A/N: I don't think this is my best. I think it got wordy and useless in the middle there. And I'm worried it's OOC. But it's fluff, so…yeah. Let's just call this a long practice piece, but let me know what you all think!
Dedicated to Goldberry since she gave me pretty music!
Disclaimer: Don't own Naruto.
Right Before His Eyes
He dispelled chakra offensively while Tenten threw senbon as though they were lines of sharp, silver rain, and she was the mistress of it. Her fighting style had always been fierce, and she held a grace unmatched by any other kunoichi on the battlefield. Ino fought with her mind, Sakura fought with her heart, but Tenten…
Tenten fought with everything. And that simple act, which Neji secretly suspected was not so simple, automatically made her a far better ninja – and person – than he could ever hope to be.
With the combined efforts of Team Gai and InoShikaCho, and also Haruno Sakura's chakra talent on the sidelines, this battle with the Akatsuki right outside the Konoha gates was over before the sunset. They underestimated the teams present and did not do the proper research. Naruto was not even there but off on a brief training excursion with Jiraiya. Neji found it odd as well that Akatsuki sent such a small group to fight, but as they retreated in blurs of masks and flashes of weapons, Neji turned to survey the damage.
He was satisfied that there was little. Chouji sported a shallow cut on his left shin, gained when he had expanded his size to fight a ninja with a ball-and-chain weapon. Ino looked dizzy from being in someone else's body, but Shikamaru was steadying her and met his eyes. The Chuunin and the Jounin nodded an acknowledgement towards each other for the victory, but Neji could see that Shikamaru wondered about Akatsuki initiating such an obviously losing battle.
As for his own team, they were barely scratched. Lee was humming a little to himself as he replaced the weights in his clothing (which he had never really needed to remove). Neji wasn't quite that happy, but it made sense for Lee to be; Sakura had taken down an enemy right before he could attack Lee. A certain amount of pride swelled inside of Neji as his gaze turned to Tenten.
Someone had got in a lucky shot and torn a hole through the left side of her black tank top, but the blade had apparently never reached her skin for there was no sign of blood. She had given her all, as usual, and sweat had beaded on her forehead and neck only to be dried by the fall of some loose strands of mahogany hair that escaped from her usual buns. Her eyes were focused as she cleaned her soiled kunai and shuriken on the grass, but the power of his gaze ultimately drew her senses, and she turned her eyes to him.
A smile that was not really a smile turned the corners of her mouth upward. He did not know how to feel being at the end of that expression. "You did well, Neji." Her voice was tinged with praise but not full of it. She had become more reserved toward him in the last few months, and although Neji could not explain why, he found himself slightly unsettled by it.
Because of this inward thinking, he was too late to repeat the phrase toward her before Tenten turned on her heel and walked back into the village, saying not a word to anyone. This was not like her. She usually spent some time congratulating her comrades and seeing if anyone required any assistance that she might be able to lend. Perplexed but naturally keeping it hidden, Neji watched her go, and then relaxes his Byakugan. The world regained its normal color.
Neji wished he could use his doujutsu to see into his teammate's mind.
Neji had anticipated Hinata's usual question upon returning to the House. Her team had not been assigned to the battle, something that had bothered Kiba, but Neji had spoken to Shino about keeping both eyes on his cousin. Shino had appeared put off by this request, not because he didn't want to protect Hinata, but because he had been trying for years to make Neji understand that now Hinata was quite adept at watching out for herself.
But some things never changed. Neji would always consider his cousin to be someone needing protection and Hinata would always be waiting for Neji to come back and let her know what had occurred in her absence. Today, she was waiting for him in front of his room and now looked at him with urgent eyes.
"It's fine, Hinata-sama," he assured her tersely. "We defeated the attackers. Akatsuki probably won't—"
"No. That isn't what I mean." Hinata raised her fingers to her lips. She did not give in to this habit nearly as often as she did in their early teenage years, but right now she seemed especially concerned. "Tenten-chan was here. I was going by the gate just in time to let her in. She must have come right from the battle, or at least shortly after it. She was quite disheveled."
Neji recalled the way she had left the scene so swiftly. She had most likely had some purpose, and he predicted he was close to discovering what it was. "And?"
"She asked if she might leave something in your room. I don't know what it was, but—" The Hyuuga heiress wasn't able to finish her sentence before Neji swept past her and into his bedroom. "What is it?" she asked, curious.
It took him only a second to discover an addition to the usual spartan furnishings of his quarters, and that was only because what Tenten had left was so small. Betraying nothing in his face but for a slight tightening in his features, he lifted a sealed letter from his desk. He opened it at once, not worried about Hinata's presence and quickly scanned the contents.
"Is she alright?" came the sweet tones of his cousin.
Neji didn't turn to look at her, and he did not reply. "Let me clean up from the fight, Hinata-sama. We shall have a discussion about the Akatsuki and Naruto together later, if you wish." He knew that if he mentioned Naruto, Hinata would be successfully distracted for the time being.
He did not need to look at her to know that her concern had not faded but she would at least leave it to him. "Yes, Neji. That would be… Yes," she finished awkwardly. Hinata was not very good at suspecting people, but it seemed she did so now with Neji.
The Hyuuga listened to her footsteps as she padded softly away, and once they were gone, Neji wasted no time. Flinging the letter back down onto his desk, he bounded out of his room and off of the Hyuuga family grounds.
I won't be coming to train in the morning. Lee will be more than happy to practice with you.
The rational side of him said that there was nothing to be worked up about. Perhaps she had another engagement, perhaps she planned to spend the day making weapons. It was possible she intended to focus more on her meditation, a habit she had picked up from Hatake Kakashi to clear her head after fights. It was even a permissible thought that Tenten wanted to spend an afternoon with Ino or Sakura, friends that weren't men and weren't teammates.
Neji did not know, nor did he care. It had been years since Tenten had skipped a morning training session with him. In fact, he couldn't even recall a time when she had ever missed a single session. And she had mentioned Lee, of all people, to replace her! Tenten knew perfectly well, thought the Hyuuga with annoyance, that for him, training with Lee was akin to training with a baboon. He would never abide it.
He didn't care that he was getting an unusual amount of attention as he walked at a curiously fast pace toward Tenten's house. People looked at him and saw Hyuuga Neji of the Hyuuga branch house, the number-one genius of his year and new Jounin, having the closest thing to a panic attack he might ever experience.
His colorless eyes were narrowed, his mouth was stern, but all of that loosened on his face once he was right up against Tenten's door. He realized with some surprise that he had never entered his female teammate's house before. He was aware that she lived alone, and Neji knew that Tenten was more than responsible enough to take care of herself properly. That was not what had him hesitating before knocking.
What if she did not welcome him? The thought was absurd, of course, for Tenten had never been anything if not infallibly kind to both him and Lee ever since their Academy days. But what if this house was Tenten's place of sanctuary, and she preferred to keep it all secret and private? Neji could understand that perfectly.
He studied the plain brown wood of the door and made his decision swiftly. Tenten had her reasons. Maybe he would train a little by himself in the morning and then spend his time meditating as well. Or he could always ask Hinata-sama to—
Before he could turn away and start back home, the door he was staring at swung backward, away from him, and Tenten appeared from behind it.
She saw him and blinked for a moment. Her lips parted and mouthed his name in surprise, yet no sound came out of her.
His pulse jumped, and he didn't know why. "I didn't mean," he began.
"What are you," Tenten said at the same time, and they both faded into silence, waiting for the other to speak first.
Neji took the initiative, as he always tended to do, and went on. "I didn't mean to intrude, I…" He fumbled, seeking the right words and coming up empty. "I didn't mean to be here."
Tenten's eyebrow lifted in uncertainty of his meaning, and it was then that Neji took in her appearance. She wore a plain, light green linen kimono that covered her from neck to knees. Her hair was loose, still damp from her fighting sweat, and his eyes stopped briefly on the wavy ends that reached nearly to her waist – he always forgot how long and thick her hair really was – before catching sight of the wooden bucket with shower toiletries inside. A fluffy towel hung over her arm.
"You're on your way to the bath house," he stated obviously and stepped backward to give her space. He could see her even better at this distance, and the waning daylight made what visible tanned skin he could see glow like gold. He paused again because this time he noticed the curves and slants to her body that were not always easily seen in her ninja dress. If he had been anyone but Hyuuga Neji, he might have begun salivating. Since he was Hyuuga Neji, he was instead merely astonished.
When the hell had Tenten gotten a figure like Yuhi Kurenai? And how, exactly, had he missed it?
A stray thought told Neji that he would have to check Hinata-sama's body type just to make sure she hadn't developed this grandly lest he need to take measures to increase her security.
"You didn't mean to be here?" At first he thought that she sounded amused, but upon seeing her face, he realized that Tenten looked rather deadpan. He felt something icy grab his ribcage. Her brown eyes appeared to judge him, but she only said, "What kind of thing is that for Hyuuga Neji to say?"
The icy thing yanked – hard. "You're right. I came to check on you." Hold up his paper filled hand, he showed her the note. Duty to his team began to take over, and his confidence was restored. "Is there something we should discuss?"
She sighed. She appeared tired, and her shoulders were drooping the same way they after every battle they had experienced in the last seven years. Some things, he supposed, did not change whether you were twelve or nineteen. Tenten shifted her bucket to her other hand and pulled the door open all the way. "I can see I'm not getting out of this one," she muttered, but it was more to herself than to her unexpected guest. "Come in, Neji."
He felt somewhat guilty for delaying her plans, but she was right. There was a third of his team possibly out of good health, and as unofficial team leader it was Neji's job to discover what was necessary to get her going. He stepped inside, but Neji spoke as she shut the door behind him.
"What's wrong? Are you unwell?"
"Of course not." She said it as though the very idea irritated her. "Have you seen me sick even once since you've known me?"
Neji stood still, thinking about it. "You dropped your own poisoned senbon on your calf when we were—"
"That doesn't count," Tenten cut him off with a snap in her voice. A faint blush colored her cheeks, but only for a moment. Neji pretended he hadn't seen it, knowing it might only annoy her further. And she was obviously annoyed at something. He found himself hoping it wasn't him.
"I don't need to stay," he told her in quiet, even tones. "I imagine you want to get cleaned up, and I'm to meet with Hinata-sama before long. I just wanted to know what you would miss a training session for."
Neji wasn't sure, but he thought he saw the peeved expression drop. He tried not to feel encouraged because he did not want to underestimate this woman. At first, Tenten did nothing except to walk past him into a room beyond the entrance hall, and he followed her.
She took him into a small living room graced with only a few tatami mats and a low table. She kneeled on one side of it and motioned for him to take the other. Once he was seated and they faced each other, she gave him a small smile.
Neji realized he disliked that smile, the same smile she had given him for months now. There was no true happiness behind the curve of her lips, and he hated feeling that she was anything but content with her life.
Tenten took a breath. "I've applied to be relocated at Tsunade-sama's office." Her fingers curled under her palms as she spoke, tensing up. "There is to be a test team including Sakura, Ino, and I starting Thursday."
Neji felt his head take a dip as his thoughts instantly began to spin. Relocated…? Tenten? Squaring his shoulders, he set his hands flat on the smooth wood of the table and leaned back. He took a moment to recall the current day. "The day after tomorrow," he said. His tone was suspiciously flat.
Tenten nodded, her freed hair gleaming as light from the nearby window shifted on it. Her jaw seemed tightly as though even that small movement was difficult for her. "She wants to see how an all-female team performs together. We probably will start of with a few C-rank missions and then move up to B. Kurenai-sensei may join us on any A-ranks, or even Shizune-san."
A knee slid back, and Neji was halfway to his feet without truly realizing his own withdraw. "You're leaving the team."
"Temporarily." She said the word so casually that she might as well have been telling him about a new film that had just come out. "It's just a test, and then Sakura will go back to Naruto and Ino to Chouji and Shikamaru."
He froze when she didn't further that statement. His own words sounded strangled even to his ears. "And…you…"
Some hair fell into his eyes, and Neji saw her between coal-dark strands. Tenten, who had been keeping her eyes on the back of her hands, now turned her face up to him. "And then I'm going to apply for outside-city work. The Land of Wind is starting to build new villages. Kazekage Gaara-sama has asked Tsunade-sama for some available shinobi or kunoichi who would be interested in helping with the construction. I'm good at making things, and I've already corresponded with Temari-san in the Sand Village, so I will surely be accepted for…" She trailed off and suddenly seemed quite sad. If Neji could form full thoughts at the moment, he would have wondered what his face looked like to change her confident mood so abruptly.
"You're leaving the team," he repeated. It was sinking in very slowly.
Tenten stood up and turned her back to him. She turned to a lantern and fumbled in a table drawer, looking for a match to light the wick with. When she finally spoke, it was so quiet he had to strain to hear. He had enhanced eyes, not ears. "Yes, Neji."
Neji stared at her with wide, unrevealing eyes. He felt completely uncomfortable, as hard as stone, because he suddenly felt like he didn't know the woman who was telling him that she was deserting her team, her whole city. But this was Tenten, his teammate of seven years, and it seemed as though he was watching a total stranger in her home.
In a moment, the lantern was lit, and for the first time there was good lighting in the room. It was sparse in its furnishing, but Neji now noticed a small shrine in the far side of the room. It was so unnoticeable it seemed almost put purposely out of the way. But the doors were currently open and inside were two pictures, a man and a woman. Both smiled, but unobtrusively, the same way Tenten did.
They were her parents, he realized. He had most likely seen her on the doorstep right after she had bid them goodbye before she left. Neji's heart constricted. He got the sudden notion that there was a whole part of Tenten he knew nothing about. Maybe he was seeing it right now.
She finally turned back to him, and the lantern light glowed around her, giving her an ethereal look. But she was not smiling, not even falsely, and Neji didn't know what was worse.
"Why do you like at me like that?" she asked at length. Her hands clasped in front of her, an action rarely seen from her. Tenten was normally not so prim, but she seemed to force politeness for him. "I won't be there forever, you know. Perhaps a few years."
"The team needs you," he managed.
"I'll be replaced. There's a Chuunin exam in a month," she told him, her tone light. "There are other weapons experts that will graduate and take my place."
"Tenten, stop!" Neji smacked a hand hard on the table, and he rose to full height. Her chin angled upward to follow his eyes. She had tensed with his order, but now she tossed her head so that her hair fell behind her shoulders. He sensed she wasn't used to it being in her way.
"Neji, don't start acting like you and Lee won't get on without me," she began forcefully. "You know you can."
"Me and Lee." The fact that he could not say "and you" made him ache somewhere inside. He also remembered her note. "You volunteered Lee to train with me tomorrow. What were you even thinking?"
Her eyes sharpened. "I wish you would stop treating Lee like he's dirt under your shoe, Neji. He's practically as talented as you are, and he's proven himself more times than even me. Besides, you'll be working with him from now on."
Neji was not prone to temper, but hearing her say "from now on" and those it was a restriction had fire leaping to his brain, and his voice rose. "Gaara doesn't need you! You belong in Konoha."
"So I'll come back!" She wasn't yelling, not yet, but she was urgent. Tenten looked at him in a way that showed she did not understand why he was acting like this. Fair enough; Neji didn't know why he was acting like this. But the prospect of her going away had him feeling…different. Angry.
"Tenten." A short breath blew out his mouth, the sound stopped before it could become a sigh. Neji didn't sigh. "When have we argued?"
"Right now. I've been here for years," she stated briskly, "and only now, when I choose to do something away from the team do you act like you're actually appreciative of my presence? Damn it, Neji!"
Hearing her curse had his spine straightening. He realized belatedly that any negativity he might have been feeling was far outmatched by hers. And he realized it was his fault. But he didn't know what she was so mad about. And she was certainly wrong. "I've not been appreciative?" he demanded.
"You lose a training tool, right? Isn't that it?" A corner of her lip turned up in a smirk of disbelief when he could think of nothing to say. "You're incredible, Neji. You're gifted and strong and admired. But I am, too. Temari asked for me by name. You've only had me out of coincidence for seven years." Her shoulders slumped, and for an instant, something real shone through her eyes. "Seven years…"
Her tone changed, and he seized his chance. "Seven years of good work, Tenten. We've done good work."
"Work." Tenten nodded. She sounded tired again, the anger dissipating. "Yes, we have. And I will do more 'good work.' For Gaara of the Sand."
Her words cut him like the points of her kunai. Neji couldn't identify this feeling he was experiencing. But his chest burned, and his fingers felt numb, and he was dizzing, and his muscles were all clenched so tightly he felt they might collapse in on each other. He might collapse.
"Why?" he asked at last. He did not recognize his own voice. He did not even recognize her, with her steely gaze and her guarded posture. "Why are you doing this to me?"
He felt…broken. And it was Tenten who had done the damage.
Tenten shook her head. "That's just it, Neji. I'm not doing this to you. I'm doing it for me." She turned her face to the right, just slightly, and dropped her eyes.
He saw something with the light adjustment upon her. Something he had been ridiculous not to see before. A diamond glittered on the corner of her eyes, and it fell to streak over her cheek, down to her jaw. A tear.
Tenten was crying. Silently, privately…but crying nonetheless.
On impulse, he stepped forward. Before he could get too close, she threw out a hand to stop his progress. Fists clenched at his sides. She didn't want him there.
"I've never…" Her voice shook, and she breathed deeply, still not looking at him. More tears joined the first one, but not a single sob tore from her struggling throat. "I've never understood how your eyes – your eyes– see so little, Neji."
She was radiant. Not in the beautiful way, although she was always attractive. She gave off light even brighter than the flame of the lantern behind her. Neji was still missing something, and he felt like if he used Byakugan to look into his head, he would see the hole. "What…" He hoped this was the right question. "What did I do to you?"
Now she met his eyes, and all her tears were gone. "Nothing," she said right away, the strength she had briefly lost returning to her. A smile blossomed, and this might have been the most genuine one he had seen in a long time. "Absolutely nothing, Neji. It's just that I've done nothing to you."
Lost, he kept quiet. She watched him with something glowing in her eyes, and he didn't know she had tried repeatedly to kill that fire; the one that had kept her from hating him.
She stepped up to him, finally allowing the distance to be closed, but not completely. She turned her face up to look into the uninterrupted depths of his eyes, and she seemed satisfied. Tenten murmured as night finished falling, "I'm glad of who you've become. I really am, Neji."
He wished he could return the sentiment. But he felt like he didn't even know who she had become. Was that the problem?
"Don't leave," he told her softly. Neji was not used to begging, but the demand was weakly-made. He felt like she had gathered up all of his strength and taken it for herself. Tenten was now perfectly composed, and Neji was still broken. "Don't…Tenten."
"Not yet," she whispered, her breath edging past his ear. "Soon." She took his hand and held it for several moments, a sign of partnership. And then she dropped it, saying nothing.
Something snapped behind his eyes, behind the power of the Byakugan. And suddenly, he didn't need to see.
Tenten made to walk past him again, presumably to get her things and continue to the bath houses like before.
She never got far.
Neji grabbed her wrist and turned, pulling her to him in one, swift motion. And they were together, instantly, chest for chest. Just as quickly, she was against the wall, trapped between plaster and his body. Neji dropped his forehead to hers and made sure she was looking.
He wasn't angry. He had expected to be angry. He had expected even to be confused, defensive…anything but this feeling of being rejected. There was a woman in his arms, he thought. Not the girl named Tenten, but the woman Tenten had created of herself, and this was her.
He liked her. Neji thought he might even, somewhere along the way, have fallen for her. But he didn't know the full meaning of that word. Fallen.
He was too strong for that.
And when he kissed her, he felt raised up, lifted…anything but fallen. And he drank her in, and she filled up that hole he had felt.
Neji didn't realize that he was only creating a similar hole inside of her.
Before he could test how her wavy hair felt between his fingers, Tenten pushed him away, caringly but also frantically. "You can't!" Her voice trembled, and her fingers curled into the material of the hakama he wore. "Don't do this," she murmured. "I'm all ready to go… All ready, Neji. I'm going to leave you."
There it was, out in the open. Neji's fingers came up to brush the shockingly white curve of her cheek, and he struggled to gain air, to control his rapidly beating heart. The double effect of the plain truth and just her had him scrambling to maintain some control. Neji had never lost control. He was worried that he would go mad if he didn't kiss her again.
Tenten calmed him with a careful, cautious hand to his chest. He stepped back, securing distance, and she straightened up from the wall. "You can't change my mind like that, Neji. I'm not going to stay simply because you kissed me right now. When you first came today, I was leaving to get away from you."
He felt he could bleed with the statement. "What do I—"
"But now I see that I have to leave to get to know myself."
I want to get to know you, too. Neji wished he knew how to say that to her.
"So I'm still going to go. But I'll promise you, if that's what you need." She smiled. "I'll come back."
Neji slipped his hands into his pockets. "You want me to be in love with you," he said plainly.
"No." She didn't seem surprised that he had said the word so effortlessly. Tenten seemed to know that he was capable of loving. "I want you to want to be in love with me. What I want right now is to go help out Gaara and Temari with their country. That's good enough for now."
A silent acceptance settled over Neji with all the quiet effect of a spring rain, and he wondered if he had begun to understand her just a little better. "Freedom," he intoned.
"Yes. Freedom to come and go and…and live without you, if necessary." Tenten leaned down and picked up the bucket she had abandoned earlier. "Do you see yet, Neji?"
He was starting to. He wanted to, anyway.
"I've been right before your eyes all this time. Maybe when I'm gone you'll start to see me. When I return, you can show me." She opened her front door and watched as he went out in front of her.
In front of her house, Neji turned to regard her with calculating eyes. She seemed less inclined to distance herself now and returned the stare with equal interest. "I don't know what to do now," he told her honestly. He still felt broken, and he was concerned that she wouldn't be there to fix him. "I can't imagine a day without seeing you at least once."
Her smile stayed. This smile was the one he had been waiting for. But why did it have to be an expression for goodbye? "You will soon. You always make it through." Forgoing verbal farewells because she hated them, Tenten turned and began to walk in the direction opposite from the one that he would be heading in.
She looked over her shoulder, and in the moonlight of the empty street, the Hyuuga thought she might as well have been a goddess. Something untouchable…but only for now. "Yes, Neji?"
A smirk came to his face. "Did Temari-san ask for anyone else by name?"
She paused and tilted her head, recalling. "Yes," she replied steadily. "Rock Lee and Hyuuga Neji." Then, without even blinking, she went on down the street, not even looking back.
But Neji could feel Tenten relaxing, laughing to herself…being happy.
And that was better than anything he may have seenwith his eyes.