Author's Notes: Drama, drama, angst, angst. ;) Set sometime in the hazy, distant future, except for the flashbacks, of course. Enjoy, darlings!
Dedication: To Kaeru-chan, or Ru, as I like to call her. Thanks for being such a cheerful, supportive friend. I'm so glad to have met you!
The SparrowThere was a high, clear window in the practice room, one that looked out over the playground with it's swings and shady spots. It was large and wide and she'd liked to watch the outside world through it after practice, stiff, calloused fingers pressed against the smooth, cool glass. She had hated it sometimes too, for it was a portal through which winged creatures tried to fly, never seeing the peril until they were stopped by that invisible barrier, stunned sometimes beyond recalling.
She remembered vividly the day of the sparrow.
She had arrived early at the Academy and had gone straight to the practice room, hoping to study one of the kunai techniques that had been bothering her without other eyes to judge her progress. Barely had she taken out her weapons then there was hard thump against the window and she turned, startled, an arm raised in defense. There was no one there, nor outside, but she realized suddenly what it must have been. Her short legs had carried her outside as fast as a seven-year-old could run, her eyes alighting on the still, small figure just under the window. It was a sparrow and, as she lifted it carefully, she saw it had died instantly upon hitting the glass, it's neck broken. Looking back on that moment, Tenten realized she had not been sad for it's death, but anxious. Anxious that no one else find it, that small life so fleetingly taken, especially her white-eyed classmate.
For Hyuuga Neji liked birds and she knew, instinctively, that she could not allow him to know about this one.
She buried the sparrow under the tree by the swing set, carefully and efficiently, but spoiling her distant attitude by picking a nearby wildflower and laying it on the tiny grave. She was, after all, only a small girl, and she liked wild creatures too. Upon seeing Neji later that day, she did not speak of the morning's events. Indeed, the secret of the sparrow stayed with her all her life, and became a pattern on which she ordered herself. There were things that she had to spare Neji from, things those pure eyes should never have to see, and so she hid them, dealt with them in shadows and secrecy, protecting him by sacrificing herself.
There were other sparrows, other birds, and those too disappeared, with only a single blossom to mark their passing. Now, though, ten years later, her sparrows were not so easy to recognize, and Neji's gaze had grown too sharp for her hide much.
It started with a slight dizziness during one of their practices, specifically, the kind that had him dodging razor sharp edges and her attempting to keep him from closing any of her tenketsu. She was standing on a tree limb, back flipping in order to avoid a particularly nasty blow, when her vision began to whirl, her body wobbling oddly in an attempt to keep her footing on a branch that seemed to be moving like a ship at sea. With a gasp, she felt herself lose the battle, her body falling through air, some sort of strangled noise caught in her throat as the ground hurtled up to meet her.
It was Neji who caught her, a flash of confusion crossing his face before his features resumed their normal flat expression. She knew he couldn't understand how she had failed to save herself, how she could have miscalculated so badly as to fall prey to such a simple mistake. She never told him, either, even when the dizziness became worse and she no longer could train in the trees without revealing her weakness.
Then came the coughing. She brushed it off as a chest cold and that excuse worked for about two weeks. Because of her sickness, she was excused from practicing one-on-one with Neji, something she had begun to agonize over, knowing that one look at her with the Byakugan and her last, final sparrow would be uncovered before she could hide it from him. She had to protect him from this. For years she had worked silently to ensure that, with all the sadness and grief in his life, he would never experience those things because of her. The birds when they were children, the strong face she presented to him when he opened his eyes for the first time after his fight with Kidomaru, the tears she had shed in private over all the hurt he had suffered. She would do anything to spare him anymore pain. Anything.
Even ignoring the blood she eventually coughed up after a hard coughing fit.
Only Gai-sensei had seen it, for she had quickly folded the napkin and put it out of sight, not wanting to ruin the celebratory dinner held in honor of Lee making the level of jounin. He had confronted her afterwards though, his expressive face deadly serious, his eyes dark, the way they sometimes went just before a battle.
"What is it, Tenten? What's wrong with you?"
It was on the tip of her tongue to make up another excuse, but the bloody paper in her pocket weighed as heavy as a stone and she knew it wouldn't work. Unlike Neji, he had seen. There was no time to bury this particular secret.
It was said with such simple clarity, she could see that she had shocked him. But if nothing else, Gai-sensei was very strong, something people often lost track of beneath the blinding smile, bushy eyebrows, and wacky attitude. He recovered quickly. "Have you been to see Tsunade-sama?"
She nodded, suddenly weary. "It's not something that can be healed with a little chakra," she said, surprised to hear a little bitterness in her voice. She had thought she had come to terms with the fact that hers was not an easy solution. "It would require a procedure that I'm... not willing to let her perform."
Gai shifted on his feet as if he wanted to question her further but decided against it. "How long?"
She knew what he meant. "A handful of months."
"They're going to find out eventually, Tenten. It will only make it harder...in the end...if you keep protecting them."
She smiled a little, though the look was grim. "They have enough burdens to bear. This one is mine alone."
To Gai-sensei's credit, he did not reveal her and, indeed, made it easier for her to hide the growing pain in her chest, her shortness of breath, the blood that accompanied her coughing. As far as she knew, Neji and Lee were totally in the dark, if a little worried about her strange absences, pale face, and shadow-rimmed eyes.
Then came the day of the mission, one to the Sand that was looking to be particularly dangerous. The four of them were only halfway there when it hit her, a pain so intense she saw white stars and dropped to the ground, struggling to breathe, literally gasping for air. Neji and Lee were beside her instantly and she could hear their voices but it was beyond her to answer when she wasn't sure she could take another breath. There were some long, horrible minutes while her teammates could only watch their capable, strong kunoichi writhe on the ground, tears on her face from the supreme effort it took to force her failing lungs to work.
When she came back to herself and the knot in her chest had dissolved, she found herself cradled in Neji's arms, the Hyuuga's face white and stark against the dark of his hair, his eyes tightly closed as if he couldn't bear to witness her personal battle. It was the first time she had seen him look so... lost, and she wanted to cry, it hurt so much. Even after he had learned the truth about his father's death, he had never showed her any evidence of his sorrowful heart. Only now, because of her...
"I'm sorry," she croaked, and his eyes snapped open, his arms tightening securely around her. Her lips curved with difficulty. "I didn't hide it so well this time, did I?"
She hadn't expected him to answer and was thrown off balance when he did. "This isn't some bird flying into a window, Tenten." His voice was surprisingly hoarse, tinged with righteous anger. Her eyes widened at his words. "You can't just pretend this isn't happening."
She couldn't believe it. "You knew?"
He looked at her a long moment. "About the sparrows? Yes. About this..." He paused and she saw him gather himself. "I overheard you talking to Gai-sensei." Again, he halted to swallow. "I heard you say, 'I'm dying'." His white eyes flashed at her and she could see the hopeless rage in his face. "Why didn't you tell me, Tenten? About the birds, about your sickness... I would have.. I could..."
"You could what, Neji?" she asked, tiredly. "Fight death?"
She had meant it to be rhetorical, but Neji's gaze met hers firmly. "I would try."
It was a minute before she could form a proper response, her hand fluttering up to touch his cheek. "Even you would not win that fight."
His lips thinned. "You don't believe in me."
"What?" she asked, startled.
"You've never thought I couldn't win before. You've lost your faith in me."
Such was the strength of her reaction that the sudden rush of emotion made her cough. Neji held her against him tightly, her face pressed against his chest until it passed. "That has nothing to do with it. This isn't your fight."
"Of course it is." His tone was growing harder, more resolved. "Your fights have always been mine. Do you think I'm just going to sit here and let it take you?"
"Yes," she said, "You have to. There's nothing that you-"
He cut her off by hugging her, their cheeks pressed together, his arms holding her close. It was only then that she realized he was trembling. "You hid the deaths of the sparrows from me because you thought I had suffered enough. Now it's my turn to make sure that death doesn't touch you." He drew back a little, enough to look her in the face. "Gai and Lee have gone for Tsunade. She'll be here soon. You're going to survive till then." There was not a hint of doubt in his voice.
"Neji," she said miserably. He was making this so much harder. "Tsunade... I've already talked to her... The procedure-"
"-requires more precision than she can do. I know." The veins around his eyes strained as he activated the Byakugan. "But I can. It's my eyes that will save you."
After that, Tenten was much too weary to argue with him and she dozed in his arms, wakened only by painful spasms and finally, by the arrival of Gai, Lee, and Tsunade, all of whom looked very solemn. Lee had tears on his face as they laid her down in the center of a carefully drawn symbol and she reached out to grip his hand, feeling him silently willing her strength through their linked fingers. He had always been so strong, so resilient in the face of downed dreams. She wanted to tell him that he would have to look after Neji if something... if something happened to her, but she couldn't get the words out. Neji wouldn't want to hear them anyway.
He was sitting next to Tsunade at the edge of the rune circle, legs crossed in what could have been a position of meditation. Only his clenched fists gave him away. Gai-sensei stood behind him, looking helpless, something she had seen him reveal only during Lee's recovery after his fight with Gaara of the Sand. It made tears come to her eyes. She didn't want to leave them but she knew, Tsunade had all but told her she couldn't perform the surgery needed to eradicate the disease in her lungs. It required a subtle level of cell growth that had to be pin-point precise. If it failed, Tenten would suffocate to death.
She didn't tell Neji this, though. She knew he was determined to save her and so, once again, she hid that ugly truth from him, buried it in the corners of her mind where he would never find it. Because, even then, she believed in him, some small part of her knowing he would never do less than his ultimate best. If she died, it would only be because she, herself, had been too weak.
"Are you ready, Tenten?" Tsunade asked. The Godaime's hands were still on her knees, perfectly in control despite the long odds she would soon be fighting against. Tenten couldn't speak, she simply nodded and released Lee's hand. Tsunade turned to Neji and said something she couldn't catch and then the circle flared into life around her, bright and warm, a powerful wind whipping around her. Tenten closed her eyes and heard Tsunade's voice through the tumult.
"She's got fluid in her lungs. We must drain it first. Then it will be cell by cell, Neji, damaged ones first. I'll show you where."
After that it was all blackness and the sensation of falling, like the day she had lost her balance on the tree limb while sparring with Neji. He had caught her then, and she could feel his hands now, pressed against her ribs, and Tsunade's as well. They spoke to her in the void but she couldn't hear them. She was drifting, drifting...
A horrible wrench pulled her from the shadows, twin lines of fire in her chest made her arch off the ground, head thrown back in a silent scream of agony. There was a flurry of activity around her. Hands everywhere, holding her down, supporting her, soothing her, pushing against her chest rythmically. And a tiny, pure, lucid moment when she opened her eyes and knew that this was it, she was going to die.
A face swam into view, dark and light, and something warm pressed against the side of her face. That hollow, dark voice was calling her.
"Breathe, Tenten." Neji, she remembered. He was shaking her. "You've got to take a breath. Tenten!"
He was almost...frantic, and the very idea of that made her start. Neji was never anything but cool, collected, icily arrogant in the face of danger. Even angry, he always remained in control. To hear him now, it was almost as if...as if he were afraid.
Afraid of losing her.
Afraid of losing a teammate, her mind corrected, but even she didn't quite believe that.
And then Neji was leaning over her, his forehead pressed against hers, the pads of his fingers resting lightly on her cheeks. He whispered a scattering of words to her, so soft only she could hear, and her eyes widened even as she gasped in her first breath in ages.
Instantly, Tsunade's imperative voice ordered them to get back so she could have some room. Tenten's vision slowly resolved to show her the tops of the forest trees swaying in a gentle wind, clouds racing by against a blue backdrop. After a moment, she managed to tilt her head slightly to the side to find Neji still near her, watching her with a semblance of calm on his face, though his expression was still slightly pinched.
He was holding her hand.
"She's going to be fine," Tsunade was saying. Her voice sounded tired. "She'll need lots of rest, and she must be monitored, but we've repaired all the damage." There was a pause and scuffling of movement. Tsunade's hand came to rest on Neji's shoulder. "She owes you a great deal. Without your eyesight, we might never have-"
"She owes me nothing, Hokage-sama," Neji said quietly, still watching her. "It was I who was repaying a debt."
Tenten felt her heart quiver at the look in his eyes, and she dared to squeeze his fingers with what strength she could muster, the smallest of smiles gracing her lips when he squeezed hers back, the motion so unobtrusive that no one else noticed the exchange.
His words still echoed through her mind, comforting her as she lay in the sunlight with all her most beloved people around her, breathing in the freshest air of her young life.
Come back, sparrow. You don't have to hide. I'll keep you safe.
Even when her eyes closed in healing sleep, Neji never let go of her hand.