For Keryn, for giving me encouragement. For Kim, for the son, and lastly, for twin, because she knows that she started this whole mess in the first place.
He comes back from his latest mission blind and deaf. An unfortunate blow to the back of the head, they said, they don't know if there's any chance of recovery. She visits him frequently and hates the way his pale eyes see through her, despises how he won't even react at the sound of her voice.
She takes care of him when she can. She convinces him to eat his first bite (he's lost so much weight; she can't help but notice the way his white robe hangs on his thinning frame), and brushes his hair. She makes up his bed (he won't let the servants in the room) and speaks to him. Sometimes, she sings. She lets him trace his fingers over her face, and she lets her hair down so he can run his fingers through it. She tries to help him bathe, but he refuses; he has that much pride at least.
He's become precious to her in these last few months. His tragedy brings them closer together than they ever were as team mates. She knows that despite her best intentions, she's fallen madly, deeply in love with him.
He doesn't know who she is. All he knows is the scent of plum blossoms and her skin.
Hiashi observes his nephew, watches the caretaker. Neji smiles for the first time since his accident, and she laughs, delighted. Fortunately, Neji can't hear her; if he could, he'd be just as lost as his uncle.
Tenten is a beautiful girl, Hiashi thinks. She'd be a worthy addition to the Hyuuga household.
He approaches her the next day and thanks her for taking care of his nephew. She flushes prettily and fiddles with a loose strand of hair. "It's nothing," she says, "he's my team mate after all."
He hesitates and tries his best to hide the wicked smile that threatens to blossom. "He's engaged," he finally says. "He has been since he was six; it's best if you don't get too close to him."
He thinks he's never seen jewels as beautiful as her eyes when they widen with shock. He admires her resolve; lesser women would've cried. She murmurs as apology and flees, leaving him with the impression of her fluttering hair and dress and plum blossoms.
Her perfume intoxicates him like nothing else.
The hospital room suffocates her, makes it difficult to breathe in all of its white space. He's going to regain his sight, his hearing; Tsunade-sama has said she would be able to do it.
This is the last time she'll take care of him. This is the last time she'll love him. The next time he opens his eyes, she'll have her hair bound and she'll be smiling and and he'll never see how he's shattered her heart. The next time he hears her voice, she'll wish him a happy life with his fiancée, and he'll never hear the sobs that try to choke her.
She tucks him in the bed and smooths a hand over his brow, brushing away a tendril of hair. He captures her hand, holds it against his lips and releases it so he can reach up and trace the planes of her face with his fingers, one last time.
"I'll marry you," he says clearly. "Whoever you are, I'll marry you."
She feels tears slip down her face, and the look on his face changes from determined to puzzled. "Why are you crying?" he asks, tracing her lips with tentative fingers.
Swallowing, she manages to curve her mouth into a smile. "I love you," she whispers, shattering herself. The truth is never easy; if only it didn't tumble off her lips so easily.
He draws her head down for their first and only kiss, and drowns in the taste of her.
He wakes up and sees a girl with dark hair and eyes. She smells like plum blossoms.
"You're finally awake," she said, smiling. "I'm Kaguyahime, your fiancée. I've been taking care of you these last few months." She leans over and brushes her lips against his forehead. Her hair tickles his skin but feels strange, unwelcome. "Welcome back, Neji. We've all missed you."
He stares at her and nods mutely. He cannot help but wonder why she seems so different from what he's imagined.
She begins training again and no longer wears perfume. She smells of sweat and determination. She binds her hair up and brushes tendrils away from her eyes impatiently.
Hiashi watches her sometimes, using the Byakugan. He's entranced with the way she moves, the sheer strength of her determination. She throws her weapons and hits her targets; he thinks that she's hit the target that is his melting heart.
He approaches her once. Speaks to her. She shakes her head, but he persists the next day and the next, and he knows he's beginning to make tiny inroads to her. They sometimes spar and he always wins, but he doesn't know that she's barely restraining herself from calling him "Neji." They're so much alike, she thinks desperately, they could be father and son.
Neji speaks the words that bind him forever to Kaguyahime. She's beaming as she echoes him. He can detect no shadow of a lie.
He knows that she's the one that has nursed him. He knows that she is the one that has fed him, loved him. But his heart says otherwise.
She smells like plum blossoms on their wedding day, heady and sweet. He feels the truth of it stab his soul when he leans in for what he thinks is their second kiss.
Hanabi doesn't like the most recent turn of events. Her cousin is married and his wife is heavy with their first child. Her Byakugan tells her that it's a boy.
Neji-niisan is too smart, too clever, too talented. Father loves him much more than her. He loves Neji much more than Neesan even.
Father was a misguided person. He was even in love with that useless kunoichi. Too bad Tenten was still in love with Neji. Hanabi sees this, even without the Byakugan.
Neji loses a bit of his sanity the day he loses his wife and son.
She grips his hand with the last of her strength and tells him what he's always known. "I was never the woman you loved. I don't know who she is, but she's not me." The doctors tell her not to speak, try to frantically stop the bleeding but she knows it's too late. "Find her," she whispers, "and be happy."
Tenten discovers the truth after the funeral. She offers brief words of comfort to her team mate (the rain is heavy and washes everything into grey) and departs when Hiashi tugs her hand.
"I know this is the wrong time to be asking you this," he says after a short while, "but I want you to marry me."
She stares at him, her eyes widening. Raindrops glisten on her lashes, her cheeks and he thinks that she's never looked more beautiful. Tentatively, he reaches out and unbinds her hair, and watches the water make transluscent spiderwebs in it. "I love you," he says simply, "and I'll have you."
He bends his head down for a kiss, but her eyes are open and staring at his forehead. She's seen that seal before on Neji's forehead.
From her hiding place, Hanabi smirks. Hizashi should learn to rely on makeup, she thinks scornfully, instead of jutsus.
Tenten asks for time. "I need to consider," she says in a shaky voice. "It's too soon, too sudden."
She's loved Neji for most of her life. His father has just asked to marry her.
Neji would have married her, a small voice says inside her. She ignores it.
She takes her leave of Hizashi (his lips were clammy and tasteless with rain) and goes home. In the shower, she does her best to scrub off all traces of Hizashi. He said he loved her. Her skin is red from relentless heat and scrubbing.
Tomorrow, she will tell Hinata what she has seen. The rest will lay in the gods' hands.
"Hyuuga Hizashi, you are accused with the murder and impersonation of your twin brother, the clan head. What say you?"
Hizashi holds his head up high; he has fooled them for almost twenty years, he can continue. "Who accuses me?"
And his heart nearly gives out when Tenten stands up. "I do. I accuse you, Hyuuga Hizashi, of impersonating your twin. I saw the cursed seal." Her words are soft, but ring clear and true; there is no doubt in anyone's mind.
"And I second it." Hanabi, the pride of the main house, takes a stand against her father of twenty years. "I saw the seal." With quick motions, she cancels the jutsu and the seal stands out boldly against Hizashi's forehead; it mocks the tribunal, the family. Hizashi, for the first time in years, begins to know the true meaning of betrayal. "I also accuse you of murdering my father," continues Hanabi in her high, almost childish voice. "And of kidnapping my elder sister."
He sneers. "With what proof?"
Hanabi smiles. "With the proof of your life. My father's death. How else could you have switched spots with him that fateful day? Dearest uncle, I've known for years that you were not my father; why else would you show such favouritism towards my cousin, your only son?"
The conclusion is foregone; he is guilty. But Hinata is fair, almost too fair; as clan head, she challenges her uncle. He has loved her, she remembers, in his own way.
"I'll fight you," she says quietly, "and avenge my father's death."
In the background, Hanabi smirks.
"No Hinata-sama," someone interrupts behind her. "I'll fight my father. And avenge yours."
It's an ancient challenge. No chakra is allowed. The only weapons allowed are the ceremonial swords, and Neji and Hizashi don ceremonial robes after going through a purification process.
Hinata sits in the pavilion by the lake and tunes the koto. As the highest ranked female, she will play music before the fight. This, too, is a tradition.
Neji turns at the sound of his name. "I came to wish you luck," Tenten tells him, looking very pretty in her pale pink kimono. A tendril of hair escapes her elaborate coiffure, and he instinctively reached out to tuck it behind her ear. He knows her, he thinks; he always has. She hesitates and leans over to kiss him on the cheek. "I'm sorry," she whispers.
He's drowning in the scent of plum blossoms. He fights his way out. "Wait," he says, his voice dense and thick with rawness. He takes her face in his hands. He knows this, he thinks, and closes his eyes, allowing his fingers to trace the planes of her face.
"It's you," he breathes. "It was you all along."
He feels tears slip through his fingers. He opens his eyes to see them shining on her cheeks like diamond dewdrops. He tastes its' salt when he kisses them off her skin; they bless him, heal him, give him strength.
He has tasted from the elixir of life; now he must face death.
Her movements are graceful, airy, light. She dances as if she were unaware of her audience, as if she were only a part of the air, the water, and the music that Hinata plays on the koto.
Her movements delineate the history of the Hyuuga; their honour, their pride, their very existence. It's inspirational and painful; it takes everyone's breath away.
And as she dances, Hanabi smiles. If Hizashi dies, he takes her secret to the grave; no one will discover her true nature. If Neji dies, then Hanabi has no need to worry about her eventual ascension to Clan Head. No matter who wins the fight today, it is she that will come out the winner.
"This dance is older than Konoha itself," Hinata whispers to Tenten as she plucks music from the koto. "The Hyuuga hold their honour and pride above everything else."
"Even above love?" the kunoichi asked wryly, with just a hint of bitterness.
"What is honour and pride," Hinata finally replies, "without love?"
Tenten feels her eyes fill with tears. She opens her mouth, not to reply, but to sing.
"The sun gives me no relief,
and scorches the delicate earth.
The moon is but an orb,
it gives me nothing but cold light.
Winter's sky weeps with frozen laments
As I bury my heart deep within its tears
But black sorrow cannot hide among snow white.
The wind is at play
But my flowers will not dance
For they wait as I do
For his spring rain to revive me
Summer heat presses against skin
Like memories of earth
I am undone and wanting
And the flowers waste to brown.
Leaves crumble in my fingers
Cool and dead corpses
Beautiful and fragile
Like patience, like longing
Pale hands crush another
Still on the branch."
Hanabi's steps and Hinata's fingers end with Tenten's song. There is an awed majesty in the silence that follows. Tenten's voice rings like a bell in the still, still air; it has heartbreak in it that none have ever heard before. This, she thinks, is what honour and pride is, without love. "This is what you have taught me," she says aloud. "The truth may hurt, but lies only fester and spread."
Tenten's song clears Neji's mind; it gives him strength and clarity. He will win, he knows; he has no other choice.
Hizashi stares at the pavilion where his niece (once his daughter) strums the koto. The young kunoichi who he has proposed marriage to a few days ago (was it only a few days?) is watching his son. He knows he has lost already. He raises his head and drinks in the sunlight for what he thinks could be the last time. His black robes billow around him. "Neji," says Hizashi finally. A breeze whips his hair into his face, but he ignores it.
"Father," replies Neji, stony-faced. Then, "One way or another, this will be the end."
"I have been proud of you, my son."
"It's too late for that now, Father," says Neji and slips into his first stance.
The fight is beautiful; breathtaking almost. Neji and Hizashi seem to float in the air, their hair and robes fluttering in the breeze of their exertion. Neji's snowy white robes made him almost blinding to watch, but Hizashi's black robes seemed to suck all the light in the vicinity. Sometimes, they'd lose momentum and their toes would touch the lake ever so lightly before they'd sail back off into the air.
It was deadly, vicious, savage. It was almost like magic. Their movements defy physics, defy everything Tenten had ever known. Hizashi had the benefit of experience and knowledge; he knew all of Neji's moves intimately. Neji's youth, however, gave him the edge of unpredictability; he had the ability to evolve beyond his father's data.
Tenten watches this with a beating heart. If Neji kills his father, she thinks, is he guilty of patricide? Or is the guilt hers, for bringing the truth out?
It's not a glorious thing; he sticks the sword in his father's chest, and watches the blood drain out of him. He knows he looks ragged himself, his robe in tatters and smears of blood across his face, his bare arm. His hair no longer flows with poetic majesty; it's matted with blood, its sheen dull with the exertion.
He picks his father up and cradles him as one would cradle a child. Hizashi loves him, in his own way. He'd be a fool to forgo that love, no matter what sins his father had committed. "Father," he says quietly.
Hizashi smiles. "I'm proud of you, my son." He coughs up blood, stains the hem of Neji's robe. "Make her happy," he whispers. "She's always loved you."
"It's you that's denied us happiness," Neji points out logically. Too logically because Hizashi closes his eyes and dies.
Hinata expounds her guilt (even though she has no reason to feel it) by throwing her cousin a wedding. It is talked about for months after it has happened.
Neji says the words that binds him forever to Tenten. She beams as she echoes him; he knows that there is no shadow of a lie. She smells like plum blossoms on their wedding day, heady and sweet. His heart has no doubt and he feels the rightness of it all.
He was a caged bird with clipped wings. But she's nursed him, healed him, cherished him and thrown open the door to his gilded prison so that he could soar into the skies and back into her arms.
He takes her face in his hands, traces the planes that he knows so well and leans forward to kiss her.