Neji fears he is humanly inept when it comes to grief.
"I should be happy..."
This isn't the first time he had reminded himself of that. If he had not assumed leader for the mission, if he had not picked Tenten as a fellow teammate, if he had not taken on the mission at all—she wouldn't be—at least she shouldn'tbe...
He cannot find the words to illustrate her right now.
Neji have to admit Tenten was a little bit more than beautiful. Her choral pitched accent, her auburn eyes, and her suntanned skin. She was glorious—who always kept that vague smile with her, even on edge of death.
Tenten was a baffling soul; very rarely do people see her with her guards down. Neji—of course—was the exception. It was that quirky, crooked smile of hers that made her entire appearance astonishing: calm but kind. People could never truly see past that. Her smile was endearing and tender, yet sad in an uncanny way. Sometimes, Neji allowed himself to succumb serenely into the curves of her thin, soft lips for just one second.
He had never seen anyone smile so peaceful, so unguarded. It is almost deceiving.
Neji cannot sleep, cannot eat, and cannot think. He's lost at sea.
"It's not your fault, Neji..."
Of course, why would it be his fault? Tenten loved him. But Neji's ego had deemed that irrelevant. As pompous as it is, the fact was that he loved her.
"I don't love," Neji whispers timidly to himself.
He had his chance; emphasizing on "had". Neji had his chance—he had a lifetime of chances (spread around like grains of sand) to seize his own crown in her heart. He thought that love is a drawback that does nothing more than hinder. Perhaps so. Neji is a man—specifically, an ANBU shinobe. He acknowledges his sporadic flaws, though it is now he realized his negation of "love" was his prime flaw.
Neji feels liable of Tenten's death, and if he were just a tad more adequately suicidal, Hades would uncover his corpse in the depth of hell. Neji wondered what Tenten's last thoughts were… specks of memories from that sundown haunted him until now. Tenten looked so tranquil on the cold concrete, as if she wasn't afraid of the emerging death at all.
Neji swears under his breath. He loved how brave she was, her delicate precision under the boldest attacks, her natural quirks that transpire every so often in her every aspect. The way she licked her lips when she was in mad concentration; the way her gaze lit up when she saw Neji every morning; the way her lips twitched in her mid-afternoon naps, uncovering an otherwise hidden dimple—and a hundred more… yet underneath all the endearing peculiarities, what Neji loved most about her is that Tenten was a fighter.
"You know, it's alright to cry," a soft voice disrupts his thoughts—like a bolt of lightning trouncing a still tree.
Neji doesn't look up. "I'm not crying," he says quietly.
Haruno Sakura sits down beside him with respectable inches apart, "It's not your fault, Neji-san."
Such a comment would normally have Neji on his feet, hollering out profanities. How many times have I heard that? What do you know? You weren't there. He glances at Sakura jadedly, lifeless, and heaves an inaudible sigh. Neji wishes Sakura would leave him alone—not that he wants to wallow in his sorrow—but because he needs to. Nonetheless, the medic-nin doesn't budge an cinch.
"She led a good life," Sakura whispers in seeming concentration.
Shut up, shut up, shut up.
Sakura studies Neji's pale face, "She was happy, don't you know?"
"I know," came out his flat whisper.
"…I know how you feel, Neji-san."
Neji looks at Sakura with apparent bitterness, confusion, and hurt. He closes his blank eyes unhappily and asks her, "That can't bring her back to me, can it?"
She is surprised at Neji's rhetorical question and looks away, feeling his agony wash over her, "No, Neji-san, I'm sorry. It can't."
Yeah, I thought so.
"But I do know how you feel," Sakura tries again. "Hey—take a stroll or something; you've already stayed here for two nights straight."
Sakura stopped his response with a gentle smile. "Please," she continues, "it's not good for you to stay in the hospital for too long."
Neji looks away, with a childish hate for anything and everything in the world. His eyes meet Tenten's peaceful expression… then to her lifeless body positioned neatly on the bed.
Sakura takes all of this in and sighs.
Tenten did not deserve to die… and Neji doesn't deserve this churning anguish of a lost love. No one does, really. Sakura retraces Neji's gaze over Tenten. Just simply looking at the dead girl's face was overwhelming. One day Sakura's greeting her at Ichiraku's—Tenten's face lively and happy—the next is in a hospital, Tenten's smiling face pallid and motionless. Sakura feels Neji's tears bordering in her eyes. This is fate, isn't it? Fate playing with human beings as if they are meant to be broken—you break one, you break a little bit of the rest.
"Neji-san… looking at her won't do anything." Sakura says; she is a tad surprised at her own rather unsympathetic reply.
Neji doesn't seem to have her response registered. With Tenten gone, everything is simply a small gust of wind—barely there. "I know," he says absentmindedly.
Sakura smiles feebly, "She's in a better place now."
"Don't say that," Neji croaks out.
"She's not... dead." Neji whispers firmly (reassuring himself).
"Neji-san…" Sakura pleads.
"She might just be resting her eyes... a-and she might wake up and—" Neji sounds oddly like a child.
"Neji-san, please accept the fact that Tenten is—"
"—she is not dead." Neji concludes.
"This is what you call fate, this is what—" Sakura tries to explain to him, on his level.
"Well, to hell with fate!" Neji stands up abruptly, towering Sakura by several inches, and states, "I really do not give a damn, Haruno."
Neji looks at Tenten again and immediately softens his harsh countenance, seeing her comatose expression reads: fate, fate, fate, fate, fate, fate. Neji sits down dejectedly, and shells his blank face with his hands.
"You loved her, didn't you?" Sakura asks.
Should I be ignorant?
Neji winces slightly. He nods, defeated.
"I know what it's like to lose a loved one," Sakura says with a smile as big as she can muster, but still can't surpass the sadness in her tone.
"I love Tenten," Neji mutters to himself. "I loved her—I loved... I…"
Sakura stares at the broken man miserably. Neji finally admits it; he just admits it to her, to Tenten, and most importantly, to himself… and the girl is dead. Bad timing is all there is.
"Would you do me a favour, Neji-san?" Sakura asks softly.
Neji nods half-heartedly, freshly bred tears blurring his vision.
"The vase with flowers in it…" Sakura gestures towards the budvase glass beside Tenten's bed, she says, "change the flowers please, Neji-san."
The two decaying daisies are as lifeless as Tenten. Neji glares at Sakura for a minute and nods again. He takes the vase in his hands, feeling foolish, and walks out the room for the first time in two days.
It is his fault no matter what other people say.
Hyuuga Neji: the arrogant bastard villagers grow to admire and hate has an ego the size of the sun. As a haughty boy, Neji knew Tenten was very fond of him (along with other kunoichis)—his what exactly? Neji didn't know and, frankly, didn't care. Whether it was his commendable confidence or vigorous build, there really needn't a reason. Naturally, Neji never really viewed Tenten's apparent affection as something precious—or dear as it was.
It had been nearly ten years, and the poised Tenten, with admirable spunk of her own, still harboured such feeling for him. It is an understatement to say the two have gotten close over the years. Tenten was the only person in the world who can soften Neji's cynical temperament, and Neji did not seem mind one bit. Were "they" obvious? Well, he's not the type to speak his mind, yet there were occasions and things Neji had done that funnily yet adequately proved his covert adoration for her.
Neji caught himself reading Tenten's every movement, noting her lovable quirks, and although he doesn't like to admit it—Neji would occasionally stop by Tenten's house and brew her tea, though rather gawkily.
He remembers the first time Tenten complimented him on his tea brewery when they took a break from sparring one evening. Gai-sensei and Lee left early (for once), and Neji stayed when Tenten wanted to practice her close-range combat some more. Four hours gone by a bit too fast for Neji's liking, and he awkwardly invited her over for tea.
"I like this, Neji. It's strong, but smooth. You brew tea well."
He blushed for the first time in his life.
They were sadly ephemeral. It was an expected ANBU mission. Neji filled his customary role as the fearless leader. He had been on missions with Tenten several times; in fact, Neji loves her company on his team. She was never a burden and she could defend herself amply. He has his Byakugan and her, the weapons.
Nevertheless, it was not until Neji saw Tenten lying on the hard concrete when his eyes widened for the first time, like he was thrown into another dimension. She was lying in a pool of vivid red—her own gore. Tenten looked so delicate, her eyes closed, chest mounting up and down rapidly as she choked on blood. All the years they've been together, it was this moment when he regarded Tenten as a woman—his significant other, if you will—and not just a kunoichi or teammate. His activated Byakugan didn't help either; he saw Tenten's torment from the inside out.
I am a goddamn hero.
The mission was accomplished successfully, one could say. The adversaries were obliterated beyond recognition. The last thing they had seen before Neji shortened their lives was the hoary rage of his Byakugan.
"It's not your fault, Neji..." She whispered weakly, as an assurance of comfort. Tenten started that first.
Neji held her body, watching her coughing violently in his arms, gasping for breath. The unafraid, confident, top shinobe didn't know what to do or what to say but to watch the dying Tenten smiling up at him. Behind the dirt and blood, on the hopeless verge of death, she smiled.
"I…" Neji managed to croak, his eyes wet, barely acknowledging the hot tears that streamed down his face. "Tenten… I…" Her name rolled out of his tongue surreally.
"…I know," she whispered through choked sobs. She, too, was crying. "…and I love you."
Neji didn't want to hear her say that, nor did he want to see her cry like that.
"C'mon, Neji… one more spar, I promise, and we'll be done for the day!"
"Neji! That was flawless! How did you manage to even—?"
"You know Gai-sensei is waiting for us, if we have to do five hundred more laps, it's all your fault."
"Go easy on Lee... he's not in your league after all."
"You're amazing, Neji… then again, I really shouldn't be feeding your ego."
"I hope you don't expect me to pay you for making me tea, Neji… but thank you."
And just like that, she was gone.
Why is it that we want what we can't have? Neji thinks bitterly. He hates himself, his cold attitude towards life in general, now more so. There are a billion people in the world, she happens to be the one to die. If it wasn't my fault, it sure damn well must be someone else's.
Neji grips the vase hard; his jaw clenches as he smashes the vase on the ground with staggering strength. His lets out an angry cry as the vase breaks off into little pieces… they spread askew on the bleached hospital ground. It is almost pretty. The clear, fragmented shards glisten like scornful diamonds at his rage.
"Interesting," Sakura comments as she walks up to the trembling Neji.
Sakura have never seen him so broken-down before. She wonders if she should leave him be—he'd probably appreciate it—or should she comfort him, and decided on the latter. Sakura looks at Neji with a sad eye, an understanding eye. After all, she, too, knows too well what the pain is like to lose a loved one.
"Neji-san…" Sakura calls out gently.
Neji doesn't give her the satisfaction of a reply. He is fruitlessly calming himself down. Sakura places her hand on his shoulder lightly—with everything left unsaid—she gives him a few seconds of respect as he gradually, but surely, breaks down in tears, chockfull of lament.
"We could've had it all…" Neji whispers between broken sobs.
Sakura's gaze broadens unhappily; she is stunned to hear him say those words. She wants to apologize—but for what exactly? She does not know, but feels a strange urge to. Apology is an involuntary reflex. She apologized for his loss along with other people, and their words are useless at the end of the day. So, Sakura doesn't say anything, but allows Neji to cry in front of her.
Sakura eyes the fragmented bits of glass strewn on the ground and sadly realizes that there are unfortunate times when mass-produced consolation isn't a befitting answer.