Written for the Nejiten LJ community's fanfic contest. Theme was 'losing control'.
NOTE: Chrysanthemums are funeral flowers in Chinese custom.
It's snowing in their bedroom tonight.
Neji is sitting stiffly by the window when she arrives at their house, studying his hands in the pale glow of the overhead lamp. He watches the way his fingers grasp the black fabric of his trousers, pulling the material taut over his thigh; he examines the white scars that trail down the rough skin of his palm, testimony to the hundreds of battles he has endured and won, the countless lives he has taken.
"I came back to get my clothes."
He wonders why, then, he is unable to reach out with these hands and draw her close, where he needs her to be. She is leaning against the door frame when he looks up, an old suitcase in one hand and her keys in the other. His shoulders tense when he looks at her properly, small and worn out, with the telltale hint of red in her eyes. Neji forces himself to stand up. "They're ….. in the bedroom."
But of course she knows that. Neji grits his teeth and looks away, stops himself from reaching for her when she detaches herself from the shadows behind the doorway and steps gingerly into their living room. Her gaze drops, falling hesitantly on the tall, porcelain vase of white chrysanthemums by his side. He recalls that they are her favorites and suddenly feels an irrational guilt for having allowed them to wilt. He hasn't touched the flowers since she left three days ago to god knows where, a rucksack slung over her shoulders and her hair tumbling down her back. (Her favorite ribbons - the white ones that he gave her for her birthday - are still curled atop the dressing table in their bedroom. He hasn't touched those, either).
"I'll be quick."
Two years of living together, sharing a roof and a bed, and now as they try their hardest to look unafraid they suddenly find themselves two lonely silhouettes, stranded in the static void that stretches boundlessly around them. The second hand on the clock revolves jerkily and time slows to a wretched crawl. Tenten hesitates, biting her lip before striding quickly past Neji towards the stairs, starting when her suitcase scrapes jarringly loud against the dining room table.
"Sorry – I'm - being careless. Sorry." The words scatter uneasily behind her as she pulls the suitcase to her chest and hurries away from him, stiff-limbed and awkward from the strain of staying in control of herself.
Neji listens to her footsteps as they peter out above him and thinks that this is not how they should end. (But chrysanthemums are funeral flowers, and when he closes his eyes he can almost taste the lingering scent from long-dead petals that tint the air).
When Tenten comes back down he is waiting by the door, looking quietly out into the night. He turns when he hears the soft catch of her breath, sliding his body in front of the doorway because it is obvious that she intends to walk out of their home without a word, cleanly, like the way her precious blades slide in and out of flesh, leaving neat wounds. Neji wonders if she is about to become just that: a deep, clean cut, a knife between his ribs. She pauses a few steps from him and tightens her grip on the suitcase, staring hard at a spot somewhere near his right shoulder.
"Tenten," he begins quietly, keeping his expression carefully closed, "perhaps we should reconsider–"
"Please, Neji," she interrupts him immediately, pleading, her voice lilting up and cracking at the edges. "I'm leaving, alright? We discussed this last time, let's not do this again, please?" She is frightened, because to her love has always meant fear and she loves him, too much.
"I've changed my mind."
And Neji understands even if he doesn't want to, because to him love had always been a dull ache that reverberated of loss and grief, the faded grey that drenched his memories of Hizashi- until Naruto had picked up the first piece of his splintered heart and Team Gai mended the rest, fragment by brittle fragment. Then love had become glimpses of outstretched wings amidst blindingly blue sky, had become mornings drinking tea with his cousins, warm afternoons training with his team and evenings with Tenten's hand in his.
"This is foolishness," he states bluntly. "We need each other."
She recoils; he knows he has hit a nerve. It is precisely this need that has kept Tenten afraid since before her genin days, even as her girlish smiles and cheerful demeanour bloomed and the steel slipped through increasingly calloused fingertips. To love her precious people meant to need; to need meant exposing herself to heartbreak and the possibility of ending up irrevocably damaged, broken, should they ever be lost to her. But Tenten is Kunoichi and she hoarded her fear away like black pearls in the dark, hid it under gruff words as she shook Lee angrily after he put himself in danger for Sakura during their first chuunin exam, veiled it behind the punch at Naruto on their mission to Bird Country, when she had been worried sick for her friends.
"Neji – I – "
"Don't we?" he adds softly, probing. For an instance Tenten looks like she is about to cry. She shakes her head fiercely, soft brown bangs slipping before her eyes.
"Only as teammates," she tells him roughly. "We decided to live together from want, not need."
"So why are you leaving now?" He frowns, stepping closer to her. She moves away quickly, a hand shooting out to steady herself against the wall. "You...do not want me anymore?"
"That – of course that's not true, Neji - you know that's not what I mean." Tenten fumbles with her words, wishing for the hundredth time that she could have Neji or even Lee's eloquence. "I just – I can't -" she breaks off, struggling to gather any remaining traces of willpower. She has to leave, now.
"You cannot?" he prompts, taking another step towards her. Tenten presses herself against the wall, eyes wild.
"Stop, Neji, go away. I can't – I can't –"
"What is it?" Neji is becoming increasingly anxious but he forces himself to breathe, get closer to her. "What can't you do? If this problem is really so important to you, we can work on it together." His voice cracks almost imperceptibly. "We've always worked together… haven't we? There is no reason–"
"No," Tenten chokes out, suitcase falling to the ground as her hands come up to push him away. Neji grabs her by the wrists when they clench onto the white cotton of his shirt, pressing her gently back against the wall. She immediately jerks away from his grasp, rubbing her wrists agitatedly as if burnt. "I...I can't love you like this, Neji, don't you understand? I don't want to love you anymore."
The words break against his skin and fall to the hardwood floor like invisible shards of glass. (Or perhaps they are merely chrysanthemum petals; Neji can't tell the difference anymore). He stares down at Tenten's forlorn expression and resists the urge to lean down and kiss her until she changes her mind.
Becoming a couple during their younger years had been completely natural to themselves and to those who knew them. No one had been surprised when they had announced their decision to live together - the Main House even permitted Neji to leave the Hyuuga compound and rent a house near the outskirts of the village, close to their old training grounds. It had been a good arrangement: Tenten enjoyed finally having someone to come home to from a mission after years of living alone in her parent's empty, echoing apartment, and she understood that what she felt for the Hyuuga was more than respect, more than friendship and love for a teammate. He was the childhood companion who had grown into something a little bit more, and she wanted him as a lover, definitely, but believed that she only needed him like she knew she needed Lee and her comrades and Konoha – just one more dusty pearl buried away in her dark. (Because Tenten is Kunoichi, and even if the concept of needing scared her she would deal with it like a Kunoichi should).
And yet - she had not counted on falling for him so hard.
The few years of dating that had seen her crush on the Hyuuga bloom into a more mature affection had melted into two years of living together, two years of simple domesticity that saw her finally understanding and gradually falling deeper and deeper in love with the man, until inescapably there came the morning she woke up next to his sleeping figure and realized that she loved him a little too strongly, needed him a little too much to be safe.
And that – that, she cannot take. Needing someone this badly is terrifying to the woman who has already lost all that she needed once in her life. Tenten found herself shrinking away from her feelings and hiding from Neji, until the spaces between them grew so empty and distant that Neji – prosaic, unromantic Neji - actually approached her about it with a flower clutched awkwardly in his hand and a demand to take her out to dinner so she could explain herself.
At which point Tenten informed him that she was leaving. (Because she had to leave, before it was too late. Because all her instincts told her to run, to preserve what self-sufficiency she had left in herself). The argument that ensued left Neji half-understanding and angry; he knew what it was to equate love with need and need with loss, but could not understand why she refused to give them a chance. Were their lives really to be governed by such things as fear?
It ended abruptly, when Tenten fled their home, a hastily packed rucksack slung over her shoulder.
"We need this, Neji. We've left this hanging for too long, we should spend some time apart, think about what we want." Tenten rattles off excuses fluidly, an exercise in self deceit. "We have to consider our duty, if we were wise or even right to –"
Neji slams his palm into the wall by her shoulders, knuckles draining white as his fingers dig against the concrete. "Enough."
An angry silence solidifies and shatters in between one blink of the eye and the next, and then his fierce gaze leaves her face as he leans down, breath hot against the pale skin of her throat. Honey brown eyes widen, irises contracting; Tenten inhales quickly when she feels loose strands of his hair trailing lightly against the bare skin of her arm.
"I...do not wish to hear more." Neji shifts his head so their cheeks graze gently against each other, flushed skin set alight and burning on contact. His free hand comes up, fingers fumbling along her jawline and tilting her face up and away until Tenten is suddenly staring straight into the blazing white ceiling light. She winces, momentarily blinded by the light and the heat of his touch, before throwing out a final plea to convince herself and Neji that her departure is inevitable.
"Neji, I am shinobi – I'm not supposed to need anyone like this, not this way. It will only hinder me. Us."
"And yet," Neji murmurs quietly, and she starts because his hurt is suddenly, heartbreakingly tangible when he brushes his lips softly against the corner of her mouth, "and yet...that is the way I need you, Tenten."
Her eyes snap open but he is already moving away, a glimpse of pale skin slipping out of the open doorway and into the darkness outside. (And chrysanthemums are funeral flowers, but maybe Tenten has already spent far too long grieving for loves who have not yet abandoned her).
When he returns the living room is deserted, the suitcase gone. The door is still wide open, light from within coating the doorsteps in a rectangle of silver. Neji stands and gazes into his abandoned home, letting the night breeze strip the burning heat and tension from his muscles, leaving only a familiar dull ache, the raw hurt anchored in his chest. Tenten, he supposes, is already on her way to Lee's place, or maybe Sakura's, or Ino's – wherever she had crashed last night. Only this time her absence will be permanent, because he wasn't able to make her stay. He wasn't able to watch her leave him either, which was why he himself had left.
Neji walks slowly into the house and pauses. He feels something break within him when he turns and closes the door, gently shutting out the night and the only woman he has ever wanted to love.
And upstairs, a light switches on.
The soft click breaks the heavy silence in the house, faint light spilling down the stairs and illuminating the newly empty vase by the window. Neji freezes, his hands clenching tightly by his side. The sudden explosion of hope that blooms in his chest burns almost painfully, and suddenly it is difficult to breathe. Soft footsteps from above; he takes the stairs three at a time, stopping abruptly at the doorway to their bedroom. Tenten is standing by the curtains, looking out onto the countless roofs that stretch into the horizon, the tiny pinpricks of light flickering quietly in the night. The suitcase is open on the floor. Dead chrysanthemums spread brittle petals across the bed.
For a long, silent moment there is nothing he can do but watch the kunoichi before him, his gaze sweeping over the way her shoulders gently rise and fall with each quiet breath, the way she laces pearl white ribbons between calloused fingertips. Her hair is unbound, tumbling loosely down her back. (And chrysanthemums are funeral flowers, but death comes only once; afterwards there is eternity, and maybe, just maybe, eternity is what they have between them).
"Stay with me." It's more of a command than a question as usual, and yet this time there is a slight uncertainty that colours his voice. He needs her confirmation, so he reaches out and tangles her fingers between his. She doesn't answer but leans back against his chest, rubbing her thumb lightly over his knuckles.
Neji decides that it is enough.
She reaches for the chrysanthemums when he sits on the edge of their bed and pulls her onto his lap. The curtains are drawn closed; she leans her head against his shoulder and methodically plucks each pale petal from the dead flowers. His palm traces slow circles across her back as she allows the thin slivers of white to drop slowly from her fingers and drift to the ground in gentle pendulum arcs.
It's snowing in their bedroom tonight.
Tenten closes her eyes and thinks that they should not need each other this badly, and that perhaps they will be the ruin of each other one day. Then Neji leans down and buries his face in the crook of her neck, his arm wrapping tightly around her waist, and she thinks that perhaps –
- perhaps, she will be brave.
And if we fall, we will fall as one.