Author's Notes: Written for Ten Squared's April challenge, the theme being "Fool Me Once." I was going to try and do something light, but I've been listening to too much Vienna Teng, and this came from "Eric's Song" being on repeat.
Warning: Some rather graphic detail on a wound. Probably not for the squeamish.
Enjoy, NejiTen fans!
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction.
Certain The Journey
The way Tenten had always seen it, Neji had this uncanny power to move forward, whatever the circumstances. Death was something he could smile at, not because he wished for it but because he had no solid reasons for fearing it. His confidence was a shield, polished from years of training and a life of hardship. His arrogance, too, was a barrier that kept him inside – and everyone else out.
That was the way of all Hyuuga, not only Neji. He was just best at it, as though he had taken the act of being introverted and refined it until his defenses became lethal, like an impeccably-sharpened rapier. The closest Tenten felt she had ever come to truly knowing her training partner was in the shared irritation between them whenever the antics of Gai and Lee were too ill-timed to tolerate. Otherwise he was a mystery. Sometimes, while sparring, Tenten got the impression that she was combating a void, not a man. Only empty space could feel nothing, and there were instances when Neji's eyes were as blank as new parchment, colorless or not.
It made her hate him sometimes.
More than that, it made her hate herself, because despite knowing that nothing could come of it, she had fallen in love with him; hopelessly, unalterably. She had purposely gone to stand in the street one afternoon to find men she had known as long as Neji and ask herself whether time had simply caused her to project her feelings onto her teammate. Not so. Prolonged self-analysis brought her to the conclusion that she really did care for Neji, and not just because they were both members of Team Gai.
As a constantly rational kunoichi, Tenten found dissatisfaction in this. Love, even at twenty-two, was like poison injected directly into the heart. It was distracting, it was painful, and it was the source of more misery than joy. Over her teenage years she had seen hearts broken and mended and had assured herself each time that the all-too-human emotion wasn't worth the trouble.
He made her understand that to him, her love was absolutely worthless.
She had no plans to die in the middle of a battlefield because she was thinking of ebony hair and a cyclone of chakra.
Which was why, in the middle of a mission, in a battle with four Grass-nin on a night devoid of stars and brimming with rain, Tenten was so stunned when it was not her but Neji who took a shuriken to the chest, his chakra instantaneously cut off with the serious wound.
Not victorious, but satisfied, the Grass-nin smugly retreated into thick groups of wet trees, their progress encouraged by fear of retaliation. They needn't have been so scared. Both Tenten and Lee dropped everything to go to their downed comrade.
In a matter of minutes that felt to Tenten like days, the two carried him to a cave. A fire was made, water gathered and boiled, and bandages sterilized before a quarter of an hour could pass. These tasks were all performed by Tenten as, behind her, Lee stripped his friend of his drenched clothes and reclined him on his warm bedroll. Neji had gone unconscious seconds after the shuriken had hit. The metal star was still embedded deep in the Hyuuga's chest; Lee had been afraid to remove it before they got him out of the rain.
Warmth slowly filled the cave as Tenten, still soaked, crawled over to where her boys were. "What can we do?" she asked. Her voice was quiet, as though by speaking too loudly she would somehow make Neji worse.
Lee gestured to Neji's skin. Aside from a slight paling in his already-fair complexion, there was no odd discoloring or swelling veins. "No poison. But we should take out the shuriken. I have a manual Sakura-san wrote for us—"
"Tell me what to do," interposed Tenten briefly, "and I will do it."
Pausing for only half of a moment, Lee nodded and opened the book of emergency instructions given to him by Tsunade's apprentice. Reading aloud, he glanced up from the text intermittently to watch as Tenten gripped the exposed portion of the shuriken – her eyes heated, muscles tightening with the familiarity of touching the common weapon. How, she wondered, was it possible that Neji had been made a victim by something he had been training against with her for years and years?
Fate, he would say.
Tenten frowned. Screw that.
She gave one, sharp lurch and the shuriken came freely out in her hand. Blood dripped from three of the star's points, alternatively dark and bright in the flickering light of the campfire. She tossed it to the side, its shadow traveling along the cave wall like an insect. Astonishment painted Tenten's face as she stared at her left hand; red coated the tips of her fingers. She had never before touched Neji's blood, and the knowledge of it filled her with a sick feeling.
"There is a fast-working ointment that can be made with a root that is fairly common to this area." Lee's voice sounded too loud in her ears, and she was torn from her inner thoughts. Tenten had the offhand notion that he had somehow saved her from going mad. "I'll go find it. But it will take some time, in this rain and dark. You will have to sew him up while I am gone."
He tossed a medium-sized box of emergency supplies her way. It clattered on the stone floor close to her knee. "Sew him?" Tenten gasped. "Lee, I've never—"
"You'll have to," the Green Beast reiterated, uncharacteristically grave in both eyes and tone. "The ointment has to seep through the stitches. And he'll bleed to death if you don't." Lee knew, Tenten was sure, he had always known what she felt for Neji. Just as he knew that fear was becoming a pair of claw-like hands around her throat, squeezing and leaving invisible bruises. His gaze softened somewhat as he turned to the mouth of the cave. "He trusts you, Tenten."
Once Lee had gone, she felt impossibly alone with the sight of her unconscious teammate. Her normally deft hands reached into the box for sterile needle and thread with a sudden loss of talent, and it took her several moments to realize she was having trouble threading the needle because her fingers shook like the leaves of Konoha. Eyes narrowing, Tenten reminded herself she was a kunoichi, bred for control, and slipped the string through the miniscule hole in the sharp line of steel, knotting it expertly.
Barehanded, she had to clear blood away from Neji's chest just to see where the skin gaped. It wasn't his heart, thank goodness, that had taken any shuriken points. But the jagged cut fell only three inches below the organ, and this thought was what spurred Tenten to make the first stitch at the top of the gash in his chest. Having never been domestic at all, it took a couple of tries before she could make the stitch straight. Not usually squeamish, it was almost too much to be forced to pull at Neji's flesh like that.
She paused only once to breathe, raggedly and harshly. His blood coated her hands now, a paint of the life she loved. Lee had not said it in so many words, but that very life was depending on her. "Neji," she murmured. There was no movement in his face to indicate he heard her. Shakily, she picked up the needle still hanging from his wound and finished her work, carefully tying off the thread and cutting off the excess with a kunai and a flick of her wrist.
Her eyes closed, only to open as she turned and reached for the bucket of unheated water she had prepared earlier. She washed her hands until the water was dyed red then found two clean cloths in her pack. One she let cool in the rain leaking from the ceiling, then laid it across Neji's head. Dipping the other in the boiled water, she dabbed gingerly at his torso to clean him up as best she could.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be, she thought absently. Her eyes did not see the man below her but the boy who had seemingly been forever over her head, constantly unattainable. When she was young, Tenten had planned a quick rise to the top, from parentless student to respected ANBU Jounin, maybe of captain rank. At twenty-two, she had just been awarded Jounin status three years ago. Neji had reached that goal five years before that. It hadn't bothered her at the time. She had expected his fast-paced success ever since she was first drafted into Team Gai.
It had been hard, being the woman among a trio of talented men. But she had persevered, vowing that never again would she be fooled by the delusion that life could be easy. Nothing could ever be easy, least of all the journey of a kunoichi working at the Hyuuga Neji's side. She had felt so certain of herself since that time.
Now, sitting in a dim cave while Neji breathed unevenly under her unsteady hands, Tenten believed she had never felt more uncertain in her life. She did not even know whether her stitches were helping him. Her eyes flicked to his face.
Mistake. Up to now, she had purposely avoided looking at him. Now that she had, Tenten was unable to take her eyes away. His long hair was still damp, his cheeks no longer pale but flushed with fever, which worried her. His lips were parted minutely as he inhaled and exhaled, lashes resting in the hollows beneath his eyes.
He looked, for the first time, totally unguarded.
Sobs broke free from her throat, unbidden. She could not hold them back, and they weakened her until she was doubled over, clutching at her shoulders as though to keep them from shuddering. The twin agony of fearing for Neji's life and loving him without reciprocation had built and now rushed out in streams of tears that rolled down her cheeks, off her chin and onto his wound. Tasting the salt of them, she stretched out beside Neji, her face close to his. The muted intensity she felt gave her the sense that she, and not Neji, was at the risk of dying. Tenten wished Lee would hurry and come back.
She was so tired of being alone, of being on this journey she had chosen for herself without any more idea of how to go on.
She didn't hear him stir, the frantic pants of her sorrow too loud. But his voice did not go unnoticed.
Her eyes, previously squeezed shut, flew open to stare into Neji's ivory ones only inches away. There was pain there but the predominant presence was that of confusion and – Tenten wasn't sure, she had never seen it there before – concern?
"You're crying." His voice was rough and so raw he sounded as though he had swallowed every sharp edge in her largest scroll. "Why? You've never cried before."
She scrambled to her knees, but he followed her with his gaze. "You were injured. Lee went out to find something for it. Don't move or you'll tear your stitches." As she spoke, she scrubbed furiously at her cheeks until the wetness went away. "I think you should rest, you have a fever, Neji—"
"Tenten, you weren't crying for me?"
The question paralyzed her. She didn't realize she was trembling. His eyes glowed, pinpricks of firelight in the orbs. Sweat beaded his brow, tiny pearls from the fever. "I…" Tenten had no answer for him, no reasons other that that she loved him – and that he could not know. "What made you get hit?" she demanded, a touch of fierceness entering her voice.
He smiled. She froze. What the hell was there to smile about? He had caused her and Lee so much grief and it wasn't even midnight yet. Her heart hadn't known a normal pace all night, and the expression on his face only sped it up.
"I thought of you," he told her. It was enough to make her heart stop entirely. Brown eyes wide, she shook her head.
"I don't understand."
His smile left, a phantom form of happiness. "Me neither. I saw you fighting that Grass-nin, and I started thinking of other battles we've fought together. You're always there, Tenten. In my mind."
Tenten couldn't comprehend what was happening or what compelled her to move nearer to him again. "Neji…you have a fever." That would explain—
"I'm not hallucinating. I know you're real, right now." As if he wanted to prove it, he lifted his hand and grasped her wrist, pulling toward him in the same second.
Gasping, Tenten fell clumsily over him, firelight washing over both of them together. Horror struck her along with the idea that she might have jarred his wound, but Neji did not so much as wince. She was further stunned when he reached up – as though he had never known injury – and broke the ties holding her hair up. The mass of dark cascaded down, waves so damp they were almost black, like shadows framing her face and sweeping over the Hyuuga's neck.
He offered no explanation for his unannounced action. Eyes devoid of any apology, Neji murmured to her. "You can't be a dream." He sounded like he was attempting to convince himself, however. "I've had enough of dreams."
Licking her lips – a motion which Neji's eyes lowered to witness – Tenten replied in a whisper, "I'm not." Her pulse quickened when his gaze stayed on her mouth.
"Good." She had no time to riddle out what that meant before he gave another firm tug on her wrist, and her lips met his in a rush of warm breath and half-formed sighs.
And it didn't hurt, Tenten thought in surprise even as he deepened the kiss, his arms coming up to wrap around her. Her love blazed as stronger than ever, but it didn't hurt at all.
When Neji did rest, it was as he held Tenten close to his side, his fingers tangled in her loose, drying hair. It was in that way Lee found them upon his return, an hour later. He silently applied the ointment squeezed from the roots, and the next day Neji had healed so much that the stitches Tenten had sewn were able to be cut out.
Tenten thought on the walk home the following day that she too had done some healing last night.
Her journey wasn't over. Glancing sideways, her eyes met Neji's, and something passed between them. But neither did she feel as uncertain as before.
Neji took her hand.
And she would never be fooled into thinking her love was worth nothing.