10. Suicide (18 and 22; Shinobi)
Who had thought it would come to this? Locked behind bars in the strongest cell Konoha's political prison had to offer, barely able to move. Even conscious thought was painful. Inevitably, it all came back to the reason behind his new designation.
Hyuuga Neji. Missing-nin.
Father must be rolling in his grave.
Neji was found by the next morning, dead. He had killed himself by summoning what little chakra they'd let him keep and striking his own heart coils. Clasped in his other hand like a priceless treasure was a necklace once worn by Uchiha Itachi.
In many cultures, suicide is a mortal sin. The act condemns the soul to a thousand thousand lifetimes of purgatory and repentance; some go straight to hell. Some, they say however, are at heart such good and pure souls, who were led astray only by love. Anything done out of love is beyond good and evil.
So they were given a second chance.
17. Redemption (19 and 23; Shinobi)
Neji glared at his lover. Ex-lover, he reminded himself.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. There was anger in his voice, and it only fed that when all there was in Itachi's voice was that maddening calm indifference. The whole time they'd held their trysts, the elder Uchiha had never shown anything but lust and that perfect chill.
"I am on a mission," the Uchiha said. "What brings a Hyuuga far from Konoha's sphere of influence?"
"On a mission," Neji snapped. It only made him more angry that upon sight, his body was merrily reminding him of every heated touch they had ever shared. He was rather glad that the guardskirt he wore hid that.
Turning his back, Neji haughtily stalked off back into the Bazaar where he'd been looking through wares and listening in on conversations. This being a land far away and not necessarily friendly toward Konoha, he'd packed away his hitae-ate and anything else blazoned with something that could mark him for a Konoha nin. Unfortunately, he couldn't do too much about his eyes without dampening their ability, and so he'd been forced to leave them out. They drew more attention than he liked, but there were methods of persuasion that could use.
Itachi was following him, setting Neji's teeth on edge. How could the man move through a crowd without getting noticed? Uchihas stuck out just as much as Hyuugas, and there were only two Uchihas left. Surely someone had noticed?
When the missing-nin seemed bent on following him right up to his room and into it, Neji huffed and kicked the door shut when Itachi was through. "Don't you have a mission to complete?"
Warm blood spurted over Neji's abdomen, spilling surprisingly fast. He'd never thought that blood could leave his body so fast. Itachi yanked the katana out, and Neji collapsed. Itachi caught him and laid him out gently on the floor, and for the first time there was something other than indifference on his face. Another warm splash, and Neji smiled when he felt blood other than his own soak his front again.
"I have found a world without you to be unsuitable to my interests," Itachi mumbled. There was a question left unasked, and Neji nodded, petting his lover's blood-matted hair.
"It's all right," he murmured. "I forgive you." He closed his eyes.
16. envy (20 and 24; Organized crime)
In this place, you always carried a gun, because you never knew when you'd need it. In the world of nighttime and sly glances, death hung in the wings. It was the stage manager and the director of every production that went on.
Sometimes, you needed a gun to move death away from you for a little longer. But sometimes you needed one to bring it to you, because once you joined this world, you were never able to escape. But before you let death finally take you like the greedy bastard it was, you had a few scores to settle. And that's why you sometimes found yourself standing in an alleyway, a smoking gun in your hand, and your ex-lover who had left you for your younger brother with a neat hole in his head.
Neji fell back against the pavement. His skull probably cracked, but that'd be determined as a post-mortem injury in the coroner's office. The slug in his head did everything.
Sasuke pulled out his own gun, a specially-modified one with its name (Chidori) engraved on the side, and through his tears cocked it and screamed, "Why, asshole? Why do you take everyone I care about?"
Itachi stared soullessly at his only family. "If I can't have Neji," he said softly, "It doesn't suit me to let my brother have him."
He barely felt the bullet carve through his heart.
19. sharp (14 and 18; Students)
"Uncle Hiashi, please—"
"I won't have it in this house! I won't!"
"Uncle, don't hurt—"
"Shut up, faggot!" The older man's grey eyes snapped as he grabbed the young teen and threw him across the room, focusing his anger on the young man sitting calmly on the bed. The covers were rumpled, and although they were still clothed it was more than obvious by their flushed faces that they'd been fooling around.
Neji tried to get up, and froze when Hiashi pulled out a pocketknife.
The rest was written on the boys' death certificates.
23. Solitude (Somewhere, sometime)
There were different kinds of death, he had found. There was the kind he dealt in, the kind he had known from the time he was old enough to hold a weapon. That kind was easy to see. The literal kind of death that was supposedly the only finality in any kind of life. But there was a sense of finality about this.
There was the death of an idea—the end of something, the limit of something. But he was limited by this.
There was the death of simple acceptance; the death of a façade of orderliness. The death of society and the death of maintaining the status quo. But he accepted this.
His death was worse, because he was still alive.
30. goodbye (23 and 27, Shinobi)
"I can't do this anymore."
He was never one with words, so he kept his thoughts hidden.
"I am betraying my village. I can't stay with you, here, anymore."
1. regret (9, 13, 17 and 20; Shinobi)
It was done. His clan was cleansed of all but the two worthiest; he was free.
Well, with one exception.
When Sasuke's flames, fed by his true friend's wind chakra, pierced through Itachi's heart, his one regret was not taking the Hyuuga boy with him when he had the chance.
Neji's one regret was that he hadn't escaped the clan houses and followed him.
7. flowers (Sometime; Konoha)
Surrounded by flowers, Neji lay in state in the great clanhouses of the Hyuuga. His hair was perfectly brushed, in death as in life, and his forehead was uncovered. The soft glow of the seal had long since faded—its light going out with the light of its bearer—and, like its bearer, it was cold and dead.
Itachi reached out and touched the man he had once called lover. He'd never taken the time to think about it, but in death a person took on a strange beauty, unearthly and yet tired and world-weary. All their cares and anything they had ever worried about floated to their skin. He touched the wrinkles at Neji's brow and the corner of his eyes, and hated how cold the once-supple flesh was.
The poison was taking its damn sweet time in working.
27. tight (Sometime, somewhere)
It was amazing what a jealous lover armed with a piece of rope could do.
He stared at Itachi's body, across the room from him. He didn't think he'd actually have the power to hold the older man long enough to kill him, but he had. Funny how the strongest are killed in such innocuous ways—the straw that broke the camel's back.
The rope had been tight around Itachi's neck, held there by arms strengthened with the power of his jealousy until at last the other had stopped struggling and gone limp. A lifetime passed before Neji was able to release his grip and watch the body slump at his feet. And now here he sat, staring at the man he'd found a measure of joy with, and playing with a knife. After all, at the correct angle, a stab to the heart or head was guaranteed a swifter death than strangulation.
11. Illusion (Sometime; Shinobi)
Tsukiyomi broke his mind, but more importantly, it broke his heart.
Itachi had always taken care not to catch Neji in any kind of illusion once their trysts begun. But that had all ended today.
"This dalliance no longer suits my interests."
His stare was as blank and cold as it had ever been.
"You drawing breath no longer suits my interests, either."
29. teacher (17 and 21; Shinobi)
"Shinobi love death," they were taught. "Shinobi do not fear death; it is our currency, the air we breathe, the blood running through our veins. To be a shinobi is to be the physical embodiment of death."
Shinobi underwent rigorous emotional and psychological training in order to harden their hearts to death, to the point that they could become killers at the age where most normal, non-shinobi children were just finding their identity. Shinobi were pushed from the start to become tough, to shut off their emotions, to become like an immovable tree with its roots far down in the ground. But, in their push to become stronger, deeper, more centered, some shinobi lost their minds.
The jounin clucked his tongue, staring down at the two bodies before the team. "Traitors," he said disparagingly. "Shinobi gone mad. You know the drill, guys—burn the bodies."
4. jewel (sometime; shinobi)
The eyes of a shinobi are like precious stones, multifaceted and refracting all kinds of light. Blue and green, red and black, golden and white—all the colors of the rainbow, each one holding the full intent to kill, and an iron will to survive. In this world, the eyes of the great clans are considered art in themselves; the whirling black and red of the Sharingan, the eerie white of the Byakugan. But, as with all artwork, there's one catch.
Jeweled pieces of art tend to acquire a reputation of being cursed.
14. lust (20 and 24; organized crime, shinobi)
"Can you handle it?"
"If you are sure."
"I wouldn't be here if I was unsure."
Their target left his booth and made for the exit, weaving through the crowd. They followed, one in front of the other, unnoticeable and imposing at the same time. The one behind reached out and ran a finger up the other's spine, feeling the strands of silky dark hair that escaped the neat ponytail. He could feel the shiver through his fingers and smirked.
Their mark left the club and took off down the street, moving fast. Pressing up against his partner's back, the older of the two let his hand slide under the hem of the initiate's shirt and made the signal for attention. His fingers began tracing kanji on the other's lower back.
Knows, he signed. The initiate understood immediately. He knows we're watching.
The older man's fingers continued. Speed, trap, death.
Once outside the club they boosted their speed almost inhumanly, flitting through shadows as though they were born from them. The older left and leapt across the street, red and black clouds a blur. Why the group wore such outdated clothes the initiate didn't know, other than for the intimidation factor.
They caught up with their mark. A light scrape of feet against asphalt let the initiate know that his partner was behind him, and together their chakra filled the dead-end alley they'd cornered their prey in.
Neji calmly pulled out the gun and screwed on the silencer, took aim, and fired. The man fell dead.
Itachi strolled forward, coat making him seem taller and darker than before. He knelt, checking the pulse of the dead target, before sending up a flare that marked the position. Reaching into his coat, Itachi pulled out a similar red and black coat and handed it to Neji.
"Welcome to Akatsuki," he said.
Neji pulled it on, the lined coat enclosing him warmly. When he looked up, Itachi was in front of him, grasping his hips and pulling the two of them together.
"Your reward is waiting for you," he breathed, his lips brushing over Neji's too quickly before they both disappeared in a swirl of cloud.
26. fire (20s, shinobi)
Shinobi's bodies were burned when they died. This was standard procedure, as a precaution against village secrets leaking out; and often the ashes were scattered over the home country of the shinobi. In the great clans of Konoha, shrines held the ashes of the dead.
Uchiha Itachi had no one to put his urn into the little cubbyhole next to that of his parents. Sasuke had died of his wounds from their battle; his urn had been placed by his friends, and his name carved on the memorial. People overlooked that he had turned traitor to accomplish this feat; singlehandedly bringing down an S-class missing-nin; they called him hero and a great man, and ignored that he'd killed Itachi with the curse mark crawling across his skin like a fungus.
Neji carried the small, unadorned urn into the Uchiha family shrine. It had been reopened of late, and the dust and stigma of years past cleaned away. In the memorial wall, there was one more spot left. Carefully, he set the urn in its niche and sat back, looking at the last worldly remains of a truly great man, and rubbing his hands.
The urn had been burning hot.
28. beauty (sometime, somewhere)
Itachi tilted his head curiously, considering the body at his feet. Normally, he'd have left the scene immediately and reported his kill, but something kept him here. Perhaps it was the way the young man's dark brown hair (so dark it may as well have been black, but it was brown) had fanned out around his head like a stained halo, or how the blood had spattered across his white clothing and the floor and his fine skin. There had been savage beauty in how the seal on his forehead had activated within moments and obliterated his eyes, eyes that held a beauty as great and as terrible as Itachi's own.
Kneeling, Itachi touched the youth's jaw, contemplative. If it had been another world...if it had been, perhaps they would have known each other. Perhaps they could have been friends. (Or lovers, but we mustn't think of that; a killer does not deserve, nor does he need love.)
Wiping his fingers on the other's shirt, Itachi vanished.
15. apathy (19 and 23; shinobi)
His days had become a blur that his all-seeing eyes could not penetrate. He got up, he moved about, he went through the motions of a normal, healthy shinobi. But he was dead to everything.
"Neji-nii-san. Please get out of bed and have something to eat today."
"I'm not hungry, Hinata-sama. Thank you for your kind offer."
Sighing, Hinata left the food on a table in case Neji would want to eat later. Sometimes, she'd come back and it had been nibbled at; he had to be hungry. His metabolism demanded that he eat a certain amount of calories per day. He had been dangerously neglecting that.
Some days, the food was untouched.
2. passion (sometime, Europe)
They both turned, looking back curiously at the blonde chasing them across the bridge. Itachi's eyes behind his sunglasses were coldly amused; Neji's were narrowed in suspicion.
"What do you want, Naruto?" he asked. They both froze amid the screams as Naruto pulled out a gun and leveled it at both of them.
"I'm not fucking good enough for you, so you go to him? Neji, he—"
"I know what he did."
"And you don't care?"
"Why should I?"
Time has a funny way of slowing down when something terrifying happens. Neji never even heard the gunfire. His wrist was suddenly snapped backward and Itachi was in front of him. There was a dull thud, and reality came back to itself. Itachi was facedown on the cobbled pavement, and Naruto was being wrestled down by other people.
But that was all three years ago now. Neji held the newspaper clipping in his hands, along with the necklace that Itachi had made for him that was a match to the one he wore in his coffin, three years gone and rotting. And Naruto had gotten off. Crimes of passion were so common these days.
8. fear (sometime, another world)
"Neji, please step back from the edge."
"I—I can't—Itachi, I'm sorry." Neji's white eyes were sad, but resolved. It was that resolve that Itachi feared now.
"You don't have to do this. We can get off-planet and go somewhere. We have options."
"My family will always find us. We weren't safe here, Itachi, how can we be safe somewhere else?" One last glimmer of love, affection. "I'm doing this for you, Itachi."
"It's a damn selfish thing to do."
"I'm sorry," Neji said. His voice was barely a whisper above the wind. "I was afraid."
18. pity (31 and 34, shinobi)
"Let me die."
Neji paused in his perfunctory, rushed battlefield medical care. Why he'd dragged the missing-nin off to the side, out of the main fray, and started to try and help him was something Neji didn't ask himself. It was simply necessary.
"I cannot," he said briskly. "My oath is to the Leaf, to support life."
"I am dead." Itachi's voice was level even though he was out of chakra and bleeding heavily. "The artery and vein at my heart have been punctured, haven't they? And my chakra system so disrupted that even if I had any, it wouldn't do any good. I'd bleed it back out. Let me die, please."
Biting his lip, Neji considered his options. At last, he arrived at an answer. "No," he whispered, and struck Itachi full in the chest with his palm. It crushed his heart entirely; he died in less than a minute, in Neji's arms.
The Hyuuga closed Itachi's eyes, trying to convince himself that this mercy killing was the best thing to do.
6. innocence (19, 20, female, dancers)
Neji's breathing was quick and shallow, her heartbeat pounding in her ears just like the overadjusted throb of the music from the stage. Except she was backstage, pressed against the door of her dressing room, and there was a hand between her legs and it was better than anything she simulated onstage. Women always knew where to go with their fingers; men never seemed to get it right, when they tried with her. Neji would close her eyes and arch her back and moan prettily, but it wasn't the hairy, sweaty man on top of her that she was thinking about. No, it was this other dancer with deft tongue and subtle fingers that brought her more surely than any man ever could.
"C-careful," she whispered, clutching at the coats hung on the back of the door as Itachi slid down her body and pulled down the gauzy panties she wore onstage. "If I'm wet onstage—"
"You won't be," Itachi murmured, licking her lips in anticipation. "I will make sure of that." It was harder to do this standing, but Neji had needed it now, and who was Itachi to deny her fellow dancer a favor? It was Itachi, after all, who had been the death of Neij's innocence to the world.
3. nighttime (20 and 200, hunter and vampire, Europe)
"You are not natural."
"You are not holy. I am a priest. Why do you think I would want to become one of your kind?"
"Because you haven't driven that stake into my heart yet, Father," the vampire said levelly. "And because…this makes me wonder things about you." His hand slid down significantly, and Neji slapped it away, gathered his resolve and drove the stake home in one powerful thrust.
As Itachi collapsed into dust beneath him, Neji had a vague sense of déjà vu. Somewhere, he might have done this same act—Itachi had looked familiar, anyway. But that was a crazy thought; Neji had killed hundreds of vampires, and after a while, they all looked alike.
He shrugged it off and called up his car. He needed to report back to the Vatican immediately.
13. lies (16 and 20, singer and hitman, America)
It started when Itachi had seen him on a TV in the window of a shop in the mall. He'd been tailing one of his targets then, but had paused for a moment to watch the singer's lithe body dance and twist across the stage, eyes the color of thick fog so intense that for half a moment, Itachi thought that surely, the youth was looking straight through the screen at him. Then reality had come back to him, and Itachi had shaken it off and continued after his target. The man had ended up dead behind the mall, his body stuffed in a Dumpster.
One week later, Itachi saw the youth again. He was at a club, observing another hit, but his attention was diverted when the teen from before walked onstage. He was even more intense in person; eyes cutting through the haze of the club, hair that was almost too long for a man swinging and hypnotizing the older man with how it reflected the light. This youth was what Itachi wanted to see in himself, was a reflection and an equal of his finesse, and the hired gun found himself enthralled. And partway through the set, Itachi realized that the youth (his name was Hyuuga Neji, he thought vaguely) wasn't singing out to a crowd anymore. He was singing to him, to Itachi, and every movement, every swing and dip of those slender hips was for him and him alone.
When the set was over, Itachi got up, left his mark, left his routine, and stepped backstage. Neji was waiting by the door from the main room, and wordlessly led the way to his room at the hotel the club was in. They had sex more times than either could remember the next morning; their bodies did though, and they ordered room service and spent the rest of the day together.
Itachi forgot about his job; it could wait. He forgot his old hatreds and grudges and the annoyances of his family. Watching Neji's face as he came was all that mattered, touching that beautiful hair and holding those slender hips between his hands became everything to him.
Neji forgot his dislike of his bandmates, his irritating manager, his disillusionment with performing even at such a young age. He lost himself in how Itachi could bring him to completion so gently and so quickly he was left begging the older man to slow down.
Real life imposed itself that night in the form of Neji's obligation to his contract; he and Itachi went downstairs separately. Itachi's target was there that night again, probably as entranced with Neji as Itachi was. It was hard to watch another balding, sweaty old man when his lover was dancing onstage, moving those hips that he'd felt rocking up against his, when he remembered how that beautiful voice had sang out his name in perfect tune.
Neji asked him to stay again that night; Itachi declined. The practicality of his job wouldn't let him leave it another night. He gave Neji his phone number without hope of ever seeing the singer again except on television and glossy mags, and left to do his job.
"What do you do?" Neji asked curiously. Itachi stared him full in the face and lied.
"I'm an investigator with the local police authority." Which in a way was true, but it wasn't the whole truth or the right one, and having to lie to Neji made his gut twist for some reason. At least Neji made their last kiss something to remember. Itachi had almost turned around right there and given up being a hitman, but it paid good money, and he was good at it. And being the toy of a celebrity didn't appeal to him.
Itachi took the target out that night.
Neji called him back in the morning.
They began to meet for trysts in various cities, just here and there. Once, when Itachi's time off coincided with Neji's vacation time after recording an album, they went to Lake Tahoe for a week. Neither had ever felt so rested during that week, going to casinos and shows together, or sitting together by the frigid lake, crunching through the snow until they reached the shore. Neji learned the value of Itachi's slow, burning kisses, and Itachi learned the struggle that every musician had to deal with. Even though he was on vacation, Neji was continuously fielding calls from his agent, financial manager, various fans and friends and family, and other people who had some importance that Itachi missed. He handled all of them with a singular poise that Itachi respected, because he sure as hell couldn't have dealt with all those people.
"How do you do it?" he had asked Neji one night. "How do you deal with them?"
Neji had sighed and shifted around until he was in a more comfortable position, pillowed on Itachi's chest. "I do it because I have to," he said.
"You are not an obligation."
Their parting this time was even harder; they stood at their cars in the airport parking for a long time, trying to bring themselves to willingly part with each other. At last, Itachi slid away from Neji, and they looked at each other for a very long time. And then Itachi did something incredibly stupid: he made a promise.
"I won't hurt you," he said softly. Neji looked up at him; he had worried that all Itachi wanted was fame and money. So Itachi repeated, "I'm not going to hurt you, Neji." I promise.
Promises are made to be broken, however, and in his web of lies that he'd spun to keep Neji safe from who he really was, Itachi never considered that Neji might become part of his job.
"What do you mean, you can't take this job?"
"I can't do it, Sir Leader."
"Take it or I'll kill you."
Unfortunately, Itachi's sense of self-preservation won out. When he met Neji next, it was with the cold vial of poison in his pocket. And when Neji lay dying in his arms, Itachi could only hold him close and lie one last time. Neji would have wanted to hear it.
"I love you."
5. betrayal (16 and 20, singer and hitman, America)
"I can't do it, Sir Leader."
"Take it or I'll kill you."
Coldly Itachi stared straight into the eyes of his employer, and set the ring that marked him as one of these mercenaries on the other man's desk.
"No," he said, and walked out.
Itachi met with Neji that night, and his kisses were desperate and languid all at once, and when they were finished Neji lay panting for breath under him. Itachi stroked his cheek, his lips; the pinkened skin was so delicate-looking, even though it wasn't.
"What's gotten into you tonight, Ita?" Neji murmured, shifting so he could stretch up to give Itachi a kiss. His muscles rippled around Itachi, who was still inside him, and they both shivered in pleasure.
"Do you not like it?" he whispered against Neji's lips, finger-combing Neji's hair so it would lay shining against the pillow. Knowing Neji would live now…everything seemed brighter, more alive.
"I love it," Neji replied. His hands played with Itachi's own long hair. "I was just curious." He sighed almost regretfully as Itachi slid out and settled himself next to Neji, pulling the blankets around them so they could sleep. Neji had a show tomorrow; and after that they'd planned to go out to a very, very late dinner and make their own getaway. Neji had some time off, and Itachi had all the time in the world.
Eyes closed, half-dreaming, Itachi tightened his arm around Neji's waist and slid closer—only to be met with the touch of cold steel against his forehead. He knew that, he'd handled it countless times himself—it was a gun, his gun that he'd stashed under the pillows in case the crazy ex-employer of his came after them that night, the gun he'd wanted to use to protect now, rather than kill.
Opening his eyes, he saw Neji holding the gun to his head. The singer's eyes were sad, heartbroken, but resolute. Itachi knew he was going to die.
"He said," Neji whispered, barely audible. "He said to tell you that you should have known he'd kill you if you left."
Itachi closed his eyes.
25. blood (18 and 22, shinobi)
It was everywhere. Who had thought that one person could hold so much blood?
Funny. It had never bothered him before.
But there was so much of it. Everywhere. On him, on Itachi, on the floor and the walls and—oh god, and the ceiling, how the hell did it get up there—in his hair and everywhere. And Itachi lay dead, just as the mission had stipulated that he end up, and Neji held the short sword that killed him in one gloved, blood-slick hand and laughed as his vision bled to red.
For the next six months, he was under heavy sedation in the Konoha hospital's psychological ward. He dreamt of blood every night, and his dead secret lover with a gaping hole in his chest holding a bloody hand out to him.
21. cold (18 and 22, shinobi)
His ANBU training years ago hadn't prepared him for this. They didn't tell you that you got cold as the blood drained out of your body. They didn't tell you that you got thirsty, either, and that was strange. Why would you get thirsty when you needed to put blood back in your system, not water?
His mind wasn't working right. One moment he'd been meeting Neji, the next he was on the floor, a sword in his chest, and Neji was laughing like he'd lost his mind. He probably had. They all went insane after awhile, the tensai that any village produced. Some just held out longer than others.
He was still cold, and Neji was still laughing. Blinking his eyes open, Itachi saw Neji's laughter like freezing rain, and then closed his eyes again.
22. resemblance (452 and 567, another planet, another universe)
The creature's black-whorled eyes swirled and scanned the horizon as it crouched over its prey. Long black fur hung lanky from its frame, and as it tore into the carcass of its kill, blood covered its snout and teeth.
Heart first; that was where the power was, or so its primitive beliefs held. Then the liver, the seat of memory; at last it worked its way up to the head of the prey and paused. From somewhere long ago and Far Away (in the Dreaming, the shaman would have said), a face floated up to the predator's conscious thought. A creature it had never seen before, with long brown hair only on its head and blind-white eyes. Another memory, a sensory-feeling, floated up too—fondness, like what the creature felt for its mate. Somewhere, somewhen, the predator had had this memory-face as a mate, in that faraway and unknown time.
The memory-face had been dead then, too.
24. weakness (17 and 21, shinobi)
Neji felt the blood gurgle in his throat. It was sharp, metallic, coppery-tasting like meat that was too raw. Not unlike the sword that had just been pulled out of his chest. It had penetrated through his heart and spine; from that point down, he was paralyzed. For a Hyuuga not to be able to move was like ultimate torture; their fighting depended on it. But this battle had been lost long before this point. He knew that.
Itachi crouched over him, animalistic in his killing intent. A kunai pressed to Neji's throat as dark eyes bled first to red, then to pinwheels, whirling slowly.
"Still so weak," Itachi murmured against his cheek. In one swift motion, he cut Neji's throat.
9. honor (17 and 21, shinobi)
"Why have you come here?"
The first thing he always noticed about Neji was how proudly he stood. Back straight, chin up, eyes focused on the target or person being spoken to. Even when he was attacking, anger and chakra snapping around him like firecrackers, he kept this pride.
"I owe you a debt of honor," the Hyuuga said. Gracefully he dropped to one knee. "My Way of the Ninja commands me to repay this in whatever way possible, even if the debtor is a criminal."
Itachi's expression didn't change. "You walk through rogue country and into a place where you will almost certainly be killed just for a debt of honor?"
Neji moved faster than he thought possible; the Hyuuga had sliced his throat and across his chest before Itachi could even activate the Sharingan.
"Consider your debt repaid," he whispered to the empty room.
20. memory (18 and 22, shinobi)
It was what drove him back here.
Hand clenched around Itachi's necklace in his pocket, Neji stood by the clear lake. The sunset reflected the spirit of the country; a blaze of reds and oranges and the hot yellow sun at the heart of it. He found that funny; in reality, yellow was the coolest part of the flame, and blue the hottest.
That explains Naruto's eyes, he thought.
Red was still hot, too. Red and black swam before his memory, and Neji's breath caught in his throat.
It was here that he'd been forced to kill him. With his teammates watching, Neji had shut his all-seeing eyes and struck his heart coils—an instant death even for him, for the famed Itachi. The criminal had stood there and let him do it. Ironic; this place—Neji even walked over and sat on the very rock—was where he'd finally given in to the Uchiha's relentless pursuit. He'd found that those from their distantly-related clan were especially tenacious when they were after something. Or someone.
The elite jounin turned to look at the team of ANBU that had dropped from the trees to surround him. "Yes?"
"We're going to need you to come with us."
12. fate (18 and 22, shinobi)
Neji stared at his hand. It'd never taken him this long to draw chakra before; of course, he'd stashed it away in places they wouldn't think to drain; the tip of his nose, ears, anywhere normal enough. As soon as his hand was glowing with it, he closed his eyes. Best not to let this be his last sight, he thought as he cocked his hand to deliver the blow.
"What are you doing?"
The voice carried a hint of curiosity, a sort of 'My, what is this?' sort of feeling. Not like anything could startle the speaker—not with his eyes. But it couldn't be. Neji had struck the man dead himself. Opening his eyes, Neji found himself staring straight into the face of a ghost.
"You're dead," he whispered.
"So are you," Itachi remarked.
Looking down at his body on the ground, slumped against the wall, Neji laughed. It didn't echo and bring guards, as it had before. Curious himself, Neji reached down and plucked the necklace out of his cooling hand. He hadn't thought he could—but he grabbed it just as if he'd been more than a spirit. They wouldn't find it now, he thought. It was safe.
Holding it out to Itachi, he said, "This is yours, I believe."
Itachi stared at his hand a moment, then folded Neji's hand back over it. "It's a gift," he replied. "It suits you more."
Neji scowled as he put it around his own neck. "So where do we go from here?"
"Wherever we want."