Author's Notes: This is very different from any of my other NejiTen stories. I wanted to explore the darker side of their profession and experiment with their characterization when their world is at its worst.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction.
She was sent to the back lines in order to repair her damaged weapons and rest for the next onslaught of Cloud-nin. Even since the Land of Lightning had allied itself with Akatsuki, the entire Land of Fire had known only warfare. While they had assistance from the Land of Wind and a few free-thinking squads from the Land of Water who wished to help, Konoha still faced horrific drops in their numbers.
Tenten had been admitted to ANBU without the proper series of tests. The organization had taken her on both as a kunoichi who knew what it was like to kill many in a small space of time and as a symbol. The dragon carved into her mask was a source of encouragement to the others in her squad; they prayed for raining steel to save them and their village from their unexpectedly powerful enemy.
Now, after nearly three days of continuous fighting, Tenten's mask was dented in such a way that she had to remove it to breathe properly. Freezing rain outside tortured those still in the throes of combat. She had thrown up a tent and built a fire to keep her blood moving while she sat and straightened blades, corrected sharpened arrows, and restrung her bow.
Her captain had asked her if she wanted help or someone for company. "It is not good to be alone with your thoughts in these times," he had said, concern shading his eyes in spite of himself. "Reflection can often do more harm than help."
Tenten had simply declined with silence, dragging her aching feet to the back of the camp. She had known the strain of reflection before; though still under thirty, she was experienced in banishing thought and cleansing her mind. She had denied herself much in her young life.
Shadows flew over the canvas walls of her tent, and her eyes narrowed in watchfulness. If one of those shadows turned out to be an enemy, she would be more than prepared. The display of artillery before her tipped up a corner of her mouth in a mirthless smirk.
The expression instantly dropped, however, when the slit in the canvas ruffled, and a fellow Konoha ninja entered as silently as a leaf fell from a tree branch. Tenten did not move, though she thought others would be frightened by ghosts.
She turned away from this one, choosing instead to sheath the many naked blades in front of her. Rank was the only reason she afforded him a greeting. "Captain Hyuuga."
"I was sent by Jiraiya-sama to check your status." His voice wisped over her like fog, just as thick.
"Why?" she asked calmly rather than give him a reply. "You're not even in my squad."
There was a pause in which she felt him looking at her – she had always been able to feel it. "You have survived this far." There was not surprise in his voice, no lingering doubt, only a curious thinning of tone.
"Of course." She was annoyed but her exterior remained unaltered. "I think that should be enough for you to report."
It was a dismissal, but he did not move.
"It's been four years, hasn't it?" came the softly-posed question.
A line of tension quickly knotted between her shoulders in addition to a steady stream of confusion at the way he spoke. She stood up and slowly faced him. Tenten had known he would not be masked (his voice had not been muffled) but it still came as a sting of surprise to see him again. The aristocratic nose and cheek bones she had known since childhood were sharply defined in the light of her fire. Long locks of night-black hair shocked against the skin left bare by his ANBU uniform. And the eyes…the same pair of pristine white stared at her like two blank moons.
Her voice was even, terribly controlled. "Why have you really come here, Neji?"
Hyuuga Neji's face remained carefully impassive, yet there was a sudden change in the way his eyes watched her without him ever moving a muscle. It was something she had once admired in him, but now she detested it with every cell in her body. She kept a leash on her temper, however, because there was no place for it unless it was on the battlefield.
"Four years since we've spoken," he clarified, not answering her. "A year after I joined ANBU, I had heard you were accepted into the sixth squad. And now I hear you have quickly risen to vice captain."
She did not want to respond. She did not want to enter any sort of discussion with him, but Neji was waiting for something, and she figured the sooner he left the better. Cold indifference dominated her as she said shortly, "I reach my goals as I can."
"War speeds things up, I've learned."
"You're the captain of the third squad," said Tenten suddenly. "You shouldn't be here."
"I was also ordered to rest," he told her, calm in comparison to her spit of fire, though he seemed discontent with it. "If you want, I'll work. I can repair kunai and shuriken, anyway."
How many times had he stayed after training to help her fix the more simplistic of her weapons? Childhood, though it seemed centuries past, still tormented her with hundreds of memories she would much prefer dissolved rather than taint her focus.
In answer – because if he was going to stay, he would have to be useful – she threw handful of said weapons at him, which he caught between his fingers, unharmed. Tenten sat again, feeling somewhat nonplussed when he folded his legs to share the fire, rather close.
They worked in silence, the fire occasional shooting off sparks while the wind continued its harsh lashing outside and the shadows kept leaping. Tenten blocked the sound of war from her mind but not totally. She needed those cries to keep her on task.
She could hear the tempo of Neji's breath, and she was glad to have something to do with her hands. Only once did her eyes flick to his mask – the most she had seen of him in four years – to take note of the hawk face of it. Years ago she had imagined it had suited him. Now his scent, pine and river water, presented itself as only a blazing distraction.
"This war has changed you."
Tenten inclined her head in fractional acknowledgement, though she wished he would stay silent. "War or not, I would have changed."'
"Does it displease you?"
Neji instantly retreated, reaching for another scarred kunai to avert his eyes. "I have no right to be preferential."
This set her at some ease. Ranks and rules, status and regulation…she felt comfortably shielded by these things. There was no sense of personal investment anymore. She had a whole squad of shinobi to concern herself with, and with them in mind she had to keep herself alive, whatever the cost.
"But yes. It does displease me."
Her jaw clenched. She wished she could be like Kurenai and keep consistent reign over her emotions. Somehow anger was the only one that ever successfully broke through her surface placidity. "You are overstepping your boundaries, Captain Hyuuga. If you wish for a woman to please you, I suggest you abandon this war and claim your place at your family's compound." Her eyes shot to his. "Otherwise, you will keep your thoughts to—"
Eye contact was a mistake, she quickly realized. His expression swiftly killed her words in her throat, and Tenten took a deep breath.
"Have you forgotten," Neji murmured back, "my impression of the place that waits for me in my family?"
"It does not concern me."
"I mistreated you," he said slowly. "And this is the result. Tenten…" She inhaled sharply as he spoke her name. "I would not have had you become heartless in your achievements. You are only dragons, blood, and steel now. In our days as members of Team Gai—"
"Team Gai is over," she interposed venomously. Hair escaped from the buns atop her hair hung down and caressed her cheek, the movement strikingly soft next to her demeanor. "It ended when you joined ANBU, when I became powerful, when Lee decided to work in a duo with Gai."
"Lee is dead."
Her world reduced. The shadows fled, the fire darkened, and her eyes widened as she looked at the gleaming hilt of a short sword without seeing it. Cheerful calls of encouragement rang in her ears, words of dedication and youth and power. Then pain, so acute she felt both burned and chilled at once, planted itself in the center of her gut and stayed there, making her harder, stronger.
"Rock Lee," she murmured after a moment. At last, the shadows returned at the fire flared in her vision again. She felt something foreign on her face, pressed the back of her hand to her jaw. It came away wet, and she breathed raggedly. Her eyes went to the ANBU captain to find him standing.
"I was wrong," he relented quietly, "to ignore your feelings in those years."
Her eyebrows drew together as something sharper than the pain and hotter than the fire coiled in the core of her being. "Don't…" And it spring loose. "Don't you dare take it back now!" He seemed taken aback by her outburst, and it fueled her. "Don't apologize to me! Lee's dead, so you're here to tell me? That's the real reason, isn't it?!"
His gaze shifted to the right of her. "I made a mistake," he began, only to have the sentenced finished for him by her fist connecting with his cheek.
Tenten stood, hands still balled, half-gasping for air as she desperately wished to hit him again. He turned his head back to her, the left side of his face already turning a mottled pink. His first scratch from battle would be from her.
"Do you think," she demanded furiously, "that you can come to me after four years of silence to tell me Lee is dead and then apologize for everything? Do you? I have survived more than this war, you miserable fuck!"
He did not look hurt by her words. Neji appeared merely resigned, as though he had expected this very response. But he could not see the storm in her mind. Byakugan would show him her raging blood, her racing heart, but not the utter hatred she held for him in this moment.
And even now, those damnable memories from their younger years poisoned her, forced her to recall her feelings for him other than hate. Trembling hands went to the sides of her head, fingers digging into her scalp. He moved forward out of fear that she would hurt herself, but Tenten lunged and he held back.
"Tenten," he breathed, and his tone – the softness he would never afford her before ANBU – drove her crazy. "I could not realize it before I left you. My work…my self would not let me realize it. What you wanted to give me in those days was something that I, even now—"
"Leave!" she screamed at him. "Go to that battle out there and freeze or bleed or die but do not, do not, tell me you…" She was suddenly swamped, unable to form words, and she sunk to her knees. Tears of anger streamed down her face as she hyperventilated, alarming him, but he did not move toward her. He started for the door, and she doubled over in emotional intensity. Years of ANBU training had cracked, and she was vulnerable and despised it.
Neji did not see a failing ANBU vice captain. He saw only a woman, his former teammate, Tenten – torn by professionalism, plagued by the path of an elite kunoichi. She was used by war, ravaged by duty.
And it was his fault.
Her arms were folded over her chest, hands clutching at the opposite shoulders. Moving noiselessly behind her, he saw her as a woman that could have been, outlined by the fire, accompanied by the anthem of battle outside. The fingers of her left hand brushed the binding tattoo that marked her as a slave of ANBU and honor.
He reached out, his palm hovering over her hand.
Tenten felt him there but did not move, only trembled, terrified that she was crumbling when she would still have to go back out and face her enemies. They would kill her easily now.
She felt him withdraw, his hand removing, and she curled into herself. That touch would have broken her.
Neji only allowed his fingers to pass through the few strands of freed brown hair for a moment before he pulled back completely. White eyes traced her form once more before he turned and walked out, away from her warmth and into the icy rain of war.
Perhaps he had always belonged there. Somehow, though, he had brought Tenten into that very same hell where Lee had died only hours ago.
He started his night of killing anew and could only hope she Tenten would not become one of those to fall.
Shinobi and kunoichi of Cloud were strewn on the frostbitten grass, their blood staining the hands and steel of Konoha. Neji breathed heavily from behind the plate of his mask, taut-veined eyes scanning the miles of battlefield. The air seemed stale in the cold dawn, those alive moving sluggishly to the back lines to find their captains and report.
An unrelenting fist gripped his ribcage and pulled when he found the brown-eyed weapons mistress staring unmasked at the silver sky above. Blood stained her cheeks, her hair was completely free of their binds, and her eyes were wide with loss.
Without warning, those eyes turned to his. He hurriedly pulled his own mask away. Neji and Tenten only stared at each other, feeling like phantoms of a world no longer theirs.
They stood alive in the morning light, ravaged.