Kicking Up Sand
: insanity is the exact color of beetle wings and gasoline...I think
It is one month later.
Which means it is ninety-seven degrees in the shade at the tail-end of December. This anomaly has nothing to do with el nino and everything to do with regional climate, as currently Neji is standing in mostly the middle of what appears to be bone-dry nowhere walking into what appears to be an even longer expanse of bone-dry nowhere. This, of course, isn't quite accurate because firstly: Neji doesn't walk pointlessly anywhere; it's not in his nature. Secondly: he's walking into the deep desert and that's not necessarily nowhere because walking into nowhere is stupid. Neji has made efforts not to be stupid all his life.
Whether or not he's succeeded is a question he leaves for interpretation by other worthier, not-him people. Meanwhile, he keeps walking and abstractly hates his decision to wear his usual clan robes because while white is a very cool color in theory, it also reflects the sun, thus, blinding him effectively, every time he chanced to casually glance down at himself. While this was only a little annoying at first, by mid-afternoon he's inches from ripping his shirt off and walking the rest of the way to Sunagakagure partially naked.
He supposes he's just a little field-crazy and dehydrated and mostly field-crazy and takes a drink of water.
A couple Jounin had worried about sending a rookie out solo for a mission like this – crossing a desert by one's self is something of a doozy by anyone's standards – but Neji insisted monotonously that losing his way would not be a problem. If he can track fleeing enemy-nin through the heavily wooded terrain of the Fire Country then he can certainly spot a village within arid desert plains of the Wind Country. Given, it's a Hidden Village, but the joke is Hidden Villages are only hidden from everyone but the people that actually can and do want to blow them up.
Neji knows exactly where it is.
He takes another drink of water and glances intrepidly into the distance. Another four hour's worth of walking, but the heat isn't so bad and the solitude is neither unpleasant nor unwanted so he just keeps breathing and keeps walking and thinks that Hinata's birthday party had been an excessively rambunctious affair for anyone, much less a Hyuuga heiress. He's already forgotten what he bought her…unless he hadn't bought her anything. He is good at not getting people things for their birthdays, he has it down to an art form.
Tsunade-hime (as she is sometimes known) assigned him this mission in that imperious way that suggested she was both trying to coddle him and kick his ass into shape. It is a love-hate relationship that every Jounin begins to formulate at some point or another. Now that he's a Jounin, she's shed the kid-gloves and started wailing on him just like every other adult. All the bruises up until now have been candy and cuddles in comparison. Neji is fifteen and that – oh so ironically – makes him the youngest 'adult' since Uchiha Itachi, but no one's saying that. Loudly. No one is saying that.
Part of him wishes they would.
It's a little into the evening by the time he arrives and it's now a cool eighty-nine in the shade and there's someone waiting at the gate for him. He isn't using his Byakugan because he doesn't figure he needs it as he's crossing the last mile to the city, but as he draws near the fact that he's startled tells him he probably should have used it, just to be safe.
The person waiting for him is not Kankurou. This is only shocking because the politics of sending a lone Hyuuga into former enemy – currently pseudo-friendly enemy territory – is that he work with someone with whom the Leaf is already comfortable with. It was already an extreme nicety of gesture that Neji was being sent without an escort, reciprocal niceties were expected. Thus, Neji had narrowed his list of contacts down to three people, one of whom was a former homicidal manic with a demon inside him, so that was an out. The other two were Kankurou and his sister, Temari, and by rights of having a uterus Neji had supposed she was also out.
Since the Suna kunoichi is standing at the gate waiting for him, he realizes that he was wrong. He also realizes that it's an irritation to her that she's been assigned to this mission, because her expression is a cross of annoyance, impatience, and a dash of intrigue smothered en masse by the other two. Even without the Byakugan, Neji sees exceptionally well in the dark. She's changed just very little in the years since he'd seen her loud and boorish and blowing up tornados at the Chuunin Exams.
Temari has one thin shoulder propped up against the gargantuan stone arch of the gate, her face turned toward the village so he has a fine profile of the thin, pale lines in her throat to the collar bone. A small luminous portion of white clavicle is visible in the V-dip of her kimono, held closed at the waist by a tight crimson sash. Neji can see her gloved fingers drumming idly at her hip, pastel digits bouncing like floating glow-worms against the darkness of her hip. Her hair is still a four-poof collection of blonde, dandelion-like blooms at the back of her head and when she turns to face him her eyes are wider than he expected, also, extremely ocean green-blue. She's probably drowned desert people with eyes that full of water.
"Hyuuga Neji?" she asks coolly, more to be polite than anything. She knows it's him.
"Temari-san," he replies, nodding somewhat warily. "Are you my contact for this mission?"
She grinned, her nymph-like face splitting crassly in two as the white of her teeth glow in the twilight. "I know, you were expected Kankurou. Unfortunately my little brother's been caught up in other missions so I was recruited to take over," she explains, her tone just a little self-abasing and Neji has the good sense to be only a little offended. "My orders come from the council directly and I'm telling you this only because I'm certain you already know."
Temari pushes off the wall, dusting sand imperceptibly from her skirt and lifting her head. "So, down to business," she says. "I'm glad you're here actually. I've had my eye on this mission for weeks and now that there's a Hyuuga of rank for it, we can get underway." Quite suddenly she produces a mission scroll from around her naval area and flips it open, letting the paper roll out like ribbon for him to read through. "Missing-nin. Insurgents after the fall of the Godaime Kazekage. They ran after Garra returned to take our father's place."
(Another absurdity in Neji's opinion is that a fourteen year old might become kage, but that's his opinion and one that would earn him a broken face if shared.)
Neji folds his arms. "Why do you need Hyuuga eyes?" he asks pragmatic as per usual. "If they're Suna, you should know their habits better than I."
"You're right," she agrees, striding around to stand in front of him, swinging a hand to her hip. As her leg locks he recognizes territorial body language because that's one emotion that he doesn't need Byakugan to see. He realizes he was wrong again, she's not annoyed to be here; she wants this mission. She doesn't want him. "This is a Suna matter, not something we need Konoha for, but recently the situation has become unforeseeably complex." Her eyes flicker in a manner that suggests she doesn't necessarily agree. "We put in a request for a strong Hyuuga tracking specialist. You're it."
Neji arches a brow. "Complex?"
There's a smirk waiting to happen in the corner of her mouth, hiding just to the right behind the slightly chapped shape of her lips and he's intensely suspicious of it. "Oh," she says as one might mention a minor detail, "there's six of them now. A-class. We believe they've hired on accomplices from another village. We don't know their methods of stealth."
"Six?" He attempts not to sound really, really irritated.
She inspects her nails for invisible grime. "Don't worry," she says, putting on a sugar-coated smile so sweet he can taste the cotton-candy lie from here. "I won't let them hurt you, Hyuuga." She shoulders her fan meaningfully as she moves past him, sliding by him in a way he's instantly wary of. "They won't get close enough."
Neji keeps his irritation in check. "What kind of mission did you say your brother's on?"
"One a Leaf-nin need know nothing about," she replies easily, waving her hand like she is shooing a little bird from her shoulder.
Her steps have the uneasy sway of one trying to be overtly casual. He can tell she'd rather stomp comfortably along the way Tenten does (like she can move mountains by stepping like a boy) but she's letting her feet roll smoothly in a manner that's entirely…unnatural. It's kind of distracting. She seems to sense his scrutiny because she turns about, hand jumping defensively to her hip in quick impatience. The gentle point of her chin juts aggressively as she lifts her head, narrowing those green eyes imperceptibly.
He tilts his head. "I'm not sure…" He looks her up and down. "Is there?"
There is a pause.
"Hell," she snaps at the empty air, "Alright, I can see you're not buying it. Fine. Kankurou is sitting on his ass at home watching TV and eating nutty-corn snacks." Her hands are making vicious little slicing movements while she speaks, indicative of barely repressed fury. "I'm out here with you because I'm the only competent shinobi with accommodating reproductive organs qualified to get within a hundred feet of your white-eyed ass without kick-starting an international feud. So, odd as it sounds; my boss is hoping I get laid this week. Catch my drift?"
Which is more honest than any Hyuuga is prepared for so he just stares at her. For a moment the two of them just kind of stand there in the empty sandy street while the air between them stagnates in stubbornly uncharged atmosphere. He suspects he should say something clever, but he can't imagine what it is just then because, really, that's just an odd thing to say to anyone you've only just officially met.
Temari rolls her ocean eyes. "Wanna have sex?"
He blinks. "No."
"Good. I was obligated to make at least one advance. That was it. Enjoy it. Now," she smirks a little, "let's get moving."
After that she walks like a self-satisfied dinosaur and makes no further efforts at seduction.
The night sky is a mottled shade of purple unseen to him before and for a while they travel beneath the span of bruised cloud-cover until the last glow of sunlight is gone and only the barren black and blue of moon-lit sand is left. The lunar calendar is at its initial stages, so there won't be any pitch-black nights for weeks, leaving them free to track in the cool of the evening. Temari doesn't waste anymore time with politics. After a quick inventory of weapons, she gives him a couple Suna-style long kunai to handle and he finds he likes them better then the regulation Konoha shorts. He tosses her some of the specialized serrated shuriken Tenten gave him then worries about it afterward.
She liked them too much.
This mission is not a just a friendly game of 'sharing' between hidden villages. Neji knows things are being expected of him, but he doesn't care to contemplate what they might be. It's easier to listen to Temari's curt directions, pool their resources and resourcefulness and hunt down a pack of missing-nin because so long as he keeps his eyes forward he can keep last month three weeks behind him where it belongs. The silvery ocean of sand is only soft and giving for five miles out before giving way to hard orange flatlands studded in stony outcroppings of bedrock. It's nearly midnight by the time they reach the crest of pale dunes and come to the strange desert planes.
"Here," Temari tells him, slinging her fan more comfortably over her shoulder. In the moonlight her face is irradiated white, her hair fuzzy silver clouds orbiting the back of her head. Her eyes search the stone eagerly and there's that hidden smirk in her mouth he's still wary of and she absentmindedly whacks his shoulder with a light tap of her knuckles. "Go on. See if we get lucky and they're close."
Neji looked at her sideways. "I can see several miles. You really think they'd remain so near the village?"
"Not really," she says, grinning fiercely into the barren flats, "but I don't bet money on them running too far."
The young Jounin takes that as a strong 'maybe' and activates the Byakugan, the familiar liquid warm sensation rushing up through the back of his eyes and saturating his world in a blues and blacks and gray-ish white. He stands, casting his gaze out and out and through and watches stone and earth melt like tissue paper until the land for miles around is laid absolutely bare before his eyes. He can see Temari watching him even now, though most of his focus has diverted to his searching, her face in his now peripheral vision is turned toward him like a pale oval. Her eyes are fixed on his, grim and curious.
He pretends not to notice.
"There's an abandoned fire pit about a half mile southwest from here," he announces, pushing himself to his feet. Pulling his hair out of his face, he lets the chakra drain from his optic nerve, relaxing the muscles around his eyes. Temari is already watching the horizon by the time he looks back to her, pale eyes a solid white film as before. Reflexively he brushes a hand across one temple, letting his eyes fall shut. "I'll take us there. You should be able to pick up their trail."
"Nice work, bright-eyes," said Temari, starting down the sliding dune immediately. "If it's fresh we'll have these bastards before the day is out."
They walk in silence a little after that.
"So…how long since you've been a Jounin?"
He glances at her. "A month now." 'And a day,' he adds.
She whistles. "Then they sent me a real rookie, didn't they?"
He doesn't rise to the bait. He doesn't want to talk really, not because the Suna-nin would be uninteresting to speak with, but rather that he's recently acquired an aversion to it that hasn't managed to lift even after everything else has. What that preludes, he can't tell, but he doesn't want to know that much anyway. Tsunade is expecting, he knows; what she's expecting he doesn't know and little as he likes it, he probably won't know until he returns and she spells out in what ways he has or has not failed. He's come to realize that what he interprets as 'failure' seldom matches the Hokage's.
He doesn't say anything.
Temari glances at him; a side-long look with her oceanic eyes washing over him in an obtrusively non-secret manner that makes it all too obvious she's trying to make him uncomfortable. Also, she is succeeding. Neji glances irritably away from her and pretends to examine the horizon for something no-doubt fascinating, hoping she'll have looked on by the time he looks her way again, but she's obstinately still staring at him by the time he swings his gaze back. He realizes just then Temari is almost exactly eye-to-eye with him, give or take a centimeter and he can't tell if having those pale uncommonly bright eyes level with his own is annoying or not.
She tilts her head back and away from him, one hand rising to her hip as the smirk rises up through the neutral shape of her mouth, pale teeth visible just between parted lips. It's so blatant he can't pretend he didn't see it so he sighs and glares at her.
"If it was nothing, you'd stop making efforts to annoy me. What is it?"
"Just wanted to know why Konoha's sending their prodigy out on semi-political search and destroy missions for the Sand. Seems a little over the top for a baby Jounin and you are a baby by Konoha standards," she laughs, hands waving before her like a girl warding off something funny. "I mean, you're good; no doubt. It's just generous of them to send a solo Hyuuga to the middle godforsaken nowhere just to lend a hand in a mostly Suna-affair. Specially seeing how you're rookie. Rookie Jounin usually stay home and bust their ass for the kage a couple months before getting international jobs. You got one right off the bat."
"I specialize in inter-village reconnaissance," he tells her flatly. "I've been running solo since I was Chuunin."
"That's rare for a Konoha-nin," she says sharply.
He gives her an equally sharp look. "Are you going to be like this the entire mission?"
A semi-agreeable noise. "Perhaps." She turns those phosphorescent green-blues one him, glowing like radioactive gems. "Just seems like your own country's interested in exporting you as far and fast as possible."
He thinks randomly about the right the corner of her mouth, about dislodging that annoying smirk from its hiding place there, where it's been distracting him for the past few hours. The newly jagged pieces of him can't decide if they would like to steal it mouth to mouth or just punch it loose like a tooth. He doesn't do either, but the temptation is there and blinking evilly up out of him like a submerged monster, milling down inside him with a million other sick, slimy sub-conscious thoughts. Neji ignores her speculations without exception.
"The fire-pit is just behind that outcropping," he says flatly. "Kindly put your skills to proper use and stop speculating on me." Which effectively ends the conversation for a while.
Doesn't stop her smirking though.
He catches her watching him across the fire a few days later. 'Catch' is a loose term, him perfectly aware of every move she makes at all times, but it's the priniciple of the thing: that she's not trying as hard to hide her scrutiny. The Suna-nin is watching him across the top of the fire, shadows flashing patches of darkness all across her face and catching in the interlocking grooves between her folded fingers. Her chin is propped on top of them, her elbows on her knees. She isn't smirking, hasn't been able to all day.
In addition to Sand ninja, their quarry, as they'd discovered, is a collection of Cloud-nin mercenaries. After Garra's return, the uprising military coup went up in smoke and the shinobi construed having a hand in its creation were ousted on charges of treason and lined up for execution. Unfortunately, shinobi smart enough to stage an uprising are smart enough to hit the road before the two-handed engine of ninja law can crack down. They scattered and, like many missing-nin, took a grudge against their former village with them.
Not even Temari understood the depth of that hatred until today, however.
Earlier that morning, she and Neji tracked them to a small scouting outpost just south of the Lightening Country border; the tiny sand-stone shelter hacked into the side of the orange-red cliffs. Temari held out hope all day that the scouts had spotted the missing-nin and could give them a bead on their direction, maybe offer supplies and the hope held out until they got there.
Both scouts were dead.
Wildlife and insects had dismantled the remains, chewing through already loosened joint ligaments, engorging themselves on the still-moist tissues hiding in the eye-sockets and chest cavities. The bodies had been eviscerated. One of them, the woman, had been alive for at least part of it – Neji could tell because he'd been trained to and because Temari's entire body locked up when she looked at her. Neji knew that between the kills, the last was a crime of hate not necessity like it should have been. His logic paints a gory picture for him, like a movie-reel in his head, but he doesn't close his eyes to get away from it. Unlike most teenagers, closing his eyes does nothing to save him from the real world or the imaginary.
The supplies were gone. Temari knew one earth-style jutsu and used it to bury the bodies, knowing the coyotes would dig them back up, but unable to not do something, even a pointless something, for them. He helped her take the bodies down off the wall where they'd been nailed to the stone, the kunai slammed up to the hilt in the rock through bone, blood, and muscle. He doesn't know any earth jutsu; he disposes of bodies in another way but he didn't feel it was appropriate to offer that type of burial. They didn't talk much.
"Why'd they make you Jounin?" she murmurs. He can see her chewing the inside of lip. She does so in deep thought only. "What did you do?"
Neji spins a kunai around his finger while he thinks it over. "I killed people," he says candidly.
"Why'd they make you Jounin though?"
"I killed a lot of people."
Somnolent green-blue windows narrow suddenly, like shudders coming down over her eyes. I occurs to him that she's upset, has been upset all day. He regrets being flippant about the killings. "Don't dodge my question, bright-eyes. I was debriefed about you."
She answers in silence.
Neji doesn't react to this so much as absorb it. He feels that he isn't really surprised and suddenly he thinks that Temari is right about at least one thing: they did ship him out here, like sweeping something vaguely unpleasant under a rug or pushing your resident psychopath out of sight until he stops frothing in front of the company. He spins the kunai until it's whining on his finger, flashing yellow sparkles and he doesn't look away from it.
"Do you know what they say about the Hyuuga?" he asks neutrally. "Why they are more hated than the Uchiha, despite never having policed their own, or punished shinobi as the Uchiha did?"
Temari says nothing. He goes on, the kunai's whine rising in pitch and speed.
"Uchiha are warriors of passion. Everything from their blood-line to their fighting style is based in emotional triggers and instinct. It makes them fighters and enforcers and loyal. An Uchiha who kills without emotion is rare." He stops spinning the kunai and lets it dangle between his thumb and index finger. He watches the coals. "Hyuuga are the opposite. When we kill someone, we do it because we were told to. We don't give a fuck who you are and we aren't doing it because we feel something." The pale-eyed prodigy looks up at her. "An Uchiha, at least, could be angry about it. A Hyuuga kills you for no reason."
He inspects his hand raptly.
"Are you trying to say that's why they promoted you?" she asks. "Because you don't care whose throat you're slitting?"
"No," says Neji. He rubs his fingers together, as if fascinated by the novelty of bones wrapped in flesh. "Uchiha Sasuke went missing-nin. All our geniuses go missing-nin, like clockwork and I think that's why I'm out here."
"They think you're another Sasuke?"
"I showed my potential for treachery, long before he did." He looks at her. "You saw. You were there."
'I bought her a Rain Country comb,' he remembers. 'I took it off a body. No. I bought it. I bought it for her, eight-hundred yen."
His companion is giving him a calm look, a neutral expression and he's reminded that she's three years his senior. Temari's too aquatic eyes search his face like a woman scrutinizing a newly painted wall for color texture or like a woman deciding if her travel partner is stark raving mad. After a while she sits back and unfurls her legs from beneath her, fanning them in the bright orange sand by the fireside, calves glowing marigold yellow in the flames. She loops her hands around her knees and leans toward him as if to tell him something quietly.
"You know," she says in perfectly audible speaking tones. "I think you're problem is…that you're kind of crazy."
Perfectly calmly he asks, "Excuse me?"
She lifts an eloquent finger and twirls it vigorously about her temple. "There's a screw loose. You're not running on all gears. Couple rice-balls short of a bento. Do I have to think of any more clever metaphors?"
"Good night, Temari," he says flatly.
Coyly she asks, "Shy?"
"It's because I'm a sexual icon. Don't be embarrassed."
"It's alright. You're distracted by pheromones."
She looks at him with perfectly incandescent wickedness. "Sorry. Suna-nin humor." Neji strongly suspects it's 'Temari humor' but doesn't let on. In the evening shadows her eyes spiral down into a darker end of the spectrum, deep pools refracting the firelight into flashes and nebulas in her irises. "What I meant was…Konoha has a reputation for spitting out horribly talented turncoats every generation or so. I was debriefed and I know what happened out there."
He closes his eyes (Staring blankly at the stucco wall across from him, Might Guy looking downright alarmed, him gazing in shock at his off-color hands, wrong-color, awful-color hands. 'Who did I kill?' In a whisper. 'Who the fuck did I kill?') and breathes in.
"And?" he inquires.
"Am I the next traitor?"
"I don't know." Temari peers at him, as if for the first time. "Are you?"
He opens his eyes; gazes down into the bottom of the embers, like they hold a great and original secret, the one he is looking for and Temari is just watching him. Her eyes no longer narrowed, they're just soft and lake-water calm from the pale planes of her face. He doesn't say anything else and together they sit there and think about two dead Jounin, torn limb from limb, murdered by men taught to kill by the same people they were.
Two days later. They catch up to them.
"It's not that I don't want to save your ass," she's saying through the growl of rain and the booming shotgun sound of thunder. The flashflood downpour has flattened her usually will-o-the-wisp blond hair to the sides of her head, her skirt is riding unconsciously high on her thighs and it seems she's never given a damn about that kind of thing before because she just turns to him and looks annoyed. "I just don't like to do so repeatedly," she concludes.
One week of working with Temari hasn't made him like her anymore, but having been with her this long at least has made him immune to the taunt because she'd taunt him even if their situations were reversed and there weren't four A-class missing-nin scouring the dunes for them outside. The rain was both a boon and a curse. A boon for her, because she knows this land and she knows its quirks, but a curse for him because he didn't know that a flashflood can and does erode entire river banks in a split second. Also, you can't swim in a flashflood river, you can only roll around and crack limbs on boulders and branches and debris and scream whenever you're thrown up into the air.
On the bright side, he did kill their leader.
On the down side, his left arm is fractured in three places and if the stabbing pain is any indication, he's half-way sure his ribs are cracked. (She'd been killing off one of the missing-nin and by the time she finished he'd fallen in. The messy rescue earned Temari a lot of bruises and a reason to gloat for the last hour.)
"Not…" he manages through his teeth, "…repeatedly."
"Whatever, bright-eyes. I just want to know what kind of ninja falls in a river?"
"Shut…up," he grits, because this is the singularly most humiliating moment of his week.
Scratch that, now it's the most humiliating moment of his week, because he's not the only one aware that it's humiliating. Neji can't get up the breath for a good line of profanity, just groans and drops his soaking head back in the sand again, body going into a random convulsion. "Fuck," he says weakly as the world swims before his eyes. He can see his partner's vaguely worried look, but he already knows and she already knows he's going to be fine. He's certainly had worse, but that doesn't stop the female Jounin from sighing and moving to his side for a perfunctory vital-check. He forces himself still while her fingers find the pulse in his throat and she leans over him to look into the pupilless eyes. It's impossible to tell if they're dilated.
Temari touches his temple and murmurs something to herself, lips away so he can't read them. Among kunoichi, her hands are surprisingly delicate, more so than even Ino's or Sakura's which is kind of appalling because it's Temari. Her fingers slide gingerly under his broken arm, taking it carefully under the forearm and bicep. Her skin against his is cold and wet, his sleeves still dripping rainwater as she pulls the cloth up to his shoulder and uncovers the mottled purple-blacks of misaligned bone trying to push up through muscle and skin. He's clenching and unclenching the fingers of his free hand, curling in the sand by his hip. He's hoping she doesn't notice it because the pain is blinding.
She leans over him again to look him in the face and because the cave is so low her nose is hovering dangerously closely to his.
"I can heal this," she says. Her thumbs have moved under his arm, the other eight fingers wrapping around it like she's preparing to unsheathe a sword, a sword made of glass perhaps. One hand gently grips the limb on either side of the first break, the complex splintering of calcium and marrow in his forearm. "Hair-line I can do, but I've only got enough chakra for your arm. Also, I need to straighten this bone."
'Fuck!' he thinks, but says, "Alright."
"I need you to use your Byakugan to tell me when they're lined up."
"Alright. When are you –?"
He swallows the scream, mostly on instinct, partly because Temari claps both hands over his mouth to stop him from giving away their position, hunching over him with her palms stacked under his nose. He snatches her hands with his free one, digging nails into the side of her palms as the white-hot explosion dissipates, cursing her for being sneaky and knowing it was the best thing to do. Dark edges smolder along the edge of his vision, but he pushes them back. After a while she relinquishes her hold on his face in a slow manner that suggests she doesn't trust him to keep nicely quiet. He swats her off.
"Ow," he says.
"Hmm," she replies and after a moment takes his arm from him again. "Sorry. You know…"
"Yeah. They're straight now."
It's quiet while she welds the fractures.
"Yu' know," she murmurs, eyes seeking better fortunes than they find in his eyes. "Most people don't survive falling into tug waters. You're really lucky it's just a broken arm; it should have been your neck most likely." She snorts a little. "Though, it doesn't help me much when you break off and go fucking psycho instead of listening to me. What the hell was that by the way? I mean, points for enthusiasm, bright-eyes, but you reminded me of my brother." She taps his forehead, fingernail pinging lightly against the steel plate. "Few screws loose, like I said."
"Are you trying to provoke me?"
"To what? Attack me with your broken arms?"
He doesn't shrug (because his arm still hurts), just looks at her.
"What were you doing?" she sighs, combing her fingers through her damp hair. Neji watches the knots ripping free, speculating that she'd lost one of her hair-ties during the fight and not while rescuing him. Her liquid eyes find his chalky stare, holding it in such a way that she might be asking him something far deeper than how and in what way he'd screwed up. Her jaw clenches, heat bringing her irises to a boil in her eyes and grabs his collar to get his attention properly. "Answer me, Hyuuga. Why did you attack him like that? You were completely out-matched, uncovered and if I hadn't rushed in there you would. Be. Dead."
He just blinks at her over her fisted hand. "I didn't ask you to help me."
"Suicide is selfish!" she hisses. She grabs him with anther hand and hunches down over him, so close he can see the little flecks of navy in her crystalline eyes. "You want to get dead, do it on your own time, not while there are other people depending on your continued survival to fight. If you'd died I would have been solo against six missing-nin. Five if you managed to take him with you. That's goddamn selfish, Hyuuga. That's selfish and that stupid. I thought geniuses were supposed to be so fucking smart, but you're an idiot."
She drops him.
Neji leans up on his elbows, shaking slightly with the effort or the emotion or both. "It was not suicide."
"Then you're just stupid," she concludes.
"Don't talk to me as if you understand my motivations. You wanted a Hyuuga and you got a Hyuuga. This is what we are."
"Not in a million years, bright-eyes."
There's a hot, wounded silence and the two shinobi glare determinedly in opposite directions of one another, perfectly aware on both ends that they were behaving remarkably like irritable teenagers and nothing like hardened Jounin. Neji hates the sudden aching hollow in the pit of his stomach, like someone's scooped out his intestines with a spoon and scraped him raw and empty up into his ribcage. As a child, Neji had been a one of those odd children who often invented fanciful tales and replaced his memories of real things with them. He was remarkably good at lying to himself. Better at lying to others as he found out. But he can't fool himself now.
"Kotoru." The dead leader. "That traitorous bastard might have been a coward, but he wasn't weak," Temari says, breaking the quiet.
Neji grits his teeth and tells himself it's for the pain.
"He was a genjutsu expert. He said something to you."
The rookie Jounin didn't look at her, but he could see her perfectly. "He didn't say anything."
"He asked you if you played much poker."
"Which is why you blew his brains out with Juuken. Right. Perfect sense."
"I killed him because those were my orders, kunoichi, and they're yours too," Neji pointed out coldly. "I fail to see why you're analyzing this so much."
"Because I think you're nuts," she snaps, eyes flashing blue and animal green. "Because there are four more of them out there and I need to know you will not unhinge just because some asshole makes a dig at a bad patch of memory. You are a Jounin. You are of rank now and you are jeopardizing my mission, shinobi. I don't care who you got killed or who you killed or in what horrible way you did it, but if you screw up this assignment for me, so help me God, I will re-break your arm and every other bone in your body. Is that understood?"
"Is that clear, shinobi?"
"Like an unclouded lake, kunoichi-san."
She nods and a little of the edge goes out of her. He can see the lines under her lines like deep groves of shadow. With a sigh she lies down near him, the thum of her chakra faint as he's ever seen it. This close they're like two nesting animals, curled in human quotation marks toward one another. She grins tiredly. "You know, bright-eyes, for a frigid Hyuuga assassin you're pretty damn emotional."
"Huh...wet, battered and through my chakra deprivation, that was kind of sexy," says Temari, thoughtfully exhausted. "The council would be thrilled."
He rolls his eyes.
"Did you just roll your eyes at me?"
"No," he lies, because it's hard to tell with a Byakugan.
She grins in a way that Neji doesn't trust at all and looks back outside. "They won't be able to find us in this deluge –" he thought it was funny that she said 'deluge'. No one had ever said 'deluge' to him before "– so we can relax for a while."
"I think," Neji says quietly, "I have a concussion…my Byakugan is acting strangely."
"Think you'll get amnesia?" she asks randomly, inspecting the blood on her fingernails.
"Why do you –" he begins, meaning to finish with 'ask that?' but never gets to because Temari leans over him, slips one rough/delicate hand under his aching head, and kisses him.
It isn't much of a kiss. Her mouth on his remains firmly chaste, but resolutely in contact in a way that makes him think she's performing CPR more than making a romantic move on him. She smells like wet hair and little like crushed cactus leaves and mostly like an eighteen-year-old Sand shinobi trapped in a cave with a wounded white-eyed prodigy for what could be he last night of their lives. Neji won't say it – and she hasn't said it – but the last four missing-nin are strong enough to make him worry and that was before he broke his arm.
She breaks contact, but only to murmur against his mouth (in a way seven times more intimate than the actual kiss), "Mmm, just hoping you'd forget I did that." Temari mused over his mouth a moment. "Oh well."
It isn't much of a second kiss either, so Neji closes his eyes and thinks about Konoha and thought it funny a Suna girl would kiss him before any Leaf.
"Are you out of your fucking mind!?" she's screaming at him.
Which is obscurely flattering coming from the elder sister of a known homicidal maniac, but not something he wants to hear falling from about eight stories up. Given, he did do the jumping but that doesn't mean he's suicidal – suicide is a selfish thing to start doing in the middle of a battle, after all – and it doesn't mean he's thought this whole thing out – he blames Naruto for this new personality flaw – but that's not to say he doesn't know exactly what he's doing. It's just he doesn't know exactly how it'll turn out.
"No!" he yells as he falls. "I've done this before!"
Then he uses the momentum from his fall to torque his falling body into an aerial Kaiten and he's no longer plummeting like a suicide victim, but falling like meteor and the cache of baffled missing-nin beneath him are realizing fast that a whirling orb of chakra at sixty miles an hour will hurt like hell. They scatter. The impact drives a crater the size of a small baseball diamond into the yielding sandstone and gnaws a hole in the ground, throwing up a choking orange smokescreen. Neji stops the spin and lands awkwardly, biting back his voice as sharp jags of pain pummel his ribs. No time to cry about bruises and bones right now and he's up, darting through the ocher cloud with eyes that aren't fooled by a silly thing like dust.
The first Cloud-nin doesn't see him coming until Neji puts a kunai through his trachea at point-blank range, passing him in a blur and flicking it neatly into his throat. He drops quietly. Already the Hyuuga is ticking off their strategy and formulating his slip-shod counterattack because – really – counterattacks are always slip-shod done like this.
He needs to clear the ground for Temari and her devastating long-range assaults. Obstacle: one of the rogue ninja is using scorpion summons and because his remaining buddies are long-range types, Neji can't get close enough to kill him properly. Also, the scorpions are congealing into a giant, clicking, poisonous wall between him and his targets and making anything remotely like a clean, quiet kill pretty much impossible. 'Time for another Naruto,' he thinks, and proceeds to do the most recklessly violent thing he can think of to clear the way.
The kamikaze head-on collision surprises the three remaining men – or maybe finding out there was Hyuuga who could run while using Kaiten – but Neji's fast and punches through the wall of swarming insects. The move serves to rip a pinky finger off the slower member of their team and shreds most of the scorpions to pieces before plowing into the contract-holder. The ninja bounces off the spinning chakra with the feeling of someone whacking the young prodigy with a pillow, somewhere to his upper left. Neji sees the missing-nin surrender to gravity fifty meters off.
The scorpions vanish entirely.
Then Temari lands, like a blond lynx she plummets from the sky over him and falls in front of him, fan unfurled on two moons and she tears the air into twin twisters of razor-wind sand and stone. She grins like a goddess of war with the air around her raging with dust and devils, no longer a nymph but a Fury and the whole desert roars with the sound of rock breaking and crumbling like castles of sand against her blades of air and darkness.
"Keep him off me, bright-eyes!" roars Temari. "I have two of them in the twister. Buy me time!"
The Sand-nin whose summons he's killed has gotten up and Neji steps between him and his comrade's back, because it's more than obvious after a week that Temari can only take care of herself if she cares to. She's ripping apart the two traitor Suna, the ones who Neji read guilt off of when confronted about the dead woman back in that sand-stone shack. He doubts seriously she'll make their deaths quick and some dark blood-tinted part of him sympathizes – given the chance to take his revenge he'd botched it. He wants to give Temari a proper chance for hers.
Byakugan is telling him the man has more chakra than him, but Neji's used to that kind of thing by now and as he and the summoner square off, the rookie Jounin looks at him, through him and straight to his weakness and watches the man visibly flinch.
"Why is the Leaf involved!?" he spits bitterly. "This is a Suna matter!"
Neji inclines his head just so, watches the world turn on its axis for him and put his target slightly crooked for him. Byakugan shows him a lot of things, some things that even other Hyuuga cannot explain, the world spun out in faded water-color and blinding brilliant lights, reality in a nameless fourth dimension into which only Neji seems to see and in that part of reality he can see this man is a trigger. And like an obsessive compulsion he feels obligated to set him off. Neji breaks his mask and grins, stealing Temari's sarcastic smirk for his own and explains:
"Garra couldn't be bothered to care," says Neji with uncharacteristic chattiness. "So he hired a couple rookies to take you out. I'm hoping to make Jounin off your head, actually."
"A Chuunin?!" the man sputters, capillaries in his eyes pumping tinny rivers of blood. "Who does the Kazekage think we are? Amateurs? Sending sniveling children and his over-aged girlfriend to deal with us? I'll rip that smirk off your face. Then I'll rip that little whore's insides out and you can watch her shriek."
Neji is monotone when he says. "I was wrong. They didn't kill that scout." Neji's eyes can see the psychosis in the summoner's eyes now, a beetle-wing glitter of madness, a festering colony of diseased thoughts behind the colored agar of his eyeballs. "You killed that woman."
"She died mewling," the man sneers, pleasure in his tone like a deep vibrato Neji can feel buzzing disgustingly through his eardrums. "She died loud."
The Hyuuga strides toward the man, flicks a Suna long-kunai into his hand and hides it like a magician palms a coin. The missing-nin Body-Flickers, vanishing with his last words in the rotting air and something lunges out of the sand at his ankle. React. Neji's train of thought interrupted ("Pissed himself and died mewling. You Leaf-nin die so loudly.") by the explosion of blood, bursting like a paint-filled balloon in his face. After a wet moment he's left staring down at the dead Suna-nin, at the heavy long-kunai rammed up through the boneless nasal cavity of his skull. The tip punched through the ethmoid bone to the brain. The body sags at his feet and keels there in the sand.
Dripping, Neji steps back and sees the last missing-nin, the one missing his pinky, staring at him in horror. His damning Cloud-nin insignia glints evilly from his forehead. And – because no Cloud-nin should not fear this Hyuuga – Neji turns to him and stares through him to the weakness in him, the easily frightened nature flickering like candle light behind his irises. And – disgusting as it is – Neji licks the dead Suna-nin's blood off his mouth and grins. Then he watches the man's nerve break through his corpse-colored, all-seeing eyes.
The stuttering bellow of fear cuts off abruptly. Temari, having clubbed the poor shinobi with her fan, peers into the cracked open wreckage of the skull, brain matter and blood and liquids spilled like a broken egg on the hot desert ground. It will start sizzling in minutes.
Exhausted Temari moves toward him and they take a seat across from one another to soak in the after-battle silence, she covered in dust and pinkish spray, he splattered like modern art gone psycho. There are little pieces of her opponents left over all about the area and the sand is the same color as her skin. His hair is clumping in gory ropes over his hitae-ate and his long-kunai is still in the dead ninja's head. She's giving him a strange look, a look even Hyuuga eyes are unfamiliar with, but not a look that makes him want to grind his teeth and gut someone. She manages her smirk eventually and reaches over to wipe some blood-soaked strings of hair from his face.
"A couple screws loose," she says.
He looks at her and sees something like a flutter of beetle-wings behind her ocean-glass eyes. "I guess that's okay," he concedes.
"Any difficulties, shinobi-san?"
"Casualties. Two Suna scouts were lost."
"Summons, Hokage-sama. My birds took care of it."
Tsunade has her chin propped on her folded fingers, elbows propped on the edge of her desk between stacks of unfinished paperwork that altogether detract from her fearsome expression. Neji thinks she looked much bigger went he left and seems much smaller now, more human – Female, pissed off, powerful enough to crack his skull with a flick of her pinky finger, but nevertheless, human. There are coals burning in the back of her murky water eyes, fierce, hibernating power on the verge, constantly, of bursting into being. They're like glowing headlights beneath dirty pond water and lovely.
Though, Neji acknowledges it's odd to think that about a woman old enough to be his grandmother. She reads through his report, makes passing comments, reads through Temari's co-op notes and her eyebrows lift very slightly. Neji has not read through the Sand Jounin's side of the report. He wonders what it was she'd said…then decides he doesn't want to know and stares out the window and thinks about Tenten's apartment and the possibility of a movie-night.
"Temari-san thinks well of you," she says lightly.
Neji shrugs. "I value her opinion."
Tsunade lifts another brow. "You do know…you were on probation?" she asks in her most casual voice.
"That kunoichi's report was my deciding point."
"Your promotion to Jounin is finalized now. The rank is yours."
He bowed. "Thank you."
"Go home, shinobi." She smiles finally. "I'll be running you ragged for the next month."
Neji walked home, not quite smiling to himself, spinning a Suna long-kunai between his fingers. Tenten is turning sixteen next month. He's doesn't know what he's going to get her yet, but he knows that he is going to get her something.
The sequel to Mistake. I've been bouncing this idea in my head for ages. I picked Temari because she's just tough and crazy enough to handle Hyuuga Neji. Also, I wanted her to kiss him. Dunno why. They'd make a horrible couple.