Author's Notes: Oh yes, I'm still alive. Just swamped by work and NaNoWriMo this month. This was written a few weeks ago for the NejiTen Festival on Livejournal. It's incredibly long and it's broken up into ten different, themed sections. Some of the sections go in chronological order, others don't, but you should be able to read it easily. Also, there is a somewhat suggestive scene included, so use your own discretion.
Otherwise, please enjoy.
Disclaimer: I own nothing once again.
Bergeron FallsTheme 1: It's Been Five Days
It had been five days since they'd seen the sky and Tenten was wilting like a flower without sunlight. A storm had rolled in just after they'd reached their target village, turning the streets to mud and swelling the rivers. They had spent a miserable two days getting themselves acquainted with the layout, as well as promoting themselves as a young couple down on their luck and looking for a fresh start. The goal was to get accepted into an undergrown ring of mostly missing-nin who had been causing trouble for the region's daimyo, mostly petty crimes and the like but the lord feared the group would soon branch out into other, less managable activies - like murder.
The weather certainly wasn't helping as it kept the group in hiding, their energy smoldering in its confinement. Neji had made brief contact with the group's leader, Kyo, who had agreed to meet him on the fifth night, a meeting Tenten had not been invited to even in her role as supposed lover. Needless to say, her mood was beginning to reflect the clouds outside.
That morning she had stubbed her toe on the leg of the nightstand and had spent an embarrassing minute and a half jumping around in the pre-dawn darkness. Neji, luckily, had been asleep (or at least feigning so) on his side of the bed and had missed the half mumbled curses she'd uttered as she'd limped towards the shower. Then she'd misplaced her hair ties and had had to go out with her hair down to collect information. She'd come back soaked to the bone, clothes and hair plastered to her body and had barely managed to restrain herself from punching a guy who'd had the audacity to whistle at her.
As it was, she sloshed her way up to her and Neji's cramped hotel room and threw herself into the shower again, this time to warm up and wash off mud splatter. By the time she'd emerged, Neji had returned (somehow looking as impeccable as he had when he'd left) and told her he thought he had gotten them into the crime ring. He simply had to meet with the missing-nin Kyo that evening and convince him - alone - that he and Tenten were Academy dropouts and knew just enough to be helpful to him. Tenten was very Unhappy (with a capital "U"). Not because she thought Neji couldn't handle it on his own, but because she was feeling rather frustrated and damn it if Neji was going to have all the fun.
For his part, Neji was rather aware that Tenten was Unhappy and knew it didn't bode well for him. (She was usually a very easy sleeper but last night she'd kicked him in the side hard, as if to unconsciously reiterate that she wasn't there just to look good on his arm.) However, there really wasn't much he could do about their situation, such as it was. The storm would break on it's own time and Kyo had a problem with females that didn't simper and smile and keep quiet in the presence of men. That combined with Tenten's current temper would certainly result in someone getting a good beating. And it wouldn't be Tenten.
But, like it or not, they really needed their culprit alive.
Tenten crossed her arms over her chest in an attempt to look formidable. (The effect was somewhat lessened, however, by the fact that she was only wearing a towel.)
"How long?" she asked, watching him take out a few of the weapons he had carried with him that day. He could have nothing on him when he went to meet Kyo.
"Two hours, maybe more," he answered steadily, throwing a handful of loose shuriken on the bed. "Did you find out anything?"
"Kyo has a girl in the village. She's a seamtress, little thing, completely devoted to him." Her voice was dismissive. Sabi wouldn't be a problem.
Neji nodded. "Good. She won't be at the meeting tonight." His moon-colored eyes flickered up to hers, a silent question. Tenten smiled a little, the expression stiff but softening.
"I'll go and pretend to be devasted that you didn't come home. She's the comforting type. She'll tell me about Kyo."
Neji straightened and came towards her, forcing her to tilt her head back to look him in the eye. He'd grown quite a lot since their genin days. He hands came up to rest on her waist.
"I would rather have you with me," he said quietly, after a moment. This time, her smile had completely lost it's edge. She leaned into him slightly.
"I would rather go with you," she affirmed, but the clouds of her mood had vaporized and she could no longer be angry about it. She tangled her fingers in his hair, her expression turning thoughtful. "How much time before you meet Kyo?"
"An hour." He paused. "Why?"
"That's plenty," she said, and let her towel fall to the floor.
Theme 2: Sincerely Yours
"This," Sabi said, leaning towards her over the counter, "is Kyo when he first came to our village." She pointed with a long, slim finger to the picture of a striking young man, hair touseled, smiling politely for the camera. He wasn't wearing a hitae-ate or anything else that said he was a ninja, but even in the photograph there was a sort of lean alertness about him that betrayed him. His hands were at his sides, his body tilted slightly to the left. Tenten was rather suprised. He looked like an ordinary young man, about her own age, and nothing at all screamed that he was the leader of group of missing-nin the daimyo wanted eradicated.
Head in her hands and elbows resting on the table, Tenten smiled for Sabi's sake. "He looks nice."
Sabi smiled prettily. "He is."
Tenten had caught Kyo's girlfriend closing up after a long day of alterations and making dresses for local patrons. Sabi was an apprentice seamstress but from what Tenten could tell (and all she knew about sewing was stitching together wounds) Sabi was almost better than her master. She had been finishing up a silk dress when Tenten had entered, a beautiful thing of dark colbalt with a long full skirt. It was for the daimyo's daughter, Sabi had told her, who loved foreign clothing. Tenten had told her, and with completely honesty, that it was a masterpiece.
"How long have you known him?," Tenten asked her, watching as the other girl folded away spare lengths of fabric. Sabi was a nice girl, trusting, but weak-willed. She was enarmoured with Kyo and seemed to obey his every whim. Getting information from her would be easy as long as Tenten played the "girly" card. The one that had had Tenten saying Neji hadn't returned, and did Sabi have any idea of where he had gone? He might have been caught out in a flood! Perhaps he had drowned and Tenten would be all alone with no one to provide for her! (At this point in the story, Tenten had faked a small sob and gave a grudging thanks to the raindrops on her cheeks.)
Sabi, of course, had seen only a distraught woman whom she would very much like to be friends with, and had immediately divulged that Kyo had asked Neji to go somewhere with him. And then she'd happily brought out a stack of pictures to take her poor friend's mind off her missing lover, enthusastic when it came to her beloved Kyo.
"I took that picture, you know, and Kyo doesn't like his picture taken." She dimpled, "But he smiles for me."
It was then that Tenten was sure that Sabi had no idea of what Kyo did in his spare time. It was either that or she was one hell of an actress.
"Neji doesn't like his picture taken either," Tenten said, flipping pictures over idly. "I'm sure he and Kyo will have a lot in common, don't you think?"
Sabi beamed at her. "I'm sure of it! And then we'll see each other all the time!" She clapped her hands together as if it was the happiest thought imaginable. And maybe for her it was.
"I'd like that," Tenten replied, and then carefully let her expression fold. "But I'm still worried about Neji. It's not like him to leave without telling me, and it's already been two hours." Two hours, maybe more, Neji had said. What was taking him so long?
Sabi reached out to put a hand on her arm. "Don't worry. Kyo told me he wanted Neji to be at the meeting tonight so I'm sure that's where he's gone."
Tenten gave her a hopeful look. "You really think so?"
"Sure! Kyo has lots of meetings but he always makes it home for dinner."
"Really? I wonder what the meeting is about?" Tenten said it thoughtfully, as if she were simply wondering aloud. Sabi didn't even glance at her though, oblivious to any higher motive.
"I've never been to one, but Kyo raises money every year for the orphanage where he grew up. I'm sure that's it."
Tenten blinked. Orphanage? Now that was original. And "raising" money as in "stealing it from other people"? How quaint. "That's very kind of him," she said instead, laying her hands flat on the table. It was time to go. Sabi obviously didn't know what type of man Kyo really was. Neji had mentioned that Kyo liked women who were submissive and Sabi fit the bill perfectly. She would never ask Kyo anything that might make him angry.
Just as Tenten was about to make her excuses, Sabi suddenly straightened as if she'd just remembered something. "Oh, Tenten-san! I forgot to ask! Are you and Neji attending the the spring dance this weekend?"
Tenten struggled to rearrange her thinking. "What?"
"The spring dance! It's the biggest event in our village. Lots of Kyo's friends will be there and you'll be sure to meet lots of new people! It'll help you feel right at home here!" Sabi was actually glimmering at her, eyes sparkling. "And I will make you a fabulous dress! Pink, I think, with ribbons and-"
Tenten was on her feet, smiling cheerfully as she backed towards the door. "Ah, I don't think so, Sabi. Neji really isn't one for dancing." Not to mention if everyone was going to the dance, the village itself would be mostly empty. A brilliant time for Kyo to steal whatever it was he was planning to steal.
"Oh, but you must go! It wouldn't be the same without-" She cut off as the door bell jingled and Neji stepped inside, lowering his umbrella as he went. Water dripped on the floor. "Neji-san! There you are! Tenten-san was very worried about you."
Neji's head swung towards her and Tenten affected a very relieved expression. "The weather was so horrible out, I was afraid something had happened to you."
"No, Hazutora Kyo invited me to a gathering tonight. We just finished." There was a tone in his voice though that was strange, a note that said he wanted her to come with him and now. Tenten crossed the room to his side, sliding her arm through his.
"Well, as long as you're alright," she said airly, and waved over her shoulder to Sabi. "I'll come by tomorrow, Sabi, and we can talk about the dance. Thanks for waiting with me."
Sabi waved back as they left. "Have a good evening, Tenten-san, Neji-san."
Outside, it was raining lightly and Neji held the umbrella over their heads as they headed back to their hotel. "Dance?" he questioned immediately, and she laughed a little. Of course he would want to know about that first.
"Apparently there's some big to-do this weekend and the whole village attends."
Neji's eyebrows came together. "A perfect time for a crime." He glanced over at her. "And Sabi?"
Tenten leaned her head against his arm, suddenly tired. "She's his, body and soul. She won't betray him."
A pause and then, softly-
"Not knowingly, at least."
Theme 3: White Out
One night, in a long line of nights with horrible weather, Neji was awakened by what he was sure was an attack of some kind. There was a steady pounding on the roof above his head and a sound of rocks (or weapons) hitting the smudged glass of their temporary hotel room. (It was really more of a boarding house, with a "Mistress Zuzu" and everything, but Neji didn't really pay attention to things like that.)
He was on his feet before he really knew he was awake and went immediately to the window, pushing aside one of the thin, white curtains to look out the misty glass. It was still raining, of course, water streaking down the window, but now there appeared to be chunks of ice hitting the ground as well. Ice rebounded off the eaves of the hotel, some of it smacking against their window, before rolling to the ground and covering it with an eerie layer of unnatural white.
Neji shivered and thought of Fire Country and sunlight.
"What is it?"
Tenten's voice was soft and sleepy but she was sitting up in bed, ready to come awake in a heartbeat should he give the word. He glanced at her, somehow soothed by her messy hair, the way her legs were tangled in the sheets. Though they were far from their own village, he still had a piece of home in her.
"Nothing," he told her quietly, and came back to bed, letting her slip up against him. Hail continued to beat a staccato against the window panes. "I thought I heard music."
Theme 4: Listen
"Kyo means to kidnap or kill someone at this dance," Neji told her bluntly. They were standing in the alley next to their hotel, pressed together under his umbrella to keep dry as they talked. To anyone looking, they would be just two lovers catching a private moment in the rain. Tenten curled her fingers into Neji's shirt, head against his shoulder as she kept her eyes on the street. So far, no one had even noticed them. If there was one good thing about all that water, it was that it certainly kept most everyone indoors.
"Who?" she asked softly. A mother and her small child hurried by the mouth of the alley on their way to the inn. Neither of them glanced at her.
"He wouldn't give a name, just that it was someone of importance and that their disappearance would give the group leverage." He paused, a note of frustration in his voice. "For what, I don't know."
"We still have time," she reassured him, "Kyo will tell you everything eventually. He wants your help."
Neji said nothing and she read in his silence that he was worried "eventually" would be too late for them. She was too, really. Kyo was proving to be a formidable opponent and he wasn't even aware of it.
Tilting her head back, Tenten pulled Neji down for a light kiss, feeling the arm he had around her waist tighten slightly in response.
"I'll talk to Sabi again. Maybe she'll know who our lucky guest is," she said when they parted for air. Neji nodded, his forehead against hers as they breathed together, listening to the rain patter against their umbrella.
It was another long and dreary night.
Theme 5: Gravity
The moment he caught her eyes in the crowd, he stopped in his tracks as if he'd been blindsided. She smiled at his look and blushed faintly but it only served to accent the pink dress she was wearing. It was simple and lovely and fell to her knees, revealing a pair of pink heels with ribbons that wound around her ankles and up her calves. He'd never seen that style of dress before but something about the ribbons gave him a mental image of taking her back to their room to undo them with his teeth.
He then of course had to shake himself out of the stupor she'd put him in and mentally berated himself for getting distracted from their mission.
Still, he couldn't quite help it when his eyes were irresistably drawn back to her and gravity finally drew them together in the middle of the dance floor.
"Sabi made it," she said immediately, shifting on her feet in mild embarressment. "I didn't have the heart to tell her we weren't dancing."
Neji's face never changed. "Who said we weren't dancing?"
Theme 6: We Might As Well Be Strangers
"The daimyo's daughter," Tenten said, a bit breathlessly, and hoped Sabi didn't notice.
"Oh, yes," Sabi replied, sticking another pin in the hem of the extraordinary colbalt dress. "She always attends the dance." Despite what Sabi said, Tenten had since learned that the "dance" was really a festival (that just happened to include dancing), one that celebrated the end of the rainy season. Merchants from all over countryside would arrive in the city with their wares along with entertainers and, apparently, nobles. It was held just outside the village in a wide open plain that was already beginning to spout large, multi-colored tents and the temporary wooden poles for the makeshift dance pavilion.
"She requests a new dress just for the occasion," Sabi was saying, marking a line on the dress with a piece of white charcoal. "I'm very lucky to have the honor of making it this year."
Tenten managed to make herself nod agreeably while her thoughts raced a mile a minute. The daimyo's daughter was the one Kyo planned to kidnap, and perhaps kill. With her in his possession, he would be able to get whatever he wanted from the daimyo - the "leverage" Neji had mentioned. There were still, of course, too many questions without answers, but she had at least discovered Kyo's intended victim.
"When does she arrive?" Tenten asked casually, "The daimyo's daughter?"
Sabi opened her mouth to reply when Tenten heard the front door of the shop slam open, letting in a cool breeze and the smell of damp earth. She barely had enough time to turn before a man went by her with the speed only someone ninja-trained could have achieved and slapped Sabi across the face so hard she fell backwards of the stool she'd been sitting on. For one perfect moment, no one moved, Tenten so completely stunned she actually felt her mouth drop open.
Then she was on her feet and had jumped in front of Kyo, for that was who it must be. The missing-nin Hazutora Kyo, the man she and Neji had come to stop.
"What are you-?" doing? she started to ask, but cut off as his eyes widened fractionally and then narrowed as if she had insulted him. She saw his hand go back and understood that she had made an error. Tenten the Jounin had plenty of time to move, to retalitate, to get both herself and Sabi out of there. Tenten, the down-on-her-luck girl who'd been raised on a farm, did not.
The slap made her head jerk to the right and she stumbled backwards, almost tripping over Sabi. The skin of her cheek burned from the force of the blow and she could almost feel the large bruise forming there. She stared at Kyo with large, brown eyes, moderating her voice to that of a helpless female, the kind she knew Kyo expected her to be.
"Kyo-sama...?" she whispered, horror-struck. Kyo glanced briefly at her, seeing only what he wanted to see and not the angry kunoichi she was. He turned his attention to Sabi.
"You've been talking too much again," he snapped. "What did I tell you about that?" He kicked out at her, catching her in the knee. She sobbed aloud.
"I'm sorry, Kyo! T..Tenten-san is my friend! I didn't think-" She cut off with a yelp as Kyo's boot struck out again.
"That's right, you didn't think." Kyo's face was hard and angry and Tenten wasn't sure how much more she could take before she blew her and Neji's cover by strangling the bastard. Instead, she did the only thing she could think of and threw herself at his feet, forcing her voice to waver pitifully.
"Kyo-sama, please, it was my fault! I asked Sabi-san to tell me about things here in the village! She did so because she is kind, but she has told me nothing I might not have heard from others. Please!" She looked up at him from her knees. "Please do not punish her for something I asked her to do unknowingly."
Kyo was silent a moment, simply watching her, and then his foot caught her in the stomach and she doubled over, gasping for breath. "You would do well to learn your place then, woman." His gaze moved to Sabi. "It is lucky for both of you that I have already spoken with Neji about our plans."
And, as if on cue, the shop's door bell jingled again and Neji stepped inside, halting abruptly as he took in the scene before him. Sabi cradling the side of her face and sprawled on the floor, Tenten kneeling before Kyo with a handprint on her cheek and holding her ribs as if they pained her. For a moment she saw Neji struggle with himself, caught between their deception and the shinobi instinct to fight.
She shook her head slightly and he subsided, his gaze turning cool and business-like.
"What has she done, Kyo?" He said it in such a way as to imply that she, and perhaps Sabi, were wayward children that needed to be scolded.
Kyo breathed in and took a step back from her and Tenten saw in it that Kyo was afraid of Neji. Or perhaps in awe of him. Whatever it was, he stepped away from her so as not to risk Neji's wrath. Tenten filed that thought away for later. Interesting.
"Nothing that she will do again," Kyo answered, and this time he was looking at Sabi.
Inside of her, Tenten clamped down on her anger. There would be a time to use it soon enough.
Theme 7: Mine
That same night, Neji pressed a cool cloth against her bruised cheek, his face impassive as he dipped it in a bowl of water and wrung it out, water sliding down his arm. Everything about this mission has water, she thought, pouting a little. Her face stung and her ribs ached and she couldn't help but think she'd put Sabi in a very dangerous position. Why might Kyo do to her when they were alone together, without any witnesses? The thought turned her stomach. The horrible feeling of simply waiting for something to happen was almost more than she could bear. (The fact that she'd had to take a beating didn't sit particularly well with her either.)
"He won't hurt her again tonight," Neji said, as if he felt her restlessness. His eyes were fixed on her multi-colored cheekbone, his mouth grim. "He has a quick temper but it dies soon after."
She watched him for a moment, feeling the soft but firm way he touched her skin. He hadn't said much since they'd left the dress shop and she hadn't either, really. What could she say? Her training said she must continue to use Sabi, no matter how much she may have wanted to skip that part and get right to dragging Kyo before the daimayo to have him condemned.
That, however, was not what had Neji's face resembling a rock.
Hesitantly, she lifted a hand and rested it on his, the one that held the wash rag. "I'm sorry," she said, after a moment. She wasn't actually sure what she was apologizing for, she just wanted to ease that hard look from his face.
He paused a moment and then his hand fell away from her.
"There is nothing to apologize for," he said, "I did not realize he was going to the shop, or that you were still there. Only when I got here and that woman told me you'd gone out did I understand what might happen."
Tenten smiled a little. That woman referred to Mistress Zuzu, the old woman who ran their hotel. She had terrible hearing and was absolutely sure that Neji was making jokes at her expense whenever he spoke to her. Neji, of course, was utterly offended by the notion and had started to despise Mistress Zuzu with a passion.
"Well," she said, making her voice light for his sake, "It's a good thing Kyo hits like a girl or I might have had to teach him a lesson or two."
Neji's mouth twitched at that and she relaxed enough to laugh shortly, curving her arms around his neck in a gentle hug. Instantly, his arms came up to hold her against him, his head resting in the curve of her neck. The motion made her feel warm inside and she pressed a kiss into his shoulder.
"I'm glad you're mine," she told him truthfully, thinking of Sabi and her blind love of Kyo that would leave her bruised inside and out.
Instead of answering, Neji pushed her back gently. After that, there was no more talking.
Theme 8: Gamble
"Do you think I'll let you get out of here with her?" Neji asked, with an almost calculated carelessness, as if the situation were not edging out of his control. Across from him, Kyo grinned and the knife he held drew a fine red line across the neck of the daimyo's daughter. Lady Umiko gave a little scream of high-pitched terror and Tenten moved at the sound, just a shifting of weight but Kyo suddenly pointed the knife at her in warning.
"Don't even think of interfering, not unless you want to see this pretty girl here covered in blood."
Tenten raised an eyebrow. "It's usually not wise to kill your leverage, Kyo."
The missing-nin scoffed and started to back away, dragging the cobalt-clad lady with him. Tenten and Neji followed at a safe distance, both starting to feel a little nervous about the situation. Umiko was a nobly-born lady with barely an ounce of wit to defend herself with. They would not be able to count on her to get herself out of harm's way should they decide to attack.
Tenten, however, was not about to let him out that door with Umiko.
With one fluid motion, she send a scroll unraveling across the floor, revealing a long line of black symbols. At that same moment, taking advantage of Kyo's momentary surprise, Neji breezed forward hoping that his lack of obvious weapons would confuse Kyo who knew nothing about Jyuuken.
Hope was often a fool's gamble.
About halfway to Kyo, a girl screamed. It was not Umiko.
Theme 9: Running
Neji was almost too close to stop himself, close enough to make Kyo drop his knife with pure chakra, and when Sabi threw herself in front of Kyo, arms spread wide to shield him and his prisoner, Neji was sure he was about to break her arm.
Instead, he jerked himself back so hard he stumbled, his momentum throwing him off balance. Over Sabi's shoulder, Kyo smiled and thew the knife he held, aiming for Neji's heart. Half off his feet, Neji could not perform the Kaiten. Instead, he watched as a shuriken flew perpendicular to Kyo's knife and knocked it out of the air inches from Neji's chest. Tenten rose from her scroll, blood trickling down her thumb where she had written a summons.
Sabi looked at her wide-eyed.
"Kazama Sabi, I am a shinobi of the Leaf and Hazutora Kyo is to be captured by order of Lord Tezuka. Please stand aside," Tenten intoned seriously, hefting a kodachi she had literally pulled from no where.
Sabi looked at her with watery eyes and didn't move. "I can't," she whispered, her voice trembling. In fact her whole body was shaking like a leaf, but she didn't budge, hands still outstretched in protection. She was deathly afraid but she wasn't going to betray the man she loved, even if it condemned her as well. Tenten set her jaw and nodded once.
Then she launched herself straight at her friend, the one that had painstakingly made the pink dress she wore, and the now ruined cobalt one Umiko was wearing, the one that loved without really seeing. She sent her foot crashing into Sabi's stomach, driving her friend backwards into Kyo and his hostage, following as all three crashed into the wall. In seconds, she had ripped Umiko away from Kyo, pulling the half dazed noble off to the side. Her other hand was full of steel, however, and so she could not grab Sabi.
Kyo did it for her. Half caught between Sabi's unconscious body and the wall, Kyo knew he'd lost his one playing card. Growling in rage and ruined ambitions, he flipped another knife from his pouch, planning on burying it in Sabi's back.
A kunai nailed his hand to the wall.
Neji straightened calmly. "It's over," he said.
Lady Umiko plummeted to the floor in a dead faint.
Theme 10: Razorblade Kiss
It was a few minutes till dawn on the day of the festival and Tenten and Neji were readying themselves for the coming confrontation. Piles of gleaming weaponry covered the floor where Tenten was polished and sorting while Neji sat on the edge of the bed, mediating. They were both silent in that heavy way that sometimes comes with the morning, but Tenten felt a sort of lethargic peace in her bones. Today she would fight, could fight. The end of their mission was near.
Holding up a kunai to inspect it's edge, she stilled suddenly as a small beam of gold shone over her shoulder, illuminating the tip of the steel. Tenten blinked and then felt the warmth of a sunrise to her back, peeking in through the dirty windows. She smiled incredulously.
He blinked out of his trance and then blinked again as he saw her sitting there, bathed in a welcome gold. Her eyes were very bright.
"Neji, the sun rose." A note of childish glee entered her voice. "The rain has stopped."
He gave her the half-smile that only she could see and watched as she kissed the kunai in her hands and handed it to him, still smiling. He almost thought if he looked hard enough, he'd see smears of sun on her lips.
"For luck," she said, but Neji thought he heard something else as well.