Title: I Had Died For This
Notes: Written for nagia's ( tainted4life on lj) request oneshot, from identifying cameos on chapter 5 of 'Over the Years'. It's an attempt at writing non-humor Nejiten…(gnaws nervously on fingernails)
Quotes are from 'Felise', by Algernon Charles Swinburne.
Their spar had begun in drizzle, the sky gray-dark above them; it ended in a downpour. The ground was churned and mud-slimed beneath their feet, and every breath was filled with rain. And she, weapons-mistress that she was, between whose fingers small bladed deaths slipped as though water, had to pick up all her flung missiles from the remains of their battleground. It would be a lengthy task.
Neji, after picking up the relatively few weapons he himself had used in the spar – she noticed that the kunai he had kept in hand to parry her weapons had been one that she'd forged for him – left the training-grounds. He walked past her silently, his shoulders straight underneath the mud-spotted white hakama, as if he wasn't tired, as if he wasn't being drenched by rain, as if nothing had touched him.
He didn't even look at her as he went by.
Tenten paused, straightening from where she had been kneeling to gather a dozen kunai, and watched him go. Her eyes stayed on his straight-lined back for a long time. Then, silently, with no change of expression on her face or in her eyes, she turned back to her task.
It was not that it was particularly unexpected, or even that it had been particularly cold – for him. It was just a small coldness, on top of a long list of other coldness, and it came at the end of a cold, rainy day.
She thought, 'And we haven't even said anything to each other. At all.'
'We just fought.'
She gathered up the last of her weapons, tugging a fuuma shuriken out of the tree-trunk it had embedded itself in, in thoughtful silence. She walked back home in the rain, unmindful of the water streaming down her face and dripping from her hair, in the same abstracted introspection, her eyes looking at something that was very far away.
The next day, she submitted her application for the ANBU.
who knows what word were best to say/ for last year's leaves lie dead and red/ on this sweet day, in this green may/ and barren corn makes bitter bread
She did well in the black squad, surprisingly well. She was not brilliant but she shone just below that shocking brightness; and ANBU had learned that the brilliant flame unsteadily. Tenten was good without being threatening; she was competent without causing envy.
And she never buckled.
At first they kept her in a specific niche, long-range sniper for her team; she never missed, but more importantly she never took more than one shot, and she never took that shot until it was necessary. Her closer-ranged teammates appreciated her forbearance; nonetheless, her kill-rate racked up quickly.
She had come to ANBU knowing how to use the katana which was their signature, as much as the tattoo or the porcelain masks, which was not true of every ANBU rookie; and then her squad-captain took some time to train her in kenjutsu, and she quickly moved past simply 'knowing how'. When her captain ran out of things to teach her he passed her onto someone better, who repeated the process in a few weeks.
Soon she was one of ANBU's top swordsmen and they no longer reserved her for long-distance killings. She grew familiar with the arc-spurt of blood that followed her sweeping, slashing attacks, and the little flick of the sword-blade to fling the remnants of the battle away became unthinking reflex – not out of any squeamishness but to prevent any impurities on the blade.
Her mask was a dragon.
here as last year the fields begin/ a fire of flowers and glowing grass/ the old fields we laughed and lingered in/ seeing each our souls in last year's glass
Neji had, for all intents and purposes, lost his sparring partner when she joined the ANBU. She trained with them now, and her frequent and lengthy missions – most of which took place outland – kept her out of Konoha much of the time, anyway.
He remembered when she had told him that she had been accepted into the ANBU; he hadn't even known she had applied, and he was so surprised he hadn't been able to say anything. When had she…?
Before he regained his voice she had turned from him to speak to Gai-sensei, who was looking uncharacteristically solemn.
He had meant to congratulate her, however uneasily, then. If he had known then what he knew now, he would have added his voice to Gai-sensei's in urging her to reconsider. He had the chance for neither.
He missed her. And, missing her, was forced to examine why the presence – or lack of – of someone could affect him so. Why should he care if he did not know exactly how she was doing, if he did not know where she was and why, if he could not at any moment put out his hand and place it on her? When had he gotten used to having her nearby, to the sound of her voice and the scent of her hair and the colors that shone in her eyes?
When had he gotten to need her so?
He told her all this when he was able to snatch a moment alone with her, when he had seen her coming back from a mission with her new team – and something inside him had tightened and hurt at that thought – and he had pulled her away. She drew away once, and Neji had felt his stomach drop; but she only went to her captain to say something, and then she went back to him, and Neji breathed again.
He tugged her to their training-grounds; and he was all too aware of the strange feel of the metal bracers underneath his fingers instead of the smooth warm skin of his teammate's wrist. Just as he was aware of the ANBU uniform she was wearing, gray armor and black fabric, instead of the pink and green silks he remembered. Just as he was aware of the white dragon-mask that hid her face from his eyes.
He took her to their old training-grounds, the old pits and holes that had scarred the clearing now beginning to heal over. Something inside him hated that.
And there, where they had spent so much of their youth, underneath a rising moon and emerging stars, he told her he loved her.
She refused him.
i had died for this last year, to know/ you loved me. who shall turn on fate/ i care not if love come or go/ now, though your love seek mine for mate/ it is too late.
The next time they met was at a festival. It was not a Konoha festival, and it was not a matter of planning; it was only merest chance. Both her team and he – he was out solo on a B-class mission – had had outland missions; and this town was a waystop to Konoha. They should only have been passing by on a journey back to report their respective successes – but her teammate had need of medical assistance, and he…
He just wanted to see her.
A rejection and a suffering had only served to fan the flames; Neji had never reacted well to loss. He obsessed over it, brooded, worried at it like a wolf with the last scraps of a kill. He was almost feverish with wanting.
"Tenten…" He snatched at her hand; she yanked it out of his grasp.
"Hyuuga-san," she said quietly, the proper tilt and respect of his name a barrier she was throwing up between them. "Do you require assistance with your mission? My captain…"
He told her, in low harsh tones, what her captain could do with himself. "Tenten…" he said again, his voice softening, becoming a plea.
"If you do not require ANBU assistance, then I must be going. May I remind you, Hyuuga-san, that Konoha protocol states that teams on separate missions may not…"
He reached out and caught her shoulder; before she could twist away he had pushed her against a wall and trapped her with his own body, one hand pinning her wrists above her head, the other on her hip, ready to deflect a quick knee-strike. Then, his eyes filled with the glitter and spark of hers – the first time in too long he had seen such – he bent his head and kissed her.
kiss me once hard as though a flame/ lay on my lips and made them fire/ the same lips now, and not the same/ what breath shall fill and re-inspire/ a dead desire?
She stood beneath his lips perfectly still, like a statue of wax that had only grown warm by sun and not out of any lifespark. She was unmoving, unmoved; no flush came to her face, no jump, no heartpounding – she did not even breathe. Reveling in the feel and scent and taste of her so close to him, it took Neji a moment to notice; then he backed off, breathing hard, mind reeling, dazed and confused.
She looked as if nothing at all had happened.
"I will take my leave now," she told him, and slipped out from underneath his slackened grasp like water rushing past a rock. She left him with a quick flickering of ANBU-trained motion, and the air hardly stirred at her passing; and there was no trace of her left except in Neji's memories.
He placed fingertips against his lips; then he left, flitting out of the little town towards Konoha, and the whole time there was a howl held behind his teeth.
o earth, thou art fair; o dust, thou art great/ o laughing lips and lips that mourn/ pray, till ye feel the exceeding weight/ of god's intolerable scorn
The days passed like a wind; and Tenten continued to rise steadily through the ANBU ranks. The Council was pleased with her, and her superiors valued her strength and skill; so it did not much matter to her that Tsunade-sama looked at her with great sad eyes, or her nights that screamed with silence and cold, or that she hadn't spoken to any of her old friends in…in a long while.
The days passed like a swift winter wind; and suddenly the Village was alight with the incredible story of the Battle of Hemus-Deap. Kiri had been making noises about allying with the Sound against Konoha; in proof of their sincerity they had begun to mass forces, using a small border village called Hemus as a headquarters.
The ANBU had descended on them en masse, somehow at Hemus days before anyone had predicted. The battle had raged for days, with Konoha's non-ANBU forces tied up in an action against Sound, moving beyond the charnel-house the village had become up to the mountain of Deap.
The ANBU wiped all non-Konohans from the face of the earth.
The Village reacted to this news with the simple, pure, bloodthirsty joy of a nation at war; the ANBU blazed their long-forgotten glory, and the stain of the Third Hokage's death on their watch was cleansed. Once again to bear the white mask was a sign of prestige.
Neji worried about Tenten.
She was on the lips of every excited villager who was repeating the story of Hemus-Deap; the bladesmaster, the weapons-mistress, the dragon-summoner (the Soushoryuu, having been used to devastating effect in a crowd of civilians, had become actual dragons in the eyes of other civilians) the fifteenth captain, the sword-dancer, the Steel Dragon.
But never her name.
He went up to her small apartment. Byakugan-eyes could see her moving slowly, carefully, mechanically through her home, stripping off her ANBU uniform.
It was a well-established routine, he knew, almost eerie in its studied precision. First, always first, her blade; a cleaning-cloth run up and down the katana's silver surface, then the hilt and crossguard cleaned – then the sheathing – the weapon put into its special case.
Then the rest of her weapons, wiping them off – even the untouched ones – with the same care as her katana, all placed one by one into the correct holder on her specially-constructed weapons-case.
Then the greaves, untied, the right one first, set on the worktable, the left one, set on the worktable exactly two inches beside the right. The bracers came next, this time unbuckling the left one before the right, wiping them off with the same cloth soaked in water as the greaves, then placing them five inches above the greaves, exactly aligned.
Neji suppressed a shiver.
Her gloves came next, put to soak in a tub of special cleanser, which turned pale red almost immediately. Her boots were then carefully unlaced, wiped down, and put side-by-side with the laces tucked into the eye-holes right below the worktable. Her gray breastplate was unbuckled, wiped down, placed exactly beside the greaves and bracers.
She unhooked her black top, pulled it off, and folded it carefully into a neat square, which she placed into another tub of the same cleanser her gloves were currently soaking in. Then she shimmied out of her black pants, folded them as carefully as she had done everything else, and put them beside her black top.
Finally, stripped of everything – weapons and armor – but a thin white vest and her underwear, she reached up and took off her dragon-mask, shaking her head to accustom herself to the new lack of weight. In a break from the usual routine she turned the mask in her hands, tracing across the lines with her fingertips.
She sighed softly, and her shoulders bowed a little. She turned to put the mask on her shelf – only to be brought up short by the sight of Hyuuga Neji in her apartment, white eyes looking steadily at her.
"Pardon me, Hyuuga-san," she finally said, trying to slip past him to put her mask on the shelf; she was jerked back by his grip on her arm.
"Excuse me, I need to put this back…" she said, her voice rising ever so slightly. She pulled at his hand, her pupils beginning to shrink into pinpricks, but he only stared at her silently.
She attacked him, already frantic, flailing blindly at the Byakugan-user with no trace of the sleek lethality that had won her the rank of ANBU captain. He subdued her with insulting, worrying ease.
"Let me go!" she screamed, struggling against his arms. "Neji, let go of me!" It was the first time she'd used his name in more than a year.
"Why?" he asked her, trying to keep his words easy, soothing.
"I – need - to - " she panted, straining now not so much to break his hold but to put the mask back on the shelf. She stood on her toes, stretching one arm out and leaning away from Neji, who was forced to shift his balance. He leaned back against the table to steady himself, and his movement pushed the pieces of her armor out of alignment; when she saw this, she jerked wildly; he was alarmed to see her eyes almost begin to roll into her skull.
"You can't! You can't!" she sobbed, her breath hitching in her chest. "They have to be…they have to be perfect, I can't – "
Neji spun her around to face him, and the dragon's-mask dropped from her slack fingers, landing on the floor with a noisy clatter; neither of them took much notice. "What can't you do, Tenten?" he asked, voice fiercer now. "Can't you let this go? Can't you live outside your mask, your ANBU?"
"They're all I have left…" she cried. She buried her face into his chest, not for any comfort or closeness but to hide herself from his eyes. She pounded her fists against him, and the blows were hard enough to bruise; Neji stood stolidly underneath her onslaught. "Why won't you give me this? Why won't you let me have this much?"
"I'd give you anything," Neji told her, his eyes blazing. "But this… isn't something you have. It's something that's taking everything away from you…come back, Tenten. Come back to us…to me. They…they're only…Don't…don't let yourself just be their blade. You're more that that…you're so much more than that." He buried his face into her hair.
"Come back to me."
They sank to the ground. The movement pushed the table back, and the pieces of her armor fell to the floor, joining her dragon's-mask in disarray. Neji let himself lean against the wooden table, arranging Tenten so she was curled up in his lap. He had dreamed of this; but this was both sadder and more wonderful than anything he had dreamed. He held Tenten close as her fists slowed, then clenched into his shirt, white-knuckled at first; he could feel her body relaxing by slow degrees, tiny bits of tension melting away from her as if contained in the tears that streamed down her face. She did not seem to notice the way he stroked her hair, or the soft kisses he laid over her brows and cheeks and closed eyelids, the way he wiped the tears away with his fingers or his lips, much less the promises and apologies he whispered into her ear; but she didn't push him away, either, and Neji – having been subject to worse treatment, and having given worse – was content.
She cried herself to sleep in his arms.
behold, there is no grief like this/ the barren blossom of thy prayer / thou shalt find out how sweet it is/ o fools and blind, what seek ye there / high up in the air?
AN: Nagia asked for a happy ending, but… (grins sheepishly) I dunno, I just couldn't write it fully happy. Maybe I'll write a sequel, where Neji helps Tenten wean herself away from ANBU (which, if I ever write it, will include a Hyuuga ANBU squad-member who doesn't Tenten away from the ANBU) and that'll be more fluffy…However, I've got several other series to write, so...
Hope you liked. The ending was pretty rushed, especially the dialogue - gah - so...please feel free to drop a line concerning any weirdness/OOCness/wait-WTF-ness you may have experienced. Also, special add-in for the formatting screwed this up even more! (mourns spacing and page-breaks)