Disclaimer: Naruto and its affiliates do not belong to me.
I'm hoping everyone's having a wonderful holiday. Anyhow, this instalment... well, speaks for itself. I hope you enjoy!
By Tanya Lilac
The morning was as bitterly cold as it had been yesterday – and the wind still tore at her clothes, drawn to her warmth. Tenten sighed as she pulled her hooded cloak tighter about her shoulders. Snow had fallen once more last night, and the ice crunched under her boots. She had not found much relief in her dreams – her mind was still swimming with dancing steps and Hiashi's ominous glare that had left her shaken to the core. Sadako had, of course, caught wind of what had happened, and had thankfully (and tactfully) not pressed her for details.
Like yesterday, Sadako had left early to run errands – and Tenten had dressed quickly after downing the orange juice Sadako had brought her before leaving the castle. Neji, she had learned, had left to run drills with the soldiers in the barracks.
Her footsteps quickened as a stable came into view – and she was welcomed by the familiar scent of leather, horses, hay and sweat. The stable hands stopped working as she passed by and watched her with open curiosity, but she ignored them.
At the far end of the stable, she saw the young boy who had taken Starshadow away a mere week ago. He beamed when he saw her, and she smiled back. Starshadow whickered at the sound of Tenten's footsteps and she peered into the stall to find the horse prancing nervously. Her smile grew and she rubbed the horse's velvety nose.
"It's been a while, hasn't it?" Tenten held out the apple that she had carried down from her room and Starshadow snatched it eagerly. She turned to face the young boy. "How has she been?"
He shrugged. "A little unsettled, but she is very friendly, so we have not had much trouble with her." The youth watched as she turned her attention back to the horse. "My lady, may I ask a small favour of you?"
"It's Tenten," she corrected him absentmindedly.
"Please... do not come to visit so often, on your own."
He watched as she stiffened. "May I ask why?" She asked, turning to face him with stony eyes.
"It... is unsettling. You have noticed, surely, that no woman walks these halls unaccompanied."
"And you dare to speak to a knight in such a manner?" Her voice rang with steel, loud and clear through the stable, and Starshadow whinnied. Upon hearing the disquiet of the other horses, Tenten rubbed the star shaped mark and sighed. "Do not fret, lovely. I will be back soon."
"I am truly sorry, my lady." The boy bowed, and expected a severe lashing from the young woman. She faced him and slipped a coin into his hand, much to his obvious shock.
"Take care of her. I will obey your rules – but make sure that I will not find her in a poor condition when I do return." She turned and he paled as her hand brushed against the hilt of a sword that hung from her slender hips. "It is not me you should be afraid of. If it were up to the avenor of Konoha... you would not need a new pair of shoes for some time."
"My lady is gracious, and-"
"Save your breath," Tenten snapped as she left the stable. "Do not make me regret this."
She left the stable in a dark mood and could only think of one thing she wanted to do.
Neji was not surprised when someone stomped loudly into the barracks. He was not surprised when the intruder's behaviour was met with a low murmur and a whispered joke or two. He was, however, shocked when the intruder (namely, Tenten) approached him and attempted to punch him in the face. He blocked her blow but winced when he heard his wrist crick. He returned the blow, but she slid away fluidly. With a smirk, he released a barrage of swift, well timed hits as he worked on finding an opening. It was not yet time to use any of his Jyuuken attacks – this would be a warm up. She lunged forward and he sidestepped her, slipping past her defence. Her reaction was not swift enough, and his fingers nicked the clasp of her cape. It flowed off her shoulders and landed in the dust, to be quickly gathered up by a young boy. His attention lapsed for a moment as he realised her unexpected –and unprecedented – manoeuvre had gathered quite a crowd.
Tenten, watching the movement of his eyes, rolled her shoulders, glad to be free of the heavy fabric, and drew her sword as she walked towards him, inspecting the blade before sheathing it once more. Neji glanced at her as she threw the other sword she had carried at him, and he caught the scabbard, one handed, with ease.
"I thought I told you to take it," she smiled. "It is yours now."
"And your knives with the blue blades?"
Tenten reached behind her back and unsheathed the weapon. "Pervert. I only ever keep these under my shirt." There was an uncomfortable shift in the crowd as the gesture revealed a flash of the skin. Neji's eyes had also been instantly drawn to the curve of her hip, and smirked.
"You should take them off. They will get in the way."
Smiling, she pulled up the front of her shirt to unbuckle the holster, and the noble watched as the white linen was pulled away to reveal the toned, flat planes of her stomach and her tanned skin. He dragged his gaze up from her navel to her eyes, glinting dangerously in the morning light. "And are you sure, Neji-kun, that this is not just an elaborate excuse for you to force me to show you where I keep my weapons?"
He licked his lips – a habit she had begun to notice – and shook his head. "Perhaps you should have done this earlier, Tenten."
The leather straps slipped off her back and Tenten sheathed the knife in her hand before giving it to the same young boy who carried her cape. "Excuses, Neji," she whispered, the linen shirt dropping back into place as her hand fell away. "Have you become soft after all?"
He smirked. "I am not the one you should be worrying about." He drew the sword and she leapt backwards, and he heard her breathe in as the tip of the blade whipped past her stomach. "Good reflexes."
She bowed elegantly, crossing one arm over her chest as she bowed. "Thank you, my lord." He ran forward and she leapt towards him, determination in her eyes and a smile on her face. Their swords clashed with a loud ring and, like yesterday, she ignored the first jolt in her arm.
"So what made you decide to attack me?" He pushed back against her and she yielded, stepping back before slipping out of range.
"Men with archaic and chauvinistic perceptions about women," she replied.
Neji smirked and understood, deciding to ignore the taunt in her words. "You went to the stable." He was sorely tempted to add that their opinions were far from archaic, as she liked to put it.
She nodded and shook the loose strands of hair out of her face. "And why were you not fighting anyone when I came here?"
Tenten parried the second blow and he met her gaze with a sardonic reply. "Surely, a knight such as yourself would understand the concept of meditation?"
She kicked his shin and he hopped away with a curse. "That was uncalled for, Hyuuga." He straightened and took up a defensive stance, scowling at her. "Although I am curious about that scar on Sadako's arm. Would you care to show me?"
A murmur ran through the crowd of onlookers and Neji cocked his head to the side. "Why would you want to fight against someone whom you know you could never defeat?"
She spun the sword, the hilt slipping easily through her fingers. "The same reason why everyone else seems to fight. To become stronger; to reach my goals."
"The Jyuuken... is not easy to fight against."
She shut her eyes. "Show me."
Her voice, though a mere whisper, made him shiver. She looked up when he sheathed the sword, and handed it to a page. Tenten did the same, and braced herself for an attack. He saw her centre of weight shift as she bent her knees slightly, her muscles tensed and she watched his every move. "What do you know about chakra?"
"It is... Sadako did not explain the specifics."
"A form of spiritual energy, you could say. It runs through everyone, although the ability to control it is –"
"Neji! What a surprise!"
Everyone froze, Tenten included. Neji's posture changed immediately and he bowed. "Lady Hinata."
Hinata emerged from the fringe of the crowd, Hanabi close behind her. Both were wearing loose breeches, and Neji's brow furrowed. "Surely, Lady Hinata..."
"Oh, get off your high horse, Neji," Tenten rolled her eyes. "A woman is also responsible for the safety of herself and her loved ones, is she not? As heir to a family that is known through the land for legendary warriors, it is her duty to her family and the Hokage to make sure that she is capable of leading men, not just by words, but through conduct. To understand the way the army works is to ensure success in battle – ignorance brings only unnecessary death."
Hanabi clapped her hands. "I like her, cousin. You have chosen well – I knew you would!" Her laughter rang through the courtyard, and Tenten's cheeks flamed as she remembered last night's affairs. With that memory, she was also subdued. So much for finding temporary relief. Neji noticed the shift in her demeanour, but said nothing.
"What brings you here, Lady Hinata?"
"We are running drills, of course," Hanabi piped in. "We heard you talking about the Jyuuken, and, well, I couldn't curb her curiosity." She paused, ignoring Neji as he rolled his eyes in disbelief. "I have a fantastic idea – why don't you show us how much you have learned, Neji, over the years? Hinata is eager to showcase her skills, and, well, it will be a spectacle I am sure that Tenten will enjoy."
The atmosphere immediately changed – and Tenten knew what Neji's response would be. "Hinata?" His voice quavered with a strange tension, and she did not miss it.
"Well, cousin? Will you allow me to challenge you in combat?"
Neji's shoulders were rigid as he replied, "Yes, if you so desire."
Another cold breeze whipped through the courtyard, and Tenten shivered. The boy inched over and handed her a cloak, but he had been too absent minded to notice that the garment was Neji's. Tenten stiffened as she recognised the scent, and Hanabi took her by the arm as a bench was brought for them to sit.
"What... do you think will happen?" Tenten asked, watching Neji's eyes close. "Will he-?"
"Please, Tenten, I have not the slightest clue of what you speak. Simply watch," Hanabi replied coolly. It had the desired effect, and Tenten blinked at the change. Where was that petulant, demanding girl who cajoled Neji and teased her father? No, this young woman was a Hyuuga, through and through.
Tenten sighed and pulled the cloak tighter around her shoulders, and prayed that Neji would not act rashly. It was no secret how he felt – this entire affair was just asking for trouble. Hanabi quivered with anticipation beside her, and the onlookers were just as tense, and not a sound was made as Hinata and Neji both bowed – as was customary – before Neji shut his eyes. A single, harsh word left his lips as he settled into a strange stance she had only seen once, fleetingly, in her days as an apprentice.
"You have met Hyuuga Hitomi, I gather?" Hanabi turned to Tenten, who nodded as she watched, eyes transfixed. "She has a strong, natural affinity with chakra and using the Byakugan comes as easily as breathing to her. She is the strongest in our family for a good reason."
"But... she does not..."
"The veins? She does not even have to do that incantation – that is how powerful her gift is. However, she chose not to fight. Her hands are for healing, not taking life."
Tenten watched with fascination as the veins on his temple were raised and his eyes opened. There it was, in its glory – the legendary ability that she had only ever heard about in hushed conversations. Sasuke had, of course, regarded it with scorn... but – Hinata's soft cry broke Tenten out of her reverie, and in an instant, Neji rushed forward, his hair flowing behind him. Their feet moved silently across the stones, and they looked as if they were dancing, exchanging blows in swift succession. Neither seemed to have the upper hand – Hinata was lighter and only a bit more fluid in her movements, whereas Neji had more strength. However, when they broke apart, their arms were shaking, and Neji had balled his fist.
"You have improved, cousin," Hinata remarked. They had only been children the last time she had seen him fight.
"Like yourself, I gather." Neji flexed his fingers, and Hinata pushed up her sleeve to examine the damage. Tenten watched, wide eyed, as she revealed several welts on her soft skin. She glanced at Neji, and saw that he sported the same marks.
"In the same way we have a respiratory system, almost all Hyuuga have a chakra system – it is closely linked to our internal organs, and the chakra flows through certain paths, like blood," Hanabi explained. "Certain points lie close beneath the skin, and by sealing them up with chakra, we can block the supply of chakra to that area. We cannot survive if we use up all of our chakra, and to attack one's chakra system... is essentially to attack ones' vital organs."
"You mean... they could die?"
Hanabi smiled. "Of course not. This is a friendly match, after all. I doubt Hinata nor Neji would aim for something like the heart."
Tenten turned her attention back to the fight, mesmerised by the way they moved. It was like a deadly dance, punctuated by the sound of hands striking flesh. Their perfect symmetry was thrown violently askew when Hinata stumbled backward, before readjusting her weight, and settling into another stance. She wiped away the sweat on her forehead, eyes lit with determination and her eyes set in a grim line. Neji, conversely, showed no emotion. His breaths were even and he did not even show evidence of his injuries. His eyes were cold and detached –and once more, Tenten wondered how far he would go.
"He's hit one of the tenketsu in her leg. It's a particular point at which many chakra paths cross," she added for clarification. "If my sister keeps this up, she won't be able to keep going – and I doubt that Neji will allow her enough time to reopen the point."
True enough, Neji rushed forward again, a snarl tearing itself from the back of his throat. Hinata ducked beneath his hands and spun, her hands searching for purchase on his skin. She froze, however, when a sudden, sharp blow knocked all of the wind from her, and she backed away from him, her hands against her chest and her eyes watering. His looked down on her, his eyes burning with hatred, and she blinked up at him, her sight growing dim as she hovered on the edges of consciousness. Her heart was trying frantically to keep working and she coughed, blood coming forth unbidden, and with startling ease. She wiped the blood from her mouth, scarlet staining her skin as Neji stepped back to prepare for the final attack. Her eyes held quiet resolution, and his face seemed to contort with an unspeakable rage. However, his eyes were cold and calculating – they carried a merciless intent to kill.
Tenten recognised that expression. It was one she had seen, and experienced so many times – just before dealing the final blow. He charged once more, and Hinata surged forward to meet him. Tenten was up and moving before she realised she had stood, and time seemed to slow as she ran, one hand outstretched. All she could taste was the killing intent that thrummed through her body – Neji's desire to see Hinata's lifeblood stain the stones. She saw Hinata's knee buckle and give way as she fell forward, and Neji's hand seemed to cut through the air, sharper than a steel blade. But suddenly, against all odds, she had made it, and to prove it, Neji's hand was at her throat, her pulse pounding beneath his finger tips.
Hanabi had been right behind her and was bracing Hinata, trying to keep her from falling.
"Neji," Tenten said quietly. She gulped and his fingers brushed against her skin. "Neji, this is enough."
Neji's voice was as harsh as his breathing. "Who are you to tell me that?"
"Everyone here would tell you that, if they could," she replied, meeting his gaze with eyes that were unafraid. "Whatever that made you want to harm her so much... just let it go." Her hands slowly moved towards his. "Neji, please." One hand closed lightly around his wrist, and the other clasped his fingers.
"It is none of your business. It is not your place to interfere," he snarled, finally snatching his hand away.
"I made a vow to protect those who needed my help." Her heartbeat was nowhere near close to normal, and she could hear the blood rushing in her ears.
"I do not need to be protected."
"I was not protecting you!" She snapped. "I know that I am no authority when it comes to your behaviour – I know that I am far from it! However, I do not believe that you are the kind of man who could kill one of his family for the sake of-"
"How do you know?" he sneered. "What would you know? Nothing. You are just a woman. This is my family. You know nothing about me, or how my family works," he said bitterly. "You know nothing of the fate of a caged bird."
He caught himself, biting back his words. Without saying anything else, he turned on his heel.
"Hyuuga!" Tenten snapped coldly. He stopped walking, and he turned to face her once more. She tore the cloak from her shoulders and strode over to him, staring over his shoulder. "I thank you, Hinata. I apologise for my behaviour today," she called out. She thrust the garment into Neji's chest, almost pushing him over, before storming out of the barracks.
Both Neji and Tenten were in foul tempers for the rest of the day. Sadako fled, avoiding Tenten as much as she could, and passers-by could have sworn they could hear the sound of things breaking coming from the young woman's chambers. Fits of rage gave way to a feeling of strange emptiness, and Tenten stared at the clouds outside from her place upon the floor.
"Just a woman..." Tenten muttered. "How can I be just a woman?!"
"Quiet easily, I can assure you," a voice remarked drily. Tenten sat up to find Hitomi standing by the secret passage that led into her room, a sheepish looking Hiroshi by her side.
"Hitomi? Hiroshi? Is that you?" Tenten stood, brushing the dust off her clothes. "I did not hear you come in."
"I would not doubt that, with the way your thoughts have been clamouring inside your head. I could hear both you and Neji from the other side of the castle, in Lady Hinata's chambers."
At the mention of the heiress, Tenten sobered. "How is she?"
"Healing. I heard what Neji did. I am, actually, quite curious, as to why Neji himself is so angry."
Tenten glanced over at the wall that separated their rooms and rolled her eyes. "I would not know, by all means, because I am just a woman." She sighed and rubbed her temples. "I should have left him to the wolves."
Hitomi chuckled as she sat in front of the fire. Hiroshi followed her, carrying a heavy tray in his hands.
"Hiroshi, what is that?"
"Your supper. Sadako has been running her own errands, and Hitomi came to fetch me to bring you something to eat."
Tenten slumped in her chair and smiled at them. "I am truly grateful for your help. I can only hope that fool starves to death." Just the thought of him brought her anger close to the surface and she tried to force her attention back to the meal that Hiroshi had brought. The stew was still steaming, and the bread was still warm from the oven. Her stomach rumbled, and she forgot the pair was still in the room as she picked up the spoon and began to eat with gusto.
"This is fantastic!" Tenten cried though enthusiastic mouthfuls.
"So, may I ask what you have been doing all day?"
Tenten shrugged as she continued to wolf down the stew, pausing occasionally to sip at the wine. It was watered down, but she didn't really mind. Hiroshi smiled as she cleared the plate and slouched in her chair, patting her stomach.
"I am feeling much better now, thank you." She smiled sleepily at him, and he blushed.
"Why have you two not forgiven each other yet? I hear that Lord Hayate is angry at being stood up," Hitomi said, picking up a book from the table and absent-mindedly leafing through it.
"Neji's presence would only serve to enrage me further. I would not have the patience to endure his disciplinary methods, and would only see one outcome – Hayate losing his hands within the first half hour of our lesson."
"Why are you angry at Neji?" Hiroshi glanced at the wall as if to check if Neji was standing there, and Tenten sighed in response.
"It... is nothing I did not already know. I have tried to approach the subject with him before, but he just shuts me out." Tenten leaned forward, placing her head in her hands. "He just... touched a sore spot, is all. I can handle it. I must." She looked up and gave him a strained smile. "All will be well tomorrow."
Hitomi simply smiled – and didn't bother trying to point out that Tenten had been thinking quite the opposite. "Tomorrow, then. I will let you get some rest." She stood, and Hiroshi followed her lead, leaving Tenten to wonder whether the young man would ever start to develop any self confidence.
She reached for the cup of spiced wine and the book she had been trying to read earlier and settled back into her chair, trying to avoid the thought of the Hyuuga in the next room. Tenten raised the glass to her lips and took a generous gulp before setting it down on the table. The wine, unlike the one that had accompanied her dinner, was potent and warm, sending tingles to her fingertips. This entire situation was more than a little irrational – she was not going to run away from this problem and sulk like... the scorned lover. What had she been thinking, really? After almost an entire day of amiable conversation, that Neji would see her as a confidante and friend? What was he, to her? Definitely not a friend, she mused. Perhaps, for now, just labelling him a rather cold acquaintance would have to suffice. But...
"He reached for my hand," Tenten said slowly. "What kind of fool does not know what that implies?"
"I think it is more than appropriate to add at this point, that you started that one."
She rubbed her neck and did not turn to face the Hyuuga who had entered her rooms uninvited.
He took the book from the table, much to her dismay, and read the title before smirking. "Interesting choice."
"I do not see why you are here, acting as if..." Tenten paused, trying to find the right words. Neji didn't bother trying to finish her sentence. "As if nothing had happened this morning. You could try being, oh, I don't know, a bit more remorseful about trying to kill your cousin."'
"Like I said this morning, Tenten, do not even try to fathom these things."
She snatched the book back from him before drinking from the glass once more. Neji arched an eyebrow at her before stealing the wine, and he downed the rest of the drink before she had a chance to object.
"Bastard," she muttered, trying to concentrate on the book.
"Well? Will you not ask me about this morning?" Neji asked, sitting in the chair Hitomi had just vacated.
"Would you like me to ask?" she shot back angrily. "I do not understand why you find it necessary to play these cryptic games with me, Neji! I refuse to be strung along like this."
"Like what, Tenten? A lovesick girl?"
She glowered at him, threw the book down on the table and stood to leave. "Do you have a purpose in being here?"
"Not particularly." Neji stood, wavering unsteadily, and for the first time, the scent of wine hit her.
"Are you... are you drunk?" She sighed. "Just... go back to your room before you do something you regret."
He chuckled before walking over to her, and he smirked. "Define... 'regret'."
She swallowed as he raised his hands to rest against her shoulders, his fingers sure as they slid up to cup her cheeks. "Something like this, Neji," she whispered.
"What's to regret, Tenten? I know that you have desired this as much as I have."
"Excuse me?" She frowned. "Who are you to assume anything of the sort? Do not even think to presume that you know anything about my feelings, Hyuuga." She shook his hands away and –
Tenten woke with a start as her head dropped onto her chest. The fire had burned down to glowing coals and the book she had been reading was sitting on the table. Her dinner was gone, as was the glass of wine. However, in its place was a pitcher of water and wrapped around her shoulders was a thick, woollen blanket. Tenten blinked, and yawned, and turned slowly to see if Sadako was in the room. It was not likely – if she had been in, she would have definitely remembered to stoke the fire again.
She glanced at the door that connected her rooms to Neji's, and frowned. Then, she began to feel a stabbing sensation in her head, and Tenten placed her hands on her forehead. Groaning, she reached for the glass and filled it with water before drinking thirstily, the blanket falling away from her shoulders. After finishing a second glass, the pain eased into a dull throb and there was space in her brain to begin to think again – but now she could only think of one thing; Neji.
"Bastard," she muttered.