Author: Pickled Death
Summary: one-shot; Neji x Tenten; drawn the fine line between weakness and love lately? Neither has Tenten.
Author's Notes: Nonsexual tension ahoy!
NEJI: …This…sucks. So badly. I hate you.
NEJI: …Stop grinning like that.
TENTEN: …He isn't supposed to pale when I do that.
That's 'cause all the blood previously in his face is traveling to his—(hit by a kunai)
"Enter the caged bird." For Tenten, vague words and vague devotion came as reflexively as a smile; for Tenten, a low, respectful bow was il naturale, albeit the fancy twirling of hands and the way her fingernails grazed the mass of thinned blood at her feet was simply an added courtesy. "Captain. Enjoying the weather?"
With torrents of rain pounding at his back, his jacket going little to subdue the chills (if anything, magnifying them to an extent that actually prompted him to grit his teeth—a gesture that, in its simplicity, exhibited weakness that he would not tolerate), Hyuuga Neji felt more than slightly irritated and thrust his left hand outward, making a rather inane gesture; compliantly, she repositioned the kunai on her inner thigh. (Scout's shorthand: a more personalized form thereof shared by he and his subordinate.)
He exhaled as he felt her expectant gaze rest on him. "Stop playing games; your antics are intolerable and disrespectful, especially when we are standing in the remnants of a massacre."
She snapped upright and blinked as her chocolate eyes were assaulted by an onslaught of raindrops. "This was no massacre," she said in self-defense. "This was a duty performed in the service of Konohagakure." Her knuckles and the joints in her fingers—however small—crackled with her self-righteous fury, and her chakra pulsed with the same.
"Is this all of them?" Neji asked sharply, his tolerance long dampened like the shirt clinging wetly to his spine. Fine, then, for the knife of her creation that came to be the basis of their shorthand, and very well for her success in neutralizing the Rain-nins, but here of all places his body and soul were weary and her presence provided no warmth, but merely a frigidity that set him on edge. He had yet to see her tire.
"No doubt more will come to retrieve the bodies," Tenten whispered by way of an epitaph. Disrespectfully, she extended her foot as though to gingerly nudge one of the five corpses, but she thought better of it.
The underlying implication was an inquiry as to whether or not he would allow them to. Dully, he wondered what sort of hero's victory this was, and grimaced upon recalling that doubts were the sort of idiotic things people like Nara Shikamaru indulged in; he became dully aware that she had stepped closer, and in response he stepped farther away. He opened his mouth to tell her that she was making him cold, but once her solemn expression turned faintly curious he stopped and stepped away again, nearly tripping over the body of a Rain-nin in the process.
Neji glowered spitefully at the body by his feet. To her credit, Tenten had done a relatively neat job.
"We will let them," he said at last and ignored her slightly alarmed and morbidly impressed expression.
Briefly, he wondered as to whether or not she had ever looked like that around anyone else. Like Uchiha Sasuke, for example. He pretended it didn't matter if she had.
"Honorable of you," Tenten relented with nothing but appreciation in her voice, and his blood sang and churned faster. He closed his colorless eyes and willed himself to calm, to maintain a solid forefront for his vexing subordinate.
Then, he knelt and with a long-suffering sigh rearranged the forehead protector of one of the corpses, adjusting it so it fit more snugly around a head found burdensome by unresponsive muscles. He remained in that position for a good few minutes before saying in a low tone, "Ensure they do just that." There was a slight, barely noticeable emphasis on the second word from the last, and she understood immediately.
Suffice to say, he had never understood her devotion. He yearned nothing more than solitude and peace of mind, but as of late peace of mind appeared naught but a passing fancy, just as it had so many years ago back when he sought revenge on the main house. He yearned nothing more than to train alone in the woods (she was his audience), to offer the taste of steel (most expertly crafted by callused hands—her hands) to an unsuspecting tree, to hear nothing (aside from her applause and compliments), to feel nothing (his blood sang and churned faster).
Which meant that he was bone-weary, really, and which meant that he sought her company more than he cared to admit if at all. Defeat was a cruelty and a mercy. He conquered his denial with another sigh, but just as she decided to kneel beside him for good measure, he stood.
He offered her his hand. She smiled weakly in reply as she used her chakra to extract needles from various necks and told him teasingly, "Every man's hand extended to me has always wielded a blade."
He misunderstood at first, retracting his hand as though it'd been slapped. What was that? Some sort of threat? The lingering hazard of his territory being imposed upon by outsiders?
"Honorable, perhaps," Neji all but spat so harshly that she laughed. "Naruto may tolerate your games, but I assure you, I—"
"—don't. Honestly, Neji, you're so—"
There was acid in his tone, the very same that had—that had repelled her for so many years. But she had been toying with a similar fire for quite a while now; the unreadable expression that arced her thin brow downward was another burn to add to the escalating count. Scowling at the revelation, he waited until the last needle was extracted and safely in the pouch at her waist before tugging her to her feet; she stumbled at the suddenness, but regained her composure before she would have been forced to scrabble at empty air for a safe hold.
They both froze. He relinquished his almost bruising grip on her upper arm.
Tenten's fingers curled around the kunai knife on her thigh, the hilt raveled in thick leather ties. "How many?" she inquired, less games and more business; what a shame, because this Tenten was almost more vexing, with her dutiful acceptance of his orders and the cold diplomacy in her eyes.
Veins emerged from either side of his face.
"…Three. Hunter-nins from Amegakure. Weaker than you," he added informatively, and she maneuvered—more so "appeared" rather than "visibly maneuvered"—behind him, letting go of the kunai; her ANBU mask appeared in her hands and she pulled it over her face, muscles taut and alert. Neji remained impassive, arms folded just as three Hunter-nins cleared the forestry and landed beside the mass of corpses. One immediately hefted two bodies over either shoulder, but the center of the trio held up one hand. The last, which had begun to imitate the first, stopped and stood at attention.
Neji was quite aware of the fact that they were examining his eyes, taking a second to recall the history and so forth of the Hyuuga of Konohagakure. Then the appointed leader looked at Tenten.
"An escort?" the Hunter-nin asked, tilting his head; beneath the eyeholes of the mask, something glittered—presumably, the hunter's eyes.
"None of your concern," Neji said, coolly regarding the Hunter-nins with a mild scowl. Then he jerked his head towards the corpses. "They were intruding. We were attacked first. My subordinate acted in self-defense; though she may have gone slightly overboard—" and here he gave her a pointed look to which he received no reply "—they should have known better than to attack a Hyuuga and an ANBU of Konohagakure."
The last of the Hunter-nin trio looked appraisingly at Tenten, eyed the one gathering a third body, before gesturing to Tenten, a languid pantomime of her generous curves. She stiffened in reply, her only form of protest against this—this indecency. The leader thrust his hand backwards and sharply hit the last of the trio in the forehead, prompting a disbelieving scoff from Neji.
But rather than making a scathing remark, he barked, "Take your 'ninjas' and go!"
At his loudness, Tenten shifted position, left foot backwards, arms in a short imitation of the standard Gentle Fist offensive with fingers splayed and outstretched; this, this was something Neji prided himself on—it was a stance she often used in conjunction with a needle between each finger, or a kunai. It was something she had subconsciously learned to imitate over the years. It was a good diversion and a good tactic under the right circumstances, in Neji's opinion. That, and…
…well, she imitated him. That had to account for something, didn't it?
He pretended it didn't matter.
The Rain-nins complied slowly, the leader's gaze fixated dubiously on the female ANBU prepared to defend her charge at any cost. If they weren't foreigners, then they wouldn't have been so surprised or apprehensive. The citizens called her his "bodyguard" though they damn well knew Neji was perfectly capable of taking care of himself; she was outside of his field of vision both literally and metaphorically, the non-proverbial shield for his blind spot because she damn well knew where it was. Found it out quietly when they were 12 years old and took advantage of it the next day and the day after that…
In the end, it all boiled down to the fact that she walked behind him and never beside. …And she did it willingly too, without his consent or encouragement. Damn her. Damn her to hell.
He twisted his head around and made a sharp signal with his hand. Tenten allowed her arms to drop to her sides; she stood at attention, feet slightly apart, though her hands were twitching with unease, arms tense and feet tense. Beneath the ANBU mask, she looked at him—through him—before moving her eyes to the rainwater splattering on her toes. The blood was hardly discernable from the water, now. It would only be a matter of time before the clearing was cleansed of evidence.
She was good at this killing thing. And…and she wasn't supposed to be, either. Haruno Sakura was a medic-nin; Yamanaka Ino was a teacher; Hyuuga Hinata had established herself as head of the Hyuuga clan; none of them were good at this killing thing. Tenten was. She bought her own steel, huge great quantities of it, she melted it and sharpened it and forged it into huge things that were also good at this killing thing but only in expert hands…her hands. She annoyed him because he had an easier time of conforming to the "protector" mold, whereas she forced herself into things like that just to prove she could.
The leader carried one corpse; his cohorts carried two each. The leader bowed, a jerk of the upper body that Neji did not find at all respectful, adjusted his forehead protector, and vanished. Tenten waited a good seven minutes spent in utter silence before the mask on her face vanished and she promptly strode up behind him and punched his head.
"Idiot. You talk too much. And did you see the way they were staring at me?"
Yes, he did. "No, I didn't." (He ignored the throbbing ache at the back of his head and the urge to rub the sore spot in hopes of lessening the pain. Tenten mocked weakness, you know.) She folded her arms with an indignant scoff and pivoted sharply on her heel, making no effort to silence her steps as she sloshed through the muddy ground.
"I'm going home," she remarked suddenly in a small voice, cradling her thin frame with her arms. "I'm cold and wet and Lee promised to buy me ramen if I returned early." She sounded cold and wet, respectively, but she also sounded alone for the most bizarre reason, and Neji's resolve steeled itself for an undue injury. "Keep patrolling if you want to. This place sucks." And she bent her knees, prepared to spring off into the woods. Maybe try to find a way to be alone just so she could let her guard down, if only for a second.
God. She was so stupid sometimes. "You're being stupid," Neji informed her helpfully.
"Bastard," she mumbled, and her bent knees buckled beneath her without incident.
He regarded her quietly. "Why are you so afraid of being yourself around me?"
"Look who's talking," Tenten snarled. Her fury was disciplined, if barely; a tame fire incapable of being extinguished. Neji thought he should kneel beside her rather than remaining in front of her, thought he should touch her in some way, some comforting, reassuring way, but he found himself incapable of motion, limbs seized, chest heavy and laden with something he was quite familiar with, but had never taken the liberty of naming. He was cold again, though. That he knew.
"If," he said, voice hoarse, "we are to work efficiently as a team…" He paused, and then inhaled sharply and crouched, trying to meet her eyes and failing. "You are in pain," Neji observed, the corners of his lips curved downwards in a frown. He wasn't getting through to her; she was silent and her weakness—whatever it was—seemed to be getting the best of her.
Tenten stood so abruptly it startled him. "Let's go home," she said sharply, and strode off.
Neji found no words to fling at her through his rage, but as she lifted a hand to fix her hair he discovered his voice. "Tenten!" he yelled from his seat on the ground; he rose as majestically as he could manage, tall but no longer proud. She stopped walking, but never turned to face him, which only served to incense his rage—and the sinking, weighted feeling that he had failed somehow, someway. Caused irreparable damage somehow, somewhere, had done something to jeopardize something that should never exist and should never have existed. "Fool; if you—"
"Don't give me shit about feelings, Hyuuga Neji!" Tenten screamed as she spun around, face flushed with anger.
He caught up to her with ease, and he made it a subconscious, subtle point to stand beside her. His hand gripped her arm firmly, virtually eliminating many chances of escape but still leaving a few open—she was capable of performing seals one-handed—and he moved in, noting with some substantial amount of surprise how her pulse quickened and her breaths shortened.
"This cannot continue," he hissed—whispered, his other hand raising to part a select few loose strands of wet raven hair. He dared spread his fingers on her face, jolts of thrill shooting up and down his arm. He—he was in control. Maybe not of her, but of himself. This was… He knew what he was doing. He had waited, he really had, but maybe he needed some spontaneity in his life, maybe he needed to stop thinking so damn much—
Her eyes flashed venom, and Neji started when she batted his hand away.
When she spoke, her voice was soft, softer than Hinata on her worst days, and he had to strain to listen.
It was crueler, crueler than—than Hyuuga Hiashi, than Orochimaru, than any unspeakable evil he could name.
(his blood sang and churned faster)
"It cannot. I'm not…" She drew her lower lip between her teeth, and then straightened, posture ramrod straight and eyes frighteningly icy. And for maybe the first time in his life, he was afraid, almost succumbed to the urge to run. And with words that she struggled to force out, she issued her verdict and his sentence: "I won't let this… I won't let you—your emotions, my emotions, whatever—get in the way…of…of my goals." Pause. "My dreams. I…I can't afford to have a blind spot, Neji."
She stepped backward, and he stood there, numb, before croaking out, "So you admit you have feelings for me…?"
She smiled, weakly, sadly, internal struggle evident in deep brown eyes. "I never denied it."
He understood now as she departed, as he stood alone in the rain trying to make sense of his life up until now, unable to discern whether or not he was still expressionless and stone-faced. He understood perfectly. Unlike Haruno Sakura, her devotion was not enough to consume her wholly. (Uchiha Sasuke) Unlike Yamanaka Ino, she would not seek or find a replacement. (Nara Shikamaru) Unlike Hyuuga Hinata, she never wanted to be herself around her precious person. (Uzumaki Naruto)
They were there and they were real, not malevolent or frustratingly ambitious. They never had the same affinity for destruction with cause, always allowed their emotions to guide their lives like strings dangling marionettes; they were oft deluded and then disillusioned. And lastly, they—they never viewed love as a weakness to be taken advantage of.
And Tenten—who could not help but isolate herself from the norm, if not consciously then unconsciously—had never really learned that.
Author's Notes: Originally, the author's note up top read, "Sexual tension ahoy!" But this piece took on a mind of its own around the ending. Really, I intended this to be a horribly fluffy blanket scenario. Instead I crammed angst and tension into the last 1,378 words. I'm not too pleased with the result, but…I've been working on this since, like, Sunday…
The opening line is by far my favorite thing in this entire fic.
I might or might not edit this or revamp the ending completely. It could be longer. It could be better.
I wanted to flesh out Tenten's character without making her seem very much like Sakura, Ino, or Hinata. Here, we have a semi-patriotic, ambitious ANBU unafraid of resorting to violence when need be; although quick to anger like Sakura and Ino, she also tries to be like Neji and tries (and fails) to control her emotions. She idolizes Neji, basically, and the value she places in comradeship far surpasses the value she places in love. With this in mind, I figured out a way for their relationship to move: slowly.
Hmm…I'll rant about this in-depth someday…(pulls kunai out of head and shuffles away)