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 in his life. [Future-set]
AN: 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 lj user=sahara_storm, 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 :).
EDIT 10/12/2013: It lives! Sorry for the long delay in updating, but I am once again working on this story. The first chapter has been re-worked a bit. Nothing major, but a reread wouldn't hurt .
Chapter Soundtrack: "Landslide" – Joni Mitchell (Cover).
Marriage is unimportant to Neji. He cares about honor and duty, and being a ninja will always comes first. So when Hyuga Hiashi asks on his 20th birthday if he has given much thought to the idea of taking a wife, Neji is able to say, without missing a beat, that his focus is the village and the clan, not relationships.
Hiashi considers, but then explains that part of every ninja's responsibility to the village is to create the future generation that will inherit the Will of Fire. He also explains that if Neji has no current attachment, they have a prospect for him; a good alliance for not only the Hyuga Clan, but also the village. Nothing will be forced upon him, the choice is his alone. After a few weeks of contemplation, Neji consents.
The performance of the ceremony had been smooth, no doubt because of Sei's meticulous preparation during the preceding week. He'd assisted as best as he could, but found that his wife was more qualified in handling matters of ritual than he. He was grateful for that, especially during this time- he'd felt rather ill at ease as the anniversary of his father's death approached this year. Staring at the mortuary tablet engraved with the characters for blazing sunlight in this new and unfamiliar location drove that fact home all the more.
"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 also for that of his father, Hizashi, and his own son, Kai. 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 three generations of Hyuga.
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," 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.
"It should be fairly simple. I would have almost dropped it's raking to C, but then Gasho-dono asked for you personally."
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 administrative 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 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 clumsily while walking over with multiple scrolls still in her hands.
"Neji? Were you waiting?" she asked as she attempted to store the scrolls in the holder strapped to her back.
He shook his head, lifting a few of the cylinders away from her to help her work more efficiently. "I just came from Tsunade-sama's office." He noticed the special seal that adorned most of the scrolls in his hands—the ones used to ensure destruction of everything contained within the scroll were it not opened by those for whose eyes it was meant. He'd seen them before on the most secret of S-rank missions.
Tenten pulled the remaining scrolls from his hands and into their storage satchel before he had time to scrutinize them further. "A new mission?" she asked, moving towards the outdoor spiral stairwell.
He began descending in 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."
"Only you could say that and sound so disappointed, Neji," she chided in the exasperated tone she always used when talking to him or Lee or their former sensei.
"A mission is a mission, but perhaps I was hoping for something more stimulating now, after my leave. I've been idle for too long."
Her exasperation vanished immediately. "How was your father's ceremony?"
"Successfully completed, thanks to the careful preparations of both Main and Branch. And Sei."
Tenten nodded, "I'm sorry I was not able to be there. I really wanted to be, but the council unexpectedly called me in for—"
"There is no need for an apology. You would have attended were it possible. Of that I'm aware." He had descended a few more stairs before he realized that she was no longer beside him. He turned to face her, their height difference putting them at eye-level.
"But I still want you to know that I'm sorry," she said, staring at him with an expression he couldn't decipher.
He'd meant to say it's fine. He'd meant to say I'm sorry too. But he realized after a few seconds that felt like minutes that he hadn't said anything at all. He just stood looking at her looking back at him.
Tenten broke their stare first, glancing quickly to the side before descending the remaining stairs before them, and spinning on her heels to look up at him. "Let me make it up to you: lunch? My treat," she said with a smile on her face. "You can tell me everything about the ceremony."
"I am meeting Lee now, for the same purpose," he said, joining her on the dirt path that led away from the building.
"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 he had little time to dwell on it as her tone once again became energetic. "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. And I'm still paying"
He nodded his consent.
"It's a momentous occasion Neji! Your father is now an Ancestral Spirit."
Neji clenched his jaw. 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."
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—"
Neji pushed him back into his own seat, "There is no need for theatrics." His eyes darted quickly to the scrolls that Tenten still kept secured to her back. "It's just work."
If Tenten noticed the flick of his eyes, she didn't let on, but masterfully changed the subject nonetheless. "How is Team Lee doing, by the way?"
The distraction of his students worked. "They are three of the most wonderful and spirited of Konoha's youth. You must spend an evening with them. I insist. You too, Neji. I want them to meet my eternal rival." Lee raised his thumb, and extended it towards his friends.
"That… sounds nice, Lee," Tenten said, 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," Neji warned him. Tenten nodded in agreement.
"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."
Lee accepted her answer and loudly clapped Neji on the back. "Well then, let's pick another time for a meeting with my young pupils. When would work better for you."
Neji waited for Tenten's reply first this time. She seemed to squirm under the combined attention of her teammates. He frowned; that was unlike her. She was saved from answering when the cry of a hawk caught her ears. They all glanced out the window and saw it circling. When Neji and Lee looked back Tenten was standing. "Sorry Lee, Neji. I didn't realize how late it had gotten." Throwing a few bills down on the counter, she made her hasty exit, calling out, "That should cover the bill," over her shoulder. Her two teammates were left staring after her retreating form.
"She's been quite secretive recently," Lee said, still staring out the exit.
"If she can't tell us, she can't," Neji told him. "You know how it works." He turned back to his teammate when he got no reply, but recoiled almost immediately. Lee's face was inches from his, and there were tears that were much too shiny 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 closed his eyes to discourage the over-emotional man. "Lee," he said, irritated, "We are 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!"
He arrived home just as the sun was setting behind the pastel colored roofs of Konoha. It wasn't late, but the approaching winter had caused the days to be much shorter than he liked.
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 collar, 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. He made it only a few feet away before he heard the soft sliding of bamboo against a rail.
"Neji?" 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.
To Be Continued…
AN: 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 a certain number of years after death. Of course, I took some liberties with the details of the ceremony; let's call it artistic license.