Author: Neptune47 PM
Hyuga Neji has built a life to be proud of. But a failed mission may force him to reevaluate the nature of an important friendship. [Futureset]Rated: Fiction T - English - Neji H. & Tenten - Words: 3,213 - Reviews: 12 - Favs: 7 - Follows: 17 - Published: 02-28-06 - id: 2822865
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Summary: Hyuga Neji has built a life to be proud of. But a failed mission may force him to re-evaluate the nature of an important friendship. Future-set
Author's Notes: Well, this will be an abnormal take on NejiTen, but it's an idea that bounced around my head so much that I was forced to write it out. Special thanks to my beta saharastorm, for helping me stay true to Neji and Tenten, and for making sure my grammar wasn't on crack. If this story is any good, it's because of her help :).
Chapter Soundtrack: "Say, It Ain't So" - Righthead (Gungrave OST).
"Neji-kun, we're ready to place Hizashi-kun's marker with the others." The priest of Western Lotus Shrine—the name of the place so foreign to Neji—smiled with half-closed eyes and held his hand towards the interior of the temple. He had been present not only for Neji's birth, but for his father's as well. The small brown patches on the holy man's cheek had folded into his wrinkles as he'd grinned and reminisced about the sanctification ceremonies for both father and son.
Neji nodded in acknowledgement. "Yes, of course. Please lead us there."
The old man smiled faintly, picking up the tablet from the dais covered with flowers and incense before slowly walking towards the back of the shrine. Neji moved to follow, but paused momentarily, distracted by the same thing that had been distracting him for the past few hours. He turned towards the entrance of the temple, allowing his eyes to quickly sweep the people who had come to observe the ritual. Again, he came up empty.
A soft pressure against his arm reminded him of who was there. "Sei," he said quietly, as his wife, who had been standing behind him, squeezed his hand.
"Neji-san," Sei inquired softly, "Is something wrong?" She turned to face the entrance as well. "Who are you looking for?"
He glanced at her briefly, and then back out to the crowd. "No one," he answered, turning to continue to the interior of the shrine.
Neji nodded. "He was very helpful to us at the Village of Arrow last winter. I'm honored that he remembered me." He accepted the scroll from Tsunade, bowing respectfully. "I shall leave to prepare."
"Please," she said distractedly, already rummaging through the pile of scrolls scattered on her desk. "And tell the loud-mouth he may come in now."
Neji opened the door to exit, and almost immediately, Naruto burst in, eyes bulging and finger pointing accusingly at the Hokage. "I heard that, you old hag!" He relaxed briefly when he noticed Neji standing at the door. "Yo, Neji," he greeted. "So you had to meet with Granny, too, huh?"
Shaking his head slightly, Neji left the office to avoid getting caught in the cross-fire. Instead of leaving the administration building as he normally would have, he relaxed against a wall near the council room on the second floor. He'd seen her enter it before his mission briefing, and it sounded like whatever business that was being conducted in there was wrapping up. As he predicted, the wooden doors opened, releasing a few Elders, and the person he was looking for.
Tenten saw him almost immediately, and waved while walking over.
"Neji? Were you waiting?"
He shook his head. "I just came from Tsunade-sama's office."
"A new mission?" she asked, moving towards the outdoor spiral stairwell.
He fell into step beside her. "I will just be serving as an escort; the client is an old acquaintance. I doubt the mission itself will be very challenging."
"Mou," she groaned, stretching her arms and placing them behind her head. "Only you could say that and sound so disappointed, Neji. It'll be okay if you aren't battling an army of ronin every now and then."
His mouth relaxed with the familiarly light, but exasperated tone she always used when talking to him or Lee or their former sensei. "I suppose I just want something stimulating now, after my leave. I've been idle for too long."
"It was only a week. Really, you still haven't learned to relax."
"Perhaps that's so, but this past week… relaxing would have been difficult, anyway." He shifted his eyes towards her carefully. "I didn't see you yesterday."
She dropped her hands to her side, and her expression changed quickly into concealed nervousness. "For your father's ceremony. I know. I'm sorry. I wanted to, but… I had some preparations. I'll be leaving soon for..." she trailed off. "Gomen."
He stopped walking. Tenten descended a few more stairs before she realized that he was no longer beside her. She turned to face him, having to tilt her head back more than usual to look at him.
"These preparations could not have waited a few hours?"
She smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry. I wish I could have been there. My assignment has been rather time-consuming, hasn't it?" She tapped the scrolls sticking out of the pouch on her right hip. Neji had seen her carrying them for weeks now. "Still though, I'm sure things were much too hectic for you to have missed me at all. Honestly, I'm not so good with this sort of thing. I would probably not have been so useful there at all."
Neji could read through her lie. "There's no need to dissemble."
"I'm… not lying," she said, leaning herself against the curved railing, perhaps to look relaxed. "Really, what's there to lie about?" A gust of wind displaced her overgrown bangs slightly.
He stared at her quietly. This was something he was loath to bring up, but felt that perhaps it was time he stopped ignoring years of intuition. "You feel uncomfortable."
"With my family. You feel uncomfortable around them."
She stood up straighter, looking quite startled. "What? No… that's not… why would you think that?"
He hadn't noticed her guardedness around his kin immediately—it hadn't been present when they were young, and its development over the past few years had been subtle. But before he'd realized, the distance between them had become larger than he could ever remember it being. For one who possessed superior skill in observation, her careful avoidance of certain situations became apparent to him once he started looking for it. "You—and Lee—were always valued comrades to me. As such, I hoped you would be comfortable with my Clan. I suppose Lee is still as unwittingly awkward as he always was. But you… since Kai was born—perhaps even before—you've been different. "
"Neji…" She wrinkled her brow—in worry, anxiety, fear—he couldn't be sure. Before he could decipher her expression, it changed. She relaxed her features again, shaking her head vehemently, waving her hands for extra emphasis. "What are you saying, huh? It's not like you." He couldn't read through her closed eyes, but the laughter in her voice seemed flat. "How could I feel that way about your family? I've known them since we were rookies. And…" She paused slightly—anyone else wouldn't have noticed. Neji did. "You know that I liked Sei-san the moment I met her. And I adore Kai; he's a wonderful child. I'm sorry that I made you think that I was uncomfortable, but it was unintentional. And untrue." When he didn't speak she insisted, "Really."
He eyed her skeptically—wanting to invoke his Byakugan to test the veracity of her statement—but dropped the matter. "I've been worried for nothing then."
She seemed hesitant about his dismissal. "Are you mad?"
He began walking down the stairs again, pausing once he passed her to say, "There's nothing to be mad about," before continuing his descent. There was no point in forcing her to admit to something she didn't want to acknowledge.
She let out a breath, and quickly joined him again. Neither spoke as they approached the bottom of the stairwell. He was happy to continue silently, but it seemed she wasn't. "Ne, Neji?"
"You wanted to use your Byakugan, didn't you?" She sounded almost smug, as if she'd caught him doing something wrong.
"Don't be ridiculous." The temperature of his cheeks rose as he spoke.
"Eh?" she drawled, frowning with her lips drawn to the right. It made her cheek puff out on one side, and he'd always thought she looked rather childish doing it. "Liar," she grumbled.
"It's hard to take you seriously when your face looks like that."
"Stern, as usual," she chided, but relaxed her mouth. "It's very hard to tease you."
"Perhaps if I'd learned to relax," he said, closing his eyes briefly before glancing at her with a raised eyebrow and smirk.
She looked confused at first, but then brought her hand up to her mouth as she began to laugh. He smiled slightly, too, as the tension around them dissolved.
"Fine, fine," she said as her laughter died into a grin. "I was wrong. Are you satisfied?"
They looked at each other, still smiling softly, as they stepped off the staircase and stopped walking. Tenten broke their stare first, glancing quickly to the side, then the ground, before looking straight ahead. He saw something flash on her cheeks as she changed the subject. "So… tell me all about the transference rite."
He looked forward as well. "Lee has made the same request of me. I'm meeting him for lunch now."
"Oh, so Lee wasn't there?"
"No. His team had an assignment. I wasn't expecting him."
"I see," she said in a strained voice that sounded unfamiliar to him. But it was replaced in a second by her usual, light speak. "Lee-sensei was on duty, huh? It's a bit scary to think of him in that role." She laughed at the thought beside him. "I'll come with you, if you don't mind. You can tell us both."
He nodded his consent.
Neji clenched his jaw as more people from Lee's favorite Sashimi bar began to take notice of their conversation as his bob-haired teammate became more enthused. And loud. "You needn't exaggerate its importance, Lee," he reprimanded.
"But it is important!" Lee insisted. "The day a loved one is raised from a familiar spirit to an ancestor is an auspicious time!"
"Lee," Tenten said, drawing out the end of his name to ensure he was listening, "Stop it. You know Neji doesn't believe in things like spirits and ghosts."
"I don't fear ghosts," Neji corrected. "That's not the same as disbelief."
Lee nodded twice. "Very true. Very true."
"Mou." Sighing loudly and leaning against the counter they were seated at, Tenten rested her chin on her palm. "Fine. As long as you two don't start an argument. I'm too tired to be in the middle of it."
"Tired?" Lee's thick eyebrows joined together in overprotective concern as he leaned across Neji to examine Tenten's face. "A woman in the springti—"
"She just has an important mission soon," Neji interrupted in irritation. "There is no need for theatrics."
"Oh, a mission, is it?" Lee settled back down on his stool. "If it's an important assignment, then you must certainly do your best, even if it means exhausting your vital young body."
Tenten pushed her empty plate away from herself, burying the comment that was about to come out of Neji's mouth with the scratching of ceramic against glazed wood.
"It's not what you think, Lee," she told him. "It's… it's nothing difficult."
"I see. That's good. When do you leave, then? You must spend an evening with my new students before you go. I insist. You, too, Neji. I want them to meet my eternal rival." Lee raised his thumb, and extended it towards his friends.
Neji tried to control the twitching of his eyebrow. This guy…
"That… sounds nice, Lee," Tenten interrupted, giving Neji a pointed glance. "Right, Neji?"
He had no choice but to nod.
"Yosh!" Lee fisted a hand in front of his face. "We'll meet today! Straight from lunch!"
"Don't decide things by yourself!" he was warned simultaneously by both teammates.
"Today doesn't work?"
"I have things to do. Gasho-dono is meeting me shortly after noon tomorrow." Neji turned his head slightly in Tenten's direction, indicating that it was her turn to provide a reason.
"Today won't be possible for me either."
When she didn't say more, Lee prompted, "Are you leaving tonight?"
"Uh… no," she said, studying the wooden counter, "But sometime during the next few days. So it'll be too hectic for me now."
"There are still details to be taken care of? It seems you've been working on this assignment for almost two weeks."
Lee saved Tenten from answering by loudly clapping Neji on the back. "She's working hard for Konoha, Neji. It's admirable." Turning his attention to Tenten, he asked, "So when will you get back? When both of you return from your missions, we'll do it then."
Neji waited for her reply first this time. She seemed to squirm under the combined attention of her teammates. He frowned; that was unlike her. "I'm not sure, exactly," she finally spoke, but stood as she did, pushing the bar stool out with the back of her legs. "You know how these things go, so we'll see. Anyway, I'd better leave now. I've taken too long a break." Throwing a few coins down on the counter, she made her hasty exit, calling out, "That should cover my bill," over her shoulder. Her two teammates were left staring after her retreating form.
"There seems to be much preparation for this simple mission," Neji said, still staring out the exit.
"Well, if she can't tell us, she can't," Lee's voice told him sagely. "You know how it works."
"Yes, I suppose you're right." He turned back to his teammate, but recoiled almost immediately. Lee's face was inches from his, and there were tears that were much too shiny quivering in his eyes. He'd grasped Neji's hand with his own bandaged one. "Neji, I've missed our fierce rivalry these past few weeks."
Neji's eyebrow twitched again, almost violently, and he closed his eyes to discourage the over-emotional man. "Lee," he said, irritated, "Do not touch me in public."
Lee let go and stood, though hardly discouraged, and posed dramatically. The attention from other customers that Neji had been avoiding earlier seemed almost impossible to evade now. "Neji, I challenge you! Let's spar with vigor, as we used to in our youth!"
Neji sighed, deflated.
He circumvented the Main House, not wishing to see the Hyuga patron at the moment. He was less injured than Lee, for sure, but could feel a few small bruises forming on his arm, where he'd failed to fully block a high speed kick. His robes were dusty from all the dirt that hand been kicked up during the light spar, and drenched in sweat. All Neji wanted was to bathe, and then spend some time preparing for tomorrow's mission before going to bed.
He arrived at the area of the Hyuga compound that housed many of the Branch family members. He saw his own room easily; the white screen door was illuminated from behind, displaying on its skin the hazy shadows of various objects held behind it. One was larger than the rest, and moved smoothly across the span of the partition—his wife, tidying up their quarters, waiting for him to return.
He stopped walking abruptly, staring at the thick paper screen for a moment before deciding to head straight to the bathhouse first. Yes, that would be easier. He made it only a few feet away before he heard the soft sliding of bamboo against a rail.
"Neji-san?" Turning again to face the house, he saw that he'd been noticed. Sei stood by the now opened doorway, bowing. "Welcome home."
"Sei," he acknowledged, nodding. "I'm home."
When she raised her head and took in his appearance, her forehead creased. "We were expecting you earlier. Were you training?"
"Sparring," he corrected, though he knew the difference was just semantics to her.
"Oh," she said, becoming suddenly dull, and staring intently at the ground.
"Lee insisted this time. I apologize for making you wait."
She once again became attentive, and her eyes found his face. "It was with Lee-san, was it?" She smiled genuinely. "I'm glad you've found some time to spend with him. I know he's very fond of you."
"It's an odd sort of attachment." Neji paused, looking to the direction of the bath again. "I should clean up."
"Please. Kai has already eaten, but shall I bring our dinners here?"
He shook his head. "No, I have things to attend to; it may take a while. Please eat with out me as well."
She bowed again, and he couldn't see her face. "As you wish," she said, retreating into the room, and sliding the door shut.
AN2: I thought I'd define a few things here, in case some are unfamiliar with some of the elements in the story. (1) Neji's father's name, Hizashi, means blazing sunlight, hence the characters on his mortuary tablet. (2) The ceremony marking the transfer of Hizashi's spirit from a local spirit to an ancestral spirit is based on a similar Buddhist ritual that is performed 33 years after death. Of course, I took some liberties with the details of the ceremony, including the time at which it's performed (Neji & co. are in their late 20s for this story). Let's call it artistic license.