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By Tanya Lilac
The forest was silent, blanketed in a fresh coat of powdery snow. The air was crisp and chilly, but Tenten was glad to be out, bow and arrow across her back, with Starshadow. She had been exercised as frequently as the other horses, and groomed often, but she had missed a familiar face; both horse and rider had been eager to escape the whispers of the stable. The stable hands had still given her strange looks for her clothes, but now that she was accompanied by a man, her appearance had been forgivable enough. Barely. Tenten had to hold back a sigh at the memory.
She heard the distinctive jingle of metal against leather and turned to her right to see Neji astride a white stallion. They had made their way to the stable together after a light afternoon tea – Neji had spent his day in the barracks again, while Tenten had decided to visit the extensive library in the eastern wing of the castle. It had been a somewhat humbling experience walking into the giant hall, almost the size of the ballroom. Tenten had decided to start reading up on the history of the Hyuuga family, but nothing had particularly come up as being out of the ordinary so far.
"I want to tell you something," Neji said suddenly, as they came to a trail in the forest wide enough for two horses to walk astride. "Something I have been wanting to say to you for a while now."
He took a deep breath and exhaled, a puff of white escaping from his lips.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have insulted you when you saved Hinata." He swallowed. There was still a score to be settled, but he knew he couldn't achieve anything with Hinata's death. Feeling he owed her an explanation, he continued, his voice stained with a bitter edge. "My family has always been divided into Head and Branch to separate those who rule, and those who follow. We cannot question, we only obey. This … brand I bear is a testament to that. Should I attempt to harm anyone in the Head family, the curse can … restrain me, if someone powerful is around to control it."
She swallowed. How could she protect him from something like that? He looked over and saw the discomfort in her eyes, and chuckled.
"I can't see how you can find your situation so humorous," she said. "You could have died that day if someone powerful, as you say, had been there." She did not have to say that Hinata would have died, had she not intervened. Neji did not answer, ducking under a low hanging, snow laden branch. Tenten sighed and rubbed her forehead. She could still remember the feeling of his fingertips just more than a hair's width away from her neck, ready to cut her down for getting in the way. What had inspired such rage? Moreover, what had inspired such a change of heart?
"Fate," he said simply, sensing the questions she wanted to ask. "We are born with an unalterable destiny, predetermined even at birth."
She thought about this for a moment. "What proof do you have of that?"
"My father was born into the Branch family because he was Hiashi's younger brother. All of a few moments – they were twins." Neji said. "It is still strange to me that siblings would share the same face, but have lives so different because this one moment in time; their path laid out for them at the time of birth."
Tenten fell silent. That explained the resemblance between the two. However, this other idea …
"The year Hinata turned five years old, I witnessed the power of the curse mark for the first time, and I was branded myself. Shortly after that, my father was sacrificed by the Head family to protect Hiashi." Neji said, his voice rising as if to fight against the muffling of the snow. Tenten thought back to the time. It was the year the Fire kingdom signed a peace treaty with the Lightning kingdom.
"Did it have something to do with the treaty?" She asked.
He scoffed. "It was not even worth the paper it was written on; the whole affair had been an excuse to infiltrate Konoha and catch the Hyuuga family unawares as one of the noble clans staying with Sarutobi for the proceedings. An man was found, in the act of kidnapping Hinata. Hiashi killed him, who turned out to be one of the knights of the Lightning kingdom. They claimed the man had been acting on his own accord, and tried to wash their hands of the matter, and demanded Hiashi's body as per the terms of the treaty, for killing one of their own."
She could see where this was headed. "Your father was sent in his place?"
Neji nodded. "To protect our secrets."
"Secrets?" Tenten echoed, with a frown.
He turned to her, and a chill ran down her spine. She felt like he could see right through her. "There were after his eyes."
Tenten remembered the word Hanabi had told her. The books had mentioned the same thing as well. "The Byakugan," she said quietly. The pride of the Hyuuga clan – the all seeing ability they possessed to complement their deadly, brutal and efficient fighting style.
"The brand would, once activated completely, would destroy any secrets of the Byakugan held by the body," Neji said, and Tenten tried hard not to think of how painful – or messy – it would be. "A tidy, logical solution. The Lightning kingdom would have their prize, only to find it faulty when they were too far away to cause trouble, resulting in humiliation. The family would protect its secrets, and the Treaty upheld." This had been one of many things that had plagued his mind for years, whiling away his days in the tower in the forest. "My father was forced to do this by the Council of Elders as well as his own father. He was killed, to protect my uncle. As was his duty, and destined from birth," he said bitterly.
"So you seek vengeance?" Tenten asked, when some time had passed. "Or change?" When no response seemed to indicate a request for elaboration, she wondered what to say. The path grew narrow once more, and Neji took the lead, riding at a slow pace, plodding through the snow. She stared at his back for a moment. Perhaps, in another life, she would not be the one to push him from this path. But, somehow she knew, no one else would, or could. Not this time.
"My father was a blacksmith, working in a village about a week's journey west of Konoha," she began. "He and my mother had three children – two older sons, and then me. By the time I was born, my brothers had already left home. The year I turned three, my father fell ill in the winter and passed away. I had spent my childhood in the forge, watching him temper iron and sharpen steel – and suddenly, all was quiet and cold. Three years later … it was the coldest winter of my life. My mother made what money she could doing sewing and laundry, and we had sold most of my father's tools throughout the years to make ends meet. Some people say it takes a village to raise a child – and they had. But still, the generosity of others could only take us so far. We were struggling, it was clear to see."
Tenten paused to soothe Starshadow, who had sensed her unease. "The winter before I turned seven, a stranger came to our house – a young soldier, making his way home after a long campaign. I can still remember his eyes; cold, hollow and starving. My mother couldn't turn him away. He broke bread with us, and my mother gave him a place to stay for the night because a snowstorm was blowing in." Tenten took a deep breath. "I woke in the middle of the night to find my mother no longer in our room. I heard something break in the kitchen, and then, I saw him, forcing …" her breath caught, and she cleared her throat. "I had no recollection of what happened after that, but … Master Gai found me, perhaps three days after the incident, mute and bloodstained, with a black eye and a broken arm."
"The villagers?" Neji asked, without turning to face her.
"Thought I had been possessed. My mother was murdered, and no sign of the man was left. My house had been burned down. I couldn't say a word, and they had their own children to tend to. I was staying with a neighbour, but I had spent all my time sitting by the road, staring, and waiting. Or at least, that is what I learned from my master. He said all I did for a long time, was sit, and wait. He did not know if I was waiting for my mother or for her murderer.
"It was not until summer came, when I began to speak once more. Master Gai took me to Konoha, found another apprentice and had started training him. Lee was the one who made me laugh again, and took care of me when Master Gai was not around," she said. "So, somehow, I became an apprentice to a knight. Every time I looked into a mirror, though, I slowly began to realise something had changed. My eyes were different. Death had touched me for the second time, violence the first. Still, they all loved me, and cared for me like a daughter – I had moved from one village into another, only this one was a castle of knights. But, thoughts of my mother kept lingering. I went back to my home to see only a blackened ruin. I talked to some of the villagers who had lived near us, but they couldn't help. I must have asked Master Gai, and Lee, all about what I had done, and the things I had said as a child. I clung to the hope of vengeance."
The forest grew still around them, holding its breath.
"And then, one day, I saw him in Konoha. A rich merchant, walking through the streets without a care in the world, save for the reminders of his past – a scar across his left cheek, and another down his back. He was of a nervous temperament, and he checked his cheek almost obsessively in any reflective surface he passed. I do not know how, but I knew he was the person I had been looking for."
It had come to her in a flash, powerful enough to leave her reeling in the middle of the street. The memory of the stabbing came first – she had tried to drive a kitchen knife into his back, but swiped the blade down his back, causing pain and anger. He had turned around, and saw her staring up at him with terrible eyes. She had not been prepared for the blow that sent her into the wall, leaving her winded and dazed, the knife falling from her hands with a clatter. Tenten got her breath back, glaring up at the man with hatred. Blood was trickling down his back and he was packing things away, stealing their possessions to take with him. Her mother was lying on the floor, trembling. The soldier paused, watching her for a moment, as if the sight of the woman sickened him.
Rage swelled in Tenten's chest and she scrambled to her feet, throwing herself against him with a yell. He pushed her off, growling as pain ripped through his body, and Tenten knew they were both desperate to end this hopeless situation. He hauled her up by the arm, even as she tried to kick and scratch him. He evaded her attacks easily and tossed her towards her mother, pain shooting up her arm and threatening to render her unconscious as she landed awkwardly. The soldier turned away and continued to stow things away in his pack, sweat trickling down his brow. Tenten grit her teeth and breathed deeply, seething with anger. She placed a hand on her mother's shoulder, watching as she flinched. She had tried so hard to shake her out of her shock, but nothing had worked. It had been the final straw.
Tenten picked herself up and threw herself one last time at the man as he was crouching over to pick something up – her knife, she realised – and pushed him over, clawing his face. He roared, from injury or rage she did not know, and pushed her away one final time, with enough force to send her head straight into the edge of the table. Oblivion took her swiftly.
This was something she had never shared with anyone. The first time she had ever truly wanted to kill someone.
"The recollection that hit me the moment I saw that scar was overwhelming. I was frozen in place, and he walked right past me without thinking a thing," she said, shaking her head. "I was alone, and had just finished an errand. I had just become a knight barely a month before, and I wore my crest with pride. But still, with my emotions so tangled up, the only thing I could manage was to slip into an alleyway and follow him throughout the town. This was the man who had been responsible for my mother's death. He had beaten me, and left us both for dead as he set my home on fire. I could not even fathom what would bring a man to do such a thing. I followed him to his home. He had a pretty wife and three children, the youngest a girl, barely six years old.
"I began to follow him around like a woman possessed. Thoughts of vengeance and plans to exact them whirled around my head for so long, perhaps six months. Eventually, he realised he was being followed when he was out in the open, so he hired a body guard. I was always sure to keep my crest covered, but he saw my face many times and eventually, it dawned on him that I was that little girl he had almost killed ten years ago. I no longer thought of him as a human, but my prey. Something to be stalked and toyed with before I eventually cornered him. I took my time, but nothing needed to be done – his guilt drove him to acute anxiety and paranoia.
"Lee knew nothing of it, of course, but Master Gai sensed something was off with me. When he confronted me about it, I told him what had happened. He had tried to suggest some kind of punishment, but I brushed it aside. There was no proof, and the word of a young knight against an influential merchant seemed hard to believe. Besides, these stories … are not as uncommon as we would like to think," she said darkly.
"I watched as the seasons turned and he grew distant from his family. He withdrew from the world, for this was a secret he could not share with anyone. I wondered what he told people about those scars – perhaps battle wounds from enemy soldiers." She sighed. "One night, I followed him to a drinking house frequented by wealthy merchants – his own kind. He sat in a corner, and waited. I walked in, looking around. I saw some familiar faces – some people I had served before, and others were knights who had come from somewhat wealthy families. I sat down at the table, and he stared at his wine, not trusting anyone enough to drink it."
She fell silent as they emerged from the forest, with the castle coming back into sight once more. It stood like a silent sentinel, watching over the castle grounds.
"What happened?" Neji asked. A part of him doubted – the part that didn't want to know the rest of the story.
"It depends," she looked over at him. "Entirely on how you define revenge."
The wind whipped through the trees, snow sliding off branches and leaves. Tenten cast a look behind her, and sighed, saying a silent farewell to the trees. As she and Neji began to make their way back to the stables, Tenten rubbed the back of her neck with a gloved hand. "He belittled me and tried to threaten me. He was positively scared, though, that I would finish the job I had started ten years before. I told him that only his family had protected him. I couldn't ruin this family, even though he had destroyed what was left of mine. Had he been alone, however, I feel like I could have been tempted." Her eyes seemed to mist over. "But loneliness is a punishment in itself. Nonetheless, I told him that if any other stories about him reached me, I would not hesitate to personally drive the nails into his coffin as he breathed his desperate last. Nothing would be able to save him."
Neji took some time to absorb this. The threat was equal measures impressive and disturbing. "So seeing his fear and watching his relationships disintegrate, that was enough for you?"
She shook her head. "It wasn't quite that. Knowing that this event had haunted and scarred him for life … I just needed to know for sure that he would never forget, just as I never had been able to." Tenten finally faced him. "Without that, I couldn't have moved on. If I had killed him in cold blood, my life would have ended."
A heavy silence fell, and Neji found himself looking away from her. She felt a painful pang tug her chest, and swallowed.
"You control your own life," Tenten said finally, her eyes still on him. "Even if you feel like a caged bird, break the locks and set yourself free. Can't things be that simple?"
His silence was telling, and she kicked Starshadow into a canter, leaving Neji behind in the snow with his thoughts. It was selfish of her to feel frustrated – this was, after all, his life. Tenten wondered if she had made the wrong choice in revealing at least some of her past to him. Would it have any bearing at all on his decisions? She doubted it. Still, her mind circled back to his reaction. She should have anticipated the cold silence. It was what any normal person would do. But, a part of her tried to reason, Neji was not a normal person.
She sighed. It was for the best, then, that nothing had happened after his confession yesterday. Nothing, aside from the fact that his fingers had brushed against the inside of her wrist at dinner while they were waiting to be served. She had been talking to Hiroshi about his latest culinary creation. He given her a confused look when she froze mid sentence, and colour blossomed in her cheeks, stirring the memory of Neji's kiss. It had taken her all her willpower to not turn and face him, giving them both away in a very public space.
She took a deep breath to clear her head as the stables came into view, and she slowed the horse to a trot, hoof beats muffled by snow. As she arrived, she noticed carriage horses being stabled and rubbed down, and turned back to look at the main entrance to the castle. The doors shut, but she knew this meant that the distinguished guests, as the others had told her, were indeed starting to arrive. By the looks of the carriage that was being wheeled away, Tenten had a feeling they were from the Lightning Kingdom. Those from closer areas, like Konoha, would probably arrive on the day, she guessed, having to face shorter travelling times.
Tenten dismounted and led Starshadow into the stables, ignoring the looks she was somehow growing accustomed to. She turned for a moment to see if Neji had followed behind her, but it seemed like he had decided to linger on the trail. Sighing, she handed the reins to the young stable hand and slung her bow and quiver over her shoulder before beginning the walk back up to the castle. She passed the stable master and saw him laughing and clasping hands with a Hyuuga in travelling clothes. Perhaps they were human after all, she mused. She lingered a heartbeat too long, and the traveller looked up, catching her eyes. Tenten held his gaze coolly for a brief moment, and continued walking without looking back.
She saw Neji riding his horse (with the old fashioned name, 'Moon Chaser'), back to the stables, but still a distance away. He looked over in her direction, and his eyes hardened. She shrank, ever so slightly, taking an involuntary step back. She did not expect to step on anyone, much less the Hyuuga who had been talking with the stable master just moments ago. Tenten whirled around.
"Forgive me, my lord, I was caught unawares by your approach," she said, bowing. Her braid slid over her shoulder and hung down to her stomach as she straightened, breathing a tiny sigh of relief. She had almost curtseyed in riding breeches.
He smiled good naturedly. "The fault is mine, my lady," he replied, holding out his hand. She hesitantly placed her hand in his, and he raised it to his lips. Tenten was saved from having to respond when Neji cleared his throat, and gingerly extracted her hand from that of the smiling Hyuuga. There really were others, capable of smiling.
"What's this? Neji, is that you?" The man asked, looking up at him. Neji dismounted as a stable hand ran up to take Moon Chaser back into the stalls. Neji frowned. "Still so serious? It's me, Hideki!" The man said, clapping a hand on Neji's back with a broad grin.
"Where have you been?" Hideki asked. "It has been so long since I last saw you!"
"Indeed," Neji mumbled, shrugging the hand away. "I could barely remember your face."
"Well, there will be time for stories later," he said, still grinning. "Are you heading back up to the castle? Perhaps you can join me and Miss Tenten here –"
It appeared the stable master really knew what her name was, Tenten mused.
Neji cleared his throat once again. "Actually, I am Tenten's escort for the winter ball this year."
"Really?" Hideki asked, looking between the two of them. "Well, you should consider yourself a fortunate man, Neji."
"I assure you," Neji said stonily. "There is no need for you to remind me, Hideki."
"Now, where is that sister of mine?" Hideki asked, dropping the matter altogether and turning to face the castle. Neji and Tenten followed him, somewhat grudgingly, and trying hard not to give the other person significant looks. Tenten was taken aback by this entire situation, more so by the fact at how genuinely uncomfortable Neji seemed. "I'm surprised she's not already ticking away in this empty box up here," he said, tapping his temple.
Tenten's eyes widened. "Are you … Hitomi's brother?" To say that it was difficult to spot the similarities between the siblings was a vast understatement. He had shoulder length wavy hair and a beard – hardly like any of the usual, clean cut men of the rest of the family. His eyes were those of most other Hyuuga; Hitomi's eyes were much brighter and closer to a pearl white than silver-grey.
"The one and only," he grinned, turning to face her. "In fact, last I heard, Neji was going to be my brother very soon, too." She blinked at him for a few moments, before looking at Neji for some kind of response. He was still wearing the same, expressionless face. "You didn't know?" Hideki asked, frowning, his gaze shifting to Neji, who was emitting a clearly murderous intent. "Now, Neji, that's not nice. What would your mother say?"
"My mother is dead," Neji said. "And I still have –"
"Less than a couple of years left, it seems," Hideki winked. "You'd better make the best of your time as a free man. Of course," he added, smiling at Tenten. "I guess I can say you're already doing that." He paused to gather his bearings and nodded at one of the entrances to the western wing of the castle. "So I suppose this is where we part ways," he said, and Tenten knew he was reinforcing his power; one of the reasons why Neji couldn't say anything against him. He was, after all, one of the members of the Head family.
"Goodbye, Tenten. I hope I shall see you again, soon," the nobleman smiled, and bowed, before taking his leave.
A gust of wind swept across the castle grounds, and tugged cruelly at Tenten's clothes, slipping into unprotected gaps and chilling her to the bone. The sun had already begun to set, and the children were being called off the ice, servants coming out to light the torches by the rink. Couples would begin to occupy the rink in the evenings, spending time alone out on the ice, away from the eyes and ears of chaperones.
"It's fine," Tenten said, breaking the silence. "Really. Arranged marriages are common in noble families, after all …"
The look he gave her rendered all words useless. She felt like all the air in her chest had been knocked out of her by a sharp blow, and she struggled to maintain her composure.
"Our … engagement is unorthodox, to say the least," he said quietly, unable to meet her eyes. "My mother, when I was six, made an arrangement with Hitomi's mother, Haruka, who is my aunt. They believed it would be a union of two of the greatest powers in our clan, or so it was prophesised."
Without uttering another word, she turned on her heel and marched back up to the castle. Neji sighed. "That's the second time today," he muttered, before following her footsteps. He somehow knew that whatever had happened between them these past few days had finally slipped out of their grasp, locked firmly away from her heart. He shook his head. He should have known better; he had already accepted this as a child.
It was not the destiny of one in a cage to be able to love, or be loved, as he pleased.