing colleague spending too much time chasing tail instead of taking care of his training.

When he considered the option further, a more disturbing theme began to appear: what if the two pranks were not the only things he had set up? The leering crowd gathering to Sakura's closet exercise earlier seemed even less like a coincidence now. Kakashi grit his teeth.

He decided this would call for immediate clarification, and headed to the Hokage tower once again, where he would surely find the man posted as a bodyguard of the Hokage. There would be some serious talking to do.

 

Chapter Text

As Kakashi strode towards the Hokage's office once again to have some serious words with Genma, he was too busy trying to unravel the strange events of the day to notice some strange looks cast his way. It was not until he was already outside the Hokage's door that a baffled Shizune looked up at him and snapped him out of his clouded thoughts.

"Oh, Kakashi, I did not even have time to send a runner for you yet! You should go in, Tsunade is free right now." Shizune seemed surprised to see him. She was the slightly mousy personal assistant of the legendary Sannin who reluctantly governed the village. From her perspective, usually Hatake Kakashi arrived late everywhere, so to come before he was even called and not even through a window was definitely unusual.

Kakashi, on the other hand, had no clue what she was talking about, but decided that since he had not run into Genma yet, he might as well check if he was inside.

When he stepped through the sturdy double doors, he was faced with a glare that was made all the more intimidating by the fact that he had not at all arranged to deserve it. That he knew of, in any case.

"Uh... You were planning to call me?" He glanced behind him and let the doors slide closed before stepping forward.

The buxom woman with the strength to punch through mountains stood up with her knuckles against the desk. "I thought you might have some explaining to do, Hatake. Since you've been prompt for the first time in your life, I figure I'll hear you out first and crack your jaw later."

Kakashi took a step backwards at the menace emanating from the head of the village, who did indeed look ready to pounce on him. He raised his gloveless palms in front of him out of instinct, but they made him remember why he was here to begin with. And gave him a foreboding idea that the day was nowhere near over yet. "Ma'am, I suspect I may have been framed so I do not yet know what we are talking abou-" he had to break off his explanation to apply his extraordinary speed and reflexes to dodge an incoming, chakra-imbued fist.

"WHO IS A GNARLED HAG?!" More evasive manoeuvres were acutely required, as it became apparent that the Hokage was somewhat inebriated and not very attentive to his explanations.

On the other hand, said inebriation seemed to slow down the imposing woman just enough that Kakashi was able to stay just out of her reach. "Eh, this may not be the best of moments or places to discuss this-" Another swing, another dodge, and a pile of paperwork became airborne to frame the site of epic battle avoidance.

"Arrgh, see what you did now! You lecherous bastard, I'll teach you to respect-" Kakashi's eyes widened in alarm when he saw the Hokage's hands start to form seals. Thinking fast, Kakashi decided that minimizing the chances of Tsunade levelling the Hokage tower in her drunken rage and then blaming it on his self-preservation was a new top priority.

He quickly dropped to his knees and pressed his forehead and palms to the floor. "Konoha no Namekuji Tsunade-hime, heir of Senju clan and fifth Hokage! I submit myself to your summary judgement!"

Tsunade's gathering chakra dispersed like a thunderstorm blown away by a surprise reversal of the polarity of the universe. "You what?"

The sudden change of approach had derailed her wrath. Kakashi let out the breath he had been holding. Now it was important to not incense her again. She had mentioned hags and lack of respect and lechery, but he had no clue what he was facing. He kept his head close to the floor. "I will accept the full punishment for my actions, Hokage-sama. Please forgive my debilitating ignorance; I do not know the details of what has happened."

Tsunade snorted. "Too drunk to remember what you did last night? It's not like you, Kakashi, although I can relate." She rubbed her temples. "So you don't recall molesting this civilian?"

Kakashi suppressed the urge to groan or to move. "No, Hokage-sama."

Tsunade looked around at the scattered paperwork and picked up one report that had miraculously not joined in the wild scattering of earlier. And you don't recall telling her, I quote, 'Take up with the Hokage, see if I care what that...' he heard her grip tighten on the innocent sheet of paper, 'gnarled, badload hag thinks'?"

Kakashi grit his teeth together. "Was this in public, ma'am?"

He swore he could almost hear Tsunade rolling her eyes. "Only at the biggest civilian pub of the village, and in front of a dozen eyewitnesses, including the woman who filed a complaint on your behaviour. What were you doing in a place like that, anyway? Couldn't you go catch tail somewhere more quiet?" She placed the report back on the desk with a resigned flick of her wrist.

Kakashi took the lack of paper-slamming as a sign that the situation might have calmed down enough to give a new try. "Hokage-sama. It seems I have been set up; I spent most of last night grading papers at home, and have not been even near a bar. I also just came from my land-lady, where someone had placed a genjutsu to make her believe my ninken were barking all night for several days. I came here looking for answers, actually."

Tsunade took a while to digest this. "Grading papers?"

Kakashi raised his head slowly. "Iruka had left a note and a pile of his students' essays in my mailbox..." He frowned. "Although I never found him to ask about that either. It might have been a part of the series of ruses, now that I think of it."

Tsunade chuckled. "Sounds likely. He's actually on a rare vacation as we speak." Then she downright giggled. "So, you're saying there's someone setting you up to stern talking-tos and extra paperwork? Why on earth?"

Kakashi judged the situation to be defused enough to get up. He dusted his pants while collecting his theories. "I have a hunch that Genma might be involved. Some of these setups would fit his style."

Six.

Once Kakashi had been released by the now mostly amused Hokage to pursue the further investigation of his mystery, he proceeded to the bottom floors of the Hokage tower. He learned from Shizune on his way out that Genma had just been relieved of guard duty and could be found by the dress lockers getting changed before going out.

He idly pondered the slight pink tint on the cheeks of the secretary as he'd acknowledged her help by passing this information. He knew she had to keep tabs on quite a bit to help the occasionally sake-distracted Tsunade run the village, but it was still quite impressive that she would know the bodyguard's habits so exactly.

Such observational skill was something special, alright.

His mood grew somewhat darker again before he reached the bottom floor. By the time he was there, he entered the locker rooms without even a courtesy knock. No point in alerting the special jounin before Kakashi had him right where he wanted him.

This turned out to be in the showers. The shower room was full of steam, as the senbon-chewing ladies' man was relaxing after a hard day's work. He was humming something slightly off-key, and the amount of manly perfumes in the air assaulted the copy-ninja's sensitive nose. That man certainly took his duties in attracting the opposite sex seriously, potentially more so than keeping up with his training.

Kakashi smirked as he snuck up on Genma, who was just bending down to retrieve a bar of soap that had fallen on the floor. As his hand reached out to open the door of the shower booth, he pondered just how badly he should freak out his unruly colleague, leaving his guard down all naked and unarmed like that. Not fitting for a bodyguard of the Hokage at all.

But as soon as his fingers reached the handle of the sliding door, he felt something wet, warm and sharp press against his side and a muscular arm lock his upper body in place. The dizzying scent of Genma's perfumed soaps was suddenly everywhere around him, and he knew he had been set up.

"Sneaking up on a guy picking up a soap in the shower, Kakashi? I didn't know you swung that way."

Kakashi snorted, but tried to not make any sudden movements lest the wet, naked but distinctly armed man behind him not take it as an invitation to pierce his new jounin vest with the kunai. Where on earth had he hidden it, anyway? Kakashi glanced at the shower while cursing himself for walking straight into a trap. His gaze shifted just in time to see the bunshin decoy straighten out from the position of flaunting his firm buttock muscles, and disappear with a mocking "poof".

"Well, I am happy to see your stealth training is paying off," Kakashi tried to lighten the mood.

"Yeah, and so is my recon. I got forewarned that someone might be trying to sneak up on me, so I came prepared. What are you up to, Kakashi? If you came to offer me a private show of your hydraulic shaft, I'm sorry to tell you I have other plans for tonight."

Kakashi's battle-hardened composure cracked ever so slightly at the insinuation; it had been a long day, and he was suddenly relieved that the mask hid his face. Blood was rushing to his head, but thankfully mostly to his head, despite the rather distracting presence intimately behind him. Involuntary stiffening of other body parts would have been overmuch social pressure for even the copy-nin to handle.

He considered the situation, keeping to a level as abstract and removed of the immediate physical environment as possible. Genma had been warned off, but otherwise had not been expecting him. This implied that his stop here was as planned as the one at Hokage's. He had walked straight into the trap - and by the looks of things, unless Genma was playing particularly coy, he was not behind it.

Kakashi's shoulders slumped. Was he losing his edge? "You were warned in advance? I did not even know I was coming down here before a moment ago."

Genma made a sound of surprise, but loosened his grip. "What are you doing here, then?"

Kakashi sighed. "I am looking for someone who has set me up into an elaborate trap, but I am getting the idea this lead was just another part of it." He straightened his outfit, acutely aware of smelling quite intimately of Genma's perfumed embrace now. Luckily most shinobi outside the Inuzuka clan did not have the sense of smell he did, or this could start off gossip even more die-hard than the ones about him and Iruka. And honestly, Kakashi found that he minded rumoured connection to the gentle young teacher less than to the wise-cracker Genma.

Who, to top it off, seemed to not have a problem at all standing stark naked in front of his seniors. Kakashi had reflexively turned around to face the man to exchange notes but found he had trouble looking him in the eye. The younger man's body, which had recently been pressed against his, was glistening in a way that reminded him of a completely different brown-haired person taking a relaxing bath at his place. Curse you, Genma, you and your wet locks of hair and smooth skin.

He chose to engrossedly study the patterns of the nearby floor on the side instead. "It would have to be someone who can predict my movements all the way here. Who did you get the warning from?"

"That someone was after me? Gai." Kakashi more felt than saw the thoughtful look in Genma's eyes.

It made sense. Genma and Gai had been in the same team, so the former would not question the motivation of such a warning. Had Kakashi's and Gai's eternal rivalry gone too far?

Seven.

This time, Kakashi was convinced he would not storm in unannounced. Gai could, after all, be another red herring in a chain of plots. Also, he did not generally come equipped with the finesse for such elaborate plans. Gai was a man of action, not twisting and turning trickery.

Nevertheless, he had no real choice but to follow the trail of crumbs to his old rival's house. Kakashi found himself cringing slightly when he knocked on the door, but fortunately it did not explode on him. Small blessings.

The same could not be said of his boisterous friend when he came to open the door, however. Kakashi found himself engulfed in an empathetic bearhug before he even had a chance to step in. As this was within normal parameters of Gai's behaviour, Kakashi allowed himself to be accosted inside without protest.

After Gai's exhilaration from this surprise visit had settled down somewhat, Kakashi went straight to the point. "Gai, someone has set a series of traps for me. I have been following a carefully set up trail of leads to you. Has anyone asked you recently to warn off Genma about anything?"

Gai shook his head, looking puzzled. Looking puzzled, in Gai's case, involved throwing his arms in the air and being moved close to tears. "Oh, that such treachery and deception would befall my rival brother in arms! What kind of trap has been sprung on you? We shall solve this mystery together, my friend!"

Kakashi was absent-mindedly translating Gai's energetic output to normal language, and just picked up the important bits. "My landlady had been deliberately irked, there was a stink bomb in my apartment, ..." he was interrupted in mid-stream by another bearhug.

"Your apartment has been assaulted?! This calls for resolute action! You are now staying with me until your residential problems have been resolved!"

Kakashi considered his options. All in all, he would not be sleeping very comfortably at his flat before the stench had cleared, and he was really going to need a good night's rest after this dreadful day. So he accepted Gai's offer, grateful that at least something was going his way today.

That is, before Gai arrived bearing a tray of tea and declared that fortunately he had just acquired half a dozen new socialization games from a sudden yard sale that would certainly require competitive testing over the evening and the days to come. He also enthusiastically expressed he was particularly looking forward to the Flea-Hopper Infinite DeLuxe edition, demanding dexterity and concentration for bouncing flat coin-shaped discs into a cup.

Eight.

Two hours later, halfway into their first game of Flea-Hopper, Kakashi had already reached a new level of despair. Suddenly a hasty knock on the door roused them both. Gai dashed to get it, and Kakashi enjoyed his brief respite from continuous competing.

His relief lasted until Gai came back, looking quite distraught. "Kakashi, I'm afraid we have to finish our game later. It was a runner from the hospital. Neji's been admitted in a critical state."

Kakashi was instantly on his feet. Neji had been dealing with a lot lately, which might have distracted him severely - which, for a ninja on active duty, could easily prove fatal. "I'm coming with you."

The two men rushed to the central hospital of Konoha. Unfortunately, it was a very hectic time for the staff, as academy finals were at their most dangerous stage, and as their business was not urgent, nor were they family members, they were instructed to sit and wait until someone would have time to inform them what was going on.

The wait took a gruelling fifty minutes before Kakashi gave up on playing by the book and snuck past the orderlies to check the bookkeeping himself. After a few minutes of decrypting the local notation, he was pretty convinced of what he was seeing. Or more specifically, what he was not seeing.

Hyuuga Neji was not in this hospital. This had all been a part of the chain of traps.

Nine.

But why Neji?

Surely Kakashi would feel concern for the young Hyuuga, but to really get to him, it would have made more sense to fake the hospitalization of one of his team members. Although it would have made less sense for the announcement to come to Gai's apartment, it seemed that this was a reasonably far-fetched way to get to him.

He closed the books and returned to Gai, who was looking at him very strangely.

Gai seemed highly relieved that Neji was not admitted after all, and empathetically shared Kakashi's suspicion that this might be a part of a more complex plot. After a few demonstrative poses and thumbs-up, Gai plopped back on the seat next to Kakashi and pulled something from a hidden pocket in his tights.

"Also, Kakashi, my friend, someone was by to give me this. It's addressed to you." He handed an envelope to Kakashi.

Dread and curiosity mixed in Kakashi's mind. It had been a really long day, he wanted to get sleep, but having a message directly addressed to him was certainly a new type of development in this chain of events. Maybe it was drawing to a finale by now.

If only he were so lucky that the note would just reveal the purpose and ransom demands behind this all, he thought, no one in their right mind would go through all this trouble without some kind of secondary goal...

As he opened the envelope, he blanched behind his mask. Gai immediately reacted to his stiffness and jumped up from where he was sitting to see what he was looking at.

Inside the envelope, there was no letter. No demands, no promises of bringing this chain of events to a swift end if specified actions were taken. No, this was worse. This was, in fact, worse than anything he had imagined.

The envelope had a page from a book. The page had a bent corner where a bookmark had been made. Kakashi specifically remembered bookmarking that page himself, and fondly following it several times.

The page had been cut off from his dearest Icha Icha book, from the start of his favourite scene. It had been crumpled and something had been poured on it, but was still easily recognizable.

Kakashi took off in a run towards his home.

His heart pounding, he almost forgot to prepare stop and prepare a lengthy jutsu to protect him from the malodorous assault of the first desecration of his home. The sacrilege he dreaded made his hands shake when going through the seals. But when he was finished, he was so well protected he would not smell a thing.

He unlocked the door and took the few quick steps he needed to confirm his nightmare:

All the Icha Icha books were gone, in the hands of his tormentor.

Ten.

 

Chapter Text

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?

oOOo

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.

oOOo

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-

"Yo."

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?"

Epilogue:

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.