A Gentle Precipice
When they are genin, before life turns complicated and in turn complicates them, Team Gai witnesses a civilian woman dying in the hospital. She is very old and small, wisps of white hair softly framing her face. Her husband sits by the bed and holds her hand tightly in his. His back is bent with age and a resigned sadness, heavy and gentle, a visible ache in the steep curvature of his spine. Team Gai does not mean to intrude on what they instinctively understand to be a private moment, but the door to the ward is cracked open just enough to allow a view from the corridor, and they have been assigned to guard a potentially violent patient in the next room. Death by old age is a novelty to them and they cannot help but snatch quick, curious glances as the old man bends to kiss his dying wife on the lips, hand never leaving hers.
When he raises his head they are surprised to see that she is smiling faintly.
"Goodbye," she says. She is tired and frail, but her words are not. "I love you."
"Goodbye." The old man's voice cracks on the last syllable. He squeezes her hand and steadies himself. "I love you too."
A passing nurse notices the open door and hurriedly closes it, casting a warning look at the genin. They look away guiltily.
When their shift ends and they leave the hospital it is already dark, brittle leaves skittering along the ground in the sharp autumn wind. Tenten absentmindedly reties her buns and says, a little callously, "Don't you think that's a nice way to die?"
Lee looks at her with solemn round eyes. "To die in the warm embrace of a loved one is a beautiful stroke of luck, Tenten, but surely we must strive to die gloriously, in the service of Konoha."
"Hmm." Tenten is not entirely convinced. She thinks of the way the old couple had held hands even in the face of death and sighs a little. "I know, but it seems kinder, somehow, to everyone involved. I hope I will have a husband who will do that for me when I die."
"Do what?" Neji asks coolly, looking straight ahead as they walk down the stone steps and into the street.
"Love me a lot and be there with me, I guess. Hold my hand." Suddenly she is embarrassed by her childish show of sentimentality and girlishness, she who has fought to prove herself the equal of any boy since her Academy days. Husband? Why was she talking about husbands when she had barely begun serving as a kunoichi? And in front of Neji, too, talented, cold Neji, broken genius Neji. She flushes. "I'm being silly. Forget it."
Neji is frowning. "Marriage is not a sensible choice for people like us."
"No." Tenten concedes the point obediently.
"It makes things needlessly complicated," he continues. He is thinking of his own mother and her heartbreak upon his father's death, of the career she had abandoned for familial duty after buckling to the pressures of Hyuuga tradition. The palpable resentment that still seeps from behind her quiet, reserved demeanor. Tenten shows promise of being a good kunoichi, he thinks. It would be a waste. He does not even bother to consider marriage in relation to himself: he will not marry. He has far too many things to do and females do not interest him in that way. "There is no point, anyway. Unless you want to have a family, I suppose." And families, he thinks, are overrated.
Tenten says nothing and quells the irrational little flutter of disappointment in her chest. Neji is already distinctly handsome in his early adolescence, in a bird-like, fine-boned way. He is by far the best fighter in their year, and his arrogance and haughtiness are still alluring qualities to most girls in their age group. Secretly Tenten hopes that she might marry one day, whatever Neji says, and even more secretly she hopes that it might be Neji who turns out to be her husband. She is twelve, and love and marriage and death are still abstract concepts to her, distant and shapeless, weightless. They will stay that way when she turns seventeen and Neji kisses her softly under the shadows of an old fir tree, slipping his hand into the small of her back and smiling into her lips. Love then will be easy, and easy love will not quite fill out real love, the heavy concept of love, not yet. She will contemplate the prospect of one day getting married more easily and without embarrassment, because marriage will finally appear natural, like the way their partnership will deepen into friendship, and then more. Death will painfully, suddenly solidify in her consciousness when Gai dies in the war, while she desperately pumps chakra into his chest through clumsy fingers and Neji nearly cries through his Byakugan, telling her futilely where the bleeding stems from and oh god sensei is dying, right here in front of her, sensei will be dead, dead, and why had she not trained to be a medic-nin like Sakura, why why why?
In the end, Neji and Tenten never marry.
This is due to a combination of three reasons. One of them is timing: there simply is not enough breathing space in between each mission and the next, each war and the next, for them to sit down and hold hands and make plans involving marital bliss. (They do not, in any case, grow up to be the type to hold hands.)
The second reason is Neji's unwillingness to bind Tenten into the blind rigidity of the Hyuuga household. Despite Hinata's best efforts as clan head after the first war of their generation, the branch system is abolished in name but never completely in reality; a certain sense of hierarchy still subtly structures relations within the clan, a subterranean vein of bitterness that he knows has no place in Tenten's life. Neji has always protected Tenten, after all.
And then there is the sheer fact that Tenten refuses to marry him the first and only time Neji proposes, when they are twenty-three and Hinata has just assumed her role as clan head. The first war had ended eight months prior; an overwhelming sense of relief eclipses the exhausting heartbreak and fury that had crippled Konoha, and hope is pushing up through the torn earth like spring flowers, fragile and bright. Neji is quietly grateful that he, Tenten and Lee have survived relatively unscathed, even if the loss of Gai still makes him feel unanchored, a hollow grief carved deeply into his body. Lee is still unable to run, but Sakura says that the damage will not be permanent. Tenten is thankfully recovered from her own injuries, and he himself has almost returned to his prime. Hinata has promised him the abolishment of the branch system, and Neji badly needs to believe that there will be something good to work for, something that will be worth fighting for when the next inevitable war comes. After the chaos of the war he finds himself seeking certainty and – dare he say it – tradition, even if it be the clan formalities that he once bitterly hated. So he picks a (nowadays rare) moment when he and Tenten are alone, helping out with the rebuilding effort in a more remote part of Konoha.
Tenten is in the process of painting a set of newly constructed fences when Neji asks, almost conversationally: "What do you think of an autumn wedding?"
"An autumn what?"
"Wedding. An autumn wedding," he repeats patiently, his face calm as he watches her from the other side of the fence.
Tenten frowns. "Like – in general? Autumn weddings in general? Or –" Abruptly she realizes what or would imply and bites her tongue.
"No, not in general." Still that infuriatingly calm demeanor from Neji. "For us. Our wedding."
"Neji, are you – are you proposing?" Tenten stares at him, paintbrush clutched tightly in her hand. Green paint drips onto the ground, staining the soil the colour of moss.
He swallows, a brief hint of nervousness that is quickly eliminated. His expression is smooth and confident when he replies. "Yes. Do you want to marry me?"
"Well – I – this is very sudden."
"It is," he agrees unapologetically.
"You've been – with me – for six years. Seven, next month," he points out helpfully.
She blushes. "Yes."
"Do you want to marry me?" he asks again mildly, simply.
"Neji," she says. "I –"
He waits, an eyebrow raised.
"Well, no." She tightens her grip on the paintbrush, knuckles draining white.
"Oh," Neji says.
"I don't. I'm sorry, Neji," she rushes to add, "It's not that I don't – love you. I do. Love you."
"So much," she says shakily, almost laughing, "but it's just – look at this," she implores, gesturing to the buildings around them that are barely half-standing, the deep gouges in the landscape that remain despite the time that has passed since the end of the war. "Everything and everyone are still in pieces, even now. We still have so much work to do. I have so much work to do. The war, it – it made me realize how much stronger I still need to be, if I am to protect everyone." I could not protect Gai-sensei, she thinks. "I want to work. I want to concentrate on working."
"I see," Neji says, and he really does see, even if it hurts. Pain does not blind him anymore.
"I'm sorry," Tenten says again, biting her lip. "Are you angry at me, Neji?"
"No." He realizes that he had been frowning and softens his gaze. "…..Disappointed, perhaps. But I'm not angry at you." He awkwardly lifts his hand and brushes her cheek. "I understand."
She smiles just as awkwardly and leans into his touch. "Marriage is not a sensible choice for people like us, remember?" she quotes his childhood phrase wryly, and Neji thinks (not for the first time) that he really was a huge fool when he was younger, wasn't he?
Yet even through the disappointment it is clear that Tenten does love him; she has never given him reason to doubt that, and he is immensely grateful for it. Neji is rational and self-controlled enough to know that she is not rejecting him so much as the implications of security and comfort that come with marriage. Tenten does not believe that she deserves to feel secure and comfortable, to have the promise of someone holding her hand tightly when she dies. Not when she has so much left to do, so much further to go, so many to protect.
"Besides," she adds gently, taking his hand in hers and softly kissing his knuckles, "there's always later. When things calm down, get better. When I've gotten stronger."
He smiles. "Later, then," he says, leaning forwards and kissing her on the lips.
Later never materializes. Four years after the first war, the second breaks out and lasts for three years. There is a fragile peace for seven years after that, during which Team Gai join and serve in ANBU.
The third war lasts for five years. Tenten dies in the fourth. The poison blackening the blood in her veins burns her consciousness to the edge of oblivion. Lee has ran off to find help, and Neji hates his Byakugan more than anything he has ever hated because it tells him that Lee will not make it in time. The nearest allied team is at least an hour's run away. Tenten faces another half hour of mind-numbing agony before certain death, and he knows she is trying her best not to scream, to give their location away.
"Neji," she gasps, thinking: we must die gloriously, in the service of Konoha.
"It will be okay, Tenten," Neji tells her, but he is crying, Neji is crying, talented, cold Neji, broken genius Neji. (Except Tenten knows by now that he really is not that cold, not at all, and he is no longer broken either, thank god.)
"It hurts so much, Neji," she whispers.
"You'll be fine." His voice is hoarse. "I love you, Tenten."
Shuddering, her strong, lithe body wracked helplessly by the poison, she hands him one of her remaining blades. "I love you."
He knows what he has to do. Tenten is in too much pain; it would be cruel not to do it. Selfish, to keep her alive for as long as possible for his own sake. Neji is rational, too rational, and he curses his rationality as he bends down and kisses her on the lips, hard. Her lips are chapped and she returns the kiss warmly despite the pain. When he lifts his head he sees that she is smiling, calmer now.
He takes a deep breath and smiles for her. "Goodbye, Tenten."
He holds her hand when he kills her. As the blade slides cleanly into her throat and her face tenses, then relaxes with death, he keeps his hand tightly wrapped around hers, brushing a thumb reassuringly over her knuckles. Her fingers are curled into his palm.
Later, he promises the both of them. I'll find you later.
This time later comes in only a year, in the final months of the third war. Neji and Lee die together defending Konoha, a village they still love but have grown weary of. Their deaths are quick and without bitterness. Tenten is waiting, after all.
Late autumn: the wind bites sharply into their ANBU uniforms. There are still three years until the beginning of the third war, the fourth year of peace since the second. Neji and Tenten rest on the lower branches of a large oak, masks off for a brief moment of respite. Lee is near the top of the tree on look-out shift. Neji is about to drift off into a tenuous sleep, listening to Tenten's even breathing as she lies on the branch above his.
Then: "I think autumn weddings are nice. I like the idea."
Her voice is soft but firm, sweetened with a hint of flirtation. He opens his eyes, pale glimmers in the dark. There is a long pause as Neji thinks about what she has said. Suddenly she spins and leans down so that her face is inches away from his, strands of her hair falling in soft curls.
"What do you think of them, Neji?"
He smiles. "You mean in general? Or…?"
She laughs girlishly, something she has kept on from her childhood, and kisses him in reply.
Tenten is stronger now. Love is no longer easy, and all the more precious for it. She never does answer him properly, but Neji does not mind: he has realized a long time ago that marriage is not that important, clan tradition and formalities are not that important, not when it comes to him and Tenten; they will not give him the certainty that he no longer craves.
At the end of the day (week, month, year, life – ) he finds that there is no need to define what he knows has always been there, safe and secure and precious in his grasp. There has always been something good to fight for.