Chapter 1: Meeting
She could still smell the blood on her hands, heavy and metallic like copper. Perhaps it was guilt, or perhaps it was merely a reflection of the rich velvet draped around her on the couch; either way her hands seemed to be stained a dull red under the warm, soft light of the lamp flickering on the windowsill by her side. She shoved her palms under the fabric and closed her eyes.
It was supposed to be easy: kill the Leaf kunoichi who had been masquerading as a prostitute at the Yamagachi brothel; take her place in the rendezvous where she was about to pass on vital information to the Konohan spy; kill said spy. Two quick assassinations, and then she would be done.
Tenten had long ceased to regard herself as part of the Leaf shinobi, yet she had found a surprising heaviness in her heart as she stabbed the kunoichi through the ribs with three senbon, blood spurting out from the tiny punctures and running wetly down her wrist. She was only a young girl, not anyone she had known in the days when she still lived in Konoha (Tenten wondered if she could still have done it if it had been say, Sakura, or Ino, and immediately wiped the thought from her mind. Brutally, like two fingers pinching out a flame). She had left the corpse in a back alley, letting the stray dogs finish the job before wiping the blood off and changing into the provocative clothing worn by the Yamagachi prostitutes and walking nonchalantly into the brothel. No one had stopped her.
Now it was ten minutes to midnight and the spy had yet to appear. Tenten picked listlessly at her corset, smoothing out the rumpled black silk to check if the hidden dagger was securely in place. The spy had hired one of the nicer rooms in the brothel. It was small and simply furnished: a large, soft bed with surprisingly clean sheets, dark red curtains hanging heavily in front of the small window and a low couch where she now lay, sprawled out amidst swathes of crimson fabric with her back to the entrance.
A faint creaking as the door was opened cautiously; Tenten's head lifted warily but otherwise she remained still, keeping her face hidden from view.
"The phoenix flies." His voice was low and smooth. Unexpectedly she felt a faint, bittersweet pang when she heard him speak, a vague sense of recollection unfurling from the graying memories she had long suppressed. Had she known this man from before? She hoped not. It would just make things that much more difficult. She could tell that he was still lingering outside in the corridor, probably hiding himself behind the blinds that separated the doorway from the rest of the room. Tenten smiled humorlessly.
"To where the Sun rises." She had choked the password out of the poor little kunoichi too easily. It was a sign of how truly desperate the situation was becoming for Tsunade to be sending out relatively inexperienced girls to work undercover; Tenten supposed the rest of her shinobi were already spread thin across the borders and around Konoha, what with the looming threat of attack from Orochimaru. "You're late." She pitched her voice lower than normal and it came out husky, seductive. It wouldn't do for the man to recognize her before he was close enough to kill, if indeed they had once known each other. He didn't reply, merely brushing the blinds away as he stepped forwards into the room.
Tenten finally turned to face the shinobi and the world shattered for the second time in her life.
It was unmistakably him. The long, raven black hair swept into a low ponytail down his back, the firm chin, the pale eyes widened in shock -
He stared at her, his face (so painfully familiar. Tenten instinctively ran her gaze over every aristocratic angle, every smooth expanse of pale skin, and committed it to memory for when she would be gone again) betraying only the faintest traces of surprise even as his hands clenched by his sides. He stepped forwards hesitantly, one hand lifting up as if to reach out for her. He paused and let it drop back down by his side.
"Tenten?" he called out, voice strained and unexpectedly hoarse.
In an instant she had jerked onto her knees, paper thin fabric whipping around her thighs as she frantically brushed away the heavy curtains and threw open the windows, cool night air rushing in and lifting stray strands of hair from her face. The lamp was knocked roughly to the side as she scrambled to slip herself through, fingers splayed flat against the glass. She could hear him coming up from behind, hurried footsteps muffled on the carpet.
"Wait – Tenten – "
She managed to throw one leg over, knee scraping against the metal panes. It would bleed later but damn it, she was past caring and she had to get away now before-
"Don't leave!" he ordered, harshly, and she started because she could feel his breath, hot against her ear.
Strong fingers curled around her elbow and tugged down roughly. She gasped, tumbling into the soft velvet before he had her pinned down, calloused palms pressed hard against her bare shoulders. She twisted on her back, knee jerking up to kick him away but he slid his leg over both of hers, holding her against the couch with his weight. He leaned down, his gaze never leaving her face, and Tenten was shocked to see the sudden, bitter anger in his eyes. She stubbornly turned her cheek away but he twisted her harshly, forcing her to look back up at him.
"Seven years, gone without a trace. Seven fucking years, Tenten," he hissed. "Where the hell have you been all this time? What are you doing here?"
"Neji – let me go – please –" She managed to slip one hand across her chest, fingers threading deftly below the silk. The dagger was out in an instant, steel blade gleaming rosily from the flickering light. "Don't make me do this."
"Answer me!" he demanded coldly, shaking her roughly even as she reached out, dagger clasped in her trembling hand, swiping it across his chest. He was wearing civilian clothing as befitting his disguise as a customer at the brothel. The crisp grey shirt was easily cut open, exposing a thin slice of pale skin; she hadn't really meant to injure him, only desperately wanting to warn him away. The blade barely scratched his chest. He ignored the dagger. "Why did you leave without telling me?"
"Do you know how worried Lee was when you were declared a missing-nin?" His grip on her shoulders tightened. "What happened?"
"Let me go." Tenten bit her lip and traced her knife sharply across his chest, up to the nape of his neck. "I don't want to talk to you!"
He froze momentarily, exhaling softly. "Tenten –"
She squeezed her eyes tightly shut. "Get away from me," she bit out scathingly.
His hold on her slackened and he shifted off her abruptly, as if stung. Tenten immediately curled up onto her knees, one hand pressed against her chest as she struggled to catch her breath, eyes fixed resolutely on the couch. The room was suddenly suffocatingly quiet and the sound of their harsh breathing was unbearably loud. She could feel hot tears welling up behind her eyes and she tilted her head back, willing them not to spill out even as she scrambled once more onto her feet.
He was sitting stiffly at the other end of the couch, watching her intently. She hadn't even threaded an arm through the window before he spoke again, voice suddenly quiet, impassive.
"It was because of Anko, wasn't it?"
She stiffened, but did not reply. The night air was cool against her skin yet she was burning, her heart beating uncontrollably fast; something was tearing at her from the inside, wrenching her thoughts into incoherent, twisted trails of grief and confusion. Instinctively she pushed forwards, her whole body mindlessly focused on just getting herself out of the window and away from him.
"She had to die, you know that."
Suddenly Anko was on the ground before her, lifeless. Tenten gazed at the corpse before her numbly, momentarily unable to look away from the wide, unblinking eyes that stared blankly up at the night sky. The ribbon securing the scroll together had slipped off and now it lay unfurled over the woman, curling lightly over an arm. The fluid characters spilled along pale parchment in thick streaks of black ink. Anko was – Tsunade had –
Tenten stumbled onto her knees.
The breeze wafting in lifted the dark red curtains and they brushed gently against her bare arms and knees, partially obscuring her from view. Tenten squeezed her eyes shut and leaned her forehead against the metal panes, ragged breaths lightly frosting the glass.
"She betrayed Konoha," Neji continued quietly. "The Hokage-sama had no choice but to kill her."
"But not through me!" Tenten abruptly twisted around and glared furiously at him, the tears finally spilling over and running hot trails down her cheeks. "Not through me."
"Who else?" he returned harshly.
"I don't care who else! Neji, she was my Sensei. I loved her, looked up to her and Tsunade knew it and yet she still made me kill her."
"Why did you come back?" Anko grabbed Tenten's wrist anxiously, fingers leaving distinct marks on her skin. They were at the outskirts of the forests, hiding underneath the swaying silhouettes of the enormous trees towering above them. "I thought I told you to go back to Konoha! It's not safe for you here, Tenten! I told you-"
"I did. Tsunade-sama sent me out to find you again. Please, Anko. Come back. Please. Orochimaru can't –"
"No. Don't," Anko interrupted her hurriedly. "Don't even try to persuade me to go back, Tenten. You're the only one who can understand me right now. He needs me, Tenten! After all these years that he's been gone, he still needs me, can't you see?"
"Don't fool yourself!" Tenten pleaded desperately. "He's just taking advantage of you, he knows how you've always–"
Loved him like a father. Hated him for leaving. Prayed that he would die.
Secretly wanted him to take her in one more time.
"- You just can't betray Konoha like this!"
"I – I don't know, Tenten."
"Here, take this." She held out the scroll. "Tsunade-sama gave this to me when she sent me get you. She said this might convince you to change your mind."
Anko eyed the scroll suspiciously. "What is it?"
"I don't know," Tenten answered truthfully. "But please...take it."
Anko reached out.
"You didn't kill her, technically speaking. You just handed her the scroll. You weren't to know that the Hokage-sama had placed a killing jutsu onto it – "
"Shut the fuck up."
"Tenten, stop it-"
"Shut the fuck up."
Tenten gazed heatedly at the Hyuuga, eyes bright. She fumbled with her dagger, slipping it back under the corset with trembling fingers. "I'm leaving now."
She didn't reply, merely standing up on the couch and brushing the crushed velvet from underneath her legs. She took a deep breath and flung the window as far back as it could open. "I hope I'll never see you again," she told him tightly, looking out into darkness of the quiet streets. Anywhere but at him.
"I still love you."
Silence. Tenten continued to stare blindly out the window, lips parting slightly. Her throat constricted painfully and when next she spoke she sounded like a wounded animal, her voice aching and utterly heartbroken, pieces of what she used to be scattered like shrapnel amidst the grief. "You can't. It's not possible."
"Seven years, Neji. Not counting the three I was away for before Tsunade..." she trailed off, shook her head briefly. "I was gone for far too long."
"You can always come back."
"I'm a missing-nin."
"We can find a way around that. The Hokage-sama will forgive you."
"It is not forgiveness I am looking for," she told him harshly. "I'm...not a Leaf Shinobi anymore."
"Bullshit. You can't just stop being who you are, Tenten."
"Too late," she muttered scornfully.
"Please, think about it-"